“I was below decks when the attack came. A gunfight broke out. I rushed up and was almost hit by a bullet. There was no one at the wheel so I ran up to the front of the boat and tried to hold it on course. Suddenly someone called out: your man has been hit. I ran back to where he was lying. Several men had been killed and there was blood all over the place.”
Dawn breaks early on the Tonle Sap River. Its waters reflect the first rays of light like a silver sheet of snow. At first there is no division between heaven and the river. The blackness of night melts into a deep, metallic blue. The ponderous hulk of our ship glides through the river, burdened deep by the cargo which it has taken almost 3 days to load.
It is about 3.30am and Martin, our cameraman, is making full use of his gigantic dolly: the VATHANAK SAMBATH, a 38m Cambodian cargo vessel captained by Sokkha, a 50 year old widow.
Mindful of her husband’s violent death, Sokkha makes an offering to the Gods before each voyage. Delicately, she arranges a mango, a coconut, a yellow-skinned dead chicken on the teak deck in front of her captain’s bridge. She then adopts the lotus position and lights a handful of sandalwood incense sticks. Sokha presses the tips of her fingers together and rocks her head in near-silent prayer.
Bluish shadows emerge from the darkness, slivers of islands, embankments and causeways embedded in a breathtaking “Dr Zhivago” landscape. The rainy season has peaked and the Tonle Sap is once again flowing south, back into the Mekong. At first we are unable to distinguish any human life in this surreal environment. Then, the subtle glow of red embers introduces a new dimension. A silhouette, backlit, emerges from the doorway of the first house on stilts we have seen. The fishermen of Tonle Sap, as they have for centuries, make their way to their canoes to begin their day’s work.
All lights on our boat have been deleted. It is not easy to navigate the unpredictable swollen reaches of the Tonle Sap River. With the intensity of an astronomer, Sokkha douses all possible sources of parasitic light, her eyes focussed on the primordial blackness. She is, at this moment, legally responsible for all the defenceless families perched precariously in their tiny canoes. She could be fined, heavily, for damaging the countless submerged fishing nets, strung across the river. On board, the only source of artificial light are the smouldering anti-mosquito coils as they dispel their lethal fragrance. The smell reminds me of the myrrh and frankincense of Europe’s ever-so-distant gothic cathedrals. Here, the devil is the mosquito. I slide a coil close to my resting place and pray that the vapours are successfully defining a temporary malaria-free zone.
When we do finally do see human figures, they are slim and fragile, like Giacometti stick-people. There is a fragility in the air – the stilts upon which the houses stand, the tiny canoes, the fish nets, the half-submerged fences, the fishing traps, the palm trees - everything is finely wrought, like delicate silverware. Martin, Viktor and I have never seen anything like this in our lives before.
We pass our first motorised fishing boat. As it glides through the black waters, a translucent plume of orange plasma flutters above the vertical exhaust, like a ghost. Diesel is not in fashion. Boat motors tend to come from recycled Korean motorcars ad sound appropriately abrupt and high-key. The rhythm of the motor is our first man-made sound of the day. A fisherman and his son sit in the bow, each one meditating on what the day may bring. For a fraction of a second, the father’s face is illuminated as he inhales from his cigarette. Soon there will be hundreds of these boats, but this first encounter is almost mystical in its primordial imagery.
It must have been a night like this, in 1996, when government forces boarded the VATHANAK SAMBATH and demanded protection money from Sokkha´s husband. The army and police are still poorly paid in Cambodia and it is officially expected of members of the armed forces to demonstrate initiative in enhancing their meagre salaries.
“They were regular soldiers from the military government. They were out for money. Soldiers from our government. We used to call them “second-hand” checkpoints. It was utter anarchy then, not like now. The people at these checkpoints were extremely cruel. It was a horrific time. If they felt like shooting somebody they just went ahead and shot him. They just did what they wanted. These people had absolutely not fear of the law.“
A scuffle broke out and a bullet struck Sokkha´s husband in the thigh. He died a few days later in hospital.
Sokkha will tell us the story of how she became a widow, how she was forced to sell the house she had built with her husband, and how she decided to make the VATHANAK SAMBATH her floating home. In Cambodia women never re-marry. Marriage is forever. For Sokkha, her commitment to the VATHANAK SAMBATH is her way of keeping the promise she made at her husband’s deathbed.