Friday, 29 September 2017

One Barang on a Honda

Despite our trip to Cambodia being to celebrate our wedding anniversary, sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder. We took a day out to do 'our own thing' - shopping and a spa vs. riding a motorcycle in Cambodia. I chose the bike...

Rural Cambodia doesn't have the frenetic pace of Saigon. My hosts for the day, Cambodia Motorcycle Adventures, run a fleet of dirt bikes for serious enduro riders. But that's not me and my choice was the Countryside Immersion Tour on a Honda 125 Dream. Now, don't under-estimate these bikes! They are the backbone of Cambodia's economy and solo, with the whole family, pulling a 'tuk tuk' (taxi) or farm trailer these little bikes are indestructible.

My guide Narith and I had the best day exploring the countryside around Siem Reap. I won't bore Blog readers with a blow by blow recounting of the day, but rather the philosophy of invisible tourism.

Tourism impacts the destination country in many ways and it's often impossible, no matter how hard you try, to visit and just see the country in its natural state. Tours must be organised, temples marvelled at and trinkets accumulated.

Riding a Honda 125 Dream in Cambodia (along with hundreds of other identical bikes) makes you invisible. We wove our way through back roads, along the top of rice paddy dikes and around water-filled potholes that you'd swear were result of an artillery barrage. Riding at between 20 and 40 km/h, I saw village and rural life at its best. If I made eye contact, there was a double take, a smile and a wave.

Narith just pulled into tracks, driveways, village stalls and farms and explained to me what activities were going on. When I asked Narith whether these people were his friends or part of the tour he said no. He was a Khmer and they were Khmer and that they were genuinely interested in telling a Barang (me, the foreigner) about their lives.

We rode all day and covered just 98 kilometres. So different from 600 kilometre days in the Northern Territory just six months ago. I left with nothing more than a 500 ml water bottle of farm-brewed rice whiskey, purchased from the farmer/distiller for US$1 and some fantastic memories. Returning to the luxury of the 5 Star Hotel was surreal.

Cambodia has beauty, tragedy and optimism all mixed together in the middle of a complex political situation. My day on a Honda 125 Dream gave me a precious window to the Cambodia that most tourists don't see, and I loved it. My thanks to Narith for his insights into Cambodian life, and Po the tour boss for organisation and photos.

Rice whiskey distillery, direct to the public

Family business husking dried beans for market

Narith making it look easy

How deep is that shell hole?

A Barang, a Khmer and two Hondas

The Antipodean Mariner
September 2017

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Mekong River trade

I took a couple of weeks off and sailed upriver on the Mekong from Saigon to Phnom Penh, across Lake Tonle Sap to Siem Reap. We sailed in the Monsoon Season (through the weather was pretty good) but the big 'plus' was that the Mekong was in flood and Tonle Sap was at full capacity, and our ship was able to navigate the full voyage.

Apart from being cosseted in luxury aboard a small river cruise ship, I was 'geeking out' on the inventiveness of the Vietnamese and Cambodian mariners (can I call them that?) whose life and livelihood is derived from the River.

There is no end to the ingenuity displayed when loading rice husks. A byproduct of rice threshing, it is used as fuel for cooking, firing pottery and as cattle feed to name a just a few. Because the husks are so light, the utility river craft will never get down to their marks (an abstract concept on the waterway). Boat crews rig outrigger posts and re-bar mesh overlaid with plastic netting to create hoppers.

Loading rice husks at the riverside rice mill

Full laden and ready to depart
Fully laden with husks and tarp'ed to protect from the monsoon rains, the wooden river boats set sail with the skipper sitting on the wheelhouse top, steering with his feet. We saw dozens of these river craft plying their trade in rice, cement, timber and sand.

Next in the River pecking order were the self-propelled barges carrying sand from the Upper Mekong and Cambodia down to Saigon and further to feed the insatiable demand for construction materials and concrete. The alluvial sand is dredged from the river using cranes barges, grabs and suction dredged.

The barges actually have a Loadline marked on the hull, about 150 cm below the deck edge. We only saw the Loadline when the barges were in ballast back up the River. Actual practices was to load the barge until the decks were awash and water was lapping around the forward wheelhouse and after accommodation. Sometime they sink...

Decks awash
 These barges are family enterprises and often have Mum and the kids living aboard.

LPG 'Senna 3' bound downriver

The one SOLAS vessel seen on the River was a Thai LPG tanker 'Senna 3', on her way downriver after discharged at Phnom Penh. She was still almost 160 Nm steaming to the South China Sea at this point.

I couldn't finishing the post without attempting to convey the serenity of an early morning on the River. Highly recommended destination and idyllic means of transportation.

The Antipodean Mariner
September 2017