Cambodia is home to one of the world's most productive lake and river systems, the Tonle Sap. Cambodians depend on fish for 70 percent of their dietary protein. The Mekong Delta, which stretches through Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, is one of the most productive fisheries in the world, according to Zeb Hogan, a biologist with the Mekong Wetlands Biodiversity Program. 'Two million tons of fish are harvested from the Mekong every year -- more than the Amazon, more than the Congo, more than the Yangtze, more than the Mississippi.' The country's currency, the riel, is named after the small silver carp that is a vital part of the staple diet here. The Temples of the Angkor complex were decorated with images of fish and tales of fishing, the one that got away, a thousand years ago. It is not surprising to learn that much of a Cambodian's psyche is connected to the water.
During the rainy season the Tonle sap, which translates as 'large fresh water river' (although possibly not so much of the fresh nowadays!) reverses its natural direction making it's lake swell by ten times it's dry season size. During the dry season the lake is only about a meter deep and about 2700 sq km in size. When the monsoon season begins the increased volume of water is forced up from the Mekong dramatically increasing the lakes area to an amazing 16,000 sq km and its depth to up to nine meters, flooding fields and forests, nearly one fifth of the country. It is the only waterway in the world to reverse its flow.
Flying back from Siem Reap I took some shots of our water soaked land.
Here is the lake, the pocket for the over flow from the monsoon swollen Mekong, the cul de sac at the end of the Tonle Sap river.
In the last few years, however, fisherman have begun reporting a decrease in catch sizes probably due to a rise in large commercial operations in the region and modern and improved fishing methods. Deforestation, over population and the Chinese damming the Mekong have also had an adverse effect and not only on fish destined for the market. Endangered fish such as the Mekong giant catfish (in 2005 a record 648 pounder was caught- really there are pictures!!) are also effected.
This week Phnom Penh has itself swollen in size as an estimated 4 million (although that depends on who you talk to) people flooded the city for the boat races, the parade of illuminated boats (Loy Pratip) and the fireworks that are the main feature of the three day Water Festival, Bon Om Tuok, which honors the mighty Tonle Sap. Each provence can enter a boat, manned (some are womaned too now!) by 40 rowers and many do. The boats are often little more than dugouts with a prow and stern that curve upwards and are decorated like the war vessels of the ancient Khmer Kings. The races are meant to appease the God of the river and ensure the abundance of fish and rice over the coming year. Historically the races were used by Kings to prepare their armies and to select the best, the strongest and the fastest rowers for their warriors and to honour the victory of Cambodian Naval forces in the reign of King JayavarmanVII, during Angkor period.