Saturday 19th January: Chheb Chas to Strung Treng: 86km and 300m of climbing

Today we reached the mighty Mekong after 3 days of travelling across northern Cambodia. The Mekong is a massive river which runs for 4,350km from the Tibetan Plateau, through large parts of China and Laos and into the sea in Vietnam. It provides water for cultivation in the areas it passes and defines the geography and politics of its entire length. So getting to see and experience the Mekong was a key part of our Cambodian trip.

We woke before dawn, packed and breakfasted on porridge and bananas, and then left the guest house which will always be remembered in my mind by the massive bed in which we slept – totally out of proportion to the room. It must have been made with the idea of families sleeping together in a single bed.
The air was cool as we gradually climbed out of the town, with a morning haze in the air. The cause was land burning, which is a farming practice here even though attempts are being made (unsuccessfully as it seems) to stop it. Farmers burn off the vegetation to create an ash surface for the next year’s crops. The climate change effects of this practice are not great, and it is not needed. But it takes a long time to change established practices in an agrarian economy. The result was that we were cycling through thin clouds of smoke, with the occasional fire still smouldering. It was atmospheric in a strange way.

The vegetation changed markedly as we went. Sections would be uncultivated scrubland with some forestry, but then we would enter a cultivated area with tended fields and more houses. There were the usual hoards of small children everywhere, all shouting “hello” or “goodbye” as we passed – often at the some time. There were lots of smiles here. Cambodian men, women and children smile easily and often and, when they do, their whole face lights up. It would be easy to characterise this as a “happy” nation which was at ease with itself, but the truth is far more complex. But there is an element of this at the surface, even if there are huge depths to the national psyche which tell a different story.

We pressed on across the changing landscape and bought breakfast from a passing motorbike seller. There were huge numbers of men and women on motorbikes with a box on the back containing fruit, vegetables and meat. The boxes have spikes on the top, from which are hung plastic bags with all manner of other goodies. There must be a production line somewhere which produces all these, sells them to the bikers who then work as travelling shopkeepers to sell them on to local people. This may explain why there are so few proper food stalls outside the main towns. They are not needed because the food comes along by a stream of motorbikes. Then, as they go along, the travelling sellers sound their horns to alert the women of the villages on the road (and the customers always seem to be women) to buy their goods.

By 11am the sun had got up and it was heating up, but we were approaching our destination. We went around the final bend and then saw the majesty of this iconic river. It was about 1km wide at the point where the “China-Cambodia Friendship Bridge” spanned the waters. Another example of Chinese economic power – I do not doubt that the friendship has strings attached but, at least for the moment, is good for Cambodia.

The town of Strung Treng is at the confluence of 2 rivers, the Mekong and the Tonle San. The tributary, the Tonle San, comes from the East and rises in the Vietnamese/Laos mountains. But this stage it is about 500m wide and is a major river in its own right.

We found a guest house and booked in, and then wandered around this busy town. We found a mellow chap who spoke English softly. He runs tourism on the Mekong through a community based tourism project. We signed up to do half a day kayaking on the Mekong in 2 days time, hopefully to see the fresh water dolphins who live in the river.
Then we met a lovely Dutch cycling couple (yes another Dutch couple) who were coming south from Laos. We had a lovely evening with them, comparing notes and reflecting on the joys, frustrations and choices we make to travel this way. So many of the things they said accorded with our own views – but we accept that we are in a minority!

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