Battambang, a dusty little backwaters in NW Cambodia. Although becoming more of a tourist draw, it is still mostly visited by the backpacker crowd, anxious to get further off the well worn “banana pancake” trail that covers SE Asia.
From Siem Reap there are two ways to get to Battambang. The first option is to take the mostly comfortable, 5-6 hour bus trip with little chance of travel issues and enhanced (?) by blaring Cambodian karaoke shows. The second option is the more interesting slow boat meandering along the waterways of the countryside. In wet season apparently this option can be nearly as quick as the bus. In dry season, when we were there, estimated trip times ran from 6-10 hours. Ours took eleven.
The morning began with a 6am pickup at our hotel, and then spent the next hour playing that classic Asian game of “how many travelers can we fit in a 6 passenger van?” Barely able to breath, sitting half on Jim’s lap, half on some Australian guys lap, with my knees up under my chin due to the backpacks beneath my feet, I only hoped the boat was more comfortable. As the driver opened the door and we, literally, spilled out of the stuffed van, I noted the large numbers of travelers heading towards a not very large boat.
In spite of our many stops en-route, we were among the first to arrive, allowing us to get seats inside on the hard wooden benches. More and more passengers boarded and with no remaining seats were relegated to the roof top to bake in the sun while reclining on their backpacks while I contemplated how soon someone would rescue us when our overloaded boat started to sink.
As we settled in I sat back to survey the fascinating life on the water surrounding us. As we cruised slowly by, the daily lives of whole villages of ramshackle houses, built on stilts, unfolded around us. Woman washed clothes in rusted tin tubs. Men fished from small boats. Scruffy children and dogs played on docks, all while tv antennas and electrical lines waved overhead.
As time passed I wondered about their lives, so different from mine. Did they want a different life or were they happy with their life above the water? Limited in space, set among the reeds, yet with far reaching vistas over Tonle Sap Lake, they had a very basic existence. Even being on the road long term we carried nearly as much on our packs as these families possessed. And yet, nearly everyone waved and smiled as we passed and they certainly didn’t seem downtrodden, in spite of their challenging life. As with most of our days in Cambodia, these moments put our idea of “necessary” stuff all in perspective.
Leaving Siem Reap, the waterscape opened up, revealing the enormity of the lake and surrounding waterways. Early on in the day there was water as far as the eye could see. This quickly changed as we hit the reeds, sailing down the endless network of waterways snaking through the country. Because of the low water levels, our pathway continued to decrease in size and soon we were unable to even rest an arm on the scarred wood railing of our boat or risk being cut by the thick, sapling-like reeds.
We encountered several boats along the way, heading towards Siem Reap, towards us, with no space to pass and I once again considered my game plan with our imminent sinking. But no, silly me, of COURSE there was room to pass, it simply required the crew and passengers to pull the boats past each other, hand over hand, inch by inch, accompanied by the sound of splintering wood and grumbling engines as we forced the boats past each other.
After a couple of hours we stopped at a stilted store and gas station, taking a moment to stretch our legs before once again boarding our wooden craft and gingerly lowering my already sore bottom onto the still uncomfortable wooden bench. Those formerly carefree souls who had started out enjoying their rooftop perch were now sunburned and parched and I sat silently, not willing to complain in front of anyone who had a worse seat than myself!
Having gone some time with no sign of other boats or stilt villages, I relaxed, thinking perhaps sinking wasn’t the only end to our day when suddenly a horrendous metallic clank was followed by massive amounts of smoke emitting from our motor, wafting forward and causing us all to fall into fits of coughing as the boat came to a stop.
Powerless, we drifted along while the captain and crew checked on repair options, and things started to heat up. When not in motion the stiflingly heat and humidity was taking a toll and the sickly sweet smell of sweat combined with gas fumes and river water was creating a nauseating perfume in the small boat. Luckily, even though it felt like an eternity, around 25 minutes later, it was determined that a huge clump of reeds had gotten wrapped around the rudder. One of the crew dove into the water, requiring several attempts, but successfully cleared away the debris and we were once again en-route.
The final few hours of our trip passed without incident. The narrow, reed clogged passage, opened up into the Sangkae River and we soon started passing villages along the banks with increasing frequency. Dusk was falling as we finally docked in Battambang, tired, hungry, and bum sore. With no reservations we followed the tout with the first appealing offer to a $10/night room near the center of town and treated ourselves to a delicious curry dinner by lantern light along the banks of the river.
It was a long day, yes, but one of my all time favorites. I have often found that the days that are the most uncomfortable at the time prove to be our favorites in retrospect. How many precious days of our lives offer such a fascinating variety of adventure, travel, the unknown, fear of sinking, meeting local people, and experiencing a way of life completely unique from our own. This day was an example of why we travel, to have the opportunity to stop outside our comfort zone, experience new things, and learn to appreciate cultures so different from our own. One that we would have never seen by zipping along the highway at 50mph instead of taking the slow boat to Battambang.