14 August 2002

7. - 14 AUG: From Phnom Penh to Sambok, near Kratie

Sailing upstream

Again we are up at the crack of dawn. At the capital’s boat jetty, a few peddlers offer drinks and snacks. One, improbably, has a single copy of the International Herald Tribune for sale, the first international newspaper from any country I see in Cambodia. It comes from their Bangkok printing press and is two days old, but I am hungry for international news and do not hesitate to grab it at once. The presence of the Western printed press in Cambodia vaguely reminds me of the good old Soviet times, when everything was censored but I could, occasionally, buy newspapers from imperialist countries at the newsstands of international hotels in Moscow. The Soviet regime could tolerate that: few of its citizens would ever have a chance to access and read the subversive stuff – they could not even easily walk into the lobby of these hotels – and at least some of the Westerners in the Hotels would believe and go home telling that censorship in the USSR was not that strict after all. Anyway, there was the language barrier that would work as a further filter.

Today all major and many minor newspapers are available on-line and in real time so I guess the whole problem of preventing access to out-of-date printed copies is less relevant for the regime’s censors. Fortunately, it is still very difficult for governments to control access to information on the internet, as recent attempts by the Chinese government testify. Internet cafes are quite numerous and fairly well equipped with fast computers, at least around Siem Reap and Phom Penh – much less so in smaller towns, as we will find out later. Connection costs (they vary from café to café but are between one and a bit over two dollars per hour) are close to insignificant for a Western wallet, though far from cheap for an average Cambodian. Yet many young Cambodians can be seen making use of these services during the cafés’ opening hours, which is sometimes pretty much around the clock. Most importantly, as more and more urban Cambodians speak foreign languages, the internet means pretty much assured access to information the government can not control.

Around seven o’clock we boarded the same type of creaky, rusty floating cigar tube which we had used from Siem Reap. Again we try and avoid getting packed in the interior cabin like anchovies in a tin, and managed to take position on the upper deck amidst suitcases and motorbikes. After a few minutes we are once more planing over the red oily Mekong, and Phnom Penh disappeared behind us. Small lurid settlements of stilt housing interrupted the thickening jungle at regular intervals. We could distinctly make out people going about their daily lives, chicken and pigs sharing the same premises – and, of course, the same Mekong – for all of their biological requirements. The river tenaciously holds its own as it continues to penetrate the all-enveloping vegetation, which aggressively protruded torward the water from the edge of the banks as if trying to expand over the space occupied by the river. The more we move upstream, the more the jungle seems to win the day, as the river becomes imperceptibly narrower and narrower, and the river banks gradually come closer and closer to us, increasing our apparent speed and heightening the sensation of being in the wild.

We stop for a few minutes at some of the more sizeable villages along the banks, allowing a few passengers to disembark and others to get on board. Unfortunately, there is no time for us to go ashore and explore. At some of the stops, a number of minute adolescent girls hop on as well. They squat on the passageway which rings the boat and sell bottled purified water and delicious French-style baguettes, warm out of the oven. Sometimes exquisite bread-cakes are also on offer as are assorted tropical fruits, wrapped in banana leaves and beautifully displayed on a wide round metal platter which the girls show off with legitimate pride. Some also have a host of other unfamiliar sweet and savory foods which do not especially appeal my normally curious Western palate but seem to be popular with Cambodians. Some of the girls are still on board when the boat leaves, and they deftly maneuver themselves and their wares around people and cargo while the boat is moving at full speed. They disembark at the next stop, sometimes many kilometers further up the river. I am not sure how they will get back to their village of origin, as there may not be a boat going in the opposite direction until the next day.

Sambok, near Kratie

Finding a hotel is easy, there is one just in front of the jetty. Here, like most other times during the course of this trip, I would be the only one to whom the local boys would offer to carry luggage. I am not sure whether because my salt and pepper beard makes me look old and weak, or because the others have their back-packs on their shoulders all the time, but my beat-up dark gray hard-shell samsonite always got picked up and carried up and down whatever obstacle lied between me and a bed, be it a muddy embankment or a steep staircase. I did not mind. Some fellow travellers made fun of my wheeled samsonite. They would struggle along with their fashionable but heavy backpacks on their shoulders; the latest models were so pretty that they were protected by an outer sac which however made it impossible to use the shoulder straps and thus became absolutely impractical to handle. I found that wheels and handles made my hard shell safer to use for rough travel since I could keep anything in it without risking breakage (think of my bone opium pipes!), soaking or soiling. I had not factored in the added bonus of its serious official appearance that prompted all those spontaneous offers to carry it, but I will keep that in mind for the next time I must buy a piece of luggage!

The hotel bellboy speaks simple English but has mastered an excellent pronounciation, though, unsurprisingly, he has never travelled to an English speaking country. I conclude that television does produce positive results every now and then.

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