By Ben Mauk
Chong Koh, March 29, 2018
The best handyman living among the boat people in Chong Koh was named Taing Hoarith. Most days, Hoarith woke up at 5 a.m. and bought a bowl of noodle soup from a passing sampan, the same genre of wandering bodega from which his wife, Vo Thi Vioh, sold vegetables houseboat to houseboat. When she left for the day, around 6, Hoarith rolled up their floor mat and got to work.
Chong Koh is one of hundreds of floating villages, comprising tens of thousands of families, on the Tonle Sap River and the lake of the same name in Cambodia. Dangers on a floating village multiply in the rainy season. When I first visited, in late July, there was always something for Hoarith to do: repairing storm damage in a wall of thatched palm, clearing the water hyacinths that collected along the upstream porch. Sometimes the house had to be towed closer to the receding shoreline so that storms or the waves of passing ships would not capsize it. Every few months, he got his ancient air compressor working and swam beneath the house, a rubber hose between his teeth, to refill the cement jars that kept the whole thing buoyant. He was mindful of pythons.
The afternoon of my arrival, Hoarith was squatting over an old butane camp stove, scraping at a rusted gas valve. Rust was the common enemy on the water. Someone had thrown the stove away, but he thought he could fix it to sell on his next trip onto the lake. His wooden long-tail, moored against the house, covered in tarpaulin and heavy with cargo, carried him to floating villages as far as 90 miles away. “I know Tonle Sap like my hand,” he said. There was Prek Tor, a remote village where every family, rich or poor, had a wooden cage for raising crocodiles. And Kbal Taol, where fishermen lived in clustered homes on the open water, risking the daily storms, competing to catch hatchlings with nets up to half a mile long. Hoarith visited them all. He was sometimes on the lake for a month at a stretch, selling pots and stoves, sleeping rough under the long-tail’s planked roof.
But he always came back to Chong Koh, his home of several years, where the villagers live on cabin-size houseboats and junks arranged in tidy rows orthogonal to either shore. In the space between houses, some families raise carp and catfish in bamboo cages or keep floating gardens of potted pepper and papaya trees. Other villages are labyrinthine extensions of nearby shore towns, with broad Venetian canals and twisting alleyways, floating temples, churches, schoolrooms and oil-black ice factories. Chong Koh is relatively small, and shrinking — Cambodian authorities would like it to disappear entirely — but it lies about a mile from the heart of Kampong Chhnang, the large provincial capital, and as Hoarith worked, a steady fleet of peddlers took their boats to and from its markets.