February 25, 2013 – To see the temples at Angkor, a UNESCO world heritage, we decide to take a boat to avoid heavy traffic on the only road around Southeast Asian‘s largest freshwater lake and to discover Cambodian life from a different perspective.
The boat leaves early and we are told the trip from Battambang via the river Stueng Sankae and the lake Tonle Sab will take about eight hours. Our bikes are tied up on the roof of the boat together with some of our panniers as well as bags from local people mainly filled with rice, vegetables and other eatables. Carved wooden shrines ensures we’ll have a safe journey. While Johan is still busy with ensuring Smokey and Rudi (our bikes) won’t decide to go for a swim, the boat fills up with backpackers, Italians with huge and extremely unhandy suitcases, locals with hundreds of breads, dead chickens, meat and more vegetables (we should not have listened to the travel guide and take our food as there is plenty of it on board) and a mother with a baby and a toddler.
The boat with about 25 people aboard leaves at 7am sharp, a punctuality the French must have left behind when they retreated from their former colony. Some French tourists including Johan make themselves comfortable on the roof for better views as temperatures are at chilly 25 degrees. As it is the dry time in Cambodia with little to no rain the river resembles more a ditch than anything else. The water is dirt brown and shallow which makes a smooth journey for our captain impossible.
We are slowly leaving behind still sleepy Battambang, passing small fishing boats, stilt houses built on the riverbank, people washing themselves in the river, lush green jungle, vegetable fields and rice paddies, built on the now dry and fertile riverbed, fishermen cleaning their nets and bringing in clams and fish that will be dried in the sun later on.
After a while on the water the river gets smaller and smaller and the boat goes slower and slower with the engine getting stuck in mud frequently. Our skippers leave the boat often to push and pull it to be able to keep going. At times the winding river gets so narrow that the captain can do nothing else then stop the engine, hit the riverbank and let the skippers pull the boat into the middle of the river again. If we wouldn’t know better we would think the captain has had a few drinks too much the evening before.
The hours pass, the temperature rises and with no protective clouds people are retiring from the roof to seek relief from the sun. There is not much to do other than eating, reading, people watching, taking in picturesque surroundings and answering the many greetings and waving from children along the river. Sleeping is no option unless you are a baby or able to pass away in an already very uncomfortable sitting position.
The baby is finally sleeping, the boat is seriously tilting to the left and the skipper starts moving luggage and people, to get back to an upright position when we stop for a break at a village with a few kiosks, pigs in stilt cages above the river, and bathing children in the river. We disembark as the little restaurant prepared appetizing fried rice and some other mouth-watering vegetables and meat dishes for the hungry travellers. This is also the time when finally the ice gets broken and people start talking to each other. Except for the bizarre Italian couple that already ensured aboard through sour looking faces and luggage built all around them that you’d better leave them alone in their misery.
A toilet stop and a few bites later we sit in the boat silently again and the captain speeds through the water as the river has finally become a river. By now floating houses and houseboats join the stilt houses as we pass along small river villages. Waterplants make the floating houses look as if being surrounded by beautiful wild gardens and only their slow up and down movements when we pass by reminds us that these houses and gardens are floating on the water. The speed wind is refreshing in the soaring heat. Fishermen bring in their morning catch, people get quiet and sleepy inside and outside the boat as it is time for a long siesta to overcome the heat.
As the river gets even wider and villages are growing like mushrooms next to and on the river people busily get out their cameras. Johan is flirting with the toddler, it took him five hours to get her attention and more importantly her smile. Things are being shuffled around and there is a strange fidgeting on board as limbs get stiff, bottoms sore on the hard seats, my left ankle swollen like a pig’s leg for no obvious reason and minds tired of the ever repeating landscape passing by.
By the way Cambodian children are among the most beautiful in the world, that’s at least my opinion. Black eyes, black and usually wild hair, chocolate-brown skin and a well-tempered nature combined with their lovely smile as soon as they see you make them almost impossible to withstand. You just want to touch and cuddle them all the time. Every single child we pass this day is smiling and waving at us, a very heartwarming experience.
By now the boat stops frequently to deliver goods and food that has simmered in the sun all morning to remote river villages. A few hundred meters before the stop the captain blows the horn, a man on a small boat paddles towards us, the skipper unloads the goods and both boats head off in different directions.
In the meantime the temperature has risen to 35 degrees, despite the uncomfortable seats half of the tourists and locals are asleep, the slow motioned Italians observe with grim faces, the children are playing, the French backpackers are still smoking and sunbathing on the roof, they don’t seem to notice that they’ve turned into lobsters in the meantime and Johan is looking for the right accommodation upon our arrival. A few people disembark including Johan’s new acquaintance, a few more people come on board and we are slowly but surely approaching our destination. The river is now about 100 meters wide and finally mounds into the Tonle Sap lake. Brown, shallow water until the horizon, a huge lake indeed. Everybody is awake now, except for the Italians, their open-mouthed sleeping doesn’t make them more attractive.
Within the next hour we reach the harbor, disembark, enjoy an easy ride of about 15km into the city Siem Reap and look forward to some exciting days ahead. The Stueng Sangkae river is neither the Amazon nor the Nile, but it is a picturesque small river worthwhile travelling and discovering and despite the long and uncomfortable journey it has been another wonderful day in Cambodia.