Nhem Yon, still spry at 70, trims fish heads as she always has, by hand. There will be less trimming for her to do this year, even though the overall catch has increased almost fifty percent.
rahok is the national delicacy known to all Cambodians. Reporter-photographer
Bou Saroeun recently travelled along the Tonle Sap River to speak to the makers
of the famous fish paste.
Sitting in the sunshine, on the muddy banks of the Tonle Sap River surrounded by
the smell of prahok, 70-year-old Nhem Yon, a veteran prahok maker since French colonial
times, is busy chopping off the heads of fish.
"This year's fish is more expensive than last time. I have no hope of making
the amount that I expected," she says with a shake of her head.
Her plight was typical of producers of Cambodia's national delicacy spoken to by
In the 1998-99 season, the price of prahok rose because of a 40 per cent decrease
in fish stocks due to illegal fishing and lower water levels. This year, a crackdown
on illicit fishing and increased water levels has boosted fish numbers, but the price
According to Nao Thouk, Deputy Director of the Fisheries Department, Cambodia's freshwater
catch has increased about 50 per cent over the previous year.
Most Khmer families make at least one jar of prahok each year, with consumption per
person pegged at 6-8 kg per year. Along the Tonle Sap River 9 km north of Phnom Penh
along Route 5 where an ethnic Cham community lives, farmers from areas like Svay
Rieng, Prey Veng, Kampong Cham, Kampong Speu and Kandal gather to make prahok.
Nhem Yon and her 42-year-old daughter Mak Roeun hail from Kampong Speu province.
For years they've produced about 200 kgs of fish paste, but with higher costs this
year's output will drop.
Ket Ran, 45, and other prahok makers from Takeo province sat next to Nhem Yon hoping
the price of fish would drop so they could make more prahok.
As buyers arrive from near and far, their high spirits drop when prices prove to be well above previous levels, making it difficult or impossible to buy the quantities they are
Ran, a vendor from Trapang Andeuk, expected to take home 2.5-3 tons of prahok for
resale. She says this year she'll have to settle for only one ton.
Loek Sovan, 49, a prahok maker from Kampong Cham, used to make about 6 tons per year
to sell in the market and exchange for rice. Now she worried that her buyers would
complain about the cost.
The cost of the fresh fish depends on the daily catch, but this year even on days
when a lot of fish are caught the price remains high - between 250 and 400 riels
Fish numbers have increased because flooding allowed fish to migrate further to breed
and lay eggs.
A crackdown on illegal fishing techniques such as taking very young fish, using explosives
and other weapons has also helped.
Fishing concession owners are happy with their catch. Sep Sokharith, 45, owner of
fishing concession 2C in Phnom Penh, smiled as he told how his daily catch fetches
a better price than last year's, but even he felt the price of prahok was too high.
He said the cost had increased because of the speed with which prahok could be made
using machines to cut off the fish heads. The quicker the first catches of fish were
processed, the quicker stocks became depleted, making the fish expensive.
"The fishing business depends on nature. If nature provides, we will get a lot,
but if nature faces problems, we will lose," he said.
On average Sokharith's concession netted about 300 tons per year.
Mrs Mohamad, owner of concession 1D in Phnom Penh, said her business had turned sour
despite the big increase in fish stocks. She was philosophical and didn't want to
shut the business because she had no job to move to.
"Fishing is like finding a needle in the sea. Sometimes we are lucky and sometimes
we are not."
Sek Ngoun, owner of fishing concession 2D said if the water level stayed high and
the crackdown on illegal catching continued, the fish yield could come back to 1980s
Along the banks of the Tonle Sap river, young and old alike participate in the time-honored tradition of prahok preparation, using foot-power to mash the small fish into a paste that will later be allowed to ferment, giving people throughout the country (and beyond) their beloved sauce for yet another annual cycle.
The Fisheries Department, however, was still concerned about the future.
Nao Thouk said the dams built on the Mekong's tributaries had cut the amount of water
coming into the river by 15 per cent.
This could damage fish spawning grounds on both the upper and lower Mekong. The big
impact was on the Tonle Sap where the water could not reach the flooded forest areas
used for fish feeding and spawning.
Another threat came from people cutting the flooded forest areas to grow other crops,
such as rice and beans, Thouk said.
"The fish experts calculate that if we lose 10 per cent of the forest, this
would mean losing 10 per cent of the fish."