The Tonlé Sap is a combined lake and river system of major importance to Cambodia.


The Tonlé Sap is also the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia and is an ecological hot spot that was designated as a UNESCO biosphere.


The Tonlé Sap is unusual for two reasons: its flow changes direction twice a year, and the portion that forms the lake expands and shrinks dramatically with the seasons. From November to May, Cambodia's dry season, the Tonlé Sap drains into the Mekong River at Phnom Penh. However, when the year's heavy rains begin in June, the Tonlé Sap backs up to form an enormous lake.


When the Tonlé Sap floods, the surrounding areas become a prime breeding ground for fish. During this time, fishermen are scarce. To prevent the disruption of mating, it is illegal to fish during the breeding season. At the end of the rainy season, when the water levels go down, fishing is allowed again. Fisherman install floating houses along one half of the river, and the other half is left open for navigation.


Most of the fishing captains are of Vietnamese origin, and they primarily supply the country’s markets.  The process of actually catching fish is simple, but the aftermath takes much more time and effort. Because of the drop in the water level, the Tonlé Sap naturally carries away thousands of fish. The fishermen place cone-shaped nets into the water from their floating houses, and then lifti the net.  This simple technique enables fishermen to catch a few tons of fish each week.


The heads of the fish areremoved and the fish is cleaned and fat is removed.  The fish is then salted for preservation as a fina step.  The fish will continue to macerate for several months in order to transform into a paste called prahok, a nourishing condiment that is used in Cambodian cuisine.



Copyright Michael Chia 2013