The Dokchampa guesthouse deck overlooks a lazy stretch of Mekong. A wide girth of water separates us from the green shores of the fishing island of Don Daeng on the opposite bank. The gentle amble of the water in your ears gets you thinking, helps you to tackle the big questions. If a double room is the same price as a plate of fried spring rolls, which is better value for money?
It is hot here and we have had a big day. For the most part we are the only two guests, so the relaxed rhythm of Lao life continues around us. The owner’s extended family shares lunch at the next table. A rooster picks his way through the ground beneath the house. Women take turns checking each others scalp for nits. Barefoot children sit on the floor sorting through plates of dried chilli while they watch rubbish soaps on television. The landlady uses a stick to evict a flock of geese from the courtyard. Lao pop music plays on the sound system. Occasionally, we are joined by groups of the tourist staple of these parts, recent retired French couples. They wander in, eat, drink, laugh then wander out.
Sipping BeerLao in the afternoon shade I take a moment to appreciate it for what it is: a tribute to Communism. How else can you describe an abundance of excellent beer without the complication of price fluctuation? A BeerLao longneck can be purchased anywhere, any time for about a dollar.
The modern day Champasak is a one-horse town, expectantly waiting for three horses to wander through. It is a laid back riverside town, one street, plenty of guesthouses but not many guests. It wasn’t always like this, it was once the capital of the Laos kingdom.
It is the UNESO world heritage listed ruins of Wat Phu Champasak that day-trippers come to see. We took a tuk tuk out there and spent the morning exploring the jumble of stone causeways, stepped trails cut into the mountain side and at the top, majestic temple ruins with spectacular views of the Mekong valley.
I order another Beerlao, day’s end approaches, soon the fishermen will pull their drift lines and a thousand dragonflies will dance to the setting sun.
We were both still feeling pretty dusty from the night before when boarded the bus at 6:45am. As we drove away we said a sleep deprived goodbye to Phnom Penh. Having heard a couple of horror stories about the Cambodian/Laos border crossing we had plumped for an international bus that would take us to southern Laos in one hit.
The border crossing ten hours later provided a fitting farewell to Cambodia. The border officials promptly lost my passport. Unperturbed, they continued extorting bribes from other travelers in earnest. My passport and I were reunited about an hour later after it was delivered via moto courier, apparently it had gone on a little adventure five hundred metres up the road to the Laos border crossing. With the formalities out of the way we boarded the bus again. At Ban Thakho we changed buses and headed for the river. Three metres off the highway we hit our first pothole and broke the rear left shock spring. An hour and three bone-rattling kilometres of track later and we knew we were in Laos.
The trip was well worth it. Across the river the sun was setting over the many shores of Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands). By the time we had boarded the longboat and began navigating the canals the air was alive with sounds of the early evening dark.
An archipelago of constantly shifting sandbars and rocky islands, Si Phan Don moves with the Mekong flows. But there are a number of permanent settlements, the largest is to the north on Don Khong but we were headed for the less developed southern islands of Don Det and Don Khon.
After we were all ushered off the boat and stood on the riverbank in collective confusion brought about by the language barrier and darkness. We quickly deduced that we were on Don Khon much to the horror of a number of our fellow travelers. While the two islands are joined by an old French railway bridge Don Det has the more lively backpacker scene of the two. By night Don Khon is relaxed and quiet. That was exactly what Amy and I were looking for so we wandered off into the dark and soon settled on a guesthouse.
The following morning we set about exploring the charming little island with bikes. First stop was the impressive cascading falls of Tat Somphamit. We then rode down to the southern most tip of the island, where at the bottom of a rocky trail sit a couple of shack restaurants and a long sandy beach with a distinctly misplaced feel to it. We found a secluded place on the riverbank and set up for a spot at dolphin watching. A rare species of fresh water dolphin, the Irrawaddy, thrall the waters there. While we both proved to be abject failures as dolphin spotters, we swam, sunned ourselves and enjoyed the reserved beauty.
