Tag Archives: Tonle Sap

Behind the Scenes: The Mekong in Cambodia

All three members of our team have called Cambodia home for the past few years, and so following the Mekong and its tributaries through the southeast Asian kingdom was a return to the familiar in many ways. Over the course of more than a month we traced the river from the border of Vietnam, along the Tonle Sap to the region’s largest freshwater lake, and north to the controversial Sesan II dam and the Laos border.

This short film is a behind the scenes look at how we worked in the field while following the Mekong through the Kingdom of Cambodia. Enjoy!

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Photojournalism Tips, The Mekong River, Video Also tagged , , , , , |

Cambodia’s Beating Heart

A shrimp fisherman checks his net in the shallow waters surrounding the village of Akol. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majoirty of their income.

A shrimp fisherman checks his net in the shallow waters surrounding the village of Akol.

“Turn your lights off soon or people will see us.” The fisherman spoke in a muted voice that barely carried over the few metres between our boats. The night was moonless and it was pitch black at 3:30 a.m. on the Tonle Sap lake. We needed to use our headlamps to check the focus of our cameras and were at first confused by the fisherman’s apprehension. When we asked if he was worried the LED beams would scare the fish away, he replied calmly: “No, it’s because we are in the conservation zone. If they catch us we will be in trouble.”

Two hours later, in the shallow water surrounding the floating village of Akol, the fishing boats gathered in the blue pre-dawn light to check their catch. Their mood was cheerful as they picked through the nets, pulling healthy (if smallish) looking fish from the nylon mesh and tossing them into large metal bowls. There was no sign of their former nervousness, the danger apparently passed.

Fishermen enter into a protected conservation area on Cambodia's Tonle Sap lake. Many fishermen say that fish stocks have been depleted to the point where they can only be found in the conservation zone. The fishermen risk the confiscation of their equipment and face imprisonment if found fishing in the area. The Tonle Sap provides the vast majority of Cambodia's protein and fatty acids, and is the biggest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia.

Fishermen enter into a protected conservation area on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake. Many fishermen say that fish stocks have been depleted to the point where they can only be found in the conservation zone. The fishermen risk the confiscation of their equipment and face imprisonment if found fishing in the area. 

Considering that the lake was known to be one of the world’s most productive freshwater ecosystems, as well as one of the main sources of protein for the country’s 15 million people, the fact that fishermen were resorting to sneaking into protected areas spoke of an alarming truth: the Tonle Sap, often referred to as “Cambodia’s beating heart”, was struggling.

“Outside the conservation area there are no fish, so what should I do?” Chan Savoeun asked us rhetorically. A 28-year-old fisherman (whose name has been changed to protect his identity), Savoeun had been fishing in the Tonle Sap for more than a decade, and was well aware of the lake’s ailing health. “I am catching around 30-50% less fish than I did [10 years ago], so we have no choice but to fish in the protected zone. We know this is not good, and we are all worried about what will happen if there are no fish left [in the conservation area], but how else can we survive?”

The Great Lake

A floating community of roughly 30 families, we had come to Akol to try and learn how the Tonle Sap (commonly translated as “The Great Lake”) influenced those who lived from its floods. Though it was the peak of the dry season and the village’s pontooned houses were tethered to an exposed sandbar, their temporary attachment to land did not lessen their dependence on the water. “There is not one family here who does not earn their income from the lake,” Savoeun told us.

Fishermen gather in the early morning to check their nets for fish caught the night before. Akol fishermen estimate that they are catching up to 50% fewer fish than they did 10 years ago, indicating a major depletion of fish stocks. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majoirty of their income.

Fishermen gather in the early morning to check their nets for fish caught the night before. Akol fishermen estimate that they are catching up to 50% fewer fish than they did 10 years ago, indicating a major depletion of fish stocks. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majoirty of their income.

Fishermen gather in the shallow waters surrounding the village of Akol, Cambodia to check their nets. Akol fishermen estimate that they are catching up to 50% fewer fish than they did 10 years ago, indicating a major depletion of fish stocks.

Fishermen pull fish from their nets at sunrise near the village of Akol. 

Fishermen gather in the shallow waters surrounding the village of Akol to check their nets. Akol fishermen estimate that they are catching up to 50% fewer fish than they did 10 years ago, indicating a major depletion of fish stocks. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majoirty of their income.

Virtually every family in Akol is engaged in fishing in one way or the other. Often the men will set the nets at night, and the women and children will assist them in checking the nets the next morning. 

Looking around, it was easy to see the truth of what Savoeun said. Apart from a makeshift volleyball court erected on the coarse red sand and a few wells (which, full of lake water as they were, were meant for convenient showering and dishwashing rather than as a source of clean potable water), it was apparent that very few, if any, aspects of life in Akol were dictated by access to dry land. There was only one permanent structure, still under construction, and it was destined to serve as an office for an international conservation organization. When the monsoon rains returned later in the year and the lake’s level rose by up to 8 additional metres, the village could lift anchor and drift away, leaving the office to stand alone.

Residents of Akol play volleyball in the afternoon. A new concrete office for an international conservation organization will be the only permanent structure in the community. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families. During the dry season, the receding Tonle Sap  lake reveals a small sandbar, turning the floating community into an island village.

