The flood waters had not come. The houseboats sat low at the foot of their long-legged neighbours - the stilt houses on the land.
The soaring height of these informed how far the river might soon be expected to rise. The floaters would rise with them, until almost eye to eye with their stilted counterparts.
The river here was busy with the comings and goings of so many kinds of craft - fishing boats, ferries, sampans, hawker boats and canoes, some motor-driven and some propelled by oar. The women at the helm wore multi-hued pajamas, just like in Vietnam.
But this was Cambodia. The river was the Tonle Sap, and the town, Kompong Chhnang. I was on a ferry heading north from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, with a view to visit Angkor. But Chhnang seemed to me a fantastic destination in itself - intriguingly exotic and chaotically old-world.
I decided then and there to make it back here some time, and get to see close up how these people of the river live their lives.
So a few years down the track, and I am back in Phnom Penh, and off to Kompong Chhnang. Only this time I cheat a bit, and travel by bus instead of boat. It would take just two hours.
I am dropped off at the market end of town. It's some 2km inland from the river, and looks like any other small Cambodian urban centre, with nondescript shophouses and a good amount of grunge. The market itself, though, would be good fun to explore.
|The river has many uses.
To get to the river you take a moto (taxi motorbike) down the long main street to Pasar Krom - the waterfront market.
It feels a little strange sneaking up on the river from behind, so to speak. The road is lined by a motley assortment of small businesses and shacks.
In between, you glimpse the countryside - the vivid green wetlands given over to rice, commanded here and there by thatched cottages on piles. Meanwhile, greetings are coming thick and fast - "Hello, sir", "Good afternoon", "What's your name?". It's nice to feel so welcome.
I pass a temple complex with saffron-robed monks smiling hellos from the yard. A dirt road branches off to the right, and heads down to a stream. It crosses a breakwater - one that draws a crowd. Net casting fishermen share it with the traffic, as well as sporting kids, as a bevy of motor bike owners wash their machines.
Now there's a novel scene!
When it gets to the river, the road does a sharp left to become a kind of esplanade. On the riverbank side are lots of little eateries and stalls. The "esplanade" soon turns into a track, and I am in amongst a maze of wooden stilts.
Then the fun begins.
The people are so friendly here, I reach celebrity status before I've made a hundred yards. Ladders lead steeply up to the cube-like domiciles perched atop the piles. Once ensconced up there you must feel pretty safe, except maybe in a storm.
Backtracking now, I stand on the riverbank and overlook the houseboats down below. There are far more than I could ever have imagined. They are moored in neat rows stretching away as far as you can see.
A high rickety bridge takes you over the stream - the one with the breakwater. A lady wearing a conical hat awaits my arrival.
"Boat - five dollar one hour!"
|Gliding serenely on the Tonle Sap; a domicile on stilts by the river.
And who could resist her charming smile. I tell her I'll be back tomorrow morning. An even bigger smile!
The scene here is simply amazing. Makeshift plankwalks lead out to rowboats that take commuters and school kids to and from their homes. Neighbours sit and chat across the decks. Fisherman mend engines and nets, and the kids just lark about. Boat builders and mechanics work away on the river or the shore, and floating shops sell everything from groceries to soup.
Most of the boat dwellers are, in fact, Vietnamese. They are fisherfolk who have ventured up the Mekong from the Delta, then worked their way up the Tonle Sap.
Around 150,000 Vietnamese make Cambodia their home. Most reside in Phnom Penh, but many are fishers and rice farmers who have followed in the wake of the not infrequent Vietnamese invasions of Cambodia. The first of these occurred in the 17th century, and the most recent was in 1979.
Next morning, I'm as good as my word. Traversing the bridge again - risking life and limb - I am met by the boat lady with the hat and the smile. She soon has me seated in her boat and conveyed out amongst the other crafts.
She works a single oar while standing at the bow - how I wouldn't know. The houseboats have a surprising array of mod cons - TV, karaoke and the like. The rowers sidle up to one another for a chat. A hawker boat stops by, and they maybe grab a coffee or a snack. Gee, it ain't so bad here living on the water, after all.
|Kompong Chhnang on the river.
Back on terra firma, I find an alternative route back up town. It's a dirt road lined with shrub-enshrouded homes. Motorised traffic here is light, and the road is given over to vendors, cyclists and strollers such as me.
Life seems idyllic in these parts, in a minimal communal kind of way. I am invited onto verandahs, and get to meet the family - all three generations - plus relatives and friends. It's not hard to really like Chhnang.
Sundown sees me back on the "esplanade", relishing this cooling river breeze, a chilled Anchor beer in my hand. The hawker stalls get busy around this time. Any wonder.
I drink to cheery fellow diners and to the houseboat residents below, to everyone I've met in Kompong Chhnang, and also to this ferry on the river passing by. Now I bet it's on its way from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap.
Malaysia Airlines flies from KL to Bangkok daily. Thai Airways International flies from Bangkok to Phnom Penh daily. Battambang buses leave from the bus terminal near Central Market at 10.45am and 12.45am, and stop on request at Kompong Chhnang.
When to visit
The coolest season is from November- February. BRING Sun block, hat, repellent, light cottons and comfortable walking shoes.
In Phnom Penh: (five-star) Intercontinental Hotel; www.interconti.com or (upscale) Hotel Le Royal, a heritage hotel; http://phnompenh.raffles.com/ In Kompong Chhnang: Samrongsen Hotel, on main road to the river, tel: 026 989 011.