Roof of Africa 2013

Hard Enduro in Lesotho

On Saturday, day 2 of the hard riding stages, we followed scores of 4×4’s traversing the Maluti mountains in an attempt to get to viewpoints 2 and 3. Eventually we were turned back by retiring 4×4’s, the drivers reporting that bottlenecks and “stuck” 4×4’s were preventing access. The mud, brought on by the torrential rains, stopped play for us and many riders.

Roof of Africa 2013

Silver class rider 169 in the driving rain, day 2 Roof of Africa

If it was rough and tough for us, it could only have been nigh impossible for the riders out there. Made worse, I guess, by the energy-sapping, bike-wrecking similar conditions of the previous day. The rain and mist conspiring against the riders and support crews.

Roof of Africa 2013

Silver class competitor number 311 on day 2 at the Roof of Africa

But that’s “hard enduro” for you – designed to test man and machine by pushing both to the limits. The noble goal of participating was made redundant under the conditions of this 2013 edition of the Roof of Africa. Just finishing was everything this year. Continue reading

The rotunda

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 Seeing beyond what’s there

If you look for it, you’ll probably miss the rotunda. I know I did. Several times in fact. It’s hidden between moored boats, boats often filled with laughing, loudly talking fishermen.

The rotunda at Mariner's wharf

The rotunda at Mariner’s wharf

But it’s there, if you take your time and see past the visual chaos of masts, brightly coloured boats, larger-than-life fishermen and fences and gates. It’s there but you have to look for it, look for the image in the busy chaos.

At first I noticed it and passed it by, drawn to the noise and colour around me. Yet I kept coming back to it, looking for the image that may be there … too many masts, a too-bright background (even in the early morning light) … far too much distraction.

And just as I was about to give up, I looked down … the rotunda reflected back at me and the picture was mine.

Links:

More images of Durban’s beachfront in the gallery

Images of Durban’s beachfront and surfing vibe.

Dawn in Durban

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Durban – the busiest port in Africa

Behind the city’s hotels and apartment blocks that line the beachfront, and at the southern end, is the busy harbour port that underlies Durban’s commerce and importance.

Durban at dawn from the harbor

Durban at dawn from the harbour

Here, away from the docking cargo ships and container vessels, artisanal fishermen scratch for prawns and fish for bait. Expensive yachts lie at mooring and fishermen launch their charter boats.

Sunrise brings a special warmth and beauty to this working harbour, softening it and painting it in promising pastel shades.

Links:

More images of Durban’s beachfront in the gallery

Images of Durban’s beachfront and surfing vibe.

Down at the corner

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In the shade of a corner post

Signs, they’re everywhere. Directing you here, directing you there … helping you find your way, if you’re looking.

Most days you’ll find me here, at the corner, in the cafe there … because the coffee’s good, the vibe homely and coffee makes the world turn.

Pop on down for a visit and a chat, and bring your camera. Let’s go shoot magic.

Corner post, Cromwell and Brand

At the corner post, that’s where you’ll find me.

 

Don’t believe me?  Here’s the corner cafe link. 

 

Yoga back bend poses for free diving

Helen Garner Weaver – free diver and yoga teacher

Helen is devoted to yoga, and she’s also devoted to free diving. While one is about breathing and the other about breath-hold they’re both ultimately about the union of breath, mind and body.

Helen is a great friend and teacher and I was privileged to take photos of her for marketing collateral.

Helen’s a “backbender”, preferring backbends to bending forward. And it makes sense given backbending is about stretching the chest and lungs and opening our hearts in a way of being that is joyful and fearless.

Yoga back bend pose

King Pigeon – eka pada rajakapotasana

I guess plunging to depths of 60 metres or more requires great courage, self belief and perfectly functioning lungs and it’s no wonder Helen prefers back bends to forward bends.

Deep yoga back bend for free diving

One legged upward bow

Benefits of yoga back bends:

Among the physical benefits of doing yoga back bends are:

  • back bends stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and helps to prepare the body for action,
  • helps to counteract the damage of bad posture,
  • relieves back pain, bronchial distress, scoliotic deformities, tennis elbow, frozen shoulder,
  • realigns the spine,
  • promotes proper kidney function, and
  • helps with the digestive function, eliminating constipation and flatulence (probably a good reason for us men to practice back bending).
Cormac McCreesh Photography

Full camel pose – poorna Ustrasana

I do a little free diving myself and practice yoga twice a week when not travelling. During this session I was grateful to be behind the camera doing what I do best as there’s no way I’d ever have gotten anywhere near the extent of back bend that Helen does.

