Kampong Chhnang: A Million Hellos    

Kampong Chhnang rice paddies
The rice paddies are a lascivious green-- surprising in contrast to the brown of the river, mud, dirt, and thatched houses. This indecent brightness of green is beautiful, especially when the sky is cloudy white and gray. Kampong Chhnang is a small town a couple hours from Phnom Penh. It occupies a spot on the Tonle Sap river which I guess is what draws tourists... though there really are just a few here. We are here because it is a center for pottery. In fact “chhnang” is the word for a ceramic cooker made here.

working in the rice paddies
The center of the town doesn't have many signs that the town is a major ceramics producer. There are some administrative buildings, shops and a market. Beyond the center the roads become dirt and run between rows of stilt houses with pools of stagnant water and mud underneath. Some had grounded wooden boats underneath waiting for the rainy season. Between the houses are fields, marsh or ponds. During the rainy season the marshes and fields become part of the river and the town becomes a floating village.

Thatched houses

Wooden houses

Wooden houses
All the children and many adults say, “Hi” when we walk by. It feels like we've said, “hello” a million times. We came upon a group of kids who had been playing a game of dress up with scraps of colored cloth.

Kampong Chhnang kids

Kids in (and out of) costume
From the village street we finally reached part of the river-- an active waterway. One section was so low there was a road of concrete across it--- maybe a dam. People were washing cars and motorbikes on it. I also saw dishes, and a puppy being washed as well as a guy giving himself a bath. Kids flew kites made form colored plastic bags. Beyond the “dam” multicolored boats unloaded packages of small silver fish.

Town washing place

Washing motorcycles in the river

Loading dried fish

Plastic bag kites
The proper river has a busy harbor, a small market and street food vendors and fruit shake makers who set up their tables with a view of the river and islands beyond.

Houses and boats along the river

Riverside market

Riverside restaurants

Dishes recently washed in the river
Today we rented a motorcycle. We had met another couple at the hotel, Judith and Bill, from Canada. They also rented a bike and had gotten information from the hotel owner about a loop through the countryside. As Rowshan and I drove away from the hotel we noticed the sky looked ominously gray. We returned to the hotel and got our ponchos even though the hotel manager assured us there wouldn't be any rain. There we noticed our front tire was fairly worn. We took it back to the guy Rowshan had rented it from but the only other bike he'd offer us was $20 instead of $5 like the one we had. They insisted it would be fine since the roads were dry. We decided it would do and went on our way.

We biked to the waterfront where boat touts tried to get us to hire a boat for $30 to Kampong Leah. The hotel manger had said it should cost $6 for all of us. No bargaining would bring them down. Then I saw a large boat a bit farther down that looked like a public ferry. The boat touts said it was “cheap cheap”. A bit annoyed they hadn't told us earlier, we headed over. We paid a guy to drag our bikes down the stairs and soon they were loaded on the boat. We joined the people on the roof. There was a basket vendor with woven baskets and ladles loaded on a bicycle.

The public ferry is cheap cheap

A load of baskets
The boat ride was technically taking us across one river-- the Tonle Sap. However, during the dry season it becomes 3 rivers separated by islands and spits down the center. The boat zig-zaged up and down the rivers to make it through the channels left attaching the rivers. It is hard to imagine how different the whole area must be with the rains.

House on an island


Fishermen and their nets
We reached the other side of the three rivers and headed down the dirt road between the houses. Beyond was a splendid view of rice paddies, patches of water, and clouds. People worked in the paddies creating the quintessential image of SE Asia. We headed inland and soon were through the village and riding next to fields with scattered trees and hills beyond. In one field kids were using a down palm tree as a seesaw. I guess the roots still held but the trunk went out horizontal. They sat and bounced and it sent them flying into the air.

The village of Kampong Leang

Kids of Kampong Leang

Kampong Leang rice paddies

Cambodian seesaw
We went on and about ¼ of the way around the loop it started to rain. Even though there was a chance it would stop, we were worried about the worn tire and potentially muddy roads. So we went back. A little ways on the rain stopped and the sun came out. We took another road, perhaps the other end of the loop and found it a pleasant path between fields and paddies. We passed a woman carrying firewood on her head. She seemed to be telling us not to go further. I don't know if she meant there was nothing there or just warning us of inclement weather. The clouds convinced us to turn back. We reached the village and it began to pour. We stopped under a tree and a woman told us to go to one of the houses.

Carrying firewood

Planting rice seedlings
A bamboo ladder led to a bamboo platform which served as a foyer. Beyond that was a wooden platform which held a bed. A girl and an older woman were there. A couple children climbed up drenched from the rain. They didn't know English and we don't know Khmer so our conversation was limited. The rain let up for a little and we decided we could leave so thanked our hosts and left. Naturally, as we started driving it started raining again. We got to the dock which fortunately had a covered area.

House in the rain

Coming in from the rain
There we learned the next boat wasn't for an hour and a half. Since other people were waiting as well, we hired a boat together to take us back to Kampong Chhnang. The regular boat is cheaper but aside from not having to wait, we had the advantage of not sharing the covered area of the public ferry with several unfortunate pigs who were there tied up and squealing in a heart rending manner.

The sun came out as we left the port and when we got to Kampong Chhnang, the weather was nice enough to sit outside and eat lunch on the waterfront. Our truncated trip to the countryside left us with time to visit the pottery village which was the main reason we came to Kampong Chhnang in the first place.

Sun dried fish

New construction
The potter villages are also countryside but they are in a more forested area. The heat of the sun drew the scent of the plants into the air on the steam of the rainy dampness. The scent was savory-- a delicate exotic heady blend.

Most of the pottery seemed to be created in home workshops. Going by we could see pots drying underneath the houses and sometimes piles of clay. We stopped by one where a young woman was throwing a piece on a wheel and another woman was shaping a piece by pounding it with a hammer.

Throwing a piece on the wheel

Pounding a piece
At a more formal shop-- the Ceramic Development Center of Ondoung Rossey Village Cambodian Craft Corporation which was supported by several German organizations-- women made finer terracotta pieces including vases, teapots, cups and trinkets.

Ceramics shop
As we were in the yard looking at some of their rougher traditional-style pots for cooking, we heard laughter. I didn't see anyone as I looked around. Then the woman at the ceramics place pointed to the top of a palm tree.

The area next to the ceramics place was a field with tall palms stretching to the sky. In the top of one, a young man was laughing. His voice carried and seemed disembodied until we saw him in the tree. Replies and laughter came from the tops of other trees as the palm syrup harvesters bantered with each other.

Palm syrup harvester climbing down from tree
The palm syrup is collected by hanging plastic water/soda bottles from the ends of cut palm branches. The palms are tall and ladders to aid climbing have been built up the trunk using a bamboo tree with the branches cut off, leaving just their stumps for rungs. The men climbed down the trees carrying the filled bottles.

Harvesting palm syrup

Carrying mats on a bicycle

[ View 2 Comments | ]

richard massey - posted on 3/13/2009
I've followed the blog from the beginning. The photos from Southeast Asia are by far the best. What a colorful, natural place! Incredible. I'm so proud of you, Tamia!

Mark Ssmpaon - posted on 3/20/2009
Really enjoying the photography. Excellent work! I especially like the one of the boat pilot studying. Splendid.

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