Monday, February 28, 2011

Kratie, Cambodia (Day 4)

Last night I decided to make another run to Kampi to see the river dolphins. I figured that for only $15 it would be worth it, and I also thought that in the morning the dolphins might be even more active than in the late afternoon. I got up at 5:30 in order to meet a tuk-tuk driver who would take me there, but at 6:00, when I went downstairs, I saw that the guesthouse had forgotten to arrange this. Fifteen minutes later they flagged down a motorcycle taxi driver and he took me there.

I just made it on board before this gang of outlaws caught up to us. Luckily, they didn't have $9 to join us. Otherwise, I'd probably be dead now.

Hello! Actually, it wasn't waving at me (I don't think; I still waved back, though), but slapping the surface of water as if to stun whatever fish might be swimming there.

As you can see, they came pretty close to our boat. They swam right past the side of the boat once, but it was hard to see them.

They're so friendly, waving all the time...

The water was pretty clear, and I'm sure it would have been even clearer had it not been cloudy that morning. I asked the boat driver how deep the water here was, and he said, "Yes." Spreading my hands apart from top to bottom I then asked if it was much deeper than that, to which he replied, "Yes." So there you go.

One of the islands up close.

I'm pretty sure that this was a fish (tilapia, maybe?) the dolphins killed by smacking the water with their fins. I read somewhere how the dolphins were once seen killing a giant catfish (250 kg) with their tails, and then not eating it. The giant fish just floated downriver. No one is sure what their motivation for doing that might have been.

People still fish in the endangered dolphin's habitat. They're no longer allowed to fish with gill nets, as dolphins sometimes get caught in them and drown. I was told, though, that local people can't enforce this easily because their physical safety would be put at risk. The same is true for fishing with electricity, a practice that doesn't discriminate at all over what fish get killed.

The young man who took me out that morning.

I took this photo at the very last second from the back of a motorbike. I just aimed and shot, and this is what I got. This guy is seriously loaded down with baskets, which when stacked together like that are heavy!

When I got back to Kratie, I decided to hit the local tourist information center to get copies of two tourist brochures I saw at my guesthouse that I thought were interesting. Amazingly, they had nothing but 20 copies of a single page out of a brochure—and it was for the town of Stung Treng, not Kratie. They hadn’t had anything in their office for several months, apparently, though the office had at least six people working there, and I suspect there were others in back rooms that I couldn’t see. It was fun talking to one of the workers in English, but otherwise it wasn’t a productive trip.

I came back and fueled up for the day with a hearty little breakfast.

As I continued walking through town, I passed through the market area looking for signs with Vietnamese writing and listening for spoken Vietnamese. I ended up meeting a Chinese-Vietnamese woman across from the Kratie market. She was extremely pleasant to talk to, and equally interesting. Her parents moved to Cambodia shortly after she was born, refugees from the American War. I’m not sure where she settled, but eventually her parents came to Kratie, which had a large Vietnamese military presence from 1979-1990. She was educated in Phnom Penh but has been living and working in Kratie for many years. She speaks fluent English, Vietnamese, Chinese, Khmer, Thai, and a bit of French. She makes her living importing and exporting to countries all around Asia, and travels extensively. In her home in Kratie, the front of which doubles as a family business, she teaches primary and secondary school students computers and English. The English lessons she gives are free, and for computer lessons she only charges her students for electricity. She also just adopted a four-month-old Khmer boy, as his mother was too impoverished to raise him herself. She didn’t know much about the local history, but she did tell me that in the early nineties, when traveling overland to Vietnam, the car she was in was shot at by Khmer Rouge, who then robbed them as they lay dazed in their overturned car. I haven’t talked to a great many people here about their lives here at that time, but those I have done this with have all told me equally harrowing stories. In any event, I hope to visit her again before I leave, though one of her Cambodian staff pressed me to spend time in his village just outside of Kratie, which is nice, I know, but not really what I’m looking for at this stage of my trip here.

