When I first met Paula and her family, her father invited me to visit their village with the offer that he would take us out on his fishing boat. Now that I know them well, he lives in Malaysia in order to earn enough money to continue paying off the family’s debt, incurred throughout the five years of Paula’s illness. So the offer to go out on his fishing boat remains on hold for now. When I last visited Kampong Cham, Paula’s brother rang me on the Saturday morning to enquire of my whereabouts. I was able to say that I planned to visit the next day, but unable to give any detail due to our language barrier. Dan and I arrived unannounced at about 9am, having left my fellow expatriates at the bottom of 200+ stairs leading up to a temple complex at a nearby hilltop. A few kilometers later, a newborn baby boy was one of the first to greet me along with various villagers who I am often unsure if I’ve met before, due to the volume of people who always form my welcoming party. It was a happy visit as always although they were disappointed that I couldn’t stay for a meal and I had to repeatedly insist that my friends were waiting for me at the nearby temple.
Dan makes a quiet and unassuming translator, quite different to Chom’s style of doubling as the paid entertainment! I am often unsure of exactly what I am being told, usually because the assumptions behind peoples’ stories are laden with histories and perceptions that I don’t fully comprehend. Paula and her mother talked about their memories of America, that they really wanted to stay but they could not. Her mother said that “we travel with nothing but you travel with many bags and even your children have bags at the airport”. A poignant observation of wealth from impoverished eyes. Her neighbour told me that her husband works as a fisherman on boats off the Thailand coast which is “very dangerous” but he has no choice because they need to eat. These are just daily conversations, not requests for help or for pity.
Whilst in the village I visited the parents of a young Cham woman who I met in Seattle. She met her husband when he returned to Cambodia for a visit and she now lives near Seattle with him. When I met her in Seattle, the conversation was amazing for both of us, as I asked where she was from? Cambodia. “Yes, but where in Cambodia?” Oh it’s a place called Kampong Cham. “I know Kampong Cham, where is your home?”. When she named Paula’s village I was surprised beyond belief and when I claimed to know this village, she was equally surprised. Recently I told Paula’s family via Dan, that before I came to Cambodia I had never heard of Cham people, but now I feel very connected to them.
On return to the temple to meet the others, my bag fell off it’s perch behind Dan’s moto and was hit by the tuk tuk wheels underneath my seat, veering us off course so that for a moment I thought we were going to drive over a bluff into the rice fields below the elevated road. Thankfully a small tear in my case, salvaged from the roadside a short distance behind us by an apologetic Dan, was the only damage done. We picked the others up at the bottom of the stairs, filled with excitement at the Khmer New Year ceremony they had gate crashed by chance, on the mountain. They had photographs galore showing hundreds of people dancing and making offerings to dozens of processional monks.
Back in Kampong Cham town we had another delicious and inexpensive market meal before our hired van met us for the drive back to Phnom Penh. Within 2.5 hours we were arriving at the apartment gate. That night we headed out for dinner to the historic Foreign Correspondents’ Club, an open air restaurant on the trendy tourist strip river front. Not far from the Royal Palace, the FCC as it’s known, overlooks from its first and second floor terraces, the massive new Sokha Hotel on the opposite shore of the Tonle Sab river. If you had not been to that shore, which most tourists and expatriates have not, you would not know that the Sokha rises above a community of Cham fisher people, who live on small colourful wooden boats which double as their livelihood, allowing them to fish and therefore to eat, as well as to make a small income if they are lucky enough. You also may not know, that the promontory it sits on is the junction where the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers converge. During the wet season, the Mekong delta floods push the Tonle Sap river flow backwards into the lake which swells to four or five times it’s usual size. This is the largest freshwater lake in southeast Asia, feeding some of the largest freshwater fish in the world.
On May 24 last year I wrote a blog called Pay It Forward in which I talked of my uncle, an open sea fisherman in New Zealand who refused to take anything from me as a thank you, insisting that I “do something for Cambodia” on his behalf. Maintaining fishing boats in a place like Cambodia is a constant challenge for their owners who need to work the boats everyday and rarely have enough money to keep them maintained. Determining to offer repair of a fishing boat on behalf of my uncle, Bree who works with the Cham people living on the shores of the Mekong/Tonle Sab confluence, was my obvious contact. She tells tales of severely disabled children living on these small wooden boats and spending hours everyday on the river while parents fish; of boats sinking with whole families on board; of a vigilant community constantly looking out for each other due to the dangers of their worn out boats. Yesterday, a year after my promise to my uncle, I finally organised a boat repair on his behalf.
