Monday, March 1, 2004

Phnom Penh: Sunday morning cruise on the Mekong

As I took the helm of the boat, I couldn't help but feel a bit like (Captain Willard) Martin Sheen in the Vietnam era war movie (1979) 'Apocalypse Now' as he made his way up the Mekong through Cambodia to assassinate the renegade American Green Beret, Colonel Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando). My boat however was no fast moving river patrol boat but instead a slightly listing, lumbering Mekong River ferry owned by Sophat Tours. The listing constantly to starboard was somewhat suspicious but with the bilge pumps working, I didn't give it that much thought as I was having some serious fun!

Today was the 3rd Sunday of the month so that meant a free river cruise was on Phnom Penh's social agenda, sponsored by Scott at the Jungle Bar and Grill on the riverfront Using the Jungle as our staging area and after a cold Angkor beer, at noon we headed across Sisoway Quay and walked down the now steep banks of the Tonle Sap where our vessel was awaiting us.

The Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers are now at their lowest due to it being the dry season, with some reports from upstream indicating the waters are the lowest they have been in 25 years. This however didn't keep us landlubbers and after shoving off and after a quick u-turn to pick up late arrivals, we make our way down the Tonle Sap and were soon chugging up the Mekong.

The Mekong is full of life on its banks. Some might call it enchanting. Everywhere you look you see children swimming in its waters, cattle being cooled from the heat of the tropical sun or ferries plying across the waters to the opposite bank. The pace seems slow and steady with constant waves and hellos from children as they see our boat and passengers.

On board the music gets cranked up a bit louder and ribs, burgers, hotdogs and potato salad is now being fed to the guests. I choose the ribs and without a doubt, they were the best piece of meat I have had since returning to Cambodia. The beer was cold and the tall bottles of Angkor started to fall by the wayside with conversations becoming ever more interesting as the passengers started to get to know each other.

It wasn't long before a couple on the boat were being told about the wonders of Angkor including some of the newer theories about the temple complex and its design as a celestial marker as well as a capital city of an empire from long ago. Most people just don't realize the size and complexity of what most simply call Angkor Wat . Angkor, before its collapse in the 13th century, was the largest city on earth with a population estimated at over a million inhabitants, while London at the same time had only 30,000 residents. The physical size of the city would be approximately the size of Los Angeles in the United States today.

This is a lot to take in and the conversations continued to explore some of these ideas as we started our turn back after rounding a large island setting in the middle of the channel. It was after this turn downstream that we made a stop to explore a temple and experience some more of Cambodia's charm. As you can see from the photos below, the life here was basic and simple. The path from the top of the hill that we climbed to get to the temple was long and straight, with a long segment shaded by tall trees lining each side of the path. Cattle drawn carts maneuvered around us while we walked upon some of the finest dirt I have ever seen with each footstep creating a willowy puff of dust as your shoe settled into the half inch of powder.

During this stop, children here as elsewhere in Cambodia are curious but yet shy. A smile is returned with a huge grin and often times a 'hello'. It wasn't long before a trio of pre-teens had befriended me with the oldest quickly able to say my name 'Charlie'. In these encounters, unlike what might happen next to larger tourist areas in Phnom Penh, no one ever asks for money nor is there ever any begging. It is simply wonderful children filled with curiosity and adventure.

After about a half hour stop, we re-boarded our home for the afternoon and once again were heading back towards Phnom Penh. A few times during this leg of the trip, a couple of ex-pats in a very old looking wooden 'sport boat' with a single outboard blew by us. They also looked like they were having some serious fun as well! For me, and possibly them, being on the water is an experience that I can never get enough of and if it was up to me, I would be living onboard a boat, sailing the world until the day I died.

The trip has to end however and after an uneventful rounding of the point of land where the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers converge, we are soon walking down the gangplank back once again on Sisoway Quay in Phnom Penh. Life in Cambodia is good!