In the afternoon I decided to walk to Kratie stadium, which I’d been told is where some UNTAC forces used to stay, in tents, for at least part of their peacekeeping duties in the town. (Later, though, I was told that they were housed in a large, former garage of some kind.) There wasn’t much here other than a small seating box, two net-less goals, brown scrub grass, and an unstable wall surrounding the field.

Next to the stadium was a private high school and language center. I met a 13-year-old female student there, whose English was excellent, and we spoke about her studies for a bit, and I answered her question about why I was photographing her school (I'm sure it seemed strange to her), before I decided to move on.

The last place I visited on my walk was Wat Pachha, a 27-year-old pagoda full of monks in orange robes who were studying for a big exam the next day. A few of them spoke English, and they practiced on me for quite a while.

After half an hour they seemed to have run out of questions for me, so I attempted to leave the pagoda but was stopped again and invited for a chat with the head monk and his assistant, both of whom spoke English pretty well.

As we talked, and I learned that these two monks later wanted to become, respectively, a businessman and an English teacher, and after being surprised to see an older monk smoking cigarettes and then being reminded by a younger monk to remove my hat (I’d completely forgotten I was wearing one), I found myself growing very hot, very thirsty, and very tired.

The head monk’s interest in me soon waned, and then his assistant told me he had a lesson to teach the other monks now, so we said our goodbyes and I continued the rest of my walk home.

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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Kratie, Cambodia (Day 3, Part 1)

This morning I made it down to Kratie’s pier at 7 a.m. My plan was to take a ferry to Koh Trong—a gorgeous, fascinating island in the Mekong River…full of dogs—and bike its circumference. I wanted to do this early in the morning so that I wouldn’t get so hot, and partly, too, so that I’d have the rest of the day to explore Kratie’s environs by motorbike.

I was hardly the first one at the pier, and in fact I don’t think I even caught the first, or second, or fifth ferry of the morning. Ferry service between Kratie and Koh Trong is constant, though there doesn’t seem to be a “rush hour” for its services. The cost is a mere 1000 riel ($.25) each way, and it takes about five minutes to chug across the water.

Once on the island, there’s a wide swathe of sand to cross. At the end of the beach, at the top of the short escarpment, there’s a bicycle and motorbike rental shop.

Riding a bike around the entire island takes about two hours, so I’d imagine that using a motorbike would mean taking only 30-45 minutes. The bike costs only $1 for however long you wish to use it. The motorbike, I think, costs $5.

The island certainly ranks as one of the most peaceful habitations I’ve ever visited. The entire time I was on the island, I saw four motorbikes, four horse carts, and perhaps twenty bicycles; no cars are allowed on the island; most people seem to get around by walking.

The only things to watch out for are potholes, children, and very territorial dogs. (Don’t stop to take a photo without first checking to see if you’re about to get attacked.)

See that black dog eyeing me? It came out there from its yard, growling, when it saw me stop in the street to take a photo. It's sitting roughly where I'd stopped. I think he's daring me to come back.

The houses here are small, simple, built of wood, and set on stilts. From what I could see, the vast majority of them lacked electricity or running water, though many had wells.

There’s something beautiful about seeing how people live on the island—I could never manage it myself—and spending just two hours here is bound (I hope) to make visitors consider the complexity of their own lives and what they need materially to survive. I would imagine we’d realize that we have, and consume, far more than we actually need. Traveling here is humbling.

A woman, a baby, and two cows. Hey, isn't that the title of a famous movie?
A girl riding a bike with her little brother.

"Mekong Discovery Trail" posters can be found along different parts of the island. This one explains about the underwater lives of dolphins.

The views from various points around the island are often stunning. (If there are no dogs around, stop and have a look. If not, keep riding and hope you’ll have the next viewpoint to yourself.) At this time of year people like to spend time on the beaches and swimming in the river. Without shade, though, I think I’d only last about three minutes. If you’re lucky, on the western part of the island you might catch a glimpse of a rare Mekong mud turtle.

