Prek Toal by Way of Phnom Kraum

Prek Toal by Way of Phnom Kraum

All adventures start with an extra hot latte crafted by Mex at the Little Red Fox Coffee Shop and the morning crew; Jady – temple water management and Darryl the Angkorian historian.

Feathercraft kayak on top of Dy’s electric blue Highlander, Solar kayaks, Lors, Bunthy, Visoth and me inside, another latte then pick up Buntha on the way to the lake.

Our route decided last week when we climbed out of REP Airport on our way to SIN (gapore). Five thousand foot above Phnom Kraum we could see pockets of bush surrounded by a sea of water and not the usual other way round. Direct channels lay clear to the open lake and onto the floating village of Prek Toal.

We launched where the water lapped Phnom Kraum Hill, Bunthy together with Lors, Visoth and Buntha. Laden with dinner and drink, two bladders of wine for the boys and merlot in the cool box for me.


From left to right; Visoth & Buntha, me, Lors and Bunthy

My Werner paddles were so light I barely felt them kissing the water as I effortlessly slid across the lake. The two Solars exploded with muscle like a moon rocket launch then stalled as Bunthy paddled one way and Lors the other. Buntha and Visoth quickly found a rhythm. Fizzing with excitement we set off for Prek Toal.

The lake was not quite so high that we could paddle unimpeded. Lead by lines of vegetation, fishing nets caught in the Solar fins as we zigzagged across the floodplain.

Past midday and Bunthy was running on empty, ‘when are we going to eat?’ He whimpered, while Buntha and Visoth the buffalo paddled on regardless of hunger, fishing lines and fences.

We entered the forest at the edge of the lake and moored to the branches beneath the canopy near the tops of the now submerged trees. We perched on the branches and ate lunch. Lors the gibbon swung from an outlying limb.


In the canopy forest at the edge of the lake

Climbing down from the tree trunks we made ready for the lake crossing just as the wind died and left barely a ripple on the dull grey expanse of water. The calm made a mockery of my safety briefing. ‘Tie down the equipment, stick together and wear life jackets.’


Above and below, Phnom Kraum behind, Prek Toal ahead

Lors inevitably started the horseplay by sitting up on the cool box at the back of his and Bunthy’s kayak nearly capsizing them both. They couldn’t get a rhythm going but his massive muscles powered through despite their lack of technique.

A huge cloud lay heavy over Prek Toal cumulating and shifting like an upset stomach. All the while darkening until the three telephone masts that marked out the village punctured its nebulous vapour releasing a wind that held us stationary and blew off my Akubra hat.

Bunthy and Lors’s calls for five minute breaks were becoming more frequent and faint as Buntha and Visoth, apparently unfatigued paddled on while I just sort of glided.

The whiffs of decomposing fish from the prahoc platforms and the reverberating staccato of the two stroke long-tail engines reached us before we got to the floating shacks at the edge of the village. We paddled between the more substantial houses buoyed up on clumps of bamboo lining the main channel.

Buntha’s pool hall, floating garden, crocodile cages and Mother in Law’s house lay opposite. ‘Do you want a shower Nick? Buntha asked me. ‘Not in your shit!’ The lake was high so well diluted but the crocodiles and Buntha were defecating on one side of the house while the family bathed on the other. I got back in the kayak and paddled away from the village with a bar of soap, managing to wash myself standing on the branches of a submerged tree.

The boys played pool, I scribbled notes then the family emerged from Mother in Law’s house with our dinner. Bunthy had bought plastic skins of cheap vinegary red wine, I’d put a couple of bottles of Chilean merlot in the cool box, which rapidly disappeared when Buntha found out how much nicer they tasted. We finished dinner. The alcohol combined with the day’s exercise, rounded off by five mg of Valium left me contentedly numbed. I turned off the Mother in Law’s radio lay down next to the crocodiles and fell asleep.


Saying goodbye to Buntha’s Family (excluding the Mother in Law)

A horrific fire had burned for day’s leaving half of the Core Bird Reserve reduced to charcoal. We paddled between the blackened branches saddened. The irrepressible Lors quickly diverted our attention and the presence of any wildlife with the continual noise he emitted.

The fire was an environmental disaster but still the floodplain is a wonderful and alien world of water and blissful quiet, excepting Lors.

Dy was waiting with his ice cold Highlander at Maichrey. It was past noon so rice was the priority. We diverted via the Baray now swollen with rain and a bamboo platform over the water for road kill chicken rice and tamarind paste, a look of total exhaustion on the boy’s faces. It had been fun!


Exhausted waiting for lunch at the West Baray

We are very pleased to take our guests on a day trip by motorboat to the floating village of Prek Toal with an early morning boat journey in the seasonally flooded forests of The Core Bird Reserve. On the return we explore the village by kayak with lunch on a floating platform then paddle to Buntha’s house and meet his family (and crocodiles).

