20-May-2003 -- The First Cambodia Confluence Visit.
I have a bit of an obsession with the surreal and sometimes dark world of Cambodia. It is both a country of great beauty and of a dark and sad history. The glory of the Khmer empire and the tragedy of Cambodia has drawn me to return to the country 7 times since I first arrived in 1997 right after the coup de tat. I have made fast friends with my driver 7 years ago and it was his son that drove me to this confluence point. It was of course inevitable that I wanted to be the first person to visit Cambodia's first confluence documentation. I only wish the best for the khmers, the thais and the vietnamese who live here in Cambodia and hope that one day they can pull themselves up from the poverty and corruption that they continue to live under.
It was only a few years ago that trying to find a confluence in Cambodia would have been considered suicidal. If the Khmer Rouge, bandits, poisonous snakes didn’t injure or kill you than the prospect of landmines would scare off the rest. However, things have improved well enough that I decided to set out to find Cambodia’s first confluence on May 20th 2003. Bandits, Khmer Rouge and even land mines were no longer a problem (at least around Phnom Penh), poisonous snakes though real were getting rarer due to development.
Working without a map except the one on my GPS unit, I set out with my driver to find the nearest confluence next to the Cambodian Capital of Phnom Penh. I wasn’t really sure what to expect. There was another confluence south of the city but my driver warned me that that was his home province and that the roads were quite bad. Going north would have provided us better roads and more people. So we set out on Highway 6 going north.
The confluence was 38 miles from the city and 35 of those miles were on nice smooth paved roads. However the last 3 were quite a challenge. We needed to drive off the main roads and onto dirt roads going into the rural rice paddy villages. There were no roads, just paths where vehicles and motorcycles rode on loose dirt. However, leave the path and you fall into a deep 10 foot crevice into a canal. As we got near the 2 mile mark, the roads could no longer support our car so we stopped for a village. I was ready to start hiking the 2 miles into the rice paddies and marshes when my Cambodian driver Vanna told me that the direct way through the village was quite difficult and that another approach was much better according to the local villagers at Phumi Cchuk.
So I hired a motorcycle driver to take me the other way for 3 dollars on back of his cycle. I hopped on back and traveled around 5 miles to approach the confluence from the opposite direction which had roads that took me to within a mile of the confluence. Unfortunately, the roads ended there and the only way to get to the confluence was to slope through the paddies and marsh before me.
I hopped off the moto and told the driver to wait 40 minutes while I ran to the confluence and returned…or so I thought.
I set off alone on foot through the rice paddies and marsh of the Cambodian wetlands. I was terrified of snakes and landmines but what else could I do? There were several cows and herders taking their animals to the marsh so I figured it was best to follow them for now. I tried to ask and gesture if the marhes were safe from landmines. The locals said something like ok but be careful of the spot with the tall reeds. I asked if there were land mines but one lady just made the throat cutting gesture of danger.
I trudged the next 2 tenths of a mile until I slipped into the mire and mud of a rice paddy and lost my sandals which promptly snapped off my feet. I would walk the rest of the trip barefoot in dank, warm muddy waters littered with cow shit, thorns and god knows what in the water. Why are all my confluences in Rice Paddies I asked myself. Also, my GPS would scramble once in a while and I would have to shut it down and restart. I can’t have it die when I am so close.
After trying to walk on the banks of rice paddies and destroying my bleeding feet on sharp rocks and thorns, I went into the mucky, smelly and filthy water barefoot with my open cuts and hoped for the best and no snakes. I finally got to the tall reeds and understood why they were tall. There was a shallow canal there. I followed one of the herders who showed me a spot where I could ford across the muddy canal in knee deep water. When I got to the other side it cleared again. It didn’t seem so dangerous.
I spend the next rest of the journey cutting across endless mucky rice paddies and stepping on thorns. I was hot, tired and alone again. When I was getting near the confluence, I spotted about 15 young teenage boys just handing around a lone tree. I was able to find the confluence in the middle of the paddy and just as I was snapping the picture I was surrounded by 15 guys wondering who the hell I am. Not sure if they were thugs or just friendly village guys I told them that I was UN and that I was taking a picture of this site. They seemed friendly enough so I gave them Polaroid shots of themselves until I ran out. They were actually quite friendly and waved bye as I set out to get back to the motorcycle.
I thought I could save time by taking a more direct route…that was a big mistake. My feet were really in sad shape now and I found out that the little canal that I crossed was actually a wide deep canal. This is what the lady meant when she motioned that it was dangerous, this canal was not an easy one to cross or swim through. I really lost track of where the ford was. So I walked and walked trying to find the place I forded with no luck until I realized that I had actually overshot my entry route. I was so tired, dehydrated and so hot that I just wanted to go forward and not backtrack I was all scratched and cut up now and bleeding from my feet and arms already.
I did manage to find another shallow part of the canal that I could ford. I just slipped in the brown muddy water and fell waist deep into the muck. I just kept slogging through walking in the water and through the mud. AS I neared a road I saw that my moto driver saw me and went to pick me up at the new point a few kilometers from where I set out 2 hours ago. I was so tired I stumbled back onto his motorcycle and back to the village with the car and my driver. As I sat there all caked in mud, tired and wounded, I wondered if this was all worth finding the first confluence in Cambodia... hell yea.
I would recommend that anyone looking for confluences in Cambodia be extra careful as parts of Cambodia, particularly near the Thai border in the Battambung province still has many land mines uncleared. My confluence was near the city and it just about wracked me so I assume that the more desolate ones are far more jungle like with perhaps more danger. Note that there are still temples in Cambodia that have never been seen by any westerners even to this day in order to give you an idea of how isolated parts of the country are.