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From Siem Reap to Battanbang by Boat – Siam Reap, Battambang, Cambodia

From Siem Reap to Battanbang by Boat

Siem Reap, Battambang, Cambodia

House raised up on bamboo stilts, Sangker River
House raised up on bamboo stilts, Sangker River
I was in a deep sleep in my room at the family run Koh Ker Hotel in Siem Reap when I was woken up by a muffled knock on my hotel room door. A voice was saying “hello, hello, 5 a.m. mista Gari,” in broken English. It was the night porter waking me up in time for me to get myself showered, packed and ready for my nine-hour boat trip to Battambang. I quickly gathered my few belongings, my thumbed travel book, a map of Cambodia a couple of tee shirts, my passport and debit cards and of course my old camera and put them into my small, red backpack.

I went down stairs feeling the steps with my feet in the darkness and out into the courtyard. I put my backpack on the ground in the middle of the yard and waited. Only then I noticed that surrounding the hotel there was a wall about eight feet high. It was half hidden by bushes. It had double gates that were closed and locked by a chain and padlock. I guess I had been too preoccupied with my visits to Angkor to notice before. There were a couple of Khmer boys sitting on a concrete bench that they had slept the night on. It was still dark when a pickup truck emerged from a trail of dust about 10 minuets later. There was a sudden, brief conversation between the driver and one of the boys, a waving of arms and pointing at me to get on. They opened a small gate within the large gates to let me out and I jumped on the back of the truck ready to go. It meandered around the town collecting people who like me were leaving Siem Reap by boat.

We drove through the dawn breaking, the sun coming up over paddy fields and the smell of burning wood from fires lit to cook breakfast. It was all very beautiful in the morning light. In the back of the pick-up we had gone from being relatively stable to bouncing up and down and from side to side, all over the place really. The road had disappeared and we were driving on the rocky, bumpy dried-up bottom of Tonlé Sap Lake. It was the dry season and the lake had shrunk. The small floating village of Phnom Krom that hugs the edge of the lake where our boat docked would have been miles closer, the drive much shorter during the wetter months.

We followed a faint, rocky two-wheeled track worn in the bottom of the lake passing the occasional makeshift, shack, and the odd chicken clucking around. There were people living at the side of this trail, poor people with nearly nothing just dirty clothes and desperate faces. The nearer the boat and the lake the more shacks and the more people there were. When we finally arrived and before we had a chance to stop hungry kids swarmed us with arms stretched out, hands open. I’ve encountered begging before but not like this, this was real hunger, real poverty, real hardship. I folded a Riel note up and held it in my palm with my middle finger. I showed it to a little girl who was about three wearing a dirty smock with a dirty face and dirty feet. She grabbed my hand with both of her tiny hands and took the note without any others seeing. As soon as she had it and without a word she ran away and I lost sight of her. Some things you never forget.

Around the two boats, which were waiting for their passengers, there was organised chaos. People were selling water, food, anything, people begging, people directing travellers the noise of two stroke engines, the roar of diesel engines and of course the smells of it all vying with each other for a piece of traveller. One boat was going to Phnom Penh and looked almost half decent. The other one, the one I was getting to go to Battambang looked like it had definitely had it. We boarded by way of an old blackened, plank, one end on land the other on the boat. It kept us out of the filthy water below that surrounded everything and away form the now fading chaos.

The boat was old and rickety and made of wood. Most of the paint was worn away and replaced by the black of time and wear. It was single deck with a roof that was more a sunshade than a real roof and was held up by eight or ten thin bamboo poles with sides that were completely open. The seating facilities were benches made in the simplest of ways from tubular steel and wood screwed to the wooden deck some of them were bent and broken. Mid ships housed a roaring engine and the toilet, at least there was one I thought. When the door to this cabin was open the noise from the engine was overpowering and only slightly better when it was closed.

Gracefully passing us a little out from the shore and in cleaner water was a Khmer woman in a tiny canoe, known as a “tuk”, it was not much longer than she was tall. She sat cross legged right on the bow with paddle in hand. Her thick black hair held back from her face with a gold band that shone in the bright sunlight. She was wearing pyjamas, which was not uncommon for women in this region of Cambodia to wear in all places and at all times. The ease with which she maneuvered that tiny boat was testament to a lifetime on the lake.

About 28 of us travellers chose to go to Battambang by this route. We were from all corners of the globe and a fair mix of ages, shapes and sizes. The boat cast-off, the engine growling, black smoke puffing out as it pulled away from the shore, we were on our way. I walked to the stern of the boat and looked back along its length. There was no passenger list, no life jackets, no life rafts, no radio, no telephone signal and no map. There was a captain or at least it was someone who was at the controls and two other Khmer men on board presumably crew. None of them spoke English. Not a single person who knew me knew where I was or what I was doing. My craving for adventure had reached a new high. My abandonment of common sense, prudence and self-preservation complete. My mother would surely have heart failure if she knew where I was.

We sailed the short distance to the lake passing many floating shacks that lined our rout. They were people’s homes mostly but I could see shacks that had people on them who were processing fish and other people were working on engines and mechanical parts. As we got on to the lake I sat right at the front of the boat right on the bow away from the other passengers and the noise. You couldn’t see the other shore. There was just me the lake and the sky and a warm breeze in my face. This is what it felt like to be alive I thought. I could see poles sticking up out of the muddy water with what looked like nets of sorts bundled over the top. Birds flew random paths and swooped low before taking off, darting and disappearing.

