Where Water and Floods are a Way of Life

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The end of May is a happy ending for the dry season in Southeast Asia north of the equator. It is the onset of the monsoon season. The cycle of monsoon, floods, and agriculture is crucial to many of the region’s lowland societies such as communities around the Tonle Sap, mainland Southeast Asia’s largest lake.

The Tonle Sap is located in Cambodia and has been the lifeblood of the Khmers, inhabitants of the country whose ancestors built the great city of Angkor when they were the masters of Indochina around one thousand years ago.

Tonle Sap01

Sailing the Tonle Sap is making your way to a real waterworld. Look Ma, no soil! Only water. Everything floats on water. Houses, shops, hawkers, even gardens (and complete with papaya trees at that).

Tonle Sap02

Churches and temples walk on water. Bars and booze too walk on water. Virtues and vices all walk on water.

Tonle Sap05

Acting as a water regulator in Cambodia, the lake is connected to the legendary Mekong River through the Tonle Sap River. During the dry season from December to May, its waters flow into the Mekong and into the sea at Vietnam. But by May’s end when the rains come, much water is discharged by the Mekong upstream and a lot is channeled into the Tonle Sap River and into the lake, thus saving Phnom Penh and the Mekong Delta from extreme flooding.

As the waters pour in, Indochina’s big inland sea expands from a width of 20 kilometers to 100 kilometers (while adding a hundred kilometers to its dry season length of 150 kilometers). It is a relatively shallow lake compared to others as average depth is a mere two meters in the dry season to around ten meters during the monsoons.

A French traveler in the 19th century wrote that “when the inundation begins [the lake] spread over the country till it triples its surface… The inhabitants of the plains betake themselves, with their domestic animals to the mountains.” Once again the agricultural cycle can begin. Rice, the most important staple food, becomes lord of the muddy lake shore, marsh, and field.

Prek Toal04

Fish is a cornerstone of protein in the Cambodian countryside, and the Tonle Sap is one big important source. Plus other critters from the lake – mollusks, crustaceans, snakes, and turtles which can be seen being sold in Siem Reap and other towns. Crocodiles were once numerous here than they are today. And birds, yes, they are best left to being watched and they are especially numerous at the close of the year.

Prek Toal02

Conservation is a priority in the lake basin. At some point when you will be taken over by temple fatigue in your lengthy Angkor visits, it will be therapeutic to check other diversions. Prek Toal, among the last undisturbed areas of the lake, will be a good candidate for a day tour. It is one of the sites for biodiversity conservation and a good introduction to the Tonle Sap waterworld.

Prek Toal03

Text and photos by Skippy

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