The Chrouy Changva Peninsula

On my return from a morning's drive to the former Khmer capital of Oudong, I grabbed a bite to eat at the Foreign Correspondent's Club and recalled a suggestion from Ray Zepp's excellent book, 'The Cambodia Less Traveled', that the far bank of the Tonle Sap river was well worth a visit if you had time on your hands. As it was still only 2pm, I collared my usual motodub, Onphum, at the gates of my hotel and in no time we set off, heading for the Cambodian - Japanese Friendship Bridge via a quick detour to the Cambodia Trust Centre at Calmette Hospital. This was my second visit to the Centre in a couple of days. Earlier, I'd been given an extensive tour of the charity's workshops and rehabilitation areas by the expat staff and my return trip was to pick-up some t-shirts and leaflets.

Vietnamese houseboats and the Japanese Friendship BridgeBack on Onphum's moto, we drove across the bridge spanning the river, rebuilt in 1993 at a cost of US$23 million of Japanese funding, after its destruction by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. The re-opening of the bridge has increased the traffic flow to Chrouy Changva ten-fold and a wave of small restaurants and drinks-shops have opened up at Preak Leap, at the beginning of Route 6A, to satisfy a regular weekend exodus from the capital. Aiming for the area running directly parallel to Sisowath Quay, we took a sharp right after the bridge, along a dusty, unmade road and then another right at a junction a kilometre further on. This gravel track took us to the Tonle Sap side of the peninsula, cut off from the hustle and bustle of the capital, although the waterfront buildings including the spires of the Royal Palace, were clearly visible across the river.

Onphum knew the area well. As we drove slowly past the food stalls on the side of the road, he stopped on numerous occasions to exchange greetings with the stall holders. We called in at Wat Botiyarap but the temple grounds were deserted and the pagoda itself was padlocked shut so we carried on along the car-free lane until we reached the ferry dock. Before we walked over to the makeshift jetty, we joined in a kickabout game of football with a group of youngsters for half an hour. The ferry dock is also home to a dozen or so houseboats belonging to Vietnamese fishermen and their families (above), who can be seen casting their nets into the river just before sunrise each morning. Most noticeable about my time on the peninsula was the happy and relaxed atmosphere generated amongst the stall holders, the laughter of the children and the complete lack of motorized traffic, save for Onphum's Honda.

Temple sweeper at Wat Prachum SakorOur next stop was Wat Prachum Sakor, which was equally peaceful, even though a celebratory meal was being prepared in a corner building by a group of women dressed in their best clothes for the occasion. We removed our shoes and spent a few minutes peering through the gloom at the paintings on the inside walls of the main temple, as well as passing out some small gifts, including balloons, to a handful of young children who took great pleasure in touching and pulling my nose and blond hair. Two enormous banyan trees dominate the temple grounds and one of these trees, which legend suggests grew from a branch of the tree under which Buddha gained enlightenment, is inhabited by a noisy troop of monkeys. At the tip of the peninsula is a third pagoda and the most unusual. Built in 1996 to replace a wooden version that has long since been destroyed, it's in the form of a large golden boat, with pictures of the King and Queen prominently displayed. The boat temple is surrounded by eight small stupas painted in garishly bright colours and attended by lay attendants, who were keen to thrust sticks of incense into our hands. No monks live at this temple, which represents the boat in which Buddhists who are without sin sail to heaven. Depicted in pagoda paintings around the country, they usually show the waters around the boat filled with drowning sinners, some being eaten by big fish.

All told, my visit had lasted three hours and hadn't included a trip along the tranquil Mekong side of Chrouy Changva, where a small Cham community with a mosque, factories and a few cafes await the traveller in search of a relaxing rural break from the noise and commotion of Phnom Penh. What Ray Zepp didn't mention in his book was that he lived in a small hut on the Mekong side for nearly eight months before he was forced to leave by a combination of floods, an invasion of rats and other creatures, as well as a cobra, which moved in to share his living quarters, without an invite! A combination of the debilitating heat and my earlier travels to Oudong had taken their toll, as we made our way back to the Renakse hotel, directly opposite the Royal Palace complex, for a refreshing cold shower before venturing out for some Australian tucker at the Ettamogah pub on Sihanouk Boulevard.

I visited Chrouy Changva again, in 1999. Read my travelogue here.

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