Well, today was another whole heap of adventures.
I had a memorable night’s sleep, that was heavy on the memories, but light on the sleep. It was lovely though. The mattress was hot, but the room not uncomfortable as such, it was the noisy wildlife (roosters, frogs and crickets) that kept me awake. That and needing the loo. A check of my watch said it was 2.00 a.m. and I knew there’d be zero chance of holding out til dawn so I braved the steps of the stilt house in the dark, fearful of every step sending a tremor through the house enough to wake everyone. I woke about 6.00 and the light was gorgeous. OUr hosts were nowhere to be seen, presumably already at work in the fields. Rice was laid outside drying, and a rooster patrolled the homestead.
Breakfast was at 7.30 and was sort of thin noodles. Then around 8.30ish not one, but two tractors appeared. We were very excited as they noisily drew up. They are the mad-max type creations I’ve seen all over, with sort of extended fronts and a trailer at the back. Each was kitted out with a sequence of 4 benches. It was never going to be a comfy ride as such, but I think we were ill-prepared for just how uncomfortable it would actually be! The plan was to take the track from one end of the island where we were, to the head end higher up-stream where we would go and be able to swim. It is only 17 km but my, that’s a long way when you are traversing dirt roads rutted and worn on a vehicle with no suspension, as we were about to find out.
I’m guessing a trip to the other side of the island is quite a decadent treat, as we collected up plenty of other locals to accompany us. Some were provided picnics, others along for the ride. Right at the start, our tractor driver made a bid to overtake the other who was too tardy for his liking. It was quite hairy, but fun too. Going over the bridges was a test of nerves. He just hurtled over, but I don’t understand how that wood could take the weight. I’m sure they do indeed fly over them all the time, but sooner or later those bridges will fail, there is nothing reinforcing them as far as I can tell, and every plank rumbles and moves as you pass over. One bridge had a spectacular hole in it, and peering over the edge was a chasm to a river tributary rather further below us than I’d have honestly liked. The path was not wide or well-worn, over hanging branches whipped our faces, and occasionally thorny plants locked into any exposed flesh as we brushed past. I actually quite enjoyed the adventure of it all, but it did not feel safe. I doubt it would pass any risk assessment at home. You are literally bounced right out of your seat, and I really did expect the tractor to overturn at any moment. I had it relatively easy being further forward in the line up, those at the back had exaggerated movement and must have clung on for their lives.
What with the fear factor, recent breakfast, and all that bouncing, a pee stop was requested. We pulled up at a seemingly derelict place with a toilet proudly sponsored by Oxfam which appeared to have fallen into disuse. Water was found and provided, and many of us took the opportunity to alight, count limbs and have a precautionary pee.
At first we waved and smiled at everyone we passed. Many children rushed out excitedly to see what was going on. I guess it was a bit of a novelty to have us screaming along at such a pace down tracks that had seemed pretty unnavigable by bike to be honest. After a bit though our waving and smiling diminished as the onus was on clinging on and fighting off foliage en route. An adventure for sure, but it seems that the allure of a tractor ride can wear off more quickly than you might imagine. After what seemed like hours, and indeed probably was. We reached an obstacle that defeated even our tractor drivers. A pond with must a little plank to cross it. We all got off, and followed the boy with the hip hop moves who must have leadership skills as he ran ahead to lead the way and we followed unquestioningly. One of our number immediately embarked on a high energy tag and tickle game, which was very impressive in the heat. I suspect she came to regret it, it was hard work, and his stamina was significantly greater than hers! The picture of the furry caterpillar isn’t by the way. It’s a grass seed head, great joke on me and very convincing too. I was impressed.
We were all pretty relieved to get out and walk to be honest. Some of us were hoping we could walk the whole way, but the tractors magically reappeared having found another route round. I strongly suspect they’d actually gone the wrong way earlier. Our return trip was a different route and a lot quicker. Most of us piled back on, a few opted to walk. It wasn’t too far to the end of the island. The tractor driver stopped at one point under a fruit bearing tree so we could try the hard little crab apples on it. I thought them quite sour, but interesting to sample, not a fruit I will actively seek out!
We stopped at the first indeed only place where I felt really uncomfortable on the island. It just had a strangely sinister air to it that I couldn’t really explain. There were lots of men working on a boat when we arrived, or more accurately smoking and staring at the boat. As we pulled up, they turned and stared at us. EVerywhere were nervous and aggressive looking dogs, and masses of puppies, some mangey and flea-ridden in poor condition. Their ‘owner’ picked them up and threw them aside or kicked them away when they approached the tractor. It was pitiful, I presume they must be being bred for meat. They certainly weren’t pets, and there were so many. Rubbish was everywhere, and this felt like it was metaphorically as well as literally the end of the road as it was indeed the end of the island. No smiles of welcome or even nods of acknowledgement here. I felt we were trespassing. Or maybe resented. That’s understandable, parachuting in with our wealth, I doubt he personally was a beneficiary of our spending, based as he was at this end of island outpost. Or maybe I read too much into it. I was glad when we descended the bank to the ‘beach’ and were out of there.
