Battambang boat trip part 2

I guess I’m a bit of a voyeur, but I just love watching how people live. This is what propels me up mountain slopes to see hill tribes and upriver to experience remote communities.

The boat ride from Battambang gave me ample material to feast upon. I avidly watched people doing their washing, tending their oxen, or playing with their children, as we floated along. I couldn’t say we sped, for the engine was like that of a lawnmower, hardly swift but definitely easier on the riverside dwellers than a speed boat would be.

We had barely gone 10 minutes when we pulled over to the river bank so the monk could alight. Another 15 or so, and we pulled over again for more people to get in, this time with timber and building materials. Time and time again we’d stop, more would get on, their belongings stashed in any available nooks and crannies. Some had food that they’d bought in ‘town’ to take back to their village, or fabrics and other things to sell when they got upriver. It occurred to me that this was going to be slow going indeed.

I might be champing at the bit to get going, but this river is the people’s lifeblood, and these boats absolutely vital. I made a mental note to “go with the flow”. I marvelled, as we floated past village after village, at how different their lives are to mine, how different their homes are to mine.

I smiled at the young mother to my left and her little girl (who had been looking at my purple hair and giggling since we left the shore). I crossed my eyes and poked out my tongue. She snickered and pulled a face too. Ah, the basics never fail you, do they? You might not have the language but a bit of good old-fashioned slapstick will get you far.

I looked at her mother, who barely looked out of her teens, yet seemed content enough with her lot. We smiled at each other – I think she was thankful I was providing some entertainment for her little one. She reached into her bag, grabbed an orange, peeled it and offered me a segment – how could I refuse? “Aw kohn” I said. Then she popped a segment deftly into her daughter’s mouth. Shortly after her baby started to grizzle, and she discreetly fed him too, guiding his tiny mouth to nuzzle her. The intimacies of family life are lived out in the open here – you can’t wait 5 hours til you get home to feed your baby, can you?

I felt thankful for my freedoms and no-strings attached lifestyle. Sure, I’m married, but all I need is time off from work and I can go wherever I want (or where my savings allow me). D and I decided early on that we didn’t want kids. All throughout Asia, though, whenever the question of babies came up, men and women alike could not understand why we didn’t want them. In the end I would often indicate that I was infertile, to stop their questioning – and then the confusion on their faces would be replaced with pity. Or I’d point out that we were only just married a few weeks ago – give us a chance!

And then what was already a slow ride became even slower when we got bogged. Oh joy. Out jumped the men, including my husband, to push the boat along – just like we do when a car breaks down, except they got wet up to their thighs. Hehe, this was one time I didn’t care to be feminist. I stayed in the boat with the other women.

Ten minutes later we were back in the flow. I realised I was getting sunburnt and needed to fetch the sun-cream from my bag. My bag was wedged in at the front of the boat, so I had to get up and inch awkwardly along to get to it. The boat rocked a little and to keep my balance I put my foot down on someone’s bag of mystery goods.

And then I felt it. SQUELCH. Omigod. It had the unmistakeable feel of liver. Thank the powers that be it was wrapped in plastic or I’d have offal-flavoured toe jamb. But EUWWW! I’d trodden on someone’s meat! The older lady on the boat got up to check the damage, while I stood there, mortified. Gingerly I stepped away and got to my own luggage. She very graciously indicated that it was ok, as she re-wrapped her parcel, and pushed it into a safer crevice. Egad.

Luckily my mortification was short-lived, as we pulled over to let the couple with all the building materials get off. It took a while. I watched as the waiting family waved and then came to help them carry the lumber. I looked at the skeleton of the house they were building and wondered, was this their first home being built? Quite a bit different to the process we would go through shortly to buy our first apartment, already built. We would have to jump through hoops to prove to the bank we could afford it. This family just bought the materials as and when they could, perhaps bartering with goods of their own; who knows? The whole family would help build it.

The boat glided off, and I secretly hoped we would go an hour or two without stopping, this time.

And then we got bogged again.

I had to laugh. Another larger boat was stopped opposite us on the other side of the river. It was packed with older tourists that I presumed were American, all with cameras snapping the occurrence while their Khmer hosts were in the water trying to fix the engine. One tourist was even videoing it.

And then I realised. So in the flow of things was I that it didn’t occur to me to take a photo or film the experience. I was just in the moment, revelling in the beautiful day we were having, taking in the brilliant greens of the fields and the broad grins of the children as we passed. So I have nothing to share of this wonderful time, no photos, no video. But I tell you, it has stuck with me for 4 years. It was one of the best experiences of the entire journey.

We alighted some 8 hours later at Siem Reap, immediately assaulted by the din of drivers and touts all hustling for a buck (or should I say, a riel). The long days of temple-visiting in extreme heat lay before us and would require a lot of energy. Somehow, this trip had refreshed me, the tranquility seeped into my soul a little bit, and I knew I was ready to face what lay ahead.

Seriously, if you get to Cambodia, get thee to Battambang and take that boat trip.

Battambang

Battambang. Yeah, snicker…every time I hear the name I think of Rick Mayall and Ade Edmonson talking about the world’s stupidest bottom burp. Or Cartman and his boy band “Fingerbang”. It is at the same time a riot and yet slightly unsavoury.

A lot of travellers bypass Battambang in their rush to get straight to Siem Reap, but that would be a mistake. Linger a while and you’ll be rewarded. Next time I go, I know I will.

The city itself is lush, green and lovely. Think Luang Prabang with less temples. The province is the richest in Cambodia, which isn’t saying much, but there you are. There’s an absence of desperation, of poverty-stricken street people begging and clutching, and instead a sense of content languor. It’s like the people here know they’ve got it good.

As my ride from the bus-station told me: “You must stay more than one night; this is a beautiful place, you should stay and see the temples…” But as we were leaving FROM there the next day, bound for Siem Reap to see the slightly larger temples, I demurred.

So Dom and I set off from Battambang (snicker!) early in the morning while mist still hung in the air and the heat of the day had yet to descend.

It was with trepidation that we boarded the boat. We expected a covered-over tourist type longboat, but as we stepped down the ricketty steps to the water we saw that ours was…well, a canoe. With no cover. We would be out in the sun for some 6 to 8 hours. Hmm. The general consensus (via Lonely Planet travel guide and online forums) was that it was the prettiest route to take; getting the boat all the way from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap would be long and featureless.

At first we were a bit aghast, but then happy to see that locals would be travelling with us. In fact, we were the only whities on the boat. As well as the driver and his mate, an old man and three mothers of various ages with their progeny and bulging tums with bubs-to-be squashed into the boat with us, stashing all manner of food, building supplies and wares to sell, in the nose of the boat and under our feet.

There were broad smiles and nods all round, as we acknowledged we couldn’t speak a word of each other’s language. Well, we knew how to say thank you and later on, I had occasion to say sorry, but we’ll get to that. Finally a monk clad in orange robes squeezed in, and with a tug of the rope, the boat was freed from the shore.

The morning was crisp and cool, my mood relaxed as the boat glided from the pier. The engine farted into life with a battambang of its own, and our adventure began.

To be continued…..