Monday, January 10, 2011

Boat Ride to Battambang

If you’re ever in Cambodia, the sights and attractions of Battambang are not to be missed.  Getting there can be half the fun if you’re up for adventure and keep an open mind….and so it was that Gordon and I found ourselves off on yet another escapade this past Friday.
We’d arranged to take the boat to Battambang, with a 6 am pick-up to deliver us to the boat landing.  Did I say pick-up?  That’s exactly what it was – a mini Toyota pick-up with a ‘king cab’ and benches fastened to the bed of the truck.  We called it our 'Cambodian Park ‘n Ride’.  Five passengers already sat on the benches, their over-stuffed backpacks piled between them on the floor of the truck bed.  We hopped onto the tailgate, and squeezed in beside them.  After two more stops, five people plus the driver were sandwiched in the two seats of the cab, nine more of us in the bed of the truck, luggage up to our chins, two large suitcases perched high on top of the cab, and two more on the tailgate held down by bungee cords.  The bungee cords made me feel SO much safer….  
A little morning 'pick-me-up'

Loaded up and ready to roll
At the last stop, when two husky young travelers flatly refused to get on board (I wonder why?), the driver summoned another ride for them.  Trying to make up time after this delay, he sped out of town, careening around curves, throwing up clouds of dust.  We rocked back and forth, and held on for dear life.  For the next 20 minutes, I was struck with fits of hysterical nervous laughter to the point of tears rolling down my cheeks.  It all seemed so bizarre.
We arrived at the boat docks and were swarmed by vendors selling baguettes, cheese, bananas and baked goods.  (Cambodian airport concession stand)  I grabbed a bunch of mini bananas for $1, and we got on board. 

Food vendor

Boats lined up - Our boat was similar to these

The boat was fitted with twenty-four, 2-seater wooden benches, and large open areas in front and back for extra passengers.  A door toward the back was hand-lettered with ‘W.C.’, but I resisted the urge to inspect it.  We only departed when the boat was filled to capacity.  I counted over 50 people (and one chicken), but many people sat on the roof, so I can’t be sure.  I also counted the life preservers in the rafters above our head (twenty-four) and prayed the boat wouldn’t go down.
The boat ride to Battambang takes 5 hours or more, depending on the water level, which is directly related to the amount of rainfall during rainy season, and how late it is in dry season.  We’d been warned that water levels were low, and the ride might be long.  No kidding.  It took us eight hours, and I swear I have permanent bruises on my tailbone from the wooden seats.    
The first part of the journey on the Tonle Sap Lake took us past several floating villages.  Here people spend their entire lives living on ‘house-boats’ – houses on rafts, or nearer to shore, in homes perched high above the water on stilts, sometimes over 10 meters high.  It is not unusual to see floating schools and churches.  Everyday life is either in, or on, or about water.  Everyone is friendly, and everyone waves as the boat passes (only one boat a day goes to Battambang).  Little children especially wave enthusiastically, and shout “Hello!  Hello!” 

Hello!  Hello!

It seems odd to think that these children live their entire lives on water, and grow up never learning to play soccer or hopscotch, but even the smallest one can paddle a boat as deftly as a seasoned sailor.

Expert paddlers

Occasionally during our voyage, a small boat would come alongside ours and another passenger would get on, or someone would deliver a small package or letter headed for the city.  Around noon, we stopped at a floating ‘restaurant’, and got off the boat to stretch our legs and buy a soda.  At the rear of the restaurant, a door was labeled ‘W.C.’  It opened onto a little cubicle, with not much more than a hole in the floor with lake water rushing past.  We called it the ‘loo with a view’.

Floating restaurant - 'loo' is the little green cubicle to the right of the restaurant.
Sailing past more floating villages and fishermen, the waters began to narrow, the boat slowed down, and we knew we had entered the Sangker River. The Sangker River winds back and forth like a snake, and trying to keep the boat going in a straight line, the driver would sail so close to shore at times that I had to duck tree branches that snapped in through the open ports.  The river water was turbid and low, and the going was excruciatingly slow. At one point, we were headed for shore, and nearly ran aground when one of the passengers shouted, and the boat driver shook himself awake.  He'd fallen asleep at the wheel!  I felt even safer then.

We passed masses of water hyacinths and morning glory along the shore, which are a food source for many, and augments their diet of fish and rice.  Close to shore on either side, everywhere floated empty water bottles in rows, capped and acting as markers for fishing nets.
As the hours passed, the level or the river banks rose higher and higher, and as we neared Battambang, we began to see more homes along the shore, with make-shift ladders leading down to the water below.  Everywhere, children ran to the edge of the banks to shout and wave like mad, often buck naked. 

Higher banks, farther down river - here children wave from beneath their house on stilts

Eventually the occasional passenger began to disembark, and we knew we were near the city’s edge.  As we approached  the shore, I was appalled to see masses of trash and litter thrown over the edge of the river banks, and I found it disconcerting that people could have such disregard for their environment.  I can only suppose that when your every thought is for how and when you will get your next meal, all else becomes secondary.

Finally, we reached our landing platform.  My tailbone felt bruised after spending more than eight hours on a hard bench, and I mused to myself that the spelling of ‘Battambang’ should be ‘bottom-bang’.  Even more odd is that I’d become so used to the constant loud ‘chuggah-chuggah’ of the boat engine pounding in my ears and vibrating through my core, the silence was deafening and unwelcome.  Despite the long trip, I’d had an exhilarating day filled with indelible memories, and taking in all I'd seen that day, I couldn't help but remind myself just how fortunate I truly am.

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