The Race to the Middle of Nowhere – The Scramble for Kulen
About a thousand years too late but then it wasn’t for the first time, the Angkorians had been here before. And anyway the British, French, Germans and Italians took it in turns to claim large chunks of Africa. I reckoned all we needed to do was plant an Indochine Exploration flag on the top of Phnom Srok, Mr Leang said was the tallest hill on Kulen, to guarantee safe rights of passage across Kulen for our Grasshopper guests the following week.
Lors filled Kuong’s van with enough equipment to rival our pioneering colonial peers, a week perhaps? No just one night but that wasn’t the half of what he’d take for the customers. We were going to swing ourselves to sleep in hammocks under the stars but I wasn’t leaving it to chance and had my camping kit (Vallium, whisky and ear plugs) within easy reach.
The escarpment up Kulen marks a departure from the dusty plains and chaos of Siem Reap. The forest canopy contains a calm that penetrates even Kuong’s van. The MoE Station at Preah Ang Thom by association the furthest reach of our adventurous ancestors into the unknown. Pushing it but that’s where we start our trips from so we emptied the van onto Mr Chou’s Oxcart, while Phum rode round the station getting used to the mountain bike we’d brought him.
Setting off by oxcart
Lors fresh from his muscle contest in Phnom Penh rippling in lycra, conducted our expedition as we embarked on our mission to cross the empty quarter by way of Porpel Village to Kbal Spean. North of Porpel the path serves the chamkar hacked and burnt out of the original forest.
The forest over years painstakingly accumulates a fertility that the cashew nut plantations gorge on then slowly wither to a scraggy halt.
We halted where the path went back under the trees and waited for Chou and his cows. Lors had bought a chicken for them. I’d got a squashed breakfast bagel from Little Red Fox and then on in the adventure started. The chamkar and reason for using the path stopped including logging? Phum said so, incredible! He seemed to be right. It appeared that nobody had been this way for years. There was a path but it was well disguised such that when it changed direction I didn’t and came to an impromptu halt in the bushes.
Chest high grass gave way to forest as we reached the valley and the canopy closed in. Two years ago the saddest logging was taking out the remaining big trees. Now the vegetation was striking back, linking limbs to lock in the road and block the oxcarts that bore the bloodied corpses of the felled trees.
We emerged out of the jungle into a flower studded grassy veld bisected by the Kulen River. Our campsite was given away by rusty pilchard tins now hidden in the tall grass, evidence of Alistair’s search for Silver Langurs.
Relaxing on the trail and arriving at the campsite
It seemed impossible that Phum and Chou would get the oxcart down the escarpment with no apparent path and then through the jungle so we headed back, fully expecting to abort our mission and spend the night in Anlong Thom. We found them not far along the trail hacking at a fallen tree while the cows contentedly munched the leaves blocking their path.
Our mission to cross Kulen was back within our grasp. Chou had a kettle on the boil while Lors and Phum set up the campsite and I drank tea.
‘Nick get out of the way,’ warned Lors. Phum was flapping his hammock and stamping on the ground to get rid of black ants. ‘I cant get out of the way! Aaargh’ the little bastards stung, but they weren’t immune to deet.
Lors and other flowers of the veld
Only a trickle of water made it down the stream despite the recent rain but the bathing pool remained. I reduced its surface tension by soaping up in the slightly cool water then went back to the campsite to drink beer and watch Lors shirtless cook dinner.
One week on from coming second in The Angkor Body-building Championships, he looked like he could glide like a flying squirrel on his enormous deltoid muscles. Wielding a large bladed kitchen knife he alternated between slicing onions and swatting mosquitoes on Phum for some reason remaining immune to their bites.
We were missing Dean but in his stead he’d sent a family sized pack of chicken casserole supposedly just for Lors and I, actually enough for all of us and their breakfast the next morning. Beer then whisky as Lors and I contentedly chatted about nothing in particular. Mr Chou was wrapped in his hammock betrayed only by his gleaming white smile, 22 and with a baby on the way.
Lors and Pum preparing supper
A full moon appeared through the canopy and reflected on the bark of the trees that seemed to grow taller in the dark.
I lay in my hammock looking up through the branches at the stars. A simple camp in the forest worth a million times more than whatever the 5* Sachaya on Bintan Island had cost the week before.
The lingering chill from the night lifted as the sun lit up the leaves around us. Mr Chou and the ox-cart returned to rendezvous with Kuong, while we struck through the wilderness to find a route via the North Escarpment to Kbal Spean, not quite ready for how wild it turned out to be.
Our campsite at breakfast
Elephant vomit or pig-shit grass life a soft fur covered our way but unlike soft fur it sticks its scratchy seeds to your socks and in your shoes. Enchanted glades of open dipteropcarp deciduous trees gave way to dark caverns shaded by green and lit with white flowers on the forest floor.
The rocks and ruts were throwing me at every opportunity sapping confidence such that I pushed the bike as much as rode it.
