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Reporter's Notebook: Voices from the Mekong and Tonlé Sap Lake

The following are edited anecdotes from a 10-day-trip around Tonlé Sap Lake, and a 7-day-trip around communities affected by the Lower Sesan II dam. Kakrona Chan, Makara Ouch, and Vutha Srey all accompanied me for parts of this trip, and together we spent hours interviewing people, riding boats and enjoying Cambodia’s beauty. Our goal was to capture the diverse livelihoods of people who depend on the Lake and the Mekong River. This took us up and down the country, from the temples of Angkor to the Laotian border. A refrain we heard over and over again was about illegal fishing and declining fish catches — fishermen often told us of how plentiful things were in the past compared to now. ‘Illegal fishing’ means many things — using nets with holes that are too small, deploying an electric shock to kill large quantities of fish, fishing in a protected zone, etc. This is a tragedy of the commons on a grand scale, and dams on the Mekong will only accelerate this problem.

Kampong Phluk Village, Tonlé Sap Lake

Kampong Phluk looks strange in the early days of the rainy season. Houses tower three meters above ground on thick wooden stilts. Rotting wooden boats waste away on the low banks of the river, showing signs of neglect. Elaborate bamboo bridges are rickety and sway as children cross over them.

Crossing a bamboo bridge at Kampong Phluk

A view of the village, taken from the river.

These scenes are temporary. As the rainy season accelerates, Tonlé Sap Lake will expand, quadrupling in size. When the lake fills, the houses in Kampong Phluk will look as if they are floating, the bamboo bridges will be gone and those neglected boats will be repaired to ferry locals and tourists alike (the road we drove in on will be submerged).

Nov skips agilely up the “dock,” which is nothing more than a muddy slope. He’s mischievous — he poses for the camera, teases the elder fishermen and runs around his friends. It’s early afternoon, around 3pm and boats are regularly stopping by. They are all slender and polycarbonate, manufactured by a Vietnamese company and ubiquitous around the Lake. They are painted bright reds and blues and display some three-letter combination on the front, like HOC or DHC or KAA or CAA, etc. Engines are propped on the back with long metal propeller rods. At high speeds, the bows will tilt upwards and only skim the water. The engine sound, while not deafening, certainly cannot be good for long-term hearing. This dock is the first stop in bringing fish from this corner of the Lake to market. Local fishermen sell to their preferred dealer, who then might sell to a larger distributor or bring to a larger town. Hear, a fishermen, tells us he can make $20 most days with his modest catch. At another end of the dock, over a dozen muscular fishermen lift a gigantic wooden passenger boat up to shore. They will repair and re-lacquer it for the coming flood. Makara, Kakrona and I are enlisted to pull the boat, though I doubt our effort has any real effect.

Nov hops on a fish dealer's truck at Kampong Phluk

Trucks with ice-boxes full of fish are being loaded at a dock in Kampong Phluk

Adjacent to shore, in a beautiful, old wicker house, 48-year-old Mich Chea weaves a fishing basket. For 28 years he has twisted twine with bamboo into elegant basket traps, which are then placed in the river. Fish swim into the baskets, but the pointy bamboo inside prevents them from swimming out. He prefers baskets because they can last for three to four years, more durable than a fishing net. His daughters crouch beside him in graying clothes, watching their father deftly weave and pull and cut and repeat. One of his four children is sick, so his wife accompanied the child to Siem Reap.

We meet So Chhuar on our walk back to our homestay. His 70-year-old frame is more fragile and hollow now because of illness, but shadows of muscle tone remain. He worked as a fisherman during the Khmer Rouge, and recalled to us the last day before Vietnamese liberation and occupation. He was avoiding Khmer Rouge soldiers because they had accused him of stealing information, but they had called a meeting in the town pagoda.

“Yes, people arrived to the pagoda for a meeting. The doors were shut and someone threw a grenade. They [the Vietnamese] didn’t come in time. The grenade was thrown around this time, and the Vietnamese came at 8pm. 8pm. They came with a big sound….There was an old man, around 80 years old.

‘Nephew, please go quickly,' he said.

‘Why? I need to eat rice first.’

‘No you can’t, everyone in the pagoda was killed. I heard the grenade. ‘

‘I heard the sound too. I didn’t know what happened.’

Hearing that, I quickly chased the cows and ran straight to Koh Encheat school, and slept over there. The Vietnamese troops then arrived.”

