Experiencing and Sustaining Tonle Sap through Kayaking
Kayaking is an activity that involves racing, freestyle, flexibility, space, or whitewater. It is a challenging and exciting sport that requires skill, strength, endurance, and awareness. Tonle Sap Lake is one of the places where you can experience sport kayaking in Cambodia since it is the largest natural freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The lake has a unique hydrology that causes its water level to vary marginally between the dry and wet seasons, creating different habitats and ecosystems for species that offer options depending on the season and people's preferences.
In our personal kayaking camp experience, together with our training group, we visited the Mechrey floating village, located on the Tonle Sap Lake. The village community largely depends on fishing for its livelihood. Unfortunately, in recent years, fish production has decreased because of the impact of human interventions in the natural hydrology, which means the community members need to seek alternative livelihoods. One of them is community-based tourism, which offers the villagers opportunities for earning a living and sharing about the diversity of Tonle Sap Lake, the associated cultures of its communities, and the challenges they and the whole ecosystem are facing. Therefore, our goals for the camp included gathering support for the community, challenging ourselves through various adventurous activities, and experiencing drifting through the flooded forests, fishing villages, and ecosystems of the river.
In Cambodia, no formal training or certification for kayaking is required. Hence, visitors can often observe people kayaking during their holidays as a small but essential part of their trip. There are several ways in which kayaking can manifest itself individually or as a community activity, such as: Individually, you can kayak solo or with a guide on Tonle Sap Lake. The sport allows you to enjoy the scenery and wildlife observation and challenge yourself at your own pace. You can also set your own goals and challenges, such as kayaking for a certain distance or a certain timeframe or trying different techniques or maneuvers. You can also use kayaking as a form of meditation or relaxation as you paddle along the calm waters and listen to the sounds of birds chirping, the wind touching leaves, and the waves of the water, then allow your thoughts to flow with the rhythm. As a community activity, you can kayak with groups of friends or family members on Tonle Sap Lake to create a beautiful adventure experience together. Further, kayaking provides you and your group with a space to focus on team spirit and strengthen communication skills. You can also join a tour group or any organization that organizes sport kayaking trips on Tonle Sap Lake to meet new people who have similar interests.
According to a study by Indochine Exploration, a tour operator offering sport kayaking trips on Tonle Sap Lake, there are more male than female participants active in kayaking activities. The study found that 67% of the operators’ customers were male, while 33% identified as female. The study also found that the average age of the kayakers was 35 years old. Most of them came from Europe, North America, and Australia. The study suggested that potential reasons for the gender imbalance in kayaking on Tonle Sap Lake include a lack of awareness and promotion of the activity among women, the perceived difficulty and risk of the sport, and the cultural and social norms that influence women's choices of leisure activities. The study also recommended several strategies to attract more female customers, such as offering more female-friendly services and facilities, creating more female role models and instructors, and designing more gender-sensitive marketing campaigns. In our observation, the gap also stems from the fact that kayaking is viewed as a sport where one needs to be physically strong. That leads to the assumption that it is a sport for men.
Another source of information about gender differences in kayaking on Tonle Sap Lake features some testimonials from previous customers who shared their experiences and feedback about the kayaking activities. Among the testimonials, some female customers expressed their satisfaction and enjoyment of the sport. For example, one woman said, "I had a great time kayaking on Tonle Sap Lake. It was a beautiful and peaceful way to explore the lake and see the wildlife. The guides were friendly and helpful. They also taught me how to kayak properly. I felt safe and comfortable throughout the trip. I would recommend this activity to anyone who loves nature and adventure." Thinking back on recent experiences we had, another female participant mentioned that "the whole trip has been an incredible eye-opening moment and one of the most educational and adventurous camps I have ever experienced. As a participant, I feel excited to learn about the great Tonle Sap Lake, the livelihood of floating villages, and the challenges of ecosystems. I am grateful for the expertise of our facilitator in facilitating the program, the heartwarming welcome of local guides, and the program itself." Thus, from our observation, kayaking trips on Tonle Sap Lake are attractive and include both male and female participants. Interest in being an active kayaker rather depends on character and is suitable for people of different ages, fitness levels, and backgrounds. From an organizer’s point of view, the kayaking trips are designed to be fun, educational, and environmentally friendly. There are gender differences in participation in kayak sports on Tonle Sap Lake. However, there are also similarities and opportunities for both genders to enjoy the sport. Kayaking on Tonle Sap Lake can be a rewarding activity for both men and women who want to experience the beauty and diversity of the lake and its surroundings.
Based on our experiences, Kayaking is a way to learn about yourself, the culture, and history of Cambodia, as well as to support the local communities and the conservation of nature in the region. Its low-impact and non-intrusive approach to exploring natural waterways allows participants to experience ecosystems in a close way and foster a deeper appreciation for nature's beauty and fragility. The heightened connection of kayaking to the nature of Tonle Sap Lake can lead to increased environmental awareness and a desire to protect aquatic habitats. Moreover, kayakers often participate in clean-up initiatives, removing debris and pollutants from water bodies, thereby improving the health of local ecosystems. The practice also promotes responsible outdoor behavior and adherence to Leave No Trace principles, reducing the negative impact on delicate aquatic ecosystems. Overall, kayaking as a sport in Cambodia serves as a unique and engaging platform that encourages active participation in preserving our waterways and their surrounding environments.