THE LIFE AQUATIC

A lan­guid cruise from Siem Reap to Ph­nom Penh re­veals the nat­u­ral and cul­tural riches of this cor­ner of Cam­bo­dia, as well as the plea­sures of a well-ap­pointed boat.

DestinAsian - - CONTENTS - By Christo­pher P. Hill

A lan­guid cruise from Siem Reap to Ph­nom Penh re­veals the nat­u­ral and cul­tural riches of this cor­ner of Cam­bo­dia, as well as the plea­sures of a well-ap­pointed boat.

We make our in­cur­sion

into the flooded forests of the Tonle Sap un­der a low, cir­rus-streaked sky. At least, it feels like an in­cur­sion—thread­ing its way through man­grove-choked chan­nels, our alu­minum skiff, equipped with muf­fled out­board mo­tors and painted a green-tinged gray that mir­rors the color of the lake wa­ter in the fil­tered morn­ing light, has a stealthy, al­most mil­i­tary as­pect to it. The mood on board is vaguely sur­rep­ti­tious, too, as we scan the wa­ter­logged wilder­ness for our quarry. Then comes a rapid-fire set of di­rec­tions from our team leader, Visoth, that seem bet­ter suited to a commando raid: “Ten o’clock, ten o’clock in the bush!” and, “On your 12! On your 12!”

On our 12, about 20 me­ters up the chan­nel, is a Chi­nese pond heron, its light brown plumage al­most in­vis­i­ble against a thicket of gi­ant mi­mosa. Star­tled by our ap­pear­ance, the bird takes flight, re­veal­ing a flash of snow-white wings as it skims away across the wa­ter. “Very nice,” says Visoth, ad­just­ing the knot in his check­ered krama scarf. “Are you ready for more now?”

It’s the start of the dry sea­son here in Cam­bo­dia— Visoth tells us the mon­soon shifted just three days ear­lier—and the Prek Toal Bird Sanc­tu­ary is al­ready teem­ing with life. As the morn­ing pro­gresses, we spot more pond herons and one of their larger cousins, a pur­ple heron. There are Ori­en­tal darters dry­ing their wings in the sun and young cor­morants flap­ping low over the tree­tops (Visoth, ever ready with a bon mot, says they hatched a month ago and that “they are now pro­fes­sional fliers”). A fish ea­gle perches on a dis­tant branch; a lit­tle red-headed wood­pecker flashes past. “We hardly see them!” Visoth beams. What we don’t see are any other peo­ple, save for a lone fish­er­man gath­er­ing wa­ter hy­acinth and a young Euro­pean cou­ple out on an ex­cur­sion from Chong Kh­neas, the near­est dock, 75 min­utes by speed­boat to the north­east. Prek Toal may be a mecca for bird­ers, but get­ting here re­quires se­ri­ous com­mit­ment. Un­less you hap­pen to be a pas­sen­ger on the

Aqua Mekong, that is. The new­est river­boat to cruise the wa­ters be­tween Siem Reap and Viet­nam’s Ho Chi Minh City—it was launched last Oc­to­ber—the

Aqua Mekong is also the sleek­est. Sixty-two me­ters from stem to stern, it has an un­de­ni­ably mod­ern pro­file, with huge plate-glass win­dows punc­tu­at­ing its sides and a jaunty, tent­like awning shad­ing its pool deck. It’s the third ves­sel in a small fleet founded by Francesco Galli Zu­garo, a hand­some Swiss-born Ital­ian-Amer­i­can who launched his first boat, the

Aqua Ama­zon, on the Peru­vian Ama­zon in 2008. Now based in Sin­ga­pore, Galli Zu­garo, who just hap­pens to be along for this cruise, says the Aqua Mekong is an evo­lu­tion of his orig­i­nal con­cept—larger than its sis­ter ships but still in­ti­mate, with a high crewto-guest ra­tio (20 hos­pi­tal­ity staff, all Cam­bo­di­ans, look af­ter a max­i­mum of 40 pas­sen­gers) and a spare, con­tem­po­rary el­e­gance that in­forms ev­ery­thing from the boat’s lac­quer-pan­eled dining room to its 20 stream­lined cab­ins, which fea­ture floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows (some of which slide open onto pri­vate bal­conies), bronze-hued walls cov­ered in wo­ven fiber, and black-tiled bath­rooms where you can watch the pass­ing scenery as you shower.