Residents of Akol play volleyball in the afternoon. A new concrete office for an international conservation organization will be the only permanent structure in the community.

But the Tonle Sap, whose once bountiful waters support dozens of communities like Akol, was not well. Generations of overfishing, combined with a rapidly growing population had stretched the lake’s already diminishing fish population to its breaking point, as evidenced by the morning’s trip into the protected zone. The widespread use of illegal fishing equipment – from nets so fine that even the smallest and youngest fish were trapped to battery powered electric nets that killed every living creature in its shock radius – had further decimated stocks and deforestation and human-induced bush fires had ravaged the aquatic trees amongst whose submerged root systems young fish were hatched before migrating into deeper waters.

“I noticed that animals were being reduced by hunting and fishing, and that the forests were burning – so I asked for this job,” Horm Sok, a field researcher employed by Conservation International told us.

Horm Sok, a researcher for Conservation International, drags a boat over a shallow sandbar on his way to an area of forest he is responsible for monitoring. Forest fires and buffalo grazing have damaged the forestlands surrounding the Tonle Sap, which are essential habitats and breeding grounds for a variety of animals.

Horm Sok, a researcher for Conservation International, drags a boat over a shallow sandbar on his way to an area of forest he is responsible for monitoring. Forest fires and buffalo grazing have damaged the forestlands surrounding the Tonle Sap, which are essential habitats and breeding grounds for a variety of animals.

Though he had only held the job for 6 years, Horm Sok had been living in Akol since 1979 and has borne witness to the dramatic changes afflicting the Tonle Sap. “The population has grown so much and the fish are disappearing,” he told us as we followed him through the sweltering jungle to see some of the conservation initiatives he oversaw. “There didn’t used to be so many fishermen or illegal fishing.”

Horm’s responsibilities ranged from monitoring forest fires to photographing otter dung as a means of monitoring species numbers, but two projects in particular he hoped would be effective in slowing the loss of marine life.

Destruction of the coastal forests that acted as nurseries for infant fish was caused by multiple factors, he told us, almost all of which involved human activity or negligence. Carelessly tended cooking fires had sparked blazes that ravaged 30 hectares of land in the last year alone. “The loss of 30 hectares represents up to 3% of the future fish population,” Horm said, adding perspective. And while the loss of 20 football fields worth of forest might not seem like a dramatic number on a global scale, in a country with the third highest rate of deforestation in the world, Cambodia was a place with few trees to spare.

Additionally, Horm supervised the protection of several fish nurseries that played an even larger role in repopulating the Tonle Sap’s fish. “There are thousands of fish in each pond,” he told us, gesturing to a muddy pool 4 km inland from the lake, protected from exploitation only by the permanent presence of a paid security guard. So far from the water it was difficult to see a connection between the stagnant ponds and the Great Lake, but when the water level rose in several months the entire area would be inundated, absorbing the young fish into its vastness. “Ponds like these can contribute up to 20% of all fish [in the lake],” Horm told us, contextualizing what we were looking at.

Horm Sok, a researcher for Conservation International, records otter dung data which he will use to check the overall health and growth of the species population. Forest fires and buffalo grazing have damaged the forestlands surrounding the Tonle Sap, which are essential habitats and breeding grounds for a variety of animals.

Horm Sok, a researcher for Conservation International, records otter dung data which he will use to check the overall health and growth of the species population.

“It’s not about the money,” Horm said when we asked about his motivations for undertaking such a monumentally difficult task as keeping the Tonle Sap healthy. “I asked for this job because I want to conserve the animals and the forest. When I see the fish [vanishing] and the forests burning I feel a lot of regret.”

A Lake Like No Other

“There is nothing else like the Tonle Sap. It’s like an inland ocean, a fish soup,” Taber Hand, founder of the water-focused social enterprise group Wetlands Work! told us in his Phnom Penh apartment. Though we were physically distant from the lake, his passion for its health was plain, and his knowledge vast.

“There are more fish by tonnage in the Tonle Sap than in both the commercial and recreational freshwater sectors of the United States and Canada combined,” he continued, surprising us with the staggering statistic. “But the lake is a poster child for tragedy.”

During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, turning Akol into an island community. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families.

Boys walk across the stilted path that connects their home to the small sandbar the village of Akol is anchored to for the dry season.

Thol Thoeurn, 28, splashes water on his pigs to keep them cool in their floating pens. Fishermen report up to a 50% decrease in fish catches, and many are rearing pigs to supplement their income. Unfortunately the pigs deficate directly into the water surrounding villager's houses, many of whom use the lake water for cooking and cleaning. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families.

Thol Thoeurn, 28, splashes water on his pigs to keep them cool in their floating pens. Fishermen report up to a 50% decrease in fish catches, and many are rearing pigs to supplement their income. Unfortunately the pigs deficate directly into the water surrounding villager’s houses, many of whom use the lake water for cooking and cleaning. 

