Monday, February 27, 2017

Tonle Sap Revisited

Flooded forest of Tonle Sap

Tonle Sap is the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia - not that this fact justifies a visit or even a revisit. It is more than just a "Great Lake".  Tonle Sap is a way of life and a unique culture to be experienced. It is one of my favorite places.

Tonle Sap is referred to by the Lonely Planet guide book as the "Heartbeat of Cambodia".  Personally for me, Tonle Sap is the lungs of Cambodia.  The lake provides food and irrigation water for one-half of the people in Cambodia.  The great lake is connected to the mighty Mekong River - one of the greatest rivers of the world.  Tonle Sap's water level fluctuates greatly in response to the seasons.

Sunrise over Tonle Sap - November 2014
In the rainy season from May to October, when the Mekong River 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.  The ebb and flow of the Mekong River as well as local rainfall causes the water levels in Tonle Sap to 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 in 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.  The local people have met the challenges of Tonle Sap by building either floating homes or building homes 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.

Raised houses of Khampong Khleang

Our first trip to Tonle Sap was in August 2007, during the rainy season.  It was thrilling to lookout the plane's window to see miles and miles of flooded forest as we approached Siem Reap International Airport on the roughly one hour flight from Bangkok.  It is a sight that I am just as thrilled and excited about today as back then.  Even during the dry months of November and December the flooded plains are impressive.

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 during our return to Tonle Sap in November 2014.  I had planned our 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.  The reversal of flow into the Mekong River marks the start of commercial fishing season on Tonle Sap - the fish that had hatched during the rainy season, and were nourished on the nutrient rich waters of the floodplains of Tonle Sap migrate from the shrinking lake and out into the Mekong River.

Our stay in 2014 was very informative and enjoyable.  However we were there for the actual start of the commercial fishing season and it had not fully been established during our visit.

Checking a fish trap - November 2014

In 2015 I had considered returning to Tonle Sap including experiencing another home-stay.  After doing some 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, in particular the fishing, I decided not to return to Tonle Sap until water levels were higher/

Last year based upon our 2014 trip, I considered going in either December or January - once again for the full moon.  I believed that going a month or two later would improve the opportunities for documenting the commercial fishing activities on the lake as the flow out of the lake into the Mekong River would be more established.

I also wanted and knew 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.

Research indicated that December 13 would have a full moon and January 12 would be another full moon.  On December 13, the moon would rise at 4:09 PM and set the following morning at 4:12 AM.  On January 12 the moon would rise 4:51  PM and set at 4:58 AM the next morning.  These times were convenient for the photographs that I intended to take.

In October, after consulting with our previous guide, I learned that the water levels had returned to the 2014 levels.  I decided and made arrangements to return for the December full moon.

Although we were returning in the dry season, the weather forecast for our week in Siem Reap was not good.  Fortunately the rain was not as bad as had been predicted although any hopes for photographing the moon over Tonle Sap or Khmer ruins were dashed.  The mostly cloudy skies actually helped with photography in that it greatly cut down on the dynamic range between the bright and dark areas of the scenery.

Fishing boat being offloaded in the rain

We approached the village of Kampong Khleang, where we were going to spend the night in a villager's home, in the middle of a rain shower.  My decision to return in December, a month later than our trip in 2014, was already paying dividends.  Outside of Kampong Khleang we came upon a commercial fishing offloading station.

Women packaging the day's catch
Fishing boats were being offloaded by hand.  From the holds of the wooden boat, small fish were scooped up by hand and put into plastic laundry baskets to be carried by crew members up the lake bank to a temporary station where women filled plastic bags and weighed the bags to ensure the bags contained the proper amount of fish.

Middle-men from the various villages and from Siem Reap, mill about waiting for their orders to be filled.  After paying for their product to the people set up across the dirt road from the packaging station, the vendors loaded up their fish in a motley assortment of vehicles - motorcycles with large bamboo woven baskets strapped to their sides, "beater" cars, cars that have been modified to be a quasi-pickup truck, pickup trucks, and an occasional light truck - either stake bodied or enclosed.

Everyone worked quickly, the women sitting on woven mats and tarps placed on the mud with a temporary metal pole and plastic tarp canopy providing some cover from precipitation or sun. The men swiftly walked up the muddy slope from the lake to dump basket full loads of fish on the tarp in front of the women, then hustling back down to the beached boat where their coworkers filled the baskets to repeat the process.

After observing the offloading process, we continued on our way to our home-stay.  We continued along the narrow dirt road until we arrived at a barrier.  Due to the road having been underwater the previous month and the recent rains, the road was unusable to vehicles other than motorbikes.  The road was a quagmire for about 50 meters.  It was a complication and a challenge that was well met by our guide team.  A few phone calls and a couple of conversations later, we boarded a somlaw, a three wheeled motorcycle with a passenger or cargo compartment. A short ride past the barrier brought us to a congregation of boats for hire.  After a short conversation, we were on a boat with our guide headed to our home-stay.

Our previous home-stay is no longer available so we were staying with another family in a different part of Kampong Khleang.  This was fine with us because it was an opportunity to experience a different locale and family.