Phum on the trail
We met Leang the policeman with Chomran from Porpel village and 2 rangers with guns though it seemed unlikely that they worked. A few months ago they’d arrested 2 loggers who were in jail presumably trying to find enough money to get out and fined 5 others $1250 each. They were confiscating every chainsaw they found and fining the owners, which explained why the road was disappearing as it had been the loggers that were using it. 3 months ago they’d seen the scratch marks of a bear at Kbal Spean though they reckoned they were still there in the Porpel Community Forest. An old bear had been hunted and killed for its bile. The hunter got $1000 and the middleman $6000 all for some fat, ugly bong thom and his libido.
The North Facing Kulen Escarpment
It had been logging central 2 years ago, oxen and carts congregated above the escarpment with crude cut planks from freshly felled timber below, hidden so they couldn’t be spotted from the Wildlife Alliance helicopter that was surveying the mountain. Piled and ready to be collected and taken out via the Forestry Administration HQ who extracted its toll and waited for the next batch to tax. Today there were no signs of logging.
Dr Livingstone I presume? Said Stanley, rather more usefully ‘would you like a beer?’ greeted us as we arrived at Kbal Spean. It had only taken 5 hours but as Dave Taylor had said while lying flat on the grass, ‘this is challenging,’ and technically not a mountain bike ride.
An Audience with a Northern Buff Cheeked Crested Gibbon
Etiquette is important in the ape world, or are they monkeys? It all depends on how long the arms are – long, so apes like us, which makes us relatives and our meeting a family call.
We invited the Northern …. Lets say NBCCG’s to visit us in Siem Reap and in days gone by when the North of Cambodia was covered in forest, they would have obliged and swung their way across the country, the slight issue of the Mekong River aside. The patches of trees left are barely enough to sustain a soaring stork so we were on our way via said Mekong to The Terres Rouge Lodge in Banlung.
Male Northern Buff Cheeked Crested Gibbon (NBCCG)
We being Jady & I accompanied by Naven from Conservation International and driven by Dy. He’s nearly one of the family now as he’s courting a Chheang, Sreymom, who excepting me pretty much run ICE. It’s a straight forward seven hour journey heading East towards Vietnam on new roads. The orgy of logging is desperate but that’s Cambodia for you.
We opened the car doors to delicious cool and colonial charm of The Terres Rouge Lodge beside Banlung Lake.
Jammy from Red Parrot tours was waiting at his restaurant The Green Carrot. It might have been the other way round. A true entrepreneur he was advertising the unique selling point of his company, which was apparently a free toilet. He’d made a laminate sheet with an explicit cartoon of a man doing his business under a double decker bus.
The Terres Rouge Lodge in the old Governors building
There was an adventure to be planned over the red wine and fish oops beer and chicken, a boat up the Sesan River and a trek to a waterfall, an indigenous cemetery then a motorbike ride to the edge of our cousins territory.
The morning light over the lake was a delight as we drank our Khmer coffee and waited for Naven. A smooth red earth road headed North as it descended into the Sesan floodplain and Kchang village where Sresh our boatman and guide for the day’s adventure was waiting for us.
We brushed aside some confusion as to what we were doing, with what and who and boarded Sresh’s narrow wooden long tail. A step up from the usual Sesan river craft as we sat on a dry mat not in the customary half inch of sludge.
Blurred blue hills fringed the horizon as we sped upstream past clumps of stilted houses nestling under shade trees. Ferry’s traversed the river while the inevitable sound of chainsaws reverberated across the water.
The Sesan River
Our boatman was emerging as Sresh our guide. Clad in not much more than rags hanging off his skinny frame, we found that he’d taught himself rudimentary English when he answered our questions in a gentle toned timbre.
Note; The day’s adventure was an adjunct to our appointment with the cousins as they were busy entertaining Lucky Carrot guests today.
Ferry across The Sesan
Sresh strode ahead in Wellington boots and ripped tracksuit bottoms. Jady and Naven reminisced on the biodiversity workshops they’d attended, while I hobbled behind on a dodgy hip. A cashew nut grove, a cow field then into the open dry deciduous forest with a picture post card view of a village spied through the trees. Bright green paddy fields surrounded thatched roof huts.
We wound our way up a rocky path and spotted a lump of dried turd. ‘Hmm?’ Said Jady, and ‘take a photo,’ ‘a new species?’ Perhaps a serow we mused. ‘Another photo,’ Jady pointed to an orchid implanted on a tree trunk. Our route descended into a riparian forest of bamboo. Sresh hacked at a stem and fashioned a cup, which he gave to me. I was a little crestfallen when the others got one too.
Sresh (below) and an orchid (above)
A beautiful walk beside a stream to where a waterfall fell out of the forest a level above. Cascades of spume enshrined the rock face and fell into an oval pool. We needed no invitation to plunge into the cool clear water. Draping ourselves over the warm black rocks, contentedly munching ham and baguettes while staring at the hypnotic diamond droplets of exploding water.
Back on board Sresh’s long tail our next stop was a gloomy tribal graveyard shaded by tall trees. Huts adorned with brightly painted 2D ships for the journey ahead or the one past. A man with shades and woman with boobs stood guard to keep an eye on an electric fan in case it got hot. Empty beer cans, you can get 50 Riel for the aluminum and mummified rice, which lasts forever.