My day started with breakfast at Brown, a trendy coffee shop in a trendy area of town, where I met Bree who had arranged for us to meet up with Ben, the CEO of Kung Future. We caught a tuk tuk across the river, where we met up with Ny, who had been informed of the boat repair plan and been scouting the community to determine who was most in need. Somewhere between trendy Phnom Penh and the Mekong/Tonle Sab confluence shoreline, your perception of the world is thrown into turmoil. When I first visited here with Bree three years ago, there was talk that the Cham people would be forced away from this shore once the hotel was built, to keep them out of sight of tourists. The fact that the hotel remains largely unoccupied may be the reason that this threat has not been carried out. Many dozens of empty rooms with running water and ensuite toilets watch down on this active community where dozens of families live without a single toilet. Among their many useful interventions, Kung Future have supplied water filters so that families can drink the river water safely. If the community move too far uphill, they are moved back down by police. When the river waters rise, they are forced to dismantle their huts and pile the materials onto the boats. Bree talks of visiting the community during the wet season, stepping warily on tiny patches of mud or balancing one foot in front of the other on narrow wooden planks to reach moored boats.
Bree and Ben thought we might end up visiting a community on the Tonle Sab shore, where many more boats are delapidated. The Tonle Sab waters are calmer and less rippling than the Mekong, so once your boat becomes dangerously ramshackle it is safer to fish on the Tonle Sab. However Ny already had a plan for a family living in the shadow of the Sokha Hotel. On 8 April an early monsoonal storm hit Phnom Penh. The family consisting of Mum, Dad and six children were on shore in their tarpaulin-covered bamboo hut. The next morning Dad walked down to the water’s edge and his boat had disappeared, along with all of the paraphernalia they had stored on-board. The story of retrieving the boat made no sense to me, as Ny tried to describe, with accompanying photographs, the lowering of large water drums which in some way helped to raise the boat off the riverbed and haul it to the surface. It has been sitting on the shore for a month now. The family are impoverished but functional, their children have good school attendance, thanks to their fees being covered by Kung Future. Their parents generate a small income by selling produce from the so-called house, but without the ability to fish they have been forced to live on little else but rice for the past month. Ny told me their story before walking with me down a packed-mud slope to the boat, filled with gaps in the wooden panels and holes in the strips of glue holding the panels together.
When she was comfortable that I agreed to this being the boat we repair, we went to meet the family. Dad was sitting under the shade of his tarpaulin roof, on a bamboo floor suspended about 60cm off the ground. One hand rocked a hammock hiding a sleeping baby and the other hand rested on the edge of a broken foam eskie with smoke wafting out of it’s open top. When I looked closer, an open fire burned on stones inside this eskie, on top of which a pot of rice boiled! When I expressed my concern at the peril of a fire in such flammable surroundings, Ny explained that it was okay as long as he did not move away and this was why he was leaning on the edge of the eskie.
Ny introduced me and talked to Dad about my uncle, who fishes in very cold sea water, jumping off his boat with a long spear and swimming around, spearing fish. Dad listened with a smile, nodding occasionally and I wondered if he thought I was spinning him a tall tale. We explained that my uncle wants to help a fisherman in Cambodia and that repairing the family’s boat was the choice we’d agreed upon. This led to a photograph session just as Mum arrived on a clackity motorbike from the market. Except the two youngest, their children were all at school. With Mum and Dad as witnesses, I handed my envelope containing the donation to Kung Future. Ny asked Dad to make a list of the supplies he would need so that they could go shopping together this week. He can repair the boat himself so there will be no labour costs and he predicts it should take about a week. I asked if I could return to see the boat once it’s fixed, and Ben announced “we can do better than that! We will go out on the boat with him!”.
From here we wandered through the community, visiting young families, tiny stunted and malnourished children, elderly women lying down under tarpaulin shades, grandparents pulling potatoes from the ground with infants at their ankles and men working on their wooden boats. I was a sweltering mess but it was the best morning I’ve had in ages.