What is a Couchfish Diversion? Sometimes you’re in a well-travelled spot and you're looking for something a bit different. Perhaps just for a night, perhaps for 10 nights ...
Couchfish Diversion is all about this. Each Tuesday at 5pm GMT+8 I’ll send paid and free subscribers to Couchfish a piece that recommends a diversion in a popular Southeast Asian spot.
Let's gets diverted!
I wake up in Phnom Penh at a bit of a loose end. I’ve been busy ticking off the main sights for days and today I want something different. Still work, but more play ... what could be better than Kien Svay? Hey that rhymes!
Kien Svay in sight. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
I check Passapp for a fare and the app quotes me US$8 each way. That in hand, I go ask one of the guesthouse tuk tuk guys what he’ll do it for. He says $20 return trip, including waiting time—deal.
The outskirts of Phnom Penh, while not a scratch on vile Sihanoukville, are not great for tuk tuk-ing. At least (for a change) the traffic is light, and after 30 minutes the dust clears … a bit.
We have beer and beer … and beer. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
We turn off the main road, then onto a smaller road, take a right, then cross a bridge over a “river” and then a left. I say “river” because Kien Svay looks over the lee side of a small island on the Mekong, but with the river so low it is almost a canal. After we turn, we’re greeted by bright red Ganzberg and Angkor beer signs that go on and on. Each fronts a bamboo and wooden bridge running down to the water’s edge.
“Which place do you want?” my tuk tuk driver asks.
“Ok, let’s take this one, I think it’s good!” he says, stopping immediately.
Pathway to paradise. Kind of. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
The place is unassuming, to say the least. A littered dirt path runs down the slope to a series of wooden planks set on floating blue barrels. The planks guide us out to a gaggle of floating wooden salas to the left and right.
Each sala has a simple woven but faded mat on the floor and a couple of well-loved string hammocks slung up. A sheet of paper nailed to an upright pole has the WiFi password and a mobile phone number. The latter is for ordering.
Doing the hard yards: Photo: My tuk tuk driver!
It is midweek, not yet 11am, and the place is almost deserted. We take a raft out by the water’s edge, tossing our flip flops upon entry and grabbing a hammock each. A few minutes later a girl from the restaurant walks down with three buckets.
One is full of ice. One is full of bottled water. One is full of cans of beer.
Did I mention is wasn’t 11am yet?
Look, it was hot enough to be at least midday, so the tuk tuk driver and I dive into the beers. He tells me his life story and asks plenty of questions of mine.
You want a ride? Photo: Stuart McDonald.
The setting, while a bit grubby, is beautiful in its own way. Sampans glide past with people net fishing. Kids in another sala jump into the water, screaming and laughing. The vibe is sedate and comfortable. Time slows down.
“Do you want something to eat?” my driver asks.
“What do they have?”
I was expecting further options, but he isn’t forthcoming. Chicken, then.
We order a whole barbecue chicken, then sink back into our hammocks, chatting and bantering. Another bucket of beer arrives. I’m sure they cook the chicken slow to allow for more beer carnage.
Catching up with the neighbours. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Every now and then another sampan pulls up, asking if I’d like a float. There’s no real hassle—they quietly push off and float away. Despite the place being quiet, a few groups are out on the boats—local kids and teenagers for the most part.
Across the water, there’s an elevated restaurant with stilts four or five metres tall. My driver explains that’s to allow for the rise and fall of the Mekong. This is January, so the river is quite low.
Lunch arrives. Indeed, it’s an entire chicken, with sides of beans and various dipping sauces. The food is simple but good. We sit in the shade, tearing the chicken off by hand, eating green beans with rice, all washed down with more beer.
Meet lunch. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Some kids swim up for a closer look. Pushing aside hyacinth, they hang off our railing, asking kid questions, my driver translating. Eventually they get bored and swim off. The hyacinth is an invasive species brought from South America on account of the pretty lilac flowers—it has been clogging waterways and destroying plant and marine life ever since. Cambodia never seems to get a break.
The light starts to sink and we enter into that perfect 30 to 45 minutes where everything just seems to glow. No, not because of the beer! At the same time, raft houses start to fill up as the evening shift rolls in, BYO music, with plenty of off-tune crooning starts up. My driver’s feet are starting to itch.
Mood. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
My driver calls (literally!) for the bill and then asks do I mind if he takes the leftovers back for his family. Of course, I say no problem. It’s a sobering end to a relaxing day by the water just 45 minutes from the capital of Cambodia.