Koh Peap Waterfall (above) and village cemetery (right)
The English speaking guides (that didn’t) including the handsome Noi were waiting for us at Veunsai to take us to the CI Station. Jady and I would have probably preferred to go back to The Banlung Lodge but we had an appointment to keep so we duly sat aside the beaten up old bikes, dangled our legs as there were no foot rests and squeezed the driver in my case Noi, with my thighs.
An earthmover had cleared the way and bulldozed the trees a year before which meant the road was deeply rutted and bereft of shade but interesting enough. At ITub Village we turned off to cross a marsh leaving us wading through the wetland to rejoin our bikes before the forest. Chamkar or slash and burn agriculture aside the trees became taller and our route easier under the canopy.
A crude wooden bridge crossed the river beside the station and on the other side a fenced compound of tall timbered buildings where we’d stay the night. A pleasant evening with Jady and cold beer, chatting with Noi the handsome (did I say that before) English speaking guide who tried but didn’t. There was a fan in my room until 9 when the generator was turned off but rain had cooled the evening and it felt good to be in the middle of the forest sipping whisky and listening to In The Psychiatrists Chair in the dark.
Conservation International Station at Veun Sai Siem Pang
6 hours later I was fumbling in the dark to find my phone and a light. I stumbled to the deserted kitchen shack and managed to light the gas for a cup of tea. Growled at Naven coz no one was awake then hobbled off through the mud in the pitch black following a ranger who seemed unaware I was there.
Note that although priority No 1 was to meet the family we’d also hope that the process of getting there would be up to the Albino standard, it wasn’t.
Grumpy by default at 5am in the morning I blundered on behind. So what if I got lost, well that would be their fault! Jady hung back to make sure I didn’t and as the predawn glow penetrated the trees my mood lifted with the mist.
Dawn at the edge of the forest
We’d agreed that the NBCCG’s would call leading us to their front door but damp from the night’s rain they were taking longer over their toilet than usual. We set off into the forest anyway in the hope of meeting at a favorite breakfast spot. Pockets of idyll remain and this was one of them. Like a priest in a cathedral our Gibbon conducted the service from his pulpit 10 meters above.
Sarah, a phd researcher and Naven referred to him as JII, which meant he’d built Angkor Wat. We could just make his buff cheeks (this is an objective statement). A little further and the female was spotted followed by 3 juveniles. Our breakfast was waiting on a crude table beside the trees though we’d have killed for a cup of coffee.
Breakfast at the edge of the forest
I said goodbye to Noi regretting he wasn’t my motorbike driver for the journey our through the swamps to Veunsai. The Sesan Ferry where the ferryman knocked a motorbike into the river and Dy on the other side for the drive to Banlung. One night and a big adventure felt like a lifetime as I hobbled around the spread out streets of the town.
The Mobileiron Mekong Challenge
The Mekong, its islands, public ferries and the East Bank, the antidote to a frenetic Phnom Penh on the other side of the river.
Areykhsat on the East Bank of The Mekong
Phnom Penh on the West bank of The Mekong
Khmer games; Climbing sugar palm trees to pluck sugar palm fruit, or strategically placed little bottles of sugar palm wine in grass baskets. Shooting slingshots, a blindfold bash of clay pots with more containers this time filled with Mekong Whisky. A tug of War in a cow field, volleyball heats at a pagoda, a muddy mountain bike ride and a Buddhist water blessing (they had to find the monks first).
Initially sixty, worn down by the ravages of the conference dinner leaving 35 survivors grouped in teams of 5 tech execs working for a multi national data protection company.
The Build Up
Buntha and I got off the ferry at Areykhsat and looked at each other, ‘what are we going to do next?’ Find a pagoda. ‘Can you bless some Americans?’ We asked a monk, then cycled along the road in search of a silk farm, a main road with the usual crazy Khmer traffic? ‘This wont do, ‘Buntha come back tomorrow and find an off-road route.’
Setting up the games with our Team the day before
First problem; there were too many bikes (60) and not enough space at the Prek Leap Ferry. Buntha called, ‘flying bikes have set them up at the pagoda,’ which pagoda I wondered? Which lead onto the third problem.
Second problem; bladders, probably abused over the conference week, they weren’t holding what they should in the midday Cambodian heat. Everyone wanted a piss. The men were easy, ‘go in the bushes,’ I waved in a wide sweep towards the pagoda’s bush-bereft horizon. The lady was more difficult but she disappeared with Ra and came back happy.
Third problem; ‘Follow me,’ I confidently cried, over my shoulder and headed off down a bumpy road in the wrong direction. The phone rang, it was Buntha, ‘Nick you’ve gone the wrong way.’ ‘False start guys,’ I shouted and turned round which left the Vice President and boss at the back and the slowest at the front. A little ruse I mused.
Like an unleashed tribe of braves on the warpath, they bore down on me and the ferry. The first casualty skidded up the ramp onto the deck having parted company with his bicycle but no obvious damage done.
Mobileiron Braves on the warpath
The boat had left the dock as a well-proportioned member cycled to the waterfront. ‘Too late’ I shouted fearing that the employee might try a death- defying leap across the Mekong. I was drowned out, his colleagues roared and the ferry returned.
