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 CAMBODIA : Life on the Lake 

Life on the Lake
Afloat on Tonle Sap


Text and photography by Eric Pasquier 


Tonle Sap – the heart of Cambodia – is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, has a surface area of 2600 km² and irrigates half of the country.

Small wonder that it occupies an almost magical place in Cambodia’s folklore and many say Angkor would not exist without it. Nor would the 20 boat-villages that float on its surface, where everything – every home, business, shop, school, even the school bus – floats on a boat.

ERIC PASQUIER visited Tonle Sap whose villages move and grow as fluidly as lake itself.

The floating villages on Tonle Sap are a microcosm of Cambodian society, with one important difference: life here revolves around boats.

Each boat in the village fulfils a specific social niche. There are boats bearing every profession under the Cambodian sun from grocers to mechanics.
Men, women and children each have their own job within the tiny aquatic communities.

Fishing is the area’s main resource and in general, men are the designated fishermen. More than 80% of the village’s men fish for a living. They use the same age-old techniques that their forefathers used and have a veritable arsenal of different nets at their disposal: circle nets, large fine nets for freshwater shrimp, wicker baskets and bamboo barriers planted in the mud. Each fishing method is designed with a specific type of fish in mind, to ensure optimum results.

The best fishing period is in the dry season between October and May. On a good day, during this time, a family can catch from one to two hundred kilos of fish, which are then sold to merchants. Nearly three hundred species of fish have been counted in Tonle Sap. There are elephant fish, crow fish, and even snakehead fish. In peak fishing season, fishermen work day and night. The fishing territory of Tonle Sap is divided into twenty separate fishing lots. The harvest is sold either on the land markets or is exported to other countries, like Vietnam.  


The villagers do everything by boat, including their daily purchases. There is a grocer’s boat, a fruit and vegetable boat, a fabric boat and even a cake boat. There’s a mechanic, a jewellers’, a hairdressers’, a police boat and a school boat. The ‘schoolbus boat’ goes through the village every morning and evening. 


Sixty percent of the population here is illiterate. UNESCO is trying to improve the general education level and has organised teachers, the purchase of books and the construction of floating schools. Apart from going to school however, the children also have to help in the village. Girls help their mothers selling goods on the market; boys help their father fish and make the bamboo mats used to reinforce fishing barriers. In the evening, the family members have dinner together. Unsurprisingly, fish is usually on the menu, and is taken from the reserve below the house.


The village of Chong Khneas is the biggest of the floating villages after Kompong Chhnang, but it is more modern. It is located at the foot of the Phnom Krom hill. The village, which is spread out over nearly two km, counts 700 families and more than 1,000 boats.

The population consists of 80% Khmers, 15% Vietnamese and 5% Cham – a Muslim ethnic minority group.
The community lives in isolation and marry among themselves.  They are born, live and die on the boats on the Tonle Sap.

The fishermen make about US $350 per year on average. There is no lack of food, but the wages do need to cover the costs of materials for nets, bamboo and wood – costs that add up to formidable amounts for the villagers who are very poor. The craftsmen are paid per job per day, and generally earn US $3 per day. A hairdresser makes the equivalent in riels of about US $2 for a haircut. A doctor’s visit costs $1. 


Houseboats cost between US$150 to US$5000. They only take between fifteen to twenty days to build, but must be renewed at least every three years as the wood starts to rot from being in continuous contact with the water. The State also rents fishing nets at a minimum rate of US$400 and charges a monthly tax of US$4 per square metre of netting for two years. The villagers do not earn much money and cannot pay for medicine or basic health care. Many illnesses arise from poor sanitary conditions. Typhoid, malaria and dysentery are the main causes of death. The medical clinics set up in the villages by the government have been destroyed by the Red Khmers.


The villagers never stay in the same place for very long. They have to move at least every three or four months. Their lives are dictated by the fluctuating water level of the Tonle Sap Lake. During the dry season (from November to May) the water level drops to between 0.8 to 2 metres and during the rainy season the lake floods its banks and can reach depths of 8 to 10 metres. This large fluctuation means the villagers must constantly adapt to their changing environment. In addition, the Tonle Sap Lake is also the scene of a unique phenomenon that occurs nowhere else. 


Normally the lake flows into the Tonle Sap River, joining the Mekong River in Phnom Penh. At the beginning of the rainy season (June/July) however, the flow of the water changes direction and flood-waters from the Mekong River force water back up the Tonle Sap River and into the lake. This accounts in part for the rich biological diversity and abundance of fish in the Tonle Sap. At the height of the monsoon, the lake can increase in size by up to 5 times. Cambodia’s great lake then covers an area of 10,000 km². 

The Cambodian economy relies on Southeast Asia’s largest lake for fishing and irrigation. The Tonle Sap has provided the foundation for the Cambodian economy since the time of the ancient Khmer Empire at Angkor.  Today four and a half million Cambodians depend on this lake to live. That’s almost half of the population. But the lake faces many ecological threats. 

The Environment Minister is working with UNESCO to help the preservation of the lake’s unique environment and its traditional floating villages. The Cambodian government has designated the lake to become a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. This would safeguard the Tonle Sap from the overexploitation of its resources and protect the livelihoods of the people living on the lake. For Christine Alfsen Norodom, the director of UNESCO’s environment department in Cambodia, the importance of the Tonle Sap cannot be overestimated, “it has great symbolic value. Angkor Wat is there thanks to Tonle Sap. The lake is the heart of the country.” 

Copyright © Eric Pasquier
All rights reserved.

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