Small Ethnographies: On the Flood Plain

Tonle Sap is the largest fresh water lake in South Asia. In the dry season, the surface covers some 960 square miles. But then the Tibetan snows melt, the water finds its way down to the Mekong, and the lake expands to more than 6,000 square miles. As the lake expands, the power of the flood pushes the Mekong into neighboring rivers, streams, marshes, canals, sending the water ever inland. But then, when the weather turns and the waters ebb, the course of the tributary Tonle Sap River reverses and flows once more into the Mekong. This is the only river in the world that reverses itself seasonally.

The lake is the central element of a vast ecosystem that is responsible for some 60% of Cambodia’s economy: fishing, farming, more fishing. (One of the reasons so many people died during the Khmer Rouge days is that Pol Pot’s thugs compelled fishermen to turn from fishing to rice production. The economic collapse, not to mention the murder of fishermen who violated Pol Pot’s dicta, led to death rates of genocidal proportions.) Nowadays, the threat to the region stems from the countries upstream–notably Laos and China–who plan to build dams that will completely alter nature’s settled policies, potentially creating a desert where one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth now thrives.

These few paragraphs should introduce photographs and comments on the Floating Village, but that will have to wait. To properly understand the culture of the floating village, you must first get there. To get there, you must drive quite a long way over land–roads, houses, villages, rice fields, duck farms, schools, temples, general stores, playgrounds, soccer fields–that may or may not find themselves under five or six or twelve feet of water when the lake rushes inland. When the water recedes, the dirt road stretches miles through the richest soil. When the snow melts and the floods come, the floating villages move further inland to shallow water; the whole society once attached to terra firma climbs to the top of the houses on stilts. Or flees for the season.

This annually imperiled neighborhood should be an exercise in Why Bother. But, the citizens wear a more stolid, undismayed visage. It’s not impassive, not resigned, not beaten down, not resentful, not courageous, not helpless, not tragic, not hopeless. The high water mark from last year’s flood might be half a foot higher than the shopper standing next to the stained pillar at the market; she shops. The baby ducks may need to be scooped up and carried miles inland, but the farmer now leans casually on his pole watching the ducklings’ growth. If the water level is lower than last year, the rice farmer may get in three harvests. If it is higher, he’ll be lucky to get one. But he plows, the young ones plant, the older women pull up the growing seedlings and transplant them in the muddy soil.

Turns out you don’t need the floating village to fill your day. The flood plain will do fine, at least for the time being.

Mama's Boy

The Good Son

Family Portrait

Family Portrait

Water Lilies

Water Lilies

General Store

General Store

Nouveau Water Buffalo

Nouveau Water Buffalo

Inland Fishing

Inland Fishing

Duck Farm

Duck Farm

New and Old Stilt Houses

New and Old Stilt Houses

Classic and Neo-Classic

Classic and Neo-Classic

Transplanting Rice

Transplanting Rice

Collecting the Morning Glory

Collecting the Morning Glory

Spirit House and Gasoline Store

Spirit House and Gasoline Store

Driver

Driver

Collision Course

Collision Course

The Green House

The Green House

Edge of the Rice Field

Edge of the Rice Field

Transportation

Transportation

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