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  • The Floating Dwellings of Chong Kneas, Cambodia
  • Tijen Roshko (bio)

This study focuses on the community of Chong Kneas, Cambodia—primarily its floating houses—in order to understand the ideas of place making, identity development, sense of belonging, and the crucial role that built environments and object placement play in defining these concepts. The study first discusses social rules and relationships and appropriation practices as the processes that link people to their domestic environments. Next, the paper discusses symbolic oppositions related to gender, age, and kinship; how they are expressed in Cambodian cosmology and in the physical domestic space; and how these oppositions enculturate occupants who live and move through their home environments. The discussion simultaneously deals with dwellings in terms of their structural and cosmological aspects. In a broader framework, this vernacular study investigates the dialectic relationship between the rhythm of the lake and the culture of its inhabitants.

Tonle Sap Lake is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and lies in the central plains of Cambodia. The main tributary of the lake, the Tonle Sap River, exhibits an extraordinary hydrological phenomenon. As the rainy season commences, the excess water from the Mekong River is diverted into both the South China Sea and the river. In the latter case, this excess water actually reverses the direction of flow of Tonle Sap River and leads, as a consequence, to the inundation of 1.25 million hectares of forest and agricultural land for several months each year. During this period, the surface area of the lake more than quadruples from 2,500 square kilometers to 11,000 square kilometers, and its depth increases from one meter to ten meters.1

Periodic flooding has rendered the entire area one of the most fish-abundant regions in the world and, as a consequence of its rich biodiversity, UNESCO declared the area a biosphere reserve in 1997. The people of Cambodia have relied upon the abundance of fish and the agricultural richness of Tonle Sap Lake and the surrounding area for their livelihood for centuries. Tonle Sap Lake plays a key role in shaping the cultural identity, the economic health, and stability of the Cambodian people. The rhythm of the lake defines the rhythm of the culture. The vast majority of the population in the Tonle Sap area lives in poverty; livelihoods depend solely on the resources that the lake has to offer.2

The population density around the Tonle Sap area has varied greatly over the centuries. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the Tonle Sap region was only sparsely populated. However, toward the middle of the nineteenth century, the Khmer people began to move onto the lake for purposes of subsistence fishing. They moved into the area when the fishing season was most favorable and, once they had harvested enough fish for their yearly consumption, returned to their villages. Subsistence fishing was easily learned and required only a very small initial financial investment. Inexpensive gillnets and dip nets were used to catch fish and, once the amount for daily consumption was set aside, the rest of the catch was sold to buy rice. Khmer presence at the lake became more prominent after the Khmer Rouge regime disbanded. The trend toward increased [End Page 43] settlement in floating villages continues today; reasons include lack of land tenure, family disputes, economic issues, and lack of education and skills. An estimated 80,000 people live in floating villages around Tonle Sap, and the Khmer population makes up the majority.3

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Figure 1.

Vietnamese houseboat, 2007. Photograph by author.

While Cambodian villages are predominantly located on the land surrounding Tonle Sap Lake, a substantial number of Cambodians also reside in floating villages. Chong Kneas, a collection of some of these floating villages, exhibits its own unique rhythm in response to the changing seasons. The villages have their own enclosed communities that encompass diverse cultural groups, including the majority ethnic Khmer, as well as the Vietnamese, Cham Muslim, and Chinese minorities. Chong Kneas serves as the main harbour for Siem Reap, the capital city of Siem Reap province. Even though its landing facilities are rudimentary, Chong Kneas acts...


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pp. 43-59
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