We’ve been in Phnom Penh for more than 10 days now. The messy Cambodian capital doesn’t want to let us go! Our stay in the city has been a sweet-and-sour mix, from the very good time spent with our expatriate friends to the long wait for our Vietnamese visa, from the very good dishes we tried to our fight against the dark virus of salmonellosis or to the distressing visit of the sadly famous ex-khmers rouges prison S-21… Even if we enjoy the cultural richness of the old capital, we find it hard to adapt to the city buzz after spending so much time in Cambodian countryside. Fortunately we discover the beautiful silk islands, sitting in the Mekong just outside of Phnom Penh. Perfect for a day trip away from the noisy streets!
Kho Dach and kho Oknha Tei: the silk islands
We rent a scooter for the day to explore those two intriguing islands. Retrospectively, it would also have been nice to discover them by bicycle (or with horses!) during a few days, to enjoy their quietness for a longer time. We start our day under the sun, on the left-hand side of the Mekong river, from where we take a small local ferry that drops us on the biggest of the two islands: Kho Dach. From there we drive to the northernmost point, the favourite weekend destination of Phnom Penh people. It is easy to understand why : here is a large white sand beach dotted with dozens of little bamboo huts where locals enjoy having a light picnic before going for a refreshing bath in the river. Magical, and really not on the touristic side.
However, the islands are not known for their beaches but for the amazing craftsmanship that is developed there. As we continue our trip around and across the islands, we stop many times on the way to visit the talented weavers creating beautiful silk pieces on large hand-made looms under their traditional stilt houses. The whole islands echo from the clatter of the colourful shuttles coming and going to create the intricate patterns! This is absolutely beautiful to witness.
A little bit later, we jump over the bridge to get to south island Kho Oknha Tei where we visit the silk centre to learn more about the different steps of silk making. Of course, Mariette can’t resist to buy a few more scarves to add to her already extended collection. There are also interesting Khmer temples to visit on the islands, especially the one on Kho Oknha Tei, a wonderful orange building set amongst flowers and vegetation. In short, there are many things to see on those amazing islands. They were well worth a visit!
Walking through Cambodia, part 2
After curing from painful salmonellosis, we were both terribly tired, thinner, weakened, and not motivated at all to walk the last 120km to the Vietnam border… Yep, you read well! We’ve been hiking for more than 1500km along our dear Mekong river and suddenly 120km seems to us like the end of the world! Finally, our pride is stronger than our laziness and one early morning we jump back in our hiking boots, cross the river and set off in the wild. The beginning is really hard. Quentin is still a bit sick, and Mariette suffers from an excruciating pain in her right hip anytime she sets a foot on the ground. But we have to carry on : there are only 6 days left on our visas to reach Vietnam. Fortunately the beauty of landscapes, the sweetness of Cambodian people and our legendary unbreakable willingness (yeah, why not?) give us the strength to keep on going.
This is visibly the wedding season. We meet one every 3-4km. The two days long ceremonies are quite codified, colourful and genuinely over-the-top. The parents are generally delighted while the groom and bride look absolutely distraught and exhausted. The weddings happen directly in the street, where massive frivolous tents are built and where overloud pop music is played day and night. Seriously, it is deafening. To give you an idea, you can hear a wedding 5km away! So you can imagine that we don’t sleep very well at night in our tent, either waken up by the awful sizzle of speakers or by stupid stray dogs panicking at our unusual smell. Mornings are not the best we’ve had…
As for camping, our previous experience along the Mekong from Kratie to Phnom Penh taught us to be cautious. Now we sleep only on temple grounds or at home with locals when they allow us to stay. We came to understand that, should anything happen to us, the locals would be blamed directly. And that is not what we want at all!
Halfway to Vietnam, we stop for a day in Naek Leoung, the only « city » in the neighbourhood. Well, there is nothing to do there and we won’t recommend it for tourism, however the surrounding countryside is utterly charming and well worth to see, with large beautiful stilt houses bordering the Mekong river. We know that Cambodia is a poor country, yet we can’t help to notice that the people living along the Mekong are not the most unfortunate, as they can enjoy the richness of the river. Moreover, contrary to China, Laos and Thailand, the boat traffic on the Mekong river is here well developed and huge cargos mingle more and more with small fisherman boats.
As always, the people we meet on the way are the highlight of our trip. Everyday has a new surprise to offer, like this young genius who was perfectly fluent in English and teaching at university at only ten years old or this adorable couple who opened a free english sunday school at home for the kids of the neighbourhood. But there are also this old senile man who was still speaking a few words of French and calling Mariette « Madame Marish », those old ladies astonished by the weight of our backpacks ( but it’s far too heavy for you!!) before giving us half of their pantry, or this man who invited us home and with whom we shared so much without even speaking the same language… And who fiddled with Quentin’s nose because it is so big! It is sometimes funny to realise how easy it can be to communicate with some people without sharing the same language while there can be so much confusion when we talk with people at home!
One day we also meet a wise old man, who adresses us in a perfect old fashion french. He tells us everything about his life. About his early days in the french « Education Nationale » school, about the fast developement of the country that suddenly stopped at the beginning of the Indochina War, about how he later learnt english on a US base, about his province which he is so proud of… But he will never utter a word about the Khmers Rouges period. We want to ask him so many questions yet we don’t dare to. This is still taboo. The wound is too fresh. And too many Khmers Rouges have never been prosecuted. We know that nearly all the ex-Khmers Rouges still live a peaceful life in their village. That’s why the situation is still so complex. And even if we try our best not to focus on those sad events, the exactions, the starvation, the violence…, anytime we meet someone over 40 years old we can’t help to wonder. What is his story? How did he survive? What happened to his family? On which side was he? The only ones whith whom we can freely speak about those terrible events are the youngsters who where lucky enough to be born after this difficult period of Cambodian history.
But wounded Cambodia is also a country of joy. A minute after leaving the old man, we stumble on a huge revelry : the Dance of the Lions! Two wriggling red and green lions are leading a large procession of happy village people, soon followed by an extravaganza of « priests » and « priestesses » in excentric costumes, blessing the crowd from the top of golden carts by using huge amounts of water. Happiness and laughs are everywhere! We soon mingle with the children and run after the lions for a while…
Our last night in Cambodia will be part of our best memories in the country. We are invited to spend the night in a farm by an adorable family we only just met. We set the mostiquito net of our tent right in the middle of the unique room of their tall stilt house, which doesn’t miss to intrigue them and to make them laugh. The traditionnal house is quite large but modest. The very thin floorboards are a few centimetres apart from each other, and the windows have no panes, but no need, the house is always wide open, breathing. No furnitures except for a massive wardrobe, a few rolled mattresses and of course… A TV! We rince the filth of the day in their little bathroom outside the house, by pouring pots full of water on our heads from the rainwater basin.The grandma then offers us a nice dinner of rice and fried fish. Simple and delicious! Those people have nothing. Two cows. A roof over their head. The river. That’s it! We spend the evening all together, with their extended family (and probably a few nosy neighbors!) talking and laughing, even if we don’t speak the same language. Then we watch a cheesy soap on TV before they all nestle up on their matresses for the night. We feel well here, with this welcoming family. Tomorrow, though, we’ll be crossing the Vietnamese border!
See you soon!
Tintin & Riette