We decided a long time ago that we are happier when we are able to do what we call “slow travel.” This means taking our time when we visit a new place, always staying at least 3 nights, trying to get a feel for a city through random exploration rather than planning every second of every day, and generally choosing modes of transportation that allow us to experience more things at a slower pace. In the case of getting from Siem Reap to Battambang, we opted for the 8+ hour boat ride across the Tonle Sap Lake and the Sangker River through several floating villages, over the 4 hour air conditioned bus ride.
In preparation for the trip the next day, I started to do some internet searches for what the ride would be like (mainly to figure out what I should wear, how much food & drink to bring, etc.). I was surprised to come across a lot of blogs and reviews about the boat ride – split about 50/50 with some really negative ones warning of the most uncomfortable wooden seats you’ll ever sit on and the longest trip of your life with motors continuously breaking down and nowhere to move because everyone’s bags and luggage are all over the floor…and then the ones that said it was one of the best experiences they had in all of Cambodia. Well since I was already feeling a little under the weather at that point, I started to feel a little nervous but then decided to just stay positive. I love boats and I love water. We had enough drink and snacks to last at least 12 hours. I can usually sleep in even the most uncomfortable of places. I had lots of Gravol. It would be ok.
So we headed out that morning on a minibus that had its usual circuitous trip through the city to pick up other travelers and we headed off to the outskirts of Siem Reap to get on our boat. I was actually pleasantly surprised when I saw the boat…it looked slightly nicer than the ones I’d seen in other people’s posts online. The seats were not wood, but fibreglass and they had cushions on them! We were one of the last buses to arrive, so when the driver took our backpacks to store, he put them right under the boat’s steering wheel and feet (wish I’d taken a photo), but that meant they were clear from traffic and in a safe place. Score! Then when it seemed like there were no more free 2-seaters beside each other left for us, one miraculously freed up just for us! I could tell already it was going to be a good day :)
The boat is for both tourists and locals, though I’m sure the locals pay nowhere near the amount we did, but I’m not complaining. Having locals on the boat meant for added fun, with little kids running around, random boxes of goods – e.g. heaps of dried fish – being loaded onto the roof for delivery down the river, and the chance to see the floating villages a little more up close. The boat ride was fairly full (we’re still getting used to this nonsense of traveling in high season), but at least we didn’t have huge backpacks taking up our leg room area! When we started to get a little stir crazy from being crammed inside, we could climb out onto the roof of the boat to get a better 360 degree view of the surroundings and more breeze (though it also meant being in full sun and sitting next to the ridiculously loud horn that the driver would continuously sound when we were passing through a floating village to notify any future passengers of our arrival). But again, we’re not complaining…we sit firmly in the “this was one of the best things we’ve done in Cambodia” camp.
At first we rode across the Tonle Sap lake at a fast pace, which was beautiful because the sun was still rising and the scenery was quite beautiful. But as we approached the river, the boat needed to slow down significantly to account for lower water levels (it is dry season), narrower and windier passages (there were some points when a man had to use a big long piece of wood to push the boat out of the mud), as well as many fishing nets and boats that could appear at any time. This, of course, allowed us to observe the floating village life at a much better pace. We saw numerous local fishermen/women working on their boats, a few floating food vendors making their way to people’s houses or other boats, and generally just a lot of people at home doing their daily routines along the river (rocking their babies to sleep in hammocks, bathing and brushing teeth(!) in the river, chatting with friends and family). When new passengers wanted to get on the boat, they’d take a little paddle boat up to ours and just jump on! We probably passed through over a dozen different floating/river villages, and you could definitely sense that some were better off than others…from how sturdy their housing structures looked to how fancy the local temple was, or even from the different types of fishing devices or equipment they used. Some villages definitely seemed to reflect the severe poverty that we’d be warned we’d see in Cambodia, but despite all of this we also observed much more outward happiness (joking, laughing, smiling) than you’d ever see in North America among the people we saw. People seemed content in their daily lives, most of them smiling at us when we passed, and the children always popping out to wave and yell “hello!”.
Definitely the highlight for us – as it has been our entire time in Cambodia – was all the children we saw on this boat trip. Children are everywhere in this country and seem to light up the faces of all the people around them. I don’t know if this is true, but they seem very free in this country, always wandering and exploring and playing together with their packs of friends on their own. They generally have huge smiles on their faces and typically (mostly the boys) have a definite mischievous air to them. We looked up the stats, and over 30% of Cambodia’s population is under the age of 14, with the median age of all Cambodians at 23 years old. The average Cambodian woman will have 3 children. Along this river, it was all the happy screaming dancing naked children enthusiastically waving to us from the shore that made our boat trip to Battambang so memorable.
PS: It feels like the photos don’t quite do the trip justice, probably because we were in constant motion so there was little time to take a photo before we’d already passed someone or something by. We did take a few videos as well, but can’t seem to get them loaded onto our computer yet so perhaps we’ll post them later!