It’s about 4 in the afternoon on a rainy Sunday. I’m on a long dirt path with no humans in sight. My bicycle is stuck in the mud. I’m covered in what I’m hoping is mud, but what is more likely ox excrement. And I’m totally alone. FML.
A few weekends ago, some friends and I went to Silk Island (Koh Dach). This island, in the Mekong River northeast of Phnom Penh, is famous for its silk weaving traditions. We were less interested in the silk options, though, and more interested in finding a quiet place to relax away from the city.
The eight of us set out by bike to the ferry terminal, stopping for a morning snack in a breezy restaurant facing the water. Gesine and Soyeon take naps, the rest of us order juice or beer, and Dorota, upon seeing the selection of roasted bugs making the rounds, decides to buy one for us to share. I’m too squeamish to try the giant brown mutant roach that appears to have died of shock on the table in front of us, but Dorota pops a crunchy leg into her mouth with no hesitation.
We take the ferry across the river – a quick ride over calm, muddy water – and soon arrive at the island. We wait for the motorbikes, laden with bundles of clothing and goods for sale, to exit first, then push our bicycles up the stone-covered path that is the Silk Island ferry dock. Jan and Marcel have booked our guesthouse already, so we follow them a few minutes down the road until we are at a red building that resembles a refurbished barn. This is the Red House, where we’ll stay for the night.
Stephan, the owner, originally from Paris, comes out to greet us. Within ten minutes, he has the lunch table filled with plates of dried fish, rice, soup, and vegetables. We’re all starving and immediately dig in. We spend the rest of the afternoon eating, drinking, napping, playing Marcel’s guitar, and taking photos.
That evening, we prepare our barbecue dinner – grilled eggplant stuffed with garlic, corn on the cob, thick slabs of meat, and fresh bread. We stuff ourselves and then fall asleep to the sounds of crickets chirping and the river water gently lapping the banks.
The next morning, after a full breakfast prepared by Stephan and his wife, we are looking to explore the island. Gesine and Soyeon are planning on going to a nearby pool, and Stephan offers to take us all.
We set off on our bikes around 2 pm. It’s hot. There’s no shade cover and the sun is high overhead. The island is pretty, but I’m melting.
“I’m just going to show you a temple first,” Stephan says.
We ride down the path for twenty minutes and he takes us to an old Buddhist temple. After taking a few photos, and stopping for some ice cream, we set off again. Stephan points out other places of interest along the way, but we’re starting to get cranky. It’s hot as hell, some of us are hungover, we’re soaked in sweat, and we’ve been biking for almost an hour.
A few minutes pass. We start to hear some rumbling in the sky. Oh no…
We debate what to do.
“We just got here. Why don’t we stay under the umbrella until the storm passes?” Marcel suggests.
We’re all thinking this is a good idea until Stephan chimes in.
“Uh… I think we should probably go now.” He looks nervous. “If it rains, the roads will not be good…”
Heeding his advice, we pack up our things and start to head out. I ride out first with my roommate, Claire, and Jan leading the way. Up ahead is Stephan’s wife on a moto. As soon as we exit the pool, Stephan’s wife takes off without a single look back at us to see if we’re following her. We’re not.
I’m the slowest rider in the group, and I fall far behind Claire and Jan. My bike is old and slow and meant for a child, and I just can’t keep up. As the rain starts to fall, I look up and realize that they’re all gone. It’s raining, and I’m alone on this child’s bike in the middle of this island.
After a few minutes of biking, I come across a section of the road that is completely unpassable. The roads on Silk Island aren’t paved, and the water has turned this one into a muddy ditch. Motos are turning back, and people on bicycles have hopped off and are pushing their vehicles through the mess. I’m annoyed and wet, and my friends do NOT understand how the buddy system works. A few minutes in a pool was not worth this.
I jump off my bike and push it through a rut in the road made by the passing of a million tuk tuks and motos. The rut just disintegrates from the pressure of my bike and soon I am completely stuck. At some point, the wheels of my bike stop turning because so much mud has accumulated in the wheels. I want to sit down in the mud and give up. There’s no hope…
A few elderly women come out of their houses to observe the ridiculous scene. There are tuk tuks that have come to a standstill. A few kids have completely relinquished hygienic standards and are rolling around in the mud. And then there’s me: a tall foreigner, wet and covered in crap, pushing her sad bike as hard as she can while not moving an inch.