Cormac McCreesh Photography

One legged wheel pose – eka pada urdhva dhanurasana

Links:

Helen can be contacted at Liquid Yoga or on her Facebook page.

Free diving in South Africa – Pure Apnea’s website

More on back bending poses

 

 

 

 

 

In Laos part 3 – the Irrawaddy dolphins

The Irrawaddy dolphins

To spend eight hours perched on various wooden long tail boats, interjected by a spell of cycling across an island, for a chance (with no guarantee) to see the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins is madness. A masochistic madness borne of a life-long fascination with cetaceans … and as Riff Raff so eloquently sang: “madness takes its toll”.

Sometimes called the Irrawaddy River Dolphin, it is an oceanic dolphin and not a true river dolphin. It gets it’s name from the Irrawaddy river in Burma but its range extends from The Bay of Bengal to New Guinea and the Philippines and there are established sub-populations in the Ganges, Mekong and Irrawaddy rivers. Living in rivers seems to be an easy adaptation for this species of dolphin as its usually found in brackish water on coastlines, river mouths and in estuaries.

No wide ranging survey of these dolphins has been done and ninety percent of the estimated seven thousand strong population is reckoned to be in Bangladesh. The remaining population, in rivers and estuaries, is critically endangered with gill netting being the main culprit for decimating the population. It astounds me that in a large pool of the Mekong river, at the borders of Laos and Cambodia there are fourteen of these dolphins eking out an existence. Especially since the Khmer Rouge, apparently, used to dynamite them and the pool is an ideal gill net fishing ground. Somehow these dolphins have survived and someone has persuaded the local fishermen to protect them. So you see, I just had to make the effort to see them.

I started my dolphin-viewing day by getting up early to take in a lazy sunrise over the Mekong’s east bank. It was another of those slow and languid pastel-painting sunrises made all the more hypnotic by the deliciously sweet and creamy Laos coffee I managed to persuade the sleepy kitchen staff to make for me. There really is no better way to start your day in Laos than with a great coffee and a superb sunrise.

Sunrise over the Mekong where the Irrawaddy dolphin live

Sunrise over the Mekong river. Image taken from Pons Guesthouse, Don Khong island, Si Phan Don, Laos

On the river

Surprisingly, given the laid-back vibe in Laos, we were collected at precisely eight-thirty (the appointed time) for the dolphin-watching excursion. Now you have to understand that the entire excursion was to be a mystery to me. We’d managed to ascertain that we could get to see the dolphin but there was no way of communicating the logistics and the how-long it would take. All we knew was that we were to be picked up at eight-thirty and we would get to see the dolphins. It was unnervingly vague but deliciously exciting to be completely out of control and having to trust in the universe, the dolphin gods and the boat owner we’d contracted.

Along with seven other passengers (of which four were carrying large backpacks) we were bundled onto a long tail boat measuring about seven meters long and about one and a half meters at its widest. Fortunately, the boat had an awning, for the the Laos sun can get pretty harsh when it’s finally breached the eastern horizon and is making its great traverse across the sky. However, the luxuries extended only to an awning. We squatted on wooden benches made for the average Laotian who barely comes up to my chest. And the thumping beat of the car engine mounted at the back resonated and vibrated throughout the boat, especially the wooden benches. Standing up to relieve the pain in my bum and the knots in my thighs was out of the question as these long tail boats are designed to be stable only when passengers are sitting down.

Tourists on the Mekong River in Laos

Tourists on the Mekong River

The people of south east Asia seem born sans hamstrings and sinews. They squat everywhere, their knees about their ears, and look so comfortable. Of course being closer to the ground because of their short stature may have something to do with it. Or perhaps it’s just our chair-borne western lifestyle that makes it uncomfortable for us to adapt. Nonetheless I kept glancing enviously at our pilot who squatted at the back of the boat steering happily and chain-smoking. Each time I looked at him, he gave me a cheery grin as if to say “suffer baby, suffer”. And suffer I did.

Despite the pain, the ever changing riverscape we travelled was a brilliant distraction. We criss-crossed the river avoiding sandbanks, seeking the deeper reaches, past islets and huge rocks peeping out of the water. On the river banks we saw life passing by; people cycling to work or the market, children playing in the water, buffalo languishing in muddy flats and women washing clothing. Men tended to fishing nets or their fishing boats.

