A return to cultural roots in Tbong Khmum’s traditional fishing festival

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A Cambodian man raises a snake fish during the annual fish-catching ceremony at Choam Kravien commune in Tbong Khmum province on Sunday. TANG CHHIN SOTHY/afp

Waist-HIGH in muddy waters, Sam Phoeun plunges his woven bamboo trap into Boeung Krom Lake, before sticking his arm through the mouth of the basket with childlike glee in hopes of snagging a snakefish.

The fish are known to now be in abundance after locals agreed to stop fishing in the lake for three months so that stocks could replenish in preparation for this special event. Authorities even stood guard in the months leading up to the big day to ensure compliance.

No aerators, gaffs or gigs here, and not even the semblance of anything resembling waders, as up to 30,000 Cambodians flock to Memot district’s Choam Kravien commune in Tbong Khmum province to partake in the annual traditional fishing festival.

The festivities – lasting three days and two nights – are held each year after the crop harvest, and commemorate Cambodia’s proud fishing heritage.

“I join the celebration every year with my family,” says 42-year-old Phoeun.

“It’s an ancient tradition from before I was even born,” he continues, before plunging back into the lake for one last shot at catching the day’s prize asset, a wriggling, slippery fish.

Surrounded by acres of rubber plantation on National Road 7, Boeung Krom Lake is only accessible by turning on to a dusty red road and travelling another kilometre beyond wild banana trees, a number of Khmer longhouses and on this occasion, at least two herds of grazing buffalo.

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Locals are only allowed to engage in traditional fishing techniques, so groups of men drag metres of nylon netting through the lake, while elderly women and younger children sift through silt and water on the banks of the lake where the water is shallower (and the fish smaller).

They tie krama – a traditional Khmer scarf of coloured chequered patterns – around their heads to keep themselves cool, occasionally dunking the fabric into the water when the sweltering sun necessitates cooling down.

“I remember catching fish like this with my mother,” says one woman. “Now I’m doing the same with my children.”

About 40 per cent of Cambodians depend on fishing for their livelihoods, a lifestyle under threat as a growing number of the population turns towards unsustainable methods like electrocution to reel in their catches – simultaneously jeopardising a way of life.

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Women wade through shin-high water on the hunt for snake fish. Husain Haider

“We arranged for guards to look over the site for three months to make sure that the event would be successful,” Thean Sann, chief of Tansan village and member of the organising committee for the festival, tells The Post.

Sann says the tradition dates back from over 500 years-ago, but continues to be a popular activity for people looking to get back in touch with their roots today, especially those from out of town.

As a growing number of people converge on the site to race against each other to catch fish, Sann requests that citizens strive to keep the surrounding forest untouched, avoid littering, and communicate with each other, as has been done for the past 500 years.

Back onshore, it is clear that little has changed in this centuries old tradition, as locals happily enjoy the bounty of their sustainable harvest.

As the day edges on, impromptu barbeques start with wood from the surrounding forest, cans of beer crack open from coolers and children cool off with boisterous water fights in the nearby lake.

The festival represents a return to ancestral roots for many visitors now living outside of the province, who grew up catching fish with traditional tools like bamboo baskets and traps.

Beyond catching fish, there are plenty of other activities to keep visitors occupied on the day.

The entryway to the fishing festivities in Boeung Krom Lake are transformed into a fairground, complete with a bouncy castle, food stalls and a spontaneous dance party for the young people in attendance.

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Men use a traditional Khmer fishing net contraption at the fishing festival. Yousos Apdoulrashim

Towards the end of the day, a fire engine hoses down revellers, dancing along to electronic beats blaring through stacks of speakers sitting just metres away.

On top of the fire engine, local police look down at the crowds, turning off the hose while the crowd work themselves into a frenzy, before eventually turning it back on again.

Police say that the kids will continue dancing until late in the evening.

“The festival has come a long way from ancient times,” says village chief Sann, as he proudly stands overseeing proceedings. “But I have tried to preserve this culture while also developing it as a tourist destination.”