Mat Leb lives on land now, but he still washes his face with the waters of the Tonle Sap.
Leb, a 70-year-old Cham Muslim fisherman, spent 30 years living on a fishing boat on the mighty river until last month, when he and roughly 65 other Cham Muslim families decided to put an end to their traditional lifestyle and move to land.
Leb, a grandfather of seven, cried as he spoke of the harsh conditions that led him and the other families to pool their money to buy a small plot of land in Kandal province’s Ksach Tonle commune – and the struggles that followed.
“We have nothing,” said Leb. “Not even one stick for building a house.”
The Cham families along the Tonle Sap in this area of Kandal have traditionally lived and worked on the river, some for more than five decades. But now they are building a village on land called “Islam Thmey”, or “New Islam”, to seek what they hope will be a better life for their children.
Most said they hoped that by giving up a nomadic lifestyle, their children could attend school and learn to read and write Khmer, which many do not.
Others said they were too afraid of the daily dangers of living on the water, including the risk that their young children would drown or get sick and not have access to a hospital.
Some said they became too fearful of the massive storms at night that rock their boats from side to side, water lapping at their feet in the hull.
However, most say they have found that life is no easier on the land. Many of them, even after a month, are still living under tarps and sleeping on the dirt, too poor to build houses, although they have begun constructing a small mosque out of sheet metal.
Adding to their difficulties is the fact that the land is only big enough for half of the community members, with the other half still living in their houseboats.
The villagers are now appealing to Prime Minister Hun Sen and other donors for help.
Sixty-nine-year-old Ro Hymas, who said she lived in a houseboat for roughly 40 years before deciding to move to land along with the rest of the community, said that the situation was dire.
“We appeal to the leaders to help us, especially the aid from Samdech [Hun Sen] and other donors. Please assist to end these difficulties for us,” Hymas said.
Koh Ksach Tonle Commune Chief Seng Min expressed his sympathy for the families, adding that he happily facilitated their purchase of the land “because they are also Khmer”.
“I have been to their residence and it is very difficult,” he said. “I do not know how to help them. I will help them with what I can. I also regard them as my own people.”
Virtually all of the able-bodied men and women were out fishing and working yesterday, leaving only the elderly, the sick and scores of children at home. Yet Leb said villagers sometimes spend all day fishing to come up with barely enough of a catch to buy rice for the day.
Mit Sota, 65, who has lived in a houseboat for about 50 years with her husband and three kids, said villagers had nobody else to turn to.
“I never had time to experience being happy like other people,” Sota said, describing a life spent drifting from place to place in search of plentiful fishing, wondering where their next meal would come from.
“I have experienced much hardship,” Sota said.
“I do not want to see my children and grandchildren experience as I did. Even though I don’t have anything, I must come to the land.”