To reach Silk Island from Phnom Penh you head over the Japanese Bridge on National Route Six. Once over the bridge you arrive onto a sliver of land squeezed between the Tonle Sap, the river that flows from the great lake in Cambodia’s north, and the Mekong, the river that comes from China.
The Japanese “Friendship” Bridge isn’t the white-knuckle ride it once was. The bridge takes you to Chroy Changvar, the peninsula formed as part of the Quatre Bras, the riverine “four arms” at the centre of Phnom Penh. Traffic was a maelstrom, four wheels went on the road, two wheels dominated the footpath. Pedestrians were largely absent and likely just as well. Few people walk in Cambodia unless you’re either very poor, or don’t have far to go. The bridge has been joined by a more recent Chinese construction built in record time, which now performs this feat for those heading into the city, while the older Japanese construct takes you away, to Silk Island and further Batdambang and on towards Thailand. The bridges perfectly illustrate the changing of the guard of foreign influence with the “Chinarising” of Cambodia. The West is so yesterday.
Maintenance on the bridge, once damaged in the civil war, has been neglected over the years and is now well overdue. It’s an accident waiting to happen, much like traffic in the kingdom. Urban myth has it that to “bless” the new Chinese built construction, a garment worker was kidnapped and sacrificed by being thrown into the Mekong.
The fulcrum for the bridge approaches on Chroy Changvar is Prohm Bayan Circle, a kind of grand traffic island, which is the hub to the spokes of Keo Chanda and Tonle Sap streets. The former goes towards the Mekong and some palatial houses, kitsch developments and the bizarre looking new Norton University campus, looking like a space oddity. The latter runs parallel to Preah Sisowath Quay, known as the capital’s Riverside and the dominating profile of the Sokha Hotel, which looks like it belongs in Las Vegas and seems ghostlike, like it landed somewhere it doesn’t belong.
Phnom Penh’s recent urban development is about building lots of things not in keeping with the its low-key charm. It's like a disease that’s breaking out, and like a pandemic, the country may never recover, though they’ve been through catastrophe before. Sadly the disease is now threatening the nearby countryside even Koh Dach, with resorts looming.
Koh Dach or Silk Island, is the largest of 3 islands in the middle of the Mekong; Koh Toch ("Small Island") is the other named island. Ferries run to both islands from several spots but the closest to Phnom Penh is the terminal off National Route Six. Most foreign tourists take a moto (a step-thru’ moto or scooter) or hire a tuk-tuk for a few dollars. The ferries cost peanuts and are an interesting insight into Cambodia. Entire families can fit onto a single vehicle, all manner of produce can be carried, and Cambodians manoeuvre their vehicles with ease. One rider, a woman wearing her pajamas, performed a neat 180-degree turn using the kick-stand as a pivot with effortless grace.
The provincial border with Kandal Province runs through both islands. Phnom Penh itself is a metropolitan island, to enter and leave by road, water or rail you go through Kandal in every direction. To get to the ferry boat turn right at the Total Gas Station or the Crystal Hotel on National Route Six and then left down the backstreet. You’ll pass restaurants and street stalls. Ferries run all day from early morning to late at night with such regularity timetables are an irrelevance. Passengers are charged 500 riels (about US$0.12 cents), motorbikes are twice that.
If you fly into Phnom Penh you will see Koh Dach below, it’s the marker the pilots use to bank to the right and line up their final approach to the airport at Pochentong. This manoeuvre affords a prime view of the islands. At one point, you will see a four-story bright ochre block in the middle of Silk Island’s neighbour, Koh Toch. The house is owned by a Khmer woman. She sells coffee in her front garden under an umbrella. She hasn’t made enough money to outfit the building yet, so it’s just s shell. A work in progress she said.
Koh Dach was once called Khsach Kandal and Koh Toch, Oknya Tey. During early French colonial times a Frenchman, Federic Caraman established a farm there. He ordered seed for corn, hemp, vanilla, cacao, coffee, sugar cane and cotton. Later he tried indigo farming, and tried maize and grape growing, but all failed and his factory and the neighbouring village were burned down during the rebellion of 1885. Khmer rebels landed on the southern tip of the island and torched everything. The French retaliated and strangely prescient of things to come a century later, launched search and destroy missions seeking to pacify areas under what become known as the “Regime of the Sword”. The carried out abductions, killings and rapes, and left the severed heads of their victims on bamboo poles.
