Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Visit to Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Our Mekong-style scientific vessel, AKA traditional river boat
It’s a new year and my husband Jeff and I are on the road for the month of January.  First Cambodia where Jeff attended an international workshop on Asian rivers in the capitol city of Phnom Penh and then Singapore where he is a visiting scholar at the National University of Singapore.  My job is to take it all in.

This past Friday we were in Cambodia. We spent the day sampling the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers with other scientists at the workshop.  The workshop participants and a handful of Cambodian students boarded a 50-foot wooden boat and left downtown Phnom Penh about 9 o’clock in the morning.  Our goal was to collect water and gas samples from both rivers separately and where the two rivers mix at their confluence.  

Preparing equipment for water sampling
Phnom Penh is located on the southwestern bank of the Tonle Sap River – about a 6-hour boat ride downstream from the famous Angkor Wat.  The downtown core of the city is less than a kilometer from the confluence of the larger Mekong with the Tonle Sap.  The workshop participants represented a spectrum of Asian countries and a few foreigners, including my husband, who have studied the hydrology and geochemistry of the major rivers in the region.  Countries represented included Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Singapore, Korea, US, Bangladesh and China.  With the mélange of participants the lingua franca was English.

Dredge barges on the Tonle Sap - full (blue) and empty (green)

The Mekong River, like many rivers in the world, is under continuous assault.  Its anthropogenic uses are myriad – water supply, habitat for hundreds of fish species, including critical food for more than 60 million people who live in the river basin, hydropower, wastewater disposal, transportation, cultural practices and recreation.  In Cambodia, where agriculture has been the economic base for centuries, it is hard to say that deforestation in the watershed is greater than in the past but that is what the Cambodians told us. That plus the significant increase in urban development in and around Phnom Penh is creating many changes in runoff, river chemistry and in the habitat quality for local fish species. A curious new phenomenon is the dredging of river bottom sand for filling wetlands around the city – a fact we experienced directly in the continuous stream of rusty powered barges moving upstream full of sand and returning empty downstream to the dredging site on the Mekong.  The new ‘land’ created from the filled wetlands will be used for new building – eliminating the wetlands’ natural functions of stormwater infiltration and water quality treatment. The loss has already resulted in widespread street flooding and reduced water quality following the smallest of rainfalls.

Housing along the Tonle Sap
The uses of the Mekong and its tributaries are in constant flux and the changes in the river’s water quality and hydrology can cause conflict. Everyone wants something from the river. It is hard to satisfy all parties when six very different nations and multiple cultures with diverse power and influence share the watershed. Regardless, in the spirit of true collaboration, the assembled scientists spent the day measuring carbon fluxes and collecting water samples for later analysis.  The basic information collected will help support predictive computer models that can assist the nations in determining how to best manage and ideally share the rivers’ abundant resources.

Taditional fishing boats and modern buildings
On the river we saw examples of wealth and poverty, slums and modern developments and boats of every kind. The day presented a fascinating window on Cambodian cultures and history promoted by a period of rapid development and growth in Phnom Penh. Much of the new development is spurred by foreign investment but unfortunately it does not seem to be accompanied by needed investments in urban infrastructure. In fact the city streets are in a state of chaos – traffic is extraordinary, a wild and fluid sea of luxury SUV’s, taxis, tuk-tuks, motor scooters and bicycles.  There are few traffic lights and crossing a street is an exercise in positive thinking – you wait for an opening and walk boldly forward waving your hands above your head, hoping for deliverance.  There is no place for the faint of heart.  The only blessing is that the traffic is so thick that the average speed is very slow. 

Mekong style fishing "house" boat
Everywhere along the muddy river we saw open decked wooden fishing boats – laying out nets or pulling remarkably empty nets back in.  Fish migration following a full moon is very low and the fisheries biologists on our boat said that accounted for the low catches. But a low catch is bad news for the boat owners since the daily sale of a few kilos of fish is their sole income. Typically these narrow boats, about 35-40 feet in length, have raised prows both bow and stern and are powered by long-tailed outboard motors. The ‘long tails’ have the mandatory ability to lift up unharmed when hitting the bottom of the river. Since the rivers can be less than a meter deep during low water this is a critical adaptive trait. Most of these sampan-style fishing boats have small covered shelters that function as “shipboard” homes to the owners.  I was amazed to see small toddlers helping their parents or grandparents haul in the nets.  I wondered how the average first world child would manage the physical limitations of living on a narrow sampan.
Ready to eat along the river

We stopped in the early afternoon at a riverside restaurant for a delicious meal of fish soup, rice and green papaya salad.  The meal, where we sat cross-legged at low tables set on platforms built over the river, was one of the best meals we had in Phnom Penh.  