On the river men balanced expertly on low gunnelled long tail boats to cast nets in a wide umbrella-like scoop. Here and there similar long tail boats propelled by hand- held long shaft motors passed us by ferrying passengers or goods. It was idyllic and lazy and serene and a brilliant way to lose myself in voyeuristic delight. It was like watching a never-ending documentary where I provided the narrative.

After several hours of transcendental river cruising our pilot skippered us through some narrow channels to the ex-hippie island hang-out of Dong Det where we ditched our back-packing fellow passengers. No longer a hippy hangout where clouds of marijuana smoke fill the air, Dong Det has become a backpacker paradise island and it’s obvious from our viewpoint on the river. We pass loads of river-front reed and wood chalets punctuated by strung hammocks filled with sleeping bodies dressed in tie-dyed loose clothing. Here on Don Det, the living is cheap and the parties long.

Our pilot grins to the three of us that remain on the boat and points down-river. “Dong Khone” he says and then fires the boat engine into life. Well okay then, Dong Khone island it will be … but when do we get to see the dolphins?

Some twenty minutes later we land at Dong Khone island and our skipper leads us up the high bank of the Mekong river then indicates to us to follow him. Suddenly the slow, lazy day turns into a high-paced burst of activity. My legs are still trying to extend back into the shape they started the day in as we try to keep up with our chain smoking skipper, now turned guide.

Don Kong Island in Si Phan Don in Laos

Don Kong Island in Si Phan Don

He leads us through a village to a cycle stand where we each get given a bicycle with a basket mounted in the front. I straddle the seat and the weight of my camera filled day pack weighs heavily on my, by now, very painful butt. Only this time, I’m sitting on a different part of my bum. It’s scant relief however.

We pedal off at a high pace behind skipper-guide and stop at a ticket office to pay for the privilege of visiting the sights of Dong Khone. Like me, you may be asking at this stage “what sights, I thought we were going to see the dolphins?”

Well, it turns out that this island is in the middle of the waterfalls that mark the end of the Mekong’s catching of its breath. Here the Mekong plunges down a series of waterfalls that have proven difficult to tame. When the French coveted all of IndoChina they chose to subjugate by owning the Mekong’s river ways using gunboats. They tried various means to circumnavigate these waterfalls including building bridges and railway lines. But the only way they could control the Mekong above the waterfalls was to construct gunboats that could be disassembled, portaged around the falls and then reassembled. And so, one of the sights is of an old steam locomotive used by early French explorers. This rusting piece of metal is housed in an outbuilding of sorts surrounded by posters explaining its use and place in history.

From the locomotive we’re taken to see the waterfalls, well only one of them. The one we see is particularly impressive with lots of spray and crashing water set in a jungle background. It’s a pretty view but I notice a growing collection of plastic flotsam and jettison in the churn under the falls.

Khone Phapheng waterfalls, Mekong river, Laos

Khone Phapheng waterfalls

Locomotive and waterfall ticked off, we cycle off with the promise of “dolphins” from skipper-guide man. Some ten minutes later we arrive at the other end of the island and get loaded onto another long tail boat. Only this boat is tiny by comparison with the boat we’ve used thus far. At most the boat is five metres long but its beam is a minuscule half a metre, at best. So I fold myself into something resembling a lotus-position on the floor of the boat, ignore the painful protesting coming from my arse and prepare myself for another ordeal.

This time we’re piloted by a young man who squats nonchalantly at the back of the boat all the while handling an outboard motor. The boat ride is absolutely brilliant though. We rocket down minor rapids, navigate past huge boulders and ride the rush of the Mekong. Every movement I make wobbles the boat and I can sense the skipper’s disdain at the pair of clumsy westerners squashed into his boat.

View from a long tail boat on the Mekong river in Laos

View from a long tail boat on the Mekong river

It takes twenty five minutes under the blistering hot mid-day sun to get to the Laos-Cambodia border, but when we get there the reward is more than worth the effort. Our skipper switches off his motor long before we arrive at the pool frequented by the dolphins and he skillfully drifts us into the centre of the pool where we wait quietly, glancing this way and that. We sit in perfect mental solitude, awed by the beauty and the sounds of the river and the calls of birds. Then we hear it, that unmistakable rush of expelled air that all cetaceans make when surfacing from a dive. Finally, we get to see the Irrawaddy dolphins. All in all, we get to see five of them and spend forty minutes watching them surfacing, blowing and diving again and again. They’re shy, surface, breathe and dive again very quickly and are underwater for anywhere between two and five minutes. Unlike Bottlenose and Common dolphins there is no caudal tail fin show when diving. Surfacing and breathing is very quick and much like my experience of watching the dugong of Bazarutto island. I make several attempts to get photographs of the dolphins but between dangerously wobbling the boat and trying to predict where they will surface I fail miserably. And then, in a perfectly ludicrous moment the Cambodian border guards decide to play “Gangam Style” over their loudspeaker system, at full blast.

