St. Peter's church floats, its parishioners landless

Jesuit Father Stepanus Winarto celebrating mass at St. John the Apostle (Photos by Tom Fox)

Mass at St. John the Apostle church in Siem Reap, Cambodia has a striking resemblance to the Last Supper: it is a sit down affair.

 Jesuit Father Stepanus Winarto entered the small church for 7:30 Sunday morning mass the last in a procession of young altar girls. He then took his place behind a small altar only three feet off the ground, sitting down on a small chair.

“It is a Cambodian custom of reverence to remain as low as one can,” he later told me.

The parishioners sat before him, some cross-legged, some sitting holding young children who occasionally scampered about from relative to relative. The atmosphere was informal and children friendly. 

Young teen altar girls assisted at mass and read the first two readings; Winarto, an Indonesian, read the Gospel. Though nobody but he stood.

Following mass Winarto took off for a 15-kilometer ride to an outlet on the Tonle Sap lake, the second largest lake in Asia, for his second mass. The lake is famous in Asia. It is a fresh water source for many of the Cambodian people and for centuries has allowed them to inhabit the area and grow and harvest rich rice fields. The water was also responsible for once having allowed the Khmer people to build the largest empire in Southeast Asia, beginning more than 1,000 years ago and culminating in what we know today as Angkor Wat, one of the world’s greatest tourist attractions.

Once at the edge of the water, Winarto got onto a small boat for a 15-minute ride to celebrate mass on a floating platform in the shape of a small church, called St. Peter’s church.  It is one of his parishes and tends as a sub community of Catholics within a larger group of Vietnamese families, some 5,000 to 7,000 people in all, who have been living on water away from their homes and lands now for more than 35 years.

They are landless. They own no land. They have no land on which to set their feet. No land willing to welcome them. Decades back these Vietnamese entered Cambodia, fleeing the violence of war.  They settled on water, on small platforms, which serve as their homes. Boarded wooden roofs and walls and old tattered clothes, hanging out to dry, testify to the modesty of their existence.

The Cambodian government does virtually nothing to assist these hapless people. To begin with, Cambodians and Vietnamese have long histories of hostility. Social services in Cambodia, meanwhile, are virtually nonexistent while a relatively few have been amassing enormous, almost unimaginable wealth, for the past few decades.

 Cambodian officials demand the Vietnamese villagers pay up to $5,000 a year for fishing rights. It is a sum that makes fishing for a living out of their reach.

Without land, without an ability to fish, these Vietnamese eek out life mostly through small scale commerce, selling petty merchandise – souvenirs, drinks and trinkets -- to tourists who pass by and among their floating homes, snapping pictures. It is part of the Cambodian tourist trade.

Since these Vietnamese have “settled” in Cambodia they are not officially considered refugees and, thus, are ineligible for refugee assistance from the United Nations.

Meanwhile, those who make up the floating village, called Chong Khnies in Khmer, have no passports and no place to return to in Vietnam. Making the journey seems out of their reach and imagination.

I spoke with a teacher who sat behind a small desk instructing young children behind the church. They were learning Cambodian.  She told me the children are also being instructed to speak some English. Without modest Cambodian or English language skills, they have no hope whatsoever breaking out of the poverty, she said. No way to improve their lives.

Meanwhile, these are children who have never run or played on a playground or kicked a ball and threw one over a net.

I asked the teacher if the children’s parents encourage them to leave, to find a better life somewhere.  “They have little education and need their children for their own survival,” she said.

Winarto told me that St. Peter’s church is one of two floating parishes he ministers to. The other is St. Joseph’s. He said the platform on that floating church is rotting and the church is now tipping to one side.  He said it would cost $10,000 to stabilize the church.  It is money, he said, that neither he nor his parishioners have.

Winarto gathers donations, to the degree he can, and uses the money to buy rice, he and the teacher told me, to supplement the diets for the children in the Chong Khnies floating village. 

Their world is limited – and, it appears, will continue to be so. It is as limited as any I have ever encountered.

Fox is NCR publisher and can be reached at

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