Cambodia Part Four
We drifted along under a cloudless sky, pushing through narrow waterways that were flanked by lush greenery. Birds chirped overhead to the drone of the boat’s motor.
It was the middle of another hot Cambodian day and I was sitting atop a small ferry on my way to Battambang – another popular destination I was venturing to with Petia during our travels away from the NFO orphanage. We were travelling from Siem Reap on board a small ferry, travelling on what is said to be the most scenic trip in the country. At around nine hours long it must surely be one of the longest.
Getting to the boat was actually an adventure in itself. We waited outside our hotel early in the morning for our transfer – a small truck already loaded with other tourists and their luggage. In true Cambodian style we were squeezed on anywhere there was space – Petia in the front and me on the back, clutching on to the sides for fear of falling off. Excess bags were strapped on with ropes.
We trundled along the road (while actually picking up more people on the way) to the harbour where dozens of boats bobbed on the
shallow water of the river.
As everyone found a seat on the boat and waited patiently for it to take off (Cambodians are relaxed to say the least when it comes to punctuality), women would clamber through the windows shoving bread and cold drinks in your face, eager to sell you something to snack on during the journey.
Eventually we set off, moving along the harbour towards the wetlands we would travel through.
More than once the boat became stuck trying to negotiate the tight bends of the river, adding delays to the already long trip.
After a while we emerged out of the wetlands and on to the Tonlé Sap – the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. The water stretched for miles and it felt like we were out at sea. However it was nothing compared to what it would be during the wet season, when the lake’s area expands by almost 14,000 square km and its depth by up to eight metres. It floods the surrounding fields and helps the area become one of the most productive inland fisheries in the world, supporting over three million people.
What makes the lake even more special are the floating villages that perch serenely on its edges. People move by boats between the houses, shops and churches built on stilts. It was incredible to see.
The rest of the journey was spent sunbathing on the roof of the boat, reading and taking in the views, and waving to children on the shores of the river when we passed along more developed areas.
Finally we arrived at Battambang, where, having climbed up a steep hill with our bags, we were greeted by a hoard of tuk-tuk drivers, all vying for our attention and business, looking to take us to the hotel they worked for in the city.
After choosing one and arriving at the hotel, Petia and I arranged to be taken to one of Battambang’s main attractions – the bamboo train. Consisting of a bamboo frame powered by a small gas engine, the train runs along a warped single-track railway line and is used by locals to transport goods to market.
When two trains meet, the one with the lighter load is quickly dismantled to allow the other to pass.
As we zoomed along the track, the sun was starting to drop in the sky and we stopped the train at a small bridge to watch what was one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen.
We moved along the tracks for a few more minutes, stopping at a small shop for refreshments, before embarking on the return journey.
sleep to prepare for a tour of Battambang's countryside the next day.
We were picked up early and made our way out of the city and along the incredibly bumpy roads.
The red dust they were covered in flew up from under the wheels and blanketed everything around us. Buildings and huge plant leaves at the side of the road were choked with what our tuk-tuk driver had called Cambodian snow.
We stopped for breakfast in a small village near the first site on our tour (a temple complex and the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau, where people from the area were executed by the Khmer Rouge).
It was here that our tuk-tuk driver began to tell us about his experiences of the brutal regime, explaining quite matter-of-factly how his father and brother were killed by Khmer Rouge members.
I think it was the first time that the heartbreaking reality of that time set in.
After breakfast we began to make our way up to the site of the caves and the temples that surrounded them, led by a small girl serving as our tour guide. Following her up some very steep paths, we arrived at a small monastery where tangerine robes hung out in the sun. We stood and admired the impressive views from the top of the hill before making our way through a few more temples and down to the Killing Caves. We descended a staircase into an eerie cavern where an elderly woman, a monk, sat near a glass case filled with the bones and skulls of Khmer Rouge victims. In a similar way to the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh, the memorial served as a ghostly reminder of what had happened here.
We were led through the temples by the little girl to make our way back down the hill. However our path had been blocked by something we daren’t mess with – monkeys.
Though they seemed preoccupied with grooming each other and playing with grass, the monkeys are often very territorial and can carry rabies. This somewhat diminished the comedy value of the situation. Despite our guide’s attempts to scare them away, we were led down the hill via an alternative route (though we still had to dodge a few more monkeys.)
Our legs now needing a rest, Petia and I hopped into our tuk-tuk after thanking our guide and giving her a small tip. We were soon bumping along the “snow” covered roads again, making our way through vast fields back to Battambang.
It was actually now Christmas Eve - the last night of our travels away from the orphanage - and it was time to make our way back there. Petia and I went to Phnom Penh to spend the night before catching the bus back to Takeo, in time for the Christmas day celebrations organised for the NFO children. Having seen, tasted, felt and experienced some of what Cambodia had to offer - and what it had endured - we were eager to get back. Our week-long trip had been amazing, filled with beautiful sights, incredibly friendly people and perhaps not so friendly monkeys.