So Chhuar and his wife outside their home in Kampong Phluk. Photo by Makara Ouch. 

The next day, at Psar Rolous market on the road back to Siem Reap, 51-year-old Reth crouches and shows us a handful of fish. Of the 20kgs of fish she bought from a dealer this morning, only that many remain. Her profits are modest – she bought them for 5,500 riel/kg (around $1.35), and sold them for 6,500 riel/kg. One of her grandchildren, Pan Havan, runs around by her feet.

Reth and her grandson at the Psar Rolous market

Prek Toal Floating VillageTonlé Sap Lake

Chea Sarin is sitting on what looks like a net graveyard. Old, decaying fishing nets are strewn around, slowly being repaired by his wife and daughter. They use small plastic needles to thread, trim, sow and repair holes in the the net, forming perfect miniscule black knots. Sarin takes a drag on a cheap, Lucky brand cigarette and looks at his house, quite literally a hop, skip and a jump from the shore. It is separated from us by shallow, reed-infested water. It’s a floating house, tethered to the shore but otherwise completely on the Sangkae River, which flows into Tonlé Sap Lake. The river is where families take showers, go to the bathroom, wash dishes and collect drinking water from– all in the same general area. Most residents earn their primary income through fishing.

Later, Sarin takes us up a small tower, maybe 6 meters above ground. It surveils what appears to be an unremarkable 500 meter by 150 meter plot. The plot is lush green and partially inundated by water, though it will be completely submerged during wet season. Day after day, Sarin monitors this protected fishing zone for illegal fishing. It’s his project – he convinced community members to support it, and USAID provided funding to build it.

Sarin reminds me of a less-overtly pessimistic John B. McLemore of S-town fame. Sarin is comparatively well-read and more educated than his neighbors, since he’s a voracious reader and news consumer. In the course of our conversations, he will raise questions and then answer them in eloquent, meandering soliloquies. He says things like “When I look into the future, I see global warming. You need to save yourself, then you can save natural resources. Without natural resources, humans will die,” or “If we keep destroying these things, where will we all live? We will die.” He’s not wrong.

Sarin used to do community patrols, winding his boat deep through flooded forests to confiscate illegal fishing nets and equipment. Five years ago, during one patrol, after disrupting an illegal fishing operation, he and his patrol team were resting. Sarin strung up a hammock on his boat, tying it to two trees in the flooded forest.

“When I woke up, the fire was already burning my body. The shirt you are seeing in this picture...this is also, my face that got burned. My body and shirt all burned, except for my one leg.”

One of the illegal fishermen had set Sarin on fire using a gasoline canister. Sarin dumped the gasoline canister in water so his boat wouldn’t burn and then tumbled in himself. He holds up disturbing, affecting photos of his injury and condition.

His home is modest, and both him and his wife, Koi Vibol, explain that they use their limited income to send their children to school. He grew up well-off, but like many, his family was evacuated out of Phnom Penh during the Khmer Rouge. His parents and three siblings were killed soon afterwards.

His conservation work has broad support among villagers, who voted nearly unanimously for him to stay on when he once offered to resign.

We ask him why he continues to do this conservation work, to endure long days with no pay and potential risk.

“Without sacrifice, these natural resources will all be destroyed. If I don’t sacrifice, who will?”

He offered us a ride to Battambang on his boat, a 3-hour journey upriver. As we leave Prek Toal, the river thins and the banks become more jungle-like, filled with lush vegetation and palm trees. He takes us to his son in Battamabang, a 26-year-old monk named Rinsarun. He studies English and reads in his free time, at least in part inspired by his father’s self-education. “Sometimes I want my father to postpone and take care of his health” he says of the his father's conservation zone. His father doesn’t hear him, I think, because he’s stepped inside his son’s quarters.

Chea Sarin sits on the bow of the boat during our ride to Battambang.

Rinsarun, a monk in Battambang Province, is Chea Sarin's son.

Phat Sanday, a floating commune on Tonlé Sap Lake

Hakley, Makara and I are walking through a dense forest. There’s a path, part of the way, but otherwise thick vegetation keeps visibility at only a hand’s length. Our guide and Hakley’s friend, Choy Chemm leads us through until we hit a small clearing with a pond. We came to see birds resting here, but there are none in sight. Hakley owns the homestay we are staying at, and says we are very unlucky — there were birds here yesterday, he assures us. Seeing this land at all feels a bit like finding Atlantis. In a few weeks the shorelines will recede, then the ground will be submerged, and finally the treetops will sink away. There’s evidence of this submersion – long fishing nets stuck high in tree branches and old fishing baskets scattered around.

