at the mouth of the sea (sihanoukville, cambodia)

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

I boarded an old slow boat for a trip through a cove cutting North from the Gulf of Siam. They fish in simple ways in many parts of the cove, but it is peaceful there and not crowded. We got off for lunch and walked an hour in a forest over a hill rising right by the water; the only excitement was a giant spider and wild fowl which crowed repeatedly in the foliage. (You aren't allowed off the path because of the danger of land-mines.) We broke the hike in a hamlet in the forest where we saw a crowd of buffaloes half immersed in thick mud pits and plastered with mud-paste all over, even round the head. The villagers had tied low to a tree a tiny monkey who wouldn't climb to my shoulder but clung to my waist and tugged at the wallet in my jeans.

The water entertained better—we were on it longer than on land. Egrets lined the tops of trees on the shore. An orange-brown eagle with white collar sat regally before a theatrical backdrop among the branches. On the way back he, or his cousin, swooped down before us and, seeing something better, changed course in a smart sharp arc and whisked a fish off the water and took him in his talons to the heights of the trees. All of us saw the action and were speechless until someone complimented the bird and the rest agreed in unison. A kingfisher with brilliant colors, more colors than I'd imagined, flew a foot above the water, and went from this shore to that far shore in a frenetic haste that suggested serious purpose, a major deal to close, perhaps. The fishermen were working their nets from early-morning. In this tranquil setting, all were at work—birds, men, fish, water. On our boat, a Finn lay supine across the fore, gazed at the bright clear sky through dark sunglasses and dozed; aft in the shadows a Swedish girl lay on the slats and read a novel. The rest of us went into reverie. I took idle shots of small inlets that came up among the mangroves. The driver went into deep sleep; the guide woke him after we'd passed the landing where to enter the mangrove forest for a short hike. I thought we might see some snake among the gnarled bone-like tangles of the mangroves but probably they watched us from distant concealments.