Read time (10 min) – mostly pictures after intro text.

Sudeep will be here tomorrow, and if all goes well we will be paddling south from the Laos border on Friday morning (Thursday evening in the states).  Possibly Saturday morning. Other than this blog, I’m not on social media but I imagine Sudeep will post some pics along the way with the Himalayan Adventure Labs Instagram account.  And if you want to see the route, or watch our very slow progress with tracking points every hour or so sent to a map via satellite device – see ‘My Location‘.

Overall, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.  The hegemony (I always wanted to use that word) of scooters, tuk-tuks, and brutish overbuilt  American SUVs on the streets of Phnom Penh, along with the constant construction and heat reflected off of the concrete are calling me to the river. All my dry bags are packed…I’m ready to go…

Test paddle on the Mekong River last week near the Laos Border

That said, I know it won’t be a picnic and it will be hot on the river with minimal shade (note to self: remember to buy that umbrella).  Setting low expectations is always good in my book: Simply put: we may not make it that far down the river. I’m no longer the masochist I once was and if it isn’t fun or isn’t safe  – we’ll ditch and head to the islands and/or spend more time in Angkor Wat (not necessarily a bad thing).

I stumbled across a  video of some kayakers, led by the ‘Paddle Pilgrim’ Dave Ellingson, who tried paddling down the river with a start in Laos about the same time last year.  But they found their inflatable kayaks too slow, barely bolstered by a current. And the oppressive heat got to them as well.  Our pack rafts will be even slower, lacking any type of keel. And everyday is pushing 37c (~100f).  Eventually Dave’s team called it quits and got off the river and converted to conventional tourism.  That may happen to us.  I picked up a good quote from that video story:

A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”    Lao Tzu

I like that a lot.  It reminds me of something a salty old sailor once told me  (without being salty), ‘The best sailing is without a calendar.”    Speaking of calendars, I’ve occupied much of this month with checking out the islands and also the river state near the Laos border along with intermittent stops in Phnom Penh.  Here is a bit of a photo-story.

I’ve been hearing that the islands in Cambodia are like the ones in Thailand 30 years ago.  Naturally, I felt like I had to go see. Plus, I’m always wondering what tropical island can I retire on and live for less than $5 a day (spoiler alert: Not this one).  So, earlier this month,  I took a bus, and then a fast boat, out to Koh Rong Samleung.  An island I had been told was on the ‘quieter side’.

The beach I was dropped on wasn’t as idyllic as it looks below.  Tourists, too lazy to walk the length of the beach, were getting rides back and forth on the back of trailers being pulled by tractors.  Scooters zipped along the water edge. May all that salt water rust their chains in place.

First introduction to Koh Rong Samleung. Looks peaceful but it isn’t.

Knowing this beach was the busier one, I had booked a place on the far side of the island, requiring a 45 minute trek through the jungle to get there.  Unfortunately a developer had other ideas and had recently ripped a dirt swath through the jungle, soon to be paved and teeming no doubt with tourists on scooters. I arguably arrived just in time.

Nice of them to leave a couple trees

Fortunately there was a bit of trail remaining that took me down to my beach, too steep for any vehicle (yet) to traverse.  And along ‘Sunset Beach’ was the tent I had booked.  (A bungalow didn’t fit with my 5$ a day plan, neither did the tent actually).   Scattered along my section of the beach were bean bag chairs supported the hipster backpackers while they rolled their joints, while also spilling tiny polystyrene beads out of their seams and ordering lattes. Not as cool as it looks. On all levels.

Sloth Beach

The tent was kind of fun, albeit unbearable in the heat of the day. They gave us tiny fans that had been charged up by solar during the day. They lasted for an hour or so – just enough time to fall asleep and for the overall temperature to drop.

Tent with a view.

But the tent was nice in the evening and at the water’s edge the waves lulled me to sleep. On my last night there was a tremendous thunder and lightning storm, making me question the wisdom of having a big metal pole holding the whole thing up.And the wisdom of staying put.

Glamping

 

Hammock Platform

I worked on my laptop and read junky romance novels. I tried to walk every morning and sometimes in the evening  – just to get some steps in and also to see different parts of the island. I met this orange tabby sunbathing.

Beach cat. Obligatory cat pic.

After having my fill of beaches and backpackers that made me feel ancient, I headed back to the city and then to Kratie which will be our second major town as we float south. If all goes well, we will reach it after about 7 days.  I really enjoyed the town. It’s supposed to have a lot of French architecture that somehow escaped me, but I  liked the slow pace, the river esplanade, and a great vegan restaurant I found.  Much of the river above Kratie (and some below) contains flooded mangrove forests.  I wanted to see what it would be like to paddle through these.

Against my better judgement, I joined a half-day guided kayak trip. I had misgivings because I knew part of the trip was to see the freshwater Irrawaddy Dolphins, rapidly going extinct.  Feeling like they should just be left alone, I rationalized I would just paddle ashore when that part of the trip came up as I knew it was near the end. Unfortunately, I didn’t count on being in a tandem kayak with someone who was on the other end of the spectrum.  Word of advice: leave them alone. It doesn’t matter if you are in a kayak instead of a powerboat.

In a tandem kayak – on different ends of the dolphin watching spectrum.

 

Nonetheless, it was good to see what the current was like through these places.  The trees and their exposed root balls are something to see. Other times, you just see the tips of the trees above the water.  The potential for entrapment is fairly high but the current is not that great in most places I think we can avoid most of the thick areas. My kayak partner Ben was good natured and dropped me off on-shore eventually before going back out for more pictures.

Pondering my footsteps.

 

Post kayak-dolphin virtue signalling, I went further up the river by mini-bus and spent a couple nights in Steng Trung, this will be our first major town as we float down. Not as scenic as Kratie but a good place to get your hair-cut.

