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Canoeing in Cambodia

Canoeing in Cambodia

By Robbie Scott

A chance encounter with Gordon Congdon in the fall of 2009 resulted in canoe trip for the two of us in Cambodia in March of this year. Gordon, the former Executive Director of the Land Trust and now a do-gooder for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Cambodia, was back in Wenatchee for a short visit when we ran into each other in the Wenatchee Library.

“What would you think about a canoe trip in Cambodia?”Gordon suggested.

He proposed canoeing the Srepok River, a 240-mile river starting in Vietnam, flowing into eastern Cambodia, and dumping into the Mekong River at a town called Stung Treng. His plan was to travel the Cambodian portion of this river, a distance of about 165 miles, starting at a WWF outpost called Mereuch located 15 miles downriver from the Vietnam border. We checked our respective calendars and determined that in February and March of 2011 we could make the trip work.

I left for Cambodia on February 19th, and upon my arrival in Phnom Penh, we purchased food for the trip in two grocery stores and then made the five-hour drive to Kratie where Gordon works and where he and his wife, Linda, live. After shopping in the Kratie local market for additional food, and where I saw Washington apples for sale, we took a three-hour drive east to Sen Monorom where we picked up a colleague of Gordon’s, Tom Gray. Tom is an ornithologist and works for WWF as the scientific advisor for the Mondul Kiri Protected Area, an area in East Central Cambodia that the Cambodian government is attempting to preserve in its natural state. From Sen Monorom we drove to the put-in on the Srepok at Mereuch.

Driving to Mereuch we passed through a part of the Mondul Kiri Protected Area known as the “Dry Forest.” From November to May of each year, virtually no rain falls in Cambodia. As a result, those parts of Cambodia that are not immediately adjacent to a body of water dry out. In addition, for thousands of years Cambodians have regularly burned the underbrush in the Dry Forest so that they can easily locate their domestic animals and hunt for wild animals. Moreover, once rain starts to fall, these areas rapidly regenerate grasses for livestock. Prior to starting our canoe trip, Tom took us for a day hike through the Dry Forest and the impression was one of walking through a forest that head recently been burned.  However, it was quite surprising to see some plant species that were flourishing within a month after the area had been burned. Because of this habit of annually burning the forest, smoke was in the air on a regular basis during my three-week stay in Cambodia.

We put in on the Srepok on March 1, Gordon and I in his Pakboat (a folding canoe made of vinyl with structure provided by numerous aluminum poles), and Tom in a sit-on-top, two person fiberglass kayak.  With an ornithologist along, identification of bird life was easy. We regularly saw Gray-Headed Fish Eagles, Osprey (identical to what we see in Wenatchee), and Kingfishers. Unlike the relatively drab Kingfishers one finds in North Central Washington, the Cambodian Kingfisher has brilliant, tri-colored plumage. Among the more rare birds we saw was a White Shoulder Ibis, of which there are only about 700 left in the world. On consecutive days we saw monkeys known as  Silver Langurs leaping from limb to limb in trees high 50 feet above the river.

This was not a wilderness canoe trip in that we regularly saw Cambodians in narrow, 20-foot long boats fishing in the river. The majority of these boats were powered by outboard engines but there were occasionally boats propelled only by oars. These fishermen lived in modest huts on the river bank that were usually constructed out of bamboo and palm leaves. Notwithstanding the rustic nature of these homes, they frequently had a fluorescent light powered by a car battery. And as is true in many developing countries, many of these rural folks have cell phones.

The portion of the Srepok we canoed did not present significant technical challenges. The current in the Srepok is quite slow; it drops an average of 2.2 feet per mile -- by way of comparison, the Wenatchee River drops about 15 feet per mile between Cashmere and Wenatchee. And the Srepok had no more white water than is found on the Wenatchee from Cashmere to the Columbia. However, in numerous spots the Srepok is marked by rock ledges that run the full width of the river. These rock ledges dramatically slowed our downriver progress. Upon approaching a ledge, it was usually necessary to canoe from one side of the river to the other to find the best place to cross. Sometimes we were able to float over the ledge, but on many occasions we got out of the canoe and pushed, pulled, lifted, or swam the boat over the ledge.  Being in the water was no problem as the Srepok was warmer than Lake Chelan on its warmest days. We had to be particularly careful not to hit a sharp rock that could rip a hole in Gordon’s Pakboat. One stretch of the river required two hours to travel downstream a half mile, the rock ledges being so numerous.

In the Mondul Kiri Protected Area, the Srepok is banded on either side by lush trees, but this band is no more than 50 feet wide. Beyond that strip of greenery is the burnt, Dry Forest. Although conservation efforts in Cambodia, as in most developing countries, are a constant challenge, the benefit of having a protected zone such as the Mondul Kiri Protected Area was dramatically obvious. As soon as we canoed out of the Protected Area, the foliage along the Srepok changed immediately. The band of green forest was replaced by thickets of bamboo, an invasive plant that takes over the river bank once the green forest is removed.

