Cautious Cambodia - 2007

T ONLE S AP L AKE In this little country, nature has yet another marvel to reveal. In addition to its powerful jungles, Cambodia also contains the strange Tonle Sap River and Lake phenomenon. This lake is formed by the river, a tributary of the Mekong River, but its bizarre mystery lies in its seasonal backward flow. In the dry season, Tonle Sap is fairly small, about l meter deep and about 2700 kms of surface area. However, when the Mekong is full and fast flowing in the monsoon season, the Tonle Sap River reverses it course and backs up into this part of Cambodia creating a lake that is many times larger than at the dry season. It deepens to 9 meters and now covers 16,000 square kms. of surface area! This changing lake is vital to Cambodia because the flood season replenishes the soil on farmland, because the flooded farms become an enormous fish and marine life nursery, and because 60% of the country’s protein for human beings comes from this lake. The lake also is an asset for Vietnam because its acceptance of the excess waters of the Mekong prevents massive flooding in Vietnam along its course as well as in the delta area. About 3,000,000 Vietnamese immigrants follow the backward flowing Tonle Sap up into the Tonle Sap Lake to join the native Cambodians in a floating and fishing life. When the river flows back to the Mekong, the Vietnamese follow the flow back to their own country. This dependence on the lake by the Khmer and Vietnamese people has been a fact of life since time immemorial and they seem to accept the annual migration with no real problems. Our boat ride on this wonderful lake showed us that all the people live on boats and floating houses and there are public gathering places floating on the lake as well - schools, a basketball court, churches, many little shops and businesses (like one where batteries could be recharged), even a tourist facility with a cafeteria and lots of souvenirs for sale. A whole social system follows the flood and people change their lives according to the size of the lake. When the lake shrinks, the roads reappear, the houses dry out, and people live on shore rather than on the lake. These folks are truly "Nomads of the Water."

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