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Photographer's Note

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for Vietnamese Boat People
in Cambodia,
No anchors


When Dung Thanh Men lies back in his hammock on the long, golden afternoons here, it swings gently by itself with the rocking of his home, a fishing boat at the northern tip of Cambodia's great lake. The rocking may be gentle, but like other scenes of serenity in Cambodia, it belies the turmoil that lies beneath it - in this case, the energy of more than a ton of fat, silver elephant fish trapped inside a gigantic wooden cage that is the underbelly of Mr. Men's houseboat. And the comforting sounds of children's voices and sweet smell of cooking fires that drift from other houseboats mask the precariousness of his unmoored life here.

Mr. Men is an ethnic Vietnamese fisherman, one of thousands who have clustered for generations in some 40 floating villages around the edges of the broad, fecund lake, Tonle Sap. Like other floating things, their lives follow the tides of their environment, both the seasonal rise and ebb of this restless lake and the sharper and more dangerous shifts of Cambodia's violent recent history. "The people here have no land, only boats," said a Cambodian boatman who visited them recently. "So when the water is up, they are up; when the water is down, they are down. It seems very easy, but their life is very difficult."

Permanent boat people, they are true citizens neither of Cambodia nor of Vietnam but of the great lake, ready to follow the schools of fish or to flee the violence that can visit at any time from the hostile shore. "Vietnam is my homeland," said Mr. Men, 34, speaking in Vietnamese, although both he and his parents were born in Cambodia and he has seen Vietnam only once, as a child, when a huge flotilla of fishing boats escaped there during an anti-Vietnamese purge. When he does go ashore, a 20-minute boat ride away, he says he is "going to Cambodia." In waterborne villages like this one, just off the lotus swamps and flooded rice fields of the lakeside, the fishermen have created self-enclosed worlds with floating markets, churches, schools, ice plants, slaughterhouses, mechanic shops - even pool halls, where the players must take the motion of the lake into account before they make their shots. (Source: Seth Mydans, The New York Times ©12-30-2000)

(To be continued in “Discussions” below)



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