Projected as a ‘must-visit’ site when visiting the beautiful country of Cambodia, the Tonle Sap lives up to its reputation for some right reasons and some not-so-right ones. Once there, you might even wonder if everyone, including the authorities, are trying to cash in on the turbulent past of the country and the plight of its people. The lake allows travellers a close peek into the lives of Khmer people who survive in conditions which most of the developed world would consider extremely difficult. For visitors from the western world, this might be an eye-opening sympathy-evoking experience that makes most of them appreciate the relatively comfortable lives that they live. For an Indian though, seeing poverty and the day-to-day struggle for survival might not seem so alien.
Life on the Tonle Sap though takes things to another level. People making a living relying on the extreme and sometimes unpredictable moods of the rain gods and orphaned children, some as young as three, begging on floating boats to make sure they manage to make enough to manage a meagre meal for the night, these are probably the factors that attract visitors to this lake. The dreadful impact of the Khmer Rouge is as evident here as in any other part of Cambodia. The sometimes magnificent beauty of the ever-so-generous lake acts like an ironical backdrop for this depressing display of human struggle.
The experiences that unfold at the floating village have been questioned by many and there are many who suggest that a lot of what you see at the lake is just a made-up scenario. The children may not be orphans after all and may have been pushed into the ‘business’ of begging by their parents to earn the extra buck. The floating orphanage might be a scam and the idea behind it may be to con unassuming travellers. An act that has been mastered by the locals with the sole aim to exploit the gullible visitors from the developed world.
Well, act or not, a visit to the Tonle Sap is sure to make you question a lot about your own lives. If acting like an orphan and begging for a dollar was an act that you had to put up, you most definitely did not come from a very privileged background.
Here are a few glimpses of this beautiful lake of contradictions.