Tag Archives: Mekong River

Entering China: Where the Mekong Ends

Evening in the city of Jinghong Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

Evening in the city of Jinghong.

A cold grey drizzle greeted us as we stepped off the plane at Jinghong international airport, the capital city of the Xishuangbanna autonomous prefecture and the gateway to southwestern China. Despite a temperature of around 15 degrees Celsius, after months of tracing the Mekong river through the tropical heat of Southeast Asia, the chill bit through to our bones and we scrambled to pull jackets and scarves out of our luggage.

Our Mandarin speaking friend and travel companion, Yan, was waiting in the arrival hall. Possessing undergraduate and masters degrees in journalism, she was also a skilled photographer and her spoken English rivalled our own. We were in good hands.

A cold rain falls on downtown Jinghong, Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

A cold rain falls on downtown Jinghong.

Before long we were bundled into a car and speeding along immaculate highways into the heart of the city. Having never worked in China before, we were simultaneously exhilarated and anxious about the prospect of what was to come.

The End of the Mekong

When we got our first glimpse of the river in Jinghong, it took a moment to process the fact that we were no longer looking at the Mekong. The Lancang river, as it is called in China, was physically the same body of water we had been following for nearly a year, but the change in name signalled that we had entered into a different (and the final) phase of the journey. And as we would learn over the course of our time in China, in many important ways this was a very different river to the sluggish waterway we had come to know so well.

A woman crosses a bridge spanning the Lancang (Mekong) in Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

A woman crosses a bridge spanning the Lancang.

From atop an impressive cable-stayed bridge that spanned the Lancang to connect the two halves of Jinghong, we stopped to watch the river pass beneath. Cargo vessels pulled in and out of a nearby port, transporting trade goods to and from Laos to the south, while huge leisure ships drifted on the currents. These floating restaurants were some of the largest ships we had yet seen on our travels, further reinforcing that China’s relationship with the river was unique.

The swarms of water taxis that plied the floating markets in Vietnam were absent, and the omnipresent wooden fishing boats that dotted the river throughout Cambodia and Laos were nowhere to be seen. Even the water’s colour had changed perceptibly from the murky brown of the lower Mekong basin to a more pronounced blue that flowed with surprising speed.

A floating restaurant and leisure ship floats down the Lancang (Mekong) in Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

A floating restaurant and leisure ship floats down the Lancang.

Traffic crosses a bridge spanning the Lancang (Mekong) in Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

Traffic crosses a bridge spanning the Lancang.

For the roughly 2000 km we had still to travel before reaching the river’s source on the Tibetan plateau, we would not see the Mekong again as we knew it.

A People’s River

As we walked along the banks of the Lancang, one thing felt familiar; the river served as a public gathering space; a place to socialize, exercise, and enjoy.

Restaurants, bars, and coffee shops overlooked a well maintained stone pathway, which in turn overlooked small communal farm plots that locals used, rent free, to grow vegetables and bananas. Joggers made use of the long, straight track, and more than a few times we noticed people walking backwards at full speed – a practice said to have originated in ancient China – which while supposedly being very effective at targeting seldom used muscles, was nearly impossible to watch with a straight face.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinghong, Xishuangbanna, China.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinghong.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Xishuangbanna, China.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang.

Further along we left the water’s edge, lured to a small park by the sound of birdsong. Dozens of small cages hung from the trees that lined the public space and were inhabited each by a solitary huamei – a small Chinese thrush-sized bird most similar to a North American robin, but made distinctive by its spectacle-shaped eye markings. Groups of men stood in clusters, appreciating the birds according to some criteria that we did not understand, smoking furiously as they listened to their song. While the birds were certainly beautiful and the cages perfectly crafted from painted wood, seeing the jittery imprisoned animals gave us little joy.

Caged songbirds in a public park in Xishuangbanna, China.

Caged songbirds in a public park.

Singing birds hand from trees in their cages in a public park in Xishuangbanna, China.

Singing birds hand from trees in their cages in a public park.

It wasn’t long before we started to attract considerable attention. Though Xishuangbanna was a popular destination for Chinese tourists, we hadn’t yet seen another foreign visitor, and the locals seemed excited to chat. Before we knew what was happening we were drawn into a group of men who asked us standard questions – where did we come from? How did we like China? – before thrusting large bamboo water pipes into our hands.

