Tuesday 15 January: Boat from Battembang to Siem Riep: 23km cycling

(David) Today was another non-cycling day (as will be tomorrow). For those following the trip on a map, Battembang is a city about 100km South East of Siem Riep, but the road trip between the 2 cities is over 170km as there is a vast lake and wildness area between the two cities.

So we caught the boat – with our bikes nestling on the upper deck – for the 7 hour trip along the River Sangke. The dry season meant the boat did not start in Battembang but 8 km down stream. “You follow the transport” was our instructions! So we cycled at full speed to try to follow a pickup which had our panniers, travellers and their rucksacks loaded in an improbable pile. But we arrived – slightly out of breath – and so did the luggage.

The boat was shallow bottomed and had a powerful (but loud) engine. Getting it off the mudflats was the first objective – and involved almost all of the men pushing and then jumping on before it got too far off shore! But we got going about 8am.

The pictures tell the story far more than any words – but the river meandered past hundreds of tiny villages where there was real poverty. Shacks looked flimsy, made of corrugated iron, pieces of plastic and timber, and perching on stilts for the wet season at precarious angles.

This was rural Cambodia where a combination of the fish in the river and subsistence farming meant people eked out survival. But even here there were motorbikes, the occasional school and riverside shops. Some of the long, thin boats passing us had impressive motors and were travelling at a fair speed. So it looks like there is development going on, but it is starting from a low base.

There was fishing with a variety of nets at all points, and also a great wealth of bird life. We saw one blue and red kingfisher but most of the birds moved too quickly to be identified, but were great to observe. At one stage we saw a “V” shaped flight of about 15 storks above – just like the red arrows. There were so excited very impressive bamboo structures holding large fishing nets with weights and pulleys to lift the nets inane out of the water. The other end was a living area, sometimes for whole families.

The water level varied and, at one point, the boat hit a sandbank. So we got into the water and pushed her off. When I say “we” I mean the collective male “we” on the boat, not the women who were not expected to get wet! It was quite fun really – especially seeing the battle of wills between the driver (who did this journey every day and thus probably knew what to do better than anyone) and the German tourist who was clearly an engineer in real life and had worked out all the angles, and gave clear Germanic instructions which everyone ignored. It as hard to know whether to laugh or push – so I did both.

Some of the “pushers” get left behind and have to swim to catch up with the boat!

There were the occasional larger settlement, and after about 3 hours we stopped at one for overpriced rice and vegetables. A captive audience the world over has no bargaining position. The crew ate for nothing!

Eventually the river got deeper and turned into reed beds, and then into open water. The crew opened the throttle and we steamed towards Siem Riep across Boeng Tonle Sab, the massive lake which leads almost down to Phnom Penh. The final few km were up the river which was full of tourist boats on day trips from Siem Riep. It was really quite congested!

The local health centre.

Arriving we felt a bit stiff, a bit weary but overall it was well worth it. We then packed up and cycled the 16km to find our accommodation – an apartment 4km outside the town. It was not “ready” when we arrived, due to us being the first people ever to use it. But at $15 a night we could hardly complain.
So we are all set to experience the largest religious space in the world tomorrow. Ankor Wat has a moat around it – which is 190m wide. It will be quite a place and something we could not miss in our travels, even though it will be mega busy and we’ll feel like processed tourists if we are not careful. However that is for tomorrow.

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