Lors had done us proud placing the Mobileiron direction indicators at each turning except they were upsi down and read Wobileiron. Also in his zeal to help the teams he’d written the distance to the next challenge in kilograms, confusing his metrics and indicating that the Wobileirons would be 2kg lighter by the time they reached the Tug of War.
The Sugar Palm Challenge
Buntha had gone to incredible lengths to construct ladders akin to the bamboo poles that run up the side of the sugar palm trees.
They were metal tubes with welded lengths of steel for rungs, enough for a gravitationally challenged tech executive we thought except they started pinging like bursting pods and left our Wobileirons clinging on for dear life.
Wobileirons climbing the sugar palm pole
The Slingshot Trials
The incentive of winning and alcohol meant this didn’t deter them for long and soon they were off to shoot things. They loved it so the slingshots were a success with the Anglo Saxons. The Japanese kept hitting their hands and sending the pellets backwards.
On second thoughts perhaps a missed opportunity as we could have combined the palm tree challenge, slingshot trials and water blessing by shooting monks out of palm trees.
The ferry man had us by the balls and the more the Anglo Saxons screamed to leave and keep their lead the more he grinned and asked for another dollar.
I pointed out that they would need a competing team for the tug of war and volleyball so we waited for the Grey Team.
The Breaking Pot Bash
Across the river we’d tied clay pots to a Boddhi tree ready for the breaking pot bash.
The idea was for us to leap frog in front of the Wobileirons but the Anglo Saxons and the head office team were going too fast.
Sreymom was left trying to tie blindfolds on burly Singaporeans two times her height, spin them round then run for dear life as they started blindly bashing their bamboo staffs to hit the pots and reap the rasping reward of the Mekong Whisky inside.
The Anglo Saxons reaching the foregone conclusion that they’d won
Tug of War
We sent Lors, our adventure guide racing ahead to the Tug of War field. He found his métier as the macho muscle man and appealed to the Anglo Saxons.
Spectators @ The Tug of War (below)
The Japanese Team kept loosing so they asked the Anglo Saxons if they could have one more tug but this time with Lors. This time they pulled the Anglo Saxons off their feet then fell backwards as the rope came loose.
The Volleyball Heats
Wat Svey Chrum was just across the road. There was a Wobileiron sign but the VP and his financial director headed off towards Vietnam unnoticed until another of the Anglo Saxons suggested it might be PC to find him. We duly found them a few kilometers down the road and directed them back to the pagoda.
Buntha’s rules as interpreted by Jin appeared arbitrary but with only 3 pax on each team our brave contestants did their best. The VP fell in a leaping lung while another team member nearly killed a bystander so Jin speeded up the scoring to get one of the teams past 5 points.
Muddy Mountain Bike Ride
Buntha and I had carefully researched a particular route but the teams seemed to find quite a few, which they chose at random throughout the afternoon. I took advantage of my proximity to the Anglo Saxons to lead them along the prescribed path to Wat Areykhsat where they had to find a monk and receive their blessings.
The monks mindful of the promised payments per contestant found our teams then made them follow the ceremony with the appropriate and traditional respect. The contestants duly knelt and touched the ground with their heads then hands together bowed three times to the monks who represented Buddha.
The Anglo Saxons were still up for it though their team was dispersed across Kandal and possibly Takeo Province by this stage. They were on the first ferry across The Mekong then raced beside the river through Phnom Penh to the FCC unsurprisingly winning the race.
I leant on the railings above the ferry station with a blissful beer. Lors had just lead what we hoped were the last teams to the FCC. Buntha hung on the other side of The Mekong to look for lost Wobileirons in case they hadn’t made it.
The all clear came through, 35 counted out and 35 counted back.
We were lucky that the weather was kind and it helped that we chasing after 35 not 60.
Bunthy had chosen a restaurant half way between Phnom Penh and Battambang for dinner, which stopped being amusing after 50 minutes in the tuktuk trying to find it.
Once a beer had been placed in my hand and the manager dispatched to find wine I realized with a rising tide of pride what a fantastic team we are.
Oh and Jin sang a song and established that Lors would not interfere with him.
The Sangke River Kayak
This is the story of 5 men and their boats as they paddled across the floodplain of The Tonle Sap Great Lake from Battambang to Angkor.
We couldn’t let our muscles go to waste so despite we’d 3 days ahead of us and an unknown quantity of kilometers, the first objective on reaching Battambang was to firm up the engines that were going to drive us and find a gym.
Motors tuned in anticipation they now had to be fueled and this was where we split. The allure of Jaan Bai* was too strong and too expensive for the whole Team. ‘I’ll see you in the morning,’ I told them.
The next morning the call of coffee transcended our budget so we all congregated at Knyei** for a cup of arguably the best coffee in Asia before setting out on our voyage.
Prasat Prahoc*** lives up to its name, smelly – but it gave us a 10K head start.
Setting off at Prasat Prahoc, from left to right; Buntha, Ra, Jin, Lors and Nick
I had an unfair advantage but that seemed reasonable in light of a 30year disadvantage. The green hard hulled composite kayak cut though the water faster than our Gumotex war horses but given they had 2 prime paddlers per boat we were about matched.
