Cambodia homestay: Fishing on the Tonle Sap

On our Cambodia homestay we headed out at dawn with a fisherman. But did we catch anything?

It’s 4am, dark and hot. We’ve spent the night under mosquito nets, the whirring of fans the soundtrack to sweaty sleep.

Joe is still half asleep as I carry him out to the large open room at the front of the house that overlooks the river. By day it’s a bit like living next to a main road with long tail boats bellowing up and down at high speed.

Our stilt house from the rear. The rising waters have yet to submerge the stilts completely

Now there’s a wonderful stillness. It’s silent but for the occasional flap of water against the stilts that support us. We glug tea and force down bananas and bread. Our fisherman is here, waiting in his sleek little boat at the foot of the long ladder down to the river.

It’s precarious getting down with Joe in my arms. We wobble into the boat and sit on the wooden cross benches. It’s getting light. Already we can see the wooden stilt houses on the other side of the river, many with boats moored up outside.

Chhay is 21 and he’s been fishing the vast Tonle Sap lake since he was 13. His father taught him the ropes. He saved hard and by the time he was 18, he had enough to buy his own boat.

We’re four in all. Me, Karen and Joe and our interpreter Mr Kong. We get kitted out with lifejackets as Chhay pushes off and starts the engine. We putter downriver, the occasional fisherman more determined to get to his nets cruises past. As we reach the lake we pass the floating village. Here a complete community lives aboard boats, moving with the waters as they ebb and flow. There are shops, a petrol station and even a school all rocking gently on the water. At this early hour, there’s little activity.

Chhay opens up the engine. The rush of the chilly air jolts us awake. It’s exhilarating. Not for the first time here in Cambodia, I’m up far too early. But I’m feeling that unique surge of adrenaline at doing something new, totally different.

A local fisherwoman paddling out to her nets.

The Tonle Sap is the world’s second largest lake. It’s a unique food machine slap bang in the heart of Cambodia. Some 15% of the country’s population depend upon its bounty for their livelihoods. There are over 200 species of freshwater fish swimming around in its vast depths.

Hopefully we are going to catch a few this morning.

A weak, yellow sun is slipping above the distant, watery horizon. We plough through swathes of water lilies, Chhay has to lift the propeller out of the water to avoid snagging it in them. We pass forlorn looking trees, two thirds submerged in the water.

The water level varies massively over the year nearly doubling in depth during the rainy season and receding for miles when it’s dry. Stilt villages like the one we are staying in suddenly rediscover roads between the houses, the trunks of trees reappear. Rice is planted and harvested before the waters return.

Chhay has three sets of nets pegged out in the lake. We’ve reached the first. They’re carefully laid out, starting with a large funnel shape that narrows to a detachable net about the size of a bin sack.

We wait, expectant, as Chhay manoeuvres the boat carefully around the nets using a large paddle. It’s a precarious business leaning over the side, grasping the wet, heavy net and hauling it up and over the side of the boat.

A cascade of small, shiny fish rushes out of the net making Joe jump. Suddenly our feet are surrounded by a pulsing, slithering mass. Tiny mouths gasp for air, glassy eyes stare up at us. The fish jump and bounce around trying to find a way back into the water.

A slithering, wriggling mass of small fish, fresh from the net.

Most of this catch are no larger than my index finger. A few are the size of my hand. Mainly they are small white groupers, with a few ugly catfish and sleek pipefish mixed in.

Joe is not at all sure what to make of it. He shrieks as one particularly energetic fish bounces against his leg.

“How many kilos?” I ask Chhay. “Maybe five he shrugs,” underwhelmed by his catch.

We have two more nets to go. Maybe they will be better?

We chug on to the next one. I watch the fish around my feet breathing their last breaths and feel a little sad. When Chhay isn’t looking I pick up a particularly nice one. He flaps and wriggles between my fingers, wet and vital, desperate for a second chance. I drop him back into the lake and watch him dash away. I feel and odd mixture of guilt and joy.

The second net is totally empty. Maybe we’re bringing bad luck?

Chhay hauling in the net. Will it have anything in it this time?

The sun is up properly up now. Its light bounces and shimmers off the lake’s surface as we approach our final net.

Chhay leans far out, plunges his arms into the chilly waters and hauls. There’s definitely something in the net.

Up it comes. But there are fewer fish than in the first net. Among the catch are several eels that wriggle and squirm.

“Most of these will used as bait or for feeding fish farms,” says Chhay. There are maybe six decent sized specimens that are worth the effort of cooking.

I ask him how much the fish are worth. About five US dollars.

He cranks up the motor and we speed back. The quicker he gets the fish back, the better the prices from the buyers.

We’ve caught maybe 10 kilos of fish today. Sometimes he fills the boat almost completely. 300 kilos is not uncommon.

“The catches are often pretty small these days,” he shouts to me. I assume this is due to over-fishing but no. “The fish are getting smarter!” he smiles. “They know how the nets work and swim away before they get caught. We have to keep changing the layout to catch them out!”

At the village, everyone is awake now and the river is much busier. Boatloads of children paddle themselves to school in wooden canoes. We wave and they wave back and smile.

Kids on their way to school!

Chhay has earned just five dollars for his hard work fishing today, but tourist income is an important source of additional cash. He’ll earn 25 dollars for taking us out. On a slow day, that makes a big difference.

He finds a buyer quickly for the bigger fish too. Mr Kong hands over some cash. “You can’t get fish much fresher than that.” he smiles. “We’ll have them for dinner!”

Fancy doing a homestay in Cambodia?

Get There:
Flights to Bangkok are widely available. It’s a very competitive market. To reach this part of Cambodia fly from Bangkok into Seam Reap international airport with Air Asia.

Doing a Homestay
Our homestay was organised through Rickshaw travel. Typical cost is £215 per person for two days/one night including all food and transport.

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