If you have a bit more time an overnight stay means you start to get a glimpse of what life on the lake is really like. And we’d be delighted to paddle with you all the way if you’re up for the challenge!

In Search of a White Elephant

In Search of a White Elephant

In Search of a White Elephant

Our quest for the day was to find Boeung P’Rieng, a lake amidst flooded forests on the edge of The Great Tonle Sap that is subsumed when the back flow begins and the water levels in the lake rise.

Previous attempts had started in much the same way though today was Wednesday so it was Sister Srei not Little Red Fox, where we congregated for the essential injection of caffein before setting off on our quest.

The first try was thwarted by 2 flat tyres and a serious compromise in a sense of direction. I emerged from the forest beside the tourist boat channel at Chong Khneas no where near Boeung P’Rieng or nearby Chreav Village. The second attempt got closer but we reached the trips zenith in the corner of a big rice field where it met the channel leading to Boeung P’Rieng, a local family told us.

This morning’s adventure was a more serious affair; Buntha, Lors and I were joined by Bo our ubiquitous boatman and Mr Ly, the managing director no less of the Chreav Village Information Centre. In his spare time he had taken on the role of promoting the lake as a possible source of employment for the Chreav villagers in who’s commune it is situated. We assumed this might mean he knew where it was.

  Lors, our guide receiving the tour guide treatment from Mr Ly, director of the village information center with Taylor behind the camera

As part of the party political broadcast we were taken to a well managed market garden in a pretty part of Chreav village where basil and other herbs were grown. An oxcart was included in the agenda but our bicycles gave us the excuse to continue in our search of the elusive lake.

A water stop. Left to right; Buntha, Taylor, Ly, Lors & Bo.

Bo’s plans for differentiation in the tourism industry became evident as Taylor and I became his unwitting models when we cycled between paddy fields behind the plume of white dust thrown up by his motorbike.

Our cares started to slip away as the horizon stretched to the distance. We spotted sandpipers on the moist earth and a Pied Kingfisher over the irrigation ditch. Two pranticoles skulked amongst the rice stubble. The impenetrable bush revealed when the Tonle Sap recedes had been cleared to make a path to where we assumed the lake would be.

Buntha and Lors cycling through the seasonally flooded forest

Circling pelicans soaring high confirmed that third time lucky and after a patch of proper forest we met our welcoming committee and The Lake.

  Loading our bikes on board

Five years ago Bo had tried to persuade us to send bird watchers to what was designated a fish conservation area, hence the birds but as with many a well intentioned project in Cambodia, the fishing rights to the fish protection area were sold.

And setting off to explore the lake

Wallowing Water Buffalo in the shallow waters of Boeung P’Rieng (hence the renaming as Buffalo Lake)

Mr Ly according to Mr Ly was now the lakes protector and the fishing traps hauled out of the water and piled high to be burnt suggested that this time it might be more than words.

Spot-billed Pelicans taking off as we get too close

The community protected area covers 300 hectares and the lake itself twenty though that must change by the day. As we nosed our way through the sage green algae the scale was hard to fathom. Pools were funneled through channels to broad expanses of muddy suspension where buffalo wallowed pecked clean of ticks by white egrets, a prefect focal for a photo that never happened as they flapped off before I could press the shutter.

A cool forest lunch-spot for our guests

Bo’s enthusiasm for the birds was infectious as we struggled to keep up with the calls of new
species; Black-headed Ibis, Open-billed Storks everywhere, Painted Storks, prehistoric pelicans sailing like galleons, cormorants and a Grey-headed Fishing Eagle lazily flew off as we entered a new lagoon. Above all were the great flocks of duck, Spot-billed and Whistling, more than we’d seen at Prek Toal and only compared with the reservoir at Ang Trapaeng Thmor.

Our destination proved to be a patch of cool forest with a clear understory shaded under the canopy, the perfect lunch spot after a mornings meandering by kayak.

Birds, bikes, boats and Nick

I remembered that we had been able to drive our motorbikes here but now the route was cut by the channel that offered our only way out. Our impressively muscled boatman manoeuvred us along the twists and turns of the waterway between the trees and pushed our path through the congregated water hyacinth.

Bo releasing a trapped Water Cock

Something fluttered in a fish trap. A bird was caught in the cage. Bo’s good at this and confidently reached in and pulled out the distressed Water Cock, which calmed in his hands.

In quasi moment of religious release he cast the creature into the sky to regain its freedom, whereupon it nosed dived into the next fishing trap. There was a happy ending as it swam off underwater.

Disembarking from the Water Hyacinth Channel

The Floodplain around Phnom Kraum now a buffalo haven

Somehow Bo’s motorbike was where we disembarked then I recognised the community member who’d said goodbye and figured it out!

We set off across the dry paddy, which even in these dry El Nino years will be a meter under the flood in 4 months time. Where there was water the buffalo wallowed. I racked my brains to remember the path we cycled on.

