Caroline Nixon, a doctor who has travelled to Cambodia on a number of occasions in recent years, has penned her experiences in the Cambodian countryside, following the Mekong River from Kratie to Chhlong in February 2001. My thanks to Caroline for permission to re-print this insight into her trip, together with some of her own photographs.
Chhlong. I dont know why the name seemed so strangely alluring. There it was on the map, well downstream of Kratie. There was only the most fleeting of references to it in the Lonely Planet - Nick Ray mentioned that for dirt bike riders there was an alternative route to Kratie, rather than the usual one via Snuol. It passed through Chhlong, and the countryside was beautiful..... A posting on the internet, in French, mentioned interesting old colonial architecture in the region.
The seed of the idea had been planted. I didnt nurture it, because it seemed rather scary, but it grew there quietly in my brain. Chhlong began to take on the significance of a hidden Shangri La. I wanted to go rather badly. Sitting on the roof of the boat, on the way to Kratie, I asked my neighbours (a schoolgirl, and a forester from Kompong Cham) Is this Chhlong? at every stop. They didnt know.
In Kratie, Phanna was more helpful. Yes, hed heard of Chhlong. Last November, a tour group from France had passed through Kratie, and hired a speedboat for a day trip to Chhlong. I could do the same for $40.(!) But there wasnt a lot to see, just some old French houses, a Khmer village, and a small market. That sounded pretty good to me. My plans to go by motorbike left him taken aback, however. It was a long way, with many river crossings, the road was bad .
But possible? Yes, possible. Re security, he thought the local bandits were currently operating further north (he was right, and in fact they gave themselves up a few weeks later. I read the story in the Cambodia Daily). I sounded out three other English speaking locals (I didnt actually meet that many English speaking locals in Kratie) they all said the same security on the road to Chhlong was fine, but why on earth did I want to go? Phanna helped me explain to my driver, Htaich (sp?!) who spoke almost no English, what I wanted, and we arranged to set off at 6 am the next day. My plan was to take a look round Chhlong, and then catch an onward boat to Kompong Cham. If by any chance I got there too late to do this, or the boat didnt show, Id return by moto to Kratie. Phanna also raised another possibility. Hed heard there was a guesthouse in Chhlong.
Htaich had driven me the previous day. He was amiable, and a careful driver, and his moto possessed shock absorbers that actually absorbed shocks. He also fulfilled another of my usual criteria for selecting drivers, he looked like he really needed the money. Htaich was an ex soldier. His left hand had been horribly injured in an accident (he made gestures and noises suggesting a land mine or bomb). When I asked if he was married, he said no, while wryly looking down at his deformed hand. I suppose his disability pretty much put paid to his prospects of finding a bride. His thumb was completely missing. On smooth roads this did not cause too much of a problem, but on the difficult slippery road to Chhlong, the lack of grip in his left hand made the going very difficult indeed, and I certainly took my hat off to his strength, tenacity and driving skills.
He was waiting for me the next morning, and laughed at my bleary eyed appearance (I am not a morning person). As we stopped at the waterfront to buy drinking water, I was approached by an overseas Khmer, now living in Seattle, but on his annual visit to his elderly mother, who had had a stroke. When I told him where I was headed , his reply was Hey, what happen if you get kidnapped?. I decided to stay with my hunch, which was that everything would be just fine.
We set off southwards, on the road towards the Prek Te river, which would be our first ferry crossing. The Mekong looked misty, blue and beautiful. I asked Htaich to stop so that I could take some photos of a settlement of floating houses. He looked a little bemused at my request, and I realized why when I jumped back on the moto it was only another 20 feet or so before we stopped again for the ferry. The ferry across the Prek Te was made of rough hewn planks, and propelled by a sinewy man pulling a rope, an arrangement which worked just fine. Having reached the other side of the river, the scenery became more and more beautiful. The road was just a narrow moto track. On either side of it was a ribbon of simple wooden stilt houses. To the right was the river, which we followed closely the whole way. To the left was agricultural land, initially given over to vegetable production, and later occupied by already harvested rice fields. Compared with my recent trip in November, the countryside had lost its brilliant greenness, but it was still incredibly beautiful.