After dropping Tom off at another WWF outpost on the Srepok, Gordon and I continued down river and camped on a sandbar on a tributary of the Srepok. That evening we saw a Cambodian woman set a fishing net and the next morning she retrieved her net, literally hauling in fish hand over fist. In less than 20 minutes she had more than two dozen fish.

The following day we canoed down river to  a village on the Srepok called Kaoh Mayeul Leu, where an acquaintance of Gordon’s invited us to dinner. Given our slow progress of the previous four days, we decided we needed to speed up our trip down the river so we hired Gordon’s friend to take us down the next stretch in his fishing boat. Three times in the next 18 miles all of us had to get out of the boat while the driver and his assistant carefully worked the boat over rock ledges. Numerous times in what seemed to flat, deep water, this wooden fishing boat hit rocks. During this four hour trip, Gordon and I independently came to the conclusion that we would not be able to canoe the Srepok to Stung Treng in the time we had available. In addition, given the low water level in the Srepok, we were likely to serious damage Gordon’s boat or any boat that carried us in the process of trying to canoe to the Mekong. At that point we decided to travel overland to the Mekong and went to a village named Anlong  Chheuteal, a community of approximately 110 families located on the west bank of the Mekong immediately downriver from the border with Laos. Gordon had previously visited this area in the course of his work studying Irrawaddy Dolphins, a fresh water dolphin found in the Mekong, in a few other rivers in South East Asia, and in the Amazon.  

The day after we arrived at Anlong Chheuteal found us paddling the Pakboat in the Mekong among tiny rock islands and a pod of 6-8 Irrawaddy dolphins. This part of the Mekong is very much lake-like and there is very little current. But less than a half a mile upriver, the Mekong divides into numerous channels as it flows over an area known as Kone Falls. Kone Falls is actually a series of waterfalls stretching six miles across the Mekong. We set up camp just below the falls, and over the next three days we canoed up various channels, exploring this portion of the Mekong, viewing the falls, and chatting with Laotian fishermen. Because the falls are not continuous over this six-mile stretch, we were able to hike above them and view the wetlands on the upriver side.

The numerous channels immediately below Kone Falls provide ideal locations for placement of elaborate fish traps that look like small ski jumps. These fish traps were sturdy enough to walk across, which we did one day to visit a small fishing settlement. Our last day on the Mekong found us canoeing downriver through a channel that contained the only significant white water I found during my three weeks in Cambodia. However, immediately upon running this rapid Gordon and I encountered the bane of every canoeist, a headwind that slowed our downriver progress to a crawl and stretched what would have been a 30-minute paddle into two hours.

Unlike other canoe trips I have been on with Gordon, we had relatively short days on this trip. Cambodia lies at about the 13th parallel north of the equator. As a result, the days and nights are about of equal length, 12 hours each. We had good daylight from 6 in the morning until 6 in the evening, but by 6:15 p.m. a headlight was necessary to see what we were doing. There was no lingering dusk and we usually ended up eating dinner in the dark.

Our time on the Mekong occurred during Cambodia’s dry season when this river is at its lowest. During the monsoon season, the Mekong can rise more than 50 feet in elevation (think about the Columbia rising above the first story of the buildings at the bottom of Fifth Street every year!). During the monsoons, the volume of the Mekong is forty times greater than the volume during in the dry season. One amazing effect of this fluctuation in water level occurs when the Mekong reaches Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. There, the Mekong joins with another river called Tonle Sap. In monsoon season the Mekong gains so much elevation at the confluence with the Tonle Sap that water flows up the Tonle Sap River to its source at a lake also named Tonle Sap. As a result the Tonle Sap Lake grows dramatically in size, flooding the adjacent land and creating additional habit for fish.

One distinct impression I have from my time on the Srepok and Mekong is that the abundance and variety of fish in these waterways is almost beyond belief, and that this bounty of nature has done an excellent job of feeding people in this area for thousands of years. Another impression I have of Cambodia is the lack of electricity -- the electricity that exists is expensive, so expensive that even in urban areas people commonly cook over wood fires. There are several sites on Cambodian rivers for the installation of dams, and both Cambodia and the neighboring countries are currently investigating placing dams on these rivers. A Cambodian fisherman, facing the question of whether to support hydroelectric projects, confronts a Hobbsien choice. Should he light his children’s school, provide a means of refrigerating the vaccines in his village clinic, and eliminate air pollution in his home by replacing an open fire with an electric burner, or should he maintain a bounty of nature that has reliably fed people in this area for thousands of years.

We who live in the buckle of the power belt of the Pacific Northwest know all too well that once a river is dammed, the fishery declines dramatically and this decline is irreversible. We here have hitched our wagons to hydroelectric power and did so at a time when little thought was given to the effect of dams on the fishery. It would be a soul searching question whether, if we had to face this issue now, we would opt again for the marvels of electricity, or cast our lot with a food source that has fed people from time immemorial.