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Adrift on the Mekong

Rahul Goswami (COCHINCHINA)
Filed on April 26, 2014

The vast river-mother of South-east Asia is best crossed in a flat-bottomed ferry

There stretches from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap a highway that is, in parts, like most others in newer South-East Asia, broad, smooth and suitable for vehicles wishing to travel at up to 100kmph. Fortunately for Cambodia, such sections are still few in number, which allows life as it should be led to continue at a pace more comforting.

The road that takes one to the ferry which crosses the Mekong, just outside Phnom Penh, has neither smooth sections nor rutted ones. For the last 200 metres or so, it resembles a muddy canal and is impassable for pedestrians. There aren’t many pedestrians, for those with any goods to sell or forms to fill or jobs to travel to learnt long ago how to manoeuvre a light scooter through the slush, while those who haven’t such conveniences cadge lifts with those who do.

And so one reaches the jetty, a tumble of higgledy slabs of stone and rubble beaten down into a platform from which one hops into the flat-bottomed ferry. Scooterists have developed an agility while on two slippery wheels that enables them to proceed as if in magical slow motion and at acute angles and ride into, cargo and all, the ferry. The small vessel fills quickly, especially if one or two passenger vans cram themselves in. There’s usually a last-second scramble as some late-comer makes a dash for it, the diesel engine then spins faster, the wheel turns, and the ferry noses out into the currents of the broad brown Mekong.

In any archipelago, this is water that could be a strait. The farther bank is no more than a hint of a deep green line broken by a few roofs. Crossing the Mekong in the lower half of its long tropical procession to the South China Sea alters one’s sense of scale about a big river, doesn’t just alter it but merges confusingly with the marine geographies of the open ocean. Except, this is many shades of brown instead of several shades of turquoise.

Communities uncountable in number depend on the Mekong for their existence, the river home is their identity and their spiritual anchor. Those who live with and through the river farm their lands alongside, and graze their livestock on the hillsides that rise along its banks. The music of the Kmhmu, from the Bokeo province of northern Laos, would be unheard if not for their bamboo wind instruments. In north-east Thailand, where the Mekong runs through it music is based around the can or what, translated from the local, is called the “reed mouth organ” which usually accompanies the singing known as ‘mawlam’.

The slow and lazy tune of the mother river of the region finds voice in the single-stringed ‘bau’ of Vietnam and the ‘khse diev’ of Cambodia. If one is fortunate — and such fortune is easier to find upriver from Phnom Penh and its factories, its get-rich-quick schemes and its toiling legions of garment factory workers — one may hear the ‘slek’, an instrument made of a folded leaf, through which a musician blows notes as he watches over water buffalo in the rice fields.

On the nearer shore, behind a double line of small wooden and bamboo huts perched cunningly upon stout platforms, these providing a stable surface some three metres above the water’s surface, the central spire of a pagoda may be seen. Tapering to a point that is gilded, the main spire is usually painted in shades of light yellow, vermilion and white, colours that retell the hues of the main faiths of South-East Asia. Before and behind the spire but much lower are the decorated tiled roofs of the pagoda, the entire structure raising its upper storeys to overtop the brilliant green of the palm tree canopy.

Out on the wide river, a stiff breeze will dispel any humid airs that still linger in the crowded ferry. Sleek dark waterbirds dart alongside, looking for scraps of the many kinds of snacks the ferry’s passengers chew on during the crossing, Those still astride their little scooters and mopeds, for they are jammed in like commuters on a suburban transit train, may lean back and doze awhile. Others seek the shade of the few fluttering, patched and ragged awnings at the stern to squat and sip a juice or cooling tea, carried aboard in a plain small plastic pouch. And presently, with a clatter of chain that releases the ramp and the sputter of engines, the vast Mekong has been crossed. Another Cambodia lies beyond these banks.

The author is an expert on intangible cultural heritage with UNESCO and studies agricultural transformation in South Asia


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