Aside from agriculture, fishing was obviously, and not surprisingly, a major activity. Bamboo fish traps hung from many of the houses, and fishing nets were draped over bushes and trees, to be dried or repaired. Several times we had to skirt round woven mats laid out on the path, on which fish were arranged, to dry in the sun. Some powerful aromas accompanied this activity. You can usually tell how common travellers are in an area by the reaction of the local people. In places like Siem Reap, you might not get a second glance. In the provinces, where travellers are seen, but still a bit of a novelty, you get waves, smiles, and hello, bye bye , whatisyourname? On the way to Chhlong, I got open mouthed astonishment, and sometimes actual fear. Its somewhat disconcerting to wave to a child and have them burst into tears and run and hide behind their mother!
After about half an hour, we reached a scenic little pagoda, called Wat Bo Lio. Its grounds were scattered with ancient stupas, and its walls covered with the usual scenes of Buddhas life, but particularly well executed, in mellow colours. Friendly monks followed me around the grounds, and enjoyed my faltering attempts to tell them about myself and my family in Khmer. There were some attractive older wooden buildings at the periphery of the enclosure, and the whole place had a sleepy timeless feel, enhanced by the riverside setting.
After Wat Bo Lio, the road deteriorated. Patches of thick, slippery sand made conditions very treacherous, and necessitated getting off and walking from time to time. In other places, undergrowth encroached on the path, lashing our legs, and getting caught in the wheels. Unable to grip the handlebars with his left hand, Htaich was really struggling at times. One can only imagine the difficulties of this route in the rainy season. We crossed several tributaries, running into the Mekong. Some were almost dry, and involved a steep descent into a small ravine, a plough through mud at the bottom, and a skidding, revving climb up the other side. Some were still flowing swiftly, and were crossed by narrow plank bridges.
Spotting another pagoda ahead, I asked Htaich to stop again. Wandering around the compound, I was soon joined by a large entourage of children. The reason became clear when I rounded the corner and found a small wooden schoolhouse. It seemed impossible that such a small building could house quite so many children . More and more excited youngsters joined the throng, and soon the teacher appeared too. My appearance had completely emptied her classroom. She spoke a little French, and told me that while the temple itself was only about 30 years old, some of the old wooden monks quarters dated back over 100 years. Initially shy, the children soon started hamming it up for the camera. As I left, I noticed a boat, of the type used for the water festival races. The teacher told me that this boat had indeed been to the water festival races in the past, but that in recent years, the village had not had the money or manpower to send a boat. We continued on our way to Chhlong, and gradually the track became wider, and the country more populated. I could sense that we were nearing our destination, and felt only disappointment. The journey had been so interesting and scenically beautiful, that despite the heat and discomfort, I didnt want it to end.
As we entered Chhlong, we passed some decaying but still beautiful colonial houses, with balconies and verandahs, their walls painted a mellow yellow ochre colour. Stopping for tea in a small restaurant, I fell into conversation with a government official who spoke some English. Enquiring about other points of interest in town, I was told of a wooden house, over 200 years old, and set on 100 pillars. He directed my driver back the way we had come, and after a few more stops to enquire about its location, we finally found the house, hidden behind a high wooden fence. A teenage girl showed me round. She told me she sometimes received French visitors, arriving by boat, but a lone female arriving by motorbike was a first for her. Inside, the house was cool and shady. The floor was made of flattened bamboo slats, with spaces in between. Must have made sweeping the floor easy, but I wonder how many bits and bobs had been lost, falling between the slats to the ground below. The girls mother and grandmother were preparing lunch. The interior was so gloomy that I wondered how they could see what they were doing. The house was full of cumbersome heavy wooden furniture, Chinese in style. My guide told me hopefully that it was all for sale. How did she imagine I would get it home?
Our next stop was Phnom Preah, Chhlongs holy mountain. Mountain, as often in Cambodia, was something of an over statement. We chugged up the small hill, to find a modern sala, some kitsch statuary and a friendly toothless nun. More interesting, was the small shrine further up the hill. Around this were arranged several strange objects. They resembled termite hills wrapped in cloth. I wondered for a minute if they were cremation ashes, but when I asked the accompanying nun she said Phnom, Phnom suggesting that they were representations of holy mountains. Afterwards, I remembered seeing something similar in Burma.
