Changing Planet

What the River Knows: Siem Reap, Cambodia

In this series, “What the River Knows,”  by Basia Irland, the artist and water activist writes from the perspective of each river, using the first person. Installments are published in Water Currents every other week on Mondays. The first post is about the Ping River in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Other posts include the Chao Phraya River, Bangkok; Kamo-gawa River, Kyoto; Siem Reap River, Cambodia; Yaqui River, Mexico, where the eight Yaqui tribal villages do not have water due to agricultural corporations; the superfund site on the Eagle River in Colorado, polluted with heavy metal runoff from a mine; and the Virgin River as it flows through Zion National Park.

Please feel free to add your comments at the end of each post.

Siem Reap, Cambodia–As I flow through the town of Siem Reap, Cambodia, I am slow moving and bucolic-looking most of the year, with green parks and benches for people to sit and watch me flow by. But sometimes during rainy season I overflow and flood nearby buildings and roads. Along both sides of my banks there are old collapsing wooden houses hanging precariously over the water. These are currently being torn down in order to clean my body, while the local inhabitants will be relocated to rice fields nearby.

I have been sick for a long time, with plastic bottles and bags clogging my flow, but now there is an effort to dredge my underbelly by removing trash. I can definitely breathe better as they make progress.


Dwelling collapsing into Siem Reap River. (Photo by Basia Irland and Derek Irland.)
Dwelling collapsing into Siem Reap River. (Photo by Basia Irland and Derek Irland.)


My source is a spring on the most holy mountain in Cambodia, Mt. Kulen (which means lichee fruit), and I have a long, dramatic history to tell. Almost one thousand years ago I helped to build the grand architectural sacred complex of Ankor Wat, when thousands of bamboo rafts floated along my body for thirty miles carrying over three million heavy stones from a sandstone quarry to be used in the construction of the temples. Today, I still have the grand opportunity everyday to see segments of the splendid World Heritage Site structures as I flow south toward Tonlé Sap Lake.

From my beginning I chug along downhill for fifty miles where I reach Tonlé Sap, Khmer for “Vast Body of Fresh Water,” which fills and shrinks in cycles. As a combined lake and river system we provide much needed water for Cambodia’s rice fields. Our shores are dotted with floating villages bobbing up and down while people on board are busy going about their daily chores.


3. The floating villages of Tonle Sap Lake
The floating villages of Tonle Sap Lake. (Photo by Basia Irland and Derek Irland.)
4. The floating villages on Tonle Sap Lake. Blue houses usually denote the home of a Vietnamese family
The floating villages of Tonle Sap Lake. Blue houses usually denote the home of a Vietnamese family. (Photo by Basia Irland and Derek Irland.)

I may appear to be a quiet and innocent stream, but I have witnessed a brutal, sad history. The name Siem Reap translates as the “Defeat of Siam” (about 1516–1566), today’s Thailand, which refers to the old conflict between the Khmer and Siamese nations.

In more recent times of the past forty years I unfortunately saw many of the residents living along my shores killed and maimed in senseless savage events. In 1969 the United States entered the Vietnam War, and US troops flew over Cambodia with B-52 bombers loaded with napalm and cluster-bombs in order to destroy Viet Cong supply lines and hideouts. These planes dropped more bombs here than during the entirety of World War II, killing about 750,000 Cambodians.

But there was more horror on the horizon. From 1975-1979 a vicious regime called the Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot, evacuated towns whose residents were forced out to rural, agricultural communes to work in labor camps. Families were separated, Buddhist monks were killed, temples destroyed.

There was to be no music, no intimacy, no wearing glasses (which meant, heaven forbid, that you were an intellectual), no laughing, no crying. All of these “crimes” were punishable by death. Estimates vary, but between 2-3 million people, about a quarter of the country’s population were killed during this time from murder, starvation, and disease.

One of the few places that was not entirely destroyed, although it was heavily ransacked, was Ankor Wat. A friend of mine who grew up along my banks is Khieu Seavathdy. Her grandfather, father and extended family hid out along with six thousand other refuges within the walls of the temple for two years from 1970-1972.