But the Aqua Mekong’s se­cret weapon is its trio of skiffs, eight-me­ter-long run­abouts that whisk pas­sen­gers into shal­low chan­nels and back­wa­ters that other cruisers can’t reach. They come in par­tic­u­larly handy on the Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest lake. Barely a me­ter deep in the dry sea­son, the Tonle Sap more than quadru­ples in size dur­ing the sum­mer mon­soon, when the wa­ter level of the rain-swollen Mekong rises so pre­cip­i­tously that part of the tor­rent is pushed up­stream along the 100-kilo­me­ter-long chan­nel (the Tonle Sap River) that con­nects it to the lake, re­vers­ing the trib­u­tary’s flow and flood­ing the Tonle Sap basin. The an­nual del­uge reaches its peak in Septem­ber, when the lake’s depth tops 10 me­ters, in­un­dat­ing thou­sands of square kilo­me­ters of marsh­land and al­lu­vial forests. But it’s late Novem­ber now and the wa­ters are al­ready re­ced­ing, ush­er­ing in the start of the nest­ing sea­son for the mi­gra­tory birds that con­gre­gate in Prek Toal. With­out the skiffs, we’d prob­a­bly be sit­ting back on the deck of the Aqua won­der­ing what all the fuss was about.

Our course through the man­groves takes us to a ranger sta­tion, where we pick up one of its crew to guide us deeper into the 31,282-hectare sanc­tu­ary. The sta­tion, such as it is, in­hab­its a par­tially sub­merged tree, with a bamboo land­ing in the fork of its trunk and, six me­ters above in the branches, an­other plat­form equipped with a tele­scope and a ra­dio. Visoth ex­plains that this is one of more than two dozen such sta­tions scat­tered around the re­serve, used by a rov­ing band of 40 or so rangers to keep an eye out for egg poach­ers and bird hun­ters. Many of them are for­mer poach­ers them­selves, mak­ing them ex­perts at their job.

We mo­tor on through the flooded for­est, past mat­ted clumps of sea-poi­son blos­soms and dense tan­gles of lianas gar­nished with lit­tle yel­low flow­ers.

From time to time, drowned branches scrape men­ac­ingly along the skiff’s hull, and in one brief mo­ment of alarm, our can­vas canopy catches on a low-hang­ing bough and rips open. But soon enough the chan­nel widens and we glide to a stop about 100 me­ters from a pair of tree­tops that have been col­o­nized by hun­dreds of Asian open­bills, a type of snail-eat­ing stork. The ranger in­forms us—with Visoth trans­lat­ing—that the birds ar­rived from the swamps of north­ern Cam­bo­dia two weeks ago, and that here they will stay un­til April, rais­ing chicks and stuffing them­selves on mol­lusks. It’s an im­pres­sive sight, as is the spec­ta­cle that greets on the way back to the Aqua Mekong half an hour later: a sky pep­pered with spot-billed pel­i­cans, dozens of them, wheel­ing against the clouds on wings span­ning two me­ters. I’m mes­mer­ized, un­til the spell is bro­ken by a se­ries of plops just off our bow. Visoth doesn’t miss a beat. “Pooping, pooping,” he says glee­fully. “This must be their WC!”

Of course, the Tonle Sap isn’t just for the birds. It’s among the rich­est fresh­wa­ter fish­eries in the world, one that nur­tured the Kh­mer em­pire in an­cient times, to judge by the abun­dance of fish (in­clud­ing enor­mous, deer-swal­low­ing cat­fish) de­picted in the 12th-cen­tury bas-re­liefs at Bayon Tem­ple in nearby Angkor. To­day, more than three mil­lion peo­ple live on the lake’s flood­plain, and a good many on the lake it­self—Tonle Sap is home to 173 float­ing vil­lages, offthe-grid fish­ing com­mu­ni­ties that drift with the lake’s sea­sonal ebb and swell.

