The darkness has just started to surrender to the startling brightness of the newborn sun when two resolute backpackers set out on the dusty ginger track leaving Kratie. After a few detours in South East Asia, they are back on their crazy project : going down the mighty Mekong by foot, this time determinded to cross 500 kilometers of Cambodia to get closer to their goal, the still-far-away mouth of the river in Vietnam.
Kratie and Kho Trong
Kratie is a small north Cambodian town set along the Mekong river, very far from the crowd of Siem Reap and the bewitching temples of Angkor Wat. Yet it is often considered as a good place to stop for a few days when on your way to Laos or if you wish to discover more about the famous endangered fresh water dolfins that inhabit the area. We arrived in Kratie a few days back, in order to get ready for the long walk that awaited us. No visit to the dolphins for us. Even if we are well aware that the attention payed by scientists and tourists to this rare cetaceans contributed largely to their actual survival, we were not absolutely convinced that booking a tour to get as close to them as possible is the best thing one can do for them. Instead we decided to visit the nearby island of Kho Trong known to be a charming insight of the rural cambodian life along the great Mekong river. We were quite curious to see that as we were planning to walk 350 km under these conditions!
So we took the ferry, rented two 1$ rusty age-old bicycles and started off on the well maintained track going around the island. On the island, we discovered a few traditional family guesthouses hidden in the tiny hamlets where it would be nice to spend one or two nights to enjoy the delighting quietness one can find here. We found that the island is so very charming and peaceful that it is quite the perfect place to relax for a few days. On the riverside, fishermen are actively working, farmers are bathing their massive white cows and, south of the island, a superb wooden village is floating proudly. That’s where we headed at the end of the afternoon, knowing that the golden hour would work its magic on this already beautiful scenery. We were a bit frustrated though that we couldn’t get any closer, so we started asking around if someone with a boat was willing to bring us on the river. A river carpenter was quite eager to help us for 5$, but when we wanted to get on his boat, he called on his young ten years old son and his friends to handle it! The big wooden oar seemed quite heavy for such tiny kids, but they were born on water and gracefully leaded the tiny boat all around the wonderful village. Magical!
En route for Kampong Cham
At sunrise, here we are on this dusty track walking our first steps along the Cambodian part of the Mekong river. The pretty villages of modest stilt houses are still quiet, and people don’t realize yet that two strange « barangs » (foreigners) are walking past their open doors. Walking in this part of Cambodia is like visiting a giant eco-museum. Everything on the way is eminently picturesque and bucolic: the old wooden farm machines, the well maintained oxcarts, the pretty little khmer horses, the high mounts of hay stack on the side of the road…
If the landscape reminds us of south Laos -of course, it is so close- only a bit more wild, the local culture is here totally different. Indeed we are walking by a Cham population, a matriarchal muslim ethnic group living essentially in Cambodia, centre Vietnam and Malaysia. So we meet on the way wonderful and colourful veiled women and proud bearded men in white robes, while the domes of mosquees overgrow the numerous coconut trees.
After a 27 km day-walk, we stop nearby one of these little Cham villages on a tiny flat piece of land overlooking the Mekong river. Perfect to set our tent and watch our daily stupendous sunset show!
We are only just starting to pitch the tent when someone behind us greets us with a « Hello » that doesn’t sound Asian at all. When we turn around, we are very surprised to find a tall handsome westerner smiling at us! Beau is from the US and also a nurse and moved to Cambodia two months ago with his wife and four adorable children. We are in the middle of nowhere and we haphazardly chose to set the tent just behind their house! They are incredibly welcoming and even if we just met, they invite us to spend the night at home and enjoy a bit of a music party in the evening with some friends. Actually, we understand later that the music event is quite different from what we first imagined and we find ourselves listening, fascinated, to their songs and prayers to God. We spend the rest of the evening talking while savoring delicious fresh coconuts. Those people are living of joy, love, sharing all they can with others and are particularly happy. Very inspiring for us, even if we are not on the religious side! We are quite sad to leave them in the morning… Thanks for all, Beau and Kris. You are amazing!
We spend the next days walking through wonderful little villages, ricefields, forests of mango trees, temples and mosquees. Buddhists and muslims seems to live here in good harmony. They are very welcoming to us. As for us, we discovered a new drug on the way and everytime we take a break, we drink litres and litres of it : the sugar cane juice! This sweet delicious sap helps us to stand the unbearable heat and to go forward anytime our motivation flinch. And it also offers a good opportunity to share a moment with locals, who are as addicted as we are to sugar cane juice!
Three days later we reach Kampong Cham. We won’t see much of the city as Quentin will stay stuck in bed for a few days with a nasty dengue fever! Impossible to go back on the road again in this state, but we will still manage to visit the impressive 800m bamboo bridge, a beautiful stucture that looks fragile but on which even cars can ride! Watching the sunset from this place makes it well worth a visit!
Aim: Phnom Penh
One morning, Quentin finally feels well enough to walk so we set off on the road again, happy to leave thoses last painful days behind… Unfortunately, the lovely track we were expecting to find is currently under construction and will soon become a major road. We are walking through noisy and dusty roadworks the whole time, which is not really exciting.
Our second walking day, however, is holding a surprise for us. At our daily midday break, we choose to stop in a quite interesting temple standing just by the river. We notice quite unthinkingly a luxury cruise ship berthed just nearby. As we tour the religious buildings a group of westerners suddenly appears in front of us. Try to imagine the scene : we are standing sweaty and dusty, heavily packed with all our hiking stuff, in the middle of a huge alley bordered on each side by absurd statues of giant fruits, and there we meet a group of old millionaires on holiday! A tall young bloke among them call « Haya goin’ mate? ». Oh. This one’s an Aussie! Cookie is working as a specialised travel guide on The Jahan, the magnificient cruise ship we saw earlier. We tell him everything about our adventure along the Mekong, from our search for the holy source, to our walk down the chinese mekong valley in Yunnan, and through picturesque south Laos. He finds the whole thing quite overwhelming and manages to get us invited on board for a coffee! What a treat! We discover that the cruise ship is in fact part of the National Geographic Expeditions. Super classy with an amazing standing and a perfect attention to every details, the boat is contrasting starkly with our dirty backpacker’s style… Everything on board is perfect! Well, the price for a cabin and the cruise is 20000$ soooo… We spend a very interesting break time today, around a delicious black coffee, conversing with Cookie and the doctor on board and Stéphane, a belgium explorer, humanist, writer, photographer, biologist… We would have loved to spend more time with them but they have to be on their way to Phnom Penh so we get back on land for a few more kilometers of dust and aching feet.
We don’t have to go far for a nice young khmer calls out to us in a very good english:
- Today is Chinese New Year! Please join us for lunch, we would be honoured to have you at home! he tells us. You know, many khmer have chinese origins, that’s why we still celebrate this event here. Please, come!
That’s how we ended up in a beautiful traditionnal stilt house with an extended khmer family of adorable people and at least 15 different dishes to try! We take our leave quite late in the afternoon, belly-full and happy to meet those delightful people. A bit later on, we find a nice quiet spot to set the tent and ask the nearest farmer if we can be allowed to sleep there. He agrees immediately with a broad smile. As soon as we get ready to set the tent, all the neighbors gather around for a session of white watching. Before long, the smiling crowd is so big that we have trouble to move around! But a man speaking a perfect english appears on his motorbike and interupts our doing.
- I don’t think you should sleep here. We are very close from Phnom Penh and crime is getting up in the area those last months. Drug traffics and murders by gangs. We should tell the police that you are here. Or at least the village chief.
Quentin is invited pronto to a « security council » in the nearest farm. After deliberation, they decide it would be safer for us to spend the night at our english-speaker’s with his family. No way we sleep under the tent tonight! Our safety first! We were quite thankful for their concern, and spent a very interesting evening conversing on various subjects like cambodian rural life and hardships, problems linked to the declining level and quality of the Mekong waters, of the fishes getting smaller and smaller, of the drought of the last years impacting severely on the rice industry, and of the youngsters fleeing the countryside to try their luck in Phnom Penh… Yes, the situation in Cambodia is still quite dark, but in the same time, people seem to have hope in the future and want to move forward. Our host worked in an NGO then in the tourism industry before losing his job and getting back to agriculture. He is now dreaming of opening an english school for the kids of his village, to give them more opportunity in life! A very cool guy.
We’ll need one more day to reach the crossroad with the highway. One more day walking under 38°C with the dust clinging to our bodies. This time we’ll find a little side track, closer from the river, wilder, nicer for us to walk on. Once we get on the highway, though, it turns out a bit sensless to continue trekking. For the last 40 kilometres of wide and crazy bitumen road, we jump on the first mini bus available. We will be in Phnom Penh tonight!
See you soon,
M. & Mme Shoes
Faces of Asia
To sleep at Kampong Cham :
To eat at Kampong Cham :
- Lazy Mekong Daze