Our group recently returned from the SFS Center for Mekong Studies’ first ever homestay, which was spent in floating wooden houses on the Tonle Sap lake after a day observing spectacular waterbird colonies in the core area of the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve.

We traveled to the floating village by boat through watery canals on the edge of the great lake, spotting and identifying waterbirds along the way. At the core biosphere reserve, Ministry of Environment and Wildlife Conservation rangers escorted us in small longtail boats deep into a tributary of the lake where they monitor and protect a host of breeding fish and waterbirds. An astonishingly rich variety of birds, several critically endangered, floated and fed along the river’s winding channels. The students attempted to count large flocks of spot-billed pelicans, Indian cormorants, Oriental darters, painted storks, and whiskered terns. Brightly colored painted storks and the strange-looking lesser and greater adjutants stood along the river’s edges hunting in the reeds, and even a grey fish-eagle was seen peering down at our boats from atop a tall tree. We stopped to interview the rangers at their monitoring platform from our boats, and the water teemed with so many fish that four or five threw themselves bodily into our boat, causing much consternation as they flopped across our feet!

We returned at dusk to eat at the delicious community-run restaurant created by the environmental organization Osmose, and then were ferried to our homestay families’ floating homes in darkness. As it was the night of Chinese New Year, red lanterns hung glowing in front of many homes, and children fired off fireworks into the dark. My group settled in onto the porch of our host family with a ukelele and serenaded the dark waters of the lake. Exhausted by hours of wind and sun and boat-riding, we retired early and rose to interview our host families at seven. The fishing boats had started roaring by at five in the morning, so we could be considered late risers!

Students interviewed each host family about their livelihood strategies on the lake. Our 65 year-old host father was deeply concerned about the current pressures on natural resources in Cambodia. We have a saying now in Cambodia, he told us: “We say there is water, but no fish, and there is forest, but no animals.” Yet rather than give in to despair, our host had been instrumental in investigating and reporting illegal commercial-scale pumping of the waters of the lake for agriculture. In response to our praise for his courageous activism, he simply replied: “You have to be courageous or there will be no more natural resources and our children will die.”

We spent a single night in a family’s home, but their unique way of life and their courage will remain in our minds for a long time to come.