We decided to take a river boat between Siem Reap and Battambang...actually it was pretty well the reason we (I!) wanted to go to Battambang in the first place. This is one of those things that we knew in advance would definitely not be easier than the bus but hopefully would be more memorable. Before even booking it, this is what we knew about it: awesome scenery and view of Cambodian life but sketchy- exceptionally poor safety standards (enter my own inflatable lifejacket, yes!) and they say it takes 5 hours but in dry season which we're in, expect that it will take longer because you'll go slow and you'll get stuck. It fulfilled our expectations, good and bad, and more ! We LOVED that old, rickety, must be ready to explode boat and the experience we got!!
We woke up at 5:50 am as the shuttle to the boat picked us up at 6:30...so many early mornings! The boat itself wasn't half bad-it was a small wooden boat (they all are, this was no surprise) with two wooden bench seats across with an isle in the middle and several rows. It had a wooden canopy on top but open air the rest which was a HUGE relief to me because the other boat at the dock between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh was a "coffin boat" where the passenger seats were inside a fully enclosed tube with unopening windows-not sure if I could have gotten on that one. To be honest, given the rugged nature of it, I expected that it would be a bunch of young backpackers on it but I was shocked because most of the passengers were actually middle aged people with suitcases-amazing!
One thing that wasn't mentioned anywhere prior to booking was how reality-defyingly loud this boat was. As soon as they fired up the engines myself and several other people around me swiftly created earplugs out of whatever we had-mine were squished up kleenex pieces stuffed in my ears which I wore the whole trip. Bridger didn't wear any, wtf. It was literally so loud that I wasn't sure how I'd make it through the next 5 (I mean 6, 7, 8, 9 or 10!) hours. Bridger and I actually fought the night before so it worked out because what better way to get over a fight than being stuck on a boat where it was way to loud to talk for the full day :)
We started moving through the "river"-not a river like the kind that we are familiar with but a stream of muddy water that was barely wider than the boat until the river opened up into this HUGE lake-like body called the Tonle Sap which we crossed and continued down the river on the other side. For a few really smooth, really enjoyable, really peaceful hours we cruised down these beautiful rivers full of lily pads. For miles along this river there were a ton of floating villages and I literally mean floating villages. Every house was built pretty well on a raft right out on the water and the local people rode these really thin long boats between places. But they had everything--floating houses, floating markets, floating shops, floating schools-it was really amazing and so authentic to see! We just cruised through as the local people went about their daily routines and occasionally stopped while some local people would boat out to our boat to either collect supplies, drop off supplies or hop on the boat altogether. These people were literally people of the river who obviously made their living off fishing as they had several different methods of catching fish, one that was a giant lever-net-weight kind of machine.
It was interesting because even though everything in these villages was basic, they really seemed to be these thriving and vibrant communities. This was the first half of the trip-beautiful, smooth and charming way of life. Teh next half became a little bit more dismal. It was quite interesting because as the river went on it narrowed considerably and the vegetation started to thin out until we were eventually left with barren muddy banks.
As the trees and lush rivers faded away, it was replaced with the real rural Cambodia. Gradually the floating homes were replaced with homes made out of old boats, corrugated metal, bamboo or at worst, just sticks or a patchwork of different materials including tattered sheets. Many homes were not even fully enclosed but rather, open to the elements and I had to wonder what would happen during rainy season when the rains, winds and storms blew in? And much of the time the homes stood by themselves in the middle of nowhere with little apparent village or community. As the river narrowed, the people did not seem to have as many boats, they wore less clothes and seemed to fish more by spear than big bamboo contraptions.