One of the women makes eye contact with me and then starts to laugh. Soon, all of the women are laughing. I’m furious. This is not funny, and I will be stuck on Silk Island forever, where I will eventually die to the sound of this mockery.
A few children come out to view the source of all the laughter, and suddenly one of the women looks at them and screams.
“Socheat! Kahshsdflsdvjslkdfwjleq!” she yells.
I have no idea what is happening. Suddenly, the kids pick up sticks from the ground and run towards me. Oh god. This is how I will die. A bunch of children will go all Lord of the Flies on me.
When they reach me, they start using the sticks to push the mud out of the wheels of my bike. This simple method is actually very effective, and within a couple of minutes, my bike is clear of mud.
“Aw-koon,” I say. Thank you.
As I make my way slowly along the muddy path, one child follows me with his stick, clearing out the mud for me until he gets bored of this chore and runs away.
Eventually, I manage to get through the destroyed section of the road. It is here that I realize there is nobody in sight. I don’t have any idea where our guesthouse is, and if the rest of the road is also destroyed, then I’m screwed. I reflect on all of my decisions over the last few days. Why am I here? Why did I go on this trip? Why did Stephan decide it would be a good idea to take us on an hour-long bike ride on a hot afternoon in rainy season? Why are there are no paved roads or vehicles equipped for mud? WHY???
Fortunately, the rest of the road is passable, although almost as disgusting. I have taken off my shoes at this point, as they are slimy, filled with mud, and are doing nothing for traction or support. I’m pretty sure the oozy gunk I can feel squelching between my toes is ox crap, but I’m trying not to think about it.
I get back on my bike once the road seems solid enough to ride on. I’m heading down a small pathway, when suddenly I see Claire’s bike about thirty metres away, across from me on the main road.
“Hey!” I call. “You’re alive.”
“Uggggghhhhhhh,” Claire grunts.
I bike over to where she and Jan are, parked in front of the Red House.
“The door is locked,” Claire informs me. “We can’t go in.”
She looks irate. “Who thought this would be a good idea???”
“Well… we all did…”
She points to her legs, which are also covered in oozing brown sludge. “I fell in the mud! I have an infection on my leg, and I’m pretty sure there’s ox shit in it now! And I saw a snake crawling through the mud right where I fell!”
This would be hilarious if it wasn’t so damn disgusting.
I look over at the house across from our guesthouse.
“Maybe I can see if they’ll give us some water…” I suggest.
I run across the street, beg our neighbours for a bucket of water, and, seeing my current state of filth, they quickly oblige.
We scrub the mud and excrement off of our bodies as quickly as we can. Jan, calm and quiet as always, watches the spectacle without a word.
Stephan and the rest of our group pull up about half an hour later. They are muddy, but nowhere near as disgusting as we were.
We tell him that he had locked his gate and we weren’t able to get into the house. Stephan opens the gate with a shrug and a laugh.
“These things happen. Yes, the rain… I didn’t know it would be so bad. But what can you do?”
I’m worried Claire will murder him.
We get inside and shower, scrubbing every part of our body to remove the scent of manure and sewage. Claire and I are ready to get out of here. It’s much later than we had wanted to leave, and even after the shower, we’re still pretty sure we smell like animal feces.
We all drag our backpacks outside, hose off our bikes, and have a snack. We hear a rumble as we step outside. In trepidation, we all look up. Angry grey storm clouds swirl above, readying themselves for a final round.
“Oh, don’t worry. Here it only rains once a day!” Stephan, who has lived here for over a decade, assures us.
When our group is ready, we set off. Stephan waves us off jovially.
“Goodbye! Please come again!”
I am the last one out the door. As I leave, the rain starts to come down. Stephan looks up and then gives me a sheepish look.
“Well… sometimes it rains once a day, sometimes it rains twice, sometimes three times…”