“The boat leave…maybe twenty minute” said a random friendly local as we stared out at the muddy waters of the Mekong River in Kratie, Cambodia. I was looking down at the empty dock, wondering whether there actually was a boat or not. This friendly man went on to tell us that the ferry wasn’t here yet as it was across the river, seemingly answering my question without me even having to ask it. We thanked him, parked our bicycles and sat down on a shady part of the wall that runs along the river, waiting for the boat to come along.
The friendly local who helped us was now over with his group of mates, watching two of them playing some kind of game where they each threw one of their flip flops along the pavement as if they were trying to hit a leaf that was on the ground. Others came along to watch as well as if it was some great sporting event. My wife and I both had puzzled looks on our faces as we heard the sound of an engine coming from behind us. I looked around to see the ferry coming back across the river, and we began making our way down the concrete steps, trying our best not to lose our bicycles in the process.
The ferry, which is really just a small wooden boat, pulled up to the dock, unloading a few locals, one of which even had a motorbike which balanced on the front of the boat. How it didn’t fall into the water as he attempted to carry it onto the dock, I have no idea.
Once everyone was off, we carried our bicycles onto the boat where a lady showed us a spot that was set aside for that sort of cargo, and we had a seat on the wooden bench, waiting for the ferry to leave.
Half an hour later, we were still sitting there.
The driver was fast asleep in his hammock out the back next to the motor while his wife was having a conversation with two other middle aged women. A couple of other local passengers had come by in the mean time, but it had become clear that the boat wouldn’t be leaving until it was full. I thought that I was about to pass out from heat stroke when one last passenger finally hopped on board and the lady finally yelled at her husband to wake up and start up the boat. The breeze from the moving boat was a welcome relief.
It took about fifteen minutes to cross the huge expanse of the Mekong River, where we pulled up on the river bank of Koh Trong, a fertile island in the river which is extensively farmed by the locals who live on the island. There was no dock there, so we had to just jump off the boat, bicycles and all, onto the muddy river bank. A steep dirt path gave us access up the steep river bank to the main road on the island.
We hopped on our bikes and started lazily peddling along, dodging chickens and passing little wooden and bamboo houses. Kids waved and smiled at us as we passed, while their mothers appeared busy with household tasks. I had to presume that their fathers were off working on their farms.
I had an instant feeling of peace and reality as I cycled along. There were no sounds of vehicles or traffic here and everything appears so simple. We cycled right around the entire island, around eight kilometres in total, passing through farmland with rice fields ready to be planted, pastures where cattle grazed happily, and areas of random fruit trees and banana groves. There is even a floating fishing village of some sort on one side of the island. We passed by temples and meagre houses, and everywhere we went there were the friendly, smiling locals who appear to be happy with what they have, even though that isn’t very much.
On Koh Trong, life is simple. You work the land and get by with what you have, and you care for your family. It seems to be as simple as that. This is the real rural Cambodia, and it is places like this that make me want to travel and see the world. To me, this is reality.