Floating Services in Tonle Sap Lake: What Keeps Chhnok Tru Moving?
Updated: Dec 27, 2020
ABOUT | The sound of boat rotor blades rotating under water of Tonle Sap signifies Chhnok Tru’s unique landscape that appears in the wet season; the village becomes largely submerged. This article features essential ‘floating services’ that maintains the everyday life throughout the dry and wet seasons in Chhnok Tru.
Team members: Leong Kah Heng, Gerald Tan, Chhay Vuchleng
A raised road in Chhnok Tru extending afar to a bus depot and markets was submerged in ankle-deep water.
Shophouses along the road were also inundated. (Source: So Bun Heng, 25 September 2018)
VARIOUS BUSINESSES OPERATED ON WATER
In the wet season, people in Chhnok Tru come and go by boats on the ‘main street’, which runs along the main road only visible in the dry season. The services operated along the street are as comprehensive as ones usually found along shopping streets on land – grocers, fish markets, petrol kiosks, clinics, furniture sales, hairdressers, electronics repairs, remittance services, and even ice and water purifications. How do people access to and maintain these everyday businesses?
Shops along the ‘main street’ of Chnhok Tru in the wet season
Every family in Chhnok Tru has at least one boat as the means for water transportation. Depending on the size, one boat could cost up to one to two million riels, which are equivalent to approximately SGD 330-680. We found it quite expensive and asked a boat seller, Laura , about whether a poor family can pay out such an amount. She replied that some sellers do allow payment in installments. Surprisingly, while Laura can sell only one boat or two throughout the wet season, she does four to five boats per day in the dry season. Laura, like many other sellers, sees an upturn in sales during the dry season, as traffic gets concentrated on a narrower portion of the river. Interestingly, customers from other villages are more likely to patronise boat shops in Chhnok Tru.
Laura’s boat shop. Since other boat shops sell similar products, the sellers compete against each other on a basis of price.
For the boat operation, gasoline is inevitable. Gasoline-powered electricity is also required to run their floating services described earlier. Although many families and businesses equip their own solar panels, the amount of solar energy produced from the panels is limited. More electrical power is needed, especially for those engaged in the phone, boat, or motor repair businesses! Then, on water, how and where do they get gasoline? We visited a gas station of Sokimex, a company based in Cambodia. Gasoline sold there is transported all the way from liquid gold refineries in Singapore via Phnom Penh. It is first brought from Phnom Penh to the nearest bus depot via land transport. It is then transported daily to gas stations in Chhnok Tru via boats.
A gas station on water (middle). Customers park their boats just outside the station and pass a plastic bottle to the owner. Gasoline is then pumped up from the cylinder into the bottle.
A boat loaded with cylinders of gasoline. They are transported daily from a bus depot near the shore to many gasoline stations in Chhnok Tru.
Boat motors and rotor blades are frequently damaged by trashes floating in the lake. But, don’t worry, Uncle Mike , can fix them for you! He had learned a machine repair theory in Phnom Penh. Then, to apply the theory and advance his machinery skill, he gamely took on a challenge to become a handyman in his neighbourhood. Today, he is a professional mechanic and employs two staff for his business. His team sometimes makes house calls to his customers by a boat if their spoilt machines are too bulky to transport. Considering that motors are the very components necessary for water transport, the demand for repair and maintenance is high all year round.
Uncle Mike’s motor repair shop full of scrapped metal and machine parts. His shop even has old car engines and steering wheels which can be fitted onto boats.
During the dry season, the Tonle Sap lake decreases in size. Floating dwellings and services thus congregate closer to each other. Permanent physical infrastructures located along the road, including public schools and police stations, becomes accessible only by motorbikes. In the wet season, motorbikes are used to visit other provinces on land. As there is insufficient space to store motorbikes inside the floating homes, however, villagers like Sothea, pay a fee and park their motorbikes in sheds on land. It is amazing to see how some essential services provided in Chhnok Tru are useful for both land and water environments.
A motorbike shed located on land. The income from this motorbike storage service is guaranteed all year round as households on the Tonle Sap need to store their bikes there regardless of season.
People in Chhnok Tru are undoubtedly capable in applying their skills and knowledge to the environment where they live. They can offer a number of services similar to ones found on land. This article has highlighted the importance of several ‘floating services’ that maintains the everyday life in Chhnok Tru throughout the year: boats, gasoline, repair skills, and motorbike storages. By examining where and how these technologies, raw materials, knowledge and skills are acquired, we could conclude that Chhnok Tru is very much connected to the rest of the world.
 The personal names described in this article were fictitious; the privacy of interviewees