The best handyman living among the boat people in Chong Koh was named Taing Hoarith. Most days, Hoarith woke up at 5 a.m. and bought a bowl of noodle soup from a passing sampan, the same genre of wandering bodega from which his wife, Vo Thi Vioh, sold vegetables houseboat to houseboat. When she left for the day, around 6, Hoarith rolled up their floor mat and got to work.
Chong Koh is one of hundreds of floating villages, comprising tens of thousands of families, on the Tonle Sap River and the lake of the same name in Cambodia. Dangers on a floating village multiply in the rainy season. When I first visited, in late July, there was always something for Hoarith to do: repairing storm damage in a wall of thatched palm, clearing the water hyacinths that collected along the upstream porch. Sometimes the house had to be towed closer to the receding shoreline so that storms or the waves of passing ships would not capsize it. Every few months, he got his ancient air compressor working and swam beneath the house, a rubber hose between his teeth, to refill the cement jars that kept the whole thing buoyant. He was mindful of pythons.