Don Det and Don Khon is the type of place that attracts a diverse mix of traveler types. Riding around we certainly saw an interesting cross section of the world. One minute a recently retired French couple walk hand in hand then a group of stoned wannabe hippies stagger along with a half finished bottle of rice whiskey and their fire sticks.
The quiet trails through the small farm plots reminded me a little of home. As soon as you leave the shores of the river the landscape gets much drier and some of the plants are much like Southern Australia. While there were many obvious differences I couldn’t help but think of the trip out to Harmers Haven.
True to form, at the furthermost point of the trip a rock punctured the front tyre of my rig so we had to do the return journey on foot. It didn’t prove too great an inconvenience as the slower pace meant we saw more.
Happily, the bulk of inhabitants of the island seem largely unaffected by the tourist trail barging through their backyard so you get a real snapshot of rural life of southern Laos. Fishermen check their drift lines on the river. Farmers till the fallow of cultivated rice paddies. Water buffalo, pigs and cows graze the fields. Children play marbles and climb trees. Ducks, chooks and geese scratch the ground.
Everything is negotiable. Lime and black pepper dipping sauces. Groin grabbingly great Fried Crab and Green Kampot Pepper. Ankor Larger and ice. The strip of dreams for the discerning diner, Street 278. Badminton being a really shit sport. The fortunes of an entire family revolving around a compressor. The newspaper girl who smiled. Never buy a Lexus. Tuk Tuk rides. Tuk Tuk and moto drivers. The water festival crush. The worlds greatest music store, Boom Boom Records. Living the unemployed expat dream. Ankgor Wat. Drinking coffee and cheap icy beer. Reading Moby Dick in a hammock on a nearly deserted beach at Koh Tonsay. Discovering the Phnom Penh Flyer. Eating barbeque beef, tripe and liver prepared over hot coals on the dirt floors of packed ramshackle restaurants. Corruption. New friends. The quickly diminishing waters of Boeng Kak Lake. Discovering Leonard Cohen, Dostoyevsky and the balcony of the Foreign Correspondents Club. The ruined French seaside villas on the Kep coastline. Aerobics Cambodia style. Deep fried crickets and tarantulas. The horror of Toul Sleng.
It had been a while since our last slap about on the bottom of a pool so we were both pretty chuffed to be able to sneak a trip across to Singapore for the Asian Underwater Hockey Championships.
We were both looking forward to a couple of cheeky games and our hosts certainly didn’t disappoint. Singapore is well and truly a melting pot of Asian cultures, so it provided an ideal place to host an Asian Championships. This diversity definitely showed in the water with each country bringing their unique style and game: the Japanese with their power forwards and kamikaze runs; the Philippines their pressure, physicality and long flicking; Singapore had exuberant forwards, solid backs and the Doctor; the (West) Australians, a clean open game and far too much class.
Then there was us, the internationals a team of miscreants and misfits. Two from Australia, three from Hong Kong (via the UK) and five from Japan. We bridged cultural divides, overcame language barriers and showed great improvement and brief glimpses of competitiveness.
At 1.8m deep and with a recently retiled bottom, the Queenstown Swimming Complex proved an ideal venue for great competitive hockey across the two competitions (Nations Cup and Challenge Cup) and various divisions (Men and Women’s and Mixed). The games between Singapore and the Philippines provided particularly spirited contests.
Being an outdoor pool provided an added the bonus, we were treated to some spectacular sunsets and lighting displays. Apparently the Singapore poolies are dynamite on getting the punters out of the water at the first hint of lighting but thankfully the gods saw fit to keep it well off in the distance.
Our nights were spent enjoying a quintessential Singapore food court dinning. I have never really rated the food court experience, too many bogans and bainmaries, but visiting Singapore provided a glimpse of what they could and should be; aisles of deviously delicious, simple and cheap food. The problem is it will just make me hate all subsequent food courts even more.
