Coming to the end of my time in SE Asia and running short on time, I nearly whistle stopped Cambodia just to visit the temples of Angkor. Many people do. This didn’t feel right to me, I wanted to see some of this intriguing country. Oh how glad i am now that I took this decision. What was I thinking? Cambodia, away from the tourist epicentre of Siem Reap, was an unforgettable adventure, a unique and touching experience, the real thing. I fell in love with this country very very quickly.
A few other travellers had recommended taking the boat out from Siem Reap to Battambang, Cambodia’s second largest city.
6am pickup for what I was told would be a six hour cruise along the Tonle Sap and Stung Sangker rivers to our destination. So we arrive bleary eyed at the Siem Reap dock and the boat looks a bit kinda overloaded already. Most of the seats are taken already, including most of the roof! I found a space, thankfully inside the boat away from the guaranteed sunburn, next to Danilo, a very sweet traveller from Brazil. Well, what can I say SIX HOURS MY ASS (well if I could feel my ass after this journey), TRY 11 FUN HOURS!! Actually this trip was far from the journey from hell, maybe a little uncomfortable but more than made up for by the experience, the sights, the snapshot of genuine Cambodian life on the water.
We started at a fairly reasonable cruising pace along the Tonle Sap.
Check out the smoke!
We saw incredibly colourful floating houses, floating shops, floating churches, get the picture? Even floating pig sties!! I could not believe the things we saw from the boat. It was truly a voyeuristic dream, with the intimacies of daily life in plain sight! The people, oh the beautiful smiley people of Cambodia. Rowing their boats to the floating convenience store in their pyjamas! I saw a little of this in Siem Reap, locals going about their daily lives in their Jim Jams, but I assumed they were the local fruitcakes on a day release! No, this turns out to be a daily thing in Cambodia, wearing your pyjamas all day. Why not eh? The children, many of them with little or no clothes, waving, waving, waving like crazy at us, using both hands to wave, running down the riverbank just to wave at us.
This was a world away from the tourist-savvy kids of Siem Reap ‘you buy you buy, 1 dollar, 1 dollar’. One wave back to these kids and being rewarded with a huge, big smile. I had tears in my eyes, I was really touched.
We picked up quite a bit of speed through the Tonle sap lake, the largest lake in SE Asia. A huge expanse of muddied water and weeds, it got a bit chilly on the boat. Then we entered the Stung Sangker river which turned out to be the most ‘interesting’ part of the journey. We continued the pattern of cruising at a fair speed then slowing down at every floating village to limit the ‘surf’ that came off our boat, trying not to knock the locals off their boats and their houses! A couple of hours in we came to quite a wide part of the river but was absolutely covered in weeds, like you couldn’t see the river beneath it (best check my pics).
Floating Pig Sty
There was another boat stuck in the weeds not going anywhere and we seemed to be making our own river, cutting a path through the weeds. It actually looked really pretty, greenery carpeting the river either side of us, lined with the floating houses full of waving children. Wasn’t too good for our boat though, the weeds got jammed in our propeller, smoke billowing out and we were going nowhere for a while until the captain’s mate could free us. Worrying moments that we would be stranded in the middle of nowhere on this rickety old boat, but we eventually escaped and continued the adventure.
The next challenge as we neared the end of the ride was the snake-like twists and turns on a very narrow part of the river. Every 50 metres or so the boat would come to an almost stop while they used huge sticks to push us away from the edges of the banks. The banks here were covered in a lot of trees and every time we collided with the edge we would get whacked over the head and covered in the vegetation, including any insects that happened to be living in it! So much fun! Arrived into Battambang 11 hours after leaving my hotel in Siem Reap pretty exhausted but also feeling very inspired and humbled from this trip full of never-ending surprise!