Siem Reap Tales: The Creature from the Tonle Sap

Up early and across the road to get money and supplies for breakfast and
P1140466water for the day before heading south out of Siem Reap on roads that are sometimes paved and sometimes not. The unpaved ones are interesting as you bounce around inside the tuk-tuk and the paved ones are fine until they stop when there is a lip to them worse than anything you experience on the unpaved ones. A couple of pagodas are passed but in this town you can hardly throw a stone without hitting a pagoda so one is P1140467pretty much good as another. Buddha is not what I am searching for today but the Tonle Sap.

For the uninformed, the Tonle Sap is a river and a massive lake. It is a lake that grows in the wet season and decreases in the dry. Even more astonishing, the river changes direction. GET YOUR HEAD AROUND THAT – A RIVER THAT CHANGES DIRECTION! Why was I never taught about that before? How can it happen? So, one moment it is flowing one way and then all of a sudden it changes direction? Learning this blew my mind. The Tonle Sap is part of a precious eco-system. This website wrote more about it so I didn’t have to:

The Tonle Sap Lake is the most prominent feature on the map of Cambodia – a huge dumbbell-shaped body of water stretching across the northwest of the country. In the wet season, the lake is one of the largest freshwater lakes in Asia, swelling to an expansive 12,000 km2. During the dry half of the year it shrinks to as small as 2500 km2, draining into the Tonle Sap River, which meanders southeast, eventually merging with the Mekong River at the ‘chaktomuk’ confluence at Phnom Penh. During the wet season a unique hydrologic phenomenon causes the Tonle Sap River to reverse direction, filling the lake.

The engine of this phenomenon is the Mekong River, which becomes bloated with snow melt and runoff from the monsoon rains. The swollen Mekong backs up into the Tonle Sap at the point where the rivers meet at Chaktomuk, forcing the waters of the Tonle Sap River back into the lake. The inflow expands the area of lake more than five-fold, inundating the surrounding forested floodplain and supporting an extraordinarily rich and diverse eco-system.

More than 100 varieties of waterbirds including several threatened and endangered species, over 200 species of fish, as well as crocodiles, turtles, macaques, otter and other wildlife inhabit the inundated mangrove forests. The Lake is also an important commercial resource, providing more than half of the fish consumed in Cambodia. In harmony with the specialized ecosystems, the human occupations at the edges of the lake is similarly distinctive – floating villages, towering stilted houses, huge fish traps, and an economy and way of life deeply intertwined with the lake, the fish, the wildlife and the cycles of rising and falling waters.

So, after about 30 minutes we arrived at Chung Khneas Ferry Terminal where I paid my $30 and got my boat and guide and headed off out onto what I was told was the Chung Khneas River. We passed the fish market and the poor people living by the river were pointed out to me as well as the graves of the people who had died as a result of a typhoon on the lake, including young children who were poor and had died, or had died because their parents were killed and never came back. There was also a boat which seemed marooned which was a restaurant and I saw people fishing and a ‘shop boat’ as well as getting the chance to steer the boat and being praised for my good ‘driving’.

As we came out onto the lake we passed a school, which was pointed out but not much was made of it and a Roman Catholic church. The latter interested me as in the boat on the way out I had been told there were three nationalities here, Khmer, Vietnamese and Muslim, I had to ask him to repeat the last as I had not been sure I had heard what he said.

We then went out onto the lake and weaved between some floating structures before stopping at a crocodile and fish farm. Well there were so few of either I would be surprised if they made much of a living from either. More I expect would come from selling tat to the visitors.

I didn’t buy any tat but did enjoy the chance to go up three stories and get a look out across the lake which gave some idea of the size of the thing we were looking at but I did not capture in photographs. It just looks like a brown expanse to the horizon, which is what it was. But it doesn’t make a photo.

So, then came the reason for the visit. Like many people before (read down to the reviews) I was taken to another shop where I would be able to buy a sack of rice or some noodles for the orphans who had been pointed out to me before. The sacks of rice came at $50 or $30 and I could get the noodles for $20. The price was clearly over what it cost in Siem Reap but they said that was because of the cost of transport to get it there and for some of the remainder to go into the poor community. I thought I know exactly what community the money goes into. Having already spent more than I intended on the boat I didn’t have lots to give in to this guilt tripping the tourist. They said I could make a donation so I did of $10 and left. I was told I could take food over to the school but had no desire to do that at all. So then I was told I could see the fishermen amongst the mangrove trees and the people harvesting mangroves but I would need to transfer to a smaller boat in order to get amongst the trees and that would cost more money. I declined this kind offer and said I wanted to go back.

On the way back We passed more people going about their life on the lake and, naturally a pagoda boat.

On the way back the driver took a different route and passed a Madrassa (Big picture) which was opposite a Mosque and I was able to get some pictures of the Cambodian countryside as we travelled through it, as well as an international primary school we passed.

  • The heading comes from a team name at the quiz I go to every Wednesday. It is, to me, a nice juxtaposition of the Tonle Sap River and Lake with the 1950’s cult horror classic ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon‘. I have stolen it for a drinks event whilst I visit Strasbourg later this month.

2 Responses to “Siem Reap Tales: The Creature from the Tonle Sap”

  1. sisleydavid Says:

    Glad you didn’t fall for the rice scam or visit the orphanage. My friends husband works for Friends International and has educated me about the evils of orphange tourism. Parents selling their kids to dodgy orphanages whose owners make a packet and ply the gullible tourist with sob stories. Kids often exploited, abused and generally made to suffer once the tourists have gone home.

  2. sisleydavid Says:

    Glad you didn’t fall for the rice scam or visit the orphanage. My friends husband works for Friends International and has educated me about the evils of orphanage tourism. The kids are sold by their parents and often abused,exploited and generally made to suffer once the tourists have gone home. The owners rake in the money selling sob stories to gullible tourists.

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