Surely I’d been here? We’d turned off too late, it dawned on me as we crossed a bridge over the Siem Reap River on its way to Phnom Kraum and Chong Khneas, the ugly tourist port.

Next was a promotional detour engineered by Bo, who sort of seemed to be taking over the day. A new homestay venture complete with wi-fi and a bar. Surely that makes it a guesthouse? I thought but obviously Bo reckoned that business lay with a homestay and the activities there with as now modeled by Taylor and Nick.

Recharging after the morning’s exertions

More to the point and definitely on cue, Mr Doitch an Indochine Exploration driver had cooked us lunch, chicken and cabbage, chnang! (delicious).

Boeung P’Rieng is a birding spectacle on the scale of the world famous Prek Toal 15km as the adjutant flies to the South. And a testament to the work of My Ly and his community members in enforcing the protection of the fish conservation area that attracts the birds.

 

Indochine Exploration is pleased to support this project with an out of the world adventure combining combining bikes, boats, birds and a paddy field Jeep tour (pulling apart a chicken carcass is optional).

PS The white elephant reference is that white elephants are hard to find and make you very happy when you do!

An Angkorian Paddle

An Angkorian Paddle

Background

The rise and fall of the Angkorian Empire, which lasted 500 years from the 9th to 14th century, was centered in what is now Siem Reap Province, around its greatest monument Angkor Wat. A population of a million in an area of 1000 km2 serviced the empire and built the religious structures the remnants of which we see today.

Angkor Wat Moat

Key to the success of the civilization was the management of water in a region of inundation and drought. An elaborate system of canals and barays or reservoirs channeled water from the Kulen Hills to the North into the city.

The availability of water ensured that food went in and shit went out. Canals facilitated the construction of the temples conveying the stone from the quarries to the North. And the temples were built with defensive moats that maintained ground water levels preventing their subsidence.

Runta Dev, the tunnel under the 8m high walls of Angkor Thom that channeled waste-water into the moat

It is now thought that the decline in management and maintenance of the hydrology coincided with that of the empire.

In recent years the importance of these systems has been recognized again as the massive increase in tourism has lead to ground water levels falling and the potential collapse of the temples. It is no coincidence that the best preserved are those with functioning moats.

One man has been championing the restoration of the Angkorian water management. He has overseen the construction of canals that channel the Siem Reap River into the North Baray, the moats of Preah Khan, Ankgor Thom and even Angkor Wat. Reducing the possibility of Siem Reap flooding as it did in 2011, while maintaining ground water levels and preventing the temples falling down.

Overseeing our progress up the North Baray Channel

These small matters aside obviously the most important function of Angkorian hydrology is to allow us to paddle through the Angkor Park, Cambodia’s best preserved 400 km2 of lowland mixed evergreen and deciduous forest.

And so it was one Monday morning that his excellency the Director of Water Management at Apsara and now Director General, facilitated by Jady together with Buntha and myself kayaked through the heart of a Unesco declared world heritage site. Jady and I had previously recced Peou’s canal that diverts the flow from Siem Reap into the North Baray and round to the West Baray. This time we didn’t get lost and anyway Peou knew the way, but – we hadn’t followed the river as it heads South towards the Tonle Sap Lake.

The current had cut deep into the soft ground leaving 7meter high banks that we had to scramble down with our kayaks and then awkwardly get in them.

Paddling down the Siem Reap River  

A few fallen branches had accumulated enough flotsam and jetsam to block the river with no way through but a messy scramble. Jady and Buntha paved the way. Poeu and I made it easy.

There are 700 Angkorian structures inside the Angkor Park but only 180 of them can be called temples, they’re the ones with moats. These monumental stone edifices need solid ground for their structural integrity, without it they crumble to a pile of stones. Siem Reap is a built on a light sandy soil, water gives it substance, which is what the moats do for the temples.

Contemplating our adventure

A few hundred meters on either side there were no doubt bus loads of Asian tourists but here in the heart of Angkor we paddled passed explosions of bamboo erupting on either side. White-collared Kingfishers taunted Buntha to catch a photo. A Snake Eagle followed our progress from above, while a Shikra watched us with disinterest from a fallen branch. All manner of other birds sang from the trees on either side obliterating any thoughts of tourists or even other people.

We’d catered for 5 pax kayaking but one of the water management guys came along for the ride so the third kayak was one paddle power short and we had visions of Kosal, Jady’s assistant unable to move his shoulders for a month or 2. They’d had the sense to share the work and caught up beaming and claiming the big adventure.

Our driver had accumulated helpers by the time we reached the sluice gates at the French Bridge (confusingly built by Americans), who pulled us up the steep stairs to Jady’s vehicle.

