Total read time: 15 minutes.
Returning to Anacortes for a few weeks in January and camping out in my van was fool-hearted. Surely it couldn’t be as cold as northern New York? I was tempted back with the idea of catching up with friends and making some progress fixing my sailboat which has been out of the water since August. I’ve been technically homeless since then and would really like to get it back in the water this spring.
My visit coincided with an unusual cold snap with slush, ice, snow (not always in that order). The hardware store overfilled the propane tank on my van and staying warm felt a bit like an explosive gamble. Staying with friends provided some respite from the cold and actually progress was made on the boat, including successfully wrestling a 20 gallon fuel tank out of it after three days of labor. I felt like a marine obstetrician delivering a breach birth. Promises were secured from contractors and plans laid to have the work finished by the time I return in late March. Fingers crossed.
Aside from saying goodbye to friends, it wasn’t stow away my cold weather gear, pack my bags and cram myself into an airplane sardine-style. In not-so-short order, we were landing in Phnom Penh where the temperature does not require long underwear or a Propex 2000 heater to be running continuously.
The long term goal for this trip is paddle down the Mekong, ideally from the Laos border to the Vietnam border with Sudeep. A distance of maybe 300m/500k. But right now Sudeep is doing his own form of freezing in Madison, Wisconsin and doesn’t arrive for a few weeks. So my shorter term goal is to test the waters in various places and get my taxes done.
My friends Frances and Soeun were at their weekend house which is about 6m/10km downriver from the city center. I stayed with them last April and had a little opportunity to paddle around with their kayaks – planting the seeds for this return visit. Frances told me she was thinking about coming back into the city because they were out of coffee. I proposed a coffee delivery via packraft instead.
But then I wondered if I had spoken too soon. When I was here last spring, I didn’t spend much time studying the river from the city. So I walked down to it and took a better look; holy shit did it look wide! But if I couldn’t manage a trip across the river, how were Sudeep and I going to do 500km? Butterflies stirred.
Not only did it look wider than anything I had ever paddled a packraft across, there was also an insane about of ferry and boat traffic that looked like it could eat my little packraft without a thought.
I rationalized that Sudeep and I would not be on this side of the river when we did our big journey south, nor would we be likely to encounter a ferry terminal this busy anywhere else, so I decided it would be ok to launch a little further south of the terminal and skip testing these immediate waters.
After a couple morning walks along the river I found my spot just a little south of all the ferry traffic. And on Saturday, thanks to remnants of jet lag still helping me wake up before dawn, I was ready to go. The butterflies woke up with me, fluttering around with worries of barge traffic, the current, the wind, the sun, and all things in between.
It went better than expected. Very little traffic, only a slight headwind, and a little bit of current to help me along. Spinning the boat around I could float backwards for stretches and watch the city receding.
There were a number of boats on the water, some anchored, some very slowly drifting and I used them as my safety islands, paddling from one to another – getting some surprised looks along the way. Most had a barrel-shaped canopy providing living quarters, usually there were people on the back of the boat eating or sorting out fishing gear.
It only took an hour or so to reach the far side, I probably could have done it faster but I dawdled, taking pictures and messing around with gear. I encountered no major barge traffic, but did see some after I crossed.
From there, I drifted and occasionally paddled along the river bank for a couple more hours, meeting the occasional boat, kids playing on the bank, and eventually spotting Frances and Soeun’s river boat which was high up on the river bank, a testament to how high waters can surge here following the monsoons.
Frances and I had been trading texts, so she was there to welcome me – standing on their old boat and lending a hand to help me get my boat up the river bank and into their back yard.
And that marks the end of my first pack raft on the Mekong. I’ve had a very restful stay here, eating fresh veggies out of the garden, walking in the nearby rice fields, paddling around with Soeun and Frances in their kayaks, watching river traffic, and sorting out plans for the next few weeks until Sudeep arrives. Tomorrow back to Phnom Penh and then further afield.
Down the river from Phnom Penh.
Jan 30th, 2024