After getting admittedly “templed-out” (my guide book warned me about that), I was ready to trade in the ancient and the touristy of Siem Reap for the peace and slower pace of Battambang, a less-visited city of 150,000 in the northwest of Cambodia.
But before I made that trade, I had another exchange to make: sturdy earth beneath my feet for the soothing sway of water beneath the hull. A big reason I traveled to Battambang was because of the ol’ adage that life is about the journey, not the destination. Perhaps this is especially so when the journey consists of a boat ride along a river snaking past splendid natural views and revealing a unique way of life among the people…
The van picked me up from my hostel at 6:45am. Though off the beaten path, I was joined by a host of other tourists on this boat trip. I met a few young folks from England, a German, an Aussie, a Slovak, and a pair of Chinese. The van was undersized. We rode clown-car style on this sunny morning, leaving the city and driving past the palm trees and dusty, dry-season air.
We approached and parked on a grassy flat above the docks on Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s largest lake. Before we could make our way down to a boat, though, aggressive local peddlers selling breakfast foods met up as we opened the van door.
“You no breakfast on boat,” one said.
That convinced me, and I bought some cheese and croissants.
This southwest boat journey started just south of Siem Reap on Tonle Sap’s north end and then taking the river to Battambang:
Our group walked down to the docks and boarded our boat.
The long, skinny vessel had a needed canopy protecting from the hot sun (in February, by the way). You can see the “W.C.” in the background of the above picture. That’s the bathroom. And what made the back of the boat worse for those riders was the noise of engine. I luckily sat at the front–even out on the nose of the boat for a time.
At this marina, tourism took a back seat to fishing. Locals were abundant, making their way “out to sea.”
A sea of chocolate milk. Not exactly picturesque, but the scenery got a lot better quickly.
We started out. Our captain took his place near me at the front of the boat.
Our boat’s engine roared over the open water of now-blue Tonle Sap. Wind blew past our faces on this smooth cruise on this low-wave, low-wind day. Soon, distant shores crept close.
Cruising along with the rushes in the distance, the foreground was populated with patches of weeds slowly approaching then racing by at random; port and starboard, distant and nearby, each on their own trajectory.
On the roadways of water it’s easy to find the right path. There is only one river to take.
The shores around us narrowed and we were swallowed by the mouth of the river. Earth began to pour by in a smooth flow. The terrain was low and marshy with low-level brush framing the river banks.
Along the way, we occasionally stopped to pick up a local passenger.
You wouldn’t see this in the US or Europe, but here in Cambodia, tourism transportation doubles as freight transport. Because why not take advantage of the option? So in hopped the young fella in the back of the boat pictured above along with his sacks of goods.
Leveraging river traffic was especially crucial in this part of the world, because the river is the dominant means by which people commute. Not long into this river route, we began to pass that which I’d heard much about: the floating villages.
Here’s the deal: Most people like living near water. But this river rises incredibly during the rainy season. So the buildings with foundations are up atop the banks on stilts several feet off the ground.
And the foundation-less buildings? They float.
These first buildings appeared around a bend. Then we slowed as we passed by:
Can you imagine sitting in class, rocking to mathematics as outside boats go by? How about conducting business at the post office? Get up in the morning and roll out of bed, but watch out for that first step. Joking aside, imagine the hazards for sleepwalkers, infants, or if you’ve simply had too much to drink.
Thinking about their poverty, it seems this lifestyle of needing to float every where for everything would limit commerce and cap wealth potential.
But Cambodians are known for their contentment and welcoming demeanor. Indeed, they acted in a manner you’d expect from folks you meet on the water—a lot of smiles and a lot of waving as we passed by.
In all, we must have had 100 children stop what they were doing to wave like we were a float in a parade. I wanted to throw candy at them, but had to settle for waving back.
This whole situation also got me thinking about being here, as a Westerner and as a tourist. I travel around and marvel at the ways of “these people.” I am intrigued “by their ways.” It all screams hierarchy of the human race. But I love learning about, and witnessing, other cultures.
Travel is a paradox in this realm. It juxtaposes and evidences (and enforces) the reality of differing social evolutions. Yet it also nurtures an inter-culture intimacy.
After 8-9 hours, we saw signs of urbanization. Battambang was near.
Along this trip, I had also met a travel companion. Sven would join me over the next two days touring our destination which had surprises waiting: crocodiles, a Cambodian wedding, and a cave.
I hope you enjoyed this look at the lives of the river folk here in northern Cambodia. You stretch your ideas of what life could be when you see how others live theirs.