We mark the start on Saturday of a four-day holiday for Pchum Ben—Festival of the Ancestors—with a day trip to Kompong Chhnang town, capital of a province with the same name, 91 km northwest of Phnom Penh.
I’m tempted to say it’s a bad idea setting out on a road trip on the first day of a long public holiday when everyone heads to their ‘homeland’ (province of birth) to visit the family graves.
Yet the slow progress and 45-minute way each way at the Prek Kdam ferry intersection gives us the chance to see some amazing sights. Like a minibus containing 30 people, the three girls at the very end riding on a flattened seatback overhanging the tailgate, the hatch left ajar, secured with ropes, to accommodate them. Or the crowds in the tray and on the roof of utility vehicles, draping themselves in clothes and towels to protect their skin from the sun; and when it rained, taking shelter under large sheets of plastic like giant shower-caps.
By contrast we travel in comfort in a small 4WD owned by one of Toro’s brothers and driven for the day by Toro. En route to Kompong Chhnang, Toro tells us his version of the legend of Kong Rey, which goes something like this:
(I’ve heard a couple of variations on this story before; the mountain is said to look like a supine woman).
‘So why did her husband leave her?’
‘Oh, because her mother and father the giants killed his family and all the people in his district.’
Yes, that would cause marital discord.
‘Khmer people believe ghosts eat humans,’ Toro says. ‘What about in Australia?’
‘We don’t have giants in Australia,’ says Roo diplomatically.
The other anecdote I’ve heard about Kong Rey was that when her body lay down and formed the mountain, her pubic hair transformed into a fragrant herb, m’orm, used in local soup dishes. But only women seem to tell that part of the story.
Her husband’s name was Rithy Sen and there are statues of the two in Kompong Chhnang near the Independence Monument, Rithy on a rearing horse, hand raised, rebuffing Kong Rey who lies supplicating on the ground in his wake.
The Independence Monument itself as a smaller version of the one in Phnom Penh, the attractive town apparently planned by former King Sihanouk, with wide roads, open space and public parkland.
The road northeast of the Psar Leu—flooded on either side at this time of year—leads to the banks of the Tonlé Sap River and the ambitiously named ‘Tourism Port’ where noodle sellers and drink stands line the banks, men cast nets, wooden boats—available for hire— bob with the current, and a floating villages juts out on to the river beneath a galaxy of TV aerials.
Across the road old French colonial buildings, Chinese shop-houses and a dilapidated Vietnamese theatre cling on for life amidst renovations, extensions and gaudy new developments.
A stroll through nearby Psar Krom is a reminder of how most Cambodians live. People work and sleep in the same cramped spaces overhanging the water, buildings patched together from wood, tin, cardboard and plastic. There’s a noticeable Vietnamese presence and Tash gets (wo)manhandled like she did in Chau Doc. I admire the resilience of this minority community that as recently as ten years ago was still targeted by the remnants of the Khmer Rouge in violent attacks along the Tonlé Sap.
In the Psar Krom and throughout the town we see plenty of the clay pots—chhnang—that give the town and province its name. Tash and I stop in one pottery producing household for a closer look. Even the spirit house is decorated with clay pots.
The town is a picturesque place to cruise by car and on foot. Our only mistake was to stop for lunch at the Mittapheap (‘Friendship’) Restaurant, where an hour’s wait produced only two-thirds of our order, and what we did get was bland and oily. But I could have forgiven all that if they hadn’t also run out of coffee. Next time I’ll eat noodles on the riverfront.
And my eternal gratitude goes to the noodle seller who, despite my almost non-existent Khmer, managed to rustle up and iced coffee for me via a friend on a nearby boat. Made with condensed milk and sugar, and coming after an eight-hour wait, coffee never tasted so sweet.