On Tonle Sap

Our good ship is carrying us north on a tributary of the Mekong called Tonle Sap (tone-lay sap).

People living on the riverside are doing what they have been doing for a thousand years or more, except now they have diesel engines for much of the heavy lifting. In years past, farmers would be lugging water to their fields by hand. Now, thrumming engines are pumping river water into rice paddies.

I wonder where they get the fuel, and how much it costs them in relation to a month’s income.

Along the riverbank children splash into the water shouting “Hellooooo!” and waving at us on board as we pass. They seem deliriously happy.

Their parents are out in flimsy wooden boats that look similar to canoes. These are called’ tho’, pronounced ‘tdo’ (not t-do, but a one syllable word). They are gathering their nets, looking for today’s meal.

There are approximately 1300 fish and other species that are only found here. The Royal Turtle, the Mekong Barb which is a species of catfish that can grow to 1000 pounds, and 1000 pound stingrays are all specific to this river and nowhere else in the world.

Cambodia’s population of about 15 million is unevenly distributed among 23 provinces. Not surprisingly, the population density is highest along the Mekong & Tonle Sap rivers, in some cases as dense as 200 people in one square kilometer.

Riverbank homes are little more than rickety wooden shacks, kept above the high-water line by precarious, often-repaired stilts.

And yet, Cambodia appears more prosperous than Vietnam. The difference is minute, but clear nonetheless. The houses look just a little more substantial, the plots a little more well cared for, their animals healthier, their motors running a little smoother.

It is an enigma, this place. A land of happy children, abject poverty and recent horrors. It is an enigma.

They have something that I’m afraid we have lost. And I don’t know what it is.

 

**********

Tomorrow morning the boat continues to head north, but well out of any internet connection. We reach land at a place call Siem Reap. Once there, I check into a hotel for a few days and hope to have access then. I’ll get some new photos uploaded as well.

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