Monthly Archives: September 2014

Long Tail Diaries: The First Challenge

Our Cham guide sets off across Lake Tonle Sap at sunrise, navigating through the early morning fishing boats.

Our Cham guide sets off across Lake Tonle Sap at sunrise, navigating through the early morning fishing boats. It will take nearly four hours for us to find the entrance to the river leading to Phnom Penh.

After working flat out for most of 2014, when a month-long drought in assignments set in I didn’t know how to handle all the down time. Over coffee during this period of restlessness in the long, hot Cambodian summer, the blueprint for a reckless adventure was born. 

Harkening back to boyish memories of grand National Geographic-style expeditions, I made the decision to buy a boat. Together with Gareth Bright, a South African photographer newly settled in Phnom Penh, we tracked down a wooden long tail fishing boat for sail in the floating community of Kampong Luong on the western bank of the immense Lake Tonle Sap.

I am in the process of setting up a dedicated site to host a more comprehensive account of the trip, but the basic plan is to self-drive ourselves along all of Cambodia’s major waterways to look at the cultural and environmental state of life on the Mekong and its tributaries.

Sometimes referred to as the lifeblood of southeast Asia, this project will eventually expand to include all the countries the Mekong passes through on its way to the ocean. Traveling through Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and China will take the best part of a year, but the first leg of the trip – from Phnom Penh to the Tonle Sap, the region’s largest freshwater lake – will start in two weeks.

The first of the countless problems we will almost certainly encounter as we try to pull this trip off presented itself a few days ago when we learned that we would have to pick up the boat weeks before we were ready to go. Luckily a friend found us a place to store it in Phnom Penh, but first we would have to get it there – a daunting two day drive against the river’s current. Since up to this point we had barely logged two hours each of actual driving time, we decided that it was best not to attempt the passage on our own.

With the help of a Cham (as Cambodian Muslims are known) community leader and his son we arrived in tact, though both sunburned and soaking wet. I won’t go into too much detail about the minutiae of the experience in this post, but I wanted to introduce the concept of the trip since it will probably dominate much of my creative output in the coming months.

In the time leading up to the official departure we have an ambitious schedule of practice drives lined up, by which time we will hopefully be more river-ready than we are now. And if not, it will surely make for entertaining reading.

Though I primarily shot video over these two days, here are a few frames that sum up the experience.

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Almost immediately after departure a violent rainstorm forced us to take shelter on a floating barge-cum-traveller sanctuary. As it is raining nearly every afternoon in Cambodia, the upcoming start of the trip promises to be a wet one.

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Taking a break from bailing water out of our boat. Roughly 20 litres of water accumulated in the boat in just an hour under the rain clouds.

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A captive monkey in a sadly cruel enclosure built out of chain link fence. Two monkeys inhabit the one square metre cage, which is suspended over water to prevent their escaping. Passers by stopped regularly to pour energy drinks into the monkey’s mouths.

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Washing the dishes at dusk, the worst of the storm over.

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With a 4 a.m. planned departure time, we all turned in early.

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A clear sky at sunrise allowed us to start searching for the river entrance that would lead us to Phnom Penh.

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The morning sky quickly gave way to scorching heat. With no place to hide on the exposed boat, we took to soaking our clothes to stay cool.

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Nearly 12 hours later we reached the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

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Arriving at the Cham village, a floating boat community under the shadow of an under-construction luxury hotel. Our boat will stay in this community for the next two weeks while we get it ready for departure – and better learn how to handle it without the help of a guide.

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Sunset at the Cham village where our boat will live while in Phnom Penh. The Chams are ethnic Cambodian Muslims, who often live in floating communities.

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