Anth in Phnom Penh

Friday, March 10, 2006

Koh Sdech: sci-fi-esque armoured sea creatures, youths and endless karaoke

Last weekend I went to Koh Sdech (King Island) with Hour and an entourage of my fellow volunteers. I had no idea where Koh Sdech was, or what it was like. Hour has family who live on the island and so he proposed to organise everything.

We fronted up to the bus station at 7am on Friday morning and commenced the 7 hour journey to get to the island. It would involve a bus to Sihanoukville and then a boat from the Sihanoukville port to the island. I had been under the impression that we were going to an island around Kompong Som. However, on arrival at the port and after a glance at the signs it became apparent that we were going to Koh Kong Province and that the island was half way between Sihanoukville and Koh Kong town. The boat ride was around 2 hours and I slept heavily the whole time. I groggily awoke and stumbled off the boat. My blurry eyes took a while to adjust to the bright sunlight. We were docked at a wooden jetty. There were people, bags and parcels littered everywhere. We walked along in ones and twos to Hour’s family’s home which was around 20 metres from the jetty. Concerned that it was past 1 and that we had not eaten yet, he had arranged for lunch to be ready and waiting on arrival.

I was already feeling a bit strange. Exhausted after a busy weeks work in Phnom Penh I still hadn’t quite adjusted to the fact that I was in a new place. To further exacerbate my feelings of disorientation, Koh Sdech is quite different from other places I have been in Cambodia. There is a strong Thai influence, many of the goods and supplies are straight from Thailand and prices are quoted in Thai baht. I was struggling to understand a single word of one of Hour’s relatives only to discover that this was because he was speaking Thai.

Mid way into our meal Hour asks if any of us know what a ‘prolanka’ is. We clamber up off the wooden floorboards and go over to the edge of the back verandah (which hangs over the water) and peer down into the depths. A piece of rope is tugged on and one of the strangest creatures I have ever seen emerges from the water. More suited for an alien sci-fi horror movie than a feature of my relaxing weekend away, the prolanka has a tough helmet shaped shell-body. On its head a long, sharp beak-like thing protrudes; the perfect design to gouge brains out or some other hideous terror. The prolanka was, mercifully, not very large. A child of 6 hauled it along the floorboards and flipped it over onto its back to display folds of grey, spongy flesh which were protecting hundreds of small eggs. “What do you think?” Hour happily asked. It seems the prolanka and more specifically its eggs were going to be the specialty dish for dinner.

We were staying in the only accommodation in town, a large guesthouse complex. On entry to the guesthouse I spied a billboard which depicted the facilities of the complex. Whilst the owner of the guesthouse does seem to have quite an economic hold on the island (the sole supplier of both water and electricity) the guesthouse arrangements weren’t quite on the grand scale the picture suggested. Perhaps this is in progress. There was also an ice factory on the grounds whose generator provides the electricity. Whenever I walked by, young men would be busy hauling long rectangular metal casts around, spraying them with large hoses and then stocking the ice. Ice at first seemed an incongruous business activity for such a small island, but then when viewed in the context that the key business of the island is fishing, it is not so strange. The majority of the working population of the island are involved in fishing industry. Seafood is then transported and sold to the mainland and Thailand.

Our cabins were located down a gentle slope away from the ice factory towards the beach. The beach itself was more rock than anything else. As we paddled around the shoreline we could see medium sized fishing boats all around.

Nearby our huts and on the beach is a small restaurant with karaoke. Small boats would dock at a nearby jetty and deposit young men from the fishing boats with small denominations of riel stuffed in their pockets and an insatiable desire to sing along to Khmer pop. The existence of the fishing industry means that there are a disproportionate number of young men strutting along the one street in town. They look more Thai than Khmer, with a hint of style in their jeans and longish hair. Hour informed me that many of the young men come from villages in Prey Veng and Svay Rieng province to live and work on the boats. Drugs are a huge problem with yabba and yamma rife through the island. Fishermen take these drugs to stay awake and work longer hours. As our first night attested, many of these fishermen are so high they don’t need to sleep.

