CAMBODIANS in their thousands packed up their belongings on carts and moved away
from their homes to the great waterways of the Tonle Sap, the Mekong and Bassac rivers
at the turn of this new year.
For about five days of the full moon, they concentrated on making prahok - a crushed
and fermented brown fish paste used mainly to supplement the rice they grow during
the rest of the year.
Fish is caught by the hundreds of kilograms. It is sold on the riverfront in a swirl
of noise and color. Women gut and chop the heads of the fish, and everyone chatters
as they join in the stomping and rinsing of the fish at bamboo stalls in the water.
"This is the only time for us to buy cheap fish," said Reun Hong, a villager
from Takeo province, who was making prahok at Prey Pnov about 15 kilometers north
of Phnom Penh.
The fresh fingerlings Hong can buy at the riverside for 400 riels would cost up to
1,500 riels in his village. The price was about the same last year.
Hong, who works together with his wife and two daughters, said he would prepare two
jars of about 80 kilos of prahok.
Hong said prahok was one of the most important foods for his village and that "if
we keep it longer, it would taste better". The taste of prahok depended on what
fish were used, he said.
"You must understand that we live far from the fish markets. We cannot go to
the market everyday to buy food and we do not have enough money for our daily expenses."
Heng Van owns nets that stretch across nearly half the Tonle Sap that cost him 300,000
riels. He didn't reckon he'd get much profit for his investment this year if the
fishing season ended much before the end of January. If the season kicked on a bit
longer, he might expect to earn around a million riels.
The fishing season depended on the waning of the water levels of the great waterways.
More than 100 species of fish move upstream in the Mekong, ready to spawn in the
rainy season, according to Uk Sim, deputy director of Fishery Department.
According to the Fishery Department, about 72,000 tons of fish were caught last year
up more than ten percent from 1994. Nearly half of all those fish are caught to make
Sim said this year's catch will be up further - though a long way short of the 120,000
tons that Cambodian fisherpeople caught in the 1960s.
The government earns around $400,000 a year on its own fisheries concessions.
According to the Fishery Department's regulations, all fresh-water fishing is banned
from May to September because that is when egg-laying and breeding is done. However,
violations of this law happens all the time.
Sim says many of the bigger fish species have vanished from Cambodia's rivers and