It has been the best holiday but it is about to come screeching to an end for me while Caz moves onto a Yoga retreat. It’s about two weeks now since Kelly and Caleb returned to Melbourne. From Siem Reap they traveled to Phnom Penh on the same morning as we caught a boat to Battambang. After the pick-up bus forgot us, we had a mad dash in a rickety tuk tuk to the boat dock, where we were told at the top of the ramp to “get on the blue boat” and at the bottom of the ramp, faced 20+ blue boats, only one of which was ours. More shouting and we finally found the right blue boat, where about 50 other passengers had been waiting for our arrival for the past hour.
Mum, Ruth and I took this same boat in the opposite direction three years ago and second time around, watching life on the water in the floating villages had a similarly powerful effect. It takes about two hours to cross Tonle Sap lake and another four or five hours on the Sangker River, which is wide and flowing near the lake with many floating villages, fish and crocodile farms, pagodas, mosques, homes, government offices and restaurants. Children run excitedly to the water’s edge of their unfenced floating wooden verandahs to wave and shout “hello” at the tourist boat, and I wonder how many drownings must occur. Produce galore makes it’s way on narrow motorised canoes from one location to another, water taxis speed past and locals paddle out to our boat to collect a bag of rice ordered from town or pick up a family member returning home. Everyone is agile and confident on the water.
The river narrows and dries upstream towards Battambang, where residents become embankment dwellers and live in some of the most impoverished homes I have ever seen, many of which can hardly even be called “shacks”. With the Dry Season well underway, as the river narrowed we began to run aground regularly. At first our driver pushed us off the banks with a long bamboo pole, but he soon stripped down to his underwear and jumped in the mud to use his full weight against the boat. What a job! A small cargo boat loaded with plastic jerry cans pulled up alongside us, tied a line of rope to a hook on our bow and towed us a short way until he too, ran aground. What seemed like moments later, a man appeared on the riverbank, shouting and pointing. We moored a short distance along and our bags were thrown in chain gang style from the roof of the boat out onto the embankment, about six men up the muddy bank to the field above while the passengers formed a line alongside the chain gang, clambering to dry land where three utility trucks awaited us in a crop field. Our bags were tied securely onto the back of the tray backs and we all climbed aboard for an hour-long drive into Battambang.
When I first came to Cambodia I spent months feeling highly amused at the way people travel on the backs of utes, roofs of trucks and buses, hanging out of the back doors of minivans, and even sitting on motorbikes secured to transport vehicles. I slowly came to a realisation that this is less amusing than it initially seems. A much cheaper form of travel, people do it because they have no choice, not because they have no insight into the dangers. I pondered on all of this as I climbed onto the back tyre and hoisted myself clumsily onto the tray back, squeezing in amongst about 20 other tourists, all looking as amused as I felt! Most of my fellow passengers spoke Spanish or French so our only shared form of communication was hysterical laughter as we ducked under trees, lurched uphill and down dale, and leaned around bends on the bumpy dirt tracks, plus more laughter as locals did a double-take at the overcrowded tray back full of Barang, not Khmer.
Battambang is an interesting city and we found a lovely little hideaway bungalow in a forested setting with a pool, not too far from town. The Night Market beside the river has lovely alfresco restaurants serving quality Khmer food and there’s an attractive colonial town centre with bars and restaurants catering to expats and tourists. According to one Australian bar tender, Battambang has the biggest artist population in all of Cambodia. The gap between wealthy and poor is visible with beggars and shack-dwellers living alongside the tourist and expat population.
Phare Ponleu Selpak is a non-profit organisation based in Battambang who not only provide social support and education to 1000 young people, they also founded the Cambodian Circus. At US$14 per ticket, a troupe of perhaps 20 talented young locals enchant tourists a few evenings each week and we had the privilege of seeing them. Not only agile gymnasts, they were cute and hilarious and anyone going to Battambang or Siem Reap should absolutely treat themselves to one of the most fun nights you’ll have, while contributing to a wonderful cause. You can read more about them at Phare Ponleu Selpak where they say in part, Today in Battambang, children and families still face many social problems. Children drop out of school, experience domestic violence, drug abuse, and migrate illegally to work in extremely poor conditions in Thailand where they face exploitation and abuse…. We take a holistic approach to solving social problems through the arts, education, and social work. Phare Ponleu Selpak seeks to provide education, access to the arts, vocational training, and professional pathways to the children and young adults of our community.