Paradoxically, one of the most devastating environmental blows to Cambodia’s waterways was the government mandated closing of industrial fishing corporations in the early 2000’s. In an attempt to garner political support, the incumbent government ordered that all large scale commercial operations be disbanded and the fishing grounds returned to the people. While the idea might seem harmless on paper, the real world results were devastating. Despite the huge numbers of fish caught by industrial fishing, the international corporations involved understood that they needed to protect the ecosystem in order to secure a financial future for their companies. When these companies withdrew, taking with them the armed guards who protected their fisheries, a resource free-for-all ensued. In the mad dash to claim land for rice farming, harvest valuable tree species, and fish the abundant waters, the populist policy brought about widespread destruction.

“The industrial fisheries protected the lots by force, which angered the population. But by playing to the people, [Prime Minister Hun Sen] doomed the waterscape. The former lots have become habitat wastelands, totally destroyed by deforestation. They’re probably getting 0.5% of what those areas produced before,” Hand explained.

A young girl mends a fishing net near the floating village of Akol.

A young girl mends a fishing net near the floating village of Akol.

A boy collects fish from nets attached to his floating home in the village of Akol. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majoirty of their income.

A boy collects fish from nets attached to his floating home.

Additional factors such as government corruption (bribed fisheries officials selectively ignoring illegal fishing practices), agricultural pollution, and population growth, have further exacerbated the problem.

Though he emphatically told us that there a variety of actions that could be undertaken to restore the Tonle Sap, Hand was pragmatic when we spoke about the likelihood of these steps being taken in time.

“The biodiversity is there to provide more than enough,” Hand told us, “but its the human side of the equation, the human priorities, that don’t fit. We could have our cake and eat it too, [the solution] is right there for us to act on, but people want to work for themselves instead of together.”

In an impoverished country like Cambodia where millions battle on a daily basis to feed their families, it is perhaps not surprising that environmental cooperation is not a top priority. But without such a mass movement, Cambodia’s most important waterway was headed for disaster.

Children play at sunset in the village of Akol.

Children play at sunset in the village of Akol.

A boy runs along the gunnels of a fibre glass fishing boat in the village of Akol. During the dry season, the water level of the Tonle Sap lake drops by several metres, exposing a small sandbar that the village of Akol anchors itself to. Until the rains begin and the lake's level rises, Akol residents have access to dry land. The floating village of Akol is home to roughly 30 families, nearly all of whom depend on the Tonle Sap lake for the majoirty of their income.

A boy runs along the gunnels of a fibre glass fishing boat in the village of Akol.

As our meeting with drew to a close, Hand reflected on a telling fact: “‘The Tonle Sap is the heart and soul of Cambodia’ used to be an extremely popular saying. Everyone said it, including the Prime Minister. But you know, I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say that in at least 10 years.”

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , , , |

Towards the Great Lake

A student walks across a wooden bridge on his way to school in the city of Kampong Chhnang.

A student walks across a wooden bridge on his way to school in the city of Kampong Chhnang.

“I need you to put me in a car and send me back to Phnom Penh,” Gareth said over the phone at 5 a.m. Our hotel rooms were only separated by a single flight of stairs, but it was clear from his drained voice that he didn’t have the strength to handle the short walk. In the mid sized city of Kampong Chhnang, located on the western bank of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap river, the A River’s Tail project was about to suffer its first casualty.

We had taken a bus from Phnom Penh the day before, diverging from the Mekong to explore the Tonle Sap, and Kampong Chhnang was meant to be a brief stopover before taking a short boat ride to the remote riverside community of Tae Pi. Arriving in the late afternoon, we spent the remaining daylight hours wandering along the waterfront, shooting pictures of daily life and speaking to locals about the health of the all important waterway. They, like nearly everyone we had spoken to during our travels, told of declining fish stocks and the corresponding economic hardships.

The lack of prosperity was plain. Despite being the most important river port between Cambodia’s two largest cities – Phnom Penh and Siem Reap – the city was shrouded in an air of lethargy, made all the more sluggish by the sweltering heat of the dry season. While people went about their daily tasks – mending fishing nets, loading manufactured goods onto waiting boats, and socializing along the promenade – the atmosphere was defined by a distinct lack of bustle.

A woman stands in the lumber yard where she works stacking bamboo onto raised platforms in anticipation of rising river levels in the rainy season.

A woman stands in the lumber yard where she works stacking bamboo onto raised platforms in anticipation of rising river levels in the rainy season.

A family goes about its morning routine in the city of Kampong Chhnang.

A family goes about its morning routine in the city of Kampong Chhnang.

A man buys a ticket for a ferry in the riverside city of Kampong Chhnang.

A man buys a ticket for a ferry in the riverside city of Kampong Chhnang.

As the sun set on the provincial capital, Gareth’s deterioration became increasingly apparent from his colourless face. Hoping that a long sleep in an air conditioned room would restore him to health, we returned to our hotel earlier than usual. Yet when my phone rang the next morning I knew that it hadn’t worked. So early in the morning there were no taxi drivers available to pick him up, so I spent a few hours wandering along the banks of the river watching the city wake up as children arrived to school on water taxis.

Eventually I managed to find a driver willing to take Gareth back to Phnom Penh, and I helped him settle into the backseat with two litres of water and a can of Coke. With Pablo locked in his office in the capital working feverishly to edit the video footage from the Vietnam leg of the project, for the first time since A River’s Tail began I was on my own.

