We are in Cambodia to help a local potter here up in the North of the country. Situated outside of Siem Reap on the way to the Tonle Sap lake.
The lake is right down to just 1 metre depth now, as it is the dry season here. The Tonle Sap lake is filled to 10 metres depth during the wet season, as water from the Meekong river floods into it. The Tonle Sap river flows backwards for a few months as the lake fills. Once it has reached capacity, the excess water then flows further down the Meekong and out to the sea.
The Tonle Sap lake supports about 90,000 people throughout the year, but many, many more during the wet season. Everyone here lives from fishing on the lake. We are situated just 20 minutes from the lake, so take one morning ‘off’ from our work with the potter to visit the lake in the cool of the morning. We are here right in the middle of the hot season. Its sweltering heat with very high humidity. We are finding it quite taxing on our energy levels.
We hire a local tuk tuk driver to take us to the lake, he is also our interpreter as well.
5 Minutes out along the road to the lake, I notice that the local creek gets a bit wider, and then a lot deeper and the roadside houses that were once at ground level are suddenly up on wooed stilts. This is the very edge of the high water mark, when the lake swells from its current 2,700 sq kms up to 16,000 sq. kms. It occupies 20% of the country’s land mass at high water and creates umpteen thousands of extra seasonal jobs. At its zenith, it is the largest freshwater lake in Asia and the third largest freshwater lake in the world.
The back yards of the these riparian households are currently rice paddies as it is now semi-dry. During the wet season though, these farmers, will transform themselves into fishermen, as the back of the house will be at water level.
As we get closer to the lake, the houses here appear to be floating on their long spindly wooden legs. These are permanent dwellings, but there are also any number of tiny one-room shanty dwellings that are built each year, to take advantage of the exposed dry land for farming small crops. I can imagine that the soil here is reasonably fertile, as it gets topped up with a layer of fresh silt each wet season. These little houses are then pulled down before the inundation and moved to higher ground, where they are stored until next dry season. It’s such a lot of work, but everyone must eek out a living wherever they can.
Once we get to the waters edge, we park the tuk tuk and transfer to a small boat to venture out onto the lake to visit the floating villages. These are permanent villages that literally float on the water and rise and fall with the natural level of the water, as all the houses are built on pontoons, constructed from what-ever is cheap and will float. The used 200 litre diesel fuel drums used to bring fuel to the lakes edge have a second life, as they make great ‘floats’ under the raft-like houses.
The people who live on this lake must travel to the edge of the lake whenever they have sufficient fish to sell. They trade their catch for things that they cannot make for them selves, such as diesel oil and rice. It’s a very poor, hand to mouth existance.