A cigarette was wedged into a small spout at the base of the pipe, and with much effort and a massive amount of lung power we were encouraged to haul repeatedly on the tube until we were coughing out great clouds of smoke. Though not unbearable, the experience was by no means pleasant, and made all the more difficult by the fact that our unshaven faces made it impossible to form a tight seal around the mouth of the pipe. After we each finished and entire cigarette in this fashion, lightheaded and dizzy, the men immediately tried to restart the process. Only by distracting them with our cameras did we manage to escape additional rounds.

A man smokes tobacco from a water pipe in a public park in Xishuangbanna, China.

A man smokes tobacco from a water pipe in a public park.

Fleeing to a nearby stone pier that extended a hundred meters into the Lancang, we noticed a pair of men emerging from the river. Though the air temperature was chilly by our standards, the water was nearly freezing, and we approached the men to compliment them on their toughness. “This isn’t cold,” one of them said proudly. “Where I come from [north of Beijing], it is much colder than this.” Wearing nothing but a skimpy bathing suit, he rolled a cigarette from loose tobacco he said he’d brought from his home province. Bundled as we were in thick fleece and thermal under layers, we felt decidedly un-tough.

A man lights a cigarette after swimming in the Lancang (Mekong) river in Xishuangbanna, China.

A man lights a cigarette after swimming in the Lancang (Mekong) river.

As the sun set we made our way to a stony beach where people were gathering to enjoy the evening light. Some waded into the water to take selfies, while others played with their children or talked on the phone.

One particularly friendly group of tourists who were skipping stones across the Lancang shouted an enthusiastic ni hao (hello) and beckoned us over. Once again we were reminded that temperature was relative: “We’ve been here for more than one month. We come here for the warmth and to get away from winter!”

Tourists gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

Tourists gather along the Lancang.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Xishuangbanna, China.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinghong.

While we had left the Mekong behind to start our journey up the Lancang, in one way at least China was consistent with the other countries we had traveled through – be it known as the Mekong or Lancang, fast flowing or slow, blue or brown, the river attracted people. Regardless of name or geography, people were drawn to its banks.

A River’s Tail is a multi-year collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , , |

Building the River’s Monsters

River traffic passes the shipyard in the early morning on the Mekong. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

River traffic passes the shipyard in the early morning on the Mekong. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

After the boat problems we’d had a few days earlier, we decided to take another shot at locating a large shipyard we had heard build and repaired some of the largest vessels around Ben Tre. Fearing another engine malfunction that would leave us stranded on one of the delta’s myriad canals, we called captain the night before to ask if he truly believed his boat was up to the task. Rising to the challenge, he responded with confidence and a touch of indignation: “I’d bet my life on it.”

Getting out of bed in the pre-dawn darkness for what felt like the hundredth day in a row (despite having been on the road for only a week), conversation was at a minimum as we made our way towards the riverside jetty where our boat waited for us. The boat yard was more than an hour’s drive, said the captain, and if we stood a chance at arriving in time to catch the best of the morning light we had little time to spare.

True to the captain’s word, the boat’s engine battled steadily against the Mekong’s current without even a trace of smoke.

River Monsters, Reborn

“Do what you want, just let us have some tea first,” said the manager of the shipyard, Muoi. His was translated as the number Ten, literally referring to the order in which he was born in relation to his siblings. If there was any underlying resentment from his nine older brothers and sisters about his position authority over them, Muoi chose not to share it with us. We had arrived at the facility just a few minutes after sunrise, surprising the dozen or so bleary-eyed workers who were congregating around a small wooden table to take in a few doses of morning caffeine; they seemed neither pleased, nor annoyed to see us.

Shipyard workers drink tea before the day's work begins. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

Shipyard workers drink tea before the day’s work begins.

As no one in our team had been able to adequately satisfy our respective coffee addictions, we empathized with their groggy indifference and kept our cameras low until they seemed sufficiently awake to tolerate the intrusion. Even after photographing the intimate details of people’s lives full time for nearly five years, I was still aware of how violated I would feel if three strangers had arrived at my place of work and shoved a camera in my face. And so we drank tea.

It was nearly an hour before the first signs of movement started. Rising from sagging wooden benches, the workers, now numbering around twenty, moved a few metres away and squatted in a rough semi-circle under the shadow of a large and decrepit looking ship. Muoi stood in front of assembled men and women, standing rather than haunched in the dirt, and delivered the day’s instructions. Though we didn’t bother asking our translator, Mi, to relate the exact words being spoken, the message was clear enough: Today we will build and fix boats. 

