Cambodia's Tonle Sap, or Great Lake, is one of the unique geographical wonders of the world. It offers visitors insights into the centuries-old traditions of riparian life and the natural splendor of the country.
On the banks of the mighty Great Lake and the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers, Khmers have celebrated for over two hundred years the changing of the river's flow. During the rainy season the Tonle Sap River reversed direction, flooding the lake, increasing its size almost tenfold, making it the largest freshwater body in Southeast Asia.
In the flood season, water engulfs surrounding forests, regulating agricultural production by ensuring that the countryside is covered with fresh, fertile silt for rice cultivation.
The rivers and lakes of Cambodia are truly the lifeline for the largely agrarian and fishing society.
The ancient temples of Angkor depict in exquisite basrelief detail how the life along the lake affected all walks of Khmer life.
Fish & Birds
For centuries the Great Lake has yielded many tons of fish per square mile and provided the major source of Khmer sustenance.
Moreover, for the astute birdwatcher, the aquatic habitat attracts thousands of birds and fish-eating waterfowl who flock to the wetland before the rains begin in June.
Species inhabiting the lake include carp, catfish (weighing up to 135 kilograms), murrel, herring, climbing perch and gourami.
Three hundred species of freshwater fish in the lake ensure a livelihood for the many thousands of fishermen, who skillfully throw their nets from small wooden boats in centuries-old traditional ways.
Cambodia is a tropical land of densely forested hills, emerald-green rice paddies with tall, elegant sugar palms and waterways filled with reeds, waterlilies and lotuses.
The beautiful lotus, with fragrant pink and white blossoms which bloom mornings and evenings, is sacred to Buddhism and is used for vitive offerings in temples.
The northern forests have thick bamboos, vines, rattans and palms nestled with mahagony, mesanti and other hardwoods.
The south, including Phnom Penh, has jacaranda trees with mauve flowers. Urban areas as well as the countryside are resplendent with shady flame trees bearing gracefully their scarlet blooms, large mango trees, numerous fruit trees including papaya, the red hibiscus, serene rows of tamarind, and, near the sea, casuarinas and eucalyptus trees.
Wildlife includes endangered species such as leopards, tigers, and the near-extinct Ko Prey or jungle cow, which was named the national animal of the Kingdom in 1963. In addition, elephants, still roam the hills, while monkeys and snakes abound in the forests and mountains.
Cambodia has an array of beautiful butterflies. In the rainy season, around July, Angkor is filled with swirling clouds of blue and turquoise butterflies, large and small, and Monarch butterflies in black and orange, as well as species of black and indigo, and an enormous black species with gauzy, yellow speckled wings. Their presence add a magical aura to one of the world's timeless, architectural wonders.