The finals provided an aptly mixed bag of results:
3rd & 4th: JPN (4) vs PHI B (8)
Final: PHI A (4) vs SIN (3)
Men’s Division A Final: PHI A (1) vs SIN A (4)
Mixed Division B
3rd & 4th: PHI/SIN 3a (7) vs PHI/SIN 3b (4)
Final: PHI 2 (7) vs SIN 2 (3)
Mixed Division A
3rd & 4th: JPN (3) vs PHI 1 (9) Final: AUS (13) vs SIN 1 (0)
Exhibition matches featuring a random hodgepodge of nationalities in both the Men’s and Women’s also provided a highlight.
With the formalities out of the way the scene was set of the real action to begin. The venue was Harry’s Bar, the location Central Quay. It was a presentation night that didn’t disappoint. The food was good and booze flowed.
The strip paper rock scissors proved to be nights true highlight. Two blokes stood on the table top, the crowd chanted, they danced, they paper, rocked or scissored, then the loser stripped. Young McKenzie showed some mettle to dominate his bout.
Arm wrestling was another pastime embraced in earnest on the night. More shots and booze followed as did acrobatics, chanting and dancing. Gavan the Wise was worshiped as the water gladiator that he is. The further the night progressed the further the adults regressed into adolescence. By the end it we were back to Blue Light Disco debauchery, and that means good fun was had by all.
Arriving a day early for our long overdue weekend of slapping about on the bottom of a pool we had a little time to sample a small section of Singapore.
For a visitor coming from any other Asian country the thing that most stands out about Singapore is the fastidious cleanliness and order. While there isn’t a police officer in sight, a million signs indicate that you can and will be fined if you so much as break wind at an inappropriate time.
We walked the river at the Quay and marveled at the maze of malls and high-rises. We explored the jumble of shops and restaurants in Little India then braved the mecca of shoddy electronic charlatans at Sim Lim Square. We were dazzled by the lights of Orchid Road and could have spent much longer at the Asian Civilizations Museum.
We completed our pre-competition preparations by heading to the Raffles. Wow man! That’s a swish hotel. Amy got herself a Singapore Sling and seeing a beer was $16, I opted instead for a cocktail at $18. Best Bloody Mary I have ever had. With those formalities out of the way we were both physically and mentally prepared for a weekend of water hockey.
For our last Cambodian weekend away we headed to the Thai border and the Cardamon Mountains. An untouched expanse of jungle covered mountains, plunging gorges and winding streams. Home to an abundant range of wildlife: tigers, elephants, gibbons and crocodiles. Refuge for the deposed Khmer Rouge resistance. Our abode was to be the Rainbow Lodge, an eco-resort nestled into the green shores of the Kep River.
The booking confirmation included very specific instructions on getting there. We caught the Virak Buntham bus and started counting bridges. About four hours after leaving Phnom Penh we hit the third which was our queue to send a text message to the lodge owner Janet. About half an hour later we slowly wound our way down to the Phum Doung Bridge and reaching the other side hailed the driver to pull over.
Stepping off the bus is both breathtaking and a little daunting. Jungle covered slopes tower majestically over the gently winding waters of the Kep River. But when the bus disappears up the mountain in a cloud of dust and exhaust fumes you quickly become aware of your more immediate surrounds. An abandoned quarry littered with a couple of sheds, broken down earthmovers and heaps of busted rock spread around both sides of road while the rusty hulls of sunken barges rot in the shallows beneath the bridge. A small village, little more than a couple of huts and sheds sits on the other side of the bridge. You really feel how far you are from civilization.
It wasn’t long before we noticed our guide G leaning in the shade of the bridge. We loaded our bags into the skiff and were off up the river. Soon our abode came into view. Nestled on the riverbank is Rainbow Lodge, green painted peaks towering above. We worked our way up the trail to the bar where we checked in and received the first of a series of talks pitched to the conscientious traveler. Topics include responsible use of power, responsible use of water and responsible eating (food is included in the package). For its electricity, the lodge relies on solar with sparingly used generators providing a back-up.
Rainbow Lodge is by no means lavish, seven reserved but comfortable bungalows are linked together by a series of raised walkways. You get the basics, bathroom, fan, cold water (if there is power) and a resident Tokay (a colourful large gecko named after its distinctive call). In the centre sits a plain, open-air but surprisingly well-stocked bar.
