• River Wetlands

That Chhnok Be Tru(e): The Blood, Sweat And Tears Of The Elders

Updated: Dec 27, 2020

ABOUT | In today’s special report, our reporters explore how elders in Chhnok Tru struggled through the tumultuous period of Khmer Rouge rule (1975-79) and what challenges the village will face in the future.

Team members: 
Eddie, Hema, Phea, Shen Hao


Before the Khmer Rouge’s rule, Chhnok Tru was seen as the ideal place to establish one’s roots. Especially for those who did not have land assets, the abundant fish supply from the Tonle Sap Lake was very appealing. Many Khmer, Cham, Chinese and Vietnamese people have settled sown in Chhnok Tru since the 1950s. Ms. Bol Yal, a 70-year-old lady, was among them; she moved to Chhnok Tru with her parents when she was 12 years old. Mrs. Rith, a 56-year-old lady, was born in Chhnok Tru, and embraces the indiscriminate character of the community; it provides opportunities to improve one’s life even though one has very few resources. The easy access to natural resources such as fishes and water allowed people to meet their basic needs[1]. This attracts many to call this place home.


Such an ideal community vanished when the Khmer Rouge occupied. Just like other parts of Cambodia, the regime forced the residents in Chhnok Tru to migrate to land and serve as a compulsory labour for farming[2]. People of high rank like Mr. Rith’s father who used to be a high-ranking police officer were killed. Pol Pot’s regime attempted to eradicate all elites in society, and this resulted in ‘selective mortality’[3]: most of the adult men, in their prime, were massacred. Mr. Rith recalled enduring tough days of hunger. He tried every possible means to survive, not following the same tragic fate as eight of his siblings who were punished to death for stealing food. One brother was caught and beaten to death in a gunny sack. His mother got separated at the beginning of the Khmer Rouge’s rule, but by sheer luck, they met again at the end of its regime.

“Both of us lost our partners and all our children during Pol Pot’s rule.”

(Mdm. Maat and Mdm. Sprung, 76 and 73 years old, respectively)

Elders in Chhnok Tru remember these touch days as they perform their daily chores. They feel that their peaceful life was overturned by a sudden political upheaval, which killed many of their families and friends.


In the absence of human activities during the Khmer Rouge’s regime, fish stocks of Tonle Sap Lake replenished. The aquatic resources became important livelihood sources for many war-torn communities  which were located on the lake[4]. Mr. Rith and his mother got to know several Cham people in the aftermath of the regime collapse and decided to move to Chhnok Tru with them. Mr. Rith recalled that about 100 families had stayed in tiny boat houses and only 30 families in floating houses back then. One year after their relocation, Mr. Rith got married to a Cham-Muslim lady, who is now Mrs. Rith. In the mid-1980s, he moved to Phnom Penh to serve as a policeman, but he came back to Chnnok Tru two months later. His family needed him to look after the family. He has been a fisherman ever since.

“I am very happy on water. I want to stay on water for the rest of my life.” (Mr. Rith, 56 years old)

As a newcomer to Chhnok Tru, he was excited to earn a living with rich fishery resources available. On the other hand, Mrs. Rith was motivated to start afresh in a different way: she was a returning Chhnok Tru resident who wanted to re-join her community where she had a strong sense of belonging. The floating community is rather ‘sticky’[5], despite its ‘nomadic’ nature that people move with the flood pulse of the Tonle Sap. Chhnok Tru is a place that binds people together, like a huge floating house consolidated piece by piece. As long as one worked hard, he or she was able to rebuild the life – just like pasting to the house one wooden plank at a time.


While these narratives by the village elders seem to paint a rather positive outlook of Chhnok Tru for generations to come, our reporters, Daniel and Jun Yi, have found a mismatch between their narratives and the youth’s views.

“No, I’m not worried about young people leaving for work or study on land. They call home often, and will come back for their family.” (Mr. Chhin, 68 years old)

Rising education levels of youth here and increasing access to the World Wide Web are exposing them to the outside world and significantly altering their geographical imaginations of what spaces constitute a “home”. Seven out of 10 young interviewees expressed their wishes to live on land in the future, which they believe more convenient than on water. Is Chhnok Tru becoming less ‘sticky’ as younger generations become more inclined to extend the space of their home to land? Ultimately, the fate of Chhnok Tru seems to lie largely in the hands of the Cambodian government. On 2nd October 2018, the provincial government began relocating 115 Vietnamese and Khmer-Muslim families onto land and was planning to move as many as 2000 families by the end of 2018. The government claims that the reduction of the population living on water would help restore the lake’s water quality[6]. It is hence up to those who call Chhnok Tru “home” to resist such top-down measures and continue to keep their roots on water.



  1. Lamberts, D., 2006. The Tonle Sap Lake as a productive ecosystem. International Journal of Water Resources Development, 22(3), pp.481-495.

  2. Kiernan, B., 2002. The Pol Pot regime: race, power, and genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79. Yale University Press.

  3. Walque,D. Selective mortality during the Khmer rouge period. Published 6 July 2005. Population and Development review. Pages 351-368, (31)2. Wiley Online Library

  4. Marschke, M.J. and Berkes, F., 2006. Exploring strategies that build livelihood resilience: a case from Cambodia. Ecology and Society, 11(1).

  5. Markusen, A., 2017. Sticky places in slippery space: a typology of industrial districts. In Economy (pp. 177-197).

  6. Dara, M. (2018, October 2). Local gov’t to move 2,000 families from the Tonle Sap. The Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved from 7 govt-move-2000-families-tonle-sap

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