Where Water and Floods are a Way of Life

Posted on Updated on

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

Like us in Facebook

Winds of January

Posted on Updated on


Everybody seems to be talking about the weather these days. Buzzwords as “climate change” and “global warming” may have been instrumental to this. But environment and politics aside, have we ever wondered how Southeast Asia came up with two different seasons, essentially dividing the region into two opposite climatic realms?

Winds north of the equator blow opposite to winds south of the equator, and because Southeast Asia straddles the equator bisecting the region into Most of Southeast Asia vs. Most of Indonesia as far as seasons are concerned, things get a little tricky. As the winter solstice draws nearer, high pressure is created over the great Asian land mass which drives winds into Southeast Asia until it reaches the equator. This is the source of the amihan, or north wind, that makes temperatures drop and sometimes brings rain to the eastern parts of the Philippines. But Southeast Asian weather is not singular because it straddles both hemispheres.

The northern part (Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines) experiences cool, dry weather while the southern part (portions of Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and Singapore) becomes drenched in rain. This is the effect of different wind patterns in adjacent but opposite sides of the equator.

In May to September which is the southern hemisphere winter, they change directions. Winds blowing from Southeast Asia northward into China bring in wet weather known to many as the southwest monsoon, or habagat in Filipino.

boat people01


In Asia long ago, people were also seriously talking about the weather. They have to because their lives depended on it. Traders from the Philippines sailed into Malay ports with the north wind and waited for five months before returning home when the monsoons changed. Arab and Indian merchants from the west arrived in Malay ports in July and waited until January to return home.

Now do the logistics: Kareem from south India with his pepper, and Hassan from his Bugis homeland with his sandalwood, should be arriving in Melaka by July. They wait until January for Dao Shu when he arrives with his ceramic wares from the Fujian coast. Kareem, Hassan, and Dao Shu exchange shopping bags with each other. Once satisfied, Kareem and Hassan have to return to their homes by then, while Dao Shu will have to wait until May for the southwest monsoon to bring him back to China.

Text and photos by Skippy