EIGHT intrepid travellers are halfway through their journey paddling down the Mekong River from the Laos border to Phnom Penh, hoping to reach the capital before next weekend’s water festival.
Arriving in Kratie last week, the group of American journalists and photographers stopped to update their blog at www.standupforrivers.org and catch up with the marvels of their journey.
Leaving Stung Treng, the group of paddle boarders (who stand on their craft to propel themselves downriver) had its first sighting of the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins.
“We stopped for lunch in Kang Di Sor and before long, as we relaxed on one of a series of beautiful beaches, we heard the now-familiar song of our cretacean [sic] friends and saw their distinctive dorsal fins rise and fall, over and over,” they said.
The speed of the currents has enabled them to travel about 20 kilometres a day. One of the highlights was staying with families on an island called Koh Pdao, an ecotourism project managed by the Cambodian Rural Development Team.
“The evening included a lesson in traditional Khmer dancing and the opportunity to watch their community theatre’s rehearsal. We had to both pay attention to the performance and help the youngest kids catch crickets, which we had discovered were delicious stuffed with peanuts,” said the group’s blog.
“We spent the whole following day making traditional foods. The process started in the morning, grinding soaked rice to a paste and we helped prepare many ingredients, including a delicious mix of coconut, sesame seeds and sugar. In the afternoon, we helped to create the finished products, frying savoury rice cakes and folding palm leaves filled with sweet treats.”
Their paddle-board tour was arranged by CRDT and Tola, the CRDT guide accompanying the tour, explained local customs, translated and even gave comical voice-overs when watching the Koh Pdao theatre troupe rehearse their environmental educational show.
The paddle-board team are also accompanied by four Cambodian crew members, travelling on the safety boat which follows close behind. These include two cooks providing three meals a day – waking up at 4am to start breakfast – and a local guide to help navigate the more perilous sections of the river.
Youngest group member Fiona Thompson, 23, said travelling by paddle board helped them “become part of the landscape”, flowing at the same pace as the river. “The individual paddler can get up close and personal with the landscape and its inhabitants, rather than simply passing by.”
Annie Pizey, a journalist and radio presenter from Colorado, said she woke up to the singing of dolphins, the sound of children playing and the clanging of pots as the cooks prepared breakfast. “It is truly a
magical experience.” So far the group has helped harvest rice on Koh Preah and spent time interacting with their homestay families and local community members.
“There is a real exchange with people,” said Pizey. “They want to share something special with us.” She felt that this simplicity and way of life needed to be protected and “would hate to see them change too quickly”.
With the proposed construction of the Sambor dam on the Mekong River, a torrent of concern and interest has arisen from regional and international voices. The incentive for these hydro-power dams is cheaper and more widely available electricity in Cambodia’s countryside.
Among Southeast Asian nations, Cambodia pays the highest prices for electricity. Because it has no national grid, provincial towns and cities have their own individual power generation plants and distribution networks. These power plants are small and the price is high due to the fact that they are fuelled by diesel.
It has been estimated that the average price of electricity in Cambodia is US$0.16 per kilowatt/hour and climbs to as high as $0.90 per kilowatt-hour in remote rural areas.
The proposed dam at Sambor would inundate much of the river between Sambor and Stung Treng, a critical area for fish spawning and the last remaining habitat for Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong,
according to the Mekong River Commission. The dam would also displace more than 20,000 people and cause countless others to lose their livelihoods.
Traveller Emily Koren, with a background in international administration and human rights, said that food security was the biggest concern she had seen so far on the trip. Koh Pdao’s village chief told them: “The land is not increasing but the population is.” He added that many people were too scared to build homes and improve farmland, because of the threat of the new dam at Sambor.
The group hoped that their tour would raise awareness of pressing issues by giving a voice and image to communities which struggle daily to survive. Tour members concluded that their contribution is but “one step in a long journey”.
As the adventure continues downstream towards the next major town of Kampong Cham, the paddle board team await the second stage in their journey to Phnom Penh.