In Search of Silk Island

How a day trip upriver to visit a village of silk weavers turned into a rumination on the realities of the past, and an unexpected face-to-face confrontation with a crocodile

Let’s be honest, when you read ‘Silk Island’ in the heading, your mind probably filled with images of exotic Cambodian bazaars, thriving entrepôts of fabric trade where huge piles of silkworm cocoons piled up on cobbled Parisian-styled streets, while stall after stall of scarf-wearing merchants - adorned in their own wares - did their very best to persuade you to buy the best quality silk by the ream, in all its shapes and forms.

No? Well, apart from the cobblestone bit, it was rather what I had in mind when the name first came to my attention. Mind you, I’d also had hugely romantic visions of Phnom Penh before first landing, anticipating tree-lined boulevards full of French bistros, hawkers selling their freshly-baked baguettes outside of faded-yet-still-grand colonial mansions, and a certain je ne sais quoi combined with delightful Indochine charm. While admittedly skewed by my previous life in Shanghai’s French Concession (which did have much of that, if you just swap bread varieties for the wonderful disc-shaped Uyghur flatbread), this raw city couldn’t be further from my idealized vision.

However, getting back to Silk Island - I have only visited twice in two years. The first was to circumnavigate it on my Honda Dream scooter (a fantastic three-speed 125cc bike that is ridden - in all its different variants - by most of the population, always starts, and can be fixed at any street side repair shop - reason in itself to drive one). Back then I wasn’t so impressed, but the ride through the countryside was pleasant enough, with a lunch at French-run hotel Le Kroma Villa, and a short stop at the Koh Dach Beach Resort, little more than a sandbar on the Mekong where locals like to laze in bamboo huts while snack vendors paddle by in polystyrene containers (for a true beach resort vibe, albeit without the sand, head to The Balé on the opposite riverbank).

While we’d used the roads, bridges and ferries to reach it last time out, this time we travelled at a more leisurely pace on the two-story Cambo Cruise, a smart passenger boat complete with onboard kitchen and bar. A much more comfortable way to travel, it was also very spacious - especially so given we were the only passengers onboard. Within minutes of embarking we were slowly headed upriver, first rounding the Chroy Changvar peninsula - a narrow gooseneck-shaped spit of land that separates the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers, and comes to an abrupt end at the monolithic Sokha Hotel. A flotilla of tiny fishing boats crowded the near bank, both home and the main source of income for the families that live on them, while their children roamed the dusty bank.

Several grand homes line the shore here, roofs peaking out from behind foliage, with floating jetties that rise and fall with the Mekong. One even had a speedboat, a rare sight in Phnom Penh, where smaller boats are still often powered by oars not engines. As we moved further north, the buildings eventually gave way to nature, with grassy shores and mango orchards heaving into view. A moored tourist boat was an indicator of our destination, and we soon pulled up alongside it, with two tuk tuks standing by to carry us to the island’s main silk weaving village. Interestingly, this island is actually Koh Toch, connected with the much larger Koh Dach, aka Silk Island, by a bridge. The narrow channel between the two is also the dividing line between Phnom Penh and Kandal province, meaning you’re technically leaving the city when you visit Koh Toch.

I’d visited the ‘Silk Village’ on my first visit here, and hadn’t been too impressed - it had all the accoutrements of a tourist trap, complete with a gift shop selling what looked suspiciously like Chinese-made silk scarves. However, sometimes our first impressions aren’t everything, and - making the wise decision to hire a guide this time - we spent an enjoyable hour learning about how silk is made (spoiler: the process doesn’t end well for the silkworm), and the years of practice it takes for the artisans - all female, some second generation - to master the complicated weaving technique.

Feeling both engaged and informed, we made the mistake of walking around the grounds, where, in amongst the elevated grass huts full of canoodling young couples (yes, really) was a small but solid metal cage, home to two alligators. So still they could have been mistaken for statues, the extra thick metal bars made you realize otherwise. Were they from Cambodia we asked? Yes, came the answer, from the crocodile farm in Takeo. Not quite the question we were asking… After a small tip for our guide for an excellent tour (crocs aside), it was back to the dock, via a detour through a temple. Upon arriving back at the Mekong, we were surprised to see a large river cruise boat had pulled up - flying Vietnamese colours, it was one of the many vessels that make their way upriver from Saigon. These floating hotels are popular with older Europeans and Americans, and come complete with rooftop pool, dining rooms, and balconies.

Bidding farewell to ‘Silk Island’, it was time to chug slowly back downstream, to the city in the distance, back to civilization and chaos. Not for the first time, I imagined how the French adventurers of the 19th century would have made the same journey, the waters of the Mekong providing them with an easy highway into the interior of the unexplored country they called Cambodge. Returning from a mission upcountry, they would be looking forward to a glass of Bordeaux at the French Club, while they read weeks-old copies of Le Figaro. But there I go again with my flight of fancy. It leaves me smiling - as the sun sets on the Mekong, and Phnom Penh emerges around the bend.