* Jaan Bai; initially a David Thompson cooking school restaurant now run by Mark & Jose from Feelgood Coffee, also owners of **Knyei Café. Originally an NGO running cycling trips it now concentrates on amazing coffee in street 1 ½. *** Prahoc a Cambodian staple, fermented fish paste – an acquired taste.
Heang (above) concerned, intelligent, efficient was waiting with his motorboat. Don’t get me wrong, we were going to kayak but we might as well do it comfortably, which meant keeping the beer cold.
The sun was shining (about 40 degrees and humid, a minor point). The river high and most important the current was heading our way.
To set the scene we were traveling downstream with the Sangke as it flowed from the Cardamom Mountains to the West, past Battambang and onto Prek Toal and the Tonle Sap Lake. Our mission was to follow its length albeit with a shortcut at the end to the floating village of Maichrey, our final destination.
The Upper Sangke flowing through rural Battambong Province
‘2 hours then adventure bars*’ I shouted. All was well excepting Jin who was car-sick the day before and quieter than usual. And water, whatever we drank sweated straight out, perhaps 5 liters that first day.
*Adventure Bars; a special recipe created by Dean from Miss Wong, granola bars in global demand but only available on Indochine Exploration Adventures.
Buntha’s app told us we were averaging 7K such that after a couple of hours the river rose to meet the banks. The bamboo clumps and fruit trees thinned as we entered the middle Sangke, a region of endless rice fields.
I knew the route from the perspective of the Amanbala or whatever the motorboat I was traveling on at the time but from the kayak, under our own steam my relationship with the river was different and more connected.
Adventure bars and coffee as we entered the middle Sangke, where stilted houses give way to floating villages.
The current was cancelled by the rising lake, fast breaching the riverbanks and flooding the surrounding paddy fields. It felt like we were rising above the world to where the water met the sky.
On the patches that stood proud the trees were festooned with the strange fruit of weaver nests. Structures of woven grass attached to branches, which the birds entered like a diving bell from below. They sell these nests in Siem Reap, hanging them to their awnings thinking that the tourists will like the rustic impression they give but not caring for the birds that weaved them. It was cheerful to see them undisturbed next to the fishermen‘s huts.
Weaver Bird nests
Into the Tonle Sap Floodplain
It’s true that an army marches on its stomach and now past 12 there was mutiny in the air, rice was need quickly. We found a perfect spot and tied up to the remnants of an old wooden house now mainly underwater and home to a family of rats. A snake swam across the river to join us for lunch.
Clouds ominous, the boys had the rice on the boil as the heavens opened and the rain poured down while Lors entertained us with his sexual encounters, apparently he doesn’t like sucking nipples. Other valuable advice was to follow the beaten path so you don’t have to cut the bush? Oh and we also learnt that he weighs 72kg before a shit and 70kg after.
The encroaching lake
The rains have been good this year and the water was high so still with 2 months of flood to come we were able to cut off a 20K meander with a 5K cut through the seasonally flooded forest. An enchanted alley glistening from the recent rain, sunbeams splashing on shiny wet leaves.
I was thinking about Silver Langurs. Our hike through the Kulen Hills to the North of Siem Reap was set up to give the local villagers an incentive to protect the monkeys. But for all the talk honestly I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen them. On queue, perched on a branch just 5 meters away was a Silver Langur and a few strokes further more brought me close enough to confirm.
The shortcut, an enchanted alley cut through the seasonally flooded forest
The birdsong beckoned but we weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the narrow channel. Most boats slowed as they came near, a few young idiots threw a wake over our Gumotex coming to an abrupt halt when they met Heang and his motorboat.
Phum Bakprea, the halfway point where the Sangke meets the Monkul Borey River. A water hyacinth jam, we could see the telephone masts of the village but 10m of compacted weed meant it could have been the moon. Of course Lors the machine that he is could heave his way through but the rest of us waited for Heang to tow us.
Heang towing us out of a hyacinth jam
Heang threw a line to me and Buntha attached his rope to my tail, slowly we squeezed through the floating mat. The broad blades of his propellers were alarmingly close but after our recent battles see a water hyacinth workout, they were preferable to be being stuck.
Google Earth shows a road reaching the village in the dry season but for now its isolated in the The Tonle Sap floodplain. A river rendezvous where the tourist boats refuel on route to Siem Reap. A big sign advertised a Battambang boutique guesthouse complete with swimming pool somewhat at odds with the largest pool in South East Asia, where we were currently floating.
Phum Bakprea, picking up bananas
It was half past four, we’d been going since eight and were getting tired, a coconut stop. ‘Wat Chou Kmao 40 minutes,’ Heang told us. We could sleep with the monks at the pagoda.
Chased by rolling waves of angry grey clouds getting darker and darker pushing a wall of wind behind us we surfed down the river, flying in the face of the storm.
Chased by a storm down the river
As the storm surge subsided we approached a village looking for a place to rest. Despite the statuesque youth in underpants, the thump of amplified base persuaded us to keep paddling. A little further on was an empty platform but for some nimbi- ish reason it was off limits so we wearily continued in the twilight.
