Working on the Tonle Sap Lake
Trip Start Oct 14, 2005
25Trip End Ongoing
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I have just got back from my first visit to the Tonle Sap lake area. I went for four days and three nights to discuss setting up a community fishery with a lake community. SO this was it...field work...over night stays and everything...
I was worried before I went because everyone in my office (well those that turn up to work) was sitting round talking about how hard it would be for me in terms of the toilet, bathing, eating and just generally being there. So, the panic was increasing... Panic reached crisis point on New Years Eve when another volunteer told Bram that he would not let a woman go alone because the men get drunk and 'men will be men'!
Anyway, before I went I had gone to the market with Jo, a friend who had also been to the field for a few days so I considered her an expert in the area of fieldwork protocol. I got back from the market armed with 2 sarongs, and one particularly odd elasticated skirt. I bought biscuits and a few bottles of water and packed my bag, which incidentally was more than twice the size of everyone else's bag - but there again everyone else were men, so not surprising. It probably took me longer to pack and leave the house too - same in every culture!
We used the project boat to get to the village (Pic: DoF Boat). We left directly from our town Kompong Thom and travelled down the Stung Sen River to the lake. The journey was great fun, apart from the confusion when we kept stopping to talk to random villagers on the way. Sokunthoen was the driver who clearly likes his speed, as the front of the boat lifted out of the water and we sped away. He did slow down when we went passed people fishing as they are on small shallow boats which rock a lot when we went passed as it was. He then made up for it by cornering really tightly and we all leaned over to one side then the other. What about the trim I thought, thinking back to sailing lessons
Along the banks of the river we saw villages which were miles from anywhere. The countryside here is basically rice fields, with coconut and sugar trees growing intermittently on the flat land. As we got nearer the Tonle Sap the vegetation became more forest like and the villages got further apart but some of them really are in the middle of no-where - access to health care or good education does not seem to be an option for most.
We arrived in the village around 4pm after a couple of hours travelling. The village was amazing. It is a collection of houses, schools, karaoke bars, shops, petrol stations and everything else you get in any self respecting town in Cambodia - but it was floating (Pic: Sunset 6). Each building is separate, or you may get a parade of linked shops, so you need a boat to go anywhere. The boats are shallow with a generator at one end (Pic: Tonle Sap). The buildings are floating on the edge of a flooded forest and are in the water all year round. I never worked out it they are anchored to stop them floating around...I think they must be. The river forms the high street, in which the mobile shops and café travel up and down
We arrived at the Commune Chief's house and we had an initial meeting. I am getting used to these meetings now and automatically sit cross-legged and smile, as I don't understand anything! Vuthy, a consultant in my office, translated for me and did a sterling job all week. It is hard as he has his job to do (GIS for the geographers) but he still found time to translate, as my crappy Khmer is not up to much at the moment.
At a meeting on the second day I had to stand up and speak in Khmer. I did the usual introductory stuff (come from the UK, 2 years here, help Department of Fisheries and village etc.), and then said I hoped that the Community Fishery would be a success and forgot the fact that I didn't know what the word 'success' is in Khmer. It all got rather tricky. Made no difference, as I don't think they understood me anyway!
EVERYTHING YOU WANT TO KNOW BUT ARE TOO AFRAID TO ASK...
Okay, the place we stayed in was the Fishery office in Phatsanday
Food was really good! I was surprised! There was big fat fresh fish every day breakfast, lunch and dinner - with rice of course. We had great soups with lemongrass and limejuice and the fish was nice. We had fish in sugar which was like a burnt caramel tasting sauce which was a really unique taste but one which I could definitely acquire.
My boss seems to have a penchant for eyes and fish heads in general. I was told that when UNTAC were in Cambodia after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, all the UNTAC staff wanted fish heads and tails and guts removed from their fish - which seems odd to the Khmer people who eat all the fish, usually with startling vigour
The drinking water was all from large 20l treated water bottles so was fine to drink. I saw one kid drinking from the river - just leaned over the edge of his boat and drank, but decided for a mollycoddled white European girl this was too much! Call me fussy but I prefer my water without faecal coliforms.
The toilet...what can I say. The loo was across a ladder onto the next floating bit of a building which housed the toilet and the generator. It was fine - very clean as it is surrounded by water and was just a hole in the wooden floorboards. Just don't look down. Everyone uses water from a bucket not loo roll except us weird Europeans - I have not really worked out how to use the properly for this purpose... Answers on a post card please.