Being English Janet makes a mean G&T and also has an interesting story to tell. Tiring of a London legal career she took a year sabbatical and did some volunteering. During that time she discovered Cambodia and got it in her head that eco-toursim was the go. She spent six months on the back of a rented motobike exploring every mud track and goat trail she came across until she found her spot. After six months of construction she opened Rainbow Lodge. There she, her dog Sunny and cat Psar Chma (market cat) pile their eco-tourist trade.
The lack of creature comforts is well and truly compensated for by the beautiful surrounds, relaxed vibe and fantastic food. You can sit, relax and enjoy the quiet. Lounge by the river and watch local fishermen with their skiffs and cast nets. They also offer a range of boat trips, sunset cruises and guided jungles treks.
The first day we thumbed a lift with a camping trip up the river. The boat ride was amazing, still and hot as hell to start with then in a heart beat the wind picked up and a crowd of low hanging clouds brought a torrential rain down from the mountains. An hour so up the river, just as the rain cleared we arrived at a series of rapids. We spent a couple of hours swimming and exploring the rocky river bank while a tarp and hammocks were set up for the Dutch couple staying there the night. Not a soul or electric light for miles, just the sound of the river and the light of the moon and stars. We waved our goodbyes and headed back downstream jealous as hell. That jealously did fade a little later that evening once an exquisite barbeque buffet had been demolished.
The following day we joined Mr Lei, a former ranger at the Botum Sakor National Park, on a guided trek to the Talai waterfall. To be honest, only the first three hundred metres could really be construed as trekking after that it was three hours on a gentle jungle trail. Beautifully coloured butterflies, dragonflies, birds of all sorts, shapes and sizes accompanied by the elusive call of Gibbons. Oh, and loads of leeches.
The Talai waterfall changes with the ebb and flow of the river: following the rains it is a gushing torrent that spans the entire gorge and at the height of the dry it is reduced to a gentle cascade. They say no two visits to the waterfall are ever the same. That was certainly true in Amy’s case; her first view was obscured by the bare arses of two French retirees. That aside, the day we visited the waterfall was at its pristine best. A series of cascading falls feed dozens of pools transforming them into natural spas. We spent the remainder of the day watching our cares wash away in a relaxed stupor. It was late afternoon when the boat arrived to take us back to the lodge. Later that evening we were joined by a snowy owl who through luminous eyes watched us devour every morsel of a delicious three course dinner.
If you are looking for luxury on your weekend away don’t go to Rainbow lodge. But if you are looking for great food, to relax and enjoy the quiet or hike stunning and untouched wilderness whilst leaving the smallest footprint possible then Rainbow Lodge is the place of you.
True to form it took me nearly three months before I got around to doing something that I had planned on doing the week we arrived. I went for a run. Not just any old run but a run with an expat running club. Joining the Phnom Penh Hash House Harriers on their weekly run definitely showed me something of rural Cambodia that I would have otherwise missed.
Come 2:15pm Sunday the tracksuit wearing exercisers congregate at the Phnom Penh train station. At first glace it looks like a club for nerds, misfits and middle aged blokes with no mates who, one afternoon per week, get together, assume imagined identities and escape reality. There certainly was a bit of that but there was also a whole lot more. A closer look revealed quite a diverse group of people: expats and locals, young and old, fit and bordering on obese.
All the preparations have been completed. A fresh layer of white paint covers the concrete curves of all the main roads. The propaganda is in place: flags, billboards and enormous effigies of the benevolent Hen Sun are everywhere. The beggars, homeless and mentally unwell have been rounded up, imprisoned and are now being “reeducated”. Vacant blocks which just a week ago were littered with garbage and filth have been cleaned up and are now home to hundreds of market stalls and a concert stage. The exodus of city dwellers has in no way offset the influx of visitors.
