#27 from SE Asia
March 7th, 2010
along the Tonle Sap river
I leave Phnom Penh at sunrise before the heat of the day. The road traffic is not frantic. I stay on highway 5, on the south side of the Tonle Sap River and Tonle Sap Lake. Within 10 miles, the traffic and street noise has dropped to the level of a country road. The drill is clear to me. Get in as many miles as early as I can, before the heat of the day. I am doing 3 gallons of liquids a day. I will have to do this all the way back to Bangkok, for winter is over here. It is now getting hot. My goal is 90+ kms ahead, to Kampong Chhnang (that is honestly how they spell it in English), where the Tonle Sap River meets the Tonle Sap Lake.
Along the way, I stop at villages without electricity. But I can still get iced drinks. They have daily deliveries of ice here. I can remember as a child that my grandmother actually had an íce box’, where she would receive a daily block of ice for her refrigerator from the íce man’. .
So what do they do for lighting? A local man has big single cylinder diesel engine attached to a generator. Every morning people bring to him their discharged 12 volt car batteries. When they are all wired together in parallel, he fires up his generator and charges them all afternoon. They come with bicycles and pick them up at the end of the day.
They do not just use them for lighting. They have 12 volt TVs. And what do they watch? ALL the women in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia watch soap operas. I swear. ALL of them. In every shop, restaurant, business, there is a soap opera on. And the men? Kick-boxing. I am confident that soon, the human genome project is going to identify the genome cluster for watching soap operas and sports.
I have been consistently amazed at what these people can move with a 100cc motorcycle. Do you think this would pass US highway inspection? I assure you that I have seen much worse here.
As I ride north on a Friday afternoon, I see maybe 40 men gathered around a TV in a cafeteria, watching a kick-boxing championship. Their reactions are identical to US men watching boxing. I notice that most of the men are from 45 to 60 years old. A Cambodian in Phnom Penh told me earlier that any man in this age bracket now alive in Cambodia HAD to be active in the Khmer Rouge. He said that if they did not support the Khmer Rouge, they were summarily executed. He said that if they were not killed, they were doing the killing. I look at their faces and I wonder, ‘which ones?”
I read about the Tonle Sap River in WHEN THE RIVERS RUN DRY. This is a great book that researches how damming and draining off the world’s major rivers have changed them so. The Tonle Sap is unlike any other river in the world. It is the only river to flow in both directions. For 7 months a year, it flows into the Mekong River and out to the South China Sea. But for 5 months, the Mekong River rises so fast during the monsoon season that it backs up into the Tonle Sap and refills the Tonle Sap lake. This shallow lake may quadruple its size, flooding the surrounding woodlands and rice paddies. The plants and the people have adopted their lives to this annual cycle.
The Tonle Sap Lake is also the richest fresh water fishery in the world. On good years it produces up to 3 million tons of fish, fully 4% of the world’s annual catch. All this from a relatively small lake. (NOTE: No wonder the national dish is Amok. It is a fish wrapped in a banana leaf, baked with light curries, coconut, vegetables and herbs I have never tasted had before. I had a serving of it tonight and it was extraordinary).
There is something else extraordinary about the Tonle Sap River. For a while, the river stops flowing and just sits still. It then deposits a lot of water-logged organic matter at the bottom. This material gets silted over and begins degrading anaerobically into methane. When the river reverses course, it sometimes does so violently, stirring up the bottom and causing large amounts a methane gas to be released. At this time in the evening the Cambodians in Phnom Penh will launch many small boats with burning candles into the river. When the boats hit pockets of methane, they explode. 1000′s of spectators cheer at this. But the Cambodians have a different explanation. They say that the river dragons have awakened and are angry. I like their explanation better.
I haved not seen this phenomena myself. I have only heard of it and read about it. But I would like to witnessit some time.