It’s an insane juxtaposition of being with a rare and endangered creature in a perfect setting, with every inch of my body in pain and agony listening to the “sexy lady” refrain at maximum decibels – madness does indeed take its toll.

Further resources:

If you enjoyed the images in this blog post visit my gallery of images of life on the Mekong in Laos here

My post on Si Phan Don & Don Khong island

 

 

In Laos part 2 – Si Phan Don & Don Khong island

The Mekong river, having traversed the length of Laos on its journey from Tibet to the South China Sea, takes a breath at Si Phan Don before crashing down a series of waterfalls and entering Cambodia.

Si Phan Don, loosely translated as the four thousand islands, is located on the widest stretch of the Mekong’s journey seawards. The river appears languid and lazy curling around islets and islands; flowing gently but surely. Like the river, life on the islands is slow and sure; unhurried and contemplative.

Nothing is done at speed here. Even the rising sun takes its time; a slow, almost deliberate painting of the east bank of the river in pastel shades of orange and yellow. Sitting on the deck of Pon’s guesthouse on the west bank of Don Khong island, I watch the dawn and feel myself slipping into a stupor of inertia – the sun’s rays anesthetic for my soul.

View of the guesthouses and decks overlooking the Mekong river on Don Khong island, Si Phan Don, Laos

Pons Guesthouse on Don Khong island, Si Phan Don, Laos

There seems no reason to move. Pon’s deck extends out over the river, some ten meters above it. From my vantage point I can watch ducks paddle by, fishermen casting nets from low-gunneled long boats, ferries crossing the river and the slow meandering of various flotsam and jettison escorting the river on its journey. Don Khong island is the largest of the “four thousand” islands and generally avoided by most travellers visiting Si Phan Don. The islands of Don Det and Don Khone are the popular ones especially with younger travellers looking for “hammock-style” time out and gentle watersports such as tubing down the river.

Laos is embracing of eco-tourism. Zip-lining through tree tops, tubing down the Mekong, trekking in the jungles, visiting newly created conservation areas or kayaking on the river … Laos is switching on to responsible tourism. Yet there are plans to build twenty hydro-electric dams, copper and gold mining concessions are handed out and lumber from the ancient jungle forests is felled for Chinese and Vietnamese demands. It’s a tough balancing act for this in-between, crossroads country that is dependent on its neighbours for trade, industry and funding. China is a big investor in Laos and its south east Asia railway network that will connect China as far as Pakistan and India, due for completion in 2014, runs right through Laos.

Don Khong island is eighteen kilometers long and eight kilometers at its widest. Like most of Laos the island is flat, lacking hills, which seemed like a good reason to hire bicycles and see a bit of the island at a snail’s pace. We cycled on dusty roads past shackled pigs and buffalos, through villages and past paddy fields. It was late afternoon and everywhere we rode we dodged children playing and laughing or “free-ranging” chicken pecking at the dust. We stopped off at several run down Wats to take photographs and I ventured into a paddy field to photograph the ladies tending the rice. A young girl, her face shaded by her non la (cone shaped hat), posed for me, her disarmingly huge smile popping out from the shade of her hat. I beat a hasty retreat though when her mother engaged with me and started indicating with her entwined fingers that her daughter and I should become “linked”. Smile politely and run away.

Despite Don Khong’s lack of tourist charm and attendance there are many new hotels and guesthouses, decked out in spanking new polished wood, being built. And there’s a huge concrete road bridge being built from the mainland to the island.

Perhaps we visited Don Khong in time, before it transforms into something more commercial. You see, Laos is currently ranked in the twenty poorest countries of the world. With a GDP of 7.7% in 2010 Laos seems set to meet its target of being out of the twenty poorest by 2020. Given all this development, the time to see Laos is now.

In Laos, part 1 – Pakse

Lacking Cambodia’s ruins and tumultuous history, Thailand’s culture and regional power and Vietnam’s long history and story of conflict, Laos seems like the ignored quiet child in the back row of the classroom by comparison. Yet for all that is understated and little-known about Laos, scratch its surface and you’ll find a fascinating and laid-back nation worthy of far greater attention.

