21 May 2009

Kompong Phhluk - Waterworld In Cambodia

“I guess this is what you meant about the road being bad!!” I shouted into Pi Sith's ear as we shimmied and roared down the muddy track, splashing through the squishy mud. I was perched precariously on the back of his motorbike, sitting further back than normal due to the metal contraption bolted to the seat, to which his “remorque moto” carriage was normally attached. He had unhooked it minutes ago, and now Sean and I were each straddling a bike as we completed the final leg of the “bad road” on our way to the boat launch.


“We want to go to Kompong Phhluk.” Sean announced to Pi Sith, “To see the flooded forest and the stilted village. Can we go tomorrow?” Pi Sith's face, normally so friendly and happy, clouded over with panic. “Um, Kompong Phhluk not good now, road is very bad. You will be unhappy, I will be unhappy...” But looking at my face, I think he knew that his resistance was not going to deter me.
“Pi Sith, other tuk tuk drivers are offering the trip, and at our guesthouse too? We really want to go. We want to give you the business. Is it okay? Can we take the boat?” His nervous smile, in retrospect, should have alerted me that he was going to absolutely make sure we got what we wanted, even if he should have been telling us no way. Cambodians, especially in the service industry, have a hard time saying no - they always want us to be happy. People will give you the answer they think you want to hear rather than the actual truth, all in an effort to please. He made a few phone calls, and announced that the next day we would meet him at 8am and head to the boat dock, where his friend would take us out for 2 hours to see the village, rarely visited by foreigners. I was excited. “Thanks! See you then!”

The next morning I was not so excited when at 6:45 Sean woke me up. “Nnyeh. Phhh.” I groaned and pulled the pillow over my head. “Tooo earrrrrrrly. Not going. You go.” I waved the camera at him. “Take pictures.” Eventually, as Sean waved a coffee in front of my nose, I dragged myself out of bed and we headed to meet Pi Sith. “At least,” I said to Sean, swallowing some passion fruit Danish, “we just have to sit here in this tuk tuk, and then get in a boat for a few hours. I can handle that.”

On the way to the boat launch area we passed the Angkorian ruins of Roulous, rising mystically out of the jungle on our left. We passed orphanages filled with excited waving children, vendors presiding over their stocks of gasoline filled pop bottles (gas and go, it seems) and women riding bikes with their babies sitting on hammocks made of kramas (the ubiquitous checked Cambodian scarves) between the handle bars. “The ride through this area was worth the trip alone!” I exclaimed to Sean, and snuggled into him on the padded seat, noticing that the frequency of the bone-jarring potholes on the road was increasing.

Ten minutes later: my body was bruised and my nerves filleted as we pulled into the driveway of a traditional stilted house. The potholes had indeed increased until the paved road gave way completely and we were dragged along the dirt road in our remorque carriage, thrown around like rag dolls. Pi Sith turned around after each major 'thud!' and sheepishly smiled. “You OK?”
I didn't have to nod – the motion of the tuk tuk did that for me. With bruises.

Pi Sith unhooked the carriage, and motioned for me to get on his bike, telling Sean to get on the back of a new fellow's. Hanging on awkwardly to the metal bar mounted to the seat, I tried desperately to smooth down my skirt to a more appropriate level (Cambodia, like all of SE Asia, is very conservative in dress – short skirts and tank tops, while tolerated, are not appreciated) but it was firmly hiked up to mid thigh. “OK!” I said, laughing nervously, not excited about the ride ahead, but assuming it was going to be about 5 minutes long. “Let's go.”About 2 minutes later Pi Sith turned his head slightly to me. “About 40 minutes more.” Normally I love being on the back of a motorbike, but in this case, helmetless, under the glaring sun and vibrating my way through giant puddles I was less than enthused.
“Great!” I said to him. Sarcasm doesn't always translate. He gave me a thumbs up.

Question: Do you want to be with the more inexperienced driver, who is much more careful? Or the seasoned pro, who takes bigger risks but whose confidence guarantees some modicum of safety? I know my preference. And Sean won.