Shipyard workers receive instructions about the day's tasks in the early morning. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

Shipyard workers receive instructions about the day’s tasks in the early morning.

The crew listened to Muoi’s speech in silence punctuated only by the flinty sound of flicking lighters as they smoked cigarettes. When he was finished, the workers rose and spread throughout the shipyard, presumably starting where they’d left off the day before. The once quiet air was almost immediately filled with the screeching of poorly oiled power tools, and the morning stillness transformed into a frenzy of activity.

Most of the work seemed to involve patching holes on the hulls of ships that looked to have seen at least twenty years of hard service on the Mekong. First, workers attacked the rotten areas with iron pickaxes, gouging out soggy splinters to expose the metal ribs underneath. Electric grinders were then used to completely excise the abscesses, creating jagged holes that looked straight into the cavernous cargo holds. These were covered by sheets of barbed wire which were secured with nails.

Nearby, another man was tasked with the unfortunate duty of hand mixing fibreglass paste in a repurposed plastic petrol can, his face periodically obscured by clouds of yellowish powder – no doubt wreaking havoc on his respiratory system. When the substance was blended to his satisfaction, he carried the container to the patching teams and slathered the mixture over the mesh, theoretically sealing the holes. With next to no knowledge of marine engineering, we assumed the ad hoc technique was effective, otherwise the ten or so ships in the dry dock would surely have taken their business elsewhere.

A shipyard worker uses hand tools to carve out rotten sections of wood from a ship's hull before a patch can be applied. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

A shipyard worker uses hand tools to carve out rotten sections of wood from a ship’s hull before a patch can be applied.

A shipyard worker clibs a ladder to access a cargo ship's hold. Around twenty workers staff the yard each day. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

A shipyard worker clibs a ladder to access a cargo ship’s hold. Around twenty workers staff the yard each day.

Women work to seal cracks in a ship's hull using handmade glue and pitch. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

Women work to seal cracks in a ship’s hull using handmade glue and pitch.

Everywhere there was movement. Those who weren’t patching holes applied copious amounts of glutinous resin between hull planks or used handheld saws to fashion replacement beams for wood that was too far gone to be salvaged. A group of what looked like the strongest men in the yard waded into the river to retrieve sunken logs, attaching them to a steel cable and heaving them ashore. All the while an extended family of dogs was circling the area, looking for shady places where they wouldn’t be stepped on and skittering nervously whenever a human drew too near.

With two photographers and a videographer combing the area for interesting visuals, it required constant situational awareness to ensure that I didn’t accidentally include Pablo’s shaved head or Gareth’s tattooed arms in my frames. I’m sure they were both having similar difficulties, and without a doubt more than one curse was directed my way as I stumbled unwittingly into their frames.

Workers move to their stations before work starts in the early morning. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

Workers move to their stations before work starts in the early morning.

A worker winches a length of steel cable in an attempt to pull a piece of submerged lumber out of the Mekong. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

A worker winches a length of steel cable in an attempt to pull a piece of submerged lumber out of the Mekong.

Workers haul on a length of steel cable, attempting to salvage a piece of submerged lumber from the Mekong. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

Workers haul on a length of steel cable, attempting to salvage a piece of submerged lumber from the Mekong.

Workers prepare to attempt to salavge a piece of submerged lumber out of the Mekong. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

Workers prepare to attempt to salavge a piece of submerged lumber out of the Mekong.

Engines of Commerce

“Water is water,” Muoi said blandly, clearly not thinking much of my question. The sun had risen nearly to its apex, and the with light far too harsh for aesthetically pleasing colour photography, I had attempted to draw him into a conversation about the Mekong’s importance. “Everyone needs it for different reasons, but we all need it,” he concluded.

Though Muoi’s answer was not the emotional statement of love for the Mekong we had hoped for, he had gotten to the heart of the matter. While people in this part of Vietnam used the river in different ways – such as the coconut farming or shrimp ponds we had seen visited earlier – everyone relied on it in one way or the other.

Workers repair the floor of a ship's cargo hold. The family owned shipyard is one of seven major boat repair facilities serving the Mekong transport vessels outside the city of Ben Tre.

Workers repair the floor of a ship’s cargo hold.

Ben Tre lacked a major port facility and so river boats, such as the ones being refitted at Muoi’s shipyard, were the only economically viable way for people in the area to send their products into the markets beyond. These lumbering ships were so important that at least seven other facilities of comparable size operated year-round to keep the flow of commerce moving. For Muoi and the twenty other family members employed in the yard, their livelihoods were no less tied to the Mekong than the delta’s rice farmers.

