Link to Cambodia Photo Collection
Quick disclaimer : I'm not a vulgar person but my vocabulary can be colourful. My life is R-rated and my website occasionally reflects that. Be aware of some frank language. All my photos are PG, but please read blogs before sharing with kids.
The 160-km trip from Siem Reap to Battambang can be undertaken by taxi, tuk-tuk, bus or motorbike. I opted for the time-consuming riverboat; I’d heard the journey was stunning and culturally-enriching. I joined locals and tourists in a clunking minibus to the pier, assuming we all had the same destination. Climbing aboard a colourful boat with wooden benches and open windows, everyone scrambled to pick out the spot they’d be occupying for the next 5 hours. I climbed the ladder and opted to sit on the plastic roof, basking in the sunshine, my sandled feet dangling over the side. And off we went, floating noisily onto the Siem Reap River.
About 30 minutes in, the peaceful river spilled out onto Tonlé Sap Lake. We drifted right into Chong Khneas, a floating village made known years before (at least to me) by National Geographic. Judging from the gasps coming from below deck, many passengers were taken aback. These floating houses were ASTONISHING.
Some consisted of planks of wood held together by rusty tin roofs. Many either floated on old tires meshed together with metal wire or were built precariously high on stilts dug into the lakeshore. Many houses were painted in beautiful colours, the reds and blues and yellows standing out sharply against the bright green of the surrounding water bushes. All had some type of boat tethered to it. I had never seen anything like it.
Little canoes hovered around our boat, piled high with everything from food and flowers to clothing and hardware. Fishermen stood up confidently in their little motor boats to cast their nets. Children yelled out so that we’d wave back at them, their little torsos bare above their shorts.
Many houses had potted plants or hanging flowers decorating their front porch. There were lots of herb gardens as well, and clothes were daringly hung onto clotheslines above the water.
This village is evidently self-sufficient; it has 5 floating schools, 3 gas stations, many ambulatory markets and convenience stores, 4 karaoke bars and a Cambodia’s People Party office. It even boasts a floating basketball court (which I unfortunately didn’t manage to see).
A fun part of the trip was discreetly peeking inside the homes as we passed them. I saw tiny gas stoves and mini-refrigerators, mattresses, cupboards, framed photos on the walls, children playing with one another. But no TVs and no video game consoles. Not one soul absentmindedly plunking on a cell phone.
As we wafted off Tonlé Sap Lake and onto the Sangkae River, the river beds gave way to a line-up of makeshift tents built out of tarps and sarongs, houses built of branches and old cement bags. They became shabbier as we drifted past. Children, naked and dirty, played in the mud and had the time of their lives. A lump formed in my throat and stayed there. It wasn’t the decrepit boats or the dilapidated houses that touched me, bearing witness to poverty I had never seen with my Western eyes. Not at all. Not even close. It was the happiness on so many faces. Almost everyone we passed either smiled or stopped to wave. Our boat would honk and children would run along the shores, screaming and waving frantically. The kind of unleashed frenzy I had shown when the ice cream man drove down my childhood streets.
For hours on end, I waved to these beautiful kids and tried to capture their delight on camera. It was hard to know how to feel. My first instinct was to feel bad for their conditions. But was that arrogant? Did their parents look at me and feel sorry for me? That poor clueless Westerner, with her camera and white teeth and new backpack... In the face of perceived injustice, it was hard not to judge, not to get frustrated, not to feel guilty. That was the kicker for me. We KNOW money doesn't buy happiness. This confrontation between raw material poverty and such rich displays of joie de vivre left me touched and speechless.
Tides are low during dry season, so we hit bottom several times. Sitting on the rooftop, I'd get jolted out of my reverie whenever we'd hit the mud, sliding forward a foot or so from the momentum. I got a kick out of watching our ever-smiling boat attendant try to unjam us by pushing off the bottom of the river with his long stick. My offers to help were met with a cocky smile and a dismissive hand wave. Complaints from below deck about our lack of toilet and our later-than-expected arrival in Battambang made these clusterfucks all the more entertaining.
I could tell we were approaching city limits from the ever increasing amount of garbage littering the riverbank. It was really shocking to me. Children continued to splash around in the brown water and floating debris without a care in the world.
In the end, most Cambodians on the boat weren’t heading to the city at all. We dropped them off at their homes, to which these boats provided their only passage. Three million Cambodians live in low-access areas along Tonlé Sap Lake and its rivers, and I got to make eye contact and wave to most of them in just one day! Just kidding.
Eight hours later, we drifted into Battambang just as the sun was dipping behind the tree tops. Years later, memories of this day would stand out as some of my favorite in an entire year’s worth of backpacking. Photos taken on this journey would grace my walls and invoke questions and comments by visitors to my home for years to come.
The destination of Battambang? It was alright.
The boat journey there? It was absolutely unforgettable.
Link to photo collection: Cambodia
Fun facts & helpful tips if you’re taking this adventurous boat ride (and you should ! ) :
- Bring lots of water, but pace yourself. In my 8-hour journey, we stopped at a restroom once. (There was a bucket in the back corner of our boat - no thanks.) A good hat and a thin, long-sleeved shirt will keep you cool; the shirt should be light and breathable so you don’t sweat out your life’s essence.
- Bring a bandana or two that you can soak and place on your forehead or neck.
- Pack a lunch and snacks. The choices weren’t abundant at the floating market. (Thank God I tend to pack snacks as though I’ll never see food again).
- Some riders’ arms got scratched by trees and bushes in the narrower passages. Large bugs also got whipped onto people from the flung branches. That aforementioned long-sleeved shirt would come in handy here.
- On the boat, you might have to get cozy with a local, their child or their basket of goods. I found Cambodians to be polite, well-behaved and accommodating. In my experience, they are more weary of you (with good reason) than you should be of them. Despite the language gap, I’d squish right up to them any day; unfortunately, the obnoxious ones to avoid are usually tourists.
- I stayed at the exceptional Siem Reap Hostel. Jumbled in a year’s worth of crash pads, it still stands out in my mind. Great service, beautiful clean rooms and bathrooms, an in-house bar and an awesome lap pool at ground floor. The staff handled everything concerning this trip, as well as logistics of several temple trips I made. Very highly-recommended.
- Don’t take this boat ride just to say you did it. From the look on people’s faces during the trip and the sighs of relief (and tears shed) on arrival, this is definitely not everyone’s thing. Don’t be the big man here. If you’re remotely suffering from traveler’s diarrhea or think you might be starting a urinary-tract infection, don’t even think about it. You’ll be fucking miserable.
- Life on the lake is understandably tough. The life expectancy of a fisherman is a mere 56 years and 12% of children do not reach the age of 5, due to unsanitary water, malnutrition and lack of medical care. The annual household income is less than 500$ US. So don’t flash your gold jewelry and your laptops. Be cool. Be respectful.
- Time estimates for the trip are, in my opinion, guessed for fun. No, I’m kidding. But it did take us 8 hours when they assured us that it would take 5. It happens. Be prepared.
- Help (or at least offer) to push and pull and shove if the boat gets stuck at the bottom of the river. See it as an adventure and a chance to show off those gym muscles.
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Link to photo collection: Cambodia