Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Dash Through Cambodia

Written from Pleiku (Viet Nam), early morning, December 8th, 2013.  Weather cool, clear and lovely.  Local folks are freezing.

I've done it again.  After three days in the big city (Phnom Penh in this case), getting there early for the meeting, attending the meeting, and finally getting away, I've skittered through the rest of the country with unseemly haste and have returned to Viet Nam.  Actually, the haste was simply the matter of how long I lingered in each town along the way. . .not long. . .not in how fast we traveled during the day.  Each of the day's runs were short, under 200 km until yesterday, and we either stayed late of a morning to finish looking around, or got into town early enough in the afternoon to have a good chance to take care of business (gasoline, oil, wash jobs, all for the horse, and food, lodging, boats, temples and similar inquiries for me).  So we just didn't linger long anywhere.  The countryside from Phnom Penh north to Kratie is almost entirely flat farm country, no doubt rich beyond words in terms of people it can support per hectare.  Cambodia is a major rice exporter and provides an enormous variety and abundance of produce for domestic consumption.  The people are not skinny!  Well, the young people are generally lean and athletic, spend too much time at volleyball and soccer perhaps, and they dance as well.  But compared to Viet Nam, where chunky people are still not common, in Cambodia, they are doing well.  The people seem to be a bit darker on average than Vietnamese, and have more of a tendency toward wavy hair.  By and large, they're good looking people, and their youngsters (ladies and gentlemen as well as kids) can be downright beautiful.  There are far more Muslims in the population than I'd realized before.  At a guess (based on a thoroughly unscientific count of bare heads versus covered among the women of the countryside) I'd guess that 10% or more are Muslim.  There are small mosques in most villages, and in some small places, everyone seems to be Muslim.  Even a number of men wear the white skull cap (embroidered in white as well) that I think I've seen in photos from Indonesia.  In particular, a great many of the river fishermen are Muslim, and essentially all the long, graceful house-canoes they live in and fish from, are Muslim.  So, a great many of my photos, of boats of course, include a high percentage of them.  The men, other than their white caps (which are not common) usually wear western clothes, or substitute a short sarong for trousers.  The ladies and young women brighten the countryside with gorgeous long skirts, bright blouses and sequined head scarves.  If the notion of the clothing was to reduce the appeal of the ladies. . .it's gone astray.

But the main thrust of this visit (after the meeting in Phnom Penh) was to improve my collection of river boats on the Mekong, and that, in some measure, we managed.  To begin with the down side. . .neither the monastery in Kratie nor the old boat builder in Stung Treng were actually building a boat.  The monastery is deeply involved in building a new "big house" where the monks and novices live than in worrying about yet another long canoe right now.  I did take the time to measure and do detailed photos of the two canoes in their shed, the smaller of which I think is one I saw five years ago, just being finished, and firmly upside down by the road.  It's a pretty thing, which looks like it should seat 16 men and boys. . .and I'm informed it normally races with 24 on board.  Some of the kids are maybe small enough to sit two abreast in small spaces!  The larger, over 100' long and narrow too. . .normally races with 70 on the paddles.  Wow.  The long boat was in the midst of a major rebuild, advanced already to the point of replacing the ribs and sanding down the paint to bare wood and re-sealing the joint between the dugout bottom and the added plank above.  If the authorities in PP ever get around to letting the Water Festival proceed again (they've cancelled the past 3 years for various dubious reasons) then the big boat should be ready.

Besides the two in the shed in Kratie, in a front yard (as in the front yard of a house or shop, not a boat yard) I found two other racing canoes laid up and waiting).  That was on a most fortunate short cut to Kratie, through the village of Chlong.  It cut off 75 km of horrible, broken highway after Kompong Cham and went smoothly on two small paved lanes through pretty countryside and for over 30 km, right along the crest of the levee, so there were frequent sweeping views across the river.  I had (coward that I am) refused that short cut years ago, seeing the smallness of the line that marked the last 30 km along the river on my map, but this year, perhaps daunted by the terrors of the broken highway and dust. . .I asked myself. . .just how much worse could it be??  And it was lovely.  I'm not sure there's a real lesson there, but it's worth bearing in mind.

I think both Kratie and Stung Treng, where I spent nights, would reward several days each of careful sampling of the local cooking, but, after you've chased down the boats and the few remaining old style oxcarts, and perhaps photographed the frescoes on the walls and ceilings of the local pagodas, what do you do between meals?  You can only eat so much. . .h'mm.

Things seen along the road:  Chuck holes big enough to hide a bike in, dust thick enough to eat. . .oh, sorry, didn't mean to go into that again. . .uh, well, lots of rice paddy, most of it either ready to reap or just cut down, mostly by hand, though you will see a few small combines cutting and separating the grain from the straw as they go. At least two different sorts of palm trees.  Two different fleets of derrick rafts fishing with enormous square dip nets!  The derrick is boomed up by a handspike winch on the side deck (one lady can manage it slowly) then the center of the big square net is picked with a separate line, which tends to spill the fish (if any) out on to the foredeck of the raft.  The raft. . .about 20' x 60', with quarters in a small house aft, the whole thing made of bamboo, with the flotation arranged catamaran style. . .two separate bundles of bamboo.  There is a gantry and an A frame. . .and the thing is worked by booming up, winching in the topping lift between the gantry and the raft, the length of the pendants from gantry to A frame staying constant throughout.  Interesting.  Not much fish though.  Many different sorts of canoes and power arrangements on the river.  A number of Khmer style temples and a good few small mosques (one with an impressive gilt dome, but most with just a pair of short square minarets).  From Kratie to Stung Treng the road leads away from the river overland in a long loop, passing through low rolling hills (though the houses are still universally built on stilts, no matter that they are far from the river's reach).  Actually, the space under the house, besides serving as a place to store the canoe during dry season (or the tractor or the car or. . .), is a valuable living space, shady but open to any breeze, and they are usually equipped with hammocks and the low table like bedsteads that people here like to sit on to play cards or eat, as well as sleep.  The dark, finely polished hardwood slabs they're made from are silky smooth to the touch and oddly cool, but I can't sit cross legged very long, and prefer to perch on an edge with one foot on the ground.

Looking at the map and considering the generally awful highway surface, I'd planned to go from Stung Treng to Banlung in a very easy day, and from Banlung to the border and on to Pleiku in another.  However, the road was superb or better and all but empty, just an occasional passing SUV, two or three trucks, and just local motorbikes shuttling around. . .easy  easy traveling.  We did the whole day's intended run in 3 hours and had to figure out what to do with the rest of the day.  So we ate lunch, fueled up and ran for the border and Pleiku in the afternoon.  That turned it into a 285 km day, but with good roads the whole way and very little to stop and linger over.  Upland Cambodia is hilly, but not dramatically so. The Ratanakiri road I'd worried about was a piece of cake, with all the red clay politely waiting off the highway and none at all to wallow through en route.  There was a bit of jungle and some savanna-like open woodland, but much much more land logged off and put into rubber or other plantations, with the trees, countless numbers of them, lined up in columns and files, with the diagonals perfect too. . .uphill and down, out of sight.  No doubt it's making a lot of nice tires, and making somebody (somewhere else) rich. . .but not something to linger over to savor the scenery.  Looking at the terrain, I've no doubt that a hundred years ago, or even fifty, this countryside, covered in woods and jungle,  would have supported deer and elephants and tigers and wild oxen at least.  You see a lot of spectacular antlers hanging on office walls these days, very elk like antlers but somewhat smaller, but the creatures themselves must be very rare now.  

But enough, it's starting to be late in the morning and I've miles to run today one way or another, so I'll add some photos and leave you.
The central courtyard of the National Museum. . .splendid displays of statuary and artifacts.

A naga, guarding a bridge. . .the national snake of Cambodia?  Made his way into history by shading the Buddha with his rather formidable hood while he (Buddha) was meditating.  This one is of sandstone, not concrete, with a number of segments crossing the bridge and. . .er. . .another head on the other end.  H'mm.

If she rolls over she'll be wet (and bruised) that's the Tonle Sap River below, down a steep seawall.  The young people are often really beautiful.  

Random view down any aisle of any street market in Phnom Penh

Or maybe this is it. . .super abundance of fresh food

No, wait. . .this is the right one.  You couldn't begin to sample everything in a month or a year. . .

Fresh noodles drying in the sun.

Dip netting derrick raft.  With auxilliary fleet moored alongside

Racing canoes in Chlong, 30 km downstream from Kratie.

Modest Home, many are much fancier. . .

Not quite finished. . .and not really a McMansion, but very nice.  It'll have a fancy staircase down to the ground, probably concrete stairs and stainless tube handrail. . .but perhaps timber.   The old people just never stop being used to stairs!
Putting  up the hay (rice straw really, but the beasts eat it).  The ox cart, with the old wooden wheels and traditional frame is now very rare. . .Five years ago, much more common. Today the rototiller tractors are ascendant.  Prosperity and petroleum dependence. . .h'mm.

Fetching sand for the concrete for the new "big house".  Nobody's working on the racing canoes today.

The big one is under repair, new frames, new sealing, new tie wires (to hold it together side to side) and presumably, new paint.  The small one is in good shape as she is. . .The big one has a crew of 70 men and boys. . .the smaller one, with seats for 16, sits two abreast a lot. . .and races with 24.

The main sanctuary of the pagoda, with really magnificent "life of Buddha" frescoes on every surface of wall or ceiling.  I leaned the camera against a column to make up for the tripod I don't carry.

A selection of canoes on the bank, Stung Treng

Muslim house canoes/fishing vessels, Stung Treng