Earlier I had been mulling over the question of whether the floating villages were in fact "poor" with the requisite struggle to obtain basic needs and denying of opportunity that poverty brings, or whether this was not poverty but just a different culture and a simpler but abundant in basic needs way of life. I decided the former but it begs the question of what exactly is poverty and when do things shift from basic to despaired and are outsiders even qualified to make those judgements with only their eyes as they pass through? In the western world I think we tend to equate basic (i.e. lacking in luxuries and leisure that we prize so highly) with "poor" which on reflection , I don't necessarily think is the case. We can't just assume that others with a standard of living different than ours is "poor" but at what point does this different standard shift from a different way of life into true poverty and daily struggle to survive? It's a hard question and I don't think that for the most part you'll always know. Except for when you just know--As was the case with this part of Cambodia when all of a sudden my earlier question didn't seem relevant anymore because it was so obvious yet the people still smiled and laughed and the kids still played just like all the other kids. I dunno what to say about it all. Then there was the internal conflict I had because all along the way, the whole boat load of us were enthralled with the sheer differences in living and wanted to take a bunch of pictures naturally. But then you're never really supposed to snap pictures of people without asking permission (obviously we couldn't because we were too far away) and more than that, at times the whole thing started to feel a bit like a human zoo and there were times when it just felt wrong to be taking pictures so even though I really wanted to, I refrained because I just didn't feel like it was appropriate (i.e. the topless woman bathing on the dock). I also tried to make myself feel better about it because at least we did not come to see these villages on a tour in itself (such a thing exists) but rather this was our transportation through so I felt a little bit more legitimate and a little bit less slimy. I do wonder what all these people think of us tourists coming through taking pictures of them doing what they normally do. Haha I remember one time in Belize, I was sitting on the grass reading a book minding my own business and some Chinese tourists just came up to me and just started snapping away pictures of me without saying a word (since this trip I've realized this is a really common occurrence among the Chinese tourists)! For one, I didn't have any idea why they would want this picture of me and for another it was so strange because I didn't really know what to do with myself! And then I realized that this was probably the only time in life when people that I wasn't associated with in any way tried to take my picture. Anyways, I wonder if they feel like that?
It was also about this time, around the 5 hour mark (when we were supposed to be there) that the river was really shallow with tight turns and curves---and our boat started to beach itself on the sandy river bottom/bank I'd say approximately every 4 minutes, sometimes multiple times within that time frame! Again, we are at the height of dry season so we knew this was a likely possibility, I just don't think we realized the sheer frequency! There were times when we moved a foot before beaching again! On the part of the boat captain, the answer to this was always to gun the engine full force and hope the force will push us out. When that failed, there was also the boat man with the big wooden paddle to push us out. And when that failed, there was also the boat man to just get in the water and I don't know what he was doing but maybe pushing or digging us out. Sometimes all these things together would just serve to send us hurdling right into the other bank, rinse and repeat! It was incredible though because no matter how stuck we were or how much I thought the engine was going to erupt in flames at any minute, they always got us out!
All in all, our 5 hour boat ride turned into about 9 hours. But what was so charming about that whole time on the river was that kids of all ages all along the way, floating villages and rural of the rural would come running near and far to wave at our boat and yell hello...all 9 hours of our trip!! And it never got old waving back to them. Sometimes they would wave from the time you were far away to close and they'd still be waving as you had long passed them! I still don't know why they cared so much about us but it made the boat trip that much more amazing that they did!
We finally got into Battambang, a little city on a river with much less tourists than elsewhere in Cambodia.
We hoofed our stuff up the hill from the pier and started towards the hotel we booked, feeling really confident that we could walk ourselves because we knew exactly where we were going, blowing by the awaiting tuk tuk driver scrum. The drivers said "you're going the wrong way" and I said (in my head) feeling really proud of myself "ha ya right, I have a map and I already have my hotel loaded in, you're not going to scam me!" while walking right on by towards my hotel. Tuk tuk driver drives up following us and informs us that downtown is the opposite way and we really are going the wrong way. We gave up and took the tuk tuk and turns out yep, we were walking in completely the opposite direction! Arrogance is never rewarded! Eventually got to the hotel for $11/night with AC...but you get what you pay for because it also came with a very dirty unusable bathtub (a rarity in Asia and not natural), hair in the drain still and sketchy characters lurking around. We were also reminded at this hotel why you have to be really quick on unloading and picking up your own bag because as soon as those lurking bellboys get ahold of it, game over, you owe them a tip! We do tip alot in Cambodia as we feel its the least we can do to support the front line people working hard but on our budget, we're not tipping for things we can easily do ourselves! Anyways, we moved hotels the next day to a beautiful perfect hotel we were so happy in.
