Tag Archives: tonle sap


26 Feb

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Discover is an annual luxury travel magazine / guide to Cambodia. For the 2014 edition, I took a helicopter to remote jungle temples, sailed to tropical islands, kayaked through a sprawling flooded forest, and kicked back in some of the country’s classiest resorts. Trips taken with my photographer pal Sam from samjamphoto.com can be seen above.

You can read about the helicopter trip here. The flooded forest story can be found here. The full magazine is available online at discover-cambodia.com.



13 Dec

Nop Penh begging along Sisowath Quay
photo by Sam Jam

Every day, up and down. Thin rubber wheels, hole-rutted cement. Nop Penh with a cap balanced between two stumps. He doesn’t need to ask for money. The message is clear. Help.

Twenty years old. Handsome. Gentle, intelligent eyes. Eloquent. Never went to school. “How could I?” he says, looking at his limbless body, at the smooth rounded flesh where his arms abruptly end, at the toes that curl from his left hip, at the perfectly formed foot that emerges from his right. Nop Penh is the youngest of nine children. He is the only one who was born this way.

Cambodia’s social security network is almost nonexistent. Local and international NGOs try to fill the gaping holes, but it’s impossible for them to support every Cambodian in need. Nop Penh was given a wheelchair.

“What work can I do?” he says, “Begging is my only future.” It’s also his only past. For as long as he can remember, Nop Penh has been carried or wheeled by parents, brothers and sisters, their offspring, always asking for money.

He works from 7am to 11pm. Today, his silent 13-year-old nephew eases him through the tourist throngs of Sisowath Quay, the city’s riverfront hub of gaudy and chic hotels, bars, restaurants, cafés. A few massage parlours. Plenty of hostesses. Backpackers munching cosmic green pizza and drivers eternally asking you if you want tuk tuk? Moto? Girl? Killing Fields? Ganja? Boy? Palace? Yama? Shooting range?

Afternoons are the best and Vietnamese tourists fork out the most. Maybe he reminds them of their beggars, so many deformed by America’s Agent Orange.

Phnom Penh’s glittering Royal Palace is Nop Penh’s most lucrative begging ground. No tourist visits the city without seeing it and tourists pay more than Cambodians. But Nop Penh is not the only one who works here. Other beggars often drive him away. “They tell me that this is their area,” he says, “but I never listen. Sometimes they do nothing, but when they hit me with their sticks, I go.”

Nop Penh makes anywhere from 15,000 to 30,000 riel a day ($3.75 to $7.50 USD). This might seem like a meagre living, but in a country where more than half of the population lives off less than two dollars a day, Nop Penh nets a small fortune. This small fortune has allowed his parents to retire in their mid-fifties. They stay at home. Nop Penh and his nephew hit the pavement.

“Nothing,” Nop Penh says, “will ever change.”

(For more on Phnom Penh’s beggars, see the January issue of the Southeast Asia Globe.)

PHOTO ESSAY: Flooded Fields, Forgotten Farmers

22 Oct

For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life from under heaven; everything that is on the earth shall die.

For the past two months, Cambodia has been ravaged by the worst floods in remembered history. While the recent flooding in Thailand has made international headlines, the equally devastating floods in Cambodia have mostly gone unreported. An estimated one million people have been affected in seventeen of Cambodia’s twenty-three provinces by floodwater as deep as two metres. Government officials claim that 247 people have died, although the real number is likely much higher.

The worst hit areas have been the low-lying provinces of Kampong Thom, Prey Veng, and Kampong Cham. Throughout the country, rice fields have been destroyed and it is feared that the Kingdom will face serious food shortages in the coming months. Official sources state that the flooding has completely ruined 190,000 hectares of rice paddy and damaged 390,000 more—an area that corresponds to nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s rice-producing land. A Council of Ministers spokesman has assured Cambodians that there will still be enough rice to meet both export and domestic needs, but the grounds for his statement remain ambiguous.

In addition to potential food shortages, the floods have created more immediate dangers. There has been a spike in mosquito-borne illnesses such as dengue fever and there is currently a large-scale outbreak of diarrhea in the provinces—a major killer in the developing world. Submerged power lines and generators create the risk of electrocution, and decreased land area increases one’s chance of encountering venomous snakes, spiders, and large aggressive animals such as crocodiles and elephants.

Last month, the Cambodian government staged a dramatic helicopter rescue of more than 200 tourists stranded by flash floods at Bantey Srei, a 10th century Hindu temple famous for its intricately carved red sandstone walls and archways. The government’s assistance to affected Cambodians, however, has been less spectacular.

On October 13, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced that this year’s water festival would be cancelled in order to channel money and resources to flood relief. The water festival, Cambodia’s most important public holiday, marks the reversal of the Tonlé Sap river’s flow with three days of carnivals and boat races in the capital city. Last year, the festival ended in tragedy when more than three hundred people were trampled to death on a small bridge leading to the recently redeveloped Diamond Island.

