Island Hopping along the Mekong

January 12, 2014 - 9:57pm

Author

Early morning in the village. The stirrings of life can be heard and they come from the trees first.  At 4am the rooster starts its calling. I try to tune out the fact that he is just on the other side of the bamboo wall and I work my way back to sleep. I doze in and out of sleep as the morning chorus starts to follow the rooster's lead. Song birds add short trills, punctuated by the crack of firewood being cut, and then overpowered by the high piercing sound of a pig who is meeting his end. It is time to get up.

As I do with most of my morning lately, I grab my camera and begin to wander down the small dirt paths of Koh Khnhaer, a very small village along the banks of the great Mekong River. Cool pastels still color the sky and the first glimpse of light has yet to be seen over the horizon. I walk between wooden huts, all raised on stilts high above the ground to escape the monsoon flooding. A little girl sees me, sticks her head out the door, and says hello.  I recognize this one from the night before.  Once she says hello she cannot stop. 'Hello, hello, hello.' I say hello back and wave. 'Hello, hello, hello.' As I walk away she keeps going. Five minutes later her hello's trail away. 

I came across the pig that was responsible for all of the noise this morning. His head is in a tub, body butchered up, and his organs boiling in a massive pot. The family is all happily partaking in the liver; their look of satisfaction equivilant to mine if I were eating a big bowl of ice cream. But they are kind and generously share with me. They hand me the whole thing, I tear off part and swallow it smiling.  It's not terrible, but I don't take them up on round two. Besides, I've got places to be.

Today I have planned to cycle across Cambodia's largest island in the Mekong,  Koh Rougniv. I don't know what to expect exactly, but I do know that much of the island is uninhabited. It's 45km long and the majority of its 4000 residents live in one congregation of villages. A small wooden boat drops me off after a short ride across the water and I am on my own.  The trail starts as hard-packed singletrack, ideal conditions for my bike, and there is even a wooden sign with some arrows showing the way to follow.

Five minutes later the trail dissapears and I have to backtrack. This won't be the last time today. The trail continues through overgrown brush, deep ruts, and becomes full of loose sand. Paths crisscross the island in every conceivable direction, but I try to hold a general South route. Wrong turns follow wrong turns as I follow my tire tracks back to where I came. Fortunately there are no other fresh tracks to obscure mine. In fact, there isn't a single sign of human activity for the next 6 hours.

Occasionaly I run across other signs bearing arrows. Almost all of the arrows point in directions that make no sense and more than half of the arrows have been scratched out with new arrows pointing in another direction on top of them. It was at this moment that an image of Pyper Dixon came to me saying, ''At this point, I don't think it's possible to take a wrong turn." Atleast it sounds like something he would say. So I followed his advice and continued to follow random tracks into the bush, all in the name of exploration.

By now the day was in full heat. Hot wind blew dust that clung to my sticky skin and my mouth was parched as I tried to ration my 1.5 liters of water I carried for the day. The sand was so hot it burned my feet as I pedalled through it. I found an abandoned hut to seek shade in and ate a few of my bananas while I watched the shadows to figure out which direction to keep following. And if I still couldn't find my way, I had this nice hut to come back to and sleep in for the night.

But another hour of riding and I heard the sound of a chainsaw in the forest ahead. The trail grew wider and led me along picturesque village life all the way to Koh Phdau, a small village where I would homestay for the night. I had crossed Koh Rougniv Island. Perhaps I didn't take the most direct path, but I enjoyed winding my way along this remote stretch of the Mekong. After all, a trip on a bicycle is really about the journey.