The last fisherman in Phnom Penh

A break at work

Phnom Penh is probably the only capital in the world with no official public transport. It has some further consequences. Nearly every second guy chooses to be a tuk-tuk rickshaw driver. Indeed walking down the street, it is hard to ignore enthusiastic shouts coming from all over “tuk-tuk cheap cheap for you my friend “ or “special price for you my friend”. Shortly after we reach the district at Boeng Kak Lake filled with backpackers, hippies and all sorts of lost travelers. I’m in the middle of the Cambodia’s capital to find the last fisherman on the lake which is about to disappear.

The street where we live is completely flooded. The only way to to reach the buildings along the lake is wading through the water up to your knees. Surprisingly, all the shops, restaurants and hotels are open as if nothing have happened nor changed.

I spend the whole morning investigating the current situation in the vicinity of Boeng Kak. In a few weeks this lake will have completely disappeared from the map. It is effectively filled with sand to provide ground for a huge shopping mall, the first one in Phnom Penh. I continue wading in the water to reach various areas of slums. On my way there is everything floating, including sewage and garbage.

I get to know a young guy who is both a salesman and a smoker of opium. It is six thirty in the morning and Miang invites me to his place. He lives together with his 18-year-old sister and her two-year old daughter. To my somewhat predictable surprise, the guy grabs aluminum pipe and begins to smoke opium. Not breaking the rules of a good conduct I manage to refuse to smoke. Step by step as the smoker inhales I see his presence moves away from the reality. We have just been talking about how people reconcile to the fact that in a few months their homes will simply cease to exist. Now I only hear scattered mumbling, we have no influence on it … will be hard, … must deal with…. Until he completely disappears and probably has forgotten that I am still right beside.

A morning visit at opium smoker’s place

I follow my route around the lake crossing many partly flooded streets, stands and buildings. I see whole families living on a railway track. The track has not been used for many years which was enough time to arrange small shops and makeshift houses along the way. People let their chickens and geese run freely and every now and there I see piles of the industrial waste: pipes, rods or wires. These place will also disappear soon.

Thousands of tons of sand and dozens of heavy machinery, bulldozers, excavators and trucks are about to finish their job. The lake is getting smaller. This means less room for the fishermen who are still going to fish here.

I get to know a father and a son who own one of the last two pagodas on Boeng Kak. All equipment they have is a leaky boat, fishing net and a watering can to remove excess water. Today they managed to catch some fish and crabs. What will be next? In just a few weeks not more than just a desert.

In their courtesy we cross together to the other side of the lake. My whole butt is soaked from the wet fishing net, but using this clever maneuver saves me a fair passage through the unpredictable range of reeds.

The Khmer Rouge

Flooded slums

We decide to walk through the entire capital. We pass a number of temples, the royal palace, museums and the memorial of the disgraceful past, a former school turned into the S21 prison, a place of torture and extermination of the intelligent and educated people by the ruthless Khmer Rouge regime.

Unfortunately, the last part of the spread over many centuries history of Cambodia is a black and bloody one. The Khmer Rouge regime led to the genocide in years 1975-79, the one of the most brutal in the history of the mankind. It is estimated that during those five years two million people had been killed. It was equivalent to approximately 25-30% of the whole Cambodia’s population.

Using the excuse to protect citizens against alleged attacks by the United States, all the major cities had been evacuated. The Phnom Penh capital becomes a deserted ghost town. The intelligent, wealthy and having high social status are successively murdered in a brutal and ruthless way. The totalitarian regime deploys people in rural areas, acts in opposite to urbanization and forms an utopian vision of bringing the nation back to the traditional values, thus becoming independent of foreign countries.

The other side of the city

Crossing Boeng Kak

The city comes to life relatively late. At six in the morning the streets are still empty. That is completely out of question in smaller provincial towns and their marketplaces throughout the country.

Russian Market is a huge mishmash, also a great place to buy missing travel equipment and try new dishes, forgetting the heavy rain outside (until the market roof soaks, the streams of water flow and some stands become flooded with ankle-deep puddles).

I decide on a brave walk along the street to try some new delicacies. I taste suspicious pieces of meat (I have no idea what is its origin), I also eat pork soup with dried beef blood cubes, similar in consistency to friable jelly. Now I’m looking for dessert.

Fruit put together with fresh cream, pods and slightly fermented milk is my first choice. Further on I see street stalls selling fruitshakes. The equivalent of two or three quarters turns into a sensational mixed drink with all sorts of different fruit: durian, rambutan, dragon fruit, mango or papaya, for this you just need a bit of vanilla sugar, sweet condensed milk and raw egg yolk. Mixed all together with crushed ice the drink has already the sub-zero temperature. I assure you it is cold enough to freeze your brain on a hot day.

All is left is to get a Lao visa

I reach Lao embassy. Apart from a renovation crew there is no living soul. To that end, nobody knows anything. I wait half an hour to find the only one employee. The "2005" notice on the wall suggests that Polish citizens (along with some other countries) are exempt from visa. I ask if this is current – a speck of hope has appeared. The employee insists that it is not and urges me to apply for visa and leave my passport overnight. I do not give up that easily, so finally the employee brings a new notice with the inscription “2009” (despite the fact it is 2010 at the moment) and he glues it on the wall to cover the "2005" publication. So in the end I have to pay extra $10 for express service to be able to leave the capital the following morning.

A woman with a cigarette in her mouth unloads baskets with vegetables

I have a whole afternoon with nothing left to do. I’m looking around to find myself in a hairdresser’s district. Probably it is high time to get a haircut. Having visited ten ladies only shops I encounter the eleventh. A handful of stylized teenagers, who successfully could compete with Backstreet Boys are doing a great job. This is a genuine five-star service. In the end, a painted in green hairstylist representing the Hairdressers Boys Band takes over the final cut. He takes out a razor and despite the fact that he still has no beard, he cuts mine perfect and professional. Honestly, my initial stress turns into a deep trust. I’ve never been cut by the crazy Asian teens, but they seem to be enjoying it as well, I guess I was their first European customer.

On the way to Stung Treng I pass huge flooded areas of north-eastern provinces of Cambodia. On site, it appears that Stung Treng is a pleasant town located on the river Mekong. I get up at dawn to picture the awakening of a marketplace to life and people involved in the river transport on the Mekong. The adventure must go on!

October 2010

kh phnom penh