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.
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.