It took a while to sink in that we had paddled through one of the wonders of the world, visited by 3 million people but seen none, instead thick riparian forest as if we were discovering it for the first time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lena and Seb’s Battambang Adventure

Lena and Seb’s Battambang Adventure

Lena & Sebs Battambang Adventure

Day 1

Vans, big motorboats, little motorboats, kayaks, bicycles, trains and taxis all had a part to play in our adventure on route from Siem Reap to Battambang. Overnight in the floating village of Prek Toal and the flooded forests of the Core Bird Reserve. Across the floodplains of the Tonle Sap Great Lake and up the Sangke River through the lush rural countryside of Battambang Province to the centre of the farming town in twenty four hours and a bit.

The expedition started at the boat station near Maichrey floating village, where Mr Heang and Finfoot, our comfortably converted fishing boat were waiting. The water was still high enough for us to cross the flooded scrub where we moored to a submerged tree. Lena and Seb were apt pupils as I explained the hydrological phenomena of the Mekong River system until I was rudely interrupted by a virulent green pit viper wrapped around a branch overhanging the deck.

Pit Viper in tree beside boat

The afternoons adventure was to explore Prek Toal floating village and the surrounding flooded countryside by kayak. The police chief took photos as we paddled past his station, children came out to stare as we floated by their houses, while those who were working ignored us.

Our improvised route went between the blackened trunks of flooded trees, under their dense green canopy and emerged beside the floating Catholic Church. We crossed the channel to where a muscled boy was ladling fish into piles in front of squatting ladies who chopped them up with meat cleavers, making a pulp that would ferment into Prahoc or Khmer cheese. So named because it stinks.

Seb and Lena setting off from their homestay

We watched the sun – a blood red orange, set over the Core Bird Reserve from the watchtower on top of the environmental research station, then motored over to the Saray Platform for supper.

Sunset over the Prek Toal Core Bird reserve

Reflections twisted by the wake of motorboats, a cool breeze playing over the boat’s spume.

Hosing the prahok tables ready for tomorrow. Alien clumps of hyacinth drifting on the water.

Single pin pot lights overly bright in the blackness.

Cotton wool fluff of half seen cloud and the glare of a television set as we came close to people’s houses.

The women weavers on the water hyacinth workshop had gone home but their piers were cooking us a supper of fish, vegetables and fruit with rice and a good bottle of chardonnay to wash it down.

Swinging in a hammock in Veasna’s house our home for the night. Manus hid a lime in Baby Buntha’s nappy. His sister heaved the heavy little lump across the floor. The Mother in Law busied herself with not much. The Grandmother on all fours played with the baby. Little sister went skipping to her mummy then wrapped the baby in plastic, all the while pool hall play by the lads in the village. Hide and seek by the water jar, doubled up Grandmother.

Day 2

Streaky orange lighting the village as the first long tails cacaphonic clatter echoed across the water, the old lady hawked, the batteries ran out on the night lanterns. We awkwardly crossed the tilting boats to the pool hall barge to meet Heang, who took us for breakfast back at the Saray Platform.

Dawn over Prek Toal

Bunhoeurn was waiting in the community boat for the ride into the magical landscape of the post dawn flooded forest. The light of the warming sun reflected by the delicate yellow flowers of floating saray plants. Squadrons of cormorants flew in slip-stream formation. A profusion of black and white; Oriental darters mixed with egrets, pelicans riding the thermals like galleons in the sky and the bird colonies. Avian cities built in the tallest trees.

Back in the village by 9am our journey into the heart of darkness (actually lush, pastoral Battambang) began.

The core bird reserve & view from observation platform

The waterway was fringed by hyacinth and undulating green margins of scrub with the occasional hamlets of floating houses or shacks tied to trees. The first proper village was Kampong Prahoc, which sort of translates into waterside place of good fermented fish paste. I wouldn’t want to be there when the water is low and rotten fish undiluted!

After an hour or so we began to get an idea of how vast the floodplain is. Over 40 kilometres wide where the water rises and falls by 10 meters submerging all but the tallest trees. In the floating villages along our route the only permanent constructions were pagodas on stilts.

Around a bend and Wat Cheu Khmao or temple of the black wood, came into view like a Burmese monastery with a beautiful modern pagoda framed by sugar palms behind. It was built in 1944 copying the Bayon Temple in Angkor and completed with Loksvara, the smiling faces at the cardinal points but they were blamed after accidents and disease struck the village then removed.

The salapali or space for teaching of Wat Cheu Kmao

Great clumps of yellow green bamboo towered over the floating houses. The stems are harvested to provide the floating platforms on which the villages are built.

A regal Grey-headed fish eagle on guard beside its nest in a tall tree, while on a lower branch a hunched up night heron the servile vizier to the magnificent bird above.

We passed a tacky tourist lunch stop as bad as any bus station for the back packers crammed inside and on top of the fibreglass tourist boat.

