Just before I came to Cambodia, my wise and much-travelled uncle sent me a copy of an old map of Cambodia. The original, printed on parachute silk, had been inexplicably found amongst my late granny’s possessions – none of the family was aware of any connection she had with Cambodia.
Much has changed since the map was made, maybe 70 years ago, with towns, roads and even names evolving. But despite all this change, two clear constants remain - the country’s great waterways, the mighty Mekong river and the huge Tonlé Sap lake.
The Mekong is great and beautiful – 4,200km in length and up to 5km wide in places, springing from way up in Himalayan foothills of Tibet. It has already flowed though Thailand and Laos before its 500km journey through Cambodia, from where it continues through Vietnam before it finally empties into the South China Sea.
Several key Cambodian towns line the banks of the Mekong, from Stung Treng, past Kratie's famous dolphins, and on down to Phnom Penh. For my first 8 weeks in Cambodia I studied Khmer language in Kompong Cham, on the west bank around 2 hours north of Phnom Penh, a fantastic chance to spend time by the great river.
One Saturday, the enterprising John chartered a brightly-painted wooden boat for a group of inquisitive volunteers, and we headed out on the water. After floating downstream on the strong current, we headed up a tributary to a group of small villages, home of some impressive temples and groups of traditional weavers.
From the boat we saw just how essential the river is to the lives of the people here: for water, food from water-plants and irrigation as well as fish, transport in all manner of wooden boats, cleaning of bodies, clothes and possessions (including cows) – and of course fun, with a good number of splashing children, and dragon boats carefully tended in the local pagoda.
The Tonlé Sap is similarly breathtaking. A vast freshwater lake, by far the biggest in SE Asia, it is also something of a natural wonder in that its river part flows in different directions depending on the time of year. This is because it is linked by a 100km channel up from where the Mekong reaches Phnom Penh, and during the wet season water backs up this ‘river’, increasing the level of the lake by four or five times and inundating nearby land and forests. However, when the wet season ends the Mekong waters reduce, and water starts to flow back south – so the river has effectively reversed its flow.
Another weekend, another adventurous volunteer, the lovely Katja, arranged a trip to see the Tonlé Sap, in particular the high-stilted village and flooded forest of Kompong Phhluk. As it is now dry season, it was quite a journey to reach the retreating waters – 20km or so by tuc-tuc from Seam Reap, a hair-raising moto journey along a muddy track, and finally a wooden boat through the swamps.
The forest was impressive, with the lowered water level revealing petrified trees, trunks encrusted with shells. The boat also took us out onto the Tonlé Sap lake itself, a great inland sea with water stretching to the horizon in every direction.
The village was quite a sight - houses on stilts are impressive and somewhat romantic for us outsiders, but I’d never seen anything like this – as the water level can rise so much (from around 2m to a whopping 10m), the houses are built astonishingly high. Platforms, bridges, pumps and stairways towered above us, a whole community in the sky high above the dry-season water level below.
I’m intrigued by my granny’s map, but I guess the story behind it will remain a mystery. I can at least be confident that, as someone who liked nothing better than “messing about in boats”, she would have thoroughly approved of my recent sorties on the water.