If you’re looking for a place where you can take a break from the hectic city pace and start the year with a fresh, clean state of mind, then a step out in the countryside just down the road may be exactly the head-clearing tonic that you need. Threaded around a bend in the Tonle Bassac, Anlong Chen appears at first glance to be an ordinary, isolated river island. Here, you won’t find the mountains, ancient ruins or great forests and waterfalls that attract the typical tourist.
Unexplored Pastoral Paradise
Nevertheless, nature lovers and fans of fresh air will find everything they could hope for on this Kandal-Province island just 20 kilometres south of Phnom Penh, provided they don’t mind a little simplicity. Although Anlong Chen is relatively unknown to tourist guides, a small group of locals and expats head there regularly to walk or cycle in the fresh, river air and greenery that covers most of the island.
In fact, Anlong Chen is better known for its produce than for its qualities as a classic tourist destination. Its fertile soil and the succulent fruits and vegetables it produces are the fruit of the river’s abundant silt which the farmers spread on their fields, allowing them to avoid the need for chemical fertilisers.
The island is especially well known for its juicy longans, a fruit originally from the south-east of China which tastes a little like lychee and rambutan. Longan fruits, also known as the “dragon’s eye” or “Mein” in Cambodia, can be found along the paths and around the houses everywhere on the island.
In season, local farmers set up stalls in front of their houses to sell their longans at between 10,000 and 20,000 riels per kilo thanks to its special flavour. Imported longans from Thailand are only worth US$1 per kilo. From June to September, many of the island’s farmers supply the markets at Kandal and Phnom Penh. Afterwards the prices drop significantly.
From Farm to Table
But Anlong Chen is not just a promised land for longan fruits. Spinach, papayas, bananas, jackfruits and aromatic herbs such as chives are also grown here. Fresh produce that are the source of happiness for Phnom Penh’s chefs that get their supplies from the island. Among them, celebrated chef Luu Meng knows the island and its inhabitants well and is proud of the fact that Malis Restaurant sources directly from producers on the island in order to avoid intermediaries and guarantee the freshness of the produce.
“The goal is to get the freshest produce that is cultivated with pesticides or chemical products. We do our best to ensure that we only use the freshest products at Malis,” he says.
“Working this way, we avoid the middle-man in the supply chain and ingredients are delivered more rapidly”, he concludes.
One farmer says that the Chinese were the first to cultivate longans on the island. According to the legend, few of those early farmers remain thanks to numerous disappearances that hit the Chinese community here. But the more likely explanation is that deep quicksand on one part of the island is hiding the bodies of those who ventured there and never returned.
Peace and Smiles
As is often the case with little-touristed areas, Anlong Chen is a calm and peaceful place whose inhabitants warmly welcome the few visitors who come with the famous Khmer smile. The local population makes the most of the quiet, pollution and traffic-free life here. Beyond the stalls in front of individual houses, there is no market. From time to time, a travelling salesman offers clothes, toys or cooking utensils. Many families lead self-sufficient lives, preparing their meals with fish they take from the river and vegetables from the land.
Walking, cycling and a simple picnic are all possible. A full circuit of the island takes about three hours at a good pace on foot. Make sure not to forget to bring a hat and adequate water; the heat can be surprising. But the island also offers the possibility of a little fishing, especially during the monsoon when the waters teem with fish. On a good day, it is possible to catch catfish, perch or even eels. A small stove would be useful for preparing an open-air evening meal with a little rice and local vegetables.
Towards the northern tip of the island the sole primary school sits in the shade of an enormous bodhi tree planted around 20 years ago. In its shadow, visitors can take a break from their tour of the island. Further along, two large pagodas, Wat Kbal Koh and Wat Chong Koh also offer the opportunity for a short break and a chance to wander among flowering groves and watch the monks at work.
Getting to Anlong Chen
From Phnom Penh, head south on Route 2 for about 40 minutes then take Route 21A in Kandal Province. At Svay Rolum, continue for another 20 minutes to the ferry depot on the left, where you can take one of the six boats that connect the mainland to Anlong Chen.
Unlike the ferries that ply the Tonle Sap, the ones serving Anlong Chen are small, but wide enough for a car and a few motorcycles. The countryside and the view on the river and fishing boats are wonderful sources of photographic inspiration.
Over the course of one day, this small, rural island provides a real and refreshing escape from the pressures of urban life nearby. All the same, the island will be attached to the mainland within a year. A major road project financed by China under the “Belt and Road” programme is underway with the aim of linking National Roads 1 and 6. One may then wonder whether the small island in the Tonle Bassac will keep its soul and rural charm while taking advantage of the opportunities offered by this new route. Only time will tell.