Sweltering all the way to Phnom Penh
Editor’s note: Vail resident Luc Pols is on a 10-week adventure in Southeast Asia, where he plans to raft the fabled Mekong River through Laos and Cambodia into Vietnam and on to the Sea of China. Each week, he is filing a report on his travels and sending them back to us along with photos of the journey.
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Before we left for Southeast Asia and Peter and I were talking about the trip, we jokingly said that we might end up having to buy a boat in order to float down the Mekong. Well, this prophecy is coming true today. Once again there are no boats going down the river, and if we resort to a bus once again, we might as well call this quest a failure. We negotiate the purchase of a small boat with a “captain and a first mate” and after we have agreed on a price, the real negotiations begin to sell the boat back to the owner at the end of the three days it will take us to get to Phnom Penh. All in all, an interesting period, and tomorrow morning at 7.30 a.m., we will set sail on our boat! We take along two Dutch “hitchhikers,” who, in exchange for the passage, will provide us daily with breakfast and lunch on the boat.
Off we go: destination Kratie. The weather is perfect and the scenery quite different from that in Laos. Gone are the mountains and forests and in their place, we have fields. One thing somewhat incomprehensible to my (Western) mind is the fact that at every village we pass, we see the population bathe and the children play in the river. You must understand that we see raw sewage and other debris floating down, which makes entering this water, at least in my opinion, somewhat perilous. It is highly probable, however, that having grown up with (or in) this, the population is immune, but I am not inclined to dive into the river.
We spend the night in a hotel in Kratie, after having observed the only freshwater dolphins in the world: the Irrawaddy. We only see a couple and they have a brownish color, as opposed to the ocean dolphins, which are more black. In Kratie we try to find out the meaning behind an Asian custom or peculiarity: Why do a lot of women, as well as children and the occasional man, wear pajamas all day long: outside, shopping, on their mopeds … everywhere. We do not find an answer, but we will keep on trying.Day two takes us to Kampong Cham, where once again we spend the night in a hotel and our Dutch companions leave us for bigger and better things. The final day is the last stretch to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. It is very hot (over 100 degrees) and we swelter. Luckily, it is only a short day and we arrive at our destination at around 2.30 p.m. We get out at the foot of the Royal Palace and a crowd gathers, wanting to know where we came from. When we tell them Stung Tren, they gasp and ask “in that little boat?”
Besides the beautiful Royal Palace, the Museum and the Wat Phnom, one of the most moving places to visit here is a monument to the three million people who were killed during the communist reign of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. A tower was built here at the monument, which is called “The Killing Fields,” and is like a “stupa” (memorial to the dead). This tower contains the skulls of over 8,000 victims, and if you realize that today Cambodia has about 14 million inhabitants, that’s a very scary number!We are proud to have accomplished part of our float: virtually the whole of Cambodia and more next week.