Washing - great fun. This is where sarongs and the hideous elasticated skirt come into their own. You hitch the skirt up to your armpits and take all your clothes off from under it, then sit cross-legged on the edge of the house which is about 1ft above the water and pail water over yourself. It was very liberating as it was in the most beautiful environment and was about the only time I was on my own without thinking I should be speaking Khmer so it was relaxing
The generator was on from around 5 until 10 or 11 so Khmer soaps on TV were the main form of entertainment as well as drinking tea. So it was as far removed from the beer-swigging orgy that I had been told it would be. Mind you, you have to get in a boat and go for 10 mins to get to a shop, so maybe that is why. It's hardly a convenience food.
Insects - great huge thick clouds of the little buggers where everywhere. I managed to acquire and amazing 67 new bites! Good for me! Mind you I think I sat on an ants next as I do have a cluster of over 30 on my backside. Yes, I counted. Sorry.
Language - this was really hard work. As some of you may know, I am not a shy retiring type and am not used to sitting around not speaking!!! I tried to talk Khmer but it was so hard because my low point was when my 'orkun' (thankyou) was rejected by a confused looking lady...so I stopped trying which I think is a mistake. It got better on the third night and day so maybe it wont be so bad next time. A Khmer-English dictionary and a Headway English Book 1 are great ways of getting to talk to people. As are mobiles phones as Sokunthoen the driver and I played Khmer texting in a Romanised alphabet which amazed me, but that is how people text here unless they have a phone that supports Khmer script.
Fantastic. Amazing. Night time gave rise to the most stunning sunsets imaginable. It was tranquil and just beautiful, especially as we were not near other buildings. The stars at night were stunning (Dad you would have loved it) as there was no light pollution. You could see a few strip lights maybe 300m away but the generators were soon turned off. (Pic: Sunset 4)
It was not too hot so I didn't miss a fan at night in fact I needed my blankets both to salve my aching hips (sleeping on a reed mat on the floor is hard on your bones) and to keep the chill out. The last night, the wind was howling. We are in the windy season at the moment. The whole place was rocking and no-one got any sleep at all. People were walking about with torches, the rooms were creaking and groaning, the waves were splashing and crashing about. There is such a large fetch that the waves were BIG for a lake. I loved sleeping at night with the plopping fish sounds underneath your head but this was too much!
The thing that shocked me about the environment was the fact that people on one hand want to protect their resources - as the meetings we went to showed, but on the other hand EVERYTHING is thrown from the buildings into the water. This was especially hard for me when they chucked plastic bags and bottles away. I ended up taking my rubbish home! I don't know what the solution is. A low tech floating incinerator would be good, but who would pay for it and maintain it - the government has no money, as it doesn't collect tax! Even people from my office who are supposed to be environmentally aware threw everything into the water!!!!! Anyone got any thoughts?? I could have cried.
After a series of confusing meetings apparently, we got somewhere. The community accepted the fishery area that Vuthy suggested and they started to map the area. I would love to have gone out on the third day and seen the mapping (GIS toys), but there was 8 men on a boat together all day so I would not have been able to go to the loo - how unfair!!
I spent the day with my boss. I am not sure what happened really. We went to another branch of the fishery office. We had lunch at 10:30. The men all had a beer with 'lunch' from a floating shop that drifted into the proceedings (Pic : Fruit seller). I had to take some photos of the office. We went to another office at 11:30 where everyone slept for 2 hours then we went back to our office with about 4 additional people. That was it.
There was talk of karaoke. I was glad it didn't happen as I could cope fine with the loo in the place we were in and I knew where the snakes are likely to be, but a new loo after several beers - that would a recipe for disaster.
I looked forward to a boat ride home, but it didn't happen. Instead of the ~50Km along the river to home, two of us (don't know what the rest were doing) went to the other side of the lake on a small boat, then waited 2 hours for a bus to go to Phnom Penh then a bus back to K. Thom. This meant the 3 hr, 50Km boat journey turned into a 2 day 300Km journey. Odd.
I asked why the boat couldn't take us back. It just couldn't. There will be many things over the next two years that I just won't understand or won't be allowed to know.