One thing about Htaich that Id found out the day before, was that he was always hungry. As we left the shrine, he gave me a hopeful grin, and asked kleeun nyum bai? I agreed that I was hungry too, and we set off towards the boat dock, to look for a restaurant. There were several to choose from, and we settled for what looked like the cleanest. Lifting the lids and choosing was a somewhat random affair, but resulted in a delicious meal. I have become somewhat blasť about ice in Cambodia, but having seen just outside, a large block of ice, covered in sawdust, buzzing with flies, and surrounded by dogs and kittens, I declined ice in my tea and drank it lukewarm. Enquiring about boats to Kompong Cham, I received three votes for 1 oclock, three votes for two oclock, and two votes for maybe tomorrow.
I left Htaich dozing in a hammock, and set off to explore the dock area. Walking past a sawmill, I came to a little Chinese temple, painted red. It looked really ancient, but on the roof was the date 1998. A friendly group of ladies interrupted their gambling to invite me to sit with them for a while. One of them read my palm, but I couldnt understand anything she said, except that I would have many children. At the age of 43 this seemed a little unlikely, unless I count my adopted Cambodian family in Phnom Penh, in which case shes uncannily accurate.
Walking further towards town, I passed not one but two houses with makeshift signs outside, proclaiming them to be guesthouses. I took a look at the more salubrious of the two, on the river side of the road. Upstairs were some simple but clean rooms. The bathrooms were downstairs, a squat toilet, and a dip and splash bath. Both simple but clean. Rooms were 12,000 riel a night. If time were no object, I imagine Chhlong could have been a very pleasant place to spend a night.
Walking on into town I came to a place that had caught my attention before : a big old ruined house that I can only describe as Rococo in style. It must once have been very grand, but was now ruined and roofless. Picking my way over broken glass, charred wood, and mangled balustrades, I wandered around, trying to imagine its previous glory. Fragments of delicate stencilled borders still adhered to the walls. Vestiges of ornate tiled floors remained. The back part of the house, which was better preserved, was inhabited by a Khmer family, who made it clear I was welcome to wander. It reminded me a little of the ruined Hotel at Bokor Mountain. As I looked for the best angle to take a photo, Htaich reappeared, come to see what I was up to. I had composed a shot, tastefully framed by banana leaves, but Htaich thought they were obstructing my view, and helpfully held them out of the way!
We motored on, back into town, and I left him under a shady tree while I explored the market. School was evidently finished for the day, as children were streaming out of the schoolhouse, all in white shirts, with small black satchels on their backs. I stopped to photograph an attractive little wooden house, and heard a voice say excuse me, can you explain me why you camera my house? The voice belonged to the local school teacher, who invited me up the ladder to view his home, and asked me to explain a phrase in his English textbook. As we talked about his life, he told me he was 38, unmarried, and had a broken heart. At the time I thought he meant hed been unlucky in love, but later it dawned on me that he probably meant he had a heart complaint and was therefore unmarriageable. He didnt look very well. He asked where I was headed, and on hearing that I was planning to proceed to Kompong Cham, became very agitated, because he was sure the last boat left in five minutes time, at 12 oclock. He hurriedly summoned his younger brother to take me to the dock, not understanding that I had my own driver waiting.
Back at the dock, everyone was sleeping in their hammocks, and there was not a boat in sight. Htaich was kleeun nyum bai again, so we bought some delicious coconut desserts, and sat in the shade to eat them. Saying goodbye to my driver, I waved him off on his way home, and went for a walk along the river bank. As I wandered, a voice asked me, in French, to please take a seat. The voice originated from a tiny shack, at one end of which was a little charcoal stove, where an old man was brewing tea. He gestured to me to sit on a three legged stool, and handed me a small glass of delicious green tea. For the next half hour, he and his friend conversed with me about the political situation in Cambodia, speaking what I can only describe as Cambofranglais. A sad tale emerged. One that I had heard told many times before, of a beautiful wife, now long dead, an education in science and commerce at the French University in Phnom Penh, a promising young life shattered by the Khmer Rouge.
As we spoke, I became aware of a droning noise, gradually getting louder. From our viewpoint high on the bank, we could see the boat approaching from Kratie. My companion refused money for the tea, and insisted on carrying my miniscule daypack to the boat for me, and helping me on board with a chivalrous kiss on the hand. A perfect ending to a perfect interlude. As we powered on towards Kompong Cham, I watched the riverside scenery hungrily. Five minutes south of Chhlong was a large riverside Wat, which looked well worth a visit. The boat stopped at another two riverside villages, before the ribbon of habitation petered out, and was replaced by mudflats. Good new destinations for the next adventure.
Story & photos courtesy of Caroline Nixon (February 2001). Click on any photo to enlarge it.
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