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A Cambodia shaped by water, history and resilience

Houses in Kampong Phluk, Cambodia, are built on stilts to withstand the ebb and flow of the monsoon seasons.

BEN KUCINSKI/FLICKR

Houses in Kampong Phluk, Cambodia, are built on stilts to withstand the ebb and flow of the monsoon seasons.

KAMPONG PHLUK — The water around our boat is so opaque with yellow clay that I worry my hand will vanish if I dip it in. The boat itself is made of wooden planks sealed with resin, driven by an engine that looks like nothing I have ever seen, a propeller trailing far behind the stern on a rickety metal frame. Our pilot is 13, or might be, but I can’t really ask him over the noise.

But none of this is the interesting part. The interesting part, the reason we endured the hourlong scooter ride and all the dirt roads to get here, is rolling past us on the banks of this river, where the life of a village is unfolding 20 feet above our heads.

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Children in their high stilt houses kick their legs out the front doors, dangling them precariously in the air. Bits of laundry, beaten as clean as it gets in yellow-clay water, hang on crossbars to dry. And on the water below, traffic moves around us: small launches, hand-paddled rafts, a floating fish farm.

Cambodia is becoming more popular every year as a tourist destination: The food is delicious, the hotels are cheap, and the 900-year-old temple of Angkor Wat is among the great spectacles of human construction. The nearby city of Siem Reap has swelled to more than 100,000 people mainly to support the immense throngs who visit it.

But that is all an hour away. We touched down at Siem Reap’s thatch-roofed airport a few hours ago and decided to do something else. My girlfriend, Carolyn, had seen a paragraph in the guidebook about a stilt village and a flooded forest, and when we arrived at our hotel and met our guide, Raman, she asked him to take us there. “You want to see the real life of the Cambodian people?” was how he put it. We climbed into his tuktuk, a kind of canopied rickshaw pulled by a scooter. After an hour weaving through Siem Reap’s chaotic moped traffic and bouncing through nearly empty rice fields and side roads, we are now cutting through yellow water on a strange little skiff with watchful eyes painted on the bow.

The village is on the edge of the Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in the region, whose size is so variable that, depending when you visit, the same patch of shore could be a muddy plain or an endless ocean of water. In the dry season, a river slowly drains the lake into the distant Mekong. In monsoon season, the Mekong swells so much that this river actually reverses, filling the lake and tripling its size. Pumping in and out, year after year, the lake is ridiculously fertile, providing the fish and shrimp that are the centerpiece of Cambodian food. But for fishermen, it also creates a puzzle: You can’t build a normal shoreline home on a shoreline that moves by miles twice a year.

Some of the lake’s fishing villages simply float, and follow the shoreline as it shifts. The inhabitants of the village we’re in, though, take a different approach. They build on high poles, and tie their boats to pilings and climb ladders, straight up, to go home. When the lake is high, they don’t have far to climb. We’re here early in dry season, with the lake slowly shrinking and the climb getting longer each week. Between the village and the lake, our boat winds through a haunting border zone called the floating forest — groves of trees whose trunks climb sinuously out of still lakewater. And finally we break out of the forest and are confronted with the expanse of the lake itself, extending in every direction.

On the edge of the lake, our engine buzzing behind us, it doesn’t take much imagination to feel as if we have arrived not at the edge but at the heart of something — an almost literal heart, an immense beating object whose rhythm dictates all the life around it.

.   .   .

The rhythm of water shapes any country affected by Asia’s monsoons, shifting lives season by season. But it shaped the land around us in another way, too, on a time scale so vast that nobody really understands it.

The stone temples of Cambodia — Angkor Wat and its neighbors, the ones that draw all its tourists — look like a bunch of monuments built in a jungle, their elaborate pointed towers piercing a thick green canopy like the backdrop of an Indiana Jones movie. But they weren’t built that way. What the temples really are is the remnant of an enormous civilization, a place that archeologists believe may once have been the largest city on earth.

Today, it is impossible to tell that city was here. But when you are high enough — when you fly in and out of Siem Reap, and look out over the temples — you can make out the ghost outlines of two enormous reservoirs, the East and West Baray, which once anchored a staggeringly complicated hydraulic sytem that nourished Angkor and its agriculture.

