Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Cambodia - Sangker river, a source of life

Train Tracks to Nowhere
We were ready for a break after our trip from Bangkok to Battambang, probably because it was tough, as you could read in our last post, but admittedly we can tell that we are no longer in our 20’s. Age makes wiser, but certainly also more prone to exhaustion.

The town of Battambang was just the perfect place to recharge the batteries and start to think about what we are actually going to do in Cambodia (other than seeing Angkor Wat of course). This lovely sleepy little town is according to the guidebook the second largest in Cambodia, but has the small town feel of a rural village, similar to Ipoh in Malaysia.
To our surprise there are many fellow travelers in this town, and not the usual suspects with well used backpacks, colorful loose fitting cotton clothes and rasta hair… No, actually people that looked like they came straight off the plane from Paris. Surprisingly: there are many French women travelers in their 50’s carrying a designer daypack and the latest in leisure fashion. We also encountered quite a number of Americans in their 40-60’s smartly dressed and somewhat looking like "fish out of the water". Battambang has apparently many NGO’s that setup shop here, thus the high number of “unusual suspects”.
The Ice Cube Factory of  Battambang
 It must also be the capital of the missionaries of the world. Christians on foot, Mormons on bikes, Jehovah Witnesses in temples… you name it – we’ve seen it. In a cool cafe with graffiti scribbled all over the walls from fellow traveler's past comments, we found Jesus to be the most common word used throughout. There were even Bible covers for sale next to the scrumptious homemade apple cinnamon muffins.

We decided to focus our exploration more on the surrounding villages and landscapes and skip the temples, as we are going to go to Angkor Wat in just a few days and don’t want to be templed-out before even getting there. We loved the cool climate, the endless number of kids by the side of the road waving with their parents greeting us with similes.

Finally we made it…we are now travelers, not tourists anymore.

Exploring Battambang
As real travelers do, we wake at sunrise every day. Because we were so eager to explore or follow the local rhythm of getting up before sunrise, you might ask? Well not really, more so because our guesthouse was right next to the long distance bus depot, where the drivers would give the bus horns a good test-drive before taking off. The concert of horns was completed with the yells of the bus station master herding the passengers, tuk tuk touts, and other bystanders with his megaphone in the right direction.

Having collected our Visa for Vietnam and Patrick having gotten over a 24 hour stomach virus, it was time to leave this “second largest city” that more and more seemed like a little village and move on to Siem Reap.

The Boat from Battambang to Siem Reap
Rather than taking the roadway we opted for the river boat to Siem Reap. Probably one of the most memorable days that we will experience in Cambodia. Leaving Battambang, the river banks soon turned from noisy streets into small villages of simple bamboo huts without any roads nearby and the river as the center and source of life. 

We were struck by the importance of these muddy waters to support the lives of the villagers. The water color of the Sangker  River was mostly that of a cafĂ© au lait, and seemed pretty dead. However there were pumps all along the river to get the murky water into the fields and homes of the inhabitants. Fishing nets were plentiful and so were the fish that got entangled (caught) in them. The river waters are also used to wash clothes, take a bath, and doing their other “business”.
One of Many Women Fishing the
Sustainable Way
The Men Fish - Macho Style

The Ferry, Who Needs A Bridge?
It’s difficult to explain this in words, some of the pictures can probably better reflect the impressions that we got. This is life in its most basic and simple form. The daily routine seems to focus around food, shelter, washing and sleeping (yep, many people were also resting in hammocks along the river bank too). 

Hello, Hello, Hello...
There is just an air of tranquility about the life along the river that we seemed to have lost in the modern world. Simple boats are the means of transport, most without noisy motors, but with just one HP (human power) paddles. Occasionally we would see a larger boat stuffed full with goods for daily use, this must be the river version of the door to door sales man brining basic supplies to the villagers.

Fishing in The Narrow River
One of the most impressive parts of the river was the section of about 10km where the river was snaking through thick bush. Our boat could often hardly make the turn, sometimes crushing into the riverbank, and frequently running aground in the shallow river bed. Thankfully this boat seemed to have a strong hull and a powerful engine to muscle us loose from the muddy river bed.

The Junior Captain in Charge,
While Daddy is Napping
Hard At Work, The Captain's Son
The boat captain also had a deckhand to help him: his son that was probably 10 years old. This little man is the hardest worker. He would help to lift the luggage onto the roof, use a paddle 4 times his size to help turn the boat around the sharp turns, use the paddle to push the boat off the river banks when we ran into them, and even drive the boat for a portion of the journey when his father was taking a nap. 

Child labor you might say? Yes, but he had a smile on his face for the whole 9 hours of the trip, proud to be learning the river captain skills from his dad.  

This nine hour journey offered an amazing view into the backyard of the everyday life of rural Cambodians - very inspiring and truly memorable. The people are poor, barely have the very basics needed to live. Yet, they greeted us with smiles when we passed by on our boat full of tourists, maybe they though we are aliens? 

We have arrived in Siem Reap and are getting ready to spend the next days exploring the famous Angkor Wat and many other surrounding temples.

 More Pictures of the River Cruise from Battambang to Siem Reap
Houses on Stilts, the Water Level
is Rising During Wet Season
One of Many Local Villages Along
the Sangker River

Fishing And Farming Sustain
Local Life
Boat not Floating Any Longer?
Just Use it as House Boat, Inclusive TV

House or Barn?

One of Many Regional Offices
for The Cambodian People's Party

First Signs, of "Civilization"
With What We May Call REAL Houses
A Floating Grocery Store

Patrick Enjoying the Scenery,
Listening to his iPod