Stand-up paddle-boarding is one of the world’s fastest growing sports and is proving to be a popular way to explore the Kingdom’s untouched countryside. Writer Marissa Carruthers gets as close as possible to walking on water. Photos by Anne Pizey.
The call to prayer from a mosque at a small Cham fishing village faintly rings out in the distance, as a chorus of birds sing from the thick, tropical mangroves lining the spider’s web of small tributaries off the Kampot River.
Other than that, the silence of the slender winding waterways is only broken by the soothing swish of the single oar used to manoeuvre the paddle-boards that we’re traversing the river on. As we steadily glide past untouched countryside, it’s easy to forget civilisation is just four kilometres away in Kampot town.
It was during a one-week break in Kampot in 2010, which soon turned into three, that Anne Pizey discovered the rural town’s potential for the water sport. The former radio journalist from Colorado and a group of fellow enthusiasts had been relaxing after spending 23 days paddle-boarding 430 kilometres down the Mekong from the Laotian border, above Stung Treng, to Phnom Penh.
“We’d planned to rest, lie in a hammock and chill out like backpackers,” Pizey recalls. “Instead, we discovered we’d come down with a terrible case of paddle fever.”
Desperate to get back on their boards, each day they caught a tuk-tuk upstream and paddled back to their guesthouse. “At night, we’d even paddle to town for a drink or to drop off our laundry,” she says with a smile. “We explored the river each day. We went into the mangroves, out to sea and back to town. We saw fireflies and phosphorescence. I fell in love with Kampot.”
Within a couple of months, Pizey was living her dream as the founder of SUPAsia, a company that offers stand-up paddle-boarding (SUP) tours on Kampot River, alongside tailor-made trips out to the ocean, including visiting Rabbit Island off Kep, where Pizey has paddled alongside dolphins.
The sport – believed to have originated in Hawaii as an off-shoot of surfing, before gaining traction globally in 2005 after trending in California – is proving popular here. Tourists, expats and Cambodians, including superstar Preap Sovath, are using it as a way to explore mangrove forests, visit islands and discover floating villages in the area.
“Paddle-boarding is cathartic,” Pizey says. “It’s the act of standing on water, along with the deep relaxation that comes when you connect with your balance that’s mesmorising. That’s why I believe it’s one of the fastest-growing sports in the world today. We get to do something we never dreamt of; we get to walk on water. There’s an incredible freedom that comes with that.”
Despite not being the best at balancing, I find the board, which stands at more than nine feet long and resembles a giant surfboard, surprisingly stable. Even the process of wading knee-deep into the water before climbing on the board and rising to standing position from kneeling is an easy task.
Once standing, gliding gracefully – unless dodging the stray branches that can hang precariously in your path – across the water and steering is carried out using a single oar. For those who fail to keep on top of their fitness, like me, the oar can take its strain on the arms, but the tranquil scenery and novelty of the experience alleviates any beginning-to-nag pain.
Pizey first came across the sport during a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon in May 2010 and was instantly hooked. “It felt like a cross between my two favourite sports, skiing and kayaking,” she explains. That night she dreamt she was paddling down the Mekong and less than six months later her and seven pals were on their way to Cambodia to start their adventure.
Now she thrives off sharing her passion with people, offering two-and-half-hour lessons and tours, with the mornings best for bird watching and the afternoons serving up stunning sunsets. Last year, she also introduced paddle-boarding yoga lessons.
But it’s working with the community that Pizey enjoys the most, regularly teaming up with local schools and groups to help to improve young people’s confidence around water. A recent project saw SUPAsia take women from Banteay Srey Project, a vocational training centre, swimming for their first time.
“It’s not uncommon for Cambodians to have trauma or fear related to water,” Pizey says.
“I have one friend who witnessed her sister drowning and another who was beaten as a child if he went near the water. We work with that. Both of these friends now love to play in the water.”
SUPAsia also hosts groups of international university students as part of its outdoor education programme, which focuses on the delicate mangrove eco-system. “When we paddle we are part of the scenery, there’s no motor, and the reflections on the water when you are standing up are magical,” Pizey says, adding she has taken children as young as five and adults aged in their 80s out on the water.
And as our tranquil trip comes to an end and we pull in to dock, having surprisingly not lost my balance once, it’s easy to see why this is fast becoming such a popular sport.
Lessons and tours start from $25. For more information, visit www.supasia.org