That night we went to a beautiful riverside restaurant and ordered straight up cheeseburgers and fries for $3.50 and after a long travel day we were both SO excited for the fries. Well our plate comes out with a lone burger in the middle, nothing else (this looks so odd coming from a culture of giant, fill up every inch of the plate portion sizes), plates dropped, nothing said to us, see you later. What?! Where's my fries?! Nobody working at this restaurant speaks English, so much so that we saw them arguing over who had to go talk to us in the first place! Somehow I managed to ask where my fries were and was told "sorry, no fries". Wait what do you mean?! Like you're out of them or I just don't get any?! And why didn't you tell me before I ordered?! Turns out, they're out. Ok fine, we eat our lousy, disgusting burger and ask for the bill. Well sure enough bill comes for $3.50. You're kidding me--you only give me half my meal, don't say a word about it and then charge me the same price! So now, my principles are violated (and I'm french fry hangry) and I somehow I have to explain politely with lots of smiles to this girl that $3.50 was for fries and a burger but I only got half so, just no. I had the menu, was pointing to pictures, was gesturing and bless her she is trying her best and she's doing better than me in Khmer, but we are not communicating successfully! She just kept politely confirming "yes, $3.50 WITH fries, $3.50 with NO fries" and I just kept saying that yes, i understand what she is saying but insisting that I didn't get half my meal so I'm not paying full price and she just kept saying her thing. Eventually she said "I ask" and came back and said $3 and I was over the moon! Not about the 50 cents, just over the principle!! Maybe things like this are why local people inevitably start to hate tourists...
We did a full touristy day in Battambang where we hired a tuk tuk and saw all the main sights....we also saw a ton of street vendors lining the street selling grilled rats. I've never seen this anywhere else outside of Battambang! The first stop was the bamboo train, a main way that locals transported goods back in the day. Now the term train I use loosely-it is literally a single flat cart with bamboo slats and a motor attached to the back.
You sit on the top and race far too fast along ancient train tracks that I'm sure have not been serviced or looked at since 1882, that is until another train comes barreling head on towards you from the opposite direction at which point both drivers stop, totally dismantle one of the train cars, set it off the track, pass as needed then work together to reset up the train on the tracks! I was really excited to give this a shot but I knew within about 4 seconds after starting that this was not my thing...visions of derailing and/or train wheels rolling over body parts danced all too vividly in my head so I pretty well couldn't wait to get off.
Ha, be careful what you wish for...since the train is just a tourist gimmick and no longer used for transport, they let us off, sure. They let us off (i.e. trapped us!) at the end of the line for about 20 min in an intense scrum of stands selling tourist stuff and the kids, my god the kids, selling bracelets with the most hardcore moves and sales pitches and techniques I've ever seen! We know that you are absolutely under no circumstances supposed to buy from kids. Buying from kids makes kids selling things,a lucrative business which keeps kids out of school which traps them in the cycle of poverty for a lifetime. Don't buy from kids! Got it! Well, how long do you think Bridger lasted before completely collapsing under the weight of these darling but highly manipulative girls?! The second you're off that train they chase you down and somehow immediately railroad you into pinkie swearing that if you buy, you'll buy from them. So Bridger buckles (and I mean buckles-the guy bought like 6 bracelets from everyone!) and well of course, the girl I pinkie swore (when I was resolved to buy nothing) turned on the depresso-case pouty-face that now Bridger bought and she gets nothing because I'm such a non-buying miser and she's the only one who nobody bought from. So she breaks me and I buy bracelets too even though I dont want them!
