July 27, 2011

Travelling by riverboat in Cambodia


By Bob Maysmor

I watch as a car crawls to the roadside. The driver calls out "Mr Bob, are you Mr Bob?"

It is 7am and the streets of Siem Reap are just starting to stir. A young woman wearing a garish-pink jacket and carrying a large basket of French bread rides sedately past on her bicycle. A little further down the road a woman is kicking up the dust into the cool air as she sweeps the pavement in front of a cafe. I have been sitting patiently with my wife, Alison, outside the Mandalay Inn, waiting for a van to arrive to drive us to Phnom Krom, the nearby point of departure for boats heading to Phnom Penh and Battambang.

For the past three days we have clambered over and around the multitude of block-tumbled temples that laze, as they have for centuries, within the Ankor Archaeological Park. We set off early each morning to avoid the oppressive heat and humidity that seems to increase at the same pace as our energy expires. By mid-afternoon as convoys of buses disgorged camera-swagging hordes at Ankor Wat, we would already be heading back to the guesthouse for a shower and a cold beer.

Having reached temple burnout, we are about to head west by boat across Cambodia's vast lake, Tonle Sap, and then meander along Stung Sangker, an inland waterway that passes through protected wetlands. Guidebooks and travellers alike proclaim the boat trip as being one of the highlights during a visit to Cambodia, if not all of Southeast Asia.

We load our gear and climb into the car along with two other couples, four of us crammed in the back seat. I watch incredulously as a few minutes later we pull up in front of another hotel where four more people stand waiting with their backpacks. Two young women struggle into the car to sit, bodies contorted, on our laps. Alongside me, our smiling companion shrugs his shoulders as if to say it could be worse.

The pot-holed bustling road jostles our bodies until 40 minutes later, having joined a lumbering line of vehicles, we draw near to the small village port. Beyond the car windows, ramshackle stalls and dwellings, haphazardly constructed from rough wood, iron sheeting and tarpaulins, line the road. Food vendors, young girls speaking a multitude of languages, pester us as we disengage from the car. Beyond the crowded road, golden ripples follow canoes as they pass, silhouettes in front of the rising orb of the morning sun.

Everywhere, travellers are gathering to board the array of large and not so large boats lined up along the murky, rubbish-strewn water's edge. I am thankful to see we are being ushered onto a smaller boat that takes perhaps only 30 or so passengers.

Beside us, squatting on the deck of the port office, a teenage girl is selling snack foods and drinks. As each new passenger embarks, she calls out with a shrill cry "You buy bread, French cheese?". She is wearing a Chicago Bulls baseball cap.

"What is your name?" I ask. "I am Rasmei," she smiles , and thrusts her tray forward in expectation. Rasmei tells me she is married with two young children, girls. She is just 19 years old.

As the boat chugs slowly towards the open waters of the lake, we pass lines of floating houses, some built solidly of wood with iron roofs and others just floating woven-grass huts. The aroma of cooking wafts across the water as we pass a family preparing their breakfast, their home adorned with lush plants growing in various-sized clay pots lined up on their deck.

Hawkers' canoes glide silently by, laden with vegetables and cartons of beer, while small boats with wooden shutters painted in gay colours rock gently in the wake of our craft and rustle the trees to which they are moored. Television aerials rigged on tall bamboo poles balance precariously above the water-borne homes.

Patterns of rippled colour reflect off the sheen of water from the brightly painted hulls of riverboats. From the stern of a graceful canoe, a naked child waves excitedly to us as his mother douses him with a bucket of river water. A family of coffee-coloured children peer inquisitively from under the canopy of another boat moored alongside.

The waterway widens and the floating homes all but disappear, replaced by a forlorn forest of trees growing out of the water with the broad expanse of Tonle Sap shining through beyond their groundless trunks.

Crossing the lake, I bask sleepily in the warmth of the morning sun, watching, with interest, lonely men in circular coracle-like boats fishing far from the shore.

Entering a channel, we are back within the floating communities and heading inland. An elegant green canoe with a soaring prow and vibrant-red lower hull pulls into midstream ahead of us to allow a passenger to leap aboard. Beyond the floating homes, several tile-roofed buildings perch atop high concrete structures that stand about 10 metres above the present water level. In the wet season the floating homes are elevated as the water level rises, often higher than the trees that currently shade them.

The boat progresses upriver with nauseous diesel fumes from the throbbing motor drifting intermittently through the cabin. Outside, the temperature is rising.

Under the veranda of a green-painted houseboat, a large man in a grey uniform sits leaning precariously back on his chair, a cigarette drooping from his mouth. Above him a faded sign proclaims River Police. His dark glasses give nothing away as with cool demeanour his gaze slowly follows our boat passing by. Further along, a huge barge houses the local school. The two airy classrooms are filled with laughing children who run to the windows to wave. Shortly after we tie up to a floating store and I replenish our fast disappearing water supply.

A series of towering bamboo structures draped with fishing nets straddle the water. Beyond them the river becomes silted and changes from the pleasant pewter grey-blue to a dismal yellow. I watch as one of the bamboo frames is pulled from the water, the net filled with tiny fish whose restless silver bodies glint in the glare of the hot sun.

The waterway narrows and the solid banks merge closer. Homes raised above the land on stilts replace the floating dwellings. A deafening raucous hooter is sounded every few minutes as the boat, now slowed and needing to manoeuvre around tight bends in the river, warns small canoes of its impending approach. At the front of the boat a man uses a long pole to gauge the depth of the sluggish water.

Moving slower, there is more time to view the people and their small clusters of rough shelters that line the banks. Enduring the blazing sun, I climb onto the roof of the boat to join other passengers enjoying the bird's-eye view of river life. Oscar, a bearded perennial traveller from Austria, enthusiastically tells me this is the second time he has made the trip.

The dry stubbled ground of old paddy fields stretches away from the river where a cluster of stilted houses come into view, some leaning perilously as if about to topple. A rogue long-tail boat roars past, breaking the etiquette of the waterway and creating a bounding wake that angrily surges against the river people's boats. Their cries are lost in the howl of the engine noise.

As our boat nears Battambang the landscape changes yet again. The raised riverbanks are covered in bamboo and lush tropical vegetation. Villages consisting of more elaborate and permanent homes start to appear and glimpses of light trucks and motorbikes between the trees suggest a road is following the river. Perspiring heavily in the stifling humidity I realise I am nearly out of water. The heat is tiring and with each bend I am hoping to see the town ahead but the river just keeps going on and on.

The riverbank is adorned with patchworks of brightly coloured clothing strung out to dry in the burning heat. While others watch from the bank, small children frolic in the shallows, chasing a ball and splashing each other. Apart from the intrusive monotonous chug of the boat's motor and the oppressive heat, it is a tranquil and peaceful scene.

Ahead, a large bridge crosses the river. We pass under it and follow the shore of the town to the next bridge where the boat noses into the bank and is tied up.

We clamber up the steep slope to be met by a throng of noisy hotel touts.

Later in the afternoon we stroll the elegant streets of Battambang. It is a pleasant town that has preserved much of the French colonial architecture, still charming in its dilapidation and restful after experiencing a heat-exhausting day on the fascinating waterway of Stung Sangker.

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