September 26, 2007

From Battambang by Boat
Siem Reap, Cambodia

Disheveled buildings, friendly faces, and picturesque waterways.

Battambang

With over a million residents, and labeled as Cambodia's second largest city (and secondary hub on the overland route between Thailand and Vietnam), Battambang really doesn't look the part. Relatively docile compared with the vehicular chaos of the capital, Battambang's riverside atmosphere is decidedly more pedestrian-friendly.

I moved Tatiana and I here as the second step in our journey through Cambodia because of the descriptors of the town, and the much famed boat ride to Siem Reap. I could think of no more enjoyable way to arrive in the city that plays host to the legions of tourists who wish to see the temples of Angkor than to pass on yet another lengthy journey by bus, and arrive by boat.

The line (below) from my guidebook, and other resources found online, painted a picture of the town in my mind:

Home to some of the best preserved French period architecture in the country and to warm and friendly inhabitants. The network of charming old French shop houses clustered along the riverbank is the real highlight here.

What Tatiana and I discovered in the city was anything but.

A Degenerated Battambang

French-colonial splendor, this city is not. Like most things French in Cambodia, the concrete-stylings echo something far from indigenous, yet hardly functional or visually enjoyable.

What visitors are more likely to find are rotting buildings, trash-lined streets, faded paint, plenty of motorcycles, and a general lack of inspirational atmosphere—much like the rest of Cambodia. Although there is character in these things, something that I enjoy very much, it's far from eloquent.

Rewarding Walk

Searching for cheaper accommodations during the first few hours in town, I took a turn that found me walking on dirt roads in the rural outskirts of the city. This unintentional tour of the area was easily one of the most rewarding things done during my stay in town.

…Although, I suppose I really didn't need the mental remaindered of what the chickens are really eating, and passing onto me if not cooked properly.

The women and children encountered were easily the happiest, and most friendly of any Cambodians encountered to date. A real pleasure.

Ebb and Flow

To the east of Battambang is the Tonle Sap lake, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, which provides fish and irrigation waters for nearly half the population of Cambodia.

Linked to the Mekong River at Phnom Penh by a 100km-long channel, the lake swells during the wet season (mid-May to early October) from 2,500 sq km to 13,000 sq km or more, and its depth increases from about 2m to 10m. The rise and fall of the Mekong results in this flooding, causing the direction of the river to flow towards the Mekong during the dry season, and away from it during the wet.

The process makes the Tonle Sap lake one of the world's richest sources of freshwater fish, as flooded forests make for fertile spawning ground.

Traveling the Stung Sangker River and Tonle Sap Lake

US$10 buys you a passage on one of the fast-boats that navigate the swollen Tonle Sap and Stung Sangker River during the wet season. Although this trip is possible during the other months of the year, travel cannot take you between Siem Reap and Battambang exclusively by boat—a minibus is used to cross the sections that are no longer submerged.

Most ticketing agents in Siem Reap selling the reverse path Tatiana and I took tell tourists that the trip is only four hours, when most are no less than seven hours, or as long as twelve. This comes as a nasty surprise, as many kids don't bring water or other supplies to keep them from suffering in the heat. It is not unheard of for boats to sink, either. Most expatriates in Cambodia advise giving the boat ride a miss—although I certainly don't.

By the time the complimentary minibus picked us up at the hotel (in the early hours of the morning) and shuttled Tatiana and me to the river, the boat was already packed with people below deck—a large contrast to the seven tickets the company operator said had been sold up until the evening prior. This wasn't a problem, as the smell of exhaust, petrol, and rural Cambodians wasn't really what I had in mind for the trip anyways. The metal roof of the narrow vessel was spacious, and moderately safe, but I knew that the rising sun would turn it into an oven soon enough. Tatiana slept while she could.

The boat trip was fantastic—easily one of the top highlights of Cambodia (even though I received some serious sunburn to my torso, thanks to nearly eight hours in the sun). In some ways, the river reminded me of the six-day float I enjoyed up the Rio Amazonas, this past March. The muddy color of the water wasn't the only thing that this journey had in common with the trip in Brazil.

Floating vendors pulled alongside our boat, just like on the Amazon, but what really amazed me was the lack of beggars. Even though tourists use the lake as passage every day, I was surprised and overjoyed to find not a single beggar in a boat, trying to get something for nothing. Instead, all I could see were smiling, happy children, genuinely waving at passengers (both Cambodian and foreign) as the boat passed. So nice.

The adaptations that the water-dwelling population have made for daily life are amazing. Floating pigs, house boats, farming, praying, eating, using the bathroom, and sleeping among the sunken treetops.

A final test of endurance is made when arriving at the docks, about a dozen kilometers outside of Siem Reap. Here, dozens of tuk tuk piranhas swarm into the boat, latching onto any tourist that's too nice to (physically or verbally) push them away. This is nothing new, and typical of any transport arriving in developing countries, but what was, was the sight of traveler names on boards, being held/waved by moto drivers.

It turns out that guesthouses in Phnom Penh and Battambang pass on or sell tourist names to guesthouses in Siem Reap. Following the sign and staying that that guesthouse typically means the ride into town is free—doing otherwise costs a dollar or two for the transport.

I selected a driver that stood at the back of the pack and didn't claw at anyone. He was holding a sign for a hotel listed in my guidebook, of which the description sounded like a decent enough place to start. He revealed en route that he had made the sign himself, and had no affiliation with the hotel. What he, like every other tuk tuk driver at the dock wanted, was to be our hired driver for the temple tour we'd inevitably be taking.

The kid was much too clever for his own good. His strategy was solid and effective, his English decent, but his attitude that he be our temple driver overly insistent. I silently promised myself that he would never get the job—just too darn sneaky.

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