In March 2006 my Khmer lady Norah and I cruise lesser known parts of Cambodia with a jeep we got from good-hearted, generous Cambodian friends. We don't see any world-famous temples or ocean beaches. Rarely is accommodation above 10 USD available. For weeks I have to endure contemporary Khmer music and food.
Our first port of call is Kompong Chnang, some 90 kilometers north of Phnom Penh on Tonle Sap river. We stay at Sokha Guesthouse. This hotel-like place gets too many NGO visitors: It is so plastered with posters against child sex abuse that one feels embarrassed after just staying a few days.
In the evening, the usual snack and fruit juice stalls line Kompong Chnang's riverside. A pleasant breeze comes from Tonle Sap river. But my Khmer lady can't stay too long: "Too many Vietnamese people here. No like." She uses the derogatory term "You'en" which means either "Vietnameses" or "ants" in Khmer.
So for another round of fruit smoothies, we bicycle to the noisy Central Market. It's around 7 pm, and the main road in town is pitch black - not one street light, but many unlit bicycles and motos speeding about.
The fruit smoothie lady at the Central Market expresses her admiration for my well-built "sharp nose" and delicate white skin. "But can he eat rice", she asks Norah?
While we slurp another concoction of fruit, vegetables and sweet milk – Norah has countermanded the usual raw egg –, a guy with a mongloid face turns up at our picnic table and screams "songs" into a coke can he holds like a microphone. He sings in his very own language, and each line is finished off with a bursting vomit sound. According to our fruit smoothie lady, he performs every night and never asks for money. His family home is several kilometers away. Until recently, his parents would come nightly and take him home. Now they do so only occasionally. The market people feed him, and good-hearted motorcycle taxi drivers chaffeur him home in the night.
5 a.m. next morning, we ride the rented moto along a dirt road past a big christian church and on to vast vegetable fields next to the water. A few very poor huts sit on the dam. In January 2000, I had seen tremendous sunrises here; now, in March, there is little splendour.
On a dirt walkway, we stroll into the watery area. Norah bows down, checks vegetables, lotus flowers and roots that come out from the path. She explains what can be harvested when and how much work is required.
"I know your family has clerks, traders and teachers", I say; "but I was never aware that you know all about farming, too!"
"Oh, in Pol Pot time we had to be farmers of course. We ate everything that grows. If you didn't know how to use fruit, vegetables and roots, you'd die soon."
An elderly lady in a dugout canoe paddles along our walkway. She and Norah have a short discussion about the food value of the inconspicuous root that Norah just inspected. Then the lady invites us to sit down in her canoe – she will paddle to a riverine island to work in the vegetable field there. We decline politely.
Floating Kompong Chhnang
We want to take a boat trip along the floating homes on Tonle Sap river. The boat pimps on the river piazza offer boats for 5 USD/hour. For our rented motorcycle, they demand 0,5 USD parking fee. Our 90 ccm Daelim is parked on public land of course; the "parking fee" is just protection money to make sure they won't loot our machine while we tour the river.
From the boat, we see floating homes galore, floating hair dressers, flower shops, riverine pig and chicken shacks as well as two gas stations on pontoons. It seems like a small-scall version of Chau Doc in South Vietnam. People use the river water to shower, to wash meat, to discard humane waste. An ice factory processes the brown melange into ice blocks to cool your coke.
The boat trip takes ten minutes longer than agreed upon - something I never ever experienced on boat trips. Still the friendly owner only wants the agreed five dollars.
On the last afternoon in Kompong Chnang we try to find one of the viewpoints that Matt Jacobson suggests in his "Adventure Cambodia" (1st edition back then). We drive several kilometers out of 'pong Chnang. Stalls for earthen pots – Kompong Chnang is named after them – line the road. Many more oxcarts transport earthen pots to other provinces, a medieval scene.
After intense asking we finally discover the road up to a steep hill. But this one seems to tricky for the jeep – it is one of Matt's recommendations which only work for motorcycles. Instead, we just drive around the dusty village road.
Small settlements here and there. People have no electricty, but use car batteries for TV and neon light. A few school kids pedal along on too big bicycles.
This is Khmer heartland: harvested rice fields with sugar palms scattered all about. These trademark trees are only found in Cambodia and in southern Vietnam – which once belonged to Cambodia and is still called "Khampuchea Krom", lower Cambodia, by many Khmers. You can drink the sugar palm juice, you can use the sugar palms' leaves for roof-building, and the trunks are good for boat and house bilding.
There comes a boy walking on the lone inter-village road, selling sugar palm juice from the tradiditional bamboo cups. Check the sugar palm trees carefully, you'll note that many trunks have high, delicate wooden ladders connected to them. Our sugar palm juice boy may just have climbed up there. Freshly harvested, sugar palm juice is sweet and refreshing. Next morning, it becomes sour and alcoholic.