Need­less to say, vil­lage vis­its are writ­ten into the cruise’s script, and af­ter lunch we’re back in the skiffs and head­ing to Moat Khla, home to 190 fam­i­lies as well as a rudi­men­tary Bud­dhist tem­ple buoyed up by oil drums. We moor along­side the lat­ter for a bless­ing cer­e­mony with an or­ange-robed monk and his novices, who chant their mantras un­der a tin roof fes­tooned with parti-colored cot­ton bunting. I get the sense that we’re not the first tourists to come this way, but we could well be at our next stop, Kong Meas, which we reach via a labyrinth of back­wa­ter chan­nels. Home to just 75 fam­i­lies, it’s lit­er­ally off the map; Visoth says this is the first time he or his fel­low guides have ven­tured there. One house­hold, a fam­ily of eth­nic Viet­namese (a mi­nor­ity that has shared the lake with the Kh­mer for count­less gen­er­a­tions), is

kind enough to in­vite us into their home. About 25 of us—two skiff-loads full—crowd into the float­ing house and crouch down on its creak­ing floor­boards. It’s a rustic af­fair, with walls of grass mat­ting, a small TV hooked up to a car bat­tery, and rafters packed with fish­ing gear; the sole con­ces­sions to decor are framed pic­tures of the Madonna and Christ hung be­hind a cat’s cra­dle of tin­sel Christ­mas gar­lands. As our guides ques­tion the head of the house­hold about life on the lake—“We live in peace, it is good,” he says—the wa­ter be­low us thrashes and churns. I briefly won­der if we’re be­ing at­tacked by one of those mon­strous Bayon cat­fish. But no, it’s a con­vuls­ing mass of snake­head, thou­sands of dol­lars worth, that the man raises in a fish pen un­der his house.

By the time we leave it’s get­ting dark, but we have one more stop. In a patch of open wa­ter, the skiffs tie up against each other and the crew begin shak­ing cock­tails—caipiroskas of some sort, mud­dled with palm sugar. We down them to the beat of a boom box that has ap­peared as mag­i­cally as the drinks. “Wel­come to Tonle Sap’s float­ing bar!” Visoth shouts over the mu­sic.

More drinks await back in the Aqua Mekong’s lounge, which takes up half the up­per deck and dou­bles as the venue for our morn­ing brief­ings and mid­day lec­tures about Cam­bo­dian cul­ture and econ­omy. It’s a con­vivial space and pas­sen­gers min­gle over glasses of wine and Angkor beer, re­count­ing the day’s high­lights or shar­ing sto­ries from their

other trav­els. They’re a cos­mopoli­tan and worldly bunch: a Ger­man cou­ple from Hong Kong, re­tirees from Chicago and Boca Ra­ton, a pair of Mus­covites, a group of friends from L.A., and two ladies from New York, Deb­bie and Jo­ce­lyn, who tell me they have both sailed on one of the Aqua’s sis­ter ships on the Ama­zon, and who, like most on this boat, are “seven-nighters,” do­ing the full cruise from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City. I’m only aboard for the Cam­bo­dian leg, fin­ish­ing the trip at Ph­nom Penh, which makes me a four-nighter. But no one holds that against me. And Deb­bie is great. Hav­ing vis­ited plenty of other poor coun­tries in her time, she’s taken to tot­ing around a lit­tle Po­laroid cam­era and ask­ing vil­lagers if she might take their pic­ture, leav­ing them with the dig­i­tal print. “When you visit th­ese places as a tourist, it’s all very one-sided. I thought it would be nice to leave some­thing be­hind,” she says. That might sound a bit pa­tron­iz­ing, but the vil­lagers we meet don’t seem to think so: they gig­gle and grin as they watch their images slowly ma­te­ri­al­ize on film.

Af­ter din­ner, I snoop around some of the Aqua’s other fa­cil­i­ties—there’s a li­brary stocked with Ker­ouac and Stein­beck and a crys­tal-and-teak foos­ball ta­ble; a movie room out­fit­ted with Eames lounge chairs; a small spa—be­fore re­tir­ing to my cabin, where I step onto my bal­cony and lean against the rail­ing. Dark wa­ter races against the hull a me­ter be­low me. In the inky dis­tance, flu­o­res­cent tubes mark the lo­ca­tions of myr­iad fish­ing nets—the lights at­tract in­sects, and in­sects at­tract small fish. They glow like stars, and for a mo­ment it seems that the wa­ter has be­come the sky, and the sky the wa­ter.