A National Committee of Disaster spokesman stated that 76,000 flood-affected families have already received government assistance. While Cambodia has not requested international help, it has been receiving money and supplies from China, Singapore, the United States, Australia, Vietnam, Japan, and NGOs such as Save the Children. I spoke to several farmers on the tiny Mekong River island of Koh Trung in Kratie province. The majority of families in this agricultural community have seen their crops destroyed by nearly two metres of water. Each family has only been given a single aid package consisting of several cups of rice, a few packages of instant noodles, a bottle of fish sauce, and a packet of soup seasoning.

After more than a month, much of Cambodia still remains under water. Some speculate that the rampant deforestation of this once jungle-clad country may be partly to blame for the severity of this year’s flood. When Cambodia experienced its last major flood more than a decade ago, floodwater stayed on the ground for approximately ten days. As of today, October 22, 2011, water levels throughout this inundated country continue to rise.

The following photographs were taken in September and October in Kratie, Kampong Cham, Siem Reap, Battambang, and Pursat provinces. The dramatic nature of the flooding was made particularly clear to me near Kratie. On September 20, I took a boat tour of the upper reaches of the Mekong River to see Cambodia’s elusive pod of freshwater dolphins. The boat driver claimed that the river had swelled to nearly double its normal width, and along its banks, we could see green shrub-like tufts: the tops of submerged trees. When I returned two days later to conduct interviews in the community, the cement bench I had previously sat on near the water’s edge was nowhere to be seen: the river had risen by more than a metre in 36 hours. That same boat driver said he had never seen flooding so bad in all of his fifty years.

The following day, all the streets in town were flooded. It was time to leave. I took a bus to Kampong Cham and was greeted by the smiling young faces of soldiers filling sandbags. The town’s riverfront promenade was completely inundated. While the people watched with horror as the Mekong rose, threatening their homes and businesses, laughing children splashed in the dirty brown pools that had collected between the rows of sandbags. In the surrounding villages, the only dry land was a raised strip of narrow tarmac. This highway was a condensed tableau of village life: cows, chickens, pigs, and children filled the road while adults watched mournfully from the islands that were their stilted houses.

Further afield, the dirt roads of Kampong Thom province were soup, and in the town of Siem Reap, I had to roll up my pants to navigate around the tourist quarter. When I visited Kbal Spean, a river famous for its thousand Shiva lingas, the water was so high that no ancient stone penises could be seen. In Battambang, river water lapped the back doors of stilt-raised houses, and in Pursat province, only the roofs were visible of the stilted houses that lined the mighty Tonlé Sap lake. The thousand families in the nearby village of Kampong Luong, however, were unaffected: their wood and corrugated iron homes forever float on oil drums, bundles of mature bamboos, and dugout canoes.

On the ride back to Phnom Penh, the bus driver told me not to put my rucksack in the bus’ undercarriage. As we drove through Kampong Chhnang province, I learned why: the bus ploughed through nearly a metre of water on National Highway 5, one of Cambodia busiest roadways. Back in Phnom Penh, I was glad to find my neighbourhood dry. Others in the capital, however, have not been so lucky: the predominately Cham Muslim communities nestled between National Highway 1 and the Tonlé Sap river have spent several weeks sleeping in waterlogged beds.

(click photos to enlarge)


31 Aug

Diamond Island's Ferris Wheel

Diamond Island (or Koh Pich in Khmer) is a spit of land located a few kilometres south of the confluence of the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers. It is separated from Phnom Penh by a narrow channel and two small bridges. On weekends, Phnom Penh’s youth descend on Diamond Island to sip coffee and beer, stroll amidst gaudy art deco gardens, ride Ferris wheels, play carnival games, and, most importantly, cruise on their motorbikes.

On November 22, 2010, Diamond Island made international headlines when over three hundred people were trampled to death and nearly eight hundred more were injured in a stampede on the island’s northernmost bridge. People from surrounding provinces had flocked to the island for the annual three-day water festival—Cambodia’s most important public holiday that marks both the end of the monsoon season and the reversal of the Tonlé Sap River’s flow. After a day of boat races and an evening of concerts, mass panic ensued. Several investigations were launched to determine what sparked the tragedy, but no conclusions were ever made. Similarly, news media outlets all cited different causes for the stampede (see below). In order to avert future tragedies, the government has begun constructing several new bridges to be opened in time for this year’s festival.

Stampede aftermath: November 23, 2010

The development of Diamond Island epitomizes the changing face of Phnom Penh. A decade ago, the island was home to three hundred poor families who made their meagre livings growing rice and catching fish. Today, after several land reclamation projects, it is a concrete sprawl of western-style fast food restaurants, banquet halls, carnival rides, and games. A gated community of cookie-cutter townhouses is currently in construction on the island’s southern tip, and there are plans to build several condominiums, a shopping mall, and even a hospital. Developers envision Diamond Island becoming a city within a city; a place for the affluent to live and play without having to rub noses with the capital’s impoverished masses.

