#27 riding north to the Tonle Sap River and Lake

The 2-directional Tonle Sap River

#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’. .

one generator is charging up the village

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.

This would meet federal inspections, right?

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.

5 Responses to #27 riding north to the Tonle Sap River and Lake


  2. Hi Dwight,

    Gloria Alexanderson sent me your web site.

    I guess my question is “Why Vietnam” You must have been stationed there in the service.

    I was in the US Army 66-67 Vietnam stationed at Cam Ranh Bay. I also was in Pleiku, Ban Me Thout.

    Cam Ranh Bay is situated on the South China Sea. The whole base and port put in by the US forces is basically a ghost town.
    Selling Real Estate here in Florida, I think this area could be a possible resort area worth millions one day.

    If you get a chance to visit it, take some pictures. I am in contact with about 100 members of my old unit. We have reunions every year and they would love to here what is happening there now.

    I guess you will probably write a book.

    Good Luck and stay safe.

    Steve Bailey Class of 64 HHS

  3. Hey Dwight!
    Great to meet you again in Angkor! Hope you’ll get to Bangkok safley and gets a great finish to your journey!
    Take care!
    Little miss Headphones and Anton, now part of your Swedish fan-club;)

  4. Hi Dwight, we are a couple who met you at the after party for Coal Country in the Cellar of Farm Bloomington last fall. We had some beer and you gave us a ton of sweet potatoes.

    You told us to get in contact and come check out your biodiesel stuff but that took me until now to find out you’re out of town.

    Last night we watched The Killing Fields, about the Khmer Rouge. And tonight I searched your name and found this?

    Can’t wait to hear more,
    Best Wishes

  5. Sounds like a good candidate for solar project for rural electrification. That way we could hit those UN indicators for soap opera watching.

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Dwight Worker Escape from Lecumberri Only two people ever escaped from the infamous Lecumberri Prison in Mexico City: Pancho Villa and Dwight Worker. This is the true story of Dwight Worker’s amazing escape. ESCAPE FROM LECUMBERRI is available in paperback or Kindle.

About the Author

Dwight Worker is an American professor, activist, adventurer, and fugitive. He escaped from the Mexican penitentiary Palacio de Lecumberri in 1975 along with the book and movie Escape about the story

Throughout his life he participated in civil rights, anti-war, and environmental movements. In 1991, Dwight volunteered to serve in the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Worker is a former professor at Indiana University, where he created the Information Security program for the Kelley School of Business before retiring in 2008 to farm, write, and travel.….READ MORE