The boat trip from Siem Reap to Battambang was definitely one of the highlights of my trip through Cambodia. Ironically, it was the only destination in this country that Gilles and I could not agree on. So I went ahead by myself, while Gilles relaxed a few more days at the Golden Banana Hotel in Siem Reap.
As soon as the bus left Siem Reap, with its five star hotels and fancy restaurants, you felt propelled into the Neolithic Age. The small river running along the road towards Lake Tonle Sap was lined with dwellings like I had never seen before. They looked so fragile on these super long thin poles that you would expect them to crash any minute into the swampy ground below. The walls and roofs made of bamboo mats looked tousled, to put it nicely. The many antennae poking high into air signaled that there was at least one piece of modern appliance in these huts, a TV. Although these huts are right next to the road there is no electricity from the grid, only from batteries. The closer we got to the lake the more disheveled the huts looked, more like tiny shelters or shacks, often only covered by plastic. I remembered our guide in Angkor telling us that many of these people are Vietnamese refugees with nowhere to go, since they lost their citizenship after fleeing Vietnam.
When we saw the boat, we all looked a bit anxious. It seemed so small! About 15 passengers squeezed in, two rows facing each other. For a while we passed through the floating village of Phnom Krom, a cluster of “floating houses” or houseboats in various conditions. Just before we entered Tonle Sap with its caramel colored waters, Asia’s biggest fresh water lake, our little vessel ploughed through an area thick with water plants. We all felt a bit vulnerable venturing out into the vast expanse of water in our tiny boat. Did I mention that there was no safety equipment whatsoever on the boat?
Actually, the trip across Lake Tonle Sap was rather short, whereas the trip up the Sanker River to Battambang took up most of the time of the trip. Altogether, I spent about eight hours watching people living on and off the river, while we passed wetland and saw the occasional bird. We stopped once for lunch on a floating restaurant, very simple but tasty.
Parts of the river were like a narrow, meandering road and the captain approached every curve very carefully, honking full blast. The other precaution against collisions with boats going the other way was a young man standing up front, signaling traffic to the captain who was at the far end of the boat. I figured it must be rather difficult to navigate this river since never before I had seen such “security measures” in Cambodia. During this river trip you could see any type of housing and watch any kind of activity you would observe elsewhere. Even the frenzy accompanying for the upcoming election in Cambodia was omnipresent. “Houses” were plastered with the faces of candidates and we passed a “campaign boat” carrying supporters in yellow T-shirts. Like on land you could hear them long before you saw them, because of the ear-piercing recorded speeches coming from a giant speaker.
Upon arrival in Battambang, the passengers crawling from the boat were “welcomed” by touts working for the Hotel Royal and Hotel Chaya. These two places are extremely well organized: we had already received their folders before we “set sails” from Phnom Krom! Obediently we crawled into their “free transport”, filled one for each hotel and were herded off.