The first town I stayed in was Kampomg Cham. Admittedly, I ended up here somewhat because of my stubborn pride. The Australian owner of my hostel in Siem Reap said he would never go there. "You would be the only foreigner there, and I don't even know where you would stay." Those were words that actually excited me rather than deterred me. And considering the four friends I met on the bus and easily found a guesthouse with, his information was a little suspect.
Still Kampong Cham was not much to look at. A granite grid of tired buildings and streets outlined with garbage, the stop would have not been worth much if we hadn't ventured out of town.
Two newly gained friends, French and Swiss, and I took one dollar bike rentals out for the one full day in town. The morning was filled up with a trip to three temples west of town. The first had multiple shrines garbed on the inside with the delicated painted parable murals of the Buddha's life. One shrine was a collision of ancient and modern with a newer and fresher section growing out from the crumbling walls of a shrine who had seen many more laughing tourists, reverent parishioners, vacant homeless tenants, and leaves falling to the dusty ground.
The last two temples we perched opposite each other on two hills. On the only bumps for miles around, the view from the tops was vast. The temples sighed with the parched wind tickling the remaining leaves on the skeletal tree arms. Mostly empty, they insighted a calm in me as the sun dusted land disappeared into a hazy horizon.
The afternoon was passed on an island out in the river. The passage to the island is a community-maintained bamboo bridge. It's strong enough to carry trucks or horse and buggies and it's rebuilt every year because the river becomes so fierce in the rainy season. From afar it looks a millipede with its stiff legs splayed into the river.
After crossing the bridge, we didn't expect much from the gray beach that stretched into the dry season river. However, as we pedaled through sand and over snapping bamboo into the heart of the island, the mood changed dramatically. A town sprang up along with the foliage and heavy hanging fruit trees. Stilted plank houses bustled with the yearly corn harvest. In yards they slipped the cobs out of their sheathes, rattled the kernels off in a grumbling harvester, and smoothed out the yellow gems to dry in the dust and the sun. At each house we passed, we were greeted by a chorus of children screaming "HELLO!" Our discussions were limited to this greeting, but rarely have I felt so welcome in a new place.
As the sun began to lose its sharpness, we found a lookout on the west side of the island as kids raced home from school with their shoes and bike tires throwing dust up from the road. The sunsets on the Mekong are unlike any I have seen. Long before brushing the horizon, the sun starts to dim in the constant haze. Slowly the color changes from a oven baking yellow to a sizzling orange to a red ember as dim as the moon. Just before it disappears into the mist, the glowing eye rusts into deep maroon and slips away to rest for the night.
We biked back in the growing dark, guided by the spotlights of motorbikes shifting in dusty beams. The bamboo bridge crackled like popcorn beneath our tires as we approached the mainland and a world removed from the island sanctuary.
The next town of Kratie was much of the same. Island ease and sunsets to lose yourself in. We did get to spend some time in the Kampi rapids north of town. The locals have set up a picnic area of piers and hammocks above the rushing water. Slipping in the water and relaxing with sweet coconut rice was a great way to pass the time.
In short, the Mekong holds its charm for me when I get out into it, whether on the islands on in the rushing water itself. The water must bring a calmness and simplicity to those who pass over and into it. A tri country provider, the Mekong provides a steady landmark for locals and travelers alike.