Prawn Cruise out of Phnom Penh

By Brian Calvert
Wall Street Journal Asia
October 14, 2010

“You’re having a party?” asks Srey Phy, my preferred seafood vendor at Phnom Penh’s Central Market. “I want to go.”

I’ve just ordered 10 kilograms of prawns—on her advice, the lighter ones, better for boiling than the black-shelled. “Sure,” I say. “Meet me at the riverfront at one o’clock.” Ms. Phy is joking, of course. No way she can get away from the hustle of the market. She dumps cup after cup of the prawns into a giant plastic sack, weighs them, adds ice. It’s a lot of prawn, but I’m expecting maybe 50 people.

The plan is to boil the prawn, Cajun style, as we cruise up the Mekong River to a grassy island about an hour out of the city. I’m not sure how the river-cruise tradition got started. There have long been little boats offering rides on the Mekong at a low hourly rate. One day someone must have asked to stop on the island, and a destination was born.

One master of the Mekong cruise was an American journalist named Porter Barron, renowned for roasting whole hogs and hosting wild boat trips that included rock bands and shenanigans. I wrote asked him what he remembered most. “Glad to hear y’all still holding it down upstream,” he replied from his South Carolina home. “Escaping the city’s din, dust. Good company, booze, victuals & tunes. Mud fights. Chucking crab, prawn shells overboard & at said good company.” Memorable moments, he wrote, included “the failed slip-n-slide (carcinogenic lubricant/detergent burned everyone’s eyes and made them swell shut, plus sand and slip-n-slide don’t mix), and the successful innertube armada that was towed up the Mekong at harrowing speed. This may have been a first for Cambodia.”

Our trips these days are less raucous, perhaps, but no less enjoyable. The air out on the water always seems about five degrees cooler than in the stifling city, which in recent years has grown more crowded and chaotic. The cruise is luxurious in its simplicity and decadent in its affordability. It’s a relief valve, a time-out from the rigors of the country, which for all its economic achievement remains haunted by its dark past and chronic poverty.

When I arrive with my giant sack of prawns, Pich Pov is there to meet me. Mr. Pov is a can-do boatman and fixer with excellent timing in firing up a big pot of water to get the sausage, potatoes and onions going. He knows how much beer and club soda we need, and he always remembers to remind me to bring an iPod—a detail I miss as often as napkins. (Forgetting either, I’ve learned the hard way, can greatly diminish the fun.)

Today Mr. Pov is beaming. “This is the first trip for my new boat,” he says. The Paris le Mekong is a spiffed-up sampan modified with an upper sun deck. It’s an upgrade from his old boat, which was a little smaller and top-heavy, leaving it vulnerable to choppy water and heavy currents. Today, his uncle will pilot from the fore while his aunt will help with the cooking aft. Mr. Pov apologizes for the plastic chairs, promising a more traditional rattan on the next trip.

We set the pot to boil with two bags of Zatarain’s Louisiana shrimp-boil mix and extra cayenne, and the guests begin to arrive, undeterred by a heavy rainstorm that broke up before noon and left the city wet and slick and grey. A boat trip during the monsoon is a gamble, but today it pays off. The rain has calmed the water and cooled the air. The sun shines intermittently, even as menacing thunderheads curtain the horizon.

Mr. Pov’s best effort notwithstanding, I’ve forgotten the iPod—but several of the guests have smart phones and mp3 players, and soon we’re adrift with rap and rock over the purr of the riverboat engine. Phnom Penh was built at the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers, which cross and then separate at a swirling confluence known as Chaktomuk (Khmer for “four faces”). Many Cambodians believe that powerful spirits travel up and down these waterways, imbuing their intersection with magical power.

The royal palace overlooks Chaktomuk, where a shrine has been built on the bank to the spirit of a saint named Dong Kar. The Paris le Mekong chugs past the shrine, where spiritual Buddhists pray, leave lotus offerings and release sparrows for merit. We veer to port and head north up the Mekong. The water shimmers like antique brass, thick with the silt carried from Laos and beyond. Whether you believe in spirits or not, you can feel the ancient strength of the Mekong and its languid, powerful eddies.

It’s the languor—not my prawn, alas—that draws most people onto the boat. “It’s simply the boat and the water it floats on that does it for me,” says Marc Rousseau, a newcomer and social-media strategist. “The strangely reassuring swagger of the deck, the light splash you’ll get if you’re standing near the bow, the tranquility of sitting on the upper section and getting some sun. That and the wonderful knowledge that you can, at any point in time, simply jump off.”

At last, the grassy island comes into view. By now the Cajun broth has boiled the potatoes and sausage, and we drop in the prawn. Ms. Phy’s advice does not disappoint. The prawn come out of the bath light and pink and bursting with the flavor of Zatarain’s coriander, cayenne and bay leaves.

We moor on the island, an uninhabited patch of alluvial land that tapers into a mud bar in the lee of the current. We peel off shirts and sarongs and get ready to swim. Not everyone likes a dunk in the Mekong, but to me this is what it’s all about. The river provides the final rinse, the deepest sigh of collective relief. Phnom Penh is miles away, forgotten. And this is no small task. In the city, we work in a post-traumatic world of genocide, human trafficking, acid attacks, refugees, crime, impunity, greed and poverty. We are journalists, entrepreneurs, volunteers and development workers. We’re far from home, stressed at work, caught in traffic, assailed by horns, ripped off in markets, stung by corruption. We can love the place and hate it in equal measure. In our own ways we try to do a bit of good—a hard swim against a strong current.

But out on the river, we simply strip down and jump in. We whoop and holler, jack-knife, cannonball, dive. We leap from the top deck, reach for the clouds, then fall, plunging into the cool, dark deep.


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