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CAMBODIA’S BEST BOAT TRIP

Photostory by Lyn Hancock

Sometimes the journey can be as fascinating as the destination. You can fly to Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s best known temple, or if you don’t mind muddy, dusty, bumpy roads, you can drive or ride in the back of a pickup truck.

I was lucky enough to take a long wooden river boat, the regular public ferry from Battambang, along the Sangker River and across Tonle Sap Lake to the floating village of Chong Kneas which is only 11 km from Siem Reap, the base for Angkor Wat.

It is the most scenic boat ride in the country. For me, it was part of an 11-day tour called The Best of Laos and Cambodia organized by World Expeditions which specializes in responsible small group travel to off-the-beaten-track adventures.

For five hours and $15 U.S. we enjoyed a panoramic view of daily life in rural Cambodia as it has been for centuries, the same kind of life that is carved on the walls of the country’s sandstone temples. I was happy to see the real thing.

I don’t think the captain was counting passengers or paying attention to our weight as my group and a few hardy backpackers took our chances and crowded onto the flat roof of the slender low-slung river boat.  

The locals crammed together on rows of seats downstairs with luggage on their knees, at their feet and in the aisles. We had to stretch over huge sacks of rice, vegetables and lemon grass to get to the foredeck.

One lady in a straight-skirted red sarong made many arduous trips up and down the narrow gangplank between the boat and the crumbling bank with dozens of heavy bags and wicker baskets. As she struggled, I wondered why none came to help her. What an effort to bring home the family groceries!

Fishermen drifted downstream in their long wooden dugouts, floating nets that extended from almost one side of the muddy brown river to the other. Little kids poled dugouts from precarious standing positions. Whole families sat at water level in crowded open boats with painted prows, primitive motors and long extended propellers. A modern speedboat whizzed by with a load of Buddhist monks in their characteristic orange robes.

Trees along the river bank were festooned with plastic bags that looked like flags but were really floating garbage caught there by the wind and the previous week’s high water. Between the trees, bony cows stood on straw-covered platforms just a few centimeters above the river. Pigs rooted in the ground for scraps inside their bamboo stockade. Farmers dug vegetables or hung stripped banana leaves over poles to dry. Kids dangled their nets over the bank to scoop up fish.

Houses on both sides of the river were made from a motley collection of wood, bamboo and tin built above the water on stilts. Life was transparent. Women stood to their waist in water to do their washing or bathed fully-clothed. Toddlers splashed naked. Children waved and shouted as they slid down the banks. Everyone smiled, a sign that even here the indomitable Cambodian spirit is surviving the atrocities of war. 

We left the main stream and merged almost imperceptibly into Tonle Sap Lake, the largest freshwater floodplain lake in the world. Boosted by torrential monsoon rains and flow from the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, the lake swells from its dry season size of about 3,000 sq. km in May to about 13,000 sq. km in the October wet season. Vast areas of forest, scrub and grassland are inundated and this annual flood cycle makes the Tonle Sap Lake one of the richest areas in the world for freshwater fish, as well as the last breeding stronghold in Southeast Asia for some globally threatened waterbird species such as pelicans, storks and ibis.  Fish provide two thirds of Cambodia’s protein.

Three and a half million people live on stilts or in houseboats around the Tonle Sap flood plain, many of them in floating villages which move with the ebb and flow of the lake. There are 170 floating villages on the Tonle Sap Lake itself. Some of the floating population were once farmers who fled to the lake in the 1970s when they lost their land during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. Others are fisher folk, of Khmer, Cham, Chinese and Vietnamese origin who have lived there for generations.

As we chugged “overland” the captain picked out the deepest channels through the vegetation. At one point we nearly collided with an oncoming boat laden with people who backed into the bushes to let us squeeze through. It’s uncanny to think that in the dry season this is a dusty path or a secondary road.

Life in these floating villages goes on as if on land. The water people work in the flooded fields or have home businesses catching and processing fish or building boats. They tend giant fish traps in the sky that are winched up and down by some kind of hand pulley system.  They go to school, cafes, stores, gas stations, and visit neighbours. They have gardens, grow vegetables, raise chickens, keep dogs and wooden cages of fattening fish (crocodiles too). They do everything by boat.

Unfortunately, the lake is their water tank, their toilet and their garbage can. Plans are afoot to move the water people onto land, especially the floating village of Chong Kneas near the tourist town of Siem Reap but it takes money which is in short supply in Cambodia.

Nevertheless, life afloat is fascinating for the passerby.

Our skipper steered us through a watery maze of grass, shrubs and aquatic plants and we watched whole families at work. Some balanced bare-footed on narrow rafts made of long poles or stood waist-deep in the water attending to their rice plants. Some in boats pulled up lotus leaves and waterlilies.

Others collected morning glory that draped much of the vegetation. I was to see fried morning glory on the menu of the Soup Kitchen in Siem Reap. In Canada it’s a scourge and I toss it out. After the Khmer Rouge years when a starving person seen to collect even a rat could be shot, Cambodians have learned to eat almost anything.

Suddenly, flocks of white birds erupted from the bushes and I felt I was in the Everglades. We saw pelicans, egrets, herons, cormorants. Dozens of them. “There will be millions later when the water starts to dry up and the birds concentrate to feed on fish,” said our guide.  Several rare breeds that gather in this season are the huge adjutant storks, the milky stork and the spot-billed pelican.

Cambodia is a bird watcher’s paradise especially between December and May. If you become templed-out in Siem Reap, you can arrange a row boat tour to the Bird Sanctuary and Biosphere of Prek Toal from the floating village of Chong Kneas, 11 km from Siem Reap.  Another bird sanctuary, Ang Trapeng Thmor Reserve about 100 km from Siem Reap, is one of only two places in the world where you can see the rare sarus crane as depicted on the bas-reliefs at Angkor temples.

About half way through our voyage, we tied up at a store in the floating village of Bak Prear to buy snacks and get an even more intimate glimpse of life on the water. So snugly did we poke our prow into a mélange of houses, boats, storage rafts and floating gardens that at times it seemed we were right inside people’s living rooms.                   

I jumped onto the platform of the floating café and bought a bunch of bananas for fifty cents then asked politely to take pictures of the fascinating scene. At the front door of the store, a boat pulled up to buy gas sold in pop bottles. Outside a float house a couple of metres away, several men were filling bowls of silvery sardine-line fish to take to market for fish paste, one of Cambodia’s few exports. At the back door linked to a floating kitchen by a plank, a little girl was kneeling washing rice.

Throughout the voyage we nosed into jam-packed floating homes to unload cargo and passengers, and take on more. At Bak Prear, the lady in red assembled her dozens of parcels, bags and baskets on one side of our front deck. Several children in a dugout punted towards her and hung alongside while she transferred her cargo. Obviously her family, they must have been so eager to welcome her back that they filled up most of the boat, leaving little room for cargo.  Thus it took several trips back and forth across the waterway in the overcrowded boat before she finally disembarked.

When the temple hill of Phnom Krom appeared on our horizon we knew we had reached the end of the lake. The road to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat was at hand. We tied up to a rickety dock at the floating village of Chong Kneas to be overwhelmed by would-be porters, souvenir sellers and hungry children. We gave them our business and most of our food and drinks.

It had been a fabulous journey, the highlight of my trip to Cambodia. 

Lyn Hancock - 2005


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