Different reasons, needed by all. Without meaning to, Muoi had summed up our entire journeys on the Mekong to date.

As we shook hands with Muoi, who was doubtlessly happy to see us leave and get out of his workers’ way, an Indian Myna bird (a species known for their ability to mimic spoken language) squawked at us from his hanging cage.

Cam On, Cam On. Thank you, Thank you.

———-

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Vietnam Also tagged , , , , , , , |

How to Recycle a Coconut

Vietnamese workers separate coconut husk fibres andleave the to dry in the sun. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

Workers separate coconut husk fibres and leave the to dry in the sun.

The engine had been making odd noises for roughly twenty minutes before the smoke appeared. We had been chugging against the current of the Mekong for more than an hour, trying to reach a family-owned shipyard in the maze like network of canals surrounding the city of My Tho, and it finally seemed like the boat’s aging motor had given up.

Founded in the 17th Century by Chinese refugees fleeing civil war on the mainland, My Tho was once considered the principle gateway to the Mekong delta before losing the title to the much larger and economically more important Can Tho. We had come to My Tho looking for our first insight as to how the river affected people’s lives in an urban context, but after a cursory glance we decided instead to charter a boat to explore the waterways surrounding the city. If ever there was a city symbiotically bound to a waterway, My Tho was it.

Happy Accidents

When the boat gave its first signs of ill-health we were well away from the city. First, the water pump quit. The brown, sediment-rich river water slowly seeped into the engine compartment, hissing to a boil as it made contact with the overworked pistons. Acrid yellowish steam issued from the cracks in the floorboards covering the machinery, first in small spurts, and then in great billowing clouds.

The the engine finally failed, leaving us drifting in circles on the Mekong outside the city of Ben Tre.

The the engine finally failed, leaving us drifting in circles on the Mekong outside the city of Ben Tre.

The boat driver, who had seemed mostly unfazed by the mechanical difficulties to that point suddenly sprang into action. Killing the throttle, we drifted in lazy circles while he ran back and forth between bow and stern, checking cables and connections. The ship building yard we were attempting to reach that day was still out of sight upriver and it appeared unlikely that we would be able to fight the current to reach it.

After conferring with Gareth and Pablo, we made the frustrating decision to turn back, hoping to stumble upon something of interest on our way back to My Tho. We had passed a series of what looked like coconut processing facilities earlier that morning and we hoped that by working with the river’s flow, instead of against it, we could coax the struggling engine into cooperation.

Luckily, as is so often the case with in photography and travel, the unraveling of our initial plans led us to a story we likely would never have found otherwise.

Coconuts, Reimagined

Coconut Island, as locals colloquially referred to My Thanh An, was not actually an island at all. In fact it barely qualified as a peninsula. But none of us could dispute the inclusion of coconut in the name; what seemed like millions of the green husked drupes (the proper classificatory family for coconuts, according to Internet biologists anyways) were mounded along the river’s edges to staggering heights.

Factory workers load processed coconut mulch onto a cargo vessle which will transport the material along the Mekong river to both foreign and domestic markets. Coconuts are one of the biggest industries near the city of Ben Tre, Vietnam.

Factory workers load processed coconut mulch onto a cargo vessle which will transport the material along the Mekong river to both foreign and domestic markets.

With an abundance of choice as to where to stop, we simply pointed towards one facility at random and asked the boat driver to drop us off. As we approached it was immediately clear that the facility was not built to receive tiny boats like ours, and as a result there was no clear way for us to clamber up the four metre tall cement pad that separated the land from water. Instead we had to awkwardly climb onto a waiting cargo ship, shimmy precariously around its gunnels, and cross a thin, wobbling plank to the shore. While it is often said that the photographer’s dream is to be invisible, at that moment we were anything but. Roughly thirty workers had stopped what they were doing to watch, and I suspected that at least a few of them were hoping for one of us, laden with cameras as we were, to stumble sideways into the water below.

Ultimately our steps were sure and we made it safely to firm ground, all eyes now turned towards us, wondering what on earth we wanted. Mi, our perpetually hard working translator, quickly located the operation’s manager who indicated, with a dismissive wave of his hand, that we were free to do what we wanted. The main obstacle now overcome, we were able to finally take in the scene around us.

