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Floating Village

Tonle Sap is a unique lake. Its level rises and falls by several meters based on the season, and the lake’s area increases by 10x in the rainy season! I visited on July 22nd.

In the dry season, the lake drains into the Mekong river via a tributary. But in the rainy season, the level of the Mekong river rises enough that the tributary reverses flow, filling up the lake.

My guide, Saron, advised me NOT to give any handouts to the children begging near the lotus fields. If you do, it teaches them they can earn more by begging than by going to school, perpetuating the problem to future generations.

Do NOT give to, or buy from, the begging children

At the dock, we loaded onto one of many waiting tourist boats. These drivers earn $6-8 of the $15 fare you pay. Only 2 rides a day in high season; 2-3 a week right now. Note the steering wheel. It’s connected to the rear rudder assembly by two ropes.

Boat on Tonle Sap

You might think, “this is the definition of ghetto.” But this boat was actually in the top 10%; a lot of them looked far worse. It did drive pretty well, and the prop/rudder system keeps the propeller out of the mud.

Pretty sweet boat, by Cambodian standards

People living on the lake have floating houses, and there are multiple villages (for example, there are separate Cambodian and Vietnamese clusters). The villages move with the season, to stay relatively close to the shore without being beached. Some even have gardens…

Floating house - with garden!

Villagers raise and catch fish, and (sadly) farm crocodiles. I do not buy any crocodile products.

Crocodile farm - really pitiful looking crocs destined for handbags and barbecues

Here’s a fisherman casting his net in the canal:

Tonle Sap fisherman

Could you imagine living with your whole family in this much space? All your appliances are powered by batteries, charged intermittently by the one family with a generator.

Colorful house on Tonle Sap Lake

Some of these scenes of poverty are just heartbreaking. I’d suggest if you visit and want to help in some small way, take 10kg of rice (worth $5 USD) with you on your boat ride. Give it directly to one of these families. That guarantees no fake charity keeps some or all of your donation.

Cambodia is rife with poverty, but slowly improving since Khmer Rouge times

Just outside the port are some village areas on stilts, where the water should fill in during rainy season. This year the river’s flow is not properly reversing, most likely because of a dam China built. But everyone in ASEAN is scared to say that out loud; they don’t want to piss off China.

Houses on stilts in Cambodia

To end with something more positive, I went to the local market with Saron. He picked out a special kind of local herb that is commonly served with fried beef. It’s a favorite of locals, but is not served much in restaurants (and certainly not tourist restaurants). I’ve lost the name, but will post it here if/when I find out.

My hotel, Angkor Spirit Palace, prepared the dish for me using the greens I bought. Delicious! That nice blur is what you get when you’re up close with an f/2 prime lens.

Delicious Cambodian beef dish

I also bought 10kg of rice at the market, and donated it in person to some poor families living near my hotel. I encourage every visitor to Cambodia to at least make this small effort – it’s $5 for you (2 cocktails at a tourist bar), and equals a month of rice for them. Thanks again to Saron for another amazing and enlightening day!

Posted 12 years ago at 3:05 pm.

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Donate Rice In Person

Help spread the word! If you like the idea in this article, please send it to world-travelin’-friends, tweet or FB it, and mention it to your blog’s readers. The more people who hear, the more rice we can donate!

After the incredible poverty that I witnessed in places like Thailand and Cambodia, I tried to think of some simple way that I (and others) could donate to help these poor people.

Toddler by the side of the road in Cambodia

You should not give money to beggars in poor countries; this promotes begging instead of education and hard work. A good way to help would be to volunteer for several months in a small community. But let’s face it, most of us are not in a position (family, job, and mindset-wise) to do this.

There are charities where one can donate, and some of them are even reliable, using only a small portion of your donation to administrate their charity group. But don’t donate to any charities while you’re in that poor country, unless you do your homework – many are fake!

Do not support beggars - it promotes more begging!

My idea, which I came up with on the last day of my Cambodia trip, is simple.

Donate rice in person.

When visiting a poverty-stricken country: budget as much cash as you’d like, buy rice, and take it to some poor families. Keep in mind that $10 USD will buy 20kg (44 lbs) of good rice in Cambodia, and you can only transport so much at once. For one or two people in a tuk-tuk, 20kg is a good amount.

With the money saved on buying rice, the staple of life in Asia, the families you help will be able to buy their choice of nourishing foods (for example, milk) for their children. Or they can save up for physical improvements to their home, such as buying materials to patch a leaky roof during monsoon season.

If you can afford it, do small rice runs several times throughout your trip. $12, three times spread out over a week’s vacation, will be over 150 pounds of rice. Given to six families, that’s a real difference. Done by a hundred people, or a thousand people – you get the idea.


Logistics to donate rice in person:

I bought my rice at the Old Market in Siem Reap, scooped out into plastic bags and weighed on an ancient scale. Westernized stores might have higher prices = less bang for the buck, but you can check around.

If you find a nice tuk-tuk driver, just ask him to drive through a rural area on the way back to your hotel. Unless you really trust the guy, I wouldn’t necessarily ask him to find a poor family for you, because you might end up giving the rice to his family.

Just make your own decision as you drive through the countryside. The tinier the shack or tent, and the less-rainproof the roof, the more in need that family probably is.

Poor families on Tonle Sap Lake's floating village

I’d say the floating village on Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia is a good place for this kind of donation. Regardless of where you donate, if you follow this very personal method, you can be sure that 100% of your donation goes directly to the bellies of a poor, rural family – no overhead, no skimming, and no fraud.

No one can use your “dollars for the orphans” to buy beer and smokes.

And best of all, you get to see a warm smile of surprise and gratitude, up close and personal. You’ve just turned one tough month out of a tough life into a month of plenty, for the cost of two or three cocktails in your hotel’s $3-happy-hour bar.

It’s one moment of your “low-cost-country” vacation that you’ll never forget.

Please try it out – DONATE RICE IN PERSON! And spread the word…


If you’ve made the effort and donated rice in person, please let me know by a comment or by email. I’ll make a list of names here for people who have donated, or “10 kg by anonymous” if you prefer.

Posted 12 years ago at 7:26 am.


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