It’s a March afternoon in Kampong Khleang, and the boats keep coming down a muddy river leading from the Tonle Sap lake, docking to unload their haul, stilt houses casting shadows up the bank. The boats are battered square boxes, long and low, filled halfway up to the gunwales with watery masses of fish. Skinny teenagers in broad hats and flip-flops balance on the thwarts to shovel the catch into plastic baskets. When each basket is full, a pair of men slide it down the plank leading to the bank and drag it by its rope handles 20 yards up. Kids lie in wait with small nets, ready to snag any escapees.
The village, a mass of towering homes packed against one another along the lake’s northern rim, sits about 30 miles southeast of the major city of Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor. Each day, thousands of pounds of fish will pass through this one small market alone. Countless more will go through countless markets set along countless inlets across the Tonle Sap. And at this particular spot on this particular day in 2017, there is only one type of fish the buyers are interested in: trey riel, which flicker like silver coins when the nets are drawn up.
The largest freshwater fish family in the world is Cyprinidae, among them carps and minnows, silvery and delicate. Trey riel—“money fish” —is the Khmer name for several of its species. Most are no larger than a thumb, though some can grow to the size of a forearm. Riel is the country’s currency, but think of this fish like a 100 riel note—about $0.02—something even the poor have plenty of. Trey riel is oily and astoundingly nutritious. It is used, most commonly, in the fermented fish paste prahok—a staple so omnipresent only rice is more commonly seen on a Cambodian table. It is not hyperbole to say that in all of Cambodia, no animal is as important as trey riel.