It was not until April, 1998 that Pol Pot died, and not until 2014 that two of the Khmer Rouge leaders were finally brought to trial and sentenced to life in prison. Khieu tells me that even today there are television programs to try and reunite families that were separated four decades ago.

This legacy of so much war has left behind another major problem of land mines. Most of the ones around my banks have been cleared away, but there are still millions of unexploded land mines and bombs throughout our country. Cambodia has about 40,000 amputees, among the highest in the world, so everyday there are land-mind victims begging as they rest under a tree by my shore.

We are currently in a phase of stability, with a vigorous tourist industry and it is hoped by everyone here that finally a time of peace and recovery can begin.


Going-home traffic at dusk of bicycles, tuk-tuks, cars, and pedestrians as the river sees it. (Photo by Basia Irland and Derek Irland.)
Going-home traffic at dusk of bicycles, tuk-tuks, cars, and pedestrians as the river sees it. (Photo by Basia Irland and Derek Irland.)


Basia Irland is a sculptor, poet, and installation artist who has focused her creativity on rivers for 30 years. Her aim is to connect people to their local waters and watersheds in ways that will motivate concern, caring, appreciation, and stewardship. You may read more about her and her work on her website.

Fulbright Scholar, Basia Irland is an author, poet, sculptor, installation artist, and activist who creates global water projects. She is Professor Emerita, Department of Art and Art History, University of New Mexico, where she established the Arts and Ecology Program. Irland works with scholars from diverse disciplines building rainwater harvesting systems; connecting communities and fostering dialogue along the entire length of rivers; filming and producing water documentaries; and creating waterborne disease projects around the world. She lectures and exhibits internationally and is regularly commissioned to do artistic river restoration projects. Check out her work at
  • Whitney Woodward

    Thank you, Basia Ireland, for allowing the rivers of the world to speak through you so eloquently! Now, if only more people would listen…

  • Linda Weintraub

    When I hear about such brutal and sad plights, my first impulse is to offer a sympathetic hug. But how do you hug a river? Your story is inspiring me to invent another means to express my sorrow. Thank you.

  • anna borrie

    Beautifully written narrative as our waterways are like living breathing historians, every event is recorded and leaves a mark or change.

  • Austin Clarkson

    Basia is a powerful advocate for the rivers of the world. With many media she creates living works of art in collaboration with rivers, giving them a voice to warn us of their plight. Let us take inspiration from Basia and seek to restore the health of our own rivers and creeks.
    Basia came to Toronto in 1999 to lead a workshop on “Bringing Psyche to the River in the City.” Recently, plans have been announced to restore wet lands to the mouth of the Don River.

  • Ana MacArthur

    These are powerful writings by Basia that connect the deep history of a region to how that history ultimately and literally ends up pervading the quality of earth’s rivers. There is much restoration to be done all over the earth, and the river veins are key.

  • Stanly Steinberg

    This a terribly sad story that I followed from the time the Vietnam war. Nice to hear that things are improving.

  • Mary lou Meiers

    Basia, Thank you for devoting your life to giving Voice to the Water. Life as we know it depends on Water’s Story, on how well we respect the Story, on how humble we are with what the Story tells us and on how generous we are to Water so all of Life can continue listening and living.

  • Lucy Lippard

    Wonderful to have an artist telling it like she sees it, with the eyes of an artist. And what a tale…..

  • Erich Kaltofen

    Sad to see such a fertile region having had to struggle for food due to human ignorance. I have crossed your waters downstream by ferry and the great bridge in Can Tho. Ms. Irland has “spirited us away.”

  • Antonio José García Cano

    Thanks Basia. It is very inspiring for me. I am interested in the memory of rivers. I wonder how we can learn from them, from what they have seen, from their way of flowing or meandering along time. Now, it is great to hear their voice.

  • Rebecca Sitterly

    Basia, thank you for inhabiting the river, giving it speech, poetry and story. :Your perspective as an artist is invaluable. You bring soul to the water and to us.

