Reality Check On Tonle Sap Lake

Not long after arrival here, the group was shuttled off to Tonle Sap Lake, and on the way there visions of picturesque beauty and serenity danced in my head.

Boy was I wrong.

Instead what I found was some of the worst poverty imaginable, both afloat and along the banks of what’s an absolutely massive body of water. Getting to it requires a noisy and rattling ride in a barely water-worthy barge through a winding channel of filthy water that’s maybe three feet deep, given that we’re entering the summer season and the level’s dropped precipitously.

Once out in the open water, it was a short trip to a couple of barges lashed together as s tourist shop. Beyond it in the distance, on what we were told was the Vietnam side, was a large floating village — literally hundreds upon hundreds of shacks on the surface.

But upon approach attention was instead focused on several small craft that raced toward us, such as this one, in which its pilot was a one-armed boy, and its primary passenger was a child of only a few years of age bearing a poor python around its neck. The girl at the bow seemed more likely to be the snake girl’s sister than her mother, but who knows (click it for the bigger picture).

The routine is that the boat is navigated rather perilously close to our craft, which itself is taxing its filth-belching engine to travel at a pretty good clip, and the child then poses with the snake so that we can take pictures. Then come the demands for $1 dollar.

By the time we got to the barge, we were swarmed by three such boats, two to the port side that were fighting for position closest to us, with entirely no regard for safety of the snake-laden children who were not only getting drenched by the filthy water but came close to being pitched overboard. What built from that was a chorus of sorrowful and/or defiant calls for “one dollar!” In the meantime another boat had maneuvered alongside at the stern and a child bearing a basket of canned drinks risked drowning to leap board and try to sell them to us.

Several in my tour group passed out money like it was candy, smiling back at such desperation as if it was a show being put on. And maybe it was. I saw some of the players targeting who among us they dubbed to be the most willing marks.

But nevertheless, these are children held in such little regard and in turn the poor half-dead snakes draped around their necks even less so.

It was entirely heartbreaking.