​Tonle Sap Set for Heritage Listing | Phnom Penh Post

Tonle Sap Set for Heritage Listing


Publication date
24 September 1993 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Denise Heywood

More Topic

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

Siem Reap.

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.

Contact PhnomPenh Post for full article

Post Media Co Ltd
The Elements Condominium, Level 7
Hun Sen Boulevard

Phum Tuol Roka III
Sangkat Chak Angre Krom, Khan Meanchey
12353 Phnom Penh

Tel: +855(0) 23 888 161 / 162
Fax: +855(0) 23 214 318