Thursday, 27 November 2014

Travel: From Siem Reap to Battambang by boat

Siem Reap is a surreal bubble, part transitioning city and mostly tourist trap. Heaving with guest houses and overrun with tuk tuk drivers, it is firmly geared towards and heavily reliant on the steady stream of tourist trade. Far from criticism, this is just an observation and an explanation why I left Siem Reap after a couple of temple-filled days and hopped on a long boat journey to Battambang.

If you're travelling from Siem Reap to Battambang, you have two choices: fast and cheap or long and slow. The bus leaves several times a day, takes about 5 hours hours and costs around $10 whereas the boat leaves at 7am, takes upwards of 6 hours (season dependant) and costs around $25. The plus side with cruising by boat is chugging through beautiful scenery as well as passing by several floating villages. Sold.

In typical Cambodian fashion, my ride picked me up at 7am, despite the fact that the boat is scheduled to leave at 7am. Well used to laid back Cambodian timing, I smiled and slung my backpacks in the back of the pick up and chatted with my French and German travel companions.

On the road out to the boat, the layers of tourist-centric Siem Reap were peeled away revealing the true Cambodia. Brick houses made way for modest bamboo and corrugated metal houses and free roaming chickens. It was a glimpse into the beautiful, simple Cambodia that I wanted to see buried beneath the $5 massage parlours and neon signs of Pub Street.

 It took me 8 hours to get from Siem Reap to Battambang after eventually leaving just after 8am. Luxury it ain't, seats are wooden so expect a sore bum. Try to bag a seat towards the front away from the noisy engine. Bring plenty of water and some snacks. Make sure you have plenty of tunes and a full battery to take some stunning pictures.

The floating villages are so pretty and show a life as far removed to the Siem Reap rat race as possible. It feels like a different world. Wooden or metal houses are built on stilts, dozens clumped together forming villages on the calm waterways. The sound of the boat draws beautiful Cambodian children out of their houses, waving eagerly with easy, happy smiles on their faces. Then once again, navigating through thick vegetation with the odd butterfly flirting in and out of the boat until we happen upon another idyllic village.

As pretty as the scenery and villages are, I also had a glimpse of Cambodia's poverty. Some of the country's poorest people live along this river, bathing in the polluted brown water and living in basic housing. It was a stark contrast to superficial Siem Reap and a reminder that the country was still recovering from Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime. More of that in a later post.

Sometimes, it's the journey not the destination and this one was worth every minute and dollar. I spent the whole 8 hours with my eyes wide open and astounded by the beauty of Cambodia and its people. It was the perfect antidote to the intensity of Siem Reap and gave me a glimpse into real Cambodia.
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