A soldier, who works part time as a fisherman to earn extra money, mends his nets in the riverside city of Kampong Chhnang.

A soldier, who works part time as a fisherman to earn extra money, mends his nets in the riverside city of Kampong Chhnang.

Workers carry ceramic tiles to a local ferry in the riverside city of Kampong Chhnang.

Workers carry ceramic tiles to a local ferry in the riverside city of Kampong Chhnang.

A man rubs a glue made of plant resin into the hull of his boat to seal it against the water in the city of Kampong Chhnang.

A man rubs a glue made of plant resin into the hull of his boat to seal it against the water in the city of Kampong Chhnang.

Old Friends and Parched Earth

The real reason we had stopped in Kampong Chhnang was so we could visit Jan Ta and her family, who Gareth and I had met 7 months previously while driving a wooden fishing boat through Cambodia’s waterways. It was this 3 week trip that was the foundation for what would become the A River’s Tail project, and meeting Jan Ta in the remote community of Tae Pi where she lived had been one of the highlights. When I called her again, even after more than half a year without contact, she immediately agreed to send her son to fetch me in Kampong Chhnang.

A teenager drives his boat between the city of Kampong Chhnang and the remote village of Tae Pi.

Jan Ta’s son drives his boat between the city of Kampong Chhnang and the remote village of Tae Pi.

Our relationship had started by accident when Gareth and I, caught on the water as the sun set and desperate to find a place to spend the night, made an impromptu stop at a small cluster of homes along the river’s edge that we spotted through our binoculars. When we had pulled up to the shore, the initial reaction of the villagers had been one of suspicious apprehension: Who are you and what do you want? This was not a place that foreign tourists frequented, and the locals had eyed us warily. But after a series of phone calls to a Khmer friend who was able to explain that we were just seeking a place to sleep, the mood shifted immediately. All hostility vanished and the nearest villager, Jan Ta, had welcomed us into her home.

At that time, during the wet season when the river was at its highest level, Tae Pi had been a picture postcard of simple riparian life. A cluster of 30 families lived in stilted wooden houses along the river’s edge, fishing from the river and gathering aquatic vegetables and flowers to sell at nearby markets. The contrast that greeted me on my return could not have been more pronounced.

As Jan Ta’s 16-year-old son throttled the engine of his boat to full speed and smashed through a thick barrier of lilies, I thought we were making a quick stop somewhere before continuing on to Tae Pi. There were no houses in sight, only a wide expanse of dry brown fields stretching for a kilometre or more towards a small mountain on the horizon. This did not in any way resemble the village I remembered, and it wasn’t until Jan Ta’s son tied the boat up to shore and beckoned me to follow that I understood that we had arrived. While I knew that Cambodia was subject to dramatic environmental changes between seasons, the transformation of the land rendered the area more unrecognizable than I could have imagined.

Two puppies play in a grounded boat in the remote community of Tae Pie. During the rainy season this plain would be innundated by water.

Two puppies play in a grounded boat in the remote community of Tae Pie. During the rainy season this plain would be innundated by water.

Gone were the tightly knit clusters of fishermen and flower vendors that had exemplified Tae Pi on our last visit, and the conspicuous absence of people was somehow unsettling. After a 10 minute walk across fields so dry that the grass crunched audibly under foot, I arrived at Jan Ta’s house. She stood in the shade of a parched looking tree, smiling warmly in greeting. Some things, at least, had not changed.

Dwindling Prospects

“The rainy season is much better,” Jan Ta said after I commented on the transformation of the village. “In the dry season I can’t earn any profits. It is impossible to catch fish, so I have to rent half a hectare of rice field just to have enough food.” Though she seemed genuinely happy to see me, there was a worn look on her face that I hadn’t seen the last time we’d met and I suspected that all was not well.

“This place has completely changed in the last 10-20 years,” she told me, launching into a categorical list of her woes almost immediately upon my arrival: “People are using fishing nets so fine that no baby fish survive to grow up and be caught again. They are also using batteries to shock the water, which kills everything. The farmers now use chemicals on the rice, which goes into the water and poisons the fish.”

Jen Ta, a resident of the village of Tae Pi, sits with her sons and some of her livestock. During the rainy season fishing will be her primary source of income, but in the dry season she raises animals to earn money.

Jan Ta, a resident of the village of Tae Pi, sits with her sons and some of her livestock. During the rainy season fishing will be her primary source of income, but in the dry season she raises animals to earn money.

As Jan Ta spoke, I realized that the quaint memory I’d created of a community living in harmony with nature was an illusion. The drastic metamorphosis of the landscape only served to exacerbate the revelation that I had remembered the village as I had wanted to – a stereotypically idyllic memory that was rapidly being dispelled.

“I don’t know about the future of the river, but I can barely find anything in it these days,” Jan Ta continued. “If the river can’t support us now, I don’t have much hope for my kids. They will need to leave here and get a job somewhere else. I have already sent my eldest son to Phnom Penh to work in a garment factory so he can send money home.” A new reality of life along the Tonle Sap, one of the most important sources of fertility for the Mekong, was taking shape. And like most of the stories we had found during our travels thus far, the overall picture was not good.

