Delightful Provincial Cambodia 5 – Around Kompong Cham
6 a.m. in Kompong Cham. Half asleep, we trod from Mekong Hotel to Bophear Guesthouse nearby. The evening before we ordered rental bicycles there. The one-gear-things cost one dollar for some hours. Over a modest sunrise, we cycle south along the riverside, until we reach a funny bamboo bridge. It is several hundred meters long.
— SWEET KO PAEN ISLAND —
This bridge leads to a Mekong river island called Ko Paen. Every year in the dry season, the bridge is built anew from scratch, while in the rainy season you visit Ko Paen by ferry boat.
From the riverside a steep dirt trail leads down to the bridge. Across the bridge from Ko Paen island arrive many carts driven by Khmer-style shrink-horses; the carts are highly packed with bags of tobacco and other agricultural products. To bring the heavy load up the dirt trail from the bridge, the poor micro-horses get beaten a lot, receive a stream of curses and one or two guys help pushing the cart up the hill. There are also motorcycle drivers with fat tobacco loads; they are pushed up the hill too.
Other horse-carts already return from town, again heavily packed. They have to make it down to the bridge along the steep trail. As the carts seem to have no brakes, the horses are somewhat pushed downhill by their burden and wear concerned faces.
We cycle across the bamboo construction. The surface consists of wobbly woven natural materials. On the other side we pay some riels toll charge. Then the woven road continues through a long stretch of Mekong sand beach. Finally it's up a short steep dirt hill and into leafy sweet Ko Paen island.
In terms of natural beauty, Ko Paen can't compete with southern Laos' "Four thousand islands" – splendid Mekong islands such as Don Khone. Still, Ko Paen is worth every bucket of sweat I pour on this steamy morning. After all, Ko Paen island is known throughout Cambodia, made famous by an old romantic song.
Quiet shady sand roads lead into Ko Paen's interior. The opulent family houses rest on stilts, with sand courts swept meticulously clean of every single leaf. The ladies float about in traditional sarongs. Most people seem self-confident and content, and the kids are all hello and smiles as we bump along. A huge pagoda is just being extended.
We end up on a "ring road" busy with motorcycles. Here you could forget that you're on a remote river island. At a fruit stall we slurp coconut juice, then Norah opens several other dubious fruits I never saw before – it's the usual sweet slimy job that Khmers seem to like so much. (Just like their music.)
I keep my tired lady parked at the fruit stall and set out for a bicycle service, because my front tyre keeps loosing air. As usual in these parts, help is no 500 meters away, residing in the shadow under a stilted family house. The lady offers me a plastic chair and a glass of iced water. The man throws my cycle right into the sand under his house and unrigs the front tyre. More family members look on.
This is a tricky puncture, and he has to work quite some time. While waiting, they applaud me for my attempts at Khmer language.
To make things easy, I say: "Mee'an propon Khmer." – Have Khmer wife.
Them: "Oh, propon Khmer. La'ohr!" – Oh, Khmer wife. Good!
Me: "Propon Khmer, la'ohr NA!" – Khmer wife VERY good.
After this confession, everybody wears a happy smile, a pink cloud rises over Ko Paen Ring Road Bicycle Service, and for half an hour of work including sewing materials I am charged 500 riels, 12 US cents.
— PAGODA HILLS —
We drive the jeep on a dirt road north of Kompong Cham town, just along the western Mekong river coast. We plan to see Han Chey pagoda for sunset, 15 miles north from the provincial capital. It's a good road with many perfect concrete bridges.
Just a few kilometers before the pagoda two teenagers stand on the road as if hitching a ride. Of course I stop, and they enter the car curiously. One teenie girl is shy, the other talkative. They had been waiting for a motorcycle taxi, but are of course happy with a free car ride in clean aircondition. The talkative girl actually sells snacks at our destination, Han Chey pagoda. She asks Norah if she could walk around the pagoda with us. Norah, by now tired from our passengers' logorrhoe, replies: "Oh, my dear, now you work at the pagoda everyday – no need to walk around more with us today!" Face and peace are saved.
Han Chey pagoda sits on a hill 100 meters over the river. You get lovely views across the river and to river islands, of course covered with vegetable fields. Looking back, the entrance gate seems to perfectly frame the river panorama. Actually, this delightful pagoda ground feels more like a shady park than like your everyday Cambodian temple complex.
Next morning, on the way back to Phnom Penh, seven kilometers out of Kompong Cham town, we drive the car up to another hill temple, Phnom Bros, the "Men's Hill". There are more nice views from here. But I never snap any overviews as the sky is so hazy.
We sit down at a fruit stall where we are joined by an elderly monkey with a moaning voice. We learn that this monkey has retired from stealing and tree-hopping and now lives from food alms just like the resident monks. As soon as I get up for a moment, the monkey enters my plastic chair – to be fed sweet mango and bananas by my sweet Khmer lady.
From Phnom Bros, you see the sister hill with another pagoda, "Phnom Srei". This "Women's Hill" is even higher and said to have better views. We don't make it onto women's hill though – you can't drive, you have to *walk* up. Maybe next cool season.
This is a very nice series.