I inhale the lemongrass and galangal .... immediately my tastebuds “rush into a frenzy”, the original meaning of “amok” in Malay. Amok is the national dish of Cambodia, the most popular form is with fish, all the from the Tonle Sap.
Tonle Sap is the livelihood of Cambodia and South East Asia’s largest lake. Per year, according to the government, this lake produces 400,000 tonnes of freshwater fish. Each November, the Tonle Sap and the Mekong Rivers dance with each other: the Tonle Sap, having acted as a reservoir for the overflow of the Mekong during the monsoon, reverses to let water back into the Mekong as water levels begin to fall — hence the annual Water Festival to celebrate the change in flow and the multitude of fish it flushes from the lake. Phnom Penh is where the two giant rivers intersect. The lake grows to 10,000km2 and 14 m depth during the monsoon season, yet shrinks to just 3km2 and 2m depth during the dry season. It supplies fresh water and food to 3 million people who live around and on it!
One weekend in November, we spent two full days exploring this incredible place.
In total, 80,000 people live on the water permanently, spread out over 170 floating villages. Unlike much of the Cambodian job opportunities, the income is reliable, but life on the water is difficult. Fishermen sometimes travel two days to reach the middle of the lake and spend up to a week at a time out fishing. Large waves, limited food and dangerous conditions take their toll. Life on Tonle Sap means that every errand must be run by boat. Most of the residents are self-sufficient, and it is incredible how they maintain their homes, with floating vegetable gardens and floating barns where they keep goats, pigs and chickens. Above you see a floating super market and gas station!
Our guide promised the crocodiles were not in the middle of the lake so after several hours of driving on this massive lake that could be mistaken for the ocean, we let the kids loose! I still don't know how I did it!
Water hyacinth is very invasive and needs to be kept at bay. Once you hear that you notice it's everywhere! We stopped at Osmose, who run an environmental education programme in Prek Toal. Over a hundred poor families benefit from medical, social, schooling and material support. The alternative income program has expanded to include Saray, a cooperative that creates woven products from the super-abundant water hyacinth on the lake, generating income and empowerment for more than 40 woman. The kids learned to weave a floor mat.
credit Mark Ord
Kids searching for crocodiles!
Prek Toal bird sanctuary adds a wonderful dimension to the lake visit, even if you aren’t an ornithologists or amateur bird lover. We spotted a wide variety of rare birds, including storks, pelicans, ibises and cormorants. A permit from the World Conservation Society (WCS) is required to visit Prek Toal, though it is easily arranged through a local birding or ecotourism entity in Siem Reap.
A night at a homestay with a local family sleeping under mosquito nets was the highlight for the kids and adults! It ensures the money put into the economy stays local and provides a great opportunity to learn about the culture and daily life in Cambodia.
Above our home for the night! It was only the next day that the kids found the crocodiles (in cages, I specify, but nonetheless)! I don't think I would have had a minutes rest if I had known....
In the early morning hours we had a visit in a boat from three monks in saffron coloured robes. Did you know that every Buddhist male is expected to become a “monk” for a short period in his life? This is seen as a rite of passage to adulthood. While most will return to lay life after spending some time being a novice, their presence contributes to all the saffron robes you see around. Very few will take perpetual vows and become ordained monks also called “bhikkhu” which literally means, “beggar” or “one who lives by alms”. Bhikkhus live in “wats” (temples with residence, classrooms, dining hall and a prayer hall) and their life follows a rigid routine. Very surprising to foreign visitors, every morning monks leave the temple and walk the streets for alms-giving. They walk single file, typically oldest first, carrying their alms bowls in front of them. Laypeople wait for them and place food in the bowls. In return, Cambodian monks will chant a prayer and give them a blessing.
These two days on the water were such a different, insightful and educational experience. If you are near Siem Reap, I would highly recommend it!