Bordered by the Mekong to the west, most of the Annamite mountain range to the east, Laos is surrounded by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma. Laos is a crossroad nation and a two-stop hop and skip on my way to Hanoi in northern Vietnam. I have two reasons for stopping over in Laos. The first is the chance to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphins that can be found near Laos’ border with Cambodia, and the second is to see the UNESCO world heritage site and holy city of Luang Prabang. Naturally, fulfilling these objectives gives rise to a third unstated one; to learn about Laos.

Laos and communist flags in from of the Indochina Bank in Pakse, Laos

Flags flying in the late afternoon light in Pakse, Laos

Once the French capital of southern Laos, Pakse is situated at the confluence of the Se Don and Mekong rivers and is close to Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam and therefore sees a lot of travellers moving from country to country or headed for Si Phan Don (four thousand islands). And like the aforementioned travellers, Pakse is my staging point from Siem Reap to Si Phan Don and the Irrawady dolphins.

The guide books all say that Laos is laid-back but the reality is far nicer. Pakse, for example, has wide roads, low traffic levels and therefore little noise and exhaust pollution and its inhabitants are friendly and smile and move around in a chilled-out way. Walking the streets is a relaxed and lose-yourself-in-looking affair. French colonial architecture is still to be found despite a period when the communist government tore down colonial reminders in favour of featureless structures. Two blocks down from our hotel is Bolavens, a coffee shop-cum-restaurant serving great organic local coffee, pastries and incredibly fresh fruit shakes with the mango and banana mix my favourite.

Pakse is near the Bolaven plateau – the coffee growing region of Laos – and the Khmer ruins of Wat Phu. The Khmer ruins date back to Laos’ early nationhood which was dominated by Khmer influences. Prior to the Khmer influenced period, Laos was simply a collection of disparate principalities all warring with other. But in the fourteenth century, a local warlord called Chao Fa Ngum, backed by the Khmer, began expanding. Chao Fa Ngum conquered Viang Chan (modern day Vientiane, Laos’ capital) and all the way up to, and including, the province of modern day Luang Prabang. He called the new kingdom Lan Xang (land of a million elephants) and made Theravada Buddhism the state religion (another Khmer influence). But by the eighteenth century the kingdom had all but crumbled away and Siam controlled Laos using it as a buffer against the expansionist French colonialists.

But, back to Pakse and the reason for stopping there. Amidst the French colonial houses, shophouses, crumbling Wats and western styled coffee shops there are many hotels and guesthouses catering to western travellers. Each hotel is fronted by a restaurant with the better ones frequented by locals – always a good sign of reasonably priced food. And each hotel is a travel agent too. Booking tickets to Si Phan Don was no more complex than asking the hotel receptionist to book the trip and asking her to call us when the bus arrived. Of course, in true laid-back Laos style, booking the trip was so uncomplicated and languid that I was left wondering if I’d been properly understood and somewhat circumspect about whether the bus would arrive at the appointed hour, let alone day.

The temples of Angkor

The late afternoon sunshine bathes the fifty-four gothic towers of the Bayon temple in a gentle warm light. The sun’s slow progressive setting casts deep shadows on the two hundred and sixteen large faces of Avalokitesharva, ” the Lord who looks down”, carved on each of the four facets of every tower. Each face serene, peaceful and representing enlightenment is a replica of the other and is said to bear a resemblance to King Jayavarman VII who commissioned and built this, his official state temple, sometime in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century.

Set in the heart of Angkor Thom, the last great capital of the Khymer empire, the Bayon is decorated with bas relief, incorporating over eleven thousand figures depicting daily life in twelfth and thirteenth century Cambodia. The Bayon is also the last temple I visit in a three-day orgy of temple-trotting and tourist-dodging. It is also my favourite of the temples I manage to visit and a worthy culmination of a daily sunrise-to-sunset exploration of Angkor’s temples.

Tuk-tuk’s, taxis, mini-vans, bicycles and tourist busses move continuously like blood in the arteries between Siem Reap and the Angkor Temples. In a constant ebb and flow of coming and going, the Khmer empire that once ruled greater Cambodia lives on in millions of digital photographs, scribbled journals and ticked-off bucket lists.

Nun at a Wat at the Angkor temples in Cambodia.

A nun at a Wat in the ancient city of Angkor receives donations and offerings for the upkeep of the Wat. Cambodia

The Angkor temples are the skeletal remains, bones cleared of the surrounding jungle, of the Khmer empire that waged war with, variously, China, Siam, Mongolia and Vietnam, an empire that came into being with a declaration of independence from Javanese rule in 802 and faded away in 1432.

