Tonle Sap: A Reflection of Cambodia’s Life, Faith and History

The journey of the river from Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake ends in Phnom Penh as it meets the mighty Mekong. And then it starts anew tracing the southern delta of Cambodia, quenching its fields, and filling up the nets of the fishermen. I started my fieldwork in Cambodia with a night stroll along the Riverside. It is the centre of tourism in Phnom Penh lined up with restaurants of international cuisines, noisy pubs and tuktuk drivers patiently waiting for their passengers. But the calmness of the river can easily drown the sounds. The lights from the structures across the riverbank  and from a handful of tour boats reflected on the silent waters of Tonle Sap mesmerize those who closely look and carefully listen.

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One afternoon, I walked to Wat Ounalum and Wat Phnom while staying on the sidewalks of Sisowath Quay. These are only two of the many Buddhist temples around the city and the closest to the river. The annual Water and Moon Festival is held along the river with boat races, rituals and other forms of celebration. Aside from marking the start of the fishing and rainy season, this festival also commemorates the Buddhist legend of Naga whose teeth fell into the depths of the river. The faith of the Khmer people to the teachings of Buddha remains undisturbed despite the rapid urban growth. Temples are well-preserved and monks are highly respected. This faith withstands the changing currents of the river and, most importantly, the demands of rapid development.

Wat Ounalum

Wat Ounalum

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom

Wat Phnom sits on a 27-metre hill making it the highest religious structure in Phnom Penh

Wat Phnom sits on a 27-metre hill making it the highest religious structure in Phnom Penh.

On the last day of my fieldwork, before I headed to the airport, I managed to have another stroll along the Riverside. I savored the gentle  kiss of morning sun on my skin, greeted some of the tuktuk drivers good morning, and watched the street and the river waking up with the rest of the city. I saw fishing nets thrown on the water with buildings being constructed on the background. It’s a perfect example of contrast between the old and the new–a usual characteristic of a developing nation like Cambodia.

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Perhaps, it is more or better than a contrast. The river reflects the harmony of the country’s past, present and future. As long as the river continues to breathe life, the people will keep depending on it for food and income, either for tourism or personal survival. Like the merging of the Tonle Sap with Mekong, which flowed passed the mountains and lakes of the past, Cambodia will also merge its history with the present while coursing through the river of the future.

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