Waking up at the crack of dawn was not so hard as I expected, even after several long days of uninterrupted walking in the jungle and amidst ruins in sweltering heat, aggressive humidity and repeated thunderstorms. Maybe my body clocks was still on West European time, so for me it was not early morning but only late evening on the day before... Our van took us out of town, toward the shores of the Tonle Sap Lake, a wide appendix of the Mekong which extends from Siem Reap, at the mouth of the city’s eponymous river, almost all the way to the capital. Here is the base of the ferry boat service to Phnom Penh. The night is just fading away, but the air is already warm. All around us, and everything on us, is already damp. By now I was getting used to being wet (be it because of rain or sweat) as the normal state of being; for the first time in my life I learnt not to even bother to wipe my face, arms or hands, I was just wet and clothes just stuck to my skin, all the time, full stop.
The ride to the harbor took about thirty minutes. Along the route, the morning market hawkers were readying their stands to start their trading day. The rumble of motorcycles roaming about the muddy roads began to fill the air. One last time we drove by the magnificent luxury hotels, which at this time were the cocoon of delicate country collectors sleeping their night beautifully away. Most of the country collectors had arrived by plane and would leave after a few days' walk among the ruins; few of them would ever see the filthy harbor we were headed to, let alone take their chances to board the creaky fast hydrofoils for a ride to Phnom Penh, they would fly; and that would certainly be faster, more comfortable and safer, but they would miss a whole dimension of Cambodian life. And yet, it does not shame me to confess that for a brief minute I wished I were one of them. I dreamt I was cool and dry, half asleep under a woolen blanket which I had pulled up to my face to mitigate the excessively cold draft flowing from the air-con unit, and was waiting for my breakfast room service boy to knock at the door … Then a sudden jolt of the van woke me up, and I was happy to be out in the street, enjoying the real Cambodia and about to start a cruise on the Mekong! The flurry of activity all along the Mekong riverside is the quintessential flavor of what life is all about in this region of the world.
The harbor is located by the Vietnamese village, so called because fishermen from Viet Nam have come to fish in the rich waters of the Tonle Sap for ages, taking advtantage of the seasonal tides, and many settled here. Over the decades the Khmer, unsurprisingly, did not always display unrestrained affection for the newcomers. Ethnic conflicts flared up time and again. During the repression of the Khmer Rouge regime, Vietnamese Cambodians received special attention. After the very brief honeymoon between the Khmer Rouge and the newly reunified Communist Viet Nam it was open conflict, and in fact the violence perpetrated against the Vietnamese provided Hanoi with an excellent pretext to invade Cambodia in 1978. Today, the official line which both Vietnamese and Cambodians tell us is that the two countries and the two peoples are friends, but the reality is not so idyllic. Reports of continued violence and hostility toward the Vietnamese fishermen and their families continue to surface through the cover of official denials.
Our van drove along a narrow winding mud road which runs through the Vietnamese village. The village itself consists of a line of huts precariously built on a narrow sliver of land on either side of the road, mostly on stilts. Behind them, the water. As we drove by, the inhabitants of the village were beginning their day. Some are just waking up, others are cooking or eating breakfast, some women are doing their laundry, others are shaving or bathing, children are playing. We slowly make our way around the pot holes and look at what would be normal scene in any tropical village, except this is unfolding right before our eyes, as if on a stage. The road is very narrow and there is only one row of small one-room huts on either side of it, mostly without doors. We can not avoid intruding into the most private lives of these people, but they must be so used to travelers on their way to the fast boat filing past every morning that they seem totally oblivious to our presence.
After perhaps two kilometers of this, we reach a point where the huts end and a market area begins. Here we can witness scenes so common to harbor towns around the developing world. Merchants peddling their wares, fishermen cleaning their catch, young girls approaching the boat passengers with cold water bottles. Little boys dive playfully in the water. Two men carrying a long and thick block of solid ice rushed by. It must have weighed several hundred kilos but each nonchalantly held one end on his bare shoulders while they negotiated their way in the crowd; eventually they delivered it to the fishermen, who broke it up and used it to pack their fresh (some still alive) fish for transport to the city markets.
On one side of the market, the fast boats were rather loosely moored to a very basic wooden structure erected on the muddy bank. Our boat is an old long and narrow vessel which looks like a hydrofoil though even when running full speed it did not really lift itself out of the water as one. The interior looks like an aircraft, with about fthirty-five rows of five seats each, two on the right and three on the left of a single narrow middle aisle. The small round windows too closely resemble, and are as tightly sealed as, those of an airplane. There is but one entrance at the bow. Above the cabin there is a large storage area for luggage, but most of the deck is free for passengers who want to enjoy the landscape and the breeze. I take position comfortably about midship and enjoy watching people getting ready for the trip.
A few minutes after seven the boat is gently pushed back from the bank and we are off. At first we proceed slowly among the last few houses of the Vietnamese village and the myriad small fishing vessels which crowd around the market; all the same, our bow wave rocks rather wildly some of the smaller boats which happen to be closer, but everyone seems to be used and oblivious to the daily routine. As we move out of the village and onto the wide open Tonle Sap the land widens, boats and stilts give way to grass, then it is water all around and the hydrofoil picks up speed decisively. The Mekong is of a deep red ochre, but at times the thick cloud cover reflected on the surface creates an enormous somber gray envelop which extends around us in all directions as far as the eye can see.
When the boat reaches cruising speed the bow spray begins to pound on the upper deck, and the wind chill freezes the fresh water on my body: all of a sudden, for the first time since we arrived in Cambodia, it is not hot and sticky any more, it is actually unbearably cold! As I have no rain gear, it becomes clear that I could not both go through five hours of this and keep pneumonia at bay. Defying fate, I put my rucksack on, climb down the upper-deck and walk along the exposed companionway while holding precariously on a hand rail and try to fine protection below deck. Wrong again! The air conditioning unit is spewing freezing cold air at full blast. As no window can be opened, the room temperature drops to polar levels. People are wearing sweaters and wind breakers inside! The river water becomes painfully cold on my body. A couple of TV sets are showing a comical play in which three men try to kick each other's bottoms, on each of which a big pink heart is glued. Most passengers seem to enjoy it; the Cambodian passengers, that is, because it leaves the rest of us rather perplexed, but we are obviously missing something because of the language.
I can not begin to imagine what this place would be like in an emergency, say a fire or a major leak. Evacuation would be a nightmare, or rather, there would probably be no evacuation, as the only small open door at the bow would be out of reach for most passengers and the narrow interior corridor would ensure a desperate stampede. I convince myself that statistics is on my side; it is like when I was travelling to the interior of Russia or Ukraine for NATO on rattling god-knows-how-old Antonov turboprops: you would hear of the occasional accident, and it would be dangerous to take this trip many times over, but the chances of something happening on this one trip were slim. I wonder what the person in charge of security designs for the ferry line looks like; that such a person exists is for sure, since he or she carefully placed "No Smoking" and "No Guns Allowed" signs on the toilet door. But of course it would be unfair to expect Western safety standards in Cambodia just yet. Anyway, as no alternatives are available, I retire in fetal position as far as possible from the air conditioning vents, write a few notes on my diary, hope for the best and, like many others, doze off.
After a couple of hours the boat slows down as the wide Tonle Sap narrows again into the Mekong river and as we approach Phnom Penh the river banks come much closer. The noon sun has taken a firm position high in the sky. There is no more bow spray and it is again dry and hot on the upper deck.