The Tonle Sap Lake

The sun rises over Tonle Sap lake, Cambodia.

The Tonle Sap lake is located in the Lower Mekong Basin in Cambodia. It literally translates to a large river (tonle), fresh, and unsalty (sap), which is also roughly translated to “Great Lake”.

The lake occupies a geological depression of the Lower Mekong Basin, the lowest lying area in that region. The Cambodian floodplain comprises of lowland Cambodia, the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, part of southern Laos and a small part of eastern Thailand. Tonle Sap lake is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia.

Tonle Sap Ecology

The Tonle Sap lake is one of the most ecologically rich regions in the world, and this is why it has been of immense importance to Cambodia due to its food provision. The lake is one of the richest inland fishing grounds in the world and provides a huge percentage of the fish supply throughout Cambodia.

It is also, more or less, directly or indirectly, a source of income for most of the rural areas surrounding the lake a for the stretch of at least a radius of 3-4kms on each side. The surroundings of the lake are covered with freshwater mangroves, evergreen forests, seasonal tropical forests or natural bamboo plantations.

The further you move from the lake, the forest eventually starts decreasing into smaller forests and plantations, and then into wet grasslands. These forests, mangroves and grasslands jointly combine to provide a habitat for a large number of wild species that range from underwater animals like fishes and turtles, to on-land creatures.

The freshwater mangroves, also known as the flooded forest, holds immense importance for the national freshwater fishery industry of Cambodia, a cultural and symbolic trade for the people. Fish is the major and primary protein source, and Tonle Sap provides a huge number of fish used locally and throughout Cambodia. The annual fish catch is estimated to be about 180,000-250,000 tonnes.

The Importance of Tonle Sap

The main source of income for the local farmers and peasants is rice farming. But, this source of income is a risk factor since over-flooding or under-flooding can damage the crops. A good harvest can help the farmers last a whole year, but a bad harvest caused due to the instability of the flood factor can harm the crops to a great extent.

At the end of a good annual harvest, villagers join hands and march to the pagoda, to celebrate and cherish the Gods for their mercy. This annual celebration is a sort of 3-day event where villagers dance, sing along to music, wear their best clothes, men take women into marriage and the villagers present gifts to the Gods.

The Tonle Sap lake has an amazingly gifted ecological system, being home to 149 recorded species of fish, 11 globally threatened species and 6 near threatened ones. These include some marvellous creatures like the Spot-billed Pelican, Bengal Pelican, Darter and the Grey Headed Fish Eagle. The lake is also home to a huge number of different species of reptiles, like the now close to extinction Siamese Crocodiles, and the world’s largest habitat of freshwater snakes.

A huge portion of the ecosystem has been wiped out due to the excessive farming and wood derivation from the area, but Tonle Sap is still a host to one of the world’s most diverse platforms in terms of species and their habitats. It has served as a breeding ground and home to the world’s rarest species and still continues to do so.

Despite the negative criticism that Tonle Sap gets regarding the decrease of the forests and the grasslands, studies have been unable to suggest that the overall system has been affected in a big way.

While modern-day farming and forest cutting does have its consequences, the Tonle Sap is still serving as an amazing recipient of new plant and animal species and continues to be a hot tourist spot for people who like to mingle with wildlife.

If you’re visiting Cambodia or are finding reasons to do it, the diversity of the system is exactly why you need to visit.

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