We were so thankful when teh next cart came in and after making their sale, teh kiddos were on to their next targets. Finally peace! No, not peace...it started to rain so our return trip was stalled...now we're stuck in the pressure cooker of vendor Cambodia! A vendor lady urged us to come in to her stall and hide from the rain which we politely refused because we'd already lost too much money to the bracelet kids that we were certain if we went in to hide from the rain we'd have to buy from her too. I'm sure she thought we were truly insane when we chose to stand out in the rain saying "oh its just a little bit of rain, it feels nice!". As luck would have it, then it pissed down rain like monsoon style so we really did have to hide in her stall, though we helped her take down her items first so they wouldn't get wet. This lovely amazing person set up chairs for us and chatted away and then offered us these teeny tiny bananas. Of course, being a super banana hater I panicked and initially attempted to politely decline but she insisted so I took them and just prayed that she wouldn't make me eat them right on the spot or I would barf! She didn't so as soon as I could I stuffed them in my purse! After the rain stopped we were on our way and she really was just an insanely lovely person willing to help us out!!! Its so sad when you have these moments of skepticism such that you miss out on truly kind and altruistic interactions with people! I do find over and over again that it's a very fine line between being guarded and not getting taken and being open to new experiences.
After this we went on a short hike up a hill to the "killing caves". The cave had a big opening but then pretty well opened straight down into the ground and this is where the Khmer Rouge literally threw bodies during their rule...it was definitely eerie and disgusting. After this stop we headed to the real highlight of the day...bats! Never thought I would get so excited about bats but these were really cool bats! Outside Battambang there is a cave and literally every day at the exact same time, between 5:30 and 5:40 millions of bats fly out of the cave in these perfectly organized lines that snake through the sky to get to the fields where they eat all night and then return the next morning. The locals actually say there are millions of bats as the cave flows with a steady stream of them for about an hour before they have all emptied out. We got there about half hour before the fly time. At that time there were only a few bats flying around inside the cave entrance. As it got closer to fly time, more and more bats started waking up and flying totally erratically inside the cave entrance and the screech from inside the cave became louder and louder until the first wave flew out. It was so creepy but also so fascinating to watch and amazing that they do this routine like clockwork every day!
After watching the bats for awhile, we got back in the tuk tuk but by that time we had picked up 3 more passengers-the drivers sister and her two adorable, adorable kids who we rode back to town with. The little girl kept trying to entertain us by making faces which I also did back to her (I didn't realize how many tongue/mouth tricks I could pull out of my ass, a fortunate byproduct of working w kids for so long!) and then she tried to copy me. When the family got out, Bridger gave her one of the bracelets we just got conned into buying so a happy bracelet story in the end! We went out for dinner and tried to order our long awaited french fries at another restaurant for dinner and they were out too! We were starting to think maybe there was a Cambodia wide French fries shortage...
Haha I forgot another food story...we really struggled to eat wo incident in Battambang it seems! There was a night street food restaurant market thing set up across from our hotel and we were excited to go because it would be cheap. I ordered "fried noodle with shaimp".
Like any normal person, I chalked this up to an asian spelling mistake and interpreted fried noodles with shrimp. Sounds good, I'll take it. When it comes it, it is clearly squid all chopped up in my noodles, yuck! Now I'm in ANOTHER situation where I have to communicate about the mistake with another poor waitress who doesn't speak English because I CANT eat this! Ok, grab the menu as my prop and try to explain how I thought it was shrimp but this is not shrimp, it's squid. And then she points to the menu and my food and confirms that yes it is in fact "skimp" like I am requesting. I'm confused...what's skimp?! Has she just combined shrimp and squid into one word?! And she's confused why I'm asking for something that I quite clearly have...skimp...so what's the problem? I insist again that it's not shrimp and we go again, a few more rounds of this same conversation until I eventually get a menu out and just point to something else and call it a loss if I end up getting charged for two things. In the end, I got a good noodle bowl, she didn't charge me and a noodle bowl, fried rice and a beer cost all in $3.75. Awesome!