Nothing of the city of over a million inhabitants, at a time when London could boast fifty thousand, remains. For it was only the temples that were built from stone; the rest mere wooden structures as only the Gods had the right to dwell in structures of brick or stone.

Born of an adoption of Indian culture and religion introduced by Indian traders who plied their trade from across the bay of Bengal, Angkor stands testimony to a blend of Hindu, Buddhist and Animist cultures.

The centre of the great Khmer empire, Angkor is a reminder of the wars that waged, the God-Kings that ruled and the never-ending story and cycle of conflict and culture-change in Indo-China, the Indo-China that was, then, at the confluence of the great Indian and Chinese civilizations.

Earlier on that third day, in the pre-dawn half light I huddled with hundreds of tourists before the lotus-filled pond in front of the inner entrance to Angkor Wat, awaiting the sunrise and the classic commercial image of Angkor Wat. As if prearranged, hundreds of shutters clicked as the sun rose shyly like some child in a school play in front of its parents. Clickety-click, clickety-click, another thousand images captured, another dawn done and the tourists moved on; most back to their busses, the remainder to the temple.

I sat by the now-abandoned pond a while, emotionless and feeling a little empty, and considered deleting the photos I took feeling my images mere “snapshots as souvenirs” (Susan Sontag – On Photography).

The architectural, historical, religious and cultural significance of the Angkor temples is overwhelming and deeply impressive but, for me, the delightful take-away from my visit is of the vibrant, entrepreneurial and amazing Cambodians that earn their living from the thousands of temple-trekking tourists.

Perhaps because of the more recent past, Cambodians seem industrious and of a sunny disposition. They laugh and smile easily and float on an air of humorous irony.

At the many restaurants that line the temple entrances and exits, owners compete light-heartedly with each other for tourist business . Young children and teenagers sell souvenirs in their sing-song accented English: “only one dollar” or “hello sir, two for one dollar”. It’s a pleasure being harassed to buy. For every smart answer I muster they have twenty or more ripostes. They laugh heartily as I stumble in search of something, anything, to better their sales pitch so I give up and laugh too. And I watch in amazement as the young children switch from English to Italian or French and even Japanese and Korean; testimony to the speed at which they learn and the mix of tourists that visit.

Mr Bun Thoeun, or “Bean” as he prefers to be called, is our tuk-tuk driver, unofficial guide and general fixer. Bean knows the temples intimately, their layout and history. With dates, names, kings and history at his fingertips he epitomizes the new-age entrepreneur that Cambodia is creating. Monitoring two mobile phones, dealing, while he drives us around “Bean” is a non-stop bundle of talkative energy. Slight of build, wearing a Michael Jackson hat and well-dressed in a modern tailored shirt paired with stove-pipe jeans “Bean” displays all the characteristics of a child born in the year of the monkey. He is mischievous, humourous and great fun. Yet he is fiercely independent, loves his tuk-tuk and is proud of his life and the country he lives in.

Originally from Battembang, “Bean” moved to Siem Reap at the request of the owners of the Royal Hotel there, in order to service their clients who move on to Siem Reap. At first he rented a tuk-tuk, funded by the hotel owners, until he could afford to buy his own second-hand one. These days, he’s “freelance” but still first choice for Royal Hotel guests.

Three days pass rapidly in a blitzkrieg of temple visits – climbing stairs, peering at carvings, marveling at the jungle’s slow-creep swallowing of Ta Prohm temple, seeing the restorations, resisting the child vendors, eating local dishes, chatting non-stop with “Bean” and avoiding the camera-toting tourists that pose and click and move on from temple to temple to temple …

Tourists, tourism … it is Siem Reap’s nutrition, the local entrepreneurs’ lifeblood and hard currency for Cambodia’s coffers whether the government or the vendors. I’m happy to have visited, happier to have paid for local (unreported and untaxed) goods and services and delighted (for now) that the world has discovered Cambodia’s temples

Floating through Cambodia’s waterways to Siem Reap

Faced with the prospect of enduring a five to seven hour ferry ride from Battambang to Siem Reap, squashed into a plastic chair big enough for an infant and squeezed between forty nine other tourists or perched in a lotus position on the ferry rooftop, I chose the latter. The twenty-odd metre long ferry is at most three to four meters wide, contains a cubicle toilet and accommodates some fifty people. Designed to seat Asians significantly smaller than most westerners the ferry, when full, has a sardine-can feel to it. That many tourists consider it a romantic notion to travel to Siem Reap by boat means the ferry is both popular and over-worked.

