TIMES are hard at the boat yard in Koh Kong Province's Sre Ambel - the only yard
in Cambodia still building large, deep-water fishing boats. A combination of poor
fishing and expensive wood means orders for new boats are down dramatically.
The boatyard in Sre Ambel ... only one new boat is nearing completion, another is being rebuilt, and a third is just a mere skeleton of frames awaiting planking.
The yard is located near the confluence of Prek Kampong Som and Prek Kambot, where
logs from the upstream forests can easily be floated down for milling.
The one-hectare yard is carpeted by a thick bed of wood shavings. Though there is
enough space to build a dozen boats at the same time, the yard is all but empty.
Now only one new boat is nearing completion, another is being rebuilt, and a third
is just a mere skeleton of frames awaiting planking.
"We do have people wanting to buy new boats but we can't take their orders because
of a lack of wood," said the owner of the yard, who did not want to be named.
The yard only makes boats to order, he said. Most of their clients are Khmer fishermen
or cargo transporters, though occasionally he gets contracts from Thai clients wanting
The government crackdown on illegal logging has seriously affected the supply of
timber for the boat construction business. Good timber is increasingly hard to find
in the forests, and expensive to buy from lumber dealers, he said.
The boats are constructed primarily with koki, a hardwood which is highly rot resistant
and survives a long time in a saltwater environment. A boat made with koki can have
a working life of more than 50 years, said the yard owner.
A typical boat built by the yard, called a kutkat (cut tail), can be outfitted for
use as either a fishing or cargo boat. Measuring about 20 meters long and built using
some 70 cubic meters of wood, these rugged boats take the construction crews about
five months to complete.
The owner said the kutkat is not a Cambodian-style boat ,but is based on a Thai fishing
Though comprising thousands of separate parts which must all fit precisely together,
the kutkat are built without the aid of paper plans.
"The only plans are here," said the owner of the yard, tapping his head.
Once the frame of the boat has been erected, the yard crew ties a red cloth to the
forward-most piece of timber, the stem, to ward off danger and help assure good progress
On launching day the boat owners pray for the safety of the boat and its crew, burn
incense and make offerings of chickens and bananas.
A grid of rail lines runs across the yard. The boats are built on concrete risers
enabling a trolley to be slid along the rails and beneath the boat's keel. The boat
is then jacked on to the trolley and, with the help of a tractor, maneuvered along
the rails and into the water.
From the launch site the boats have only a short run down the river to where it spills
into the ocean at Kampong Som Bay.
Boatyard staff at work ... the government crackdown on illegal logging has 'seriously affected' the supply of timber for the boat construction business; good timber is increasingly hard to find in the forests, and expensive to buy from lumber dealers.
Khem Non, 29, a carpenter, said he has been building boats for almost 14 years in
Sre Ambel. Although young, he is the most senior of the boatbuilders.
He learned the craft by apprenticing under older builders, but he said now they have
Non said he has no particular love for boats, or his dying craft. "It's just
a job," he said.
"We used to build quite a lot of boats, but now we repair more than we build,"
He is one of only 20 workers still employed by the yard. Some had to leave just recently
to search for work elsewhere.
Non said most fishermen are struggling just to make a living, so replacing their
boats with new ones is not an option.
Sreng, 53, a fisherman in Sihanoukville and a former boat builder, said it cost about
$25,000 to construct his boat's hull and deck alone.
Add a good-quality engine, navigation and communication equipment, as well as fishing
gear, and the price quickly spirals upwards.
Sreng used to build boats, but after the Government crackdown on logging which forced
timber prices up, he abandoned his building business in favor of fishing.
"Wood is expensive, while the fish are hard to catch, so how can fishermen afford
to buy a new boat?" asked Sreng.
He and a crew of seven typically will spend a month at sea and return with a catch
of only one or two tons. Sometimes he loses money, sometimes he makes a small profit.
He says that not too many years ago he could count on earning 200,000 to 300,000
baht ($5,000 to $7,500) per voyage.
Sreng said he goes after fish in the two to three kilogram range, "BK"
and Bloodfish, which he catches in Cambodian waters and then exports to Vietnam and
He attributes the big decline of fish stocks to Thai and Vietnamese fleets fishing
illegally in Cambodian waters with the protection of the Cambodian Navy.
These foreign boats, he said, use trawl and push nets which destroy coral and tear
up the sea bed. And foreign lightboats, which use floating lamps to draw the fish
to one area then net them all regardless of size, are devastating stocks.
"I am very worried that if these illegal practices continue, the fish in Cambodia
will disappear and the next generation will not have fish to eat. But if we start
to prevent this from happening now, our fish will come back to us," said Sreng.
He said in the Sihanoukville area there are now about 2,000 fishing boats, and most
are having a difficult time making a living.
Sreng said he can't imagine what he will do if he can no longer make his living from
the sea. "It's all I have done since I was a boy."