In the year 900, this area was flush with people, crops, animals — the heart of the ancient Khmer empire. By the 1800s, when a French explorer came upon it and brought news of the ruins back to Europe, the area was a jungle and the population was a handful of monks. What happened in between is still something of a mystery, but researchers have been documenting the water systems, drawing a picture of the civilization that built them. They believe that long-term shifts in climate and a slow silting up eventually overwhelmed the people who lived there. Unable to control the water it relied on, the empire was swept away.

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Two days before arriving in Siem Reap, we had gotten a call from our neighbors in Boston: Our basement had flooded. We had no idea what the extent of the damage was; we tried to picture what might be down there; what might be floating, or ruined, or salvageable.

Now, we were on a boat whose prow was nosing through a small civilization that had built itself completely around this problem. What if every year your basement flooded so deeply that the water crested the roof of your house, and just kept going? What about your pigs? How would you cook?

Their innovative solution is reflected not just along the lake, but through the countryside: Even modern houses that we pass on roads, built of cinderblock and stucco, perch on legs one story above the ground. Instead of trying to control the water, you live with its vagaries.

It is not an easy existence: Life in the fishing villages is intensely, unremittingly poor. When we visit the floating Chong Kneas, later, we are never quite at ease. People there, we are informed, live on a dollar a day, or never use money at all; childhood mortality is higher than the rest of the country. On a barge near an alligator pen, a tiny girl with a rash-scarred face appears before us, a live snake wrapped around her shoulders, and suddenly pitches forward and falls on her stomach. Her parents bob in a boat nearby. Is she begging? Playing? We don’t know.

It is impossible, though, not to feel a tiny sense of encouragement as well. Recent history has not just been unkind to Cambodia. It has been brutal, and left no one untouched. Today every quirky display of ingenuity with a two-stroke engine, every unforced smile from a child you think should be in school feels like a sign that hope is at least possible. There is even a kind of flashy poetry in the colors: Boats are painted festive reds and blues. House and boat frames have bright yellow piping. Corrugated tin walls are hung with vivid cloth.

The food is astonishing: fresh mango, milkfruit, palmfruit, dragonfruit. Fish and shrimp emerge from seemingly anywhere. At one temple site, we notice holes in the lawn that appear to have tiny creatures in them: “Crabs,” explains Raman. Not salty crabs, like the ones that come in the sea. These are fresh crabs, the kind you make into soup. Or, for a feast, you can split them and stuff the meat into a snake. The possibilities are endless.

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A woman fried cakes of whole shrimp and rice flour in the village of Kampong Phluk, Cambodia.

Stephen Heuser/Globe Staff

A woman fried cakes of whole shrimp and rice flour in the village of Kampong Phluk, Cambodia.

After perhaps an hour of weaving though the stilt village, our guide says something to the boat pilot and we pull up toward the shore. It would be wrong to call it a dock: We need to balance precariously on a narrow plank of wood to walk from the boat to the town. We find ourselves amid the stilts, in a dark forest of house foundations. On one side of us a woman boils baskets of tiny red shrimp. On the other we examine a box built of poles and sticks and see a flat pink snout pointing toward us: It’s a pigsty, safely suspended above the ground. Other pigsties here can float.

On the village’s main street, a wide dirt road, dry this month, our guide stops us at a tiny food stand, the only business we can see. A woman is frying flat cakes of tiny shrimp — head, shell, and all — pressed together with rice flour. It’s a bright red disk of little alien life forms frozen in place. Raman buys three. He squeezes a lime into a little dish, sprinkles salt and pepper, and dips the shrimp cake.

I eat one. Carolyn eats one. So this is the taste of the lake. We will be in Cambodia five more days. We will see temples and traditional dancers and the bizarre spectacle of a war-ravaged country rebuilding itself around the whims of adventure travelers from continents away. But we will never really forget biting into that shrimp cake. It feels like we are tasting something, and it also feels like we are plunging in.

Stephen Heuser can be reached at sheuser@globe.com.
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