The recent furor between UNESCO and the Cambodian government, with harassed staff
locked out of Angkor Conservation, will not trouble the tranquil waters of the Tonle
Sap which is to be considered for nomination as a World Heritage Site.
UNESCO's World Heritage Convention protects both natural and cultural sites, from
Ayer's Rock in Australia to the temples along the Nile. No other natural sites in
mainland Southeast Asia, apart from a national park and wildlife sanctuary in Thailand,
come under its aegis and it may only be a part of the lake that is elegible for protection,
such as the flood plain.
The Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, covering nearly a
seventh of Cambodia's land surface in the rainy season. An area rich in wildlife,
it is under threat environmentally as deforestation of the countryside is causing
silting which affects its ecological balance. "If the new Cambodian government
agrees with the nomination of the site for the World Heritage Convention," said
David Ashwell, UNESCO's liaison officer, "it would help to influence future
study and policy on the lake. " Confirmation is expected before the end of the
The lake is unique in that during the monsoon it reverses its flow into the Mekong
and backs up to form an enormous freshwater sea. It floods surrounding forests, regulating
agricultural production by ensuring that the countryside is covered with nutrient-rich
mud for rice growing. Villages on the lake's borders move back two or three kilometers.
In the dry season, from November to May, it is reduced to a tenth of its original
size and yields as much as ten tons of fish per square kilometer which attracts thousands
of birds and fish-eating water fowl who flock to this important wetland before the
rains begin in June.
Its presence has shaped the course of history in Cambodia.
"Like the ancient Nile," wrote French writer Pierre Loti in the 19th century,
"whose mud gave birth to a great civilization, the Mekong overflowed its banks
annually, depositing its riches on the surrounding land, and laid the foundation
for the luxurious empire of the Khmers." He traversed the Tonle Sap en route
to the romantic ruins of Angkor Wat. In the central temple the exquisitely carved
bas-reliefs include numerous birds and fish, illustrating their importance at that
time, and around the Bayon bas-reliefs depict rivers teeming with fish, crocodiles,
pelicans and even an antelope being devoured by an enormous fish.
Nowadays, crocodiles in Cambodia live more like sardines, crowded into farms. But
three hundred species of freshwater fish in the lake ensure a livelihood for the
fishermen, predominantly Vietnamese, who skillfully throw their nets from small wooden
boats in traditional ways unchanged for centuries.
Struggling for survival in a society that is as violent now as it undoubtedly was
during the 11th century, their small floating villages have been targets for Khmer
Rouge hostilities. Massacres and abductions, as recently as August, were monitored
by UNTAC whose naval observers patrolled the area until Sept. 11, when they finally
left their base at Chhnok Tru on the southeastern corner of the lake.
The creaking wooden structure on stilts perched on the water where Tonle Sap headquarters
was based was known by its call code, Tango Hotel. The name conjured up an elegant
establishment where sophisticated couples danced to Latin American music, an image
not altogether inaccurate as a rotating staff of dashing Chilean naval officers played
their Lambada tapes in the evenings and practised steps with each other while dreaming
of the senoritas back home.
But some had eyes only for the birds. In between inspecting CPAF checkpoints, monitoring
Khmer Rouge troublespots, patrolling the villages and giving ad hoc medical assistance
to locals, British Royal Marine Sargeant Peter Carr joined Tango Hotel for a stint
during the dry season and indulged his passion for ornithology.
Sargeant Carr, military information assistant at Naval Headquarters in Phnom Penh,
is considered an expert in the international bird-watching community and is possibly
the only ornithologist to have visited the area-or indeed, Cambodia-in the last three
decades. He has observed and noted hundreds of different birds, many rarely seen
Being with Sargeant Carr is like opening the Field Guide to Birds of Southeast Asia
and hearing a million wings beating overhead as he reels off thousands of birds'
names that fly out of some vast storehouse of knowledge in his head.
He has spotted herons, Brahmani Kites, lesser agitants with 17-foot wingspans, ospreys,
hawk eagles, purple swamp hens, racket-tailed tropic birds, black drongs, Asian openbills
(the Tonle Sap is the most important location in the world for them), black-necked
ibis (he's watching for the giant ibis, he said, which hasn't been sighted anywhere
for 15 years), wood-sandpipers, black winged stilts, pink-headed ducks (not seen
elsewhere for more than 40 years), rufous-necked stints, long-toed stints, green
sandpipers, greenshanks, cinnamon bitterns, yellow bitterns, black bitterns, waders
(the wading bird, he declared, is what the Tonle Sap is all about), Javan pond herons,
Chinese pond herons, pale backed sparrows, (endemic to this area), Pacific gold plovers,
little-ringed plovers, greater sand plovers, red wattled lapwings, Indian shags,
great white egrets, snake birds and more.
Modest about his impressive abilities, he looked at me with eyes used to observing
tiny creatures from great distances, and said, "Do you want me to go on?"
When I nodded, the litany continued. "The whiskered tern," he whispered,
"I saw 5,000 in one day. I just opened the door of Tango Hotel and the sky was
like a swarm of locusts." Kingfishers, he continued, with a faraway look in
his eyes, fly a thousand at a time, in a V-formation across the sky.
Bird watchers and adventurous travellers can take the same trip that Pierre Loti
and his predecessor, Henri Mouhot, discoverer of Angkor, took from Phnom Penh to
The crowded wooden boat is loaded to the gunnels with families, raucous radios, squealing
children, grunting pigs, squawking chickens, dogs, cats and clouds of mosquitos.
For a few thousand riels, the lakefarer can string up a hammock and lie back to enjoy
two or three days and nights (depending on the season and the height of the water)
of incomparable sunsets, floating villages, tributaries of tangled vegetation, flooded
forests and, if lucky, spot a rare freshwater dolphin.
Nature tourism, claims David Ashwell, would help lakeside people and increase awareness
of the beauty and importance of the region. Angkor Wat is already a World Heritage
Site, and, in spite of last week's fracas, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince
Norodom Sirivudh stated his assurance that the national government shall continue
to cooperate closely with UNESCO.
Everyone should recognize that Cambodia's natural and cultural legacies need protection
if future generations are to appreciate its unique processions.