We had been told there was a sandy beach. I think to be fair that is stretching a point. It was quite fat sand if sand it was. Pebbles and rocks really, but let’s not be pedantic. It was quite a steep descent and I was glad of my keens, not really flip-flop territory. We picked our way onto the river edge, passing the odd cow, or beached boat. It was a longish walk to where we finally stopped. I was looking at the Mekong which flows really fast, and wasn’t convinced I’d be jumping in with enthusiasm. It is so silt filled and I have no idea how much river water you can swallow before contracting amoebic dysentery. I asked our nurse (now there’s a volunteer that’s handy to have around) but he said it depends on the bacterial load which was a REALLY unhelpful response, even if true, because we have no way of knowing that. The idea of taking a dip in the Mekong is romantic, but the reality, well, not romantic let’s say. Also, our guide had said that the water in the Mekong is 60 metres deep in places round here. Really! I don’t know if that is true, or a mistranslation, but if so who knows what lurks beneath? Monster fish has been set here from time to time with good reason. (Hate that show, chasing poor fish that don’t want to be found, but you get my point). I think you could drown just looking at the Mekong to be honest. As we walked, one of the local people with us flung a net into the river and instantly pulled out a few small fish that would be lunch for someone. An impressive skill indeed and a necessary one here.
We had with us a miscellaneous assortment of small children who fearlessly plunged into the waters at the first possible opportunity, screaming with delight. Once we’d sort of made camp, I followed the lead of one of our group who sounded like she was having way too much fun in the water with two of the children who seemed tiny but were of indeterminate age. They were thrilled when I too plunged into the pool slightly off the main water. This did have a sandy bottom. Basically, we two were like giant human buoyancy aids with interactive potential. Granted, we were a bit stupid, and so they had to do a lot of pointing and shouting to make sure we swam in the right direction and with sufficient speed, but we would do. They were totally uninhibited, clambering aboard us, joining in and initiating splashing games, shrieking with delight as we tossed them skyward. It was great fun. Though I had a brief moment of panic when I realised I know nothing about small children, I didn’t even know where their parents were, or if they could swim. I asked my companion about her child care credentials. Zero as well. Oh well, how hard can it be. We just got on wtih it, following the children’s lead and it was great. At one point the child who had latched onto me (mainly by my throat which caused several near strangulation incidents – note to self, learn Khmer for ‘I can’t breathe’ before taking to the waters again.) and took me through some deep-rooted, scary looking tall plants (mangroves?) to a little island where a man was fishing and we had a go at skimming stones, ducks and drakes I used to call it. There weren’t many flat stones to be had, so I only got two bounces max. The fisherman got many. By this time I was exhausted, so we all exited the waters to have lunch. What larks though eh, what larks?
Lunch was basically rice and vegetables again. Fish for those who’d eat it. It really brings home just how repetitive food is for most Cambodians. It’s white rice three times a day. Vegetables if available, fish if you’ve fished, eggs if you have some. Meat must be a rarity, we have been offered some but I’m sure it’s because we are being dined and welcomed and bringing money with us that they need. Worth killing a chicken for. However in poor rural communities which are basically still living a subsistence lifestyle, it is probably still rice and veg. Repetitive and frankly grim. No wonder so many children are malnourished. I remember now the local guide at the last home stay describing his early life on a poor farm. It was just labouring on the rice fields and eating rice. That was it. His whole life until his mid twenties when he bravely persuaded his parents to let him go away and take up an opportunity to learn English at a mission school. He spoke of rice, nothing but rice to eat, and being hungry. I think I’m only now beginning to appreciate that he wasn’t exaggerating, that was his reality, and it still is the reality of many people in remote rural areas still, probably here on this island too. We traversed the whole island, and there was just one ‘centre’ where goods were for sale. You can’t get much here, you get what you can grow, or fish and occasionally trade. No wonder they welcome tourists and the possibility of a bit of cash that will give some extra choices. ‘Luxuries’ like medical care perhaps. I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t over keen on lunch. It seems ungrateful, but I am heartily sick of white rice, and I never liked it to begin with.
