Back in the Saddle Again – Heading back to Cambodia

In June 2019, I was heading back to Cambodia – finally. Armed to the teeth with mosquito spray, I excitedly boarded the plane in Montpellier. A long flight later, I was met by a wall of heat walking out of Phnom Penh Airport.

The primary aim of this visit was for me to set my study area finally and to pilot a questionnaire that I’d drawn up for the interview part of my survey. Half a year after starting my PhD, it was high time. Unfortunately, when I’d come over in December 2018, I hadn’t even made it near the area of interest before I’d gotten sick with Dengue fever. Time to catch up.

After spending a few days in Phnom Penh – getting over my jet lag and tracking down the hydrological stations installed in the city by the Mekong River Commission – I was off to the province of Kandal. Accompanying me was Somaly, a team member from Ecoland at RUA, and fieldwork veteran.

One of the hydrological stations in Phnom Penh – on the Mekong sidewalk.

Over the next few weeks, we drove across my potential study area on rickety motorbikes, sat down for extended interviews with farmers, and filled piles of questionnaires. It was amazing.

Finally spending time here, I understood so many things that had seemed a mystery on the satellite images that I’d been processing for a few months now. And I was absolutely bowled over by how friendly and welcoming the farmers were, how ready to talk to us for hours on end if necessary.

It soon became clear that the topic for Prek rehabilitation was a central one for them. Everyone had an opinion on water availability. At the Preks that hadn’t been rehabilitated yet, people asked us when they would be.

Interviewing women in a village.

Quite apart from hydrological issues, one thing that struck me during my visit to the field, was how far modern information technology had already permeated otherwise basic rural life. In our guesthouse, there was no hot shower and a bucket of water with which to flush the toilet. But the wifi was excellent. At the roadside-restaurant where we ate breakfast, the meat was barbecued on a home-made brick grill, but the hostess’ child was playing with an iPad. It was a cognitive disconnect on many levels. But I was grateful for the flawless internet connection – I’d imagined doing research and staying in touch with my family to be a lot more complicated.

After a few days, my study area was fixed. It was the same that we had delineated based on my supervisors’ knowledge and satellite pictures. Spanning ten Preks, ca. 15 km north of the Vietnamese border, it stretches between the Bassac river and the Prek Ambel, a smaller side branch. During our time in the field, Somaly and I visited every Prek, from beginning to end, rattling across the bumpy terrain on our motorbike.

A second objective was to outline the uses locals make of Preks – from irrigation to watering cattle and using the water for household tasks. For this purpose, I’d prepared another questionnaire, which we spent two days filling out with farmers along two Preks. It was brief – only to gain a rough idea. But already just through being in the field, the multitude of uses of the Preks became obvious.

A fisherman preparing his nets in a Prek.

After three weeks, I had to go home. There was so much more to do, but it would have to wait for the next time. In Montpellier, my comité de thèse, where I had to present my progress, was waiting for me. And after that, the IUGG conference in Montreal.

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