The boat trip along various waterways between Siem Reap and Battambang (third syllable pronounced "bong") is touted as Cambodia's premier river voyage, and indeed, it was an unforgettable experience, with many opportunities to be thankful. We were thankful when the taxi to the boat finally arrived at 6:30 a.m., after we had been waiting for half an hour. We were also thankful to finally reach the boat, after several mysterious stops, nearly an hour later, and even more thankful when the boat finally departed, nearly a hour after that and its scheduled departure time, as an endless stream of people, mostly backpackers, but a few Cambodians and a few tourists with enormous suitcases crowded onto the boat, which had seats for perhaps half the passengers. Extra passengers sprawled on the roof of the boat, and some napped on top of the luggage. Seated on the narrow board seat in front of us, was a sweet Cambodian mother with a small baby with two bottom teeth (is that a 4-month or six-month-old?). Of course he was adorable, and of course he wore no diapers. The first time he peed a puddle onto the floor, the mother motioned to us to move our backpack, and it was a good thing we did. She took his wet pants, wiped him and the seat off with a towel, and soon put him in dry pants, until the whole scenario was repeated in what seemed like less than an hour later. He was a good baby, and slept for much of the trip. Mother and babe departed somewhat less than half-way, at one of the larger floating villages, where they were met by a handsome young man (perhaps her husband) in a smaller boat, onto which she and baby and considerable baggage, including a yellow electric fan, departed. The empty seat was eagerly grabbed by a young French couple. We were not eager to move up to the now dry seat, but who knows what had been on our seat during previous trips?
Sounding its horn as it approached, the boat would stop at floating docks or be joined by other boats in the floating villages, and passengers and/or freight would be loaded or unloaded. All this slowed us down, but it was fascinating to watch. About 3 or 4 hours into the trip we tied up at a floating restaurant/shop for 20 minutes. There was nowhere to go, just a 30x30 foot raft, no restroom, an ice chest with cold drinks (also available on the boat, $1 a can whether beer or Coke), and a glass case with potato chips, cookies, and crackers. Some hungry passengers ordered food ladled out of huge pots or sizzling on a fire, but it didn't look that inviting to us.
It was after this stop that the boat turned into a narrow passage that became narrower and narrower. Soon those of us on the starboard side were getting whipped by branches like the Whomping Willow. Soon no one was seated on that side, causing the boat to keel even more precariously to the left than it had been doing all along. Then, crunch. The boat came to a standstill, stuck, completely surrounded by trees. A man with a paddle pushed from the prow and grabbed branches to pull us along. The engine chugged and groaned. Big thunderclouds formed overhead, and I hoped a rain might raise the water level. It was hot, especially since we were no longer moving. I had expected this boat to be a bit like The African Queen, but I had no idea how closely our journey would resemble that of Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart.
I envisioned a night on that miserable boat. Or waiting for hours for a replacement boat. Or all of us leaping overboard to wade and push and pull the boat. Finally, after a lot of chugging and groaning, and a few loud bangs, the boat began to edge forward. We could see open water to our left, but it was separated from our channel by a large expanse of mud. Eventually we moved forward into open, but shallow water. Something had broken. So, there was no collective sigh of relief, no cheering yet. The driver killed the engine and disappeared to the back of the boat. Another long wait. We could see small floating houses ahead, but they certainly couldn't offer us much in the way of sustenance or shelter. The crowd on the boat would sink them. Finally, after a few loud bangs, the driver came forward. Another driver took over, the engine roared to life again, and the boat slowly moved out of the shallows, and eventually into a real river, the Sangker, which flows from Battambang. When the engine finally started again and we moved forward, there was a feeble cheer from the passengers.
The trip became more scenic again along the river. The floating houses gave way to houses on stilts and and houses along the riverbanks. Many fishing people, both men and women, were setting nets and fish traps from their small long boats, and our big boat had to steer around the nets kept afloat by plastic bottles. We saw a tractor on the bank, then motorcycles, so we knew we'd come to dry land.
Among my favorite memories of the trip were the children who greeted us by waving enthusiastically as the boat passed. Unlike the children in Siem Reap, these were not begging or hawking, but just genuinely excited to have a boatload of people floating by. Even babies, held by mothers or fathers waved, and some children engaged in antics, leaping into the water or sliding down muddy banks as we passed. One little boy on the deck of a boat was chopping something with an enormous cleaver. Women washed dishes and clothes in the muddy river.
As we grew closer to Battambang, cargo and people began to unload at small spots along the bank. One month after the end of the rainy season in October, the banks were already high above the water, and in places completely covered in trash. At one point we let off a woman with three children and many very heavy sacks of stuff. The little children dragged the heavy sacks to the front of the boat, and got some help lifting them up the steps and off the boat. Soon the whole family and all the heavy load, with the help of a greeting husband, were on the bank, and as we floated away they were struggling up the bank with the goods, the little children determined to do their part in hauling up the bags that were larger and heavier than they were.
Even though these stops lengthened the trip, they added much to the experience. This was not just a tourist boat, but a lifeline and link to the outside world for people living in isolated small communities, living a traditional way of life, leaving a very small footprint. No electricity, no cars, no heat, but wood for cooking. No air conditioning. No household appliances or fancy furniture. Some had boats with motors, many had boats they paddled. No Black Friday shopping sprees for these folks. I was thankful for the glimpse into their lives that this river trip gave me. I am still trying to comprehend what lives and communities like this could be like. Perhaps I can find some books that will tell me more. I did not see expressions of anger or frustration. I did not see or hear children crying or complaining.
I am thankful to have had the experience of this river trip, and I was even more thankful when the trip was over. Shouldering our packs, we staggered up the steep and rickety steps (at least we had step) to the top of the bank, not knowing what we'd find. We were greeted by a sea of faces and cards with hotel names and people names. I had reserved a hotel room, but I didn't remember specifying that I wanted to be met, but there was a sign reading "Linnea Hendrickson"! Weary and grateful we seated ourselves in the tuk-tuk for the short ride to the hotel. No air conditioning in the lobby, where I had to go through all the formalities, then we were lead up to our room on the 5th floor, a deluxe room with air conditioning, a bathroom and shower, massive carved wooden furniture, views over the city and a terrace. We were very thankful to have arrived in this room, and to not be spending Thanksgiving night in a crowded boat stuck in a swamp, although that might have made a better story.