But what happened to the people who used to live here? And what happened last November?

I found Chon (27) lounging on a bench with a pretty Japanese backpacker. Born in Kampot province, Chon moved to Phnom Penh to pursue a legal education. “I come here every day,” he said. “In Cambodia, there are no places to travel; no places to relax. I come here whenever I can.” Chon’s favourite activity? Cruising on his moto. When I asked him about what Diamond Island was like before its recent development, Chon said, “Before, there were no buildings, no roads. Nothing. There was only land.” My final question: what can Cambodians learn from last year’s tragedy? Chon said, “It was terrible, but there is nothing we can learn. There was no reason for it.”

Nuomcham engaged in Cambodia's favourite pastime

When I met Nuomcham (22), she was engaged in Cambodia’s most popular pastime: sitting on the back of a parked motorbike and chatting with friends. An unemployed hairdresser, Nuomcham visits Diamond Island weekly with her boyfriend and family to people watch. When I asked her what Diamond Island looked like before its recent makeover, she said, “I have no idea.”

Whereas most western amusement parks have multiple carnival games, Diamond Island only has one: balloons and darts. There must be nearly a hundred stalls operating the same game, and wherever you walk, proprietors rush at you with handfuls of darts, begging you to play. The prizes? Stuffed animals, cheap plastic toys, wood sculptures, house wares, and dusty bottles of soda, dish soap, and bleach.  5000 riel ($1.25 USD) buys me eight darts. I only hit three balloons. My prize: a glass mug.

Praoun working his balloon and dart game

Praoun (23) moved to Phnom Penh a year and a half ago from Takeo province to work at the carnival. “I love my job,” he said, “but business has been bad since the stampede. Less people come.” On the night of November 20, 2010, Praoun was working his booth when tragedy struck. “I felt very scared when I heard the commotion,” he said, “but I did not see it.” When I asked him why it happened, he said, “I do not know.”

I saw Srey (52) lounging in a faux-Greco gazebo supported by columns of bare-breasted women in togas. Five years ago, Srey moved to Phnom Penh with her family from Svay Rieng province to find work. Now, she sells beverages near the bridge that leads to the island.

Of all the people I talked to on Diamond Island, Srey was the only one who seemed to know about the area’s past. She told me about the poor farmers who used to scrape their living off this small strip of land, farmers who periodically return to the island to watch its transformation. It was from their mouths that Srey learned of their fate. In the early 2000s, the government, having already reached deals with investors to develop the island, offered its residents a buyout package: $100,000 USD for each family plot. While many people took the offer and left, others decided to stay. This was their home: they had nowhere else to go. When government agents returned the following year, they offered the remaining inhabitants $50,000 for their family plots. With no documentation proving the ownership of their land, many families buckled to their inevitably declining fortunes and accepted the offer. However, armed with legally binding property deeds, twenty three families decided to stay. Police arrived and forcefully evicted these remaining farmers. This last group received no compensation.

Srey enjoying the Diamond Island air

On the night of November 22, 2010, Srey was at Diamond Island, busy selling drinks to the crowds that had come for the water festival. She witnessed the stampede firsthand: “There were two groups of men fighting. When one fled, the other followed. The fight continued on the bridge, and people started coming to watch. So many people came onto the bridge, they began to be crushed. People jumped off the bridge and into the water. Some hit boats under the bridge and died. People got free, begged me for water. I gave it to them. The police showed up and starting beating back the crowds that had assembled.”

Despite its troubling history, Diamond Island remains Srey’s favourite place in Phnom Penh: “There is nowhere else we can go to enjoy fresh air in the evenings, nowhere else to walk.” It should be noted that with the exception of a few strips of grass and benches between busy downtown boulevards, Phnom Penh completely lacks public parkland.

Dizzying Diamond Island distractions

The city’s youth, it seems, does not want to be bothered with the past: they come to Diamond Island to have fun; they live for the pleasures of the present. The city is rapidly changing, and to Phnom Penh’s young majority, all changes are good. “These things are not so important,” Chon said towards the end of our interview—I had asked him about his feelings regarding last year’s stampede. “Why do you ask these questions? Things like this happen everywhere and all the time.”


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For harrowing firsthand accounts of last November’s tragedy, see the following articles:
Global Voices: “Cambodia: Stampede Tragedy During Water Festival”
France 24: “Hundreds Dead as Popular Water Festival Ends in Tragedy”
Sky News: “Cambodia: 456 Dead in Festival Stampede”
The New York Times: “Stampede in Cambodia Leaves Hundreds Dead”