Temples, Labyrinths, and Ditches: Collecting Tropical Fish in Cambodia (Full Article)Author: Lawrence Kent
From 1970 until the mid-1990s, civil war and political chaos in Cambodia made it too dangerous to visit Angkor Wat. A fanatical Maoist guerilla movement, led by Pol Pot, seized power in 1975 and then killed almost a fourth of the country’s population through war, execution, and starvation. After being driven from power in 1979, Pol Pot’s followers hid out in the jungles near Angkor Wat, causing continued havoc. But over the past 20 years, security and political stability have been gradually reestablished, and tourism hasrebounded.
I visited Cambodia in June 2013 to participate in a planning meeting for a project to fight malnutrition in the region, but I also tacked on a couple of extra days to visit Angkor Wat and look for tropical fish.
Temples and Puddles
On the way, we saw some fishermen with nets standing in a muddy puddle. We told our driver to stop and then hopped out to inspect their catch, which consisted of a large chevron snakehead, a climbing perch, and a dozen blue gouramis (Trichopodus trichopterus). Small gouramis are pretty and peaceful fish that have long been a mainstay of the aquarium hobby, but these fish, despite their beauty, were destined to be fried and consumed by these Cambodian fishermen and their families.
We reached Bayon, one of the complex’s most amazing temples. It consists of 54 tall, Gothic-style towers topped with 216 sculptures of the face of the ancient king Avalokiteshvara, smiling down benignly at visitors. The huge stone faces express a mixture of humanity and power as they lord over the temple and the surrounding jungles. From here, we traveled to Angkor Thom, Preah Khan, and finally to Ta Prohm, perhaps the most iconic temple of all.
On the way, we stopped to speak to a Cambodian father and son throwing a cast net into a muddy pond. They couldn’t understand us, because we can’t speak Khmer, but they showed us their catch, which included what appeared to be a two-spot glass catfish (Ompok bimaculatus) and an unspectacular spotted barb (Puntius binotatus). Asian glass catfish are occasionally kept by aquarists, perhaps because of their unusual body type and diurnal schooling, but they are timid and cryptic unless kept in large groups. I doubt that King Avalokiteshvara kept any.
The temple of Ta Prohm looked like the mysterious set of an “Indiana Jones” or “Tomb Raider” movie. Its massive stone-block walls were covered in green lichens, clutched by the strangling roots of ancient trees. Monkeys, mynah birds, and red-breasted parakeets perched on crumbling columns towering over a labyrinth of corridors filled with rubble and broken statues. We enjoyed roaming the temple grounds until sundownand then headed back to our hotel to get ready for the following day’s fish collecting.
Tonle Sap Lake
His luck was so-so. He caught some interesting fish but nothing I’d call spectacular. Most were catfish, such as those from the family Pangasiidae, also known as shark catfishes. We netted small ones, but adults of these species can grow to over a yard and are, consequently, unsuitable for aquarium life. We also caught glass catfish, including one that was particularly pretty. It had a long, transparent anal fin; shimmery, lime-green gill covers; and a mother-of-pearl flush on its translucent flanks. Its body was laterally compressed, and its head and skull were transparent enough to allow one to see its brain. Most likely it was Ompok eugeneiatus.
We also caught an unusually shaped cyprinid fish from the Puntioplites genus. The name is derived from the Latin word for point and the Greek word for weapon, because the fish is shaped, somewhat, like the point of a sword or an arrowhead. The one we netted was silver with a strange pointy crest on its back and an oversized, forked caudal fin. It was probably Smith’s barb (P. proctozystron).
After three hours on the lake, my traveling companion, Peter, told me he’d had enough of this huge, muddy pond and its silver fish. He wanted to go find some shallow, vegetated swamps where we’d have a shot at catching members of his favorite group of fish: the anabantoids, or labyrinth fish. We headed for shore, hired another motorcycle cart, and drove towards Siem Reap, looking for swampy areas along the way.
Looking for Labyrinths
Unfortunately, we didn’t find any naturally swampy areas along the road to Siem Reap—all of the adjacent land was covered with houses and farms—so we started to inspect ditches and flooded rice paddiesuntil we found a farm that looked like it might provide suitable habitat.
Under the watchful eye of a nearby water buffalo, we used our long-handled dip nets to explore the irrigation canals and flooded fieldsuntil we succeeded in catching some aquarium-appropriate fish—10 emerald-colored croaking gouramis (Trichopsis vittata). We bagged them up to bring home.
Croaking gouramis derive their name from their ability to make croaking noises using their specially adapted pectoral fins. They do this during courtship and displays of territorial aggression. Croakers grow to about 2½ inches (6 cm) and make good, peaceful residents of a community aquarium. They swim slowly and prefer planted tanks with little water movement. To breed, they deposit their eggs in nests that the male constructs from bubbles and mucus at the water’s surface.
The next day, we hired a car to drive 200 miles (322 km) south to Phnom Penh, where our work meetings were to be held, but we agreed to keep our eyes open for appropriate fish habitats along the way. After about an hour, Peter told our driver to take a side road—made of dirt—that pointed toward a flooded plain. We parked near its edge, and I thought we would wade into the shallows to try our luck. Peter said, “Don’t bother, you won’t find much in there, but…” he pointed to a ditch filled with stagnant water, weeds, and debris, “that spot looks promising.”
We started dip-netting the ditch and soon were catching interesting labyrinth fish. Peter excitedly waded up to his chest in the warm water while dragging his net through the thick vegetation.
We caught two more types of labyrinth fish in that ditch, both gouramis. The first was the blue gourami (Trichopodus trichopterus), also known as the three-spot gourami. These fish grow up to 6 inches (15 cm) and are commonly traded as hardy aquarium fish. Those sold in pet stores originate from commercial breeding operations in places like Singapore, which produce gold, opaline, and silver morphs. The wild form, which we collected, is light blue with thin, gray barring and a red margin on its long anal fin—quite nice.
The second fish species was more interesting: a brightly colored pygmy or dwarf croaking gourami. The males we collected were small, about an inch (2.5 cm), and had the lanceolate tail shape that is typical of Trichopsis pumila, but they were much redder than normal. Peter began speculating that we might have caught something new. “These look halfway between T. pumila and T. schalleri,” he said. “They are redder than any pumila I’ve ever seen, so at a minimum they represent a new form for the hobby; you know, very few people have collected fish in this part of Cambodia.”
I posted a photo of the fish on Facebook, which elicited the following response from anabantoid expert and regular TFH contributor Mark Denaro: “My inclination is that it’s pumila, but I’ve never seen one with that much red in the fins. It’s entirely possible that it’s something new, too.”
Heading for Home
A week later, Peter was back in Germany and I was home in Seattle, telling my family about the stone temples of Angkor Wat and trying to breed those little red croaking fish in my aquarium. We had thoroughly enjoyed our trip to captivating Cambodia.