The mouth of western Cambodia’s Sangkar (or Sangkae) River lies concealed amid a maze of water-hyacinth clogged waterways, endless reed marshes and clouds of egrets in the far northwestern corner of the vast but shallow Tonle Sap Lake. Anyone with a window seat between Bangkok and Siem Reap may have peered down on these extensive wetlands and unique eco-system where the freshwater sea quadruples in size by the end of the monsoon season and inundates a wide swathe of the surrounding flatlands. Even during the dry season, there is little or no terra firma in the river’s lower reaches and the local residents live in either the ubiquitous sampan-style houseboats or unique floating villages constructed on rafts of bamboo anchored to the river bed.
Chong Kneas Village bobs around on the lake waters of the far northeastern corner and is popular with trippers from nearby Siem Reap while the more sizable Prek Toal is situated on the opposite side of the lake, just upstream from where the sluggish Sangkar oozes into the Tonle Sap itself. Aside from a stilt secondary school, Buddhist temple, what we’ve always guessed was the mayor’s impressive residence and the offices of the adjacent Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary, the entire village floats, including primary schools, a clinic, police station, karaoke bars and perhaps most surprisingly for visitors, a Catholic church. (Khmer, ethnic Cham and Vietnamese all call the area home and along the river, you’ll see mosques and Buddhist wats as well as the floating St Joseph’s.)
On the surface at least the river and lake, photogenic floating villages and abundant birdlife make for some exotic and photogenic scenes. Below the picturesque surface, however, serious environmental and social issues in this highly fragile ecosystem are increasingly coming to the fore. Water quality is rapidly worsening – largely but not uniquely from agricultural run-off upstream – which, allied with overfishing, is creating a dramatic drop in fish stocks. Household refuse continues to be dumped directly into the Sangkar from both the riverine villages and upstream suburbs of Battambang and the volume of plastic and styrofoam increases and accumulates year by year. The floating villages obviously have no refuse collection in place but nor do they have any sewage system either so, although less visible to the casual boat passenger, human waste from the burgeoning population going directly ino the river isn’t doing much for water quality either. (Prek Toal does now have a small (floating) water treatment facility but residents still bathe, brush their teeth and wash up dishes in the river itself.)
Another problem, which is immediately obvious to any casual visitor, is the proliferation of the invasive water-hyacinths – a non-native species – which clogs up waterways to the extent that Prek Toal is actually ‘snowed in’ and virtually inaccessible at certain times of the year. This thick coating of South American foliage may be good news for herons and egrets but it’s certainly not good news for a stagnating water flow nor local transport facilities. (A tiny fraction of dried hyacinth stalks are used to weave bags and mats by Prek Toal’s commendable Saray Community project but that is a drop in the proverbial ocean.)
Improved health care and a drastic reduction in infant mortality in recent times have resulted in a population boom in lake and river villages meaning there are fewer, already dwindling, resources to go around and greater pressure on the environment. Rooftop solar cells, new schools, village clinics and various NGO projects have improved living conditions for many while lucrative fish and crocodile farming, plus a certain amount of land clearance for agriculture in upstream areas, has brought increased prosperity for certain families but the pitiful living conditions and abject poverty of a large section of the local population is still some of the worst to be seen anywhere in Cambodia.
On the bottom rung, in many respects, are the numerous houseboat dwellers who still lead a de-facto nomadic existence. During the rainy season, home is a tattered old sampan-style wooden boat while in dry months the families live in makeshift plastic and bamboo lean-tos on the riverbank as they attempt to raise a quick-growing cash crop on adjacent land before it’s submerged again in the upcoming rains.
The relatively important start-up funds required for fish or crocodile farming are beyond the reach of most so scratching a living from dwindling fish stocks is still the default existence and, as is generally the case, rural depopulation is then an inevitable corollary of rural poverty. This may off-set aforementioned population increase to some extent but leads to a demographic imbalance as locals of working age up-sticks to Siem Reap, Battambang, Phnom Penh or even Thailand, leaving villages full of elderly people and mothers stuck at home with hoards of young children. Furthermore, educational possibilities are obviously extremely limited so any families with a minimum of cash and/or kids with a minimum of academic ability are going to do their utmost to get into a city school. (A not uncommon sight in some villages is a spanking new school – generously funded by such and such an organisation – but with locked doors, as there aren’t enough teachers to staff it.)
While grandparents’ horizons might not have stretched beyond rare visits to Battambang Town or a once in a lifetime trip to Phnom Penh, everyone in these villages today has a smartphone and access to TV. Any kid these days is fully aware of life outside of their 20 square metres of floating bamboo; they can see the fancy new shopping malls and glittering nightclubs of the capital and the pubs and markets of Siem Reap while lapping up the popular hi-so Thai soaps. Clearly, the river scenes are superficially charming, quaint and exotic to a foreign visitor but being stuck in a damp one-roomed shack, topping and tailing fish all day every day, doesn’t figure high on the list of many Khmer teenager’s aspirations.
It’s also doubtful that even improved income and living standards would make the situation much more tempting. Increasing salaries may help to find a few more teachers and expanding solar-cell use would make everyday life more comfortable but it’s a long while before we’ll see a Preak Toal technical college, Aeon Bak Preah or running water and flush toilets (that don’t go directly into the river). On an environmental level removing single-use plastic would make some at least superficial improvements but, with little or no dry land, installing a refuse collection and treatment system is expensive and complicated. Clearing and draining marshes and flooded forests to create more agricultural land is a non-starter as it would destroy one of Southeast Asia’s most valuable and rare eco-systems and, in Preak Toal Bird Sanctuary what is certainly one of Southeast Asia’s most important protected wetland sites.
We’ll throw an upstream dam, increasingly erratic climate patterns and the rapid expansion of booming Battambang – the Sangkar’s main riverside town – into the mix and a rather foreboding perfect storm of environmental, social and economic problems emerges.
The unique but already endangered Tonle Sap, Prek Toal and Sangkar River biosphere and eco-systems are invaluable and to be preserved at all costs but for the equally unique way of life of the area’s inhabitants, the word unsustainable inevitably springs to mind. On a positive environmental note, a little-known and rather remote tributary of the Sangkar – the Mongkol Borei – has received some low-key but effective protection from the government. Fishing has been curtailed, floating and riverbank habitations (with the exception of one village near the confluence with the Sangkar) banned and even river traffic restricted resulting in the most pristine and wildlife-abundant stretch of river we’ve seen anywhere in the country. (Unlike the better-known Prek Toal Sanctuary, this apparently effective scheme seems to have gone completely under the radar.)
There are now some low-key tourism initiatives in Prek Toal – a few homestays and excellent eco-tourism options by Osmose – but these are very much small scale and even if one did manage to divert a portion of Angkor’s mass appeal into such schemes, large visitor numbers would defeat the object anyway. The area’s flora and fauna are spectacular and unique and the opportunity to discover a way of life, now rare in Southeast Asia, is not to be missed but seeing the Sangkar villages go the same way as Chong Kneas or Prek Toal turned into some kind of waterbird theme park, is not a solution. With the Sangkar’s, and indeed the entire Tonle Sap Lake’s serious and ever-growing environmental and socio-economic issues it is hard to see an effective way forward.