Cambodia is a relatively flat country. This topography combined with heavy rains and a poor irrigation system means there is a great deal of flooding—except what we consider a flood, they consider their backyard. Houses in some rural areas are built high on wooden stilts. Streets are replaced with streams and cars substituted with canoes.
On one radiantly hot day in Siem Reap, Kaela and I took a tuk tuk to one of these “floating villages” with our favorite driver (we couldn’t remember his name but called him Salmonella because it was something along those lines), and were joined by another local Cambodian, Leap (we probably got that name wrong as well). The four of us took a long tail boat through the slow-moving, muddy river. Massive bodies of water intertwined and wove together with no particular logic, blurring the distinction between river and lake, and trees sprouted up like spiny forests, creating a panoramic horizon of water and weeds. Stilted houses soon grew from the water with the forests as we neared the city/town/village—whatever you call it, it was like nothing we had ever seen or even imagined existed. Fishing lines and nets cascaded from every house to catch the village’s main export and women rowed boats overflowing with produce—trading, selling and conversing with the other villagers. Naked brown children climbed and jumped from every platform and swam with their friends around their “neighborhood.” For me, this would have been a childhood paradise, a 24/7 water park. For them, it was all they knew and most likely, all they would ever know.
As we sat on the front of the boat, unaware of our rapidly growing shorts tan, Salmonella asked if we wanted to go in the water. I’m almost positive he was joking and didn’t think we looked like girls that liked to get dirty, but Kaela and I glanced at each other and in unspoken agreement, decided it was time for a swim. We passed him our camera (which he had no clue how to use) and plunged in the murky water, fully clothed. Soon after, I guess our contagious laughter spread to Salmonella and Leap because it wasn’t long before they jumped in too. We swam through the water-jungle, attempting to climb and swing from the trees as gracefully as the kids we had passed, but instead just plunged awkwardly and dog paddled desperately, not used to swimming in water lacking salt to keep us afloat. It wasn’t until after, when we were back on the sauna of our wooden boat, wiping the thin layer of grime off our skin and on to our clothes that we thought, “Maybe we should have taken those malaria pills everyone keeps talking about.”