A pale flicker of light bathed the river as we put forward our paddles after 10 hours and floated towards our mother-ship, where we were going to sleep that night.
The clear water was alive with fish minus one as Lors caught a half kilo catfish on a thin bamboo pole, which together with a bucket of snails that kept escaping was lunch for tomorrow. Compelled by hunger the team had rice pots boiling and were dicing and cutting vegetables and meat. Caught in a limbo of disconnected and contented exhaustion I looked on with a cold beer while they cooked supper and contemplated my paddling companions. Ra an old woman but eternally nice, Buntha smart as always, Jin the baby but never complaining, so full of goodness he should be on the front of a breakfast cereal packet and indestructible Lors. I felt extremely fortunate.
The boys were content to lie on mats. I had a mattress. Under mosquito nets we lay across the width of the boat. The heavy and humid air was contained by blinds hanging on either side with the aim of stopping us getting wet. The rain started just as we were dozing off.
Lors and the boys cooking dinner.
Attempting to sleep the volume increased and it started to seep through the covers slowly filling the boat lapping at my mattress by now more of a sponge. Heang turned on the bilge every hour ensuring that only glimpses of sleep were snatched. I must have drifted off as a pale dawn penetrated my Valium induced torpor.
Lors was the first thing I heard. ‘How many nights do you need to get by without sleep before you get tired?’ ‘What?’ ‘He means shut up,’ Buntha interpreted and handed me a hot mug of tea. Heang lifted the covers revealing the grey green river-scape and the next day seemed possible.
Setting off a little less enthusiastically on our second morning
‘How far now Heang,’ we asked. ‘I think you do 55%,’ he replied rather too diplomatically. The prospect of another sodden night was enough for us to decide to try and make it back in one day.
The current had gone, the river was wide and meandering away from the prevailing Westerly wind that had propelled us the night before so we paddled by ourselves.
Heavy hanging grey clouds at least meant we weren’t being grilled by the sun.
It was a good call to have stopped where we did, Wat Chou Kmau was another hour from where we had moored for the night.
Heang was waiting after another 5km beside a pagoda in the center of a large stilted village.
The river was completely blocked by hyacinth so when we saw a seller boat heading off into the flooded forest on one side of the channel we reckoned they knew a way through. We followed and came out the other side, which was more than Heang managed and for some unfathomable reason he’d headed back towards Phum Bakprea. ‘Why don’t they clear it?’ I thought. Collective action for the benefit of all but it’s less effort to get a long tail with a reverberating 2 stroke and cut through alone – I answered myself.
Grey water under a grey sky, open stretches of river in shoulder aching straight lines between floating villages now the flood lasted longer than the ebb. Seasonally flooded forest fringed the river. A Black-shouldered Kite flew near an untidy nest of random twigs watched over by a Grey-headed Fish Eagle. I just made out a monkey on the far bank but too far away to tell what flavor, parakeets, pelican, duck.
Lors and Jin towards the end
Another floating village where we waited for Heang who’d lost us in the water hyacinth, coffee and adventure bars, well done Dean.
Approaching our lunch stop at Kampong Prahoc we saw the 3 telephone masts of Prek Toal, visible from a long distance as it wasn’t K. Prahoc but another village 30 minutes the wrong side. Buntha had an excuse to go to Prek Toal, we didn’t but we ended up paddling there anyway. ‘Why didn’t we take the shortcut?’ I grumpily demanded. ‘Water hyacinth,’ mumbled Buntha. The excuse for everything, I thought but didn’t say.
The short cut to Maichrey an hours breeze with Jady a few weeks back but today a balance between general ache and the freedom of well just being free.
How many thousands, maybe millions of paddle strokes did we do? Shoulders aching, back in seizure, legs cramping, twenty hours in the kayaks and 80 kilometers paddled. I nearly cried when we got to the boat station at Maichrey.
‘So tired, ‘ Buntha said the first morning now a lifetime away, no stress, work and self irrelevant, just us Heang and the river.
Lors, Heang, Nick, Ra and Jin at the end.
A Water Hyacinth Workout
Heang was waiting at the Maichrey Boat Station with what looked liked the oldest wooden boat Bo the owner could find. The Team sprang into action, had the kayaks out the car, inflated and up on the roof of the relic that was taking us into The Tonle Sap Floodplain. I watched redundantly and remembered when it was only me that could set them up correctly.
The Team setting up the kayaks (left), Buntha & Lors (below)
The lake is on the flood penetrating up the waterways that for half the year flow in the opposite direction and with the current comes the clumps of water hyacinth. A weed introduced from South America that floats on air sacs in its stem and was enemy No 1 for the day.
The same floating house that we saw yesterday on a customer trip was still stuck half way up the channel. Four young boys in a sad shack that didn’t look like it would make it through the next storm.
For once the mind numbing long tailed engines served a purpose cutting a path through the floating weed that unless you nose tailed perilously close to the churning propeller, fused back together after the long tail had made its way through.
