Cambodia is home to the Tonle Sap, which is a large freshwater lake in the middle of the country. The Tonle Sap is really neat because it actually flows both ways, depending on the time of year. During the wet season, rainfall into the Mekong River increases to the point where the actually lake fills up. It increases in size from 2,500 to 13,000 square kilometers (at least I think, that is what I wrote on my final at least)! The Tonle Sap is also one of the world’s largest source of freshwater fish, and it provides 70-80% of Cambodia’s protein.
I know I might be boring some of the non-sciency folk, so I won’t stay on the topic for too long, but you should know this lake is no joke. In addition to providing habitat for millions of fish, the lake also provides homes for nearly 1/4 Cambodians. Many live on the floodplains near the lake and grow rice during the part of the year in which it is flooded, but some live actually on the waters of the lake in these crazy floating villages.
I had the amazing privilege of seeing one of these floating villages, commonly called Prek Toal. Prek Toal is on the northwestern tip of the lake. During the wet season, the “streets” are very wide and the town is more spread out, but during the dry season, the city is much more tightly packed. This is because there is less water which brings the homes closer to one another. The lake is covered in an invasive plant known as water hyacinth, and the stuff gets stuck in boat motors and crowds out native plants. We made a pit stop at a community-based basket weaving project that turns the invasive plant into cool baskets, purses, and cups. After being briefly shown how the weaving works, I tried my hands at the sport. Turns out it is not my calling– the woman weaving immediately removed the pieces I weaved and redid them haha.
During our time at the lake, I also had the privilege of spending the night in a homestay with an incredibly generous and kind Chinese-Khmer family. Two things about the homestay that I will never forget are the boats and the crocodiles. Raising crocodiles is a newfound livelihood on the lake. Many families (almost every family actually) has begun to raise and rear crocodiles for crocodile leather. The funny thing about crocodile rearing on the lake is that most families simply keep the crocodiles in small wooden boxes attached to their houses. Quite literally, there was only two walls of separation from me and the crocodiles when we were sleeping, which made falling asleep a little less inviting. Additionally, the boats that roam the lake lack mufflers. Our professors told us that they are four times louder than the legal limit, and after trying to sleep with them buzzing all night I would have to agree. Oh well, all in the name of adventure am I right?
In all honesty, I loved spending the night with local people. We interviewed them for a class assignment and learned a lot about the struggles of local livelihoods on the lake, especially with over-fishing and changes in water regimes from climate change. I’ll cut myself off again because I am sure I’m boring you all.
In funnier news, the next day as we were leaving, we quite literally got stuck in the mud. The water level had dropped so much in the one night that we stayed at the lake that our boat got stuck in the banks on the way out. Seeing this as an opportunity to help (and cool off a little), we all hopped into the mud (waist deep) and pushed our boat into the deeper part of the channel, grinning and laughing even though the situation was actually quite grim.
Moments like that are some of my favorites. When things safely go wrong, opportunities for personal growth and reason for laughter tend to rise. Pushing a giant boat out of the sand is just one of many experiences this semester that have arisen from unintended circumstances, and I look forward to the next one.