The largest collection of fresh water in Southeast Asia is Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake. Its banks support three million people, while the water supplies more than half of the country’s consumed fish. Come wet season, its surface area swells by more than three times its regular size to 10,000 square-kilometres, overflowing into the Mekong River. Chong Khneas is its most famous floating village, found 15km to the south of Siem Reap, it is home to Khmer, Muslim and Vietnamese communities. Among its stilted structures one can find markets, fisheries, clinics, schools and even a basketball court.
A similar settlement exists over the seas of Vietnam’s incredible World Wonder, Halong Bay. These floating villages date back centuries, the largest village, Cua Van, has 130 houses and a population of 600. The floating structures rest dozens of kilometres from the mainland, with fishing, again, being the main source of income, though the community is also a popular tourist attraction too.
The water supplies more than half of the country’s consumed fish. Come wet season, its surface area swells by more than three times its regular size to 10,000 square-kilometres, overflowing into the Mekong River.
There is, however, another population of sea dwellers who spend almost their entire lives on the ocean, rarely setting foot on dry land or having any interaction with the rest of the world. They are the Sama-Bajau, a collection of Southeast Asian communities who inhabit the waters of Indonesia and the Philippines. Often referred to as Sea Gypsies or Sea Nomads, they were first recorded by European explorers in 1521, with Antonio Pigafetta noting that they “make their dwellings in boats and do not live otherwise.” Now a peaceful people, they’re history, however, tells of piracy. Less and less traditional Bajau now live on the seas, with some governments resettling them on land or moving them to stilted villages closer to the shore. Dwindling fish numbers and dying coral reefs are also taking their toll.
Diana Botutihe was born at sea around 50 years ago and has spent her entire life on vessels no longer than 5 metres and just 1.5 metres wide. She is a member of the Bajau ethnic group famed for their supreme free diving skills, able to reach depths of 30 metres in search of fish, pearls and coral. The only time Botutihe visits land, reports the Guardian, is to trade such spoils for rice, water and utensils. Because diving is such an integral part of their way of life, eardrums are deliberately ruptured at an early age. “You bleed from your ears and nose, and you have to spend a week lying down because of the dizziness,” says Imran Lahassan of the Torosiaje community. “After that you can dive without pain.” It is not without its dangers however, with some divers regularly dying from the bends. They wear hand-carved wooden goggles with glass lenses and hunt with spear guns fashioned from boat timber, tyre rubber and scrap metal. The people have even evolved with enhanced underwater vision.
Photographer Réhahn spent over a week with members of Bajau tribe off the coast of Borneo, snapping and learning about their lives. They have, he says, little concept of age or time and live purely for the present and only for the water. “Children were jumping from a wooden bridge and they wanted me to take their photo,” he tells the Daily Mail. “They were perfect models.” The Frenchman described the children as like “fish in the sea,” and all were happy to see a foreigner, welcoming him “generously” into their lives.
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces