The dolphins clearly never got the memo. Or if they did, maybe the ink ran out of it because of the water, or possibly they just can’t read, not in English anyway, maybe Khmer, I don’t know. I do know I didn’t hear them as such on waking, but it was nice to think they might be out there somewhere all the same.
The itinerary said:
Awake to the sounds of birds and rare freshwater dolphins surfacing around the island. Begin a full day kayaking trip down river through the rmote flooded forests of Cambodia’s amazing Ramsar WEtlands. A boat will provide backup. Many varieties of birds live in these forests. Picnic lunch en route provided. Return to Stung Treng accommodations in the evening.
Worse night’s sleep ever, as it rained and winds caused near lift off of the tents in the night. In the morning, I ventured out of my tent and found a convenient bush and did the necessarily near the buffalo poo piles and carefully kept my toilet paper to burn on the fire later. I noticed the guide gathering up dried up toilet paper earlier with his bare hands – glad he’s not doing the cooking. I hoped he wouldn’t think it was mine, I actually think it was quite old, and maybe he was just being public-spirited. He also gathered up all the empty bottles he could find, but more of why he did that later. On dismantling our tents, tracks were discovered. These belong to a centipede that can give you a mean old bite apparently. The boatman and our guide followed the tracks to try to find it, it was a big one. I thought it was curiosity, or maybe to show us, but subsequent conversations revealed if our guide had found it, he’d probably have plunged it into a bottle of rice wine to increase its restorative powers if consumed after hard physical excursion, it seems the critter had a lucky escape. So too did we, no bed-hopping having taken place in the night as far as we could fathom.
I found a beetle, very much dead and devoid of lif, lying in the sand. I placed it on the esky just in case, and found it got rapidly scooped up by the boatman. He dropped the sandy creature into the embers of the dying fire, and then delightedly scoffed it down. Clearly not a fussy eater. I don’t eat animals anyway, but if I did, I’d prefer to know when they died, and not have them sand covered. At least it was organic though I suppose.
The island looked lovely, in the early morning light. There was no incentive to lie in, the sleeping quarters being crucifyingly uncomfortable intrinsically, never mind with the rising heat and the fact that so little sleep occurred there was little point in trying to top it up at all. The night had brought rain and most significantly wind. The wind scooped the tents up and skyward, and also blew in the sides to such a point it was like being in the stomach of a snake or something experiencing the muscular contractions of the stomach walls as the beast attempts to swallow you. I’m thinking maybe an anaconda or similar. The billowing in of fabric from all sides seemed to suffocate me, and no amount of repositioning of my backpack or water bottles could hold it back.
Hilariously, me and my companion didn’t really speak of this. It was so mutually obvious how appalling a night was had it was as if by mutual consent we spoke not of it. In the night there had been some shouting above the noise of the wind from tent to tent along the lines of ‘are you awake, are you still alive?’ but by morning all of that was forgotten. It was ‘too difficult’ to have breakfast on the island, so it was back on the boat to the village on the mainland.
On the way back to the island, unfortunately my co-traveler got a splinter from the boat. This wouldn’t have mattered quite so much were it not for the efforts of those all around to assist him. On landing, our boatman found a good thorn from a riverside shrub and used it to ferociously dig out the offending bit of split wood… leaving a gaping hole. I thought highly of my companion for tolerating this, in fact it maybe was the better of the available options as the guide then returned with a needle for the same purpose, but that was potentially less clean than the shrub, even so I’d have gone with the preferred option of sucking it out myself, mind you that could had led to some vile intestinal problem on reflection so hey ho, just glad it wasn’t me that got got quite frankly. Nice bit of male bonding taking place though – all blood brother now. Apart from me of course, I’m not properly equipped for that club.
This turned out to be a very good move though, coming to the mainland I mean, as the breakfast spot was just amazing with stunning views across the river, back to the island where we’d been staying, the dolphin pool and the dam beyond. Breakfast was pretty good, certainly attentively produced. A little burner was brought out specially to warm the sliced white bread. You just can’t get toast in Cambodia, they don’t seem to get the idea of it at all. Instead you get slightly warmed dried out bread. What was funny, was that our guide made quite a thing of warming our bread for us, because that is what we like apparently (presumably when we can’t get baguettes, without either one or the other we will inevitably die). We watched, but neither of us could find it in ourselves to intercede and explain about how toast should be really brown and crisp. Well it seems rude doesn’t it, to criticise when someone has gone to all that trouble? And so we colluded with this mistake, and perpetuate the notion that we like our bread slightly warmed and dried out and white, and allow that presumption that we are delighted by this to carry on to the detriment of other travelers. How lacking in public spiritedness and basic assertiveness are we?
Our companion for breakfast was a very tenacious cat. I really liked it. It somehow worked its way up onto the table, and then commenced a peaceful protest. It wouldn’t be moved under any circumstances whatsoever, digging its claws into the table if you attempted to relocate it with either shoving or lifting. It didn’t scratch, it didn’t miaow, it simply held its ground, waiting for an opportunity to present it with better access to omelette or cheese triangles which I’m guessing were its target food options. If I was a cat I’d be this one, with a steel certainty that would make me unyielding, but polite, some might say stubborn, but I’d say principled and tenacious. I was secretly pleased when it did make it to the cheese triangles. I felt such persistence and positivity against the odds should be rewarded. Our guides ate noodles, our hosts were out of sight.
After breakfast, there was a bit of hanging around, so I wandered along the bank and took in the sights. This included watching a man gutting a chicken and rinsing it out into the river. I dread to think what ends up in there, food waste, human waste and litter is only the beginning.
Then down the rickety steps, back to the waterfront, and we were introduced to our kayaks. I had no idea what to expect. However, one decision made for us was that we would share a double kayak, they are more stable and half the effort if two of you are paddling I suppose. Well, if two of you are paddling to equal measure, honestly I’m not sure I did do 50% of the work, but hey ho, I’m old.
Oh, and one thing I forgot to mention, was at some point in the proceedings we saw a guy filling up his engine with petrol from a plastic bag. It suddenly dawned on me (my I’m slow on the uptake) all those little plastic bags of urine-coloured liquid I see hanging off motorbike handles are not full of tea, but rather fuel. Great, another road hazard to be mindful of in the streets of Phnom Penh! The guy simply plunged his hand in the petrol and made a hole in the bottom of the bag to allow fuel to run in through the narrow refill hole. Again, what could possibly go wrong? Really hope he’s a non-smoker or he is soon to be a non-person!
Finally all aboard, and downstream we were heading.
Oh my. No idea how to compress the next few hours into text. It was more a sequence of impressions. What you need to know is that the kayaks took us into the flooded forests of the Mekong and they are simply A.Maz.Ing. I had no idea these places existed. It was remarkable, strange twisted trees emerging from the water. The river is wide and vast, where we were there was no-one else at all, it seemed like we were in wilderness at last (even though there is really no such thing). Just the noise of our kayak blades in the water. The trees have taken on the most extraordinary shapes, moulded by the currents. Little flashes of faster water require some canny manoeuvres as you weave in and out of the trees. To be fair, it wasn’t helped by the fact that our guide ahead was in a single kayak, which seemed to be considerably more nimble and was also narrower, he didn’t factor that in when choosing a route.
Some things really are indescribable. I don’t really have a vocabulary for this unknown world. It was hypnotic weaving through the trees, and wondering what lies beneath. Mostly it was fine in the kayak. There was only one near-death moment when we got caught up in a stronger current and our kayak reversed and was temporarily completely out of control. My companion grabbed a tree and stabilised us, which was fortuitous, I would not have wanted to go under, and not only because it would have been a shame to lose my camera as we did so.
We saw some birds, butterflies and most spectacularly a crow of some sort, dive bombing an eagle that was too close for comfort although not behaving in an overtly aggressive way, just catching thermals to cruise on I think.
At places where we were in more open water, we had furious water fights, which were hopeless. Our guide has had a lot more practise than us and was way more accomplished at administering a soaking, he was barely splashed whilst we were utterly drenched.
Periodically we stopped off at an island and looked around, touching base with the boatman who was following us downstream but from a distance, we seemed to coincide from time to time as if by magic. There really wasn’t anyone else about, I don’t know if that’s because it wasn’t a fishing area, or if it was because fishermen had already been and gone, and would be back later on to check nets that had been set, or try their luck with casting out new ones.
