Oh my god. This was such a highlight I don’t know where to begin!
On one level, it was just a means of getting to Siem Reap, but we did so by our own Intrepid Group private tourist boat. Having made the departure point with out luggage in tact (which was an unexpected bonus) we clambered aboard. This boat trip is a classic, taking you across the Tonie Sap Lake, taking in truly magnificent views. You see much from the water, fishermen throwing nets and whizzing by on their boats. The river bank is extraordinary, so much to see. Stilted houses perilously close to the vertical crumbling river bank. The trip takes you to floating villages – though whether they really float, or just seem to because the water levels are high after the floods and the houses are on stilts is a moot point, both I’d say. The trip took about 7 hours, but it was fantastic, we were then disgorged to bustling touristy port of Siem Reap. Classic Cambodia I suppose.
This is a post where the pictures should do the talking really, but some things I noticed at the start of the journey were:
- Rubbish, everywhere, it’s caught in the undergrowth, floating in the river, scattered on the banks and outside houses
- Effluent. Our boat had an onboard loo which discharged directly into the river, I think all the boats do. Yet you see people bathing and washing clothes in the mud-coloured water. It’s not as pretty a life a the camera may convey
- Within the filth are moments of ingenuity. Empty water bottles were used as floats for fishing nests, discarded plastic made coverings for boats. People are resourceful it’s true, but it is still poverty
- We had interactions with various people we saw along the river. There was the boy who cast his net widely and jumped in afterwards with a huge splash. We laughed and clapped in appreciation and he delightedly clapped and shreiked back at us. Genuinely pleased at having his endeavour so recognised!
- One amongst us waved at a monk by the riverside, he smiled shyly back and did a polite single handed greeting, raising his hand thumb nosewards in a sort of half palmed greeting. It was gentle and kind
- A woman who got caught in the wake of our tourist boat and was absolutely drenched, we felt terrible, our driver barely registered this
- Rickety looking stilted buildings everywhere, they are picturesque, but precarious
As we continued our journey the scenery changed, and I noticed these things:
- The river bank population was less dense.
- We were alongside paddy fields, occassionally there were irrigation channels carved into the banks which were quite a feat of engineering – I wonder if they are old channels orginally carved out of the earth by hand
- Kingfishers – black and white birds with kingfisher shaped beaks in any event, darting out of the river bank, there seemed to be an enormous number of them, but maybe they were
- A river otter – used as fishing aid apparently, that made sense, why else would it be so close to human activity. It looked well, an impressive size too, swimming around a boat by the bank
- Some crudely constructed flood defences – corrugated iron to protect some corn I think, surely evidence of hope over experience, King Canute himself would have been proud
- Some of our group clambering onto the roof of our boat, it had a definite sag in the ceiling overheard, best not to think too much about that
- As we waved at people some waved back smiling and encouraging their children to do likewise; some people looked pissed off as anyone might be if random people cruising by wave at them whilst they were going about their work or nipping into poundland – or even waitrose for goodness sake.
Onward some more and I became absolutely fascinated by these weird mad-max/ riverworld type fishing contraptions. Made of string and bamboo and optimism, they arced over the river, holding huge nets presumably. They were really, really hard to photo, but that didn’t stop me trying. See what you make of them:
After a bit, I decided to take my chances up on the roof. This was amazing. The views were stupendous, and more photo ops than ever which was massive sensory overload. I chose just the time to go up top when it started to rain. Our guide was on the roof, and wanted to go below, but was a bit worried about leaving me as we suddenly started veering away from more open water down weird pathways in the undergrowth with overhanging branches requiring ducking and diving ‘watch, watch’ he kept shouting, fearing for my safety. Eventually though, his fear of getting wet over-rode his fear of me being knocked off the boat entirely (in which case he could pretend I’d never boarded) or worse still, being knocked unconsious, in which case there’d be a mountain of paper work! He went down below, I stayed up and took it all in, enjoying the soft rain and the flapping flag in front. Nice to have a selfie where the wet patches are rain rather than sweat.
When the rain passed, others joined me again – just in time to spot a miracle in the sky. A completely circular rainbow round the sun. A phenomenum I’ve never seen before, it was beautiful, remarkable, other worldly. This is the river trip that keeps on giving.
We stopped for a brief break on a stilted house shop. We could use the loos and buy snacks. We watched huge fish skipping about, and people going about their business by boat.
There was a rather substantial buildign on the horizon. This is the school, children paddle across and back each day. Later we saw loads in their school uniforms propelling themselves along with considerable aplomb. Well, they showed aplomb until distracted by waving, at which point one got marooned on lake weed. Oh well.
THe heat of the sun was fierce. I reapplied sunblock and asked my fellow travelers if I still had globules all over me. They said not, but the smile whilst telling me seemed suspect. I queried the reliability of this witness. She claimed this sunny smile was her default position. She’s Australian so maybe it is. I’m more of a default scowl of suspicion person myself, though I am making a point of smiling over here!
At some point in the proceedings, having passed a broken down tourist boat with the most humourless looking tourists I’ve ever seen. I asked if they were OK ‘we don’t know‘. ‘Can I take any messages home for you?’ silence. A multitude of people were trying to mend the motor, I can think of worse places to be marooned, they were hardly going to die out there, not that I’ve seen the news though so maybe…
You know what, top of the boat is such a way to go. Eventually only me and one other took this spot, others avoiding heat. I was pretty covered up, long sleeves, hat, but still burnt backs of hands and legs despite factor 50. My travel companion did yoga poses, much to the merriment of any passing boat loads of children. It was good to have the tables turned in relation to provision of spectator sports! Oh and we ate jack fruit and dragon fruit and talked about differences in higher education in UK and Australia and ethnographic research. How cool is that!
There was one moment of apparanet piracy, a woman rowed out to us as if to board – it turned out she was collecting some delivery we had for her. Fun to watch. At one point our driver appeared ambling about. ‘Who’s driving‘ we asked. ‘No-one‘ he said. Later we looked down, it was true. Well, once we got onto the lake itself, as opposed to river approach, it was pretty open passage.
Arrival seemed sudden and shocking. Lugging our bags up steps to Siem Reap dock. Piled onto a coach and sped away. Stopping a few minutes later as our guide realised he’d left his specially purchased fish paste on the boat. The boatman came after us on his bike to hand it over. Our guide worked for 17 years here, so he is a friend. The fish paste is a present for his parents, specially sourced from a remote region. I still think its gross though, especially having now seen where it is made. Blurgh. I’m so glad I’ve never regarded fish as a food item. By the way if you don’t know what I’m talking about it maybe because you havent read my post about the bike tour round Battambang which included a trip to a fish paste production unit, and one of the reasons you’ve not yet read it might be because either you don’t care, or because I’ve not posted it yet. I’m writing up out of sequence. Stay tuned for updates.
What a day though, what a day!