Moving house as The Lake fills
We launched our kayaks over the side of Heang’s boat and headed off into the unknown, flippantly and later regretfully I mentioned ‘to get lost.’ ‘Keep with us,’ my futile call went unheeded. Lors with his shirt off like some smooth gorilla together with Jin, who’s just so nice, paddled off. Bunthy and Ra, Buntha and Sreymom plus me solo, which with these fit guys puts me behind.
A little way past Maichrey we met our first water hyacinth barrage, easy as we followed the long tail through the chopped weed.
The Team in the open channel
Like ginormous birds the A320’s circled overhead waiting to land at REP Airport as we struck up a rhythm in our kayaks along a wide channel. Smiles on our faces as we waded through the water. Note Gumotex inflatables reliably wade. The Feathercraft K1 whose tubes are being realigned in Singapore glides.
Confidently we waited at the second carpet of floating hyacinth for a long tail to cut us a path. I powered after and came to an abrupt halt after 50meters extricating myself backwards. No more boats appeared to cut a path for us. ‘Where’s Heang?’ I wondered. ‘Boss shall I try?’ Lors shouted over his back as he heaved their way through. We heard war cry’s as he attacked the floating mat with his immense strength ably aided by Jin. His shouts got fainter and their heads disappeared into a sea of leaves.
Lors and Jin heading into the hyacinth
The rest of us looked at each other, sort of shrugged our shoulders with resignation and headed after them. I’d followed first but my shoulder muscles don’t compare so after 20 meters came to a grinding halt, wedging the kayak on the floating carpet. Ra and Bunthy squeezed past with Bunthy at the front clearing a way and Ra providing the power behind.
‘Two questions Buntha, where are we going and how long to get there?’ ‘Prek Toal, by boat it’s close, by kayak through the hyacinth tomorrow.’ Hmm, actually he was wrong on both counts. An hour later we’d cut though to an oasis of clear water in the desert of hyacinth. ‘Nick just wait for Heang,’ said Buntha after he’d called him for the fourth time. Either Buntha or Heang and probably both of them don’t know where we are. The sound of fiberglass long tails could be heard tantalizingly close but not the chug of Heang’s heavy wooden boat.
Hijacking the illegal fisherman’s long-tail
‘Heang’s not coming and we get the first long tail,’ I concluded. It turned out to only be another 20 meters where Lors and Jin waited on what appeared to be clear water.
The reverberating crash of the 2 stroked long tail engine grew and 2 kids appeared one clad in a fetching turquoise velvetine jacket and clashing orange wedding bonnet. ‘Its blocked,’ (in Khmer). The next driver didn’t have much choice as Lors turned pirate hijacked his boat. We transferred in pairs. Lors and Jin hauled the kayaks on board, deflated and rolled them up in the narrow boats. 7 of us sat on top of our rubber bundles while our driver headed off who knew and after the hyacinth, who cared where.
We’d come a long way, taller trees, clearer water and alleluia no hyacinth! Two Black-headed Ibis amongst Open-bills, a Grey-headed Fish Eagle disguised as a tree trunk, cormorants, darters and White-throated Kingfishers. We could have kayaked, I thought but an hour later we were still nosying our way through the flooded scrub with no sign of the Prek Toal telephone masts in sight. We came to a stop at an illegal fishing net blocking the narrow waterway. Our driver was an illegal fisherman but at that point we weren’t complaining. We gently untied the net and carried on. It had been a while, there were a lot of us in the boat and my thoughts turned to exactly how much fuel remained in the tank. And how long could our driver continue hacking through the undergrowth with a laboring engine before it gave up. The telephone masts appeared over the flooded scrub before my thoughts became reality.
The main channel in Prek Toal floating village presented the next challenge as the wake from other speeding long tails threatened to sink ours laden with us and our kayaks.
Heang was waiting for us at The Cheang platform (Buntha’s family), he and Poo our van driver had cooked lunch. We hadn’t been heading for Prek Toal but Kampong Prahoc 10km up the Sangke River and were nearly there before our illegal fisherman saved us. Chicken, cabbage and beer had never tasted so good.
Left to right; Bunthy, Nick, Sreymom, Jin, Buntha, Poo, Ra & Lors
Pride swelled up in me, Khmers have a calm stoic strength though the flip side is that means they allow shit to happen before they do anything about it. Talking of which Heang’s boat broke down on the way back.
JVII (Aka Jayavarman VII) with apologies to The Angkorian Empire
It gets confusing, 26 kings all ending in – varman, building thousands of temples and ruling for 500 years. So today’s story is going to concentrate on just one JVII with references to his uncle SII, who was by all accounts also a very great king. And to set the scene we need to mention JII, who started it all on a mountain (so he could throw stones on the Cham who continued to be revolting throughout the Angkorian era).
JVII was born early 12th century into an empire at the peak of its powers. The nephew of SII, who ruled over the Angkorian Empire when it covered most of South East Asia including Champa – home of the revolting Chams – ‘boo’ (now Central Vietnam). As a teenager JVII was sent to Champa to learn it’s ways including military techniques, which as you’ll see comes in useful later in the story. It’s said that a Khmer allied Cham royal family adopted him. His first wife who we’ll call Thevi I, and figures early in the story traveled with him to Champa.
