Cambodia

Published on February 11th, 2011 | by Simon

How many foreigners can you fit in a Toyota pickup?

Much touted as a charming boat trip through rice paddies and farmland, this would be a 3-4 hour trip in the wet season. But right now it’s dry…

 

So a pre-dawn pickup in Siem Reap leads to a crammed bus ride for about an hour to the most upriver point where you can board the 10metre boat. On reflection it may not have been the best choice to sit on the elevated back section, given that it is right behind a monster truck engine in a wooden housing. Sensibly, the captain sits upfront with what looks like a recycled set of truck pedals and steering wheel to control this monster which he guns regularly to ear-splitting level (I am so glad I packed my earbuds so as to reduce the noise to that of a 747 in flight).

A fair bit of sliding over mudbanks and defying the laws of hydrology (namely that if you push too hard with a propeller you will suck all the river out from in front of you making it even harder to move forward) sees us arrive in a huge freshwater lake where the banks recede into the distance. The lifejackets won’t be needed though, as it’s clearly extremely shallow.

 

Now moving into another river that issues into the lake, we begin to pass people in little boats and then quite large huts floating on bamboo rafts. It becomes clear why when we pass telco towers and control blocks set some 15 metres above the river. Clearly this gets very wet in the rainy season. Lots of local life and the occasional reminder that this is a real ferry and not some tourist boat as we pick up passengers brought out to us on little feeder boats. After about 4 hours we arrive at the riverway service station where we pull in for a floating lunch.

 

And the captain takes the opportunity to fill up the fuel tank – a rather alarming big barrel with a loose fitting lid right next to the engine. One big jerrycan upended into that does the trick, but I have to remind a fellow passenger to perhaps move a little further away in order to have a quiet cigarette without a large accompanying explosion.

The restaurant at the end of the waterway said there was still 3 hours to go – wrong!!
The river proceeds to get more and more shallow and now we have the captain’s mate – and later on two heroic but stupid tourists – handling huge punting poles to keep the front end of this monster in deeper water. This said, we still run aground twice with volunteers jumping into the river – now just knee-high – to push us off. In the end this all gets to be too hard and we grind to a halt by a stretch of bank just like any other – to find (thanks to the miracle of mobile phones) a couple of Toyota pickups waiting for us.

Now these are equipped with wooden benches attached to the top of the side rails, and with a big metal bar welded across the back at the same level so you can leave the rear load gate down thus adding more cargo space. And into this, you pile 20 tourists (but only three with the driver in front because more would be unsafe – yeah sure like 20 in back is safe) and all their bags which you lash down pretty firmly on the rear gate – I wonder why thought I…
Well it turns out the nearest excuse for a road is 6km from the river at this point and the only way out is a series of single track paths used at best by moto’s and crossing rutted fields. But the real drama comes when crossing about a dozen deep watercourses (now dry) running down to the river. The best required a makeshift bridge of logs to get over. My admiration for Japanese trucks is now boundless, and the bonds forged with my fellow travellers – often necessarily intimately – will be long-remembered. The 6kms took an hour. The next 12 down dirt roads was even more fun with locals pointing, shouting, and just staring in amazement at these weird foreigners (who must surely be participating in some reality endurance show).
And so we arrive in Battambang some 12 hours after we set out. But what a day!

Please see more images of Cambodia here.

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