A Comedy of Errors in Battambang
The story here is all about the journey we embarked on to get to Battambang. The highly rated and highly reviewed boat along the Tonle Sap River was a comedy of errors from the start. What we thought was a 6am pickup (for a 7am departure) was in fact a 6.40am shuttle to a makeshift bus stop. Hoards of people kept arriving, each more looking more confused than the last. Finally, a small bus arrived. We all squished on, and, as directed, we sat 1.5 people per seat. After a nice, cosy bus ride we arrived at the river, only to find a similar situation on the boat. We opted to sit on the roof with the luggage. A big call at the start of what we thought would be a 7hour trip. Somehow, another 20 or so people disappeared on board after us. It is still a mystery where they all sat.
Finally all aboard, we took off, welcoming the breeze in the blistering heat. We cruised along the river before reaching the Tonle Sap Lake, where we saw the first of many floating villages. Crossing the lake was pretty incredible. We couldn’t see any land mass, just a large expanse of water. When we reached the river mouth another floating village greeted us. I watched in pure amazement as children, surely only three or four, navigated the network of houses on boats, rowing themselves around without concern.
At about 1pm we had a break for lunch. This couldn’t have come soon enough for us. While we could stretch out on the roof, we had no shelter from the sun. A slight breeze came as a relief at times but was incomparable to the shade. We both enjoyed a beef and bean stir-fry and stocked up on water. Before leaving I went to the toilet, only to find it was a hole straight into the river!
Another boat pulled alongside and half the people originally on our boat jumped ship onto a slightly smaller vessel. Initially confused, it wasn’t long before I realised why. During the dry season the river level drops considerably. We realised this would be an issue the first time we ran aground. No problems, we continued on our merry way after being levered off the bank with a bamboo stick. Further downstream, the river seemed to transform into a creek. I had a sneaking suspicion we would have some trouble when two (much smaller) fishing boats got stuck ahead of us. It was about this stage I started mentally tallying our rations (we didn’t have many) and was prepared to be either spending the night on the boat or start walking.
There were a few varied emotional responses from the other passengers, and with a bit of panic surfacing, a plan was formed. Probably not the most logic of plans, people clung to the side rails, hanging off the boat attempting to rock it from side to side. Unfortunately, we had no idea what was happening as majority of people on board were French, consequently the plan was formulated and executed in a tirade of French. We sat atop the roof with an Italian couple (who also couldn’t understand) and participated as we could. After about an hour we progressed around 10m, which was far enough for us to get another 100m downstream before we were stranded again. This time, people jumped into the water and started pushing. Remembering the earlier toilet situation, I quietly suggested to Jimmy getting into the water wouldn’t be the smartest of ideas. With the engine smoking, a lot of pushing and swearing, it was evident we were well stuck.
The language barrier continued to prevent too much interaction with those orchestrating the new plan, however, we started attempting to wave down locals in small longboats in an attempt to further lighten the road. It must have been an entertaining sight for them, a boatload of tourists stranded on the river in various states of distress (one girl was crying by this stage) flailing about trying to communicate what they wanted. The funniest thing was watching the multiple local’s just wave and laugh as they drove past. Eventually, two separate boats took about 20 people and their luggage, just enough to get us through the most shallow parts of the creek.
We continued on as survivors, the joyful banter a stark contrast to the stressed exchanges earlier. By this stage it was dark, our 7hour journey had already stretched to more than 12hours and we were sunburnt and dehydrated. When the captain stopped and dashed up the river bank (we were back onto what could be called a river by this stage) he soon became everyone’s hero, returning with a case of beer! Universally understood in every language, a case of beer sure goes a long way.
The hilarity was not over yet. As a day cruiser, the boat was not equipped with navigation lights. A few people stood on the bow with torches, yelling to be heard over the roar of the engine, instructing the driver where to go. We arrived in Battambang a few hours later, 14hours after we initially embarked on our journey.
While it wasn’t quite what we signed up for, it most certainly was an experience. In some ways, we got more than what we bargained for. The sunset was beautiful, casting an incredible red glow over the river and it’s surrounds. Ironically, being stuck on the also river gave us a bit more of an opportunity to interact with the locals.
I had pre-booked us into Battambang My Homestay, a bit anxious we would struggle to find a place to stay (mainly as it was between Christmas and New Year). At the time, I wasn’t too worried about being 2km out of town. After calling the owner, he informed me to call him back when we were at the port and he would send his tuk tuk driver to pick us up, free of charge. After being harassed by at least 20 tuk tuk drivers, we attempted to call the owner without any success. We jumped in the nearest tuk tuk and embarked on the last portion of our trip. As we drove into the darkness, the surrounds seemed to get more and more dodgy. By the time we arrived, the houses were all hidden behind huge fences topped with razor wire. I was well on edge by this stage. Inside the gates I was able to relax, the guesthouse was lovely and our room was well set out. We did find the owner a bit overbearing; he seemed overly interested in our movements, as if he was monitoring our activities. While he came across as overly friendly, it was difficult to tell what his motive was. Perhaps he was just friendly, hoping for good reviews of his guesthouse, however, I’m suspicious he just wanted a cut of all the different things we could do in Battambang. It unfortunately made me feel quite uneasy.