Makara disappears behind thick grass in a biosphere reserve, which will soon be underwater

Our guide Choy Chemm sits on a boat as we return from the forest

Leang is a record-keeper, and keeps tidy notes in neat Khmer. He is calm in what I would describe as organized chaos. Boats are coming and quickly going, fish are being weighed before being thrown into small cargo vessels, fishermen and women are coming inside to collect their pay, which Leang then stamps on a ledger. Nang is a fish dealer dressed in a blue Adidas shirt with matching shorts, cradling his son as he walks around to inspect fish and greet fishermen. His two cargo vessels will depart soon – one will head to nearby Kampong Chhang, and another to Phnom Penh (it will stop on the shore, unload the catch into a pickup truck, and then drive off). Nang buys fish dead or alive, but the live ones will sell for more. At 8am, the boats leave and Leang begins to tally the ledger.

Deforestation near Sambor and Resettlement near Lower Sesan II dam

Tit Nam sits in her small wooden hut, which is tall enough for me to sit cross-legged in but that’s about it. She’s surrounded by extended family members and is wearing an aging blue shirt tucked into equally faded corduroy work pants. Five families stay here – siblings and nieces and nephews — and the home is located about 500 meters from the edge of Prey Lang forest. But, as recently as 6 years ago, her hut was enveloped by the forest.

Nam’s house is on land that the government has granted to a developer for timber rights. The forest surrounding her house has been slowly chipped away. “Life before and after is much different – like land and sky” she says. Prey Lang has been fast disappearing in recent years due to land concessions like these and illegal logging.

“Before the company arrived, our life depended on this forest, we could easily find fish, vegetables and meat [wild game]. Because the forest is gone now, everything is lost.”

Although they live on company land for now, she’s worried that her and the 40 families that live in this area (O’Pdao) will one day be successfully evicted. “I’m ready to die here, even though the company tried to evict us…I’ll stay here even if you have to put me in a hammock and take me away.”

Tit Nam looks out of her hut into a clearing that was once lush forest

Tit Nam in her hut near Prey Lang forest

56-year-old Jin Na serves Vutha and me a pork and vegetable stew, and heaps rice into our plastic bowls. Her small restaurant sits in the entrance to her hut and right off a major road. It’s been about a year since she moved to the Sre Sanok resettlement village, built because the original Sre Sanok village will be flooded when the Lower Sesan II dam reservoir fills. The dam spans the Sesan river, a main tributary of the Mekong and an important fish migration route. Na moved to Sre Sanok to set up shop, sensing a business opportunity. There’s little competition she says because most of the residents do what generations before them have done — rice farming. Since the community relocated off a river, farming and work on agricultural plantations have replaced fishing as an income source. “Sre Sanok community members do not know how to sell or trade, like me. So they prefer to go to the rice fields, like their home village.” She shows us tattered plastic photos of her 3 daughters, who are off studying in different provinces. When the youngest one graduates, maybe Na will join her, away from here.

Jin Na serves us lunch at the Sre Sanok resettlement village.

A tree near the Lower Sesan II dam. Lots of forest land has been cleared around the dam.

Jhampa, 23, stands up to speak to us, offering her mother, grandmother and extended family seats around a plastic table. Her family’s Khmer is halting, because they are primarily speak an indigenous language, so Vutha and I mainly communicate with her. (And by that I mean Vutha translates what she is saying to me because my Khmer is worse than halting). We meet her at another resettlement village because her family owns a small shop, and we stop by for green tea and cheap biscuits. “In the old village, finding food was easy for us. We could go to the field and find food. Here the land is not good for us to farm because there are so many stones. We asked the company to move us [to another resettlement house], but we are forced to live here.”

“In the beginning, we were promised good land, and if we didn’t like it, we could suggest new land. But everything changed when we moved here. They only good thing is the road. When we get sick, we can use the road.”

Suddenly the sky opened up and an afternoon shower began. Jhampa scampered back inside, as did her family, and we were left with only her brother. We paid him and left, continuing our drive.

A dirt road leads us back from Preah Romkel, an eco-tourism site near Laos and on the Mekong River.

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