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Life on the Tonle Sap

October 2000

It’s late October and Cambodians are eagerly anticipating the coming end of a most difficult rainy season. Here on the Tonle Sap, the water has nearly submerged the trees, only the highest branches appear above the waters of this vast inland sea. In the villages, securely hidden behind the mangrove forests, or ‘flooded’ forests as they are locally known, the water level has nearly reached the floorboards of the stilted homes that in the dry season would soar six meters above the ground.

The Tonle Sap Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, and its feeder, the Tonle Sap River exist as an ecological anomaly. In early June, as the annual rainy season commences, the water level of the Mekong River rises substantially enough to divert part of its flow off its course to the South China Sea and redirect it into the Tonle Sap River. This forces the current of this 100-kilometer long river to reverse direction, beginning a process that by the end of October will see the area of the Tonle Sap Lake grow from 2,500 square kilometers to as much as 12,000 square kilometers, its boundaries extend anywhere from 20 kilometers to as much as 50 kilometers inland and its depths increase from a mere two meters to as deep as ten.

The Tonle Sap is one of the most fish abundant lakes in the world and the silt deposits left behind by the annual floods have created fertile ground for agriculture. It’s no surprise that one of Asia’s greatest ancient civilizations developed near this lake and today much of Cambodia’s livelihood still depends on its output. So dependent are Cambodians that the government vigorously enforces fishing bans from March to November.

In some of the lakeside villages, successful efforts by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations have eliminated tree cutting in the fragile flooded forests. Rich in biodiversity, these forests protect the villages of the lake by acting as a natural barrier to the rough waters that characterize the Tonle Sap in the winter months.

Due to time constraints, most tourists to Siem Reap that choose to observe life on the Tonle Sap limit their trip to the mostly Vietnamese floating village of Chong Khneas. As close to Siem Reap as the base of Phnom Krom (about 15 km away), the location of this village moves with the rise and fall of the Tonle Sap.

But further away there are flooded forests, hidden fishing villages, bird sanctuaries, and even an island. Using the services of Terre Cambodge, an adventure tour company based in Siem Reap, I arrange a trip to the fishing village of Kompong Phluk and its nearby flooded forest, about 25 kilometers east of Chong Khneas.

Arriving in Kompong Phluk, I find a small village of perhaps one hundred houses completely within the confines of the lake. But unlike Chong Khneas, this is a permanent fixed village. My guide, Laurent Holdener, owner of Terre Cambodge, tells me that these houses have stilts some six meters in height. While it would certainly be an amazing sight in the dry season to see these houses soaring overhead, today our boat is nearly level with the living quarters of these houses.

The village is friendly, smiles from everybody and waves and shouts of ‘bye bye’ from the children follow our boat as we make our way down the town’s "main street". There is heavy traffic here as long canoes serving as public buses, small family pirogues, and even the occasional large metal bowl serving as transportation for some the younger villagers all make their way around the village.

Aside from the hundred or so homes the village has a pagoda, a small school, and a police station. At this time of year, only a small area surrounding the pagoda and school offers dry land. Ethnically, the village is Khmer, and the economics are relatively good, with shrimp harvesting the main source of income. This fact is readily observable to the visitor as piled on mats adjoining many of the homes are huge mounds of shrimp laying out to dry.

After a brief tour of the village, we switch to a small canoe, rowed by two young local girls, and head for the nearby flooded forest. With the lake so high, we are close to the tops of the trees,but the two girls expertly weave a trail between the trunks and under the dense canopy just a few feet overhead where monkeys jump from one treetop to another. We encounter an elderly man rowing through the forest with two young children. Then deeper in the trees, balled up in a branch just overhead is a three-meter python. Exciting to Laurent and myself, our two young boat captains are visibly scared and quickly row us out of their personal danger. Back in Kompong Phluk the girls would excitedly tell the village of the great snake and their bravery in confronting this dangerous foe (it was soundly asleep in the tree).

Above photos - inside Kompong Phluk's 'flooded forest'. There is a three-meter python in the photo in the lower right.

If there is one negative to Kompong Phluk, it is the sanitary conditions. In front of their homes the residents use the lake for brushing their teeth, washing their dishes, and bathing. Behind their homes, a few meters away, they are using it as a toilet. For our own baths, we took the boat several kilometers out on the open lake, taking a dip before observing a spectacular sunset.

After dark, reality sets in as the village comes alive for several hours with the sounds of televisions and even one noisy karaoke club. Spending the night in a local home, our hosts are friendly and two of the younger women in the house occupy themselves by eyeing the foreigner in their midst, giggling and hiding each time I catch their stare. But soon all is quiet and a peaceful night sleeping above the waters of the Tonle Sap ensues.

At sunrise, we head out beyond the houses where many villagers, mostly teenagers, are already hard at work catching small fish. Making their way around the foliage, these young fishermen and women rapidly work their nets with nimble fingers as they pluck the small fish from the lining.

Above photos - fishing in the early morning hours around Kompong Phluk.

Life in Kompong Phluk is about water. For now, the lake is high and the fishing is good but in due time the waters will recede. Kompong Phluk will briefly see dry-ground, its residents climbing ladders six meters high to enter their homes. But then gradually the water will trickle in, flooding the Cambodian countryside and continuing a cycle that has determined this way of life for centuries.





All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.