Grey-headed Fish Eagle

A single file short cut through the scrub, stopping for long tail boats loaded with beer and rice and wooden boats with giant water jars. We emerged onto an open plain where the trees had been cut down. Home to a transient people living on their small house-boats or shelters on the river bank as the water receded. Strange pivoting bamboo fishing nets were lowered into the water then raised revealing a whicker basket tied to the bottom to trap the fish.

  A floating house being towed to deeper water through a village of stilted houses

 A fat pelican sat on the porch of a floating house. An unhappy monkey ran around on a chain in the full sun on a bamboo fishing platform and a full grown otter seemed ok as it scampered round the girl who held it’s leash.

The stilted houses lining the still flooded banks of the middle Sangke River

Telephone masts were visible in the distance. Riverbanks rose above the water and motorbikes parked beside houses. We’d reached the upper Sangke.

Beautifully painted pagodas in stark contrast to Cham mosques. Elegant stilted wooden houses with tiled roofs between sugar palm and kapok trees.

A pagoda on the riverbank not far from Battambang

Lena and Sebastian safely delivered to their garden enclave in Phum Wat Kor upstream of the town, I breathed a sigh of relief as the extra hot, double shot latte created by Chenda was placed on the little wooden table in front of me at Knyei Cafe.

Twice cooked beef with Seb and Lena at Jaan Bai cooking school restaurant then Jamesons and bed.

Weddingitis had infected the town and the Seng Hout Hotel where we’d booked to stay had a particularly virulent attack so we kept on going to find another bland box like building with half the Cardamon Forest used to make the furniture but ice cool rooms with no aesthetic distractions to sleep.

Day 3 The Battambang bicycle tour of the city with San.

First stop gold, bras, wigs, fruit, meat & fish, the crammed Psa Thmei or new market, built by the French.

Psa Thmei

We crossed the quayside and down the dry banks to the ferry man who took us across the river to the monk school at Bovil Pagoda.

Manus & Lena crossing the river and a monk house at Bovil Pagoda

Singing rang out from the Catholic Church, which had the enthusiasm of an American black baptist congregation not the stilted formality of a Catholic communion. Time was getting short and the Bamboo Train beckoned so we had to forgo the black man in the middle of the road, another of Battambang’s attractions.

Giant wood spiders had weaved their webs over the rail tracks. The view extended across bright green rice fields to Phnom (hill) Sampeou in the distance.

A one-way system, lift off the bamboo platform, remove the axles and let the oncoming norrie through before putting it back together again.

Nick (left), Lena & Sebastian on board a norrie

An Angkorian Paddle

An Angkorian Paddle

Background

The rise and fall of the Angkorian Empire, which lasted nearly 600 years from the 9thto the 14th century, was centered in what is now Siem Reap Province, around its greatest religious monument Angkor Wat. The metropolis of Angkor comprising nearly a million people covered a thousand square kilometers servicing what remained the largest city in the world until London eclipsed it seven hundred years later.

Angkor Thom Moat, one of the great waterways that maintained ground water below the temple and prevented subsidence

Key to the success of the civilization was the management of water in a region of inundation and drought. An elaborate system of canals and barays or reservoirs channeled water from the Kulen Hills to the North into the city bringing food security in the form of rice and flood mitigation during the monsoon.

The availability of water ensured that food went in and shit went out. Canals facilitated the construction of the temples conveying the stone from the quarries to the North. And the temples were built with defensive moats that maintained ground water levels preventing subsidence (as well as looking pretty).

Runta Dev, the tunnel under the 8m high walls of Angkor Thom that channeled waste-water out of the city into the moat

Just as water was the key to the empire’s success it is now thought to be instrumental in its decline. Not long after the death of the great king JVII in 1218 the kingdom was hit with a double whammy. First 30 years of drought followed by exceptional floods, which washed away the elaborate and sophisticated water management system that JVII in particular had built.

In recent years the importance of these systems has been recognized again as the massive increase in tourism has lead to ground water levels falling and the potential collapse of the temples. It is no coincidence that the best preserved are those with functioning moats.

One man has been championing the restoration of the Angkorian water management. His excellency Hang Peou now Director General of Apsara, the authority responsible for managing the UNESCO world heritage site, has overseen the construction of canals that channel the Siem Reap River into the North Baray, the moats of Preah Khan, Ankgor Thom and even Angkor Wat. Reducing the possibility of Siem Reap flooding as it did in 2011. And maintaining the ground water levels that prevent subsidence of the temples.

Peou overseeing our progress up the North Baray Channel

These small matters aside obviously the most important function of Angkorian hydrology is to allow us to paddle through the Angkor Park, Cambodia’s best preserved 400 km2 of lowland mixed evergreen and deciduous forest.

Peou and Jady with Buntha contemplating our adventure

And so it was one Monday morning that Peou, then Director of Water Management at Apsara, facilitated by Jady, a consultant working with Apsara together with Buntha and myself kayaked through the heart of the Angkor Park. Jady and I had previously recce’d Peou’s canal so this time we didn’t get lost and anyway Peou knew the way, but – we hadn’t followed the river as it heads South to the city.