Meanwhile back in Angkor SII, while at the height of his reign was murdered by one of his commanders, who declared himself King. Word reached JVII in Cham that his uncle had been assassinated so he set off with Thevi I to exact revenge on the Usurper but he was too late.
The revolting Cham sensing a weakening of The Empire launched a fleet of boats, sailed up the Mekong and into The Tonle Sap Great Lake to invade, sack and kill the Usurper. JVII realized he wasn’t ready to attack the Cham so he headed into the forest to assemble an army.
Oh and in the mean time got the temple bug and built his first, Preah Khan in Kampong Svay, not to be confused with its namesake in Angkor (more on that later).
Preah Khan – Kampong Svei
Time was ticking and JVII getting on so at the age of 53, which was as long as a lot of Khmers lived for at the time. He marched at the head of his army to defeat the Chams. This was where those early years in Champa came in successful and after a campaign of 4 years they were defeated and he proclaimed himself King of The Angkorian Empire. Guess what he did first? Build a temple of course. Preah Khan, which while not a particularly original name was generally regarded as a very good temple. So good in fact that he dedicated it to his Dad and moved in. JVII was also regarded as a very good king, the best in fact and one reason was his secular approach to religion. A Buddhist but not an exclusive one he included Hindu’s in government and encouraged them to use his temples (probably so he could spy on them).
The 4 year campaign had taken its toll on Thevi I worrying about her love fighting those revolting Cham, she died of a broken heart. Bereft of the younger sister JVII married the elder, who we’ll call Thevi II and with her support embarked on his first phase of construction. Mindful of Chams and Khmers who wanted their old Hindu religion back he needed an Angkorian broad band. In those days roads were the only way to control a rather large empire so he built a lot of them with rest houses every 15km.
Back or South Gate of Preah Khan – Angkor
His brand of Buddhism was unusually kind for the time and espoused being nice to each other so he built 102 hospitals. Reservoirs, he loved building reservoirs and dams and channels to connect them. That’s a story in itself but as part of all this Mahayana Buddhist niceness, it meant that his people could grow a lot of rice with irrigated water from his channels. In this part of the world, where there’s rice there’s fish so he ensured Angkor’s food security. In turn the population, honed, toned and hunky with JVII’s obsessive temple building, were ready to take on revolting Chams.
Thevi II, you remember her? Actually it wasn’t so long ago that they had married – was a big cheese in The Empire, Director of The Buddhist University and responsible for the morality of the kingdom.
Flush with success from all this building for the people he got back to temples for himself and started his second phase of construction, commissioning Ta Prohm for his Mum. JVII must have dreamt of temples because he was churning them out. Culminating in the third phase of construction and his masterpiece the Bayon. It was modestly dedicated to him. Depicting Mt Mehru at the center of the Universe AKA Angkor Thom, the state temple while he was alive and his tomb when he died.
In the 13th century this was a city of 70,000 people living in a Florida style grid of villas each with their own pool and 2 Oxcart parking lots. Location, location, location JVII had the best, his wooden palace with of course a pool and for him elephant parking, looked out over The Bayon. The omnipresent loksvara, mugshots of himself carved into the stone pillars reminded those upity Hindu’s who was boss.
Loksvara said to be in the likeness of JVII
Old JVII, he was old by now probably around 70 when construction on Angkor Thom was started, had had a monumental life, certainly he left a lot of them. And must have wanted to record his achievements especially when if came to fond memories of bashing the Chams.
Unlike most Khmers today he didn’t have a smart phone so the next best thing was to commission an army of sculptures to carve out a comic relief on the walls of his state temple. Like the Terracotta Army in 2D great battle scenes are enacted, daily life depicted and the wonderful diversity of the Cambodian countryside recorded.
Above The Bayon and below a scene from the South East outer wall depicting the sacrifice of a water buffalo (another proof if need be of JVII’s regard for his people in that he stopped sacrificing them)
A great king not Mohammed, Jesus or Buddha himself but hey when you’ve reached your nineties and all your mates died 30 years ago perhaps not surprising JVII might have been thinking along those lines. These delusions of grandeur expressed in the construction of Angkor Thom a 9km square city, were beginning to sow the seeds for the subsequent decline of Angkor. The reservoirs and canals that had allowed hundreds of thousands of people to live in an infertile sand pit were not maintained and not prepared for the great drought and floods that followed his death. The system of water management was washed away and the city was no longer able to feed itself, but we’re getting ahead of our story. In the meantime his death; rumors abound, was it Hindu extremists, a jealous son, an estranged wife? At 95 years old it was probably old age.
The dates vary according to which account you read but all are remarkable for the time. 1125 seems to be a probable birth date and 1220 his death. He was crowned in 1181 at 56 and ruled for 39 years during which time Angkor became the greatest empire in the world, truly a great king.
Post script; JVII was succeeded by one of his surviving sons, we’ll call I (as in aye) 2, a leper who atoned for his sins by embellishing his Dad’s temples. JVIII is remembered as a religious vandal who spent most of his time knocking the heads off the Buddha’s that graced JVII’s temples.