A young girl walks her family's cow heard through the remote village of Tae Pi. When the river level is low during the dry season, residents turn to rice farming and rearing livestock to earn income.

A young girl walks her family’s cow heard through the remote village of Tae Pi. When the river level is low during the dry season, residents turn to rice farming and rearing livestock to earn income.

I left Jan Ta’s house for a few hours to walk through the village, hoping that some time alone would allow me to make the necessary adjustments to my perception of a place I had once thought so timelessly quaint. I realized that I had made the mistake common to so many travellers: in my eagerness to see what I wanted to see I hadn’t been critically objective in my observations. I had tricked myself into thinking Tae Pi was a model for how people could live happily from the bounties of nature. The truth was that these people, like so many others along the Mekong and its distributaries, were reeling from the consequences of the human overexploitation of the river’s finite resources – resources that were clearly at their breaking point.

That night Jan Ta prepared a meal of rice, fried fish, and eggs, ever the good host despite the obvious challenges her family was facing. I tried not to let the pervading sense of sadness I had felt since readjusting my views on the realities life in this remote village, but Jan Ta seemed to see through me.

“I like it here,” she said. “Even if it is impossible for me to earn enough money, I will stay.”

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River Also tagged , , , |

And Upon You Peace

Roughly 250 families inhabit the Cham village.

Roughly 250 families inhabit the Cham village at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 

Even after seven months of regular contact, it was hard to know how Yu Sos felt about us. A short, swarthy man with a wiry neck beard, he was not prone to outbursts of cheer; I could count the number of times I had seen him smile using my fingers alone, and I had never seen him laugh. When Gareth and I first met him we initially assumed he didn’t like us, but over the course of our relationship he had repeatedly demonstrated exceptional generosity and patience, furthering our confusion about the paradox between his actions and his outward mood. For more than half a year we had looked forward to our visits to his family’s house boat at the confluence of the Mekong and Cambodia’s Tonle Sap rivers in Phnom Penh, while simultaneously fearing that he secretly hated us. It wasn’t until A River’s Tail gave us a budget to employ a dedicated translator that we were able to finally penetrate his mask of stoicism and fully understand the precarious situation of the river-dwelling Cham community that he oversaw.

Chams, as the ethnic group who inhabit parts of Cambodia and southern Vietnam are known, represent the last vestiges of a defeated empire. A major power in what is now south and central Vietnam for more than a thousand years, the Kingdom of Champa was fully annexed by the Vietnamese in the 1800’s. At odds with the predominantly Buddhist states of Southeast Asia, Champa was heavily influenced by both Hinduism and Islam, and the modern day Chams remain divided between the two faiths to this day. The majority of Vietnamese Chams practice Hinduism, while those in Cambodia are overwhelmingly Muslim.

Cham men wash their hands and feet before entering their community mosque.

Cham men wash their hands and feet before entering their community mosque.

Cham men pray in their community's makeshift mosque.

Cham men pray in their community’s makeshift mosque.

A Cham man touches his head to the floor in prayer.

A Cham man touches his head to the floor in prayer.

As we entered the Cham community on the southern tip of Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changvar peninsula and made our way to Yu Sos’s home, we were greeted with assalamu alaikum rather than the normal sues-dei used by Khmers – reminding us that while the residents might look no different than the rest of Cambodians, we were entering into a distinctly different culture.

Though fact that the vast majority of the community lived on houseboats rather than on land, over the following days that we spent with the Chams we learned that their relationship to water was far from harmonious.

Formation By Conflict

When Phnom Penh fell to the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in 1975, Yu Sos decided to swim for freedom. Jumping into the Tonle Sap river at 3 a.m., he clutched a banana tree to stay afloat as he drifted with the current. “Some soldiers saw me and tried to shoot me,” Yu told us as we sat cross-legged in his floating home, miming the automatic firing of an AK-47 to illustrate his story, “but I dove under the water and [the bullets] missed.”

For nearly two days he floated towards Vietnam until nearly drowning when the banana tree got caught in the net of a fishing trawler. The ship’s crew hauled the exhausted Yu on board and turned him over to the Vietnamese military. After an intense interrogation session he as conscripted into the Vietnamese army and sent back to his home country to fight the regime he had been so intent on escaping.

A Cham man winds line around an empty aerosol can which is used as a floatation device for fishing nets.

A Cham man winds line around an empty aerosol can which is used as a floatation device for fishing nets.

A fish vendor places a Beoung Laos fish into a bag for a customer. Fillets of the fish can sell for up to 7$, but Cham fishermen report a dramatic drop in the numbers of fish they are catching in recent years.

A fish vendor places a Beoung Laos fish into a bag for a customer. Fillets of the fish can sell for up to 7$, but Cham fishermen report a dramatic drop in the numbers of fish they are catching in recent years.

A Cham woman carries firewood to their small shack in one of Phnom Penh's Muslim communities.

A Cham woman carries firewood to their small shack in one of Phnom Penh’s Muslim communities.

