In a country of beautiful smiles, where the ability to keep smiling has been tested more brutally than almost anywhere on earth, this Cambodian woman has a spectacular smile. With her light brown skin, dark bobbed hair and faded floral T-shirt, her gold-capped grin widens across her face, in defiance of the shocking realities of Pol Pot's brutal regime she has no doubt borne witness to in her 50-something years, and perhaps also in hope of a better future.
We've found this smile in a traditional stilted house in the French colonial riverside town of Chhlong in Cambodia, on a shore excursion from our cruise on the RV Mekong Pandaw. The smile's owner, who is busy deep-frying doughnuts as her tiny granddaughter hides behind her skirt, has invited us into the cool shadows beneath her home to give our small group some respite from the scalding sun. It has been beating down on us with a vengeance since we stepped off our boat half an hour ago. Soon though, thanks to her hospitality, we're ready to step back out into the heat of the day.
Hugging the east bank of the Mekong River between Kampong Cham and Kratie provinces, this once-bustling port for French and Chinese traders is one of the few places that survived the Khmer Rouge's ransacking in the mid-1970s. We come across evidence of this, a handful of romantically dilapidated French colonial mansions, as we scuff along the unpaved, palm tree-lined main street. These buildings, like the gorgeous yellow-and-white erstwhile governor's residence, once a boutique hotel that's now shuttered and falling into disrepair, bring a nostalgic air to Chhlong's verdant streets.
Passing tiny stalls selling fuel in old Coke bottles and drinking coconuts decorated with yellow flowers, a small blue barber shop plastered with photographs of male pop stars and soccer heroes with Bieber-style hairdos, and kids whizzing by on big old pushbikes, we eventually reach the vibrant produce market at the end of the street. Women in mismatched pyjamas sit beneath tattered umbrellas by the roadside scaling fish, hawking fresh fruits and vegetables from handwoven bamboo baskets, and hunks of meat buzzing with flies. Some sway lazily in hammocks strung beneath simple wood and aluminium shacks, gossiping with their neighbours and reminding us that it's time to escape the stultifying sun.
We retreat back to our elegant ship for a nap in our airconditioned, timber-lined cabins, followed by some delicious local cuisine whipped up by the on-board chefs. Rested and refuelled, we're soon ready to head back out on our afternoon excursion to Kampi hamlet, a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) protected stretch of the Mekong in Kratie. This, says our Pandaw guide Somnang, is where we might get a glimpse of the rare and critically endangered Irrawaddy freshwater dolphin, named after Myanmar's Irrawaddy River and found in about eight places between India and the Philippines. After a 40-minute bus ride, we head out on yellow wooden motor boats under a mercifully cloudy sky.
"There are only about 85 Irrawaddy dolphins in all of Cambodia, and only about 20 of those live in this area, so we'll be lucky if we spot anything," says Somnang as we putter out to sea, no doubt managing our expectations. These dolphins, he tells us, were also touched by Pol Pot's regime when about 1000 were slaughtered for their oils to be used in weapons. Today their numbers remain precarious due to threats including bycatch, when dolphins are accidentally killed by huge gillnets (which thankfully were prohibited in 2012) attached to fishing trawlers, and river pollution. "The WWF have been attempting to regenerate the population here, but since females give birth only every two to three years, it has been a slow process," Somnang says.
We come to a stop when we near the deeper pools where the dolphins reside, and the wait begins. Half an hour passes in which we spot nothing but dolphin-like logs and branches. But just as we're about to give up, a sleek grey back comes arching out of the water. The dolphin's characteristic bulging forehead and short blunt nose pop out, before quickly disappearing back under the water.
Irrawaddy dolphins, it turns out, aren't jumpers like their seafaring cousins, and are a fair bit shyer too – not surprising given the way they've been treated in the past. Some of our group express disappointment at the slim sightings. But I'm grateful just to have seen the rare creatures, identified by the WWF as a flagship species that reflect the health of the river for other species, including humans.
Their presence here can be seen as another act of defiance of the past, and maybe even another small sign of hope for the future, too.
Malaysia Airlines flies to Siem Reap via Kuala Lumpur from every capital city for about $1100 return. See malaysiaairlines.com
Wendy Wu Tours offers a range of Pandaw River Cruise itineraries, and a selection of private pre and post cruise itineraries. The Classic Mekong cruise aboard the RV Mekong Pandaw travels from Siem Reap to Saigon (and the reverse) over eight days, from $3755 a person twin share. See wendywutours.com.au
Nina Karnikowski travelled courtesy of Wendy Wu Tours and Malaysian Airlines.