Daily Life on Mekong River in Cambodia


In Khmer "Mekong" means "mother of waters", a name of true relevance for the people who survive at the water’s edge, whose lives revolve around agriculture and fishing. The river is a home for millions; it is a means of employment and a source of food.

The Mekong River is one of the world’s 10 longest rivers. Its source is in the mountains of Tibet, after which it flows across Myanmar and Laos PDR, down through Thailand to Cambodia, before it reaches Vietnam and the South China Sea, a journey of some 4,350km. In Cambodia the Mekong roars down the rocks at the Khone rapids on the border with Laos PDR, firstly irrigating the soil of Steung Treng province, before traveling south through five provinces, before leaving Cambodia at Prey Veng for Vietnam. Fifty-five million people depend on the river.

In Laos PDR and Cambodia, approximately 85 percent of the national area of these countries is made up of the basin of the Mekong River.

Everyday, the thousands of farmers who live along the river side in Cambodia carry heavy yokes of water from the river for drinking and for dousing their vegetables. Kan

Aun is a farmer from Sambo commune in Kratie province. Kan says his family plants cabbages, chilies, corn and other seasonal vegetables.

“Our life is dependent on the water of the Mekong River… for us it is a source of life. Because everyday we eat something from this river and from season to season we have different jobs in relation to how high or low the river is. When the river floods we fish. When the river is low we grow vegetables,” Kan says. “If water levels are not high enough, our living standards worsen. It means not enough fertile soil dumped for the land and not much fish.”

His garden is 25m x 60m and he can produce more than one ton of cabbage per season. He says he has a more difficult job than a rice farmer would, but he enjoys life along the river. “My family like to see the beautiful green lining the river and I like to bath and drink the clean water of the Mekong.”

“I think the Mekong water is more delicious than bottled water in town,” Kan says.

No different from other Cambodian fishing families, this Vietnamese family has been living on the Mekong River where it flows through Kratie province for more than two decades. Husband and father Meo Sren, 54, says he came to live on the Mekong River just before 1970, then during

the Pol Pot regime he moved back to Vietnam. After the regime collapsed Meo’s family returned to Cambodia to work as fishermen. Meo says every year fish supplies are diminishing, but he can still catch enough fish to make money for his family of five.

Meo’s fishing boat is usually moored in one place on the Mekong; he moves it only several times a year. He catches fish in a traditional chhnok, which are huge fishing nets attached to long bamboo rods leaning over the water like giant spindly insects.

“I remember in the past I could catch more than 500kg of fish per day with the net, but now, at the best of times and over several days, I get only about 100kg,” Meo says.

H.E. Touch Seang Tana is a wildlife specialist and a member of the Council of Minister’s Economic, Social and Culture Observation Unit. He says that according to a documentary made by a French colonel in 1948, which explored Cambodian fishing, 200,000 to 250,000 tons of fish were caught per year.

“In 2004, statistics show only about 150,000 to 200,000 tons of fish was caught. We worry about the decrease in fish supplies and about the sustainability of ecology in and along the Mekong,” Touch says.

“Losing species of fish is very worrying for those who rely on the river for food and income,” he says.

One of the biggest, and most endangered freshwater fish in the world (found in Cambodian sections of the Mekong), is the Mekong catfish, which has been known to weigh as much as 350kg. There are 750 confirmed species of fish in Cambodia’s rivers, including the tiny trey riel, most often used for prahok (a Cambodian savory preserve).

Director of the Tourism Department in Kratie province Ear Mong Den says along the river there are dozens of ever-changing views from region to region.

If you take the fast boat from Phnom Penh to Kompong Cham, there are vast landscapes of rice fields where villagers drop their bicycles and work up to their ankles planting rice. Then there are meandering hills and floating villages, giant fishing nets and swooping birds.

From Kratie up to Steung Treng there are huge trees (chrey krem and rey) which stand in the river, their root systems forced from the mud below, so that they are swept up and become parallel to the top of the water. There are also many concrete channel markers dotting the river. These posts were constructed by the French to prevent vessels from running aground on the rocks when the river was low.

From Phnom Penh to Laos PDR, take the scenic and comfortable option; take a boat via Kompong Cham and Steung Treng to the border.