Phnom Penh’s rivers are the lifeblood of the city. Ellie Dyer meets the man behind a new fishing tour on the Tonle Sap river. Photography by Charles Fox.

From a mysterious message in a bottle to grappling with a monster catfish, blogger Dorn Phok is no stranger to the fruits of Cambodia’s rivers. An avid fisherman since his youth in Svay Rieng province, the 27-year-old has spent many happy hours entrenched on the capital’s riverside with rod in hand.

“During the fish season we use different bait. If the water is up, we use worms. When the water subsides, we use cake. And I use prahok too, and cockroach,” explains the angler, who runs an online diary recording his river exploits.

“Cockroaches are very easy to catch. You just pick them up and put them in a bottle. I was looking for earthworms but I didn’t know where to find them in Phnom Penh. I tried some cockroaches and it worked. Fish — they love it.”

After years of plying the depths and honing his angling skills, the hobby fisherman is trying to bait a new and potentially more lucrative catch — tourists. “People read my blog and message me to ask to come and go fishing, so I thought okay: yes, I’ll try to open a business of fishing trips,” he says.

Armed with a plastic bottle full of scuttling roaches, multiple fishing rods and a hired boat, the newly launched trips currently take place on Friday and Saturday afternoons. Thought to be one of the first such tours in the capital — though regular fishing trips are offered in coastal regions including Sihanoukville — the trips introduce would-be fishermen and women to life on the river, with expert advice on technique provided along the way.

Cruising beside Phnom Penh’s bustling riverside, our first stop is behind Chaktomuk Theatre and the Himawari Hotel — a popular spot for local fishermen, many of whom sit in contemplative silence on the jagged cubes that dot the water’s edge.

In the boat, Dorn dons his shady fisherman’s hat before clipping off the legs of the roaches. The wriggling bait is then speared onto a hook, cast into the river, and dropped into the depths in anticipation of tantalising some bottom dwelling catfish.

Hopes run high for a catch, as big fish certainly make the capital’s rivers their home. Dorn once battled for 30 minutes before reeling in a giant catfish that reportedly weighed 12 kilograms. “I brought it to my grandma in Kandal province. She said: ‘No, I don’t believe, you bought from a market’. Later she believed me, because she found many hooks inside its stomach,” he says. “Big fish destroy many hooks and escape, I was lucky.”

Living in a big city, he admits that plastic bags and rubbish have also been the catch of the day. Once, the fishing guide even found a message in a bottle from a gay man grappling with a personal crisis. He returned it to the waters, saying he was not the right person to receive it.

Though river fishing is best from September to October, small groups of men with their own gear can be spotted on the banks all year. Many are fishing as a social activity rather than out of necessity.

“You just have fun, we can meet new friends,” says Dorn, who emphasises that the relaxing activity requires a lot of patience and can attract up to 150 fishermen to try the waters off Koh Pich on a good day. “We don’t talk about any work, we just talk about fishing.”

After passing the Japan- Cambodia Friendship Bridge, the boat stops again. A few nibbles are felt and a cockroach disappears from a hook, but when night draws it’s clear that the fish aren’t biting.

As the sun sets over the river and we tuck into a steamed fish dinner — prebought at the market in case of unproductive days — a sense of peace pervades. Many of those on the trip become lost in silent thought. In the words of American author Henry David Thoreau: “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”

Dorn Phok’s fishing tours cost $10 per person. For more information call 097 897 0007, or visit www.fishinginphnompenh.wordpress.com.