May 14, 2012

Tonle Sap

The Southeast Asian equivalent of North America's Great Lakes is the Tonle Sap, a mammoth freshwater lake spanning nine Cambodian provinces and its neighbouring nations. The lake functions as the beating heart of Cambodia, shrinking and swelling according to the seasons. During the monsoon season the lake expands from 2700 square kilometers to almost 16,000 square kilometers, rising 8 metres higher than dry season. Water cascades into Tonle Sap from the Mekong River like Americans into a Taco Bell restaurant in Seoul.

Tonle Sap can be poetically translated from Khmer as "Large Freshwater River". The major source of protein in the average Cambodian's diet consists of fish caught here. The Cambodian currency, riel, is even named after a certain type of fish. Apart from being critical to Cambodia's economy, the Tonle Sap is also spectacularly beautiful. I hired a boat to explore this UNESCO biosphere for several hours, stopping by at a fishing village.

The locals reside in stilted homes designed to survive the ecological phenomenon of a lake whose direction of flow changes twice a year. I stepped off of my boat onto a stilted platform. Crocodiles snapped their massive jaws at me from an opening underneath. I wandered around, stopping briefly to examine a bottle of snake wine, before hopping back to the safety of my boat.

The lake provides both fertile ground for farming and plentiful fish for eating. With fishing and agriculture the mainstays of their life, ecotourism provides another source of steady income for the Cambodians. All visitors, irregardless of whether they happen to be selfless heroes dedicated to the cause of alleviating global inequity through education, are encouraged rather vigorously by the boatmen to purchase supplies from the local shops and donate them to one of the orphanages or schools in the vicinity.