Friday, 6 January 2017

Cambodian Notebook 1


Arriving in Phnom Penh after a long flight we walk out into a wall of heat and humidity. From sub zero temperatures in Cumbria to the tropical intensity of Cambodia is a shock to the system. The driver is waiting for us as arranged, holding up a placard with Neil's name on it. The driver doesn’t speak English so conversation is limited to our few words of Khmer with a bit of miming and a lot of gesticulation and laughter.

Driving in Cambodia is unnerving. On the busy roads out of Phnom Penh there is undertaking, overtaking, double overtaking and vehicles coming towards you on the wrong side of the carriageway.  There are rickshaws, motorbikes with whole families on board, bicycle carts laden with goods, lorries, jeeps, farm vehicles and the occasional cow in the road.  But our driver is steady and sensible and we reach Kep unscathed.   Kep is a small coastal town only 18 kilometres from the Vietnam border.  It's small and still fairly unspoilt.  This was the French region of Cambodia and there's still a very continental feel to the old buildings here.
Market. Rural Cambodia is not for the faint-hearted!

Most places are closed for Khmer New Year but we manage to find a cup of tea and cool beer in a small teashop next to the pier where our boat to the island is waiting. Some of the eco-volunteers from the conservation project have come over on the boat to grab a couple of hours in civilisation to stock up on supplies.  They expertly throw our luggage on board before doing the same with us.  
Leaving Kep
Out to sea the wind freshens – it’s blowing strongly offshore at the moment.  The coolness is very welcome.  Flying fish hover over the surface like flocks of silver birds.  There are islands everywhere, wooded peaks and bumps poking up through the sea like mountaintops in a submerged landscape.

An hour and a half later the mainland to our left is Vietnam and we are approaching our destination, Koh Seh - Horse Island.  The children have formed a reception committee on the jetty and, once we’ve been hugged and fought over, they excitedly show us our accommodation.

From now on we sleep on a slatted bed covered by a thin piece of foam with the ocean a few feet away from the door.  The shower is a scoop in a plastic barrel filled with rainwater.  There’s no electricity during the day and in the evening only a small generator for essential power to charge lap tops and provide lighting.

We eat with the others in the big communal building that serves as canteen, recreation hall and office space.  This is the home of Marine Conservation Cambodia, staffed by post-graduate interns and a group of international volunteers. The area around these islands is a marine conservation area and research project.  There are coral reefs and sea-grass beds that serve as nurseries for young fish and which, once they are restored to full health, they hope will be a source of eco-tourism for Cambodia. On shore they are nurturing young mangrove trees which will protect the islands from coastal erosion. Educating others about marine conservation is a large part of the work.
Sunset on the edge of the South China Sea
 We eat with the others on long tables. Cambodian food cooked Thai style – vegetables in a peanut sauce and the remains of the New Year’s Eve pig. They don’t serve fish here! Then, in the darkness offshore, there is the ominous rumble of illegal pair trawlers.  Half a dozen of the men get up and leave, preparing to take the big boats out for a confrontation with the trawlers.  The Fisheries police are called and a rendezvous arranged.  I ask if I can go too, but they refuse. It’s too dangerous. We hear the marine diesels start up and the boats creep off into the night, without lights, to police the conservation area.  It’s a tense moment, but a couple of hours later they return and the trawlers are gone.

Just how dangerous this really is, can be seen on the beach in front of our hut.  One of the conservation vessels was rammed and lies as a wreck on the shingle.  It won’t sail again.


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