After four years of gritty guerrilla warfare the Khmer Rouge were defeated and Yu was reunited with the family he had left behind. “When I found my parents we cried together,” he remembered. In the aftermath of the 4 year conflict that left millions of Cambodians dead and a society in ruins, Yu and his family began the process of looking for a new home. The Khmer Rouge had stripped most Cambodians of their property titles as they redistributed land in their ruthless mission of creating their idealized vision of a communal agrarian society, and many, including Yu, did not know where they were and were not allowed to settle. After attempting to establish a life in the city of Prey Veng, their post-war poverty forced them to move on yet again. “We didn’t have any money to buy a house, so we got a boat and drove it to Phnom Penh,” Yu told us. “When we arrived we found other families [on boats] in the same situation as us, so we got permission to from the authorities to form a community together.”

Though Yu told us this story with a characteristic lack of emotion, both Gareth and I were stunned into silence for several minutes. The wooden fishing boat we had used for the 3 week trip into Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake that gave rise to the A River’s Tail project was docked in the Cham community and looked after by Yu’s oldest son, and we had visited nearly a dozen times in the last year. Yet despite our numerous interactions (Yu and his son had painstakingly taught us to drive our vessel, never losing their calm despite our ineptitude), we had never learned this aspect of the community’s formation because of the language barrier between us. Had A River’s Tail not given us the means to return to the community with a translator we likely would have remained ignorant of the traumatic history.

In an hour of conversation our perceptions of Yu and the Chams had been forever altered; suddenly his gruff demeanour didn’t seem so hard to understand.

Cham children use pieces of fabric as makeshift parachutes as they jump off a mud embankment in their Phnom Penh community.

Cham children use pieces of fabric as makeshift parachutes as they jump off a mud embankment in their Phnom Penh community.

The Realities of the Voiceless

“No one wants to live on these boats,” Yu said matter-of-factly, shattering the last of our illusions about Phnom Penh’s Chams. Upon entering the village, which sat under the shadow of the newly completed Sokha Hotel, it was clear that the residents were not wealthy. Those who lived on the shore did so in hodgepodge shacks made of wood, thatch, plastic, and bits of tin, while the boats of those living offshore were aged and in varying stages of disrepair. Yet despite the obvious poverty, we hadn’t fully let go of the thought that perhaps the Chams didn’t need money to be happy, or that somehow their floating community derived its self identity from the river and didn’t require the modern affectation of material possessions. Maybe, we thought, these people lived a quaint and simple life that the rest of the smart-phone obsessed world needed to learn from. Yu’s to-the-point synopsis quickly dispelled our naivety.

“I don’t really like the river much, but I have no choice.” Yu stated plainly. “When it storms we worry about our kids drowning, and they can’t go to school because we need them to help us fish. Many of us can’t afford to buy water, and so we drink it from the river, which makes us sick – I have problems with my kidneys because of it. We are trying to get a piece of land from the government so it is easier to manage these problems.”

A Cham girl stands on the shoreline, overlooking the floating community where she lives.

A Cham girl stands on the shoreline, overlooking the floating community where she lives.

A Cham man checks his fishing net for damage as his daughter swims in the river below in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

A Cham man checks his fishing net for damage as his daughter swims in the river below.

A man steps over a creek of waste water in a Cham village. The Sokha hotel, which looms in the background, drains its untreated grey water directly into the Mekong through the village.

A man steps over a creek of waste water in a Cham village. The Sokha hotel, which looms in the background, drains its untreated grey water directly into the Mekong through the village.

Yu went on to tell us that, if given the option, he would gladly accept an even less pay than he earns as an artisanal fisherman (a meagre sum to begin with) for the chance to move his family off the river and onto land. His connection to the river is one of necessity, not choice: “I depend on fish from the river for my living just like a shopkeeper does his shop. But every year the amount of fish I can catch is going down.”

As if these varied hardships weren’t enough, the community is in peril of losing what little they have – the narrow strip of land onto which they anchor their boats. Corporate developers, particularly the Sokimex Group which owns the $100 million Sokha Hotel that dominates the skyline above the Cham village, apply constant pressure in their mission to have the community removed from their property. “We had to move to this place after the hotel asked us to move from where we were before. They work with the authorities and the police came and told us they would sink our boats if we didn’t move,” Yu remembered. And while a tentative agreement was reached, allowing the Chams to stay in their current location, Yu fears that the agreement will be broken. “If that happens,” Yu said, “I don’t know where we can go.”

Cham children play on a stack of pallates in a Cham community in Phnom Penh.

Cham children play on a stack of pallates in a Cham community in Phnom Penh.

After several days in the Cham community, our schedule dictated that we had to continue up the Tonle Sap to the riverside city of Kampong Chhnang and its surrounding villages. As we shook hands and wished Yu luck in securing a future for his village, a rare smile twitched at the corners of his mouth: “Wa-Alaikum-Salaam,” he said in farewell.

And upon you peace.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

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Long Tail Diaries: The First Voyage

Flower vendors stops in the village of Tae Pi to sell their produce. The edible flowers will be cooked and are an important source of vitamins for the villagers.

Flower vendors stops in the village of Tae Pi to sell their produce. The edible flowers will be cooked and are an important source of vitamins for the villagers.