Unfortunately I had bad luck with contaminated food on our last night in Cambodia following a meal at an upscale restaurant.  Folks always warn you about eating in local river establishments.  But that wasn't where I got food poisoning. I guess it can happen anywhere but suffice it to say it was a most unpleasant experience. 

The Throne Hall

After lunch our group visited the Royal Palace (where the current royal family lives) complex and the exotic Silver Pagoda home to the intricately carved 17th century Emerald Buddha.  It is illegal to take interior photographs of these sacred places but the famous silver tile floor that gives the Silver Pagoda its name is extraordinary. Who can imagine covering the floor of a very large hall with silver tiles? I guess you have to be royalty! The gleaming floor, the benevolent Emerald Buddha and the many silver and solid gold, often with encrusted diamonds, Buddhas make a visit to the Pagoda worthwhile. The whole complex, built starting in 1863 when the capital of Cambodia moved to Phnom Penh, is an excellent example of traditional Khmer architecture. 

The Stupa of HM King Suramarit and
HM Queen Kossomak
Beyond the Silver Pagoda, there are many interesting structures in the huge complex -- big ornate Stupas, round Buddhist shrines that contain the ashes of past monarchs stemming back to the founder of the current King Norodom Sihamoni.  My favorite was the Stupa of HM King Suramarit and HM Queen Kossomak, the grandparents of the King Sihamoni.  Another peaceful site in the complex is the artificial vegetated hill, Phnom Mondop, with its many Buddhas surrounding a shrine that contains a large Buddha footprint and 108 Buddha images that symbolize the 108 past lives of Buddha.  A fresco-painted wall surrounds the entire Silver Pagoda complex.  The 1903 paintings, some of which show signs of weather-induced deterioration but which are still beautiful, tell the story of Reamker, the Cambodian version of the epic Indian poem Ramayana. The poem is essentially a traditional story of the balance between good and evil – the quintessential human dilemma.  All the buildings are surrounded by formal gardens, filled with eye-catching topiary and tropical flowers. The seven-headed serpentine river god, Naga protects virtually every staircase. Fortunately, the whole Palace complex was preserved during the Khmer Rouge occupation, although not for altruistic purposes. The preservation was entirely to show the world that the regime was preserving Cambodian heritage.
Having visited Phnom Penh twice previously starting more than ten years ago I was struck by the changes in the city.  On my previous visits I felt that the city was in a state of depression, still recovering from the horror and shock of mass killings.  Now there is a sense of energy and optimism in the air – although time will tell if that optimism results in improved quality of life for a majority of the population. The new growth is a real opportunity for recovery and could put the sadness and devastation of the Khmer Rouge into the past.  Unfortunately there is evidence everywhere of pressing needs that do not appear to be addressed: crumbling chocked streets, filling of wetlands, flooding, ubiquitous trash, lack of adequate sewage and water management and endless, disturbing stories of corruption despite the government being a democratic, representative constitutional monarchy. Given my short visit I was only able to learn a little about the environmental conditions and nothing about critical social conditions including schools and health care – and other areas outside of my expertise. Either way as a retired engineer, it was encouraging to meet Cambodian scientists and engineers who are excited to help manage transitions in the city’s water resources.  We left Phnom Penh for a very different kind of city, Singapore.  I’ll be reporting in.


  1. Joanna,
    Judith sent me the link to this post. I am in Phnom Penh now, so have been very interested in what you have so eloquently written. I am still processing all I have seen, and though I have learned a lot about the food, I am very glad to learn more about the river and your take on the place. I spent a few days at Angkor Wat, and my trip is winding down. (p.s., I also suffered unpleasant gastric distress---it may be unavoidable---but I will never travel without cipro again :)) The friend I am visiting is about to move across the river to a house on the Mekong, which will be much less polluted than PP. Yes, crossing the street requires some real bravado!! Thanks for this! Sally

    1. Hi Sally, enjoy the rest of your time in Phnom Penh. Go to the Russian Market. Angkor Wat is compelling for sure -- we were there a few years ago. Something about the stone geometry and the Buddhas is extraordinary. Glad you liked the post. Sorry to miss you but we are in Singapore now. XX Joanna