Whilst we waited for lunch to be ready, the fisherman showed off a blowfish he’d caught. It was rather gruesome. He handed it to the children to play with. The poor creature was all blown up like a balloon, as they do as a defensive measure, and the children attempted to hang it from the branch of a bush like in Shrek, only when it’s for real, it isn’t funny. I felt uncomfortable and walked away. It’s a completely different value set here. The state of many animals is pitiful. Some of the group remembered their own torturing animals as children tales. Ants and magnifying glasses scoring highly. It was grim, but noteworthy. They are creative when it comes to play, and to be honest, they seriously do have to make their own entertainment in these parts. I keep hearing the Cambodian ‘joke’ being told and retold by local guides. ‘Why are rural families so large? No electricity!’ Another example of making your own entertainment. It’s true by the way, almost everywhere outside the larger settlements, power on the island and in rural areas elsewhere is basically car batteries with creative wiring, or occassional solar panels, it’s use is therefore rationed.
After lunch I snoozed, then there was the mandatory group photo, and we walked back to rejoin the tractors. Oh yay! To be fair, the return journey was a great deal quicker. And we only had two incidents. One where our tractor got beached on a rut. I was relieved in a way, it suggested that being marooned rather than overturned was the most probable near-death scenario. And then another when we piled over to a bridge straight at an oncoming motorbike with three riders. They couldn’t stop and the one at the back bailed, whilst the other two continued their trajectory into the undergrowth tumbling off as they did so. Still laughing and smiling… this is the default response to almost any unexpected situation. Our tractor driver didn’t even stop – does that mean this too happens all the time?
And suddenly, we were back. Quick farewells, a bit of hanging around in hammocks, and then back on boats again for the return to Kratie and the CRDT guest house. We ended our journey waving goodbye and whizzing along the Mekong as sunset. Pretty awesome.
It doesn’t get much better than that really does it.
Mind you, I was looking forward to a shower and a good night’s sleep (still eluding me now at point of writing) but we sure banked some memories. Thank you hosts for that. It was a great perspective bringer. I have many thoughts still to process. It’s amazing to experience this, but it is important to put it in a context. If this was my whole life, limited options, poor health care, then that wouldn’t be the best start in life. There is nothing romantic about poverty, lack of sanitation, limited health care and a poor diet. The work CRDT (and other NGOs are doing is critical), but the need is so great. Sobering ultimately to reflect on, but an extraordinary opportunity to get a glimpse of rural life for sure. I’d absolutely recommend this. The communities need the money, and if you take an open mind, a smile and an open heart, then there is much to be seen and learned from it too. Most of all, it was heaps of fun. Plus, I might be able to get my NVQ in childcare level one signed off now. That was a whole heap of water play I got involved in, and no-one drowned, so all good!
Oh, and one more thing. En route back to Kratie in the minibus, we passed a motorbike laden with sturdy looking logs. Our guide pointed it out, it was timber being smuggled to Vietnam, it will go on all night. The motocyclist will pay 5000 Reil (about $1 25cents) bribe to each police check point and then continue the drive to Vietnam which is about 80 km from here. On arrival, he might get $25 for his load. Trees are being selectively taken all the time, it is illegal, but official prefer the bribes to law enforcement. The money goes to the few corrupt individuals, the communities see no benefit, and longer term… well, at the last homestay our guide told us about how since the trees have gone he has noticed natural pools and waterways have dried out. The environmental damage here is catastrophic The only concession to acknowledging this is an illegal activity, is that the smuggling takes place at night.
We also passed various wedding tents up en route, which led our guide to saying a bit more about all of that. Traditionally, the bride and groom consult with a monk who will determine a day for the wedding based on their horoscopes. If the monk says wait a year, then a year they will wait. If he says the wedding match is not a good one, then sometime couples will be pressurised to separate. In the cities there is less of these traditions, but in the countryside the pressure is strong. Women marry from/at around 18 and men between 20 and 22. Some forced marriages do take place. Our guide’s cousin at 18 years was forced to marry an older (36 year old) wealthy man from Siem Reap. The wedding went ahead, but they divorced 2 months later. She has since married again, I hope happily. Weddings can cost 3-5,000 dollars, an extraordinary sum here. However, it is important for the parents of the groom to be as lavish as possible, otherwise they will lose face. In rural areas it is more of a community affair, everyone contributes.
Our guide was also clear about the government and the opposition. He told me the story I’ve heard repeated before. At the last elections everyone believes the opposition party won in a landslide. However, after polls closed, there was a black out of power, TVs went blank, aftera period of time (that was either an hour or three days so I need to work on my active listening skills) the government announced that they had won by a massive victory. No-one believes it. The current Prime Minister has been in power for 30 years, corruption is everywhere, and, presumably, he is also tainted (more than that) associated with the elite of the Khmer Rouge. Politics here is terrifying. Maybe more of that later. For now though, let be comforted by the splish splash sploshing that went on in the Mekong and the positivity of the people we met who are longing for and working towards a better future. Hope over experience perhaps, but hope nevertheless…