Temples, Labyrinths, and Ditches: Collecting Tropical Fish in Cambodia
Author: Lawrence Kent
While visiting Cambodia to work on a humanitarian project, an intrepid adventurer and fish fanatic took some time to net some of the local underwater fauna, including gouramis, bettas, and catfish.
Cambodia is a small country in Southeast Asia, nestled between Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. Nine hundred years ago, it was the home of the Angkor kingdom, which ruled over the region from giant stone temples built in the jungle—a place known as the Angkor Wat Complex.
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 first day of my trip, I met the German aquarist Peter Beyer in the town of Siem Reap, and we proceeded to visit the temples. The first was Angkor Wat itself, which was large and magnificent, filled with stone statues of Buddha and covered in bas-reliefs depicting armies battling on elephant-backa thousand years ago. The ancient stone bridge to the temple traversed a wide moat, so we climbed onto the far bank and peered into the water. We saw a dozen juvenile snakeheads—the hardy, eel-like fish ubiquitous in Asian waters—and a couple of five-banded barbs (Systomus pentazona). We didn’t bother to net thembecause we had decided to focus on the temples that first day. We hired a motorcycle-drawn cart and headed to the next historical site.
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.
They were in a basket along with the other species. The snakeheads (Channa striata) were elongated fish with brown backs and white bellies, capable of snaking over land to move from one puddle to the next. The climbing perch (Anabas testudineus) were similarly capable of traveling over land. We watched them use their spiny gill covers and fins almost like arms to pull themselves across the ground before the fishermen scooped them up to be returned to the basket. Some climbing perch species are said to scale trees, although we didn’t have a chance to witness that! Neither snakeheads nor climbing perch make particularly good aquarium residents, but they are kept by aficionados of bizarre and predacious fish. We decided to move on.
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.
Catch of the Day
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
We arose early and hired a motorcyclist to take us about 10 miles (16 km) to Tonle Sap Lake, one of the largest freshwater lakes in Asia, which drains into the Tonle Sap River and eventually merges with the Mekong River, opposite the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. We hired a boat and headed out into its muddy waters. There was very little vegetation in or near the lake, which was the color of coffee with milk. We explained to the captain our desire for aquarium fish, and he pulled out a cast net and started testing his luck.
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 an hour or so of cast-netting, we steered the boat out to the floating village of Chong Khneas to look for fishermen. The floating village consists of a series of houses floating on pontoons where a small community of fishermen and their families make their home. There’s even a floating store, basketball court, and church. We tied up at the visitors’ center, disembarked, and met a local fisherman. He had only a few fish to show us, mainly catfish and carp, but he also handed us a largescale archer fish (Toxotes chatareus)—you know, the kind that shoots water from its mouth to knock insects off branches—and a strange fish with an oversized, forked caudal fin and extremely long antennae sticking out from its sides.
This latter fish really confused me. Catfish have long antennae (barbels, to be precise) emerging from their faces, but this silver fish had antennae that were almost twice as long as its body protruding from behind its gill covers, about four on each side. Only after I shared the fish’s photo on Facebook to elicit input from friends, such as Oliver Lucanus, did I figure out that this fish was actually a perch from the family Polynemidae, also known as thethreadfins. The pectoral fins of these bizarre silver fish are divided into two sections, one of which consists of multiple long rays, called threadfins. There are multiple species of the genus Polynemus in Lake Tonle Sap. The one we encountered was most likely P. aquilonaris or P. melanochir dulcis.
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
Anabantoids are mostly small fish, distinguished by their ability to take in oxygen directly from the air instead of solely through water. They do this through a maze-shaped breathing organ—the labyrinth organ—located in the gill chamber. Gouramis and bettas, especially Siamese fighting fish, are the most popular anabantoids in the aquarium hobby.
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 fields until 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 collected about a dozen colorful Betta imbellis, also known as the peaceful or crescent betta. The males were about 2 inches (5 cm) long with red ventral fins and iridescent blue dorsal and anal fins. Unlike the more common and feisty B. splendens, the peaceful betta is not prone to fighting. A pair can be kept successfully in a small tank with surface plants and an air-powered sponge filter, where they may produce bubblenests and breed. It’s important to keep the tank warm and covered though, because B. imbellis tends to jump.
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.”
Peter and I bagged up the fish, washed some of the mud off our legs, and continued on our drive down to Phnom Penh to return to our regular jobs. Our meetings on the malnutrition project went well.
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.