The Tour 168 (Airline Management) class of Prof. Avelino Zapanta visited Siem Reap, Cambodia last September 20-23 as part of their OCLA (Outside of the Classroom Learning Activity), to expose the students to the Airline Sector and Tourism Industry.
Cambodia isn’t just about temples
Cambodia is known for its majestic lotus-inspired temples, traditional Khmer Art, and historical sites. In Siem Reap alone, almost 300 ancient ruins can be found. It’s no wonder why 1.3 million tourists have visited the Angkor Wat Complex in the first eight months of 2012 alone (Tourism of Cambodia Website). Aside from this showcase of Cambodia’s rich cultural heritage however, we also decided to include a different kind of destination in our itinerary: Tonle Sap. More than just a lake, Tonle Sap depicts a more unusual side of Cambodia.
Day to day traffic
In 1997, UNESCO declared Tonle Sap as the largest freshwater lake in Soustheast Asia. The Great Lake covers an area of approximately 250,000 hectares during dry season and it serves as a home to diverse marine and bird species. The lake acts like a large bowl that receives the water drained from Mekong River and nearby highlands, and it is the main source of livelihood to thousands of fishermen and farmers residing in Kompong Phluk Village.
During the dry season, farmers are able to plant rice in the area– although they are usually not of good quality. The farming period is shorter compared to that of the Philippines, which lasts up to six months, and residents have to harvest their crops immediately, before water starts to cover the floodplains.
A tour of Tonle Sap takes a total of five hours. To get to the site, one has to take a 30-minute ride from Siem Reap to the port, and from the port, motor boats are ready to take you to a locally-based tourism station of Kompong Phluk Village. The river cruise gives tourists an opportunity for bird watching, sight-seeing and nature-appreciation. Along the way, tourists can see Chong Khneas, a part of Siem Reap considered as the poorest of the poor, with their houses nestled on stilts or boats for when the rainy season comes, at which point the water rises up by about three meters.
River of life and death
These villagers live atop the waters of the river where their garbage and wastes are directly disposed. And at the same time, the water that they drink and use for household chores comes from the river itself. As a result, infants and kids die at an early age because of malnutrition and poisoning. Likewise, the average life span of a common villager is about 70 years old. This is relatively low in contrast to Cambodians living in the urban centres.
There are various factors affecting the life of the villagers – education, family size, and employment. The average number of children per family is six to eight, and most of the locals are uneducated with regard to family planning. As a solution, the Cambodian government sends medical teams to inform them about reproductive health every three months, but to no avail.
The community is capable of supporting itself. In spite of living in a deteriorating water world, locals engage in livelihood by taking advantage of available resources. They raise pigs and breed chickens by making improvised cages built of bamboo and water containers, allowing it to float along the river. Likewise, harvested shrimps are spread out across mats on rafts to dry and eventually sell at markets.
Chong Khneas is distant from the city centre, hindering villagers’ access to several public services. Villagers give high regard to education; floating structures in the area serve as primary and secondary school. However, only a few kids can afford to go to school mainly because education in Cambodia is not free.
After a 15-kilometer river cruise, tourists arrive at a small locally-based tourism station where a three-seater banca, operated mostly by women, awaits for a tour around the floating village of Kompong Phluk.
Out of curiosity, I asked our tour guide why the women worked as boatmen, and he explained that the men were usually out in the lake fishing. Their wives are then left to find other ways to make a living. Because of Tourism, they are able to help their husbands earn a little more through boating.
I was greatly moved by their hard work. Both parents choose to work away from home, striving to lift themselves out of poverty.
Parents away from home
With both parents working, the children of the village learn how to live by themselves by the time they turn four years old. Both parents are usually away for three weeks, sometimes extending to months, depending on the amount of fish that they can get from Tonle Sap Lake. It is always a blessing when their parents do return. In the past, some have been bitten by the wild snakes that live in the trees, while others choose to never come back and totally abandon their children because they cannot afford to support them.
A tourist trap?
I wonder why tourists challenge themselves by visiting such a place. There is honestly not much to see. It’s merely a number of floating houses lined up beside the water way. Trees are half-submerged in water and lilies are scattered all over the place. The water in the river smells unpleasant, and is close to black with trash littered everywhere.
Do tourists enjoy visiting this floating village?
The promise of sunset
I could barely see the sunset from where we were. I was sitting at the upper deck of the boat, trying to reflect on what we had witnessed. At first, I felt sorry for them. I was not expecting that amidst the popular temples and sites of Cambodia, the culturally acclaimed tourist destination has a deprived side. But at the end of the day, I was inspired by their heart-melting stories. Tonle Sap may not be of great interest to most young tourists my age. Others may find it boring, but for me, a Tourism student, it made me realize many things.
The primary purpose of this tour is not for the sake of entertainment and enjoyment but for self-enlightenment.
I was astounded by their perseverance. The locals do not ask for alms. These people strive to raise themselves out of poverty by legal means. Initially, I felt unsecured of my belongings because of my perception of slum areas – thinking that there might be some thieves. But to my surprise, Cambodians live by their religious virtue and respect other people. Moreover, they do not just depend on the support of the government, and they try to sustain their own needs independently. They painstakingly survive by working hard. Husbands risk their lives out in the lake while women employ themselves as boatmen.
There is no such thing as a perfect place
Cambodia is a perfect example of the duality of the real world: prosperity and poverty. Cambodia’s city centre is rapidly progressing while its peripheral municipalities are in distress. Despite the unfortunate state these villagers have to endure, they still manage to live simple yet meaningful lives. Their stories have inspired me to persevere more. I now hope that tourism can serve as a means to help my fellow Filipinos escape from poverty as well.
Tourism, a poverty alleviation tool
Tourism in Cambodia does not only benefit large-scale enterprises, it also helps local communities. It opens windows of opportunities and supports hundreds of families. I believe that sometime in the future these residents, together with the support of their government and the opportunities brought by tourism, will be far better off from where they are now.
Tourism is the third largest industry in Cambodia next to agriculture and textile. With Cambodia as an example, the Philippines should also appreciate what tourism can do – uplift the lives of locals. Our country must also consider giving more importance to tourism development as it employs thousands of individuals. – Cha Octiva
The author would like to thank Mr. Sun Same, Cambodian tour guide for a very mind-enriching trip and Mr. Paolo Abellanosa for helping to create this article.