Zip­ping about in skiffs is

all very fine, but a cruise boat is a bad place to be if the food isn’t good. Thank­fully, the Aqua Mekong’s is very good, with a menu over­seen by Aus­tralian chef David Thomp­son of Nahm, the much-bal­ly­hooed Thai restau­rant at Bangkok’s Metropoli­tan ho­tel. Thomp­son, who is also aboard for this cruise, is no am­bas­sador for Cam­bo­dian cui­sine (“Thai food is so much bet­ter,” he tells pas­sen­gers while in­tro­duc­ing the lunch se­lec­tion on day three), so we gen­er­ally eat the sorts of things he might cook back in Bangkok: mud crab with hot basil, chilies, and pep­per­corns; fish in sour-or­ange curry; chicken with wild-gin­ger sauce. It’s all de­li­cious. A green Cam­bo­dian fish curry does make it onto the menu one day (“vastly gen­tri­fied, I as­sure you,” Thomp­son smirks), as do piz­zas, pasta, and a Viet­namese pho, pro­vid­ing am­ple fuel for our fur­ther ex­cur­sions.

Our last skiff foray on the Tonle Sap takes us to the vil­lage of Chnok Tru, a size­able com­mu­nity near the lake’s south­ern end. On its busy main chan­nel, we pass all man­ner of float­ing fa­cil­i­ties—a poste de

la po­lice, a two-pump gas sta­tion, a church, a karaoke bar—be­fore vis­it­ing a fac­tory barge that pro­duces huge blocks of ice used to keep fish fresh for the mar­kets in Siem Reap, Ph­nom Penh, and be­yond. It’s a busy place. The ice-mak­ing process is ex­plained by the owner, a man who sports two gold teeth, but my at­ten­tion wan­ders some­where be­tween “am­mo­nia” and “ex­pan­sion coils.” Across the chan­nel, a pair of women are bat­ting at a net with bad­minton rack­ets, send­ing a shower of tiny riel fish (a key in­gre­di­ent in the fer­mented fish paste known as pra­hok) onto the deck. Young men race past on their long­tail boats; chil­dren play catch at the lake’s edge, jump­ing gamely from one porch to an­other. It’s a wa­ter world, com­plete, self-sus­tain­ing, and en­tirely cap­ti­vat­ing.

It’s lunchtime back on

the Aqua Mekong when we en­ter the Tonle Sap River. The flat, shim­mer­ing ex­panse of the lake is soon be­hind us and the coun­try­side closes in, with the hint of rolling moun­tains in the hazy dis­tance. We drift on down­stream, past high banks stud­ded with sugar palms and stub­bly fields that slowly give way to em­bank­ments and other signs of set­tle­ment. At the town of Kam­pong Chh­nang, we go ashore—our first steps on dry land since the start of the cruise—and hop into wait­ing tuk-tuks for a drive though golden rice fields to a pot­tery work­shop. The next day we visit an el­e­men­tary school and a com­mu­nity of sil­ver­smiths called Koh Chen, trailed by a posse of vil­lage kids. Deb­bie can’t snap her Po­laroid fast enough.

Then, al­most with­out warn­ing, we’re pass­ing through Ph­nom Penh, re­turned once more to a world of of­fice build­ings and honk­ing traf­fic. Be­yond the bus­tle of Sisowath Quay the Aqua mo­tors into the con­flu­ence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers, an­chor­ing up­stream for the fi­nal night of this leg of its cruise. To­mor­row I’ll dis­em­bark, but not be­fore en­joy­ing one last din­ner—a bar­be­cue buf­fet served

en plein air un­der the awning of the boat’s pool deck. In keep­ing with the evening’s al­fresco theme, din­ner will be fol­lowed by a movie on the aft sun­deck, which has been con­verted into an out­door cinema. And the name of this film? “It’s the Grand Bud­dha- pest Ho­tel!” a crewmem­ber an­nounces with ex­quis­ite mirth.

An im­pres­sive spec­ta­cle greets on the way back to the Aqua Mekong: a sky pep­pered with spot-billed pel­i­cans, dozens of them, wheel­ing against the clouds on wings span­ning two me­ters

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