 

After months of scheming and preparation, fellow photographer Gareth Bright and I set off for the first voyage on our wooden long tail fishing boat to explore southeast Asia’s waterways. Being glaringly inexperienced boat drivers, this trip was meant as a trial run of sorts – to see how we dealt with life afloat and to check the logistical challenges of expanding this project further into the region – rather than a concentrated effort to produce a coherent body of documentary work.

We took our best guess as to what the essential equipment would be, and while some items were invaluable, others proved more of a nuisance than anything (such as a large aluminium cooking wok that saw no use and mainly acted as something to bang our toes off). We discovered what food was suited to such a trip (peanut butter and coffee were staples), and what just took up valuable space (a 2 litre bottle of chilli sauce, for example). In terms of equipment, we quickly discovered that less is more – our huge DLSR packs saw little action, while smaller compact cameras such as the Fuji X100s and GoPros were much easier to grab and keep safe. Mostly importantly we learned that this project is absolutely possible and that Gareth and I won’t tear each other’s heads off in a confined space.

In all, the first leg of the trip lasted for two weeks and saw us depart Phnom Penh dangerously late in the day as we rushed around town tying up loose ends. Setting out from the Cham Muslim community where our boat lives while in the city, we immediately learned that our engine tends to stall out if not properly warmed up, resulting in us drifting around in circles through busy shipping lanes – much to the amusement of those watching from the riverside. Our second blunder saw us run out of fuel in front of one of Phnom Penh’s busiest ferry terminals, and again we spun dangerously between vessels much larger than our own. Rattled but determined not to look any more ridiculous than we already had, we tried to put distance between us and the city – only to find the darkness approaching much faster than our 18 HP engine could outrun. Ultimately our first night was spent a scant 5 km from where we started, tied up to the side of a dilapidated sunken shack, surrounded by broken fishing traps and a tepid slurry of takeout containers and plastic bags. Perhaps not the noble start we had imagined, but it was a start nonetheless.

Waking at 4a.m. on the damp floor planks of our boat, we cleared our heads with hideously strong coffee and paddled out to put the disasters of the previous day behind us. On that warm morning, the real trip started as we motored out of the city’s urban sprawl and onto the wide, jungle-lined expanse of the Tonle Sap. We made our way slowly up river, driving when we felt like it, swimming when we got hot, and stopping often. When we snapped the pull-start cord on our engine, a group of fishermen repaired it for us in ten minutes, the kindness of strangers amazing me as always. We made camp when it felt right, sleeping in pagodas and an abandoned school, and within four days had broken through onto the Tonle Sap Lake, or “The Great Lake” – a critical source of food for Cambodia and the largest freshwater body in the region.

We spent roughly a week in floating villages, talking to fishermen and remote coastal residents alike, continuously marvelling at the massive expanse of water around us. We crashed into docks, houses, and occasionally other boats, but no one really seemed to mind, so confused were they by the sight of our sunburnt faces.

After two weeks we turned around and drove home, far more competent and confident. The experience was as educational as it was inspirational, and it left little doubt in our minds that the trip would have to continue. Armed with the memories of our mistakes, we will spend the coming weeks re-organizing and re-planning, and will start the process of raising the necessary funds to tackle the next stages.

When we can finish sifting through the hours of footage I will work on getting a short video up to showcase the highs and the lows, as well as outline the project’s goals more clearly. For now though, here are some of my favourite images from the last two weeks.

 

Early morning on the Tonle Sap River in the remote village of Tae Pi. The community consists of a handful of families and their livestock, most of whom make their living fishing the river.

Early morning on the Tonle Sap River in the remote village of Tae Pi. The community consists of a handful of families and their livestock, most of whom make their living fishing the river.

Villagers gather around their boats along the shoreline of Tae Pi.

Villagers gather around their boats along the shoreline of Tae Pi.

A fruit and vegetable seller makes her morning rounds in the floating village of Kampong Luong.

A fruit and vegetable seller makes her morning rounds in the floating village of Kampong Luong.

A boat painter puts the finishing touches on a newly repainted fishing vessel.

A boat painter puts the finishing touches on a newly repainted fishing vessel.

Fishermen prepare to offload their catches onto waiting trucks in the village of Kampong Luong.

Fishermen prepare to offload their catches onto waiting trucks in the village of Kampong Luong.

Baskets of snails, puled from the Tonle Sap Lake, are bagged in preparation for sale at local markets.

Baskets of snails, pulled from the Tonle Sap Lake, are bagged in preparation for sale at local markets.

A labourer hefts a bag of snails before loading it onto a waiting truck.

A labourer hefts a bag of snails before loading it onto a waiting truck.

A fisherman waits to be paid for his day's catch on the Tonle Sap Lake. Fishing is the primary source of income for people living on the water, though most live in relative poverty.

A fisherman waits to be paid for his day’s catch on the Tonle Sap Lake. Fishing is the primary source of income for people living on the water.

Young men and women make use of the steel frame of tower to bathe and socialize during their free time. In the relatively cramped living conditions in a floating community, there are few large spaces for people to gather indoors.

Young men and women make use of the steel frame of tower to bathe and socialize during their free time. In the relatively cramped living conditions of a floating community, there are few large spaces for people to gather indoors.

