Tuesday, November 1, 2016

It's that time of year, once again - Tonle Sap




Late Afternoon on Tonle Sap - Kampong Khleang, Cambodia



November has arrived here in Isaan.  The Monsoon Season appears to be over - we are getting more and more days without rain and more days with bright Sun and blue sky.  Our temperatures are also much more comfortable - highs in the mid 80s to low 90s with lows in the mid to low 70s.

The rice harvest will commence in a couple weeks.  It is time to travel or at least to think about travel.

Two years ago, Duang and I made a 6 day trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia.  It was our second trip to the ruins of Angkor Wat.

Our trip in November 2014 also included a return tour of Tonle Sap "The Great Lake".

Tonle Sap is the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia - not that this fact justifies a visit.  Tonle Sap is referred to by the Lonely Planet guide book as the "Heartbeat of Cambodia".  Personally to me, Tonle Sap is the lungs of Cambodia.  The lake provides food and irrigation water for one-half of the people in Cambodia.  Tonle Sap is connected to the mighty Mekong River - one of the greatest rivers of the world.  Tonle Sap's water level fluctuates greatly in accordance to the seasons.  In the rainy season from May to October when the Mekong is at its fullest, water flows from the Mekong into the lake.  In the dry season as the Mekong's flow diminishes, water flows from the lake into the Mekong.  Water levels in Tonle Sap range from a maximum of 2 meters (6 feet) in the dry season and to a maximum of 10 meters (32 feet) in the rainy season.  The flooding of surrounding land during the rainy season provides a great deal of food and shelter for aquatic life thereby making Tonle Sap one of the richest sources of freshwater protein in the world.  Tonle Sap is a nursery for many of the fish of the Mekong River. During the dry season fisherman average a take of 220 to 440 pounds of fish a day.



Tonle Sap grows from approximately 965 square miles in the dry season to just over 5,020 square miles in the rainy season.  The increase in area as well as increased depth presents challenges in terms of housing for the inhabitants in the area.  Man has met the challenges of Tonle Sap by building floating homes or building home atop stilts roughly 20 to 30 feet high.  It was the opportunity to witness this unique lifestyle that first attracted me to visit Tonle Sap.  Both Duang and I are interested in seeing how people live in environments and situations different from what we are accustomed to.


Our Homestay Accommodation - the house on the right

Based upon our experience during our first trip to Tonle Sap in 2007, we incorporated a home stay in the village of Kampong Khleang to better learn and understand Cambodian life on Tonle Sap.

Preparing Our Lunch In Kampong Khleang
 I had planned our last trip to Tonle Sap to coincide with the full moon and Bon Om Touk (Cambodian Water Festival).  Bon Om Touk is an annual festival held in November to celebrate the reversal of Tonle Sap water flow.  With the start of the dry season water commences to flow out of Tonle Sap into the Mekong River making up to 50% of the Mekong River flow.  During the rain season water flows from the Mekong into Tonle Sap.  The reversal of flow into the Mekong River also marks the start of commercial fishing season on Tonle Sap - the fish hatched during the rainy season, and nourished on the nutrient rich waters of the floodplains of Tonle Sap migrate into the shrinking lake and out into the Mekong River.

Tonle Sap Harvest - Selling fish to a Middleman

We spent the night with a family in Kampong Khleang.  The mother and father were teachers at a local elementary school and have three children, to girls and one boy.  Their home is built on stilts over the lake but fronts a raised dirt road about 2 feet below the house.

Kampong Khleang Neighborhood
It was quite interesting to spend a day and night with the family.  Although they did not speak English, we could see that they were nice people and concerned that we enjoyed our stay.  We appreciated their efforts to ensure that we were comfortable and found their children to be quite entertaining.

Our host's family


We slept in the large front room of the house, the room closest to the street.  Our bed was one of the hardest beds that I have ever slept on.  A mosquito net protected us throughout the night and we were not bothered by buzzing in our ears.  We were not even bothered or awoken by the three children sharing the room with us - sleeping on mats placed on the floor and protected by their own mosquito net.  The two motorbikes kept inside the large room did not make any noise but the odor of fuel permeated the air.  What kept me awake were the sounds - the sounds of dogs foraging beneath the house and along the street, the sound of cats foraging beneath the house and along the streets, the sounds of dogs and cats encountering each other, the sounds of new born babies in the houses next to our room - 15 feet away and separated from us by two layers of woven bamboo.  There was also the occasional sound of a motorbike tearing up the dirt road. Who said that rooster crow at dawn?  Sure they crow at dawn but they also crow much earlier, too!

Sunrise Over Tonle Sap From Kitchen Area of Our Home-stay
Yes, it was not a very good night of sleep but oh what an experience it was!  As the Sun rose over the floodplain the ever increasing sound of awakening life built up.  Insects, birds, motorboats, and the sounds of people awakening to encounter a new day of life on the lake created a unique symphony not available to tourists in the city.  The symphony of sound was supplemented by the smells of a the new day - charcoal fires to cook the first meal of the day, the odors of pork, chicken, garlic, onions, fish, and the smell of motorboats setting out to check the fish traps at dawn.  The new day was announcing its arrival along with the acknowledgement of the potential that each reawakening brings.

The view outside the front door of our home-stay


Yes, it was not a good night of sleep but oh what an experience it was!  I have always embraced the value and prestige of my life not in the comfort that I have enjoyed or the material wealth that I have been able to acquire but rather in the experiences that I have encountered.


Tonle Sap Boatchild

For Plains Indian warriors, prestige and honor were acquired by "counting coup" - For the Cheyenne counting coupe involved touching an enemy with a stick, bow, whip, or open hand.  For me it is counting experiences - counting experiences involves the act of touching lives or being touched by the lives of others as well personal interactions with the world about me.  I am fortunate to have a wife who is willing and able to participate in my quests to count experiences.

One of the main streets of Kampong Khleang


Last year I considered returning to Tonle Sap including experiencing another home-stay.  After doing soe preliminary research for a return trip, I discovered that the water levels in the lake were very low.  Since one of my goals was to document more of the life on the flood plain, I decided not to return to Tonle Sap.

Kampong Khleang Intersection


On our last trip, we were taken by our home-stay hosts in the early morning to check the family's fish traps set out on the floodplains outside of Kampong Khleang.

Tonle Sap Backwater Early Morning Encounter


Checking fish trap early morning on floodplain

This year I am considering returning to Siem Reap and especially Tonle Sap with either a one or two night home-stay.  Based upon our last trip, I am considering going in December or January - for the full moon.  I believe that going a month or two later will improve the opportunities for documenting the commercial fishing activities on the lake as the flow out of the lake into the Mekong Rier will be more established.

I also want and know that I can take better photographs of moonlight over the floodplain - partially submerged trees, flat water, and a full moon low on the horizon and climbing high in the sky.

Sunset Over Tonle Sap


Research indicates that December 13 is a full moon and January 12 is another full moon.  On December 13, the moon will rise at 4:09 PM and set the following morning at 4:12 AM.  On January 12 the moon will rise 4:51  PM and set at 4:58 AM the next morning.  These times are convenient for the photographs that I intend to take.


I have not checked to determine if the stars are aligned for a trip but the moon certainly is.  Yesterday I sent an email to my contact in Siem Reap to determine the current water levels.  This year, in Udon Thani we have have had much more rainfall than last year so I am optimistic that Siem Reap and the Mekong River have received much more rain too so that a return trip is warranted.

If the water levels are sufficient, I will have to discuss with Duang before making detailed plans and arrangements.


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