Travel is a funny thing. We think that it’s the first sight of a wonderful museum or historical site that will remain in our memories as moments that define certain destinations for us, but that’s not the case. The memories come from general, everyday things like a special interaction with a child. Or the helping hand of a stranger when you need it. The trip by boat from Battambang to Siem Riep will be one of the days that define this trip for me.
My romantic notions of a luxurious, leisurely ride on a boat along the river soon started unravelling when we reached the docking site and I saw the boat. A narrow, claustrophobic space with two wooden benches running the length of the boat on either side was the sum total of room allocated for everyone making their way to Siem Riep. I entered this space and received glares from the settled in tourists who had claimed space for their butts, their backpacks and all the other paraphernalia that travelers lug around the world with them, as if challenging me to dare any of them to move up even an inch.
The boat already seemed full. Surely they didn’t expect the other 20 odd passengers boarding to fit in here? Well, fit in we did. The idea of sitting butt cheek to butt cheek with no space to maneuver left or right for 6 hours of more became totally unbearable, so when the opportunity arose, we hoisted ourselves up onto the roof of the boat. Yes, you did read that correctly – the roof.
Ah! Much better we thought. A least here we would be in the open with loads of room to stretch our legs, and most importantly, the views and angles to take photographs would be unhindered by other people in the way. However, soon, even this dream was shattered when even more people (Cambodians looking for a ride up river) joined us and soon we were packed shoulder to shoulder, except that now we were exposed to the elements.
As we chugged out onto the river and the boat listed dangerously from side to side, I mentally said my goodbyes to family and friends as I expected the news headlines for the next day to read,” Tourists drown in the worst ever boating accident in Cambodia. Names of the deceased will be released as soon as the next of kin have been notified.”
The early morning light, views of the river, the sounds of birds and people coming to life soon made me forget my discomfort and the constant movement of the boat. At least my stomach muscles were getting a much-needed workout!
During the winter, no rainfall months, the river levels drop significantly. I guessed that in some areas of the narrow, winding channels we were traveling on, the water could not have been deeper than a couple of meters. This meant that the boat driver had to constantly maneuvers the boat along the deepest part of the channels, whilst at the same time avoid hitting any of the little boats which people use to fish, transport goods, sell things from, and get from place to place.
We passed floating villages all the way along until the river finally reached the Tonle Sap lake. The area is home to many ethnic Vietnamese and numerous Cham communities, living in floating villages along the river channels and around the lake. This lake is the largest fresh water system in South East Asia.
The Tonlé Sap is unusual for two reasons: its flow changes direction twice a year, and the portion that forms the lake expands and shrinks dramatically with the seasons. From November to May, Cambodia’s dry season, the Tonlé Sap drains into the Mekong River at Phnom Penh. However, when the year’s heavy rains begin in June, the Tonlé Sap backs up to form an enormous lake.
The pulsing system with its large floodplain, rich biodiversity, and high annual sediment and nutrient fluxes from Mekong makes the Tonlé Sap one of the most productive inland fisheries in the world, supporting over three million people and providing over 75% of Cambodia’s annual inland fish catch. At the end of the rainy season, the flow reverses and the fish are carried downriver.
It was fascinating and wonderful photographing people from the high vantage point of the boat which was moving slowly enough for me to be able to compose and shoot the photographs. At around 11, when the clouds cleared and the sun came out in full force, I started to wonder if our chosen seats were a good idea. Sunstroke was not something I wanted to get and we had no cover. My African toughened skin served me well and I didn’t suffer any fatal injuries.
Alas, my poor rain jacket (brand new, never been worn, bought specifically for this trip) didn’t fare so well as it went plunging into the river after I used it as a pillow when I indulged in a little lie down to pass the time. A person much more in need of it than me would most likely pick it up and wear it for many years to come, which consoled me of my loss.
By the time the pain in my lower back and butt was about to become totally unbearable, we chugged in to dock in Siem Riep. Our pre- arranged transfer to the hotel was waiting for us and in no time we arrived at our hotel. As I settled in for the evening, I reflected on the amazing sights I had witnessed throughout the day and gave thanks to the universe for overcrowded boats with seating available on the roof.