It was about this time that the rhino horn root was put into service as a figure-head, and very fine it looked too. A butterfly posed on it beautifully. It flew away as I wanted to photograph it… and was caught roughly by our boatman who put it back into position looking distinctly crumpled. I felt guilty. Sometimes we stopped and swam, sometimes we stopped and gazed about. At one stop there was fools gold in abundance in the sediment, and it really does look like gold.
We stopped for lunch on a deserted spot with lots of shade. Our guide made a little offering of rice on the ground. We had rice wrapped up in palm leaves, and I had an omelette which was fine, and not pork, so that was good, I’d not been over-confident about what would appear. Afterwards, the guys got into a press-up competition I was most glad not to have to get involved in, though there was a bit of me that wished I was strong enough I could have done so and shamed them all – I know plenty of strong women out there who could! Our guide told us about a rather scrawny looking Cambodian friend of his who can do 100 press ups. Sometimes they try to get others to place bets that he won’t be able to do it, putting up $40 as a lure. Others collect up $1 and $2 bets together to match the sum, he does his 100 press ups against the odds, and they collect. Result.
By this point we had with us as a fixture the 16-year-old boy who I think has unilaterally left school now. He had OK English, but I wonder if he has many prospects here really. He had a really bad wound on his leg. It was clean and healing well, but was about three weeks old, it was a massive hole, and deep, surely when fresh it would have come near to exposing the bone. I asked if he had been to a clinic – you would surely have been hospitalised with such an injury in the UK, but no, he just washed it as far as I could tell. He has got away with it, but was lucky to do so. I can’t believe he hasn’t ended up with septicemia, gangrene, tetanus (my guide said that doesn’t exist here, but that seems mightily improbable to me). In fact, captain google says there has been a push for tetanus eradication through immunisation and certainly it was a recommended jab for me pre-travel – though I have life long immunity and didn’t need a top up. People romanticise a simple island life, but imagine having an injury like that and no access to care. It is true he seems ‘fine’ but I think he was very lucky (or very unlucky, depending on how you look at it). It does also show though how the human body does have an extraordinary capacity to repair itself. He is going to be left with a huge scar and a hole in his leg, but I think he’ll be OK. Nigh on miraculous, he looks in rude health here.. post lunch my co-traveler was tardy with the sunblock, so our boatman joined me briefly in the boat, he was a great paddle companion, and took to it with ease.
Back on the water we paddled onward downstream. It was amazing, I loved the riverbanks viewed from the water, we saw water buffalo and little habitations or cropped areas along the way. Great way to travel if you could cope with the inevitable trench bottom to which I think you would eventually inevitably succumb.
We stopped off at an isolated rural community. I think it was on the mainland, but not accessible by road. Our guide led us through the community to a school. First we passed a shrine there, where, somewhat incongruously, there is a complete skeleton of an Irrawaddy dolphin displayed in a glass case. It looked human – very odd. Why it is here is unclear, part of a development project to bring tourists perhaps. Around the spirit house/ shrine were also posters explaining how to vote. It was a curious juxtaposition of things to be sure.
As we walked through the village to the school, our guide explained how a previous tourist had donated some $1500 to the community to pay for a pump and well to be built at the school. This will bring water to the centre of the island to allow for sanitation and also prevent people having to carry water from the Mekong which is dangerous to collect when the water levels are high and the river fast flowing. We crossed a crumbling bridge, and our guide lamented that the people do not fix things – a pump that was previously here was broken for three years before the same tourist paid for it to be fixed. I couldn’t work out if the problem was lack of initiative to mend things, lack of expertise to do so, or lack of funds. I suspect all three. Heavy hints were dropped about making a donation to buy things for the school. I was a bit torn, I am already volunteering my time which raises money for CRDT who support similar projects.. I did think I’d give five dollars at the end, but missed the moment, and now I feel guilty. The problem is that the need is great. Even so, seeing the school which was closed for the day and has nothing is sobering. Even the blackboard was worn out, just a new coat of paint to restore that would be a start. Some bored looking children were hanging out there, playing with a bike that had a broken wheel. They were a bit shy to begin with and wouldn’t talk, but as we walked away to a safe distance they took delight in shouting goodbye at us with furious intensity and multiple repetitions. That’s going to haunt me now, the angst of not giving.. but it’s hard you can’t give to everyone, and this trip was turning into the most expensive week ever with all the extra tipping and purchases of food along the way. A sobering encounter. I console myself with the thought that the island already has a benefactor, that I have given support to other communities and projects in other ways, and that other tourists will pass through, but basically I still feel shit for not giving in that direct way. The reality is I just ‘forgot’ at the moment I was going to, and then that moment passed. Crap excuse isn’t it.