The current had cut deep into the soft ground leaving 7meter high banks that we had to scramble down with our kayaks and then awkwardly get in them*.

*Evidence of the destruction of JVII’s waterworks as floods washed away his canals and gouged deep scars through Angkor.

Paddling down the Siem Reap River  

A few fallen branches had accumulated enough flotsam and jetsam to block the river with no way through but a messy scramble. Jady and Buntha paved the way. Poeu and I made it easy.

There are 700 Angkorian structures inside the Angkor Park but only 180 of them can be called temples, they’re the ones with moats. These monumental stone edifices need solid ground for their structural integrity, without it they crumble to a pile of stones. Siem Reap is a built on a light sandy soil, water gives it substance, which is what the moats do for the temples.

A few hundred meters on either side there were no doubt bus loads of Asian tourists but here in the heart of Angkor we paddled passed explosions of bamboo erupting on either side. White-collared Kingfishers taunted Buntha to catch a photo. A Snake Eagle followed our progress from above, while a Shikra watched us with disinterest from a fallen branch. All manner of other birds sang from the trees on either side obliterating any thoughts of tourists or even other people.

We’d catered for 5 pax kayaking but one of the water management guys came along for the ride so the third kayak was one paddle power short and we had visions of Kosal, Jady’s assistant unable to move his shoulders for a month or 2. They’d had the sense to share the work and caught up beaming and claiming the big adventure.

Our driver had accumulated helpers by the time we reached the sluice gates at the French Bridge (confusingly built by Americans), who pulled us up the steep stairs to Peou and Jady’s vehicles.

It took a while to sink in that we had paddled through one of the wonders of the world, visited by 3 million people but seen none, instead thick riparian forest as if we were discovering it for the first time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The finfoot is Hatched

The finfoot is Hatched

finfoot

1. The finfoot is Hatched
finfoot was born in Prek Toal and conceived in the myriad of marshy waterways that come and go with the flood and ebb of the lake across the floodplain.

The Tonle Sap Lake during the ebb and Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve (below)

The Masked finfoot is a shy and reclusive water bird skulking in the marshy vegetation lining rivers and lakes. Spotting the bird is a rare and wonderful experience, which seemed a good enough reason to call our boat finfoot (masked is too difficult to pronounce).

Early morning egrets in the Core Bird Reserve

I came to Cambodia as a volunteer business advisor to a French NGO. The aim was to provide alternative livelihoods for the families we were working with on the lake. One of these livelihoods was ecotourism but they hadn’t got any guides, hence my first encounter as a bird guide with The Tonle Sap Lake and Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve.

Masked Finfoot Hellopais personatus

I didn’t know anything about either but was overwhelmed by the spectacle of the place.

Years spent in Cambodia passed by but my love affair with the lake remained. The phenomenal change driven by the backflow from the Mekong River was maybe reminiscent of the massive tidal zone around Jersey where I’d spent my childhood holidays. The extent of the lake and its inaccessibility, but not if I had a boat!

We’d got something to go on. The uber luxury resort Amansara had a boat called Amanbala. She was the brainchild of Sally the GM and a friend, so not to be copied while she was here but now she’s long gone, fair game.
We started with a wooden hull that seemed enormous and a rusting tangle of metal passing as an engine. It had towed a wedding platform from Prek Toal to the mouth of the fishing channel that leads to Maichrey when we staged the Bill Bensley Boat Races.
The message from our Thai business partners was full steam ahead, just put a business proposal together. So Buntha and I set off for Prek Toal. Buntha’s brother in law, the BiL, in more prosperous times had been a fish merchant as well as crocodile farmer. Moored behind his house was the hull. Once a container for transporting fish across the lake to Chong Khneas where some of the cargo made it to Thailand or Vietnam, while the rest rotted back to where it came from.

finfoot as it was behind the BiL’s house

The BiL connected a big battery to the engine, turned a key beside the Camry steering wheel and the machine roared to life. We nosed round the Chheang collection of floating houses into the main channel. The boat was steered by ropes connected to a long tailed propeller shaft that slowly shifted it in the desired direction. There was no cover or sound proofing but the powerful sound of the big V6 engine was infinitely preferable to the minding numbing cacophony of the 2 strokes that drove the fiberglass long-tails screaming through the village.

Safely away from where our wake could do no more than shake a floating carpet of vegetation, the BiL pushed forward the throttle and the boat took off! The distant lake rapidly loomed large as we almost planed towards it. Two tons of solid wood doesn’t exactly lend itself to planing. The fuel gauge if we’d had one would have been spinning as litres of diesel exploded in the cylinders.

That was last year – 2017, when the lake reached its zenith. This year – 2018, as the water and our guests receded my focus returned to the boat. I put the requested proposal together for our business partners and waited for the green light but after umpteen revisions the light went orange and finally nothing at all.