Starving after the long day on the boat, we took the My Homestay tuk tuk into a restaurant in town. Delivered right outside a Khmer restaurant, we enjoyed a lovely Khmer meal. We later realised the restaurant owner was the brother of the tuk tuk driver. It was becoming more obvious the locals were all in cahoots, directing tourists to certain places that would benefit their friends and family.
Breakfast both mornings was served as part of our stay at My Homestay. Both mornings we had a beautiful meal. Firstly, we enjoyed a tasty mince served wrapped in a pancake, which had all been cooked in a banana leaf. The second morning we were served a combination of fresh and fried rice paper rolls. While something a bit different for breakfast, we both really enjoyed the change.
We made very few plans on how we wanted to spend our time in Battambang. Exhausted after the boating adventure, we decided against a tour around the various sights around the town, instead opting to explore and enjoy the Battambang township.
Heritage Walking Trail
After getting the idea from the Lonely Planet, we followed the Heritage Walking Trail. It was another comical experience. We were lead around to see various buildings, including the train station, which had been closed for what seems to be a long time. We abandoned the walk in favour for lunch and enjoyed a restful afternoon in a café.
Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus
We were lucky enough to be in town on one of the three nights the Phare Ponleu Selpak Circus was running. Excited, we decided to walk the 3km from My Homestay to the circus. The quickest route took us along narrow dirt roads through some of the poorer areas in town. Children were running out of their houses to greet us, one girl even running up and enveloping my legs in a hug. We felt like a bit of a spectacle, everyone stopped what they were doing to stare at us as we wandered along the road. Feeling as though we were intruding, we cut onto one of the more main roads when possible.
When we eventually arrived I was pretty excited, I have always found the circus fascinating. Phare Ponleu Selpak was no exception. Similarities can be drawn between this performance and Cirque du Solei. The performers told a story of a young man returning to his hometown in rural Cambodia and falling in love with a local girl after spending time in a big city. Their skills were incredible and I was held captive for the entire show. The best part, it was very clear they were really enjoying themselves.
Phare Ponleu Selpak translates to “the brightness of the arts”. After meeting in an art class at a refugee camp in 1986, nine Cambodians came up with the idea to form an organisation with art as the focus to assist children with a traumatic past. The centre was founded in 1994 by the group and their French art teacher. Today, they work with children from a disadvantaged background. Many of the children have suffered from poverty, abuse and violence. Using the various forms of art, they educate, professionally train, and provide pathways that ensure rehabilitation and employment with fair wages for the children in their program.
Not only is the show incredible, the organisation is genuinely working to improve the quality of life of disadvantaged children. As I mentioned earlier, it was clear the performers were all enjoying themselves and the show they were delivering. At the end of the show, the audience was informed the group was travelling to France in 2016 to further advance their skills. It’s exciting to hear such great opportunities are being facilitated by the organisation. Definitely a great show and a cause worth donating to.
PEOPLE & CULTURE
The boat trip gave us the opportunity to gaze into the everyday life of a Cambodian living in a floating village. The children were incredible, I’m sure they can probably swim before they can walk. As we travelled further towards Battambang, the banks were lined with makeshift shacks. It was obvious people only live there during the dry season, as in the wet season the water levels rise considerably and the land they were living on would be completely under water. I was amazed by their seemingly nomadic lifestyle. What do they do in the wet season, where do they go? It can’t be an easy lifestyle, especially considering so many of them have small children. It was fascinating for me to try and comprehend, especially after growing up in such a stable environment.
Interestingly, a lot of the children came running out when they heard the boat. While some of them smiled and waved, yelling “hello” as we passed, others waved briefly before putting their hand out, as if asking for money. This fascinated me, small toddlers already engaging in a sort-of begging. Or, were they used to the tourists giving them things as they passed? It’s difficult to know, but certainly an interesting behaviour to observe.
From here we travel to Phnom Penh. We are still unsure whether we should stay for New Years Eve or if we should head further south to the beaches at Sihanoukville. I think we will make a decision once we get to Phnom Penh and get a bit of a feel for the city.
WHAT WE LEARNT
I learnt a lot from the behaviour of the other tourists when our boat got stuck. Realistically, we were stuck and there was very little that could be done about that. The only action that had any direct effect on the boat moving (in my opinion) came from a teenage girl, travelling with her parents, who was the first to jump off the boat. I thought it was incredibly brave and demonstrated a great deal of initiative. While others were yelling and putting on a bit of a performance, she simply jumped off quietly and showed others what needed to be done. An action I admired, especially considering I was too scared of what was lurking in the water to consider getting off the boat, even though the water was only thigh deep. It just goes to show, those who remain calm in stressful situations will often give the best guidance and lead by example.
With a relatively quiet day in Battambang, we managed our budget well. After looking into accommodation in Phnom Penh, it seems the $10 USD per night will not get us far in Cambodia. So far we have broken the budget every night with our accommodation and I foresee that trend continuing. I had, however, budgeted $20 USD per day for activities, which seems to be helping absorb some of the extra accommodation costs. I think after Phnom Penh we will have a better idea of how we are managing the budget.