The Cambodian Spirit - A Chat With Fishermen
By: Prak Chan Thul..Picture by: Chan Thul & T. Sinath ( November, 2002 Volume 2 No.11 )

Most people have to struggle a bit in life - it's unavoidable. Both poor and wealthy people have their own difficulties to deal with. But it's not hard to see that the problems facing rich people are not quite as grave as the ones the poor have to deal with. Few wealthy people moan about how much money they have, or say " Oh, I am very rich and lead a very arduous life." Well, maybe they do, as we all know money is not a source of happiness. Anyway, the poor have some pretty heavy things to deal with. This was made clear to me when I chatted with some fishermen on the Tonle Sap Lake - it revealed how many difficulties fishermen in Cambodia have to deal with.
Taking the ferry across the Tonle Sap Lake only costs 1000 riel for a return ticket, and the ride is enjoyable, especially with the waves gently lapping against the side of the boat. But the weather was a little bit hot; foreigners would enjoy this kind of belting sunshine, but most Cambodians would be keen to get to the other shore and under some shade. After just a few minutes out on the water, I met a fisherman who seemed quite excited and enthusiastic about talking to me. We began to chat, while I perched on the prow of his fishing boat under the very nice sunshine that the fisherman has to work in every day. "Oh, it's boring to be here every day," said the fisherman, a 57-year-old Muslim called Sman Seles.

"But four children are waiting for me to bring home food," he added. Fish is a very important source of nourishment for Cambodian people, but the people who catch and sell fish do not earn a good wage, and so are not very highly thought of. Many fishermen are poor. Some take the job of fishing because they have no choice; their ancestors gave them their career as a fisherman. Few are well enough educated to do any other job. Well, I think the truth is, people shouldn't just take a job because their ancestors told them to. People do have choices in life - how can you survive on 5000 riel a day? Of course, people do survive, but they live trapped in poverty, like many people in this country. "I want all my children to be at school instead of following me to fish, but I don't have enough money to send them," Seles said. Another problem facing the fishermen here is the breeding season, when fishing is forbidden in certain areas of the lake. "The fishing season is closed from June till October every year," said Soh Min, a 55 year-old Muslim fisherman. The closed area begins in Kampong Chhnang province and carries on up to the Tonle Bassac River in Phnom Penh. Anyone who tries to fish this area during the breeding season will be fined or jailed. Many fishermen face a crisis during these months, as they are left with no source of food or income. Fishery officials banned fishing during the months in which fish breed, in order to protect young fish from being caught. Fish stocks in Cambodia are declining rapidly because of illegal fishing and environmental pollution around the lake. But this doesn't mean much to Soh Min - all he knows is that his children go hungry during the breeding season. "Fishermen should be allowed to fish regardless of open or closed season, because they depend on fishing," he complained. Fishermen can get between 1500 and 2000 riels per kilogram of fish. Sometimes fishermen take their fish to sell at the market themselves - it depends on the quantity of fish they get. If they have caught a lot of fish, they normally sell it themselves. The Tonle Sap Lake is well known as a very valuable life-source for Cambodian people. It provides not only fish, but water to irrigation a large part of the country too. It is divided into three areas: the muddy area, and the big and small lakes. During the dry season, the lake covers an area 3,000 kilometers-square and 1-2 meters deep. During the rainy season, the water rises up to 10 meters deep and covers 10,000 square kilometers. The lake is filled by the waters of several different rivers; the longest is the Stung Sen River, which flows across Kampong Thom province.

The Tonle Sap Lake has fed Cambodian people for thousands of years, and it also plays an important role in Cambodia's economy. The government earns important tax revenue from fishing activities, like the sale of fishing lots and fish exports. The amount of fish taken from the lake is not supposed to be more than 100,000 tons per year.
There are more than one million people living around the Tonle Sap Lake, and about 280 different kinds of fish living in its waters. One Cambodian eats approximately 67 kilograms of fish per year. People who live around the lake have to be flexible: when the water declines in the dry season, they move their houseboats or floating houses near the shore of the lake. They can feed their animals from the young fresh grass growing on the shoreline, and grow vegetables too. When the water rises, people return to their fishing work as usual, letting their homes drift out in the wide waters.
Being a fisherman is not a relaxing job, like growing rice. Rice-farmers only have to harvest once or twice a year, and then have enough food to live off for the whole year. Fishermen need to fish every day, since they can only catch one day's food at a time. If they don't go fishing one day, they will have nothing to eat. Fishermen have to face not only economic crises, but life-crises as well. They spend all day and all night on the sea, or lake, or river, for just a small amount of fish. Some die when big storms blow their boats over - although statistics show that work-related deaths among fishermen are not as common as among robbers or criminals.
Being a fisherman is sometimes pleasant, since at least people perceive them to be good citizens. People have different views about careers: some people don't like hard work, but prefer a job that gives them easy money - like robbery or destroying other people's property and happiness. Our Lord Buddha said, "Do good, receive good." No matter how menial your job may be, the main thing is that you are creating good karma. The lives of Sman Seles and Soh Mean are good models for all of us to follow. Their families lead peaceful lives, and their minds are calm because they have not committed any sins. Being a less-respected worker is a hard feeling to bear, but life is a struggle for everybody - just in different ways. Just take the two fishermen, Sman Seles and Soh Min. They both agreed: "We do have the the choice to do something instead of fishing, but what else we can do? Our education is considerably low." These two fishermen show the Cambodian spirit well: their lives are a struggle, but they live without complaining about nature or society. Each is successful in life because of his own accomplishments and commitments.