It was Hobson’s choice really: be squashed with other tourists inside the ferry or enjoy the views and freedom of squatting on the ferry roof but suffer the unrelenting Cambodian heat and skin-burning sunshine. It turns out the ferry rooftop was not as spacious and unrestricted as I initially thought as I watched, with mild horror, locals clambering up on the rooftop alongside me and packages and bicycles being stacked alongside and between us. What made it worse was other tourists abandoned the sardine-can below and found a place upstairs too.

The twenty-odd metre long ferry is at most three to four meters wide, contains a cubicle toilet and accommodates some fifty people for the ferry ride from Battambang to Siem Reap in Cambodia

Many tourists consider it a romantic notion to travel to Siem Reap by boat from Battambang in Cambodia.

It wasn’t so much the lack of space upstairs that bothered me but more the dangerous listing of the decidedly narrow boat that followed each person’s movements to find a comfortable way to squat on the roof. Having some experience of boats and boating I know too well how quickly things can go wrong when out on the water. But, C’est la vie … as they say.

The city of Battambang fronts the Sangkae river (Stung Sangkae) and the ferry departs from a makeshift jetty near the Psar Nat (meeting market) market, which is the focal point of the city.

The aforementioned makeshift jetty lies at the bottom of a steep flight of concrete stairs cut into the river bank. Wide enough for one person at a time, navigating the stairs in the early morning whilst carrying a heavy backpack, is a task requiring intense concentration, confidence and good balance.

Scheduled to leave at 7am, the ferry will actually depart anytime from 7am depending on how long it takes to rack, pack and stack it to its maximum capacity. Ours left around 7:45am.

Despite the precarious sounding start to this trip, the ride through narrow waterways, past protected wetlands and between floating villages is worth every Cambodian Riel spent. That the ferry lists dangerously to port and starboard at every turn or grinds through mudflats when the water level is too low and the boat’s draft drags, adds to the experience, heightens one’s senses and brings a wide-eyed smile to my face. Add to this the continuous docking and undocking at various floating villages for embarking or disembarking ferry roof-top passengers or to load and unload provisions and you’re left feeling you’re starring in some obscure travel documentary. It’s brilliant and there’s time for my mind to wander while my eyes take in the sights we pass through.

Having skipped breakfast my immediate thought was of last night’s dinner: a traditional Cambodian meal called Lok Lak – thin strips of beef, pan fried in a delicious oyster-type sauce, mixed with slices of raw tomato and onion, topped with a soft fried egg and served with steamed rice. Simply delicious and a reminder of the rumbles in my tummy. Next to me a young German tourist ploughs her way through a packet of ramtambams (a sweet leechie-tasting fruit in a passion fruit looking skin). With the juice of the fruit dribbling down her hands, arms and mouth she irks me as she disposes of the fruit skins in the river, or maybe it was just that I was hungry.

Thoughts of food conjure up memories of the roof-top restaurant at the Royal Hotel in Battambang and the two restaurants directly across the street from the hotel. The view over Battambang from the roof of the Royal is part of the hotel’s charm. With views of sunrise (enjoyed with strong Cambodian coffee) or sunset (enjoyed with Tiger beer) it’s the place to start or end your day, or both. The two restaurants across the street from the Royal are adjacent to each other. Both offer the same fare: draft beer, stir fry meals of all descriptions, various Asian teas and iced and hot coffee. Tuk-tuk drivers gather in the shade of a tree next to the restaurants and solicit business from customers of the restaurants and the Royal Hotel. Did I mention the Royal is one of the more popular hotels in the town?

A decidedly big list to port wakes me from my reverie as the ferry navigates a particularly tight turn in the river. The list catches all of us ferry-top dwellers out and there’s much muttering and mumbling. But the grumbling doesn’t last long as there’s so much to see and distract.

Having left the city centre behind, the river banks are now characterised by stilted dwellings, long wooden staircases descending the steep river banks, short wooden jetties and moored sampans and long tailed boats of various size and colour. Life goes on oblivious of our passing; people brush their teeth in the river, cart buckets full of water up the steep banks, wash clothing, dishes and the occasional water buffalo. The smell of early morning coal fires and the frying of onions and garlic for breakfast noodles wafts on the breeze.