We step out of the car. It is so quiet, so peaceful. The sun sinks behind distant hills and sugar palm trees. What a dread to drive back to the noisy town, I muse. Norah of course has other priorities. In the bare rice fields, she quickly discovers holes dug by rice field crabs. She instructs me how to catch and cook rice field crabs.
Floating Kompong Luong
70 kilometers north of Kompong Chhnang, around Krakor, Tonle Sap has already changed from river to lake. We stop the pickup at the pier to another floating village, called Kompong Luong. A boatman has already jumped onto the truck bed, and there is a heavy dead-fish-stench in the air. When I was here in early 2000, no tourists knew of Kompong Luong; now it's a guidebook item. The boatman demands 7 USD per hour for touring the floating village. And for parking we have to pay another 3000 riels, 0,75 USD. This is another case of protection money, as the car stands on public land; but who knows what happens to the Isuzu if we don't pay for parking.
The boat price won't and won't go down.
"Ah, I don't like the bad smell here", remarks Norah maliciously to the boatman.
"This is only on the pier", he comments, "no bad smell in the floating village!"
Norah: "I don't like the smell anyway."
After that, we get the parking for free, but still have to sail for 7 USD per hour.
Kompong Luong is a busy place. Lots of small, often hand-paddled shop-boats drift from floating home to floating business to sell noodles, live chicken, rice soup, coconuts or soy sauce. A floating monk is paddled for an alms round. Police station, gas station, DVD shop, church and pig farm, all come on pontoons and bamboo. Norah says that under their homes they keep fish, fed on food scraps.
Many children scream "Hello" for us. Norah says they are just friendly and don't expect money. There is no sign of tourism actually, this is all normal daily life – what a different, floating, world. When we pass the floating Vietnamese school, the lesson comes to a halt and the kids hang out of the window – "HELLO BYEBYE!!!"
It's only 9 a.m., but this March morning already fires up a horrendous heat. The boat reaches the wide open lake, then returns into another village lane consisting of water. We stop at a floating coffee shop, a big boat that has exactly one table and three chairs for customers, and a small kitchen behind a counter.
Norah suggests to drink canned things only, as coffee water comes straight from the lake. "But they don't take the water in the floating village, they bring it from the open lake", reports our boatdriver, believing to speak in favor of hot drinks. We stay with Fanta anyway, and he himself orders a can of Red Bull and not tea or coffee. The ice that cools our canned drinks is made from lake water too.
Pursat town is about 90 kilometers northwest of Kompong Chnang. On my visit in early 2000, this was a horrendous dirt road full of deep (and real) bomb craters. Now our Isuzu zooms with 80 to 100 km/h over a reasonable asphalt strip.
The leading hotels in the province capital of Pursat all offer the same deal: Large, relatively clean, tiled three-bed-rooms with a rambling one-mode-aircon plus ceiling fan and en-suite-bathrooms go for ten USD. The windows have extra mosquito-screens, so you may create a breeze in your room. Balconies run around the floors, so all and sundry can peep inside.
If you stay in the Phnom Pich hotel, beware of the river view rooms. The also go out to the factory on Phoutisat river, and in March 2006, that produces 24 hours of terrible noise. The river also has a nice little park, which should make a good place for people-watching in the cooler hours. But at 7 p.m., the park is pitch black, all lanterns are off - and the park gets blasting noise from aforementioned factory.
To avoid the factory noise, you can also stay in the Than Sour a block further northwest. The ten-USD-rooms are even a tad newer and cleaner than at Phnom Pich – but too late we notice that they come without a fridge, a novel in that market segment.
The nicest restaurant near the hotel area is in no 2006 guidebook and called "Villa Community". Obviously, poor kids are educated here for the gastronomy sector. They also offer traditional massage and Cambodian souvenirs. In the mornings, the place buzzes with clerks and police slurping noodle soup. As of 2006, the service is erratic and Khmer language essential for getting at least some of the ordered food. Still, they have delightful bamboo furniture, terracotta style tiles, and a traditional wooden building all around. Besides the usual Khmer dishes they also do all kinds of fresh fruit juices – usually for that you have to change the establishment, and in the morningtime vitamine shots may be even unavailable.
"One omlette" orders Norah, my Cambodian lover, in the "Magic Fish" restaurant right over Phoutisat river. (Of course in Khmer language.)
"What is this", asks the waitress. She doesn't understand Norah's instructions. ("Omlette" is a Khmer word.)
Norah changes her plans. She orders: "Fried egg."
The waitress asks back: "Omlette?"
"Yes, omlette", beams a surprised Norah.
She gets fried egg.
© Hansmeiermail at googlemail dot com
Delightful Provincial Cambodia Route:
- 1 Kompong Chnang, Kompong Luong, Pursat Town
- 2 Pursat to Pramaui and Thmor Dah (Veal Veng District)
- 3 Kompong Cham Town and Around
- 4 Mondulkiri
- 5 Koh Kong River Outing
- 6 Bassac River Road (Kandal Province)
- 7 More Destinations & Looking Back