Exploring Kampong Phluk and Southeast Asia's largest lake, a food source for millions
It began with my mother. She had come to visit me in Denver and we attended a lecture at Denver University about the Mekong River. It ended with me on a riverboat in Cambodia, on my way to visit a Tonle Sap floating village, and Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake.
Back to my mother. We took our seats in the lecture hall at the School of International Studies; she was struck by the pretty view of the rocky mountains through windows that stretched the length of the room. She is from Toronto, so the view alone was worth the outing. A good thing, because I had no idea if this lecture would be interesting.
The speaker was Brian Eyler and the talk was based on his book, Last Days of the Mighty Mekong. He began where the river does: at its headwaters in China’s Tibetan Plateau, and led us on an imaginary float down the 4300-kilometer river.
More than half of the Mekong is located in China where it’s been long known as the Lancang. Until recently, many Chinese officials claimed it was not the same river, and so refuted that any problems with the Mekong in the neighbouring Asian countries downstream, were its concern.
Brian lived and worked in China for 15 years. Now, he is the director of the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center in Washington where he researches Mekong sustainability. He consults to Asian governments as they try to balance economic growth with conservation, and protection of the Mekong Basin.
His talk took us through China’s Yunnan province and into the golden triangle, where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. We would not have actually been able to travel the river here as a huge waterfall is located at the Laos and Cambodia border.
Mighty Mekong River
In Laos, the Mekong is crucial to transportation and so the river is dotted with colourful longtail boats. The boats take children to school and farmers’ goods to market. They are essential to life here, he said. Brian spoke next of Cambodia’s Tonlé Sap Lake which he refers to as the heart of life in the entire Mekong Delta.
I had heard of the Tonlé Sap, but knew little about it. It is Southeast Asia’s largest lake, and produces fish on a remarkable scale because of its unique hydrological cycle. During the monsoon season so much water floods the Mekong that the connected Tonlé Sap river reverses direction and sends water back into the lake, causing its footprint to increase by five times.
Our imaginary journey ended in Vietnam and the Mekong Delta, where the river is crowded with traders and farmers; the population density here is five times that of the rest of the river.
More than 66 million people live in these combined areas known as the Mekong Basin. Some are in cities, but most are in rural areas and entirely dependent on the river for their livelihood; the typical person either fishes or farms, earning an income of about $800 a year. Brian told the stories of some of those people and the ways in which they were having to adapt to new realities on the river.
By the end of the lecture my mother was ready for lunch and I was ready for Asia. We each bought Brian’s book and lined up to have them signed. I thanked Brian for the lecture and asked a couple of questions about travel in the region. He was very gracious. He handed me the signed book: “May this book and your journeys to the Mekong inspire you to keep it mighty.”
A Trip To Southeast Asia
It’s funny how an idea smoldering quietly in the background – maybe someday I will return to Southeast Asia – can ignite. The timing of the lecture was perfect; my friend Clemencia had recently moved to Hong Kong and we had talked of meeting to travel. The timing also worked for my family, as my teen children are better able to manage without me. The stars had aligned, and I do love serendipity.
Fast forward five months, several flights, and other assorted modes of transport, and I was in a boat, on a river, in Cambodia. It was my first time in Southeast Asia since I was 25.
Tonlé Sap River & a Buddhist Festival
The scene on the river that day was even more lively and colourful than I had imagined. The Pchum Ben festival was underway, a 15-day event when Cambodian Buddhists pay respect to their deceased ancestors. Cambodians filled colourful boats, and gathered at the river’s floating restaurants. We passed a group of monks in orange robes, smiling and taking photos on a large two-story boat.
The colorful stilted houses here are built to withstand water levels which fluctuate by up to eight meters between the dry and monsoon seasons. Their stairs were half submerged now and many had boats tied to the front. It was September. By November this river would begin draining back to the connected Mekong, and fall to its lowest point in April, at the peak of the dry season.
