Whilst working in Cambodia ten years ago I was involved in several flood-response programs. The Mekong River, at over a kilometre wide in Kampong Cham where I was based, was an incredible sight. In full-flood it was something else. Apart from the sheer volume of water in the river, along the flood plains and in the tributaries, the mechanisms that were used by the communities to deal with the regular wet season floods were impressive.
As with much of rural Cambodia, the traditional houses were built on stilts so that cool air could circulate underneath and animals could be brought under for shelter. In the wet season, and particularly in times of flooding, houses on stilts clearly had additional advantages.
The village communities of the Mekong stretched along its banks like two incredibly thin cities, and the best way to reach them and assess the impact of the flooding was by boat. In the villages the water could be about a metre deep and we were able to sail our small boats with outboard motors up the village streets. Cattle that belonged to families would patiently perch on temporary bamboo platforms, built like small islands next to the houses. The chickens would perch anywhere they could, and the adults would be perched in their doorways. The children, meanwhile, would be playing in the water having a great time. The fishermen were also wading around at the sides of people's houses and along the streets, evidently enjoying the fact that they could now work from home.
In the town of Kampong Cham the traders had built small temporary brick walls across the shop entrances to keep the water out. To get to the market required people to wade through the muddy waters and floating rubbish. However, this could be liberating for the goods at the fish sellers which normally arrived at the market still alive. Several got a second chance at life, and were seen eagerly escaping down the aisles to freedom between the damp stalls of slip-on shoes and plastic clocks.
A year later I was lucky enough to be working in the north of Cambodia for 18 months on a water program, and met the Mekong again. In the north on the Laos border the vast expanse of river had been replaced by a braided complex of smaller channels, divided by large grey rocks that rose out from the swirling water. To reach the communities nestled along the riverbanks we hired traditional boats shaped like long wooden canoes, each with a juddering lawnmower-like engine sitting on the back to propel us. The long canoes were just about wide enough for someone to sit inside cross-legged, were very wobbly and extremely unstable. Our motos and trial bikes had to be carefully laid across the front of the boats, precariously balanced, and the passengers sat towards the back.
In the time that I was in Cambodia I’d travelled on the Mekong using traditional canoes, barges, ferries, and outboards. I’d waded in it, and washed in it, tested its quality, travelled in the heat of the day, in thunderstorms, and in the night time with the driver’s mate sitting at the front with a torch looking for rocks. When writing the River Trip of Mr. Choli, it was inevitable that the Mekong would be a big part of my inspiration for the setting. In my travels I’ve come across many rivers in Asia and Africa, but none that I ever really felt more than a passing admiration for as a tourist. As for the Mekong, I feel like I’d lived with it a little.
Chris Wardle holds a bachelor’s degree in physical geography as well as a Master’s degree for water supply in developing countries.
Over the last ten years Chris has travelled extensively in developing countries working on projects in poor communities. He has been able to draw on his numerous experiences to inspire his creative works, particularly living for long periods in communities with different cultures in Africa and Asia.
An orphaned kitten in Northern Uganda was the inspiration for Mr. Choli’s character in the Tinfish series. He now lives in the UK with Chris’s family (via a few months with a foster family in France to organise his European passport).
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