Pi Sith seemed nervous to have me, the precious girlfriend of his esteemed friend Mr Sean, on his rickety bike as we zoomed our way through the mucky sludge and narrow dry paths running through the bushes. “All this,” he said, gesturing around “is normally underwater in rainy season.” Which certainly explained the condition of this 'road.' Bikes and motos careened past us, barely missing my legs each time, my legs that were already patina-ed in a fine lattice work of bramble scratches, and men popped their heads up occasionally from the fishing they were doing on the banks of the shrunken river. Young men, probably still in their mid teens, looked up and saw some 'barang' (foreigners) and waved frantically, giving me the thumbs up. After this happened a few times, I realized that it was probably due to the fact that my breasts, while not the heaving ledge they were mere months ago are still a respectable C cup, were practically hitting my chin every few moments as I bumped along on my bucking motorbike. “Yeah, yeah, thumbs up to you too. Western women are whores, yeah yeah...”

The sun beating down on my already weather abused face (if I look like Hatchet Face in CryBaby in 10 years, well – at least I had fun) Pi Sith and I reached the cusp of a dank, muddy hole in the earth, about 30 metres long, with a teensy narrow space running along one side. As he revved up to begin the ride along the ledge, I jumped off the back. “Ummm, no, thats OK – I'll walk.” As he wobbled his way along, I hopped from dry spot to grass patch, reaching the other side to discover another chasm the same size and precariousness. “Yep, still walk.” I said to him.

About 300 metres away was our boat, a less than reassuring sight due to the steep mud banks surrounding the river as far as the eye could see. As we began putting along I began to wonder why we had come all the way out to this muddy, slippery dirty place. But then, as we chugged along, I began to see the most bizarre sight – rising from the banks of the river were thatch houses and gardens and pig pens and shrines – all perched on stilts as high as 6 metres. Children scurried around, people repaired boats and fished and picked river spinach, all in the shadows of their impossibly tall village. “It's like Waterworld.” Whispered Sean. “It's like Mad Max too.” I responded and thought for a moment. “It is like nothing that Patrick Swayze was ever in...”

Slowly winding our way along the murky river, we passed hundreds of similar houses. In the rainy season, the water gets so high that it laps at the floorboards of these buildings, erasing the mud paths and gardens and turning the village into a literal floating city. I couldn't help but wonder what they do with all the pigs when that happens....

After half an hour, we emerged out of the narrow river and onto one of the world's largest freshwater lakes, and the largest in Asia – the Tonle Sap. This lake is so huge that it provides fish for half of the population of Cambodia – yet pollution and overfishing (with dynamite. Yes. Dynamite fishing. It is a pretty big problem in Asia, destroying many coral reefs and endangering river dolphins and fish. I think it is pretty deplorable, but then again, similar things can be said about Canada's pork farming industry) are threatening its ability to feed this hungry country. The Tonle Sap was bewilderingly huge – we could not see its banks on any direction but the one we had just come from – it felt like being adrift on the ocean. Dotting the water were dozens of houses, these ones permanently afloat and often connected to small subsistence fish farms. As we passed by small shops, noodle restaurants and family homes, I was amazed to see people carrying on normal lives. In Vancouver, living on a houseboat is considered quite posh, but not here. These are literally people who cannot afford to live on the land.

As we snaked back through a flooded mangrove forest and arrived back in the tall stilted village, children selling pencils and books “for the students! Buy pencils!” clambered on the banks. We passed a wee little boy pulling a toy car made from hollowed out plastic water bottle that had four wheels attached, waving frantically as he saw us. Moments from docking, I noticed a small white creature moving in the reeds. It disappeared behind the plants for a moment, and when it reappeared I had a split second to register that it was a severed head. As I was about to scream bloody murder, the head and the body attached to it burst out of the mud, along with the heads 2 other small kids, their bodies still buried in mud from the neck down. Their peals of ecstatic laughter filled the air, joined by mine and Sean's. I gave them the thumbs up. “Way to scare the barang, guys!”

My laughter dissipated moments later – the long, muddy, scratchy bumpy road ahead beckoned.

1 comment:

phunt said...

Love this story, I want to go! No really, I do and I'm leaving in two days. What city did you travel from to reach Kompong Phluk? Looks like it's south of Siem Reap? How did you meet your reluctant guide to take you there?