Ferry Captain of 50 Years Passes on Baton to his Son

Chon Chenla is taking over the reins from his father, who has been ferrying passengers across the Tonle Bassac in Takhmao for half a century. However, the long hours, tough working conditions and poor pay have made this challenging work for Chenla
A man paddles a boat in Kandal province. Kiripost/Iea Sonita
A man paddles a boat in Kandal province. Kiripost/Iea Sonita

Wisps of morning fog hang above the Tonle Bassac. Phnom Penh’s jagged skyline looms on the horizon. A wooden ferry carries a few customers across calm waters.

“Too tired, [I work] 30 days a month,” says Chon Chenla, 45, a ferry captain near the Cambodia-China Friendship Takhmao Bridge in Kandal province. “I don’t even rest on Sundays.”

Since January 2021, Chenla, who lives in Koh Anlung Chen commune, has been operating the ferry between Takhmao town and Koh Krabei island for his elderly father, Chon Cheam, who has carried out the work for half a century.

Cheam had a stroke and now, as he enters old age, is preparing to pass the baton to Chenla. Chenla does not share his father's passion for the arduous ferry work.

Chenla quit captaining the ferry around 2019 but returned to the job to help his father’s wish to provide a vital service enabling people, including young students and Buddhist monks, to cross the river.

“It’s something he loves, his whole life is on that ferry,” says Chenla. Having worked on the boat for 50 years, his father has watched children grow up into adults as he ferried people over the years. “I only help him because no one else does. It’s not something I love.”

Chon Chenla sits on his ferry in Kandal province. Kiripost/Iea Sonita
Chon Chenla sits on his ferry in Kandal province. Kiripost/Iea Sonita

Chenla has previously unsuccessfully advised his father to quit and says he himself will one day quit when he is incapable of carrying out the work.

A torn up yantra hangs above the head in the ferry, an ancient belief that offers the boat and passengers protection.

The father, Cheam, said he has passed on the ferry captainship to his son because it is his passion. He recalls times when he was sick and felt bored, so returned to the ferry to help out..

“I have known them (passengers) since forever. I have known their mums since they were still students and now they already have children,” Cheam said.

He added that passengers have even helped pull up ropes because he is elderly and weak.

Chon Cheam speaks during an interview in Kandal province. Kiripost/Iea Sonita
Chon Cheam speaks during an interview in Kandal province. Kiripost/Iea Sonita

The story of Chenla and his father comes as the country was reeling from the shock of the October 13 ferry tragedy in Lerk Dek district in the same province. A total of 11 children were killed as they returned from English class.

Am Sam Ath, operations director at Licadho, said that the tragedy serves as a wakeup call for ferry safety countrywide.

“It is a lesson and experience for relevant authorities and ferry operators, whether small or large, that they must be careful with safety so that this tragedy won’t happen again,” Sam Ath told Kiripost.

He added that the tragedy will hopefully spir authorities to conduct regular reviews of licenses for ferry operations and safety checks on boats before they can operate.

Small ferries need to be checked regularly before operating, Sam Ath said. He called for authorities to take more responsibility for ferry safety, especially those who issue licenses.

For Chenla, his work hours are long. Often his days finish at 7.30pm and he returns home in time to eat dinner at 9pm and rest for the next day. He said being a captain, life is unpredictable and the income is poor. He also has to work in wind, sun and rain. Chenla says when he has children, he will tell them to study hard so they can get a better job, not as ferry captain.

“I have to wake up again at 8am. I have no rest and I don’t even earn much money. If it was a good income, I’d be more excited to continue,” Chenla said.

(Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul)