After months of scheming and preparation, fellow photographer Gareth Bright and I set off for the first voyage on our wooden long tail fishing boat to explore southeast Asia’s waterways. Being glaringly inexperienced boat drivers, this trip was meant as a trial run of sorts – to see how we dealt with life afloat and to check the logistical challenges of expanding this project further into the region – rather than a concentrated effort to produce a coherent body of documentary work.
We took our best guess as to what the essential equipment would be, and while some items were invaluable, others proved more of a nuisance than anything (such as a large aluminium cooking wok that saw no use and mainly acted as something to bang our toes off). We discovered what food was suited to such a trip (peanut butter and coffee were staples), and what just took up valuable space (a 2 litre bottle of chilli sauce, for example). In terms of equipment, we quickly discovered that less is more – our huge DLSR packs saw little action, while smaller compact cameras such as the Fuji X100s and GoPros were much easier to grab and keep safe. Mostly importantly we learned that this project is absolutely possible and that Gareth and I won’t tear each other’s heads off in a confined space.
In all, the first leg of the trip lasted for two weeks and saw us depart Phnom Penh dangerously late in the day as we rushed around town tying up loose ends. Setting out from the Cham Muslim community where our boat lives while in the city, we immediately learned that our engine tends to stall out if not properly warmed up, resulting in us drifting around in circles through busy shipping lanes – much to the amusement of those watching from the riverside. Our second blunder saw us run out of fuel in front of one of Phnom Penh’s busiest ferry terminals, and again we spun dangerously between vessels much larger than our own. Rattled but determined not to look any more ridiculous than we already had, we tried to put distance between us and the city – only to find the darkness approaching much faster than our 18 HP engine could outrun. Ultimately our first night was spent a scant 5 km from where we started, tied up to the side of a dilapidated sunken shack, surrounded by broken fishing traps and a tepid slurry of takeout containers and plastic bags. Perhaps not the noble start we had imagined, but it was a start nonetheless.
Waking at 4a.m. on the damp floor planks of our boat, we cleared our heads with hideously strong coffee and paddled out to put the disasters of the previous day behind us. On that warm morning, the real trip started as we motored out of the city’s urban sprawl and onto the wide, jungle-lined expanse of the Tonle Sap. We made our way slowly up river, driving when we felt like it, swimming when we got hot, and stopping often. When we snapped the pull-start cord on our engine, a group of fishermen repaired it for us in ten minutes, the kindness of strangers amazing me as always. We made camp when it felt right, sleeping in pagodas and an abandoned school, and within four days had broken through onto the Tonle Sap Lake, or “The Great Lake” – a critical source of food for Cambodia and the largest freshwater body in the region.
We spent roughly a week in floating villages, talking to fishermen and remote coastal residents alike, continuously marvelling at the massive expanse of water around us. We crashed into docks, houses, and occasionally other boats, but no one really seemed to mind, so confused were they by the sight of our sunburnt faces.
After two weeks we turned around and drove home, far more competent and confident. The experience was as educational as it was inspirational, and it left little doubt in our minds that the trip would have to continue. Armed with the memories of our mistakes, we will spend the coming weeks re-organizing and re-planning, and will start the process of raising the necessary funds to tackle the next stages.
When we can finish sifting through the hours of footage I will work on getting a short video up to showcase the highs and the lows, as well as outline the project’s goals more clearly. For now though, here are some of my favourite images from the last two weeks.