Tonle Sap


DSCN1361Cambodians love their lake. Fed by the giant Mekong River, Tonle Sap is five times the size of Lake Tahoe and supports fishing and farming by 3 million Cambodians.  In my five weeks in Cambodia, I hadn’t seen it and I needed a little adventure. So on Saturday, I signed up for a tour led by a local NGO called “New Hope” (which, you guessed it, provides health and educational services to Cambodian children and has two restaurants to prove it).

Except for me, the tour group members were New Hope volunteers who had been working together for several weeks so the drive was lively and fun. I was secretly happy to be traveling by air conditioned van. Most of my short distance travel in Cambodia — and everyone else’s —  is by motorbike or tuk-tuk, which are good for the abs but hard on the eyes and lungs.

Tonlesap fish

Giant carp are among several varieties of giant fish in Tonle Sap.


The women process the fish the men bring in from the lake.

We arrived at the lake after an hour on back roads through rice fields and, well, really just rice fields.  Our first stop was a small village that is built on stilts. During rainy season, the water rises so high that the stilts disappear and all transportation is by boat.  The main work in the village is processing fish from the lake, mainly drying anchovies and making a very strong fish sauce called “prahak.”  The whole village is super stinky! (I am fighting back the urge to say “and the smell is the only thing the guy in our tour group with the 20 pound Nikkon camera didn’t photograph”).


Dried anchovies for market.

Then we went a couple of miles to a larger village built on higher stilts and boarded an old wooden boat powered by a barely willing diesel engine.  Our destination was a floating village about an hour out into the lake.

DSCN1370The floating village is mainly houseboats of families who are subsistence fishers and they seem to be barely getting by.  The residents of all floating villages on Tonle Sap are mostly Vietnamese immigrants. Our young tour guide suggested the Vietnamese live on the water because they love that kind of life. But I have also heard they are on the water because they are in the country illegally and are fearful of living on land. The government doesn’t bother them on the water. Or help them.DSCN1386



Appropriate technology for spraying inappropriate pesticides. Run-off is not the problem. All of the land along the lake that is farmed in the dry months is submerged in the rainy months — so all of the pesticides end up in the lake.

I am glad I went on the tour, although the harsh reality of the people I saw stays with me. It is the only time in Cambodia that I sensed resignation, maybe desperation.

Former US Ambassador, Joseph Mussomeli, said  “Cambodia is the most dangerous country you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it and eventually it will break your heart.”  I feel this and I hear it from the westerners I meet, but this past couple of weeks in Cambodia has been a rich experience for me.  I have learned more about Cambodian culture and politics, and made a few friends.  After meeting with a number of NGO leaders, I feel some kind of commitment to Cambodia and I plan to return.

But right now I need a break from the air pollution in Siem Reap and I still have a case of wanderlust (wander-lost).

I have just arrived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which is unlike anything I have seen so far in Southeast Asia!

“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J.R.R. Tolkien


  1. Nicely done Kim! Interesting descriptions and revalations along with great pictures.

    And I really appreciate the quotation by Aragon/Strider.

    But you missed a great Super Bowl!

  2. KIM YOU ARE AMAZING! Who is like you? All heart and courage. I, myself, am afraid to look suffering in the eye, unlike you.
    Love that Fish. It is the essence of Fish. Really beautiful.

  3. Kim, it sounds really sad there, and not that different from Vietnamese people I saw living on similar boat houses in Vietnam. What a contrast to now see KL (as a friend who went there called it)! I hope you have amazing experiences there, too!

  4. I don’t keep telling you again & again how much I love your blog, But I do. It’s light but very substantive, and soulful.

    Thanks for these posts!

    Best, Steve

    (from my phone)

  5. Love this post and your descriptions and it gave me a view into another part of Cambodia I didn’t know about with the Vietnamese fishers and their situation. I also love your quote and actually posted it on FB awhile back. Keep wandering!! Love ya, Barb

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