Vietnamese factory workers load wire baskets with coconut husks and carry them to nearby grinding machines at a coconut recycling facility near the city of Ben Tre.

Factory workers load wire baskets with coconut husks and carry them to nearby grinding machines at a coconut recycling facility near the city of Ben Tre.

Contrary to what we were expecting, there were in fact no whole coconuts anywhere on site; only the husks remained, piled densely on top of each other. Teams of sweating men endlessly loaded them into wire baskets, and after hoisting them onto their shoulders, carried them twenty metres over lumpy ground before dumping them into a blue steel hopper. Yet more men waited there, using pieces of scrap lumber to force the husks into the machine below where, judging from the metallic screeching noises and continual geysers of woody shavings that issued from its bowels, they were ground into fibre.

Out one end of the machine a conveyor belt carried the finer of the processed particles towards men who guided the material into cement bags, filling the fifty kilogram sacks at the rate of one every five minutes. The more substantial strands of husk travelled in the opposite direction, into a spinning steel-mesh tumbler, set at a thirty degree angle to the ground. When enough of the rough hairs built up inside the cylinder an aged looking woman, hidden under a conical hat and face mask, reached inside and pulled enormous fluffy clumps out with her cotton-gloved hands. After just fifteen minutes of being near the machinery my ankles and wrists were chaffed terribly against my shirt and socks, itching like fibreglass.

Workers feed coconut husks into a grinding machine. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

Workers feed coconut husks into a grinding machine.

A worker supervises a tumbling machine that separates any debris from coconut husk fibres. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

A worker supervises a tumbling machine that separates any debris from coconut husk fibres.

Pairs of women arrived every few minutes with a cloth stretcher, onto which they piled an impressive quantity of the shredded husks before carrying it to a nearby concrete courtyard, at least a hectare in size. There, dozens more women, all identically clad in long sleeved shirts, face masks, and the ubiquitous Vietnamese conical hats, were hunched over as they separated the wiry strands with their hands. As visually interesting as the operation was, we still had no idea what we were looking at.

It wasn’t until we located the 57-year-old owner of the plant, Nau, that we were able to fully understand. A squat, friendly woman, Nau explained that this was relatively new method of coconut recycling. While the technology had certainly been long since available, it wasn’t until the mid 2000’s that the process became commercially viable – mostly owing to an massive increase in demand for flowers in China. The fine dust we had seen stuffed into sacks was loaded onto boats and shipped down the Mekong to distribution centres, which then exported the material internationally as a cheap plant mulch. The longer strands were either woven into mats or used to insulate soundproof walls in recording studios and karaoke bars.

A worker drives a tractor over drying coconut husks to separate them. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

A worker drives a tractor over drying coconut husks to separate them.

A worker stands in front of a field of drying coconut husk fibres. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

A worker stands in front of a field of drying coconut husk fibres.

Though perhaps not revolutionary technology, it was nevertheless a clever commercial (and environmental) innovation. A decade earlier, Nau told us, these coconuts would have been considered useless and burned to ashes. Now, the factory employed nearly a hundred people from the island, providing a clean and cheap product for both domestic and foreign markets.

In a single day more than 120 000 hollowed coconuts could be converted into a useful commodity, where before there was only waste. With the region’s coconuts being almost exclusively watered by the Mekong, and all incoming and outgoing shipping conducted by boat along the river, in a very real way flowers on a family table in Shanghai or Kunming might owe their existence to the Mekong.

Not wanting to overstay our welcome, we retraced our steps across the gangplank and scuttled awkwardly back onto our boat. The engine seemingly recovered we motored back towards the city. From the brink of disasters we had salvaged a fine morning of shooting, and furthered our appreciation of just how far reaching the Mekong’s influence could be.

A factory worker moves a bail of coconut husk fibres through a storage building. The ground husks will be used for a variety of purposes such as a low cost plant mulch and soundproofing material.

A factory worker moves a bail of coconut husk fibres through a storage building.

————

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, Environmental, The Mekong River, Vietnam Also tagged , , , , , , , |

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.

Boat Delivery_-18

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.

Boat Delivery_-20

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.

Boat Delivery_-17

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.

Boat Delivery_-14

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

Boat Delivery_-12

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

Boat Delivery_-7

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

Boat Delivery_-5

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.

Boat Delivery_-4

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

Boat Delivery_-3

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.

Boat Delivery_-2

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.

Posted in Blog, Cambodia, Environmental, The Mekong River Also tagged , , , , , , , , |