With the Royal Palace at their backs and the Tonle Sap river as their front yards, about 30 families from the Cham Muslim minority have made their homes on board fishing boats in the centre of Phnom Penh.
Some have lived their for 20 years or more, while others have joined the community as they have lost land in Cambodia’s race towards development.
After collecting their fish traps, men and women get together on the boats to chat in their own language. One of them, Tin Maitom, 45, has lived for 20 years on her wooden boat, about 1. 5 metres wide and 8 metres long.
This tiny space is her living room, bedroom, kitchen and fishing platform. Though she was born on nearby Chroy Changvar peninsula, Tin Maitom says she has no land so is forced to live on the boat.
She bathes in the river water and drinks water she boils from the river, claiming the river is her backyard. “This is our home. We wouldn’t know where to go if someone chased us away from here.”
Tin Maitom earns her living by casting her nets twice a day in front of the Royal Palace, Chaktomuk Conference Hall or the Cambodiana Hotel.
However, she says she only gets about a kilo of tiny fish each day – which she sells in order to buy rice and vegetables.
“It’s not easy to catch fish on the river here because the currents and water movements are always changing. It’s fine in the daytime, but at night we have to be careful with the flowing water because it can tear down our nets,” she says.
After catching her fish, Tin Maitom sells it to dealer Marn Kor, 68, who used to be an angler herself. Marn Kor has lived on her boat in front of the Royal Palace for 16 years after losing her land in her hometown in Kampong Cham province.
She buys fish from her community to sell at the market in Phnom Penh. But business is down over the past six years, she says, as fish becomes scarcer in the river. For a day’s catch, she buys about five or six kilogrammes of fish from seven families.
“I don’t know whether it’s the sand dredging or if the tourist boats affects our fishing, but I’ve noticed fish has become harder to find after they filled in land, which shelters young fish, to construct buildings on Diamond Island.”
It’s a hard life, with the risk of boats being sunk by bad weather, but Marn Kor remains philosophical. “Life is not so good, but no rice to eat is also not good,” she says.
Fisherman Leb Lim, 34, explains that his boat sank last year and he had to rush to save his two daughters, one aged three and the other just a baby, leaving his wife to save herself.
However, he has now taught his elder daughter to swim and will teach the baby once she reaches three years old. "All of our children can swim very well. If they cannot swim, we buy them swimming jackets to wear, so they soon learn to swim,” says Leb Lim.