On my last trip to Siem Reap, two friends invited me to visit the floating villages for a sunset boat tour. The trip starts on a van that takes you out to the pier, which at this time of the year boards from the bottom of a long concrete stairway. On the way we were invited to look at the high-season watermark, an ochre stain halfway up the side of a two-story house; and a floating school, currently banked at ebb at the bottom of a deep riverbank. We saw children filing back in on the left side. In the high-water season, the school rises on its shallow wooden float to street level.
Ticketholders board small blue boats, big enough for a small open-air cabin that holds eight plastic chairs, and are taken out to the big boat on the other side of the floating village.
The floating village is a village: houseboats (and school boats, market boats, at least one pub boat, a Korean restaurant boat for Korean tour groups, and a police station boat) anchored along two miles or so of slow-moving river. The houseboats are painted a uniform ocean blue, and the families on the houseboats can be seen doing the things people routinely do in their homes and on their porches.
We saw one woman sitting cross-legged in her back doorway, washing her hair in a plastic tub emptied into and then refilled from the river, and a baby yanked back from the edge of the water when it tried to step onto its family’s rowboat.
The floating village is a popular tourist attraction, and the site of visible NGO activity. I saw several homes – at least, boats that looked like single-family dwellings – that carried on their roofs the large yellow banners of a Korean NGO, also featured prominently at the school. The Vietnamese school had a big blue and white poster announcing a free rice program in English and Vietnamese. On the far riverbank we saw a small white brick church, contributed by a different Korean NGO and painted with a beaming cartoon Jesus hoisting a lamb.
We sat on the Big Boat watching the sunset over the water, and then took the small boat back down the dark river, past the rippling LED display at the prow of the pub boat, pale moths floating up from the prow of the boat like sparks.
This is the first time I’ve visited a tourist destination that is also a collection of private homes. I didn’t go to the dump while it was open; I’ve never visited Silk Island. I have visited a few orphanages and residential schools for research purposes, and was invited to see a few dormitories; once I was invited to look into a class in progress, and join if I liked.
It feels more voyeuristic to look at families in their homes. For some reason, it felt less invasive to see a dormitory – or a collection of children playing in what was their yard and their family room.
You could argue that the people in the floating villages are cooperating in these tours – although I suspect most tourists don’t know the terms of the financial arrangement between the villagers and the tour companies. I suspect that most tourists aren’t concerned about exploitation, and don’t see it as explotation to lead crowds of tourists down a village thoroughfare past families and their waving children.
It might not be exploitation.
But it’s interesting to me that I didn’t feel as though I was dehumanizing anyone until I was faced with a neighborhood on the water. It has been easy for me, throughout my time here, to see an orphanage or residential school as an institution. An institution is a place that belongs to the people who run it. The administration sets policy and draws boundaries. They allow and oversee visitors. The children living there are already living partly public lives, and thus do not have the same right to privacy as the families in the floating village.
I have heard many NGOs and thoughtful tourists talk about the emotional impact of visitors and short-term volunteers – that it is damaging to children to meet kind stranger after kind stranger, to bond with adults who disappear a few days or months later. Many NGOs have instituted ChildSafe policies that govern the contact visitors can have with children – no physical contact, not much physical contact, no “cuddling” the children, no social media accounts, no writing to the children without supervision, no gifts, no taking the children offsite. But to ‘allow visitors’ is still to establish the idea that these residential schools and orphanages are open: that the children in them are on display, not at home.
The floating village was beautiful. I was glad to see it; I’m glad to have met my students. I’m glad to be here. But I was invited to snap a picture of a woman washing her hair, an old man smoking on his stoop, a little girl piloting a kayak to the shore.