My bike!

There are two pagodas on the island and one temple (more on that below). The first is Wat Koh Trong, which is one of the first things you’ll see upon arriving at the island. The second is Tybaram Dekbal Pagoda, which is on an old dirt road toward the interior, with its gate apparent from a viewpoint near the northern tip of the island.

Tybaram Dekbal Pagoda.

This pagoda is in very good condition, and when I visited I was the only one there. It’s definitely worth a look around.

There were a couple of times when children rushed out at the sight of me, and they’d often unwittingly block my passage. So I’d stop, let them touch my skin and hair, then I'd take a photo of them and let them see it in the viewfinder.

You don’t need to do much to make kids here laugh, but showing them their own photos is a sure way to hear their laughter.

Pigs, on the other hand…

That looks like an uncomfortable way to sleep. I hope it's okay...

I continued riding my bike toward the northwestern-most part of the island, but then the trail petered out. I turned around when I saw I couldn’t go any further, and about 200 meters from a road that cuts through the island I was followed very closely by what looked like two policemen on a motorbike. They went along behind me at the same speed I was riding, then they stopped and began honking their horn repeatedly. I looked over my shoulder at them but didn’t stop or turn back, but every time I turned to look ahead they honked again. This happened three or four times. All I could see were their sunglasses and what appeared to be expressionless faces. It was odd.

When I got to the crossroad I turned right and made my way slowly east. There were ponds here, apparently stocked with fish (there were boats and fishing nets on it), and plots of vegetables and fruit trees. There were women in the fields working, though by now, at almost 9 a.m., it had gotten uncomfortably hot and I'd nearly sucked my bottle of water dry.

A mother and her daughter working in the fields. Like everyone I saw on the island, they called out "Hello!" to me and waved.

When I got back to the other side of the island, I found myself near my starting point. However, I hadn’t explored the northeastern part of Koh Trong, so I biked in that direction. I was surprised to find a Vietnamese temple here, though later it all made sense to me.

Even the side of a wall of one building was papered with a Vietnamese advertisement.

Adverts for cell phones, free beer, motorbikes, and a picture of a pretty girl. All on the wall of a temple building.

One of the most stunning sights I encountered during my bike ride was a row of floating houses off the western side of the island.

There were over twenty houses here, and each house probably held, on average, more than half a dozen people. All the families here are Vietnamese, and they survive by fishing. They fish on the river, and they raise fish in cages and nets beneath their homes. They’ve been here for many years—at least since the time of the Vietnam War—and they make use of the temple on the island above them as necessary.

Part of me wanted to go down and talk to them, but I didn’t want to cause trouble or make them feel strange. I did wonder, though, what their relationship had been with the Vietnamese forces protecting Kratie from the Khmer Rouge, and whether they’d been safe during that time or if they’d had to abandon the area for a safer place. Apparently they were on the side of the river from which the Khmer Rouge would occasionally fire artillery at Kratie. This would make them sitting ducks, and because they're Vietnamese they'd be an obvious target for the Vietnamese-hating Khmer Rouge.

They’re certainly set off from the rest of the community, which is largely Cambodian, though I’m told that many people in town are of Vietnamese origin, too.

A boy on a horse-drawn cart.
After hanging out at the temple for a while, I returned my bike to its owner and grabbed the ferry back to Kratie.

Koh Trong pagoda.
Bye-bye, kiddies. I'm going back to have breakfast.
I went back to my guesthouse for a “full Mekong breakfast” (a homemade fishcake, fried mushrooms, French fries, cooked tomato, bacon, beans, an omelet, and a baguette).

Good gawd, look at all that food.

I couldn’t finish it, but maybe the resident cat in the photo below could. It was quite the beggar when it wasn’t sleeping or attacking people’s feet.

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