Our Kamong Khleang Home-Stay

Our home-stay was one of the raised houses located on one of the main "streets" of Kampong Khleang - a street that we had taken a boat down 5 months earlier when the water level was higher.  The house was built about 25 feet above street level and rose out of  the main canal.  From the open side at the back of the house there was always something going on - day and night.  During the day there was a constant parade of boats plying the waters - fishing boats coming and going, small boats filled with uniformed students, tethered convoys of boats transporting farm equipment and workers to distant fields, small boats containing tourists, and boats of local people, many of them children, going about their daily business.  At night, all night, the sound of un-muffled car engines, and un-muffled small diesel engines that powered the fishing boats punctuated the darkness.

Sunrise over Kampong Khleang

From the front of the house which overlooked the main dirt road, a parade of people, bicycles, motorcycles, and somlaws went about.  The road is used to go to the local schools, the market, a Wat, and to access sections of the village further down the canal to the permanent lake. In the late afternoon and morning of the second day, the street was filled with uniformed students on their way to and from school.  There are two sessions of school everyday so it seems that there are students in the streets all day long.

Kampong Khleang is a fishing village - a real fishing village and not one of those tourist "fishing villages" that you often encounter back in New England.  There are no hotels, motels, service stations, chain restaurants, international fast food outlets, or souvenir shops for tourists.  All the facilities there support and are for the benefit the local people. We are visitors into their world - a world that is different and definitely unique.

The Shooter

Since the homes do not have front yards, the areas between homes, underneath houses, and alongside the street are the playgrounds for the children.  Children occupy themselves riding bicycles, playing marbles, pretend fighting - super hero style, and helping with chores such as repairing fishing nets.

Adults also spend time along the streets doing a myriad of activities such as repairing fish nets, cleaning fish nets, coating metal fish traps with some type of hot black coating, drying ghost shrimp in the sun, and stacking firewood for the kitchen.

This location was definitely a "photography rich environment".  Our tour company once again had delivered exactly what I had been hoping for.

Our host worshiping at home shrine

Our home-stay hosts were a father, mother, and their middle-aged daughter.  The father is a very devout Buddhist and he was a kindred spirit for Duang.  He performs a daily ritual just as Duang does and has a large shrine in the home just as Duang has.  Although they could not communicate together they shared a common belief system and could worship together using Pali, the common language of Theravada Buddhism - akin to Arabic for Islam.  As so often works out in our relation, the Thai modern day mantra "Good for me, good for you" came into play. Duang elected to remain at the home and worship while I set off after lunch in the light rain on a hired boat to visit Moat Khla.

Our host prepares our lunch in the Home-Stay kitchen
 For this trip, I had informed the tour company that I wanted to spend more time touring the lake and experience the fishing operations.  The tour company's response was to take a 2 hour chartered boat trip from Kampong Khleang to a floating fishing village called Moat Khla (also shown as Meat Khla) on Google Maps.  Moat Khla is 24 Km south of Kampong Khleang and accessible only by boat.

A boat fishing with medium sized wire fish traps

Shortly after leaving Kampong Khleang, the light rain stopped.  The voyage out to Moat Khla was quite enjoyable - passing over and through the flooded forest.  Passing and being passed by boats of many sizes and purposes.  We saw fast speedboats, wood dugout type boats paddled by a single person, a string of three barge type boats filled with farming equipment and workers being towed by a small boat, large boats piled sky high with metal cage fish traps, and small boats piled high with small round metal fish traps.  We passed several locations where a fish camp had been set up comprising of one or two floating houses, several small powered boats, and a medium sized boat for transporting the large catch to an off-loading station.

Setting out small fish traps on Tonle Sap

As the scenery flowed by to the beat of the bow wave and the rhythm of the small automobile engine driving the boat's long shaft double bladed propeller, I found myself at the confluence of my past and my future in my own world.  Many years ago I listened to a Jackson Browne song, "Before the Deluge".  As I motored across the flood plain of Tonle Sap the lyrics and rhythm of that song saturated my mind even as I snapped away photographs to document the experience.

Before the Deluge
Some of them were dreamers
And some of them were fools
Who were making plans and thinking of the future
With the energy of the innocent
They were gathering the tools
They would need to make their journey back to nature
While the sand slipped through the opening
And their hands reached for the golden ring
With their hearts they turned to each other's hearts for refuge
In the troubled years that came before the deluge
Some of them knew pleasure
And some of them knew pain
And for some of them it was only the moment that mattered
And on the brave and crazy wings of youth
They went flying around in the rain
And their feathers, once so fine, grew torn and tattered
And in the end they traded their tired wings
For the resignation that living brings
And exchanged love's bright and fragile glow
For the glitter and the rouge
And in a moment they were swept before the deluge
Let the music keep our spirits high
Let the buildings keep our children dry
Let creation reveal its secrets by and by, by and by
When the light that's lost within us reaches the sky
Some of them were angry
At the way the earth was abused
By the men who learned how to forge her beauty into power
And they struggled to protect her from them
Only to be confused
By the magnitude of her fury in the final hour
And when the sand was gone and the time arrived
In the naked dawn only a few survived
And in attempts to understand a thing so simple and so huge
Believed that they were meant to live after the deluge
Let the music keep our spirits high
Let the buildings keep our children dry
Let creation reveal it's secrets by and by, by and by
When the light that's lost within us reaches the sky
Songwriters: Jackson Browne
Before the Deluge lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd., Peermusic Publishing

Moat Khla home - home on the lake
Moat Khla met all my expectations, well actually all of my realistic expectations.  I would have loved to stay the night or perhaps two nights and to explore the entire village on my own in one of those small wood boats that you paddle.

