I like boats. The smell of gas fumes mixed with swampy low tide water evokes nostalgic memories of learning to water ski in Tahoe or Folsom lake when I was little. The boat speeding over smooth water, jostling over big waves and sometimes slamming choppily down on the crests is exciting. I’ve always loved the juxtaposition of being in the middle of water, and yet dry and safe in my boat: a perfect way to be in an adventure and yet view the outside world at the same time.
We’d been in Cambodia for nearly a week seeing friends in Phnom Penh and after an unremarkable but nonetheless pleasant evening in Battambang (coolest name for a town ever – baddabing!), we decided to take the long road – or river, as it were – to Siem Reap and the famed temples of Angkor. This decision was neither based on economies of time (6-10 hours vs. 3 by bus) nor of money ($21 vs. $6), but after researching*, talking to other travels, and taking into consideration my boat nostalgia, we chose the Sangkae river route anyway. Great choice.
*I’m becoming more and more skeptical of when Lonely Planet uses superlatives such as “one of the most memorable/amazing/unique/charming experiences blah blah blah”, but in this instance, they hit the nail on the head.
The small flat-bottomed barge with large openings along the sides held about 20 passengers, though it was far from full as we pulled into the small river at morning light. About half of us were travelers on our way to see the temples – we detected an assortment of German, French, and Australian – and the other half locals who brought aboard large carbohydrate-filled lunches and got off mid-river before the tourist-destination town.
I was sort of confused by the given timeline at first – “between 6-10 hours depending on the season”. What could be the cause for such a huge margin? After a few hours of noisily whooshing up the river, I found out. We bottomed out on a sand bars. The first time it happened, the driver had loudly gunned the engine, creating a peacock tail of murky brown spray behind the boat and unapologetically soaking the passing fishermen in their canoe. With a little rocking and skidding, we continued up the river a few moments later. A handful of times though, we actually jammed straight into a viscid bar of goopy river bottom, causing us to grapple for the hand rails to keep from toppling overboard. The men – boat personnel, locals, and travelers alike – jumped out into the mid-calf deep water and pushed and pulled sweatily while the women and kids stayed aboard and alternately giggled (the locals) or snapped pictures (the travelers) of the farcical scene. A good 20 minutes later, we were cautiously back on track.
What made the boat journey so unique was being able to experience the river life around us. All along the small connecting rivers and into the large shallow Tonlé Sap Lake we were able to watch the everyday life of the river people at close range. I was told that there is only one large riverboat making the journey each day, so the majority of the day inhabitants exploit the river for fishing, crops and transport at a tranquil pace. Women draped in loose sarongs splashed buckets of water over their heads for their morning shower. Men plunged the hands deep into the rust brown water to bring up delicate fishing nets and sturdy traps. Children as young as two jumped and splashed unsupervised all day – living along the river, this is their playground. It wouldn’t surprise me if they learned how to swim the same time they learn how to walk. They almost all waved and called a spritely ‘hallo!’ at us as we motored past.
Over 60% of Cambodia’s protein intake comes from fish, many of them collected from these small rivers and the sprawling Tonlé Sap Lake (largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia). We passed an incredible variety of fishing apparatuses from traps to fish farms and including the towering bamboo structures with square nets known as cantilever fishing nets. There were dozens of ‘floating’ villages – which included clinics, stores and residences – balanced on multiple bamboo rails in the water. I wondered how they avoid getting devoured by mosquitos or ever get their clothes dry.
The river is their life-blood and provides food, drink, commerce, and activity. I couldn’t help but wonder at the health of this life-blood though. Several times, I saw someone bathing or scrubbing their laundry with suds drifting just a few meters from someone else washing their cabbage (not to mention the outhouses in the villages that drain straight into the lake). Then again, we don’t always know what’s in our water supply back home either.
At the end of the 7 1/2 hour journey, we were very hot and our bottoms tired of the vibrations, but we would chose the boat again in a heartbeat. Sitting in the sun on the flat white roof watching the floating villages and lush jungles stream by at a leisurely pace with a 360° view was incredible. For once, it wasn’t just the destination, but the journey that really impressed us.