As we leave the city and its outskirts behind, the intensity of dwellings and people lessens and there are long passages of unspoilt river forest growth singing with bird life. Interspersing the uninhabited sections of the river are sections with shallower river banks indicative of flood land areas. Here artisanal farming is the activity of choice. Huge plowed fields resplendent with rich recently turned soil are worked by groups of families planting, watering, digging and tending the land. Along the river banks family groups live in Robinson Crusoe-type shelters centered around a communal fire place. Young children, some with clothing on and some without, wave and shout “hullo” from the banks at us, their small round faces boasting huge smiles.

The river is the centre of the universe to these river people and fishing is the primary activity. It seems to me that every inch of the river is fished in some way or another. Our ferry navigates nets strung along shallower sections of the river, elsewhere tethered floating plastic bottles mark sunken woven reed baskets set to catch bottom dwelling catfish and crabs. In the shallows, alongside the river bank and between the mangrove roots and reed beds are more baskets set to catch juvenile fish seeking shelter and protection from predators. People not attending to nets or baskets immerse themselves in the river and scrabble through the mud flats for crabs and fresh water shrimp.The entire river is a continuous fish trap.

In places where the waterways and river widens there are floating villages, whole communities living on the river. There are shops, petrol stations, food stalls and maintenance sheds. We stop at one of the restaurants for breakfast where you can have anything so long as it is with noodles in a broth. The queue for the restaurant’s toilet stretches out the door and around the deck of the restaurant and I figure the ferry’s on-board cubicle is unpopular with my fellow passengers. With us at his mercy, the surly restaurant owner overcharges for his food and provisions. Can’t really blame him, I would too if I was delivered wealthy westerners on a daily basis. And I did notice that it was only us westerners that left the ferry for the possibilities the restaurant offered.

Vast floating fish processing factories lie on the outskirts of the fishing villages. You smell the factory before you see it. It is an unmistakable smell, not unpleasant but equally not one that is attractive. The factories are huge shaded floating decks on which gangs of women squat and sort fish by type and size into baskets for sale in markets. Fish not caught for the pot are brought to these markets for onward sale.

The scale of fishing is enormous, almost unbelievable and I wonder of its sustainability. But for as long as the Tonle Sap river and lake can continue to function there is all likelihood of sustainability, I think. The Tonle Sap lake is south east Asia’s largest inland lake and plays a duel role in the delicate Eco-system of the Mekong river. During the rainy season, the Mekong river swells and fills and part of it backs up the Tonle Sap river filling the lake to over-flowing. And during the dry season, the opposite happens with the lake draining into the Mekong from its river system. It’s a self-regulating waterway that fairly boggles the mind. Yet water regulation is not its only purpose. The swelling of the lake gives rise to an explosion of new fish life that moves off to stock the rivers that feed off it. Obviously highly sensitive, this system is critical to the future of the various rivers that irrigate the land, provide the fish and sustain communities. Like everywhere else in the world it suffers the three dangers of pollution, over fishing and habitat encroachment. But it has a fourth danger: the construction of dams for hydro electricity that will permanently alter the flow and have other as-yet unrealized consequences.

There’s constant traffic on the river of low gunnelled sampans and long tail boats ferrying people, produce or goods up and down. Our ferry is a source of annoyance to these boat pilots as our wake often swamps their boats or unbalances them whilst fishing or trading. The deep throated thumping of our ferry’s diesel engine is at least an early warning system by which people can prepare themselves but our wake is often under estimated and our ferry pilot unconcerning, in the main. I feel guilty, paying my tourist dollars to disturb the simple lives of these folk.

I assuage my guilt by remembering yesterday’s highlight – taking a seat in the shade of a banyan tree at a Wat and becoming engaged in conversation by several young monks who simply came up to chat and practice their English. I recall drawing a map of the world in the sand underneath the tree and explaining where Africa is in relation to Cambodia and Asia and pointing out my hometown in South Africa and the delight on their faces as it began to make sense to them.

Our ferry pops out of the waterways we’ve been motoring through and into the vast expanse of water called the Tonle Sap, which is at the centre of the Tonle Sap biosphere reserve. The lake is huge and fecund with waterbird life and a gentle wind stirs up the surface water while here and there lone fishermen in paddle boats pole for fish.

All too soon we leave the lake and enter the Siem Reap river to dock at Siem Reap’s Chong Kneas tourist dock. But along the way we weave past countless tourist boats ferrying camera clicking tourists on Tonle Sap sunset cruises. Mostly the boats are filled with Korean, Chinese and Japanese tourists and our ferry with passengers perched on its roof becomes the subject of countless photographs. I laugh quietly to myself; the photographer photographed.