Life on the Great Lake

As we flew into Cambodia on the plane, our first impression was of a land underwater. As far as the eye could see in this flat country, there were flooded fields, swollen rivers, submerged forests, and an enormous lake. Chris was worried that we’d be walking around in flood waters throughout our stay, but as the plane got closer to the ground, we saw plenty of dry roads and towns and villages. The reason for all of the water was that the five-month rainy season was just ending, and the fascinating Tonle Sap was at its peak.

Some fishing families on the Tonle Sap Lake live in floating houses that can move with the changing water level

The Tonle Sap (“Great Lake” in Khmer) is a combined lake and river system that dominates the ecology of Cambodia and the lives of many Cambodians. The river runs through the Angkor Wat complex and the nearby town of Siem Reap, south into the lake, out the other side, and down to the capital city, Phnom Penh, where it merges with the mighty Mekong River.

The Tonle Sap also does something extraordinary: The river flows in different directions at different times of the year, and the lake expands and shrinks dramatically. From November to May, Cambodia’s dry season, the Tonle Sap drains into the Mekong. But during the wet season, rain water and runoff from mountains in China swell the Mekong River so much that its waters push back up the Tonle Sap River and into the lake, expanding the lake sixfold (from about 1,000 square miles in area and 3 feet deep to about 6,200 square miles and 27 feet deep). In effect, the Tonle Sap River and Lake serve as an overflow drain for the Mekong River, much as water from a dishwasher will back up into a kitchen sink.

At its smallest, the Tonle Sap is twice as big as any other lake in Southeast Asia; at its largest, it’s 14 times bigger than its closest competitor (or about two-thirds the size of Lake Erie, for you Ohioans out there).

The lake is a huge breeding ground for fish, snakes, and eels during the wet season. When the lake begins to drain, fishermen lay out giant nets to catch the fish coming downstream. Traditionally, the catches were enormous—with about 300,000 tons caught each fishing season, enough to feed millions of Cambodians and to export overseas at high profit (especially the dried snake meat, which commands a high price). Catches have been declining in recent years. But fish from the lake, as well as rice from the fertile lands that it floods, provide the basic diet of all Cambodians.

The people who fish the lake have two basic options for dealing with its changing size: live in stilt houses or live on houseboats. In the stilt villages, everything—homes, schools, shops, and temples—is built on wooden poles up to 25 feet high, with wooden steps reaching down to the ground. As in other villages, a dirt road runs down the length of the village, between the houses. During the dry season, everyone lives high above ground and can use the road for transport. Some fishing families become farmers, growing vegetables in the fertile ground. During the wet season, water laps the floors of the houses and all transportation is by boat (often traditional paddled canoes).

People who can’t afford a solid stilted house, or who don’t like climbing up and down, live in boats that double as houses or in small structures kept afloat by empty oil drums. As the water level rises and falls, they go with it.

The lake villages closest to Siem Reap have become a major tourist attraction. We visited one a little farther away, and thus less touristy, called Kompong Khleang. After taking a bus through the countryside for an hour (with a stop at a roadside market to see the vast array of fresh and dried lake fish of all sizes for sale), we boarded a 12-seat covered motor boat for a trip past a flooded forest, through the stilt village, and out into the lake.

It was fascinating to see daily life happening high in the air or on the water: kids in the standard blue and white school uniforms of Cambodia paddling boats home from school rather than peddling bikes, people cooking or hanging their laundry out to dry on porches above the water, throwing nets out for fish, folding nets, mending nets, repairing roofs, buying fruit from the woman who paddles around in the produce boat, stopping at a floating mini-mart to get a bottle of petrol for their motor. We even saw a floating bar on the edge of the village (hopefully patrons don’t drink and row).

A mini-mart and petrol station kept afloat by old oil drums

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