Seasonal Smell of Prahok Draws Varied Reactions

For Cambodians, its a sweet aroma, promising the truly Khmer taste of the food that moth­ers and grandmothers have been cooking for centuries.

But for Angkor-bound tourists visiting the floating village of Chong Khneas on Tonle Sap lake, the pervading smell of fermenting prahok could be a bit of a shock.

From mid-December to mid-Jan­­uary, the lakeshore where boats drop off tourists on their way to Siem Reap town turns into a giant prahok factory, explains Tourism Secretary of State Thong Khon.

As the waters of the Tonle Sap lake and river flow back into the Mekong river and fishermen make their biggest catch of the year, Cambodians start preparing the fermented raw-fish paste that is used in about every dish in Khmer cuisine.

In Siem Reap province, prahok is a business, as about 100 tons of the product made in that province are exported to Thailand per year, said Koy Song, provincial tourism director.

This being high tourism season, between 600 to 2,000 foreign visitors pass through the area each day, either touring the floating village or traveling between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh by boat, said Thong Khon.

“The smell is very strong,” said Pov Kimsan, a taxi driver who takes visitors along the 13-km stretch between the lake and Siem Reap town. “I often see foreign tourists cover their noses and make faces—they don’t look happy.”

The solution would be to locate the tourist boat dock away from the fishing harbor, said taxi driver Chea Saroeun.

Plans are to do just that. In Sep­tember, the Asian Develop­ment Bank completed a study for the development of fishing and tourist harbors, a 5-km chan­nel in the lake and a new road to Siem Reap town, said Thong Khon.

Chong Khneas will be promoted as a tourist site to relax and have a quiet picnic, he said. “It’s so beautiful, this floating village amidst the flooded forest and the birds,” he said.

But until the $20-million project gets done, the government cannot afford to relocate the tourist boat dock, said Koy Song.

So visitors will have to put up with prahok-making. “It is impossible to move this away. Prahok means traditional food—it is the symbol of Khmer food,” he said.

As Thong Khon added: “It’s not a terrible smell, but kind of a good smell, when people understand the historical context of prahok.”





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