The Mekong River above Phnom Penh in Cambodia is not the quiet delta any more. It’s a narrower river, though still very wide, and even in the dry season it moves a lot of water on to the South. The boats respond by becoming longer and narrower. The wooden boats of the Cambodian Mekong River are, for the most part, built up from a dug-out canoe type of hull with added planking. They are long and narrow; powered by a long-tailed outboard motor and steer with a either a rudder or steering oar.
I have only made one passage through Cambodia so my knowledge of Cambodian boats is significantly less than my understanding of Vietnamese boats and their history. The road Northbound towards the Laotian border generally avoids the river bank and in fact makes a long loop to the East avoiding many miles of the river. On my route through the country, I found the river and looked for the river boats at Phnom Penh, Kampong Cham, Kratie and Steung Treng before continuing north into Laos.
So what I can offer is only a very small sample from a long stretch of the river, but that sample offered some interesting insights:
- From Phnom Penh on upstream, with the exception of ritual racing canoes, all the boats were powered, and all were powered with long-tailed outboard motors. More about long-tailed outboards.
- The boats, being river boats, have to work in strong current at least at some seasons of the year, so they tend to be long and narrow.
- The vast majority of the boats I saw were actually dugout canoes with their bows (and often sterns) raised by added-on, prominent ornamental prows and their topsides raised by one or more additional planks above the basic dugout hull.
- Sawn hardwood ribs were added, in all cases, to carry the added planking and reinforce the thin dugout hull.
- All along the river, all the long-tail powered boats except the needle-sharp power canoes discussed below, were built to steer with a rudder or a steering oar, and their long-tails only pivoted somewhat to one side.
This style of construction was consistent from North to South and for a variety of sizes and types of boats. Thus the incredibly long narrow racing canoes (for 16 or 32 paddlers) have the same construction details and the same ornamental raised prows as quite husky family fishing and residential vessels of a purely utilitarian sort. I saw this same construction style in sections of the river all the way from Phnom Penh to Steung Treng, showing a very strong cultural continuity all along the Cambodian reach of the Mekong.
Beyond this exceptionally consistent boat style, I saw two other sorts of boats from a completely different construction tradition—planked up boats. They are, oddly, the largest and the smallest of the boats I saw on the river. The largest are about 45 to 50 feet long at most, though some are smaller. They are built on a single central plank, with regularly spaced sawn frames supporting additional heavy planks. They have heavy stems and, if double ended, sternposts, but do not have the extended prows of the dugout style boats.
All these larger boats seemed to be in the passenger and light freight business and are purely utilitarian in every regard. They are essentially devoid of grace, beauty or ornament, finished roughly, unpainted, burdened with crude shelters for their passengers, but usually carrying a clean functional engine installation, often with an interesting lever arrangement to hoist the propeller up over obstructions or shoals. Most of these boats are actually double enders below the deck line, but are provided with a broad after-deck platform supported on a few transverse timbers.
There was also a single species of exquisite motor-powered canoe which also used a long-tail motor. I only saw this construction style at Steung Treng in the far North of the country: a planked up boat, as long and sharp as a needle, very finely made and without exception well kept up and beautifully painted. Many of these boats, moreover, were associated with a tribe of fishermen living and working on the typical dugout-based boats.
In general, my sense was that the river was very lightly used above Phnom Penh, with very little activity—either freight or fishing—and many of the boats and the people using them appeared to be quite marginalized compared to people whose life centered on the road network.
I saw no formal boat yards at all in Cambodia, but given the relatively small numbers of boats seen, it is to be expected that the building could be carried on part time or by a very small number of builders. In Steung Treng the tribe of fishermen moored below the town included one older gentleman who was clearly a master of the dugout-canoe style of building, though he was just engaged in repairs at the time I was there. He was actually replacing all the add-on components of two existing old dugouts, which suggests that the dugout hull may routinely outlast the rest of its structure in service.
In Kampong Cham there were several steel river barges under construction partway down the river bank. Clearly they would have to be completed, or at least in a condition to float off before the wet season began in about six weeks. They weren’t far enough along for me to tell what trade they might be needed for, but they clearly represented a well-developed sort of barge to work with river tugs. I did not see the tugs however.