Day 10: Siem Reap to Battambang

by - May 07, 2011

Tonlé Sap Lake, Cambodia
ANOTHER early start this morning to catch the boat from Siem Reap to Battambang - getting up at 5.30am.  The boat left at 7.30am (the jetty is out of town and I got picked up in a bus that took me there).  The main reason that I was travelling to Battambang was in fact for this boat journey, as it passes through rural Cambodian fishing villages, protected wetland areas and the great Tonlé Sap lake, which dominates the aerial view of the country.  The boat had a long bench along each side, covered by a large canopy which provided precious shade from the sun.  It was almost completely full of westerners, most of whom were either French or Dutch.

Cutting a path through the water plants
Having set out from Siem Reap it wasn’t long before we got to the lake.  It has a fascinating natural cycle - in the wet season the Mekong flows backwards into the lake and swells it to around 13,000 sq km while in the dry season the flow reverses and it falls to around 3,000 sq km.  I am pretty much quoting these facts from Lonely Planet (I hope they don’t get me for copyright - imitation is the highest form of flattery).  There are a lot of rivers that flow into the lake and it therefore acts like a huge junction.  Essentially our route was to go down Siem Reap’s river to the lake, only to go back up Battambang’s river.  Depending on the water level, the journey can take from 6 hours to 13 hours.  Luckily the wet season is only a month away and our estimates travel time was 7 and a half hours and notwithstanding the uncomfortable seats it flew by.

Local kids swimming in the river
Having powered across the lake, we found our tributary to Battambang and literally carved a path through the water plants that were growing on the surface of the river mouth - I thought we were going at full speed into the bank, only for them to part in front of us.  Once we had broken through this barrier of vegetation we started arriving at villages.  They were the kind of river based settlements that you would only see from a boat - they weren’t connected by roads, all the houses were on stilts and all had boats.  They were also sufficiently rural and unused to westerners that all of the village children ran down to the river bank (or in some cases just jumped straight in) to wave at us.  It was lovely to see, but at the same time the villages seemed desperately poor and essentially looked like floating shanty towns - the only school that we saw had been provided by UNICEF.  The villages came and went for about 5 hours of the journey and we stopped at a fork in the river at one stage to have some lunch at a rather basic looking café.

A riverside village, Cambodia
Having passed through lots of villages we met the wetlands, where the river got considerably narrower, to the point where we had to slow down and pull over if another boat was coming in the other direction.  Having said that it didn’t stop the driver (pilot?) powering his way along the winding tributary and on several occasions underestimate the corners - causing everybody to duck under sweeping tree branches.  By this stage the boat was fairly full of locals who obviously used it as a way of getting between some of the more further flung villages.  In all fairness to the Cambodians, we arrived in 7 and a half hours give or take ten minutes and with the hostel arranging a free transfer I was in my room by half 3.  With it being a Saturday, I wanted to TRY and arrange my Vietnamese visa today - as I am hoping to travel there on Wednesday.  I checked in Lonely Planet and found that the Vietnamese consulate shut at 4pm.  To my surprise I managed to get money out and arrive in time to get it issued - they gave me it in 15 minutes for $40 (which makes the fact I just paid 200 pounds for a Russian visa even more disgusting).

By now I was pretty exhausted, but I had booked myself in a nicer hostel (the Royal Hotel no less) and found myself with cable TV for the first time, so I watched the BBC news channel for a while.  Dinner-wise I went for another traditional Cambodian dish at a local restaurant where they run cookery schools.  My chicken lok-lak (chicken in a sauce with a fried egg on top) was superb and the young waiter was probably the politest I have ever had.  He never turned his back on me, was always smiling and gave the traditional bow every time he finished speaking.  Two cans of coke and a filling meal cost me about 2 pounds which is just amazing - I might even come back tomorrow night.  I had met an Australian guy earlier in the day and I bumped into him again (it is a small town and there aren’t many westerners) and we went for a drink back at my hostel.  He was a fascinating man who is out here on a motorbike tour looking for hidden symbols in the temples.  I pretty much let him speak non stop for hours.  Tomorrow may be a very small blog as I am under the impression there isn’t loads to do in Battambang and I have a wonderfully comfortable bed.  I might have a good ol’ lie in.

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