The girth of the great Tonle Sap has grown fat and swollen from months spent gorging thirstily on the flow from the Mekong. The rains have lessened with the turning of the seasons and the upstream flow goes slack. The full moon approaches and soon the accumulated water in the lake will begin to seep back downstream making its way for the shores of the South China Sea. In Cambodia this changing of the tides is cause for celebration. Water Festival (Bon Om Tuk) is here.
The festival runs for three days (Sunday through to Tuesday) during which all roads lead to Phnom Penh, traffic comes to a standstill, the population doubles in size, the city doesn’t sleep and crime goes through the roof.
People as far as the eye can see crowd the banks of Tonle Sap to watch the boat racing. Long boats piloted by a crew of up to eighty compete head to head over 1700 metres. Standing upright the crews row like a chain gang furiously hoeing the ground. In some races there seems to be a large gap in talent. This is most obvious when a one of the provincial teams comes up against a team of expats. Even funnier is watching the expat crew struggling to negotiate the upstream row back to the starting line. After two days of heats the results are tallied and the boats are allocated into one of four divisions for the final day.
This racing gig isn’t risk free: while the surface water flows downstream, the undercurrent still flows upstream meaning that if a boat floods the crew better be strong swimmers. This year, the river claimed the life of one unlucky crew member.
When night falls the long boats are replaced by slow moving barges laden to the rails with neon towers of Buddhist kitsch. A fireworks extravaganza provides a fitting backdrop.
While the boat racing and fireworks provide the water festivals obvious highlights, the real joy is to be found treading the pavement. For many people from the provinces the festival will be their only trip into the city. Every piece of pavement and section of park is covered by straw mats on which families eat, sleep and sell anything and everything: secondhand clothes, cutlery and meat skewers.
Negotiating the streets in certain sections of the city is not for the faint of heart. Our house happened to be located next to the thoroughfare closest to the festival that was still open to traffic. This meant that the normally quite streets around our house provided thousands of truck taxis with a drop off point for streams of festival punters.
We pulled up a bar stool at a high-rise bar/restaurant in order to bear witness to the madness. The intersection near our house (Sihanouk Bvd and Street 51) was becoming the bottleneck to end all bottlenecks. Thousands of punters all traveling in different directions converged to strand Tuk Tuks, Motos and cars. People were at a standstill for hours, food stalls collapsed with the press of bodies and the cabins of Tuk Tuks became legitimate thoroughfares. I couldn’t help but feel guilty about our privileged vantage point, six storey’s above the chaos. This feeling dissipated at the moment of our departure when, in order to get home, we were forced to negotiate that crowd. Who would have thought climbing through a maze of thousand parked motorbikes would be quicker than the road? Apparently the number of visitors this year was far less than previous years; I can’t imagine what the crowds would have been like then.
It is easy to understand why the celebrations have such energy; Tonle Sap is the lifeblood of Cambodia. Outside the comforts of the city most of the population live and die by its whims. Its fertile depths provide the lion’s share (eighty percent) of protein for the population as well as the moisture required to grow the country’s rice. On the flip side, regular floods claim the lives of hundreds and leave tens of thousands homeless every year.
Cambodia is extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change and the whims of its neighbors. If the sea level were to rise by one meter a large proportion of the country will be underwater leaving more than eight million Cambodians homeless.
I got a feeling in my waters the moment we boarded the bus for Kep. One of those good feelings that only gets stronger the longer it lasts. A sea of green rolled by the bus window: rice paddies, swaying palms and rocky outcrops. Before the bus rounded the corner my nostrils were filled with the smell sea. Soon we began winding our way along the coastal road, jungle covered slopes leaning down on one side while the tropical waters reached for the horizon on the other.
We stepped off the bus in the little seaside village and quickly negotiated a lift up to our hotel. The beaten up Fiat bounced and banged its way up the bumpy dirt road that leads up to Kep Lodge. Its thatched bungalows nestle comfortably in to the green slopes that rise behind the town. Owned and run by a Swiss expat and his Cambodian wife the lodge combines a relaxed feel, an interesting mix of cultures and amazing poolside views.