Barber by the riverside

And then I took yet another mini-bus up to the border where I saw part of the ‘4,000 islands’ – an extremely wide swatch of rapids and cascades, much akin to a washing machine.  We will not be paddling through this.

4,000 Island. Preah Nimit Waterfall

A couple miles further south, on the edge of the meandering border and in calmer waters is the village of Anlung Chheuteal. This will be our starting point on Friday. I spent the night in a homestay here and had still had some light left to go out and paddle around.

Our starting point. Village of Anlung Chheuteal

 

As a vegan, I’m never sure what to do when people show off their catch to me. But these guys were quite proud (and adept at smoking).

Yes, that is a big catfish.

 

Still smoking – the mountains of Laos in the background.

The next day I paddled down and across the river, about 5 miles total to Oh Svay – a very small village on the banks of the river.  I had met Theora, a kayak guide in Stung Treng, a few days earlier who said he would be driving back from there with an empty van, after depositing some clients at the border, and would give me a free ride back.

GPS tracks (in white) of five mile test paddle. Dark line across the top of river is the Laos border.

Worried about the current, I left early and got there early after a couple hours of paddling. Sometimes I had no current, sometimes there was a little bit of white water. I passed an eroding channel marker, put in place by the French many years ago. I don’t know if the the 5 means 5 kilometers from the border or just simply the 5th marker. The upper part of the river is no longer navigated by large boats – with the advent of road travels, the channels that the French dynamited out are now silted up. Works for me.

A channel marker built by the French.

 

Arriving early, I found a little eat-and-drink shop next to the river and did some work on my laptop believe it or not, though I had to battle feeling sleepy in the mid-day heat (with good company).

This dog felt like I felt.

Plus some semi-annoying local teenagers who spent the same 3 hours on their cell phones while occasionally looking up to follow cock-fights that were being live streamed.

And you thought your teenagers were watching bad things on the internet?

Eventually Theara rescued me and took me back to Stung Treng.  He runs a really great shop with bike rentals, kayak rentals, and lots of advice for the Mekong Discovery Trail – a network of water and land trails stretching from Kratie up to the border.  I highly recommend looking him up if you want to adventure in the area. In his shop, I met a nice German couple who had cycled up from Phnom Penh – exploring many back roads along the way. They dispelled many of my fears of cycling in Cambodia. Got my gears turning a bit…

Sitting in tiny chairs in Theara’s shop hearing cycling stories.

Walking back to my hotel, with one more night in Stung Treng before heading back to Phnom Penh, I was met this guy guarding his turf.  There are so many street dogs and cats here. Like Nepal, many have their ‘people’ who give them some love and food, but for the most part they are on their own.

King of the hill

And this little calico.

City cat. Obligatory cat pic #2

Much thanks for reading this far. And thanks to Theara for that ride and for sharing his wisdom about the river – allowing me to mark up my map with areas he thinks we should avoid.  And thanks to Francis and Souen for letting me use their apartment as a base in the big city.

Seth
Feb 19th
Phnom Penh.

13 thoughts on “Travels around Cambodia: The islands and the river.

  1. Happy hot paddling Seth. Your vivid, pithy descriptions are always a pleasure to read, taking me on experiences I shall never have!

    1. Thanks James! Will do my best to stay cool. There is a chance we will end up with some borrowed kayaks (fingers crossed). I stopped by the WWF office in Kratie and took in some of their educational aids – it made me think about you and Judy. Great seeing you two on the phone when I was visiting Ewan and Kat, albeit briefly. Please don’t be a stranger if you make it out to the PNW. Give my best to Judy. Cheers, Seth

  2. Seth, thank you for the beautiful tote bag. Gloria liked it so much that she commandeered it. I apparently had no say in the matter of ownership. So thank you from Gloria. She and her new tote bag are very happy together. 😁

    1. Hi Danny, so glad you were able to meet up with Robin and Sean and that the bag was well received! I’ll make one for you when I get back – of course with my delivery time frames it may be a while! Thanks for writing – wish I could have joined you. BTW – I listed to Aquarock on repeat today! Great song.

  3. Wow! Some amazing adventures there, yet again. Chuckled a number of times, reading this. Heat does not work for me, but folks manage it, I guess. Stay safe, hope to see you next time you are back in these parts.

    1. Thanks for reading Scotty. I’m not sure heat works for me either! That said, I just talked to a boat surveyor who was out in the field near Bellingham today and he said it was freezing. Hope you and Deborah are staying warm. I’ll be back at the end of March. Let’s get together and walk and talk. Or slow run and talk! Or bird watch and talk 🙂

  4. Wow thanks for taking me on this adventure with you through this blog. How exciting and looking forward to your next post and photos. Living the dream through you Seth!

    1. Thanks Becky for reading! We are on the road heading north to the start in my friend Frances and Souen’s car (fully loaded with river gear !) Cashew and palm fruit trees out the window. Sizing up to the a good adventure 🙂

  5. Thank you for sharing. Great photos. I admit I’m too tired to read all the words, but I read all the captions.

    Too bad you never get to explore🤪

    1. Hi Ben! Been a long time. Hope you are well! No worries on not reading it all. That’s what the captions are for 🙂 hope to catch up next time we are both in the north country!

  6. If all has gone well, you should be under way by now. Hope all goes well. Too bad you can’t rig a sail on your water craft. Maybe open your umbrella if the wind is behind y you .

    Uncle John

    1. Hi Uncle John! Yes, almost 200k behind us as I write this – six days in and ahead of schedule. And I have tried the umbrella approach – I’m going to write a mini-update in a minute and will include a picture. It has helped a little, but mostly with shading my feet from the sun! More to follow. Thanks for reading!
      Seth

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