Koh Dach is rural. The infrastructure is surprisingly good, in there are sealed roads of concrete and mains electricity. On my visit to Koh Dach I saw a convoy of black SUVs with tinted windows, the symbol of wealth in Cambodia, so wondered if there was some high-powered connection to the island. Perhaps this was the reason for the good roads. Connections to the ruling Cambodia Peoples’ Party are required in Cambodia for anything to happen and anyone looking to get ahead. Conversely, connections to the country’s political opposition, such as it is these days, invariably means nothing will be happening anytime soon.
Seemingly anything grows on Koh Dach. It’s a patch of greenery on a bed of silt and loess, courtesy of the dynamic riverine, or soil moisture dynamics as geologists would refer to it. Studies of this proliferate for Vietnam, not so for Cambodia. Probably because Vietnam has more resources, has centralised planning, and 21% of its population and 12% of its land area with 32% of the agricultural land depend on it. It is estimated 70 million people rely on the Mekong for food and their livelihood including Koh Dach.
The place is one great garden, though signs of affluence are few and far between. The market on Koh Dach is your basic rural Cambodian fare. Most produce heads for Phnom Penh for a large clientele and hopefully for the locals, higher prices.
Once off the ferry you can turn left along the main island or head over the bridge to Koh Toch. There’s a hotel, the only one I saw on southern part of the smaller island. Further along the road was blocked by a wedding party, the marquee taking up the entire width of the road. In Cambodia, as elsewhere in Southeast we are in white, yellow, pink, or sometimes in red, or combinations thereof, funerals however, are in black and white. Wat Chong Koh was resplendent in the sun under a clearing blue sky.
On the western side of Koh Toch there is Chambar Sne Resorts, a rather low key affair. The resort has locally run silk weaving and a commercial chop to buy silk and some cotton scarves (krauma). There’s a small entrance fee for tourists. There are some rather sad looking caged animals and a crocodile pen with thankfully, no crocodiles. Whenever I’ve seen crocodile farms or animals caged in Cambodia they’re usually in rather badly maintained enclosures, and look the worse for wear. Where the lot for people is hard, that for anmals is invariably worse. There’s a row of traditional Cambodian houses made of wood, a kind of tourist version of the real thing. The shop is reasonably priced, and cheaper than many of the shops selling similar items found in Phnom Penh, particularly along Street 178, which seems to be the art street for tourists these days.
Cambodia has a rich silk history. Early French traders in the 1860s noted the existence of a local sericulture around Phnom Penh. Much of the production is still done at the household and village level on large wooden frame looms, often under stilt houses, unchanged over the centuries. Like many facets of society, Cambodia's rich weaving tradition suffered tremendously during the war years — the magnitude of loss of skilled artisans and knowledge was staggering. Intricate Cambodian ikats (hol) are world-renowned. Ikat (derived from the Malay word mengikat, meaning to tie or to bind) is the method of creating patterns by dying hanks of thread tied with fiber resists. It can take up to several days or more to produce one meter of an intricate ikat pattern. Ikat patterns were traditionally passed from generation to generation by memory; prior to the war, more than 200 different patterns were known to be in existence, but it is unclear how many have survived.
Some enterprises like Chambar Sne Resorts, Angkor Artisans in Siem Reap and Khmer Silk Villages in Phnom Penh are training young Cambodians from rural areas in the art of weaving and also providing technical support to sericulture farmers and weaving communities throughout Cambodia, but it’s a long road back.
Back across the bridge from Koh Toch on Koh Dach there's a long road to the north of the island. There are a number of small villages, some restaurants, and shops. White cows wander across the road, and water buffalo too. The dogs in Cambodia are more passive than those in Thailand, and tend not to sit in the middle of the road. Fortunately, they’re rarely in the packs seen across the border.
The tip of Koh Dach has a beach resort. There are guesthouses with garden restaurants along the main road, Koh Dach Track, which circumnavigates the island. Everywhere there’s semi-intensive agriculture and reminders of the colonial past. I saw some old French villas, their shutters broken, terracotta tiles missing and the once brilliant ochre, weather worn and greying to black in places.
I had browsed Gregor Muller's fascinating account of Cambodia's 'bad Frenchmen' in the 19th century; one of the more remarkable books to deal with the history of the kingdom after the French established their protectorate in 1863. Muller is a Swiss, and I’d first come cross his name in relation to the cataloguing of the National Archives, a project he helped with. His brief biopic said he lived on an island in the Mekong near Phnom Penh which I’d assumed, in my ignorance, to be Diamond Island, Koh Pich. I do not know where he lived, I understand he’s now gone back to his home in the Alps, but I suspect if he didn’t live on Silk Island, he’d have liked it here.