The dry season window was evaporating when the boat builder could work all day, and most important the next tourist season looming.
I was back in the UK and weary with the sound of my own enthusiasm coming to nothing so the project stalled. Skip a month to Menorca, a weekend away with Laura an industry friend and her pal Duncan. ‘Tell us about your boat,’ they said so I did. ‘We’ll give you 25% – each.’ Ok so the projects incubating. ‘I will too,’ said my brother and the egg was on its way. Another investor in Siem Reap had agreed to 25% but that was talk so the last share became mine.

‘Buntha what’s happening with the boat?’ Was nearly the first question I asked when I got off the airplane from the UK, ‘nothing Bong,’ ‘well let’s make it happen.’ So we did. Mr fixit AKA Buntha found the boat builder at the tourist port of Chong Khneas, who’d built the Amanbala for Amansara.

The metamorphosis of finfoot

We forced our way through the tourist port, ‘not come here,’ the check point charlie ordered. ‘I’m not a tourist, I’m having a boat built.’ My Khmer didn’t cut any ice, I was white and therefor a tourist. I sat and glowered at him until the boat builder fetched me to see what would become a finfoot. We agreed a price, paid him something to show we were serious and that was actually that. Weekly visits to watch the metamorphosis of the bare wooden bones into finfoot went incredibly smoothly such that within a couple of months she was born.

2. finfoot flies
Our Team together with Joni, the GM of Treeline, friend and witness went to Chong Khneas as apparent tourists. Well that’s how Joni & I appeared, the rest are Khmer. We were herded down the gangplank onto the boarding platform and whichever tourist boat and disinterested driver we were to be allocated with. ‘We have a boat,’ I dismissed some tout having spied Heang our captain and finfoot moored and ready, then with a huge surge of pride stepped onboard.

finfoot powered across the floodplain with its big six cylinder lorry engine. Out on the open lake I took the wheel, opened the throttle and felt a surge of oomph. There was still another 30% to go. Our direction towards the forest was slightly disconcerting, I thought as I tried with no effect to correct it. Heang you’d better takeover, I suggested. It steers a little to the right. ‘Yes Bong,’ as if to say that’s why I’m the captain.

My efforts as Captain and Heang correcting them

We moored at the mouth of the Maichrey channel, opened a bottle or two of Prosecco and took self-congratulatory photos.
The Team felt good and on the way back Lors was trying to engage Joni with the usual Khmer chat up line of why aren’t you married, not known for its subtlety. Grasping that the approach wasn’t going well he changed the subject. ‘How do you spell biopsy Nick?’ Sadly his mum had a breast tumor. Tiger grinning, ‘how do you spell f – – – Nick?’ ‘Not sure Tiger, ask Joni,’ even Lors laughed.

The Team (left to right) Bunthy, Tiger, Me, Buntha, Sreymom, Heang, Lors & Ra

I wanted a space where Dean our partner in cocktails and canapés could work his magic so I commissioned Oyen the cabinetmaker to make a bar with an inset sink behind. Dean had to see it so just before setting off to the UK, Dean & Buntha together with Tiger & I launched our kayaks behind Phnom Kraum and paddled 10km to where the Maichrey Boat Station should be.

Deans bar

It started this year with a dam across the Mekong collapsing in Laos just North of the border with Cambodia. The surge of water that flooded down the river kicked off the backflow up the Tonle Sap River, which in turn flows into the Tonle Sap Lake. Heavy monsoonal rains filled the tributaries adding to the tsunami of water that was swelling the lake near to where it had risen in 2011. We glided across what was and soon will be again the semi-swampy floodplain straight to the boat station except the road was now flooded and the tourist boats were moored in the grounds of the local pagoda, usually a kilometer away. Tiger reappeared with a cold beer, my hero then the van bearing our guests and Dean’s cocktails arrived.

Naida’s IPhone photograph of the lake as we headed back to the pagoda

Moored behind a semi-submerged tree, we finished Dean’s cocktails as the sun sank through strata of cloud. Then Naida and the boys moved onto neat gin. We’d run out of tonic.

3. The final fit-out
Yes, yes, yes, said the fabric lady, when I explained that we wanted her unsightly but protective plastic curtains rolled up and wrapped in our beige canvas. The result was reminiscent of a 1970’s B&B in Aberystwyth and I should know, I’d lived in one! We’d also commissioned a canopy for the top deck to shade the mattresses she was going to make. The canopy remained elusive and the mattresses bore no relation to the space where they were to fit. She the fabric lady had sent someone to fit it all out but I don’t think they could count and I had to pay for the changes as she’d got our material that we’d sourced from Australia.