Chinese cantilever fishing nets on the Sangker River
Chinese cantilever fishing nets on the Sangker River
I looked down at the muddy water of the lake that linked with the Mekong River on its southern shore and connected with Vietnam, Laos and China. During the wet season its waters increased more than five times the quantity there is during the dry season. The flooded forest provides a fertile spawning ground and is one of the world’s richest sources of white fish. This unique eco system is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. That was my assurance that this part of the world was pristine land. As yet untouched by the 21st century, inhibited by a people whose lives had hardly changed for generations.

We reach the other side of Tonlé Sap Lake and some how the boat finds the mouth of the Sangker River hidden by lush greenery. We slowly chugged up the middle of the waterway flanked by wetlands rich in tropical vegetation. The water’s clearer now. Cormorants and egrets perch on poles stuck in the riverbed that manage fishing nets just wait for lunch to swim by. Wild ducks paddle in and out of the riverside vegetation and bob up and down on the gentle wake from out boat oblivious to us. We passed the occasional fisherman standing on a dugout canoe watching us watching him. We pass remote floating homes that look cared for with washing hanging out to dry in the heat of the tropical sun, adorned with pot plants and flowers quite different from the many shacks on the other side of the lake. Some houses are built on tall bamboo stilts fully exposed by the low waters of the dry season. Occasional Chinese cantilever fishing nets look timeless in this natural setting and are primed ready for action. They demonstrate the trade links through out the region and the import of knowledge and ideas from other cultures. The mighty Mekong reaches over 4000 km through South East Asia providing food for over 50 million people – it’s a major waterway that rivals the Amazon.

The Sangker becomes narrower and narrower and the boat eventually docks at a cluster of floating wooden shacks where we disembark. We are in the middle of the river where it divides into two, pretty much the middle of nowhere. In one of the shacks there is a small area with tables and chairs where there is the possibility of refreshments although I think our western constituency would not appreciate the fare. We wait a short while before being divided into two smaller groups and boarding on to two smaller boats or “kanut” that soon arrive.

From here on the river is now too narrow and too shallow for the larger boat to navigate. We cast off with 12 of us on what is quite a small boat with a fabric roof to shade us from the sun and again the engine is roaring. It’s an outboard motor this time similar to the engines on longtails where the motor attaches to the stern of the boat and the propeller is some 2 to 3 meters away at the end of a metal shaft dipping into the water. The tiller man controls the depth of the propeller in the water by leaning on the throttle handle he can lift it up and down. The propeller keeps snagging on vegetation and branches in the water and breaking down. The crew have to jump into the river and un-snag the propeller time after time through out the whole journey.

I sit and watch the wake from our little boat hit the silk smooth silt of the banks of the river and like a miniature tsunami washes a part of it away. I wonder about the damage this is causing to this fragile environment. The traditional “tuks” are slower and in less of a hurry than the motorised tourist boats and cause no erosion. Ten years of this and there will be nothing left I think to my self. This is a finely balanced eco system that cannot be replaced easily. It seems to me to that it’s being damaged so tourists can travel this way. It makes a few precious dollars for the boat owners at the start and end of the trip but not much for anyone in-between and that’s where the damage is being done. I’m sure this is a part of a much bigger issue. Better to take the bus – it’s only a couple of hours ride.

We can’t really get off our seats, the boat’s too small for people to move around, too small to stand upright, too small to have a good stretch and nowhere to stop. The torturous seats are made from four narrow wooden slats about an inch wide with gaps between them. They offer precious little support to your glutinous maximums. During the last three hours of the trip discomfort turns to pain and with the tropical sun belting down this is endurance.

Floating homes - another way of living
Floating homes – another way of living
It’s a curious mix of people onboard. There are two overweight French ladies travelling together, an American couple, a middle aged Taiwanese lady travelling on her own who is very well dressed and looking slightly anxious, a German man, Andre, who was wearing trousers that were half denim half corduroy and shoes and socks who sat with a bag on his knees for the whole journey, another French couple, an English couple who didn’t speak for the whole journey, probably in shock, an Australian woman who was on her own who lived in East Timor, three polite and caring Khmer crew who didn’t speak any English except “hello” and me who could only say “johm riab sua”, which is hello in Khmer. I guess the boat sounded a great way to travel and conjured up visions of the Orient Express and perhaps a Nile cruise but the reality was stark utility and nine hours worth of it.

What made the journey worthwhile were the unspoiled tropical wetlands and the people we saw gave a glimpse of another way of living. These were noble people who spent their lives in homes on stilts or floating on water in a landscape that was submerged for half the year. They lived in harmony with nature in tune with their environment and their seasons. Although this part of Cambodia was ravaged by the Khmer Rouge and closed to outsiders for some years those days were now gone. A new openness and a welcoming of foreigners is now prevalent.

The boat eventually stopped in a very narrow, shallow part of the river and was pulled tight to the riverbank by two Khmer men who were waiting for us. We were given a signal to collect our gear and to get off. We were at last at Battambang. We scrambled up the steep muddy embankment and were met by two luxury mini busses that took us the short distance to the Royal Hotel. Its’ modest entrance and reception area gives no clue to its massive cavernous interior. Its’ classic modernist architecture is a legacy of its communist origins and only $6.00 a night. I love my large double room – it’s huge with two double beds, two fans and I can’t wait to get into that shower.


Check out the author’s picutres from Cambodia at his website. Copyright Gary Morga.

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