Blog // Tales from the trail
I suppose it could have been worse. We had heard stories about the boat journey becoming more of a walking tour when there isn't much water in the river and taking up to 17 hours, so I should just be grateful that our journey was only 8 hours in the end. But I still can't say I enjoyed it much; at all in fact! Ian had emphatically recommended the boat trip across Tonle Sap lake from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, but we had decided to take the boat along the river from Battambong to Siem Reap instead. Until we started hearing the various boat 'stories' around Battambong and realising that we were taking the longest way round as well as the most expensive way round, I hadn't really considered the river aspect of the journey. Looking at the river on the map the night before the journey didn't bode well as we saw the tight, twisty blue line leading to the lake. Nevertheless, another early start and we were boarding an already almost-full, rickety-looking boat by 7:25am. It was alarming then, when more and more people and then large sacks and boxes of produce continued to transfer onto the surely-by-now-full, rickety-feeling boat, each time another shuffle up to try and accommodate the new load. "Oh God", I muttered under my breath.
So, we set off, doing a 3-point turn in the middle of the river, the few life jackets being commandeered as seat cushions by the few who got their hands on them. Within minutes the young, lithe and probably still drunk, Italian boys got up and climbed onto the roof. All collectively sighed as this meant a little more space down-below, even if the creaking roof above us was a little unnerving. "Well at least the river is full of water", I said in passing to Keith.
It soon became apparent though, that the boat was listing quite heavily with every turn, possibly due to the weight in the boat, and something to do with the propeller being too small for the boat (and therefore more acceleration power round corners), Keith was postulating to me - not that I was listening. I was instead concentrating on what the boat was doing, sitting as far forward as I could as it seemed to want to turn on its side at every slight change in direction. As we headed upstream, the bends were getting tighter and the space to turn in them, getting narrower. The driver kept looking apprehensively behind him, every time a tight bend approached, presumably trying to judge the weight distribution of the craft before making the turn. This did nothing to allay my concerns and while other people seemed to relax into the journey, reading books or smoking, I became more and more nervous with each turn. Not the relaxing "cruise" I had had in mind!
Along the way, we would suddenly veer towards the bank and reverse up alongside it, while someone else jumped on board, slowly closing up the space the Italians had left behind. It was almost comical watching their faces when they came back 'down below' as the sun got progressively hotter, to find that their seats had been taken and they had to return upstairs to be cooked, but I was concentrating too hard on not rolling backwards into the water to find it that funny. Also along the way, just as we picked people up, we dropped them and their goods off. A complex operation involving someone on the bank being aware of our presence in time, jumping in their long tail boat and zooming over to await the giant sacks of rice or flour or the individual that was destined for that particular 'stop' that were more or less thrown on board - involving a lot of wobble and righting of both vessels. It was clear that this was a well-rehearsed routine, no one amazingly ending up-side down.
Half-way along the route, we stopped for lunch. A break I didn't really welcome because we were already running behind schedule, and the longer the boat trip was, the less it seemed possible that I would be able to avoid the enclosed toilet-bucket at the end of the vessel, an experience I didn't relish the thought of. 20 minutes later, after disembarking from the floating restro-shop, it became quite evident from the style of driving that the drivers had swapped over, the new one looking even more nervous than the first. As we executed the 3-point turn back into the direction of travel, he accelerated harshly and the boat tipped an excruciatingly large angle behind me, all on board suddenly gasping as they realised they were suddenly tipping backwards (or forwards depending on which side they were sitting) and the Italians on top, sliding across the roof and almost into the water! How we didn't capsize will be left to the mysteries of the miracle but "Ha!" I thought to myself, as I watched everyone else starting to feel nervous too!
There was a benefit of the journey and that was to see the life along the river. Floating villages they are called, some where the houses are built on stilts into the river bed, and others that were truly floating; houses built onto barges or floating on top of oil drums tied together. Being open at the front and in most cases at the back too, provided an opportunity to be exceptionally nosy, as light passed straight through the structures. Most of the houses had the same look and feel about them, inside and out, that reminded me almost of an Ikea-style, flat-pack product, aisle H25. A chinese-style wallpaper covered the insides, with pink or purple curtains, posters of local royalty or celebrities (presumably) adorning some of the walls, and more often than not, a red-framed TV somewhere on the wall.
Although, clearly a challenging life, the houses also seemed exemplar of domestic bliss; dad attending to nets in the water, mum cleaning fish out of the back 'door' straight into the river, naked children swimming or playing on the porch, grandma rocking the baby in the hammock and the dog or cat sat panting in the sun waiting for scraps. It proved a really interesting perspective into rural Cambodian life, undoubtedly filled with its challenges and emphasizing the impressive resilience and adaptivity of people.
Seven hours later and we were at the end of the river, only a straight traverse across the lake to reach Siem Reap left. We moored up again, just after dropping the last passenger off who wasn't coming to Siem Reap, and the co-drivers routinely changed the propeller over, something larger and more powerful looking to take us across the last part of the journey. A much more relaxing hour later, across the lake and up the estuary of the Siem Reap river, past some more floating villages, and we were docking up against a muddy bank, on top of which sat an army of tuk tuks, their drivers already running down and onto the still-full boat desperate to commandeer their customers for the 15km journey into town. Relief finally set in - 8 hours later and we'd made it without serious incident! And I hadn't needed to use the bucket either. Result!
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