Meanwhile Oyen the cabinetmaker had finished everything he said he would by the time he said, though his daybed collapsed when he sat on it (he quickly came back to fix it). A ships wheel not the steering wheel of a Toyota Camry, the usual method of changing direction for most boats on the lake. I’d managed to find one at a ships chandler in Newhaven, Sussex along with the LED lights we needed for our sunset cocktail trips.

October last year I was back in the UK having one of our weekly Skype calls with Buntha. ‘Bong I’ve got good news and bad,’ or words to that effect. ‘Yes?’ ‘Well which?’ ‘Bad news,’ ‘the engines broke,’ ‘go on,’ I said, just in case you’ve lost the thread of this conversation. As soon as the subject gets technical English ceases to be an effective vector for communication. ‘So what’s plan B?’ I asked. One of the great things about Buntha is he has plan B’s. ‘I’m going on holiday.’ He didn’t actually say that but that’s what happened. He and the mechanic first went to Battambang no luck then to Phnom Penh. Bingo they got the required widget, something to do with the gearbox, and returned. Widget cost $250, traveling costs $250, fixed engine priceless and $900 cheaper than the ‘Bong it’s going to cost $1500.

4. Finfoot adventures

Stephanie and Jules from Bangkok together with Manus & I photographed by Serey and spoiled by frilly curtains

  Christian + partner with Tommy on the top deck while Tiger mixes martinis by the bar

Christmas eve BBQ on board (you can just notice the correct curtains)

Our finfoot adventures had been piling up since that happy day we set off on our maiden voyage. It had been a hard week, the constant stress of our impending Smexit (a legal separation from our business partners) and a whole host of other obstacles real or imagined. We needed an excuse to get out of the office.

Manus uncharacteristically turned up on time so we; Buntha, Ra, Lors, Jin and Tiger with Manus set off to recce a big gay wedding party booked for next month.

Left to right; Ra, Tiger, Heang, Lors, Jin, Doitch (our van driver), Buntha and Manus

The context was Bill Bensley’s Boat Races in 2013 https://indochineex.com/blog/bill-bensley-boat-races-indochine-exploration
We had towed a wedding platform 15km from Prek Toal to Maichrey. His staff raced traditional water festival racing boats, while our muscle boys, ten of them including Manus, paddled Bill’s inner circle between the racing boats. A photo of Little Tee (left in 2013) and his biceps sold the trip this time so a newly married gay couple will use us to set up a party, with muscle boys on a platform at the edge of the lake.
The issue was the platform we’d used before had sunk when they drove a Caterpillar earthmover on it, so our mission today was to find another one.  A job for the Sisters of Mercy and their volleyball court, unfortunately it was holding up the school, which wouldalso  sink if we towed it away. Buntha had yet to come up with plan B.

Lors had a chicken smoking on the BBQ, Ra laid the table, Tiger took his shirt off, Jin blended into the background, Buntha sorted out the Sisters of Mercy while I relaxed with Manus and thought about our next adventure, a night on the lake with Manus on finfoot.

‘I want to sleep on the boat,’ Manus told me, and so did I but customers got in the way until the staff lunch.

Sunset on The Tonle Sap Lake

Upstairs or downstairs was the question. Cool with a view was the answer until I thought about falling off when I need to piss in the middle of the night so we strung up a mosquito net above the downstairs daybed.
Our rival operator as in David and Goliath, where we play the role of David, had kindly constructed and conveniently situated a small platform where the Maichrey Channel meets the Tonle Sap Lake.

 Manus on Goliath’s platform and Heang on the prow of finfoot

Heang moored finfoot alongside and I set off in a kayak to watch the sun sink into the Lake. The fishing season has started so the lakeshore is fringed with a maze of fishing nets designed to catch fish, not kayaks presumably. It was a puzzle how to avoid being funneled towards the trap where the unfortunate fish end their life’s journey.A few weeks ago quiet would have settled on the still waters as the sun sank now the staccato clap of 2 stroke engines reverberated as the fishing boys took watch.

A golden path lead from the West to finfoot and our platform for the night, where Manus had a set up a table and chairs. Heang was cooking. I’d forgotten any oil so he was braising our chicken in Cambodia beer, in the meantime I’d bought a bottle of champagne.

February sunrise over the Lake

Heang and Manus sat on the platform as dusk descended and I popped the cork on a bottle of Moet. Manus likes champagne and so unfortunately did Heang, which meant there was a little too much sharing and not enough beer afterwards because it had been poured on the chicken!

It was cool so Manus and I curled up together. The precautionary Valium induced a soothing torpor little penetrated by the predawn clatter of fishing boats. Manus sweetly bought me a mug of tea when I woke and we watched the sunrise through the fishing fences from the East.

Breakfast on the Lake

A couple of coffee’s later we reluctantly headed back. We’d missed the sweet spot when the lake’s high and the fishermen are back in the village mending their nets but it was still a beautiful experience.

Philip and Stefan’s wedding party a couple of weeks later amongst the fishing fences and Mali the muscle boy with one of the guests

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