A labourer smokes a cigarette on the floating ice factory where he works. With many floating communities cut off from the main power grid, ice is an important commodity for food storage.

A labourer smokes a cigarette on the floating ice factory where he works. With many floating communities cut off from the main power grid, ice is essential for food storage.

A worker fills ice moulds with cold water before leaving them to settle into solid blocks.

A worker fills ice moulds with cold water before leaving them to settle into solid blocks.

Workers use metal hooks to slide the ice onto waiting boats.

Workers use metal hooks to slide ice onto waiting boats.

An ice chipping machine shreds large blocks into a more managable form.

An ice chipping machine shreds large blocks into a more managable form.

A gas station attendant scheks his cell phone between customers on a floating fuel barge. The barges cater to a nearly constant stream of villagers, most of whom own boats instead of cars or motorcycles.

A gas station attendant checks his cell phone between customers on a floating fuel barge. The barges cater to a nearly constant stream of villagers, most of whom own boats instead of cars or motorcycles.

Children fill gas cans for their parents in preparation for the next morning's fishing. There are no licenses required for boat operation and it is not uncommon to see 3-4 year olds driving boats at speed through the village.

Children fill gas cans for their parents in preparation for the next morning’s fishing. There are no licenses required for boat operation and it is not uncommon to see 3-4 year olds driving boats at speed through the village.

 

 

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Long Tail Diaries: The First Challenge

Our Cham guide sets off across Lake Tonle Sap at sunrise, navigating through the early morning fishing boats.

Our Cham guide sets off across Lake Tonle Sap at sunrise, navigating through the early morning fishing boats. It will take nearly four hours for us to find the entrance to the river leading to Phnom Penh.

After working flat out for most of 2014, when a month-long drought in assignments set in I didn’t know how to handle all the down time. Over coffee during this period of restlessness in the long, hot Cambodian summer, the blueprint for a reckless adventure was born. 

Harkening back to boyish memories of grand National Geographic-style expeditions, I made the decision to buy a boat. Together with Gareth Bright, a South African photographer newly settled in Phnom Penh, we tracked down a wooden long tail fishing boat for sail in the floating community of Kampong Luong on the western bank of the immense Lake Tonle Sap.

I am in the process of setting up a dedicated site to host a more comprehensive account of the trip, but the basic plan is to self-drive ourselves along all of Cambodia’s major waterways to look at the cultural and environmental state of life on the Mekong and its tributaries.

Sometimes referred to as the lifeblood of southeast Asia, this project will eventually expand to include all the countries the Mekong passes through on its way to the ocean. Traveling through Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and China will take the best part of a year, but the first leg of the trip – from Phnom Penh to the Tonle Sap, the region’s largest freshwater lake – will start in two weeks.

The first of the countless problems we will almost certainly encounter as we try to pull this trip off presented itself a few days ago when we learned that we would have to pick up the boat weeks before we were ready to go. Luckily a friend found us a place to store it in Phnom Penh, but first we would have to get it there – a daunting two day drive against the river’s current. Since up to this point we had barely logged two hours each of actual driving time, we decided that it was best not to attempt the passage on our own.

With the help of a Cham (as Cambodian Muslims are known) community leader and his son we arrived in tact, though both sunburned and soaking wet. I won’t go into too much detail about the minutiae of the experience in this post, but I wanted to introduce the concept of the trip since it will probably dominate much of my creative output in the coming months.

In the time leading up to the official departure we have an ambitious schedule of practice drives lined up, by which time we will hopefully be more river-ready than we are now. And if not, it will surely make for entertaining reading.

Though I primarily shot video over these two days, here are a few frames that sum up the experience.

Boat Delivery_-18

Almost immediately after departure a violent rainstorm forced us to take shelter on a floating barge-cum-traveller sanctuary. As it is raining nearly every afternoon in Cambodia, the upcoming start of the trip promises to be a wet one.

Boat Delivery_-20

Taking a break from bailing water out of our boat. Roughly 20 litres of water accumulated in the boat in just an hour under the rain clouds.

Boat Delivery_-17

A captive monkey in a sadly cruel enclosure built out of chain link fence. Two monkeys inhabit the one square metre cage, which is suspended over water to prevent their escaping. Passers by stopped regularly to pour energy drinks into the monkey’s mouths.

Boat Delivery_-14

Washing the dishes at dusk, the worst of the storm over.

Boat Delivery_-12

With a 4 a.m. planned departure time, we all turned in early.

Boat Delivery_-7

A clear sky at sunrise allowed us to start searching for the river entrance that would lead us to Phnom Penh.

Boat Delivery_-5

The morning sky quickly gave way to scorching heat. With no place to hide on the exposed boat, we took to soaking our clothes to stay cool.

Boat Delivery_-4

Nearly 12 hours later we reached the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Boat Delivery_-3

Arriving at the Cham village, a floating boat community under the shadow of an under-construction luxury hotel. Our boat will stay in this community for the next two weeks while we get it ready for departure – and better learn how to handle it without the help of a guide.

Boat Delivery_-2

Sunset at the Cham village where our boat will live while in Phnom Penh. The Chams are ethnic Cambodian Muslims, who often live in floating communities.

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