A red rash creeps up the side of my left foot, another is threatening the toes on my right foot.  Our feet have been in and out of the Mekong River for almost two weeks, stepping on squishy objects in the murky water, walking up and down beaches looking for campsites,  and encrusted with sand 99% of the time. Sudeep has the same thing happening on his feet.

Sand sand everywhere

 

Trying to cool down.

 

Out of the wilderness and into Phnom Penh

 

Old and new

It’s been about 6 days and ~260km since we left the upper reaches of the river in Kratie. The river has broadened, slowed, become languid, straight, more populated.  We haul out a few kilometers downriver from Phnom Penh, the skyline fuzzy amidst the haze, happy to have reached this milestone. Two nights we spend here, our first full rest day – spent eating well, cleaning gear and getting a mini-medical checkup at Frances and Souen’s weekend house on the river.

Finally reaching Souen and France’s river house.

A tropical disease physician with over 20 years experience in Cambodia, Dr. Frances is the right person to look at our feet.  Sitting in a chair with our feet in her hands, she quizzes us  before pointing out the things we really don’t want pointed out.

We paddle away thinking about Schistosoma mekongi, which apparently is endemic in the upper reaches of the river that we had recently paddled through, spending most of its time in the body of the freshwater snail Neotricula aperta in flat water.  Most of the river we experienced was free flowing, but not all and our feet bear the hallmarks.  There is no point in testing now, the worms have to reach adulthood which won’t occur for at least three months.  Fun thoughts to paddle with.

And paddle we do. Only 85km left to the Vietnam border which we hope to reach in three days.  The river is wide and slow, sometimes we are fighting a current as the tide pushes the river backwards all the way from the mouth in Vietnam.  Huge boats and heavy machinery dot the shoreline and mid-river, dredging the bottom for sand.   We see more and more Vietnamese living on house boats with conical hats.

Sunrise on the Mekong

 

Sand Dredgers

We are unable to find a spot to camp on for our last night after ~35k of paddling. The riverbanks are low and the tide clearly comes and go – submerging it entirely.   Sudeep spots a volleyball net in a backyard above the river and we clamber up and surprise an old man, awkwardly using google translate to ask if we can sleep there. Others appear, phones are cast aside and we use our best pantomime skills. A few minutes later we are gratefully hauling our gear up from the river.  It turns out to be a backyard shared by multiple families and it isn’t long before we have an audience of kids who take great delight in playing with our binoculars and pretending to paddle the kayaks.

Kids playing on our boats. River and sand dredger in background.

 

Group portrait.

On our final day we fight a head wind and choppy water, but fortunately we only have 10km to go. We stop short of the Vietnam border, as close as we can without confusing the customs and immigration officers about our intentions. The only water landing at the border is for people entering Cambodia and we’ve already done that, plus we aren’t carrying our passports. We have no desire to end our adventure locked in an immigration office.  It’s close enough for us.  Studying the satellite view on our map, we’ve found a good spot before the customs office with easy road access.

Our finishing point

We double carry all of our gear to the road and some local folks help us find a van that can accommodate our kayaks and a few hours later we were back at the river house, drinking cold seltzers from the fridge and trying to scrub the dirt off the kayaks that Frances and Souen had graciously lent us.

Adventure done!  Laos border to ~Vietnam border: ~540km, 17 days including 1 rest day,  a whole lot of sand, and some foot issues to boot.  Still worth it.

Finishing portrait

Lessons learned

  • This trip would not have been possible with pack-rafts.  I’m a huge fan of pack-rafts but there were too many places during the second half with no current, or worse – a reverse current from the tide.  We often faced a headwind too and pack rafts would have been blown all over the place.  Huge thanks to Frances and Souen who lent us their kayaks which we used for all but the first two days.  We couldn’t have done it otherwise,  their river knowledge and kindness hosting us at their river house and also in Phnom Penh was invaluable too.
  • The people we met along the way, particularly those working in their boats or onshore, and children playing in the water, made this trip.  We exchanged so many smiles, shouts of hello, and waves that we lost count.  We wish we had mastered a little more Khmer along the way.
  • The section from the border to Kratie was by far the best. We were told this would be the case but we still wanted to experience the river from border to border and we are glad we did.
  • Entering Phnom Penh felt a bit like coming out of the wilderness.  True, the river had widened, slowed, and started getting populated with more people and bigger boats well before we neared the city, but we were unprepared for the amount of huge sand dredgers that we would encounter for the last three days. At times it felt like a dystopian riverscape. We understand concrete has to come from somewhere, but please not the Mekong.
  • We both have a lot to learn about paddling.  Mountain trails are familiar, reading a river is a different beast.
  • Next time: water booties and better foot care!
  • Map – we used caltopo on our phones and consulted/edited this heavily on the way: https://caltopo.com/m/M51N1
  • Best guess at distance: ~540km. Feb 23rd to March 10th, 2024 (16 paddling days, 1 rest day)

That’s it – below is a photo gallery with some additional pictures.   Thanks for following along!

Seth
Siem Reap, Cambodia March 14th, 2024

 

Paddling tracks

 

9 thoughts on “Kayaking ~540km down the Mekong River in Cambodia

  1. Wow! Sounds like it was an intense journey, cousin. Great pics, too. Hope your feet are okay. Happy for you- what an adventure!

    1. Thanks Danny- it was fun and made better by listening to your music! ‘Moon Lore’ is a great album. Congrats!

  2. Really glad to hear all went well. Hope you have a few days to relax before heading home.

    Uncle John

    1. Hi Uncle John. Thanks and yes, we are now in Siem Reap being tourists, eating too much and exploring the temples at Angkor Wat. I head to WA on Thursday and by all accounts all the significant issues on Cimaise are fixed so hope to be back on the water soon. Hope all is well in NC!

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