Sitting upstream on the Mekong from the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, Silk Island (known locally as Koh Dach) is home to scores of artisans who make their living handweaving beautiful silk wares. A world away from the tourist-laden Killing Fields, Western faces are scarce on Silk Island, where the pace of life is leisurely and the locals are welcoming, providing a fascinating insight into village life.
”Get out,” Sok, my tuk tuk driver says to me somewhat abruptly. We are perched atop a precariously steep dirt track leading down to the river on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. I oblige obediently, stepping down into the dirt, unsure of our next course of action. As a rickety old barge nudges into the riverbank at the foot of the incline, Sok’s motive reveals itself. With the help of three locals, he painstakingly steers his motorbike and the attached tuk tuk down the hill, straining to prevent the vehicles from breaking free and crashing into the people already waiting on the barge below.
Once safely aboard, we begin our leisurely cruise across the Mekong towards Silk Island. But just as I think the worst of the journey is over, I see an even more precarious incline waiting for us on the other side. This time we don’t have gravity on our side, as we need to get the tuk tuk up rather than down. Half jokingly, I ask Sok if he needs me to get out and push; po-faced, he says yes. I dismount and position myself on one side of the tuk tuk, with a local boy on the other, and we begin heaving the metal beast up the hill. Just near the crest, things go awry: Sok’s motorbike rears up on its back wheel and the tuk tuk begins to tumble backwards. Locals nearby rush to our aid, and we all ease the steed to safety.
Having embarked on this daytrip on a whim, I’ve done little research as to the terrain of Silk Island. Within a minute of rattling along the narrow dirt road in the back of a tuk tuk – an experience akin to off-roading in a 4WD, I am soon wondering whether my choice of transport was the wisest one. Holding on for dear life, I bounce around my rudimentary chariot, a cloud of dust surrounding me.
Once I find a sturdy grip, I begin to take in the roadside scenery. A quaint rural community, Silk Island’s locals reside in very simple housing, much of which is constructed from dilapidated old wood, bamboo and palm fronds. Hammocks abound in front yards and on makeshift shop fronts, reflecting the pace of life here. The preferred modes of transport are by foot, bicycle, moto or horsedrawn cart – tuk tuks, wisely, are few and far between. Lean white cows and enormous swines mosey along the road, oblivious to passing traffic, nibbling at unruly tufts of grass.
I’ve come to Silk Island to visit the local handweavers, who craft beautiful fabrics, tablecloths, scarves and other textile accoutrements on elaborate looms beneath their stilted houses. A teenage girl, clutching to her mother’s waist on the back of a motorbike, smiles at me as they pull alongside the tuk tuk. “Are you here to see the handweavers?” she asks me in surprisingly clear English. “Yes,” I smile. She gestures to Sok to follow them as they zoom off down the dirt track.
We pull into the yard of a house nearby, where two women are working studiously at their looms. The rhythmic shifting of the large pedals and skimming of the shuttle across the taut, brightly coloured yarn is mesmerising. One of the women motions for me to sit at her loom and try my hand at the intricate fibre art. I sit down reluctantly at the enormous contraption, as she guides me through a complicated sequence of footwork that reminds me of learning a dance routine. While she is extremely encouraging in her instruction, I suspect that she will be undoing my handiwork soon after I leave, so as not to spoil the colourful pattern of the textile she has been meticulously crafting all morning.
After being dazzled with all manner of silken wares, I leave the house with several scarves and table runners – as weaving is the livelihood of these people, my bartering is somewhat halfhearted and I depart happy to have paid more than I should have.
Sok continues our tour of the island, and we rattle along a road that leads to the centre of the land mass. As we slow to a crawl, the haunting sound of bells entwined with the twang of a Tro (a local stringed instrument) floats through the trees. At the end of the road, a row of colourful Buddhist statues leads to an imposing pagoda. Barefoot monks glide peacefully towards the structure, where a solemn ceremony is in progress.
Sok and I spend the remainder of the afternoon visiting local artisans and taking in the simplicity and beauty of their lifestyle. The peaceful island seems worlds away from the bustling Cambodian capital, and its inhabitants exhibit a joy that seems to evade many of those who live in Phnom Penh. Despite the aches I’ll no doubt feel tomorrow, my trip is worth every moment.