As it got dark we congregated by the shore, sitting on mats laid out on the rocks, a huge spread of food in the centre. A group of residents (some related to Hour) sat nearby. Two women crouched for hours over a small fireplace constantly churning out freshly barbequed morsels of squid. The men sat nearby talking and laughing, all the while drinking a potent mix of Thai red bull-esque energy drink concentrate (banned in Australia) with Songsom Thai whiskey, a concoction familiar to most backpackers in Thailand, generally consumed from a bucket.

The prolanka was indeed present, but this time as a salad. I didn’t sample it, but the consensus was it tasted like fish (the flesh) with bulgar (the eggs). Random interesting fact about prolanka: the male prolanka attaches itself to the female and goes everywhere with her. Where he is, for some reason, unattached and left to fend for himself he dies. The female, on the other hand, is perfectly capable of existing without a man in her life.

We finished our meal long before the food stopped being served and lay back, sated and tired. The Khmers, with more practice and stamina at this sort of event, kept going. Hour pulled out a bottle of Khmer muscle wine and we were all cajoled into taking a shot. I can safely say that I will never drink muscle wine again. I could tell by the smell that it was not a sensible thing to consume but felt that I needed to at least sample it so that I could tell my Khmer friends I had tried.

It was a fairly sleepless night. The muscle wine wreaked havoc on my head and the karaoke played on and on. I would wake up for a moment between songs under the impression it had finally finished only for another one to begin. It did stop for about an hour around 5am, but then when I emerged around 8am for breakfast it was back on again, with young men roaming back and forwards across the lawns of the complex to and from the restaurant.

On our final day on the island we all congregated around Hour’s family house. A group of us settled on steps on the side of the road eating delicious, sweet pineapple and roasted bananas. It was sunny and the village was filled with children and families. As we waited swarms of energetic kids played around us, occasionally paying us heed when someone pulled a camera out. What a strange weekend! I was finally feeling relaxed and comfortable with my surroundings. We were told the boat to Sihanoukville generally arrives around 10.30am but this could vary plus/minus several hours. Nevertheless, we piled our things together and waited on the pier. The sun was out in full force and everybody crowded about either waiting to catch the boat or to meet the supplies and families that would be arriving. I had an ongoing English / Khmer lesson with one of the towns many small retailers. We talked about how to say various phrases, such as “I have change” in English; she then brought her two children over to the pier so that they too could learn this phrase. The boat arrived only around 30 minutes after its official arrival time and we bid goodbye to Koh Sdech and its residents. I settled myself on the roof of the boat with a few others. We smeared ourselves in sunscreen and sat back enjoying the breeze, view and sunshine.


  • At 4:46 PM, Blogger Veggie Friendly said…

    These prolanka sound like truly evolved species!

  • At 8:18 PM, Blogger jLo said…

    Heh, I loved that too. Metaphors for life from nature, that's awesome.

    Sounds like quite a trip, Anth - those photos are awesome!

  • At 8:20 PM, Blogger jLo said…

    Apparently I have an inability to use any adjective other than 'awesome'. I'll bring my thesaurus next time...

  • At 5:52 AM, Blogger Veggie Friendly said…

    OK, well, we'll be keeping on eye on your adjectives, don't you worry.

  • At 11:45 PM, Anonymous Stefan said…

    Thanks for the thoughtful and fascinating travel reports and marvelous pictures. You are doing a great job.


  • At 7:43 PM, Blogger J, The said…

    Hi Anth. I have finally been initiated into blogdom by persistent nagging by Ed (my docco-making buddy introduced to me by J-Lo) and J-Lo and Bookman's recent forays. Your most recent explorations remind me of the unique combination of calm and adventuressness (is that a word?) which make you such a good traveller/ex-pat!

  • At 8:53 PM, Blogger Maytel said…

    i could well have finished my PhD by the time you submit another RSS feed waits with baited breath...ain't nothing note worthy going on round your parts???? siem reap niether...ngea


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