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Cambodia: on a boat on the Tonle Sap lake

Traveling by boat from Siem Reap to Battambang, among the floating villages (in Cambodia)

We are precariously crammed in a boat full of backpackers and luggage. The wooden bench is uncomfortable, the thumping engine noise is annoying. Moreover, we are tired, we woke up early and the travel to the pier wasn’t exactly nice, as we were squeezed in a bus that would have been barely enough to fit half the passengers: in Southeast Asia, there is always an uncertain balance between stressful and unnecessary inconveniences and the minor difficulties that are part of the journey and make it somehow better.

Sailing on the Sangker river

Sailing on the Sangker river (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2016)

But even if I am tired while we leave the pier on a unsettlingly foamy water, I feel great. I’m happy. I was looking forward to this day. Even if it’s just a way to get from Siem Reap to Battambang. Even though many wrote and told me that it was going to be boring, hot, expensive. Moving slowly on a river was wonderful in Laos a year ago, on the Nam Ou river. And in Cambodia I expect to relive that experience, although this time is, at least in part, on a lake, the Tonle Sap.

Sailing on the Tonle Sap lake

It’s completely different from what we experienced in Laos. There the jungle always seemed on the verge of engulfing the Nam Ou River. The villages were rare and often hidden among the vegetation. We could only guess their presence from a pier, a ladder om the beach that disappeared into the bush. Every now and then we would see children, boats, small figures in a difficult,  hostile place. A place that seemed to exist on a completely different scale, in size and time.

The environment here is special too, unique, but different. The lake, which swells and dries as seasons change (as long as it won’t be strangled by dams), looks like a living being, in symbiosis with many others. Man is one of these living beings. Here one can’t feel solitude, like I felt in Laos. The first part of the trip on the Tonle Sap Lake is surprisingly teeming with life: my eye is constantly on the move, it cannot rest.

There are lots of people, maybe too many. The high stilts of the houses of Chong Kneas, the town from which we started, quickly give way to houseboats crammed along a canal. Here the water is filled with boats speeding in every direction, splashing the brown water towards us.

Boats on the Tonle Sap lake

Boats on the Tonle Sap lake (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2015)

What I see, however, is a little depressing: Chong Kneas appears much dirtier and poorer than Kompong Khleang, the floating village we visited yesterday (and yesterday, we were greeted at the pier by children selling postcards and asking money).

On the Sangker river and Prek Toal village

After crossing the lake, the boat enters the winding Sangker river that will take us (after many, many hours) to Battambang. At the entrance of the river we find another floating village, Prek Toal. The children call us from the houses, they wave from the porches or from small boats. Others are in uniform, heading to school on boats they pilot themselves. Kids have to grow up quickly, here.

I watch the life going on in front of my eyes. While our boats goes through the village I take pictures, too, but I feel an intruder: I am entering the private lives of these people without asking, shamelessly peeking in the small living rooms and kitchens of the floating houses. I catch glimpses of lives that seemed very different, but that at a closer look appear surprisingly normal.

If  lives seem normal, the structure of these villages on the water, however, is incredible. Everything floats: not only houses, but also schools, shops. There is also a floating church (many inhabitants are of Vietnamese origin and Christians) and I see, with surprise, even the sign of an accommodation (a homestay, more on it later).

But it’s those hands that greet us, the voices, the laughter of children who call from the houses that catch my attention and put a smile on a my face. It’s quick, but it’s human contact, a mutual recognition that I won’t spoil with a photograph. I use my hands to wave and I don’t hide my face behind a camera.

Children going to school on the Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

Children going to school on the Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2015)

This trip is a constant swing between poverty, landfills, scenes of hardship, and other moments, villages, that, seen from our boat, seem close to idyllic. The background changes, but the smiles stay the same.

Our boat stops often, to let people get on and off the ship with their bulky luggage (I see mostly food and supplies). All kind of local people are traveling for short spans of the trip: kids, young girls, women with children, elderly people. Every time they give a few riels to the helmsman.

The boat from Siem Reap to Battambang might be less convenient than the bus, and used mostly by tourists that pay an expensive ticket ($ 25). But it seems that this daily boat, paid mostly by the tourists’ money, is still a fundamental service for these communities.

The boat from Siem Reap to Battambang: more info

  • Tickets. Can be bought in many agencies in Siem Reap. The price for a ticket to Battambang is 25$, 35$ for the speedboat to Pnom Penh.
  • Seats. The boats are often full. Avoid seats in the back as the engine is incredibly noisy. Some people love seating on the roof. This is also what Paul Theroux did, if you read ‘Ghost Train to the Eastern Star’. But the heat can be unbearable at times, as you will have to stay there for many hours. Also, keep in mind hat the seats are hard and uncomfortable benches. It is therefore recommended to bring something soft to seat on.
  • Food and drinks. Sometimes the boat’s staff will have expensive drinks. Don’t count on it and stock up some food and drinks, as it will be a long day. When we arrived at Chong Kneas there were women selling some (expensive) cans, fruits and sweets.
  • Accommodation. The homestay in Prek Toal seemed interesting, although I didn’t try it. It’s run by an eco-tourism organization called Osmose.
  • In Battambang.  You will find the usual crowd of tuk-tuk drivers waiting for the boat at the pier. They will bring you to your hotel for a price that apparently ranges between 50 cent and a dollar. Keep in mind that they hope to be your guides the following day. For that  they will usually make you share the tuk tuk with other people.
  • The floating villages. If you plan to do this trip you can avoid a day tour to the floating villages (even if our tour had a few interesting stops on the way, including one at a local market).
  • If you wish to see a village in a day tour, I recommend Kompong Khleang (or Kampong Khlean). It’s much better than the more popular Kompong Phluk or Chong Kneas.
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