  • Katherine White

    No music, no laughing, no crying? And yet, the river does all these things, in it’s cycles. I am amazed the river doesn’t run saline from the tears…all the tears.

  • bill fleming

    Your work continues to inspire us.

  • Jennifer Predock-Linnell

    How sad and how beautiful to read the River’s voice instead of hearing it. Basia and Derek are river historians giving voice to such a precious and necessary element – water.

  • Jennifer Predock-Linnell

    What a sad yet beautiful tale of the life of a river. Basia and Derek are river historians giving voice to the many rivers of the world and honoring such an important life element – water.

  • Elizabeth Stores

    Love the personification of the river here. Who speaks when there is no voice? Many interesting avenues of thought can be explored starting from the unique perspective that Irland offers to readers.

  • Bobbe Besold

    You can hug a river by advocating for all rivers and for water. Thank you Basia for doing this good, loving work.

  • Bryan Westerlund

    As a River Steward, I appreciate your pictures and words that give “voice” to the river. It is clear to see how the Siem Reap River flows as a representation of the people during times of hardship and war. Yet, a universal question for all stewards around the world remains: how can the rivers flow for the future?

  • Saehan Lenzen

    The memories of rivers speak volumes about the history of the land and people surrounding them. Rivers have seen all the suffering and joy of the cultures and environments around them, and this article articulates the importance of sitting back and listening to the stories they can tell.

  • Mary Daniel Hobson

    Love having the river have a voice as it does here. So inspiring to have an artist as accomplished as Basia Irland writing for National Geographic.

  • Megan Guy

    Thank you for your wisdom, Basia! I truly enjoy the way the river is personified in this. It is amazing how each river has such a different story and how humans are integral part of it. I can only think about the future when reading about Siem reap, Cambodia. How can humans take a communal approach to give this river a brighter future?

  • Diana Theodores

    Always a pîoneer and visionary, Basia Irland’s latest experiment – writing as the voice of a river – creates a thought provoking ” witness perspective” on the flow of river and history
    Basia’s interdisciplinary reach is so compelling . Not only are you moved by her passion and poetics, you are hit in the gut by the sparingly painful data embedded in her imagery.
    Her’s is a truly unique voice for art, ecology and humanity.

  • Kendal Schaetzle

    It is amazing to see a writing where it incorporates the river as first person. The part that grabbed my attention is when the river says it has been sick for so long and needs to be healed. People in the area need to care for and nurse the river back to health. But not only the poeple in the area, but everyone in the world needs to care.

  • Nicole Reinhardt

    I found this to be so beautifully written, especially how the river is in first person. I imagine the river as though it is telling its personal story as we humans are just the assets, as opposed to the humans being the main characters and the river being an asset. Amazing work

  • Alicia Dellazoppa

    I find it amazing when art is related to nature (especially the rivers), as nature is art itself. This piece is powerful and it encompasses not only the beauty of the river, but also its need for healing. There is so much history that occurs in and around the rivers, and it was lovely taking a journey with the river in this piece. I hope and pray for sustained stewardship in Siem Reap and for the recovery of the river to continue.

  • Peter Evans

    Showing the story of a people, their history, their triumphs, their defeats, and their struggles from the viewpoint of a river is a beautiful idea, one that I think is very humble and very creative. A pattern that I think many of us have seen is that throughout human history, people have been drawn rivers for their life-giving properties. For thousands of years, rivers have been a driving force behind the development of culture and ‘civilization.’ It is strange though, and reflects human nature well, that the very rivers that have shaped life as we know it today, also reflect the deformities that result from that development. Your outlook from the river offers this unique perspective, showing how the river built this town, but it has also marked it being torn apart. The river mirrors the health of the region, in terms of pollution and trash. It will be interesting to see how this town change over time.

  • Beverly Clarkson

    Basia, Thank you! Your work puts me (and many others) in touch with the need to become active on behalf of the Knowing River. The River speaks in many tongues through all organisms. It waters our creative spirits and makes us humble before its ever-readiness to tend life. “Clean me. Use me with a consciousness of all others who need me. Spread my word.” That is what the River says to me.

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