Water, water everywhere in Cambodia

By Jim Eagles

Halfway through our trip from Battambang to Siem Reap we stopped at a country store for a cup of tea. Nothing strange about that - except that we were in the middle of the largest lake in Southeast Asia and the store was floating on a bamboo raft.

While we floated on the Tonle Sap Lake and sipped our tea, a passing parade of locals meandered across to the shop to buy onions, salt or petrol, just as they might in any other small town, but they made the shopping trip by boat.

Here, water is the highway - and the footpath, the farm, the playground and the garden.

You can make the same journey by bus but unfortunately roads in Cambodia are often terrible - our guide described them as "chachacha roads" and bounced up and down to make the point - even to a tourist mecca like Siem Reap, the base for visiting Angkor Wat.

Instead we took the regular boat service, down the Sangker River and across the lake to the floating village of Chong Kneas, which is just 11km by a passable road to Siem Reap.

Making the journey by water is not only more comfortable than by road, and very good value, it is also fascinating.

For some reason the boat didn't leave from the Battambang wharf, where dozens of boats, buses and cars had gathered to exchange passengers. Instead we had a police escort for a wild bus ride down a track running alongside the river, until we reached a small village where the long, slender river boat was tied up to the shore, a narrow plank leading from the muddy bank to the deck.

Across this narrow gangway teetered a variety of people: mothers loaded with small children, and huge bags of supplies; wrinkled old women with battered suitcases tied with string; equally wrinkled old men with boxes of vegetables; burly young men lugging mysterious sacks; and even a few earnest backpackers carting mighty loads.

Eventually there was no room for more, and the ancient skipper started the equally ancient engine, willing hands pushed us away from the bank with long poles, and we were off.

The first stage of the trip, down the big, brown, slow-moving Sangker River, offered an insight into daily life in rural Cambodia.

We passed several fishermen drifting down the river in their boats, trailing long skinny nets held up with plastic bottles, occasionally hauling them in to remove a few small, silvery fish.

On the water's edge women were using the river to do their washing or, in a few cases, standing in the water fully dressed while small children completed their morning ablutions.

We passed French colonial villas - seedy, elegant reminders of a bygone era - but mostly the houses were neat reed-and-bamboo constructions on stilts.

All along the banks were grazing buffalo, sleeping dogs, farmers digging their vegetable patches and children hurtling down muddy slides into the river.

Gradually the river emerged into the lake.

We spotted the lake people, harvesting the grass for weaving into mats, poling along the edge of the aquatic shrubs to collect fruit, fishing or returning in heavily laden boats from shopping expeditions on the land.

From time to time we passed floating homes and once we passed a house, with what looked like the work shed hooked on behind, being towed to a more salubrious location by a diesel-powered boat puffing black smoke.

At times the watery highway was quite broad, but mostly it was just a narrow path between shrubs and grasses; so narrow that families coming the other way in their boats had to squeeze into the undergrowth to let us past.

Finally we reached what seemed to be the lake's main village, where we stopped for that cup of tea at the floating general store.

It sat in the middle of a community made up of large houseboats, lots of floating houses - like the store built on bamboo rafts - and a few residences sitting above the water on flimsy stilts.

Trade was busy. A small girl, maybe 8 or 9, punted over from a floating house, sat in her boat and called out to the shopkeeper, presumably asking for the weekly grocery order.

Soon afterwards an old man arrived, a cigarette dangling from his lips, jumped ashore and jumped the queue - much to the annoyance of the girl - to buy salt that was meticulously weighed out by the shopkeeper in some handheld scales.

Off paddled the old man, still smoking; the girl finally got her groceries, and headed sulkily homeward, and the shopkeeper had time for a brief puff on his own cigarette before the next customer arrived, wanting a bottle of petrol (petrol is sold in bottles and the storekeeper made use of whatever kind was available at the time).

At the rear of the store, linked by a thin plank, was a floating kitchen where a girl of about 12 was washing rice - in the filthy water of the lake - chopping vegetables and cooking in a wok on a glowing bed of charcoal.

On a narrow platform sticking out from the shop, one of the ubiquitous lean Asian dogs slept in the sun. Further along a couple of chickens cackled contentedly in their pen. In the houseboat next door three small boys played some sort of game with sticks.

In other words, a typical village community, little changed by the mere fact of being afloat.

Our boat continued on its journey, regularly stopping to pick up or let off passengers and cargo, just like any public transport.

A uniformed soldier carrying a sack of goodies was warmly welcomed by the assembled family, suggesting he had been away for some time. Two young girls travelling on their own were passed across to a floating home - by the look of it going for a holiday with granny. A young couple with a new baby and a vast pile of packages were dropped off at a huge floating home with a big television aerial, and were greeted with shrieks of excitement from the waiting family.

While I watched this passing parade the rubber hose returning cooling water from the engine to the river suddenly came loose and gave me a good hose down to the huge joy of the rest of the passengers. The skipper made repairs and it promptly came loose again.

I retired, dripping, to the roof to dry off and discovered that the view of the passing aquatic harvesters was much better from up there.

We passed several mobile shops, loaded with vegetables and chickens, and a mobile workshop, on which the owner was busy beating some red-hot metal in a fire while his vessel chugged along.

Several more floating villages passed by, some with huge cellular phone towers, and increasingly thick clusters of television aerials which looked strangely inappropriate out in the middle of the water.

These signs of civilisation signalled that we were closing in on journey's end, Chong Kneas, where a large floating village clusters round the shoreline and several rickety wharves extend out into the water.

As soon as our vessel berthed several husky young men jumped aboard, jostling for the privilege of carrying our bags, while a swarm of young children gathered pleading for money.

Radios blared, stallholders noisily advertised their wares, decrepit cars poured out exhaust fumes as their drivers touted for business and the ground was covered in rubbish.

We were back on dry land. It was easy to see why so many people preferred the tranquillity of the lake.

* Jim Eagles travelled to Cambodia courtesy of World Expeditions and Singapore Airlines.


Getting there
Singapore Airlines flies 19 times weekly from New Zealand direct to Singapore. From Singapore, passengers can choose from 14 weekly flights to Phnom Penh or daily flights to Siem Reap on Silkair. For more information on Singapore Airlines' services visit www.singaporeair.co.nz (link below).

Getting around
World Expeditions' regular 11-day Best of Laos and Cambodia trips, which start from Luang Prabang, cost $2320 (not including airfares to and from New Zealand, visas and some meals).
As well as the boat trip between Battambang and Siem Reap, the itinerary includes three days in Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat and the other temples of the Khmer empire, the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, three days in the ancient Lao capital of Luang Prabang, the modern Lao capital of Vientiane and the town of Vang Vieng on the Mekong River.
For more information phone World Expeditions on 0800 350 354 or visit www.worldexpeditions.co.nz (link below).

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