A pong to paddle past

21:19, Jan 09 2013
A floating market stall offers fresh fruit that distracts from the fetid aroma of shrimp paste that "smells like hell but tastes like heaven".

There's something rotten in the state of Cambodia. We're drifting past houseboats neatly arranged in rows to form the floating villages of Kampong Chhnang on the Tonle Sap River when my nostrils detect enemy fire.

Brightly coloured bed sheets are fluttering in the breeze as children swing in hammocks or watch TV powered by car batteries. Their fathers are engrossed in games of backgammon while their mothers do laundry uncomfortably close to their floating toilet.

But a nasty stench has me hanging over the side of the boat staring into the brown waters of the river, praying I do not add to its murky colour. I'd also rather not spoil the water locals use to drink, cook and bathe in.

My fellow travellers from the RV AmaLotus, which cruises between the magnificent ruins of Cambodia's Angkor Wat and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, are mainly retired couples from Australia and New Zealand.

A few join me over the side of the small local boat, which takes us from the RV AmaLotus through flooded farmland and marooned palm trees to the floating villages that are home to mainly Vietnamese fishermen and their families.

Our journey had started the day before in the tactlessly named Siem Reap, which means "Thailand defeated" in Khmer and no doubt explains the narky relations between the two countries, but already we are fast friends exchanging travel yarns.


Liz tells me how a small girl selling postcards asked for her credit card after learning she had no money. Janette jokes that the cruise is for grey nomads, while Stephen tells me he once saved a man from drowning in a brothel in Prague. You really do learn a lot from your elders.

The fetid stench assailing me comes from the direction of the women squatting on the front deck of a houseboat, who turn to wave and smile at our boatload of lifejacketed tourists stickybeaking into their daily lives. Our guide Phaly sniggers and asks why I do not like the fish paste.

"I told you it smells like hell, but tastes like heaven," she says. She's not wrong.

Once we dock in dusty Kampong Chhnang, Phaly takes us to the open-air market to sample the pungent fish paste that is a staple part of the diet. It's not exactly heavenly to taste but it is less hellish than the sea slugs in Siem Reap or the deep-fried cockroaches and tarantulas dished up in Phnom Penh.

The Cambodian dinner table is not for the faint-hearted and neither is the barber's chair.

There are several scattered alfresco around the village, offering haircuts hacked with a rusty blade for 75¢. Full of facts, Phaly tells us Cambodians are great fans of even numbers, but believe odd-numbered amounts, such as photographing three people or paying 75¢ for a haircut, will bring bad luck.

Elsewhere, baguette sellers sit alongside purveyors of traditional medicine and stalls selling rambutan, watermelon, dragon fruit, durian and mangosteen - all fruit that can be grown in flooded areas.

There's even what appears to be a floating mosque shimmering in the distance although Phaly later tells us it is actually built on stilts.

A massive monsoon turned frying-pan-shaped Cambodia into the set of Waterworld, Kevin Costner's awful, but strangely prophetic, 1995 disaster movie about a drowned Earth.

Maybe it's my similarity to Costner that prompts one wild-eyed girl to clip me over the head in front of a pile of durian.

Either that or she's seen me grimacing at the smell of her fish paste.

Sydney Morning Herald