Moat Khla School - floating school of course!

Moat Khla is a fishing village of floating houses anchored among the trees and vegetation of the Tonle Sap flood plain.  There was a floating school for the children.  A floating Wat for worshiping and for some local Monks. Some of the floating structures were floating markets - sort of like 20'x 20' general stores. I even saw a floating mobile phone store.

Moat Khla Schoolgirls
We attracted quite a bit of attention as we passed through the village.  Everywhere that we looked, we were greeted with smiling faces and hearty waves from people of all ages.  Moat Khla has got to be one of the friendliest places that I have ever been to.  I could not help but think that with our arrival. "the circus had come town".

No place for bicycles - boats only

In a floating village, live is lived a great deal out in the open - the only walls are the walls of the houses and often those walls are not complete walls so that you can view life going on inside of the homes.

Homework in Moat Khla - repairing fish net
Moat Khla
Our excursion along the waterways of Moat Khla revealed many domestic scenes of life in a fishing village.  People were repairing fish nets, working on their boats, preparing meals, shopping at the small markets, caring for children, headed out to the fish traps, and in several places - children playing in boats.

Preparing a meal - of course - FISH!

After two passes through the village we commenced our two hour return voyage back to Kampong Khleang.  The return trip was much like the trip out to Moat Khla - many boats of all types with people occupied with their livelihood of fishing the riches of Tonle Sap.

A family fishing team
 I returned to our Home-Stay in Kampong Khleang to share my adventure with Duang, watch her help prepare dinner with our host, and relax in a hammock watching the light die over the main canal.

After another good meal with the host family and our guide, we went to bed early.  We all slept in the great room of the house.  The house had a great room, a small kitchen, a bathroom with a squat toilet, a covered open front porch, and a small bedroom that was not used while we were there.  There was a handmade bed in the great room that we were given the option of sleeping in or on a mat placed on the floor.  We chose to sleep on the floor and a young nephew slept in the bed.  Prior to going to bed, mosquito netting had to be erected over the sleeping spaces - one for us, one for the grandparents, one for our guide, one for the daughter, and one for the nephew.  The house had no doors and the front and back of the house did not have walls.

We actually had a pretty good night's sleep although interrupted several times by boat traffic in the canal but what would you expect staying in a fishing village?  I woke up early and after a quick hand shower I laid in a hammock on the back of the house and enjoyed the sunrise - watching the light increasing in the sky revealing details along the canal and listening to the sounds of an awaking village.  It was a memorable stay.

A fellow diner at breakfast

We walked down to the local market in Kampong Khleang and then to a small. very small, restaurant for a delicious bowl of soup for breakfast.  Along the way to and from breakfast we experienced many more glimpses into life in a fishing village and of course many more smiling and waving people.  One elderly woman ran into the street so that she could have her picture taken with us.

My experience on Tonle Sap was not over.  There was another albeit shorter boat tour of the area.  Once again Duang opted to remain at the home-stay to worship and meditate.  I went with the guide to visit the area where small family boats sell their catch to middlemen in small boats.  The boats congregate outside of the village in a area off to the side of one of the main waterways that leads out to the deeper lake.  We had visited the same area on our 2014 trip.

Catch being loaded for sale to vendor

Outside of the village we came upon a section where there several floating houses.  We were greeted everywhere with smiles along with waves.  There were also some surprises along the way too.  In the USA there is a saying usually a somewhat sarcastic response to a statement of the obvious ... "Does a bear shit in the woods?"  I know that bears do because I have seen their scat in the woods,  But for this revisit to Tonle Sap I have the evidence to "Do children pee in the lake?"

Brother and sister doing what comes naturally
We returned to the home-stay, bid farewell to our hosts, and set off for a leisurely return to Siem Reap.  Our trip would end the next  day with our return to Bangkok and then to our home in Udon Thani.  It had been a great trip with all of our important goals either met or exceeded.

As we drove away from Kampong Khleang with Tonle Sap on our right, once again I thought of the Jackson Browne song as observed the flood plain.

"And in attempts to understand a thing so simple and so huge
Believed that they were meant to live after the deluge"  I always find comfort and take solace from our journeys to witness how people live. These experiences show me that there are many different ways to survive, and in most cases to live happily other than the way that I am accustomed to.  These experiences give me confidence that if circumstances change for us we will be able to survive - that we are meant to live IF we are willing to adapt.

These experiences with other cultures and life styles, for me, are also a celebration and appreciation for the diversity of man and the spirit of all mankind.

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