One thing that I've never really done while traveling is rent a bicycle. Mostly because up until recently I'm not sure that I could ride a bicycle since my last bike probably expired when I was like in grade 7 or something. Haha now that I think about it I'm not even sure if Bridger ever had a bicycle as a kid? I know he had a 4wheeler bike but not sure about a bicycle. Anyways, you should know that riding bicycles while traveling is AWESOME! It is so so cheap and allows you to cover large distances in short time so you can really explore an area. We rented bicycles in Battambang for $1.50 each a day and rode through the countryside for a few hours and saw two other tourists the entire day-this was a total highlight so far and really allowed us to see what village/local life looked like.
Wait, backtrack. We were SO stupid when we rented the bikes. The guy we rented from asked what hotel we're staying at (totally normal) and we told him. He also wanted a piece of collateral as incentive for us to bring the bikes back (also normal). Since we didn't have anything besides our room key on us, we gave him that as collateral and rode away. We had literally gotten just outside of town when Bridger had a flash of brilliance and was like "oh my god, they know what hotel we're at and we just left our freaking key so they could go to the hotel and clean us out if they wanted"!!! Oh my god, what a knot in my stomach after that. So sped back, made up some bullshit about forgetting something in our room so we needed the key and then Bridger went to the hotel to get some other more neutral piece of collateral and dropped that off instead. While he was gone, I somehow got talking to an older Cambodian guy who told me all sorts of interesting things about Cambodian history and politics. He told me he learned English when he was 21 during his stay in a UN run refugee camp for Cambodians on the Thai border ( I had never heard of this and looked it up later-sure enough there was one for a few years) and that the government is so corrupt that if you don't have money, its very difficult to get a job to make money. I asked him about his opinion of tourists and the increase in tourism (I want to ask this question to every local person I talk to in Asia as I'm very interested in what the general attitude is) and he felt that it was positive because it created more jobs which alleviated my travelers guilt for the moment. He was also explaining to me how two of the minority parties had merged and created a superparty "Cambodian National Rescue Party" (which he said was mostly made up of Khmer's from abroad coming home) and were finally starting to give some competition to the current government, the "Cambodian People's Party" and might eventually oust the current government as the younger generation is getting sick of the corruption and starting to speak out. By the sounds of it, the elections in coming years could be the beginning of turning Cambodia around which is something to hope for!
Anyways, eventually we were on our way for real on the bikes! (See, even though you get more savvy with every day, inevitably you will still do some braindead dumb shit things!). We stopped at roadside stands and bought drinks...the people were so warm and friendly and kids constantly chased us to say hello! Kids in Cambodia LOVE to say hello! They also love to ask you for money! Haha at one point there was a group of about 4 kids who ran out to us and didn't speak any English except for "hi"which they said and then pretty well just smiled and stared at us. We weren't sure what was up but tried to make conversation for awhile which they seemed to enjoy. And then it came "ohnny". What is that word and are you asking a question or making a statement, not sure?! And then it clicked--aaah money, they were asking for money! Much like not buying from kiddos, you definitely never give them money for the same reasons outlined above-if begging is lucrative, they will do it instead of going to school. So... we pretended not to understand, said goodbye and rode away. We also stopped by a crocodile farm which I imagined to be a tourist attraction in its own right. Haha no...this was a joe-blow backyard operation and we just walked in and it was totally dead...I think we literally could have gotten in and swam with the crocodiles w nobody noticing. We sat and watched them for a minute and when nobody came to collect money we carried on moving. By the time we got home we were so sweaty and sunburned that we just jumped in our amazing hotel's rooftop pool. Seriously, where in the world could you get a beautiful hotel room, with a pool, with a rooftop terrace for like $15/night?! Win. Wait did I say that we love Cambodia?