We were soon back to the riverside, where I became distracted because my camera conked out. A woman brought some fish she had found floating in the water, our guide speculated they would have been killed by dynamite or electricity. Last time he came through he found a dead fish floating that was about 1.5 kg in weight. Such a wasteful way to fish. No-one should eat a floating fish as you don’t know for sure what killed it.
Our guide offloaded a whole pile of empty water bottles onto the bank. One’s he’d been collecting as our discarded bottles and others acquired from the island en route. He called out something in Khmer, and excited children swarmed down to collect them. What I though of as rubbish is treasure here. They can use them for all sorts of things. I’m not sure what ‘all sorts’ means here, but as a minimum I suppose they are floats for fishing nets, water bottles, containers for fuel and if broken they can be used for growing plants. Again, this is not romantic, this is absolute poverty. Discarded water bottles are a valuable resource. I’ll admit I was shocked. These are the evidence of my camera in its death throes by the way (though subsequently it seems that reports of his demise were exaggerated, we shall see..)
I was a bit sad about my camera. It isn’t the photos per se, though of course I like them, it’s more that the photos act as my memory, and I’m so paraniod about the speed with which I forget things, those synapses in my brain keep spluttering and dying. I’m sure my memory loss is constantly accelerating since my head injury and continues to do so. Oh well, maybe it will be good for me to manage without. I’ll just have to lock down my memories in a different way. Meanwhile, I have a fellow traveler along the way who can take up the official photographer mantle, so that’s OK.
The others swam a little but I was a bit over getting soaked all over again.
If I recall correctly, we abandoned our kayaks here (no idea where they went to) and clambered on the boat for the ride back to our hotel in Stung Treng. The boat ride was gorgeous again. Maybe I feel better about the river after kayaking and swimming in it. It is a curious fact that the kayak felt a lot safer and more stable than the actual boat. I liked the ride, my companion though needed a pit stop. I thought this would be problematic, but no matter, a suitable sandy mini island was located, and we all hopped off and availed ourselves of the facilities. The rest of the journey could then be enjoyed in comfort.
We were dropped off at a landing point directly opposite our hotel which was pretty cool. We clambered up the steps and then there was the little matter of awkward farewells and tipping. An Australian and a Brit trying to work out how to tip appropriately is a recipe for disaster. I don’t even know if it’s worse to over-tip or under-tip though I fear the latter more. We gave $10 to our boatman in the end (he’d been with us two days, and in the jungle walk too) and $2 to his youthful companion who didn’t really do much other than come along for the ride, but was fun and companionable and should get something. It was all horribly self-conscious and rather abrupt. Oh well, we tried.
The boatman and his sidekick headed off into the town. I suppose there isn’t the opportunity to come all that often. The young man needed to get his mobile phone fixed, and indeed had brought along a friend’s one that also needed mending too. I don’t know what this meant for their return journey. It was about 4.00 when we arrived in Stung Treng, and by 6.30 it’s dark. The river is not safe to travel on in fading light. It took us a good couple of hours to chug down, and we were going with the current. Our guide said they’d try and get back to their village tonight, but if it got dark, they’d just have to tie up and camp somewhere along the way, it isn’t worth the risk of boating in the dark.
Our guide was met by his wife who seemed nice and smiley, but didn’t linger. We crossed the road to our hotel. We were both shattered. Reunited with my luggage I headed to my room, and was glad of a shower and a reboot so to speak. We rendezvoused and went back to the same restaurant as the easiest option, Ponika’s Palace. The last meal there was so dire that this time I went for pizza with pumpkin soup as a starter. It was fine, the pizza could have done with longer in the oven, but it was still a massive improvement on the greasy coagulated spring rolls we had before which were, quite frankly, an affront to Khmer cuisine. We then headed back to the hotel in reflective mood. I can’t believe how much we’ve crammed in the time. It’s doing that weird thing when it passes both with unnatural speed, but moments within seem slowed down and the trip itself feels longer, because so much has been concertinaed into it. Weird thing, spacey time travel malarkey it really is.