It’s late October and Cambodians are eagerly anticipating the coming end of a most difficult rainy season. Here on the Tonle Sap, the water has nearly submerged the trees, only the highest branches appear above the waters of this vast inland sea. In the villages, securely hidden behind the mangrove forests, or ‘flooded’ forests as they are locally known, the water level has nearly reached the floorboards of the stilted homes that in the dry season would soar six meters above the ground.
The Tonle Sap Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, and its feeder, the Tonle Sap River exist as an ecological anomaly. In early June, as the annual rainy season commences, the water level of the Mekong River rises substantially enough to divert part of its flow off its course to the South China Sea and redirect it into the Tonle Sap River. This forces the current of this 100-kilometer long river to reverse direction, beginning a process that by the end of October will see the area of the Tonle Sap Lake grow from 2,500 square kilometers to as much as 12,000 square kilometers, its boundaries extend anywhere from 20 kilometers to as much as 50 kilometers inland and its depths increase from a mere two meters to as deep as ten.
The Tonle Sap is one of the most fish abundant lakes in the world and the silt deposits left behind by the annual floods have created fertile ground for agriculture. It’s no surprise that one of Asia’s greatest ancient civilizations developed near this lake and today much of Cambodia’s livelihood still depends on its output. So dependent are Cambodians that the government vigorously enforces fishing bans from March to November.
In some of the lakeside villages, successful efforts by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations have eliminated tree cutting in the fragile flooded forests. Rich in biodiversity, these forests protect the villages of the lake by acting as a natural barrier to the rough waters that characterize the Tonle Sap in the winter months.