Flooded Mangroves Amidst Tonle Sap Floating Villages
We continued on to where mangrove forests began to appear, the trees half submerged by the monsoon flooding. I commented to my guide, Mr. Barung, that the height of the water in the forest was remarkable. He corrected me. In fact, it was two meters lower than last year and that was a problem.
These forests grow in a belt around much of the lake. When the lake expands, the forests are flooded creating an ecosystem. The water becomes rich with sediment, an ideal breeding ground for fish. Less flooded area means less fish.
Cambodians consume an average of 75 kgs of fish per year, around 60% of their protein source. A part of that is the ubiquitous prahok, a fermented fish paste created from the tiny trey riel, also known as the money fish. They are the most abundant fish in the lake and the protein-packed paste is widely consumed, as a condiment and an ingredient in Cambodian cooking.
Flooding also impacts farming. The more land that is flooded, the more fertile area for planting crops of rice, beans, eggplant and melon. This seasonal flooding has always been significant here. In 10th century Cambodia it enabled the Khmer Empire to flourish – flood cycles provided the bountiful rice crops which fed armies.
Kampong Phluk, Tonle Sap Floating Village
We stopped at a Tonle Sap floating village called Kampong Phluk where children were running around an open-air temple which faced the river. It was built on higher ground than the rest of the village, high enough to remain a dry place to gather year round, even when the rest of the village is flooded.
We walked through the village on a road that also remained above the water level. It was lined with stilted houses. Normally, the water level would reach high on the steps, but the steps were dry here.
There was some water on the opposite side of the houses which faced the river. Groups of people were busy at work in the village, despite the steamy temperature of 35 celsius. Boats were being repaired and a man was covering shrimp traps with tar to keep them from rusting. Shrimping is also a significant livelihood here.
We left the village and continued along the river. When we arrived at the mouth of the lake, the wind picked up and choppy waves slapped the front of the boat, sending a spray of water in the air. In the Khmer language, Tonle means fresh water and sap is lake. About 90% of Cambodia’s population are Khmer.
Within five minutes we were out in the open water, no shore visible on the other side. I am from Toronto and so have spent time on the Great Lakes, which also feel like oceans. Mr. Barung pulled his phone from his pocket and showed me our location – we were a little blue dot still at the edge of a massive water body.
Tonlé Sap Lake
The lake is only 10 meters deep but there are over 100 species of fish here, although some of the larger species are now gone. One of the major threats to the Mekong, to the Tonle Sap, and to millions of people in the Mekong Basin is the building of dams.
China’s dams upriver affect millions of people downriver. And it’s not just China. Laos is also building dams, to meet the growing demand for electricity. Brian Eyler is working with Laos, helping them to come up with alternative plans to meet this need. Wind and solar are being developed which is hopeful.
Unlike the orderly two-way traffic on the river, boats moved in all directions through the open lake. Water sprayed up as the boat bumped along. When a small boat came toward us, our driver slowed to a stop. The boat came closer and I saw it was filled with packaged food, crackers, soup, candy, fruit – it was a floating grocery store.
The proprietor was a young woman with a broad blue hat, and cheeks flushed from the wind. She had her two children with her, quite content eating snacks at the bow of the boat. We waved her in and steadied her boat next to ours. I bought a package of Oreo cookies for Mr. Barung and our driver.
Mr. Barung acted as translator as we chatted. We took a photo and she said goodbye. She took a few minutes to bail water from the low boat as it bobbed away from us. The motor started and the nose of the boat turned into the choppy waves. She turned and waved once more.
We were still stopped, so I handed my camera to Mr. Barung, and moved to the front of the boat. I wanted a photo of me with the vast Tonlé Sap behind – a picture to send to my mother. It was the least I could do, to thank her for a visit, which led to a lecture, that lit a spark, that sent me to a great lake in Cambodia – the heart of life for millions of people.