Good bye Siem Reap!

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Flag of Cambodia  ,
Thursday, March 18, 2010

It’s time to say good bye to Siem Reap and move on! I have decided to move on to Battambang by boat, according to the Lonely Planet, a 5-10 hour ride through winding rivers and the Tonle Sap lake, that’s said to be both rewarding and adventurous! I get picked up at around 7, and I am really lucky on that ride to the dock, because I am the last person and get a seat in the front of a van packed with people and luggage! The ‘dock’ turns out to be just a very simple bridge with 2 boats waiting, and I get on the smaller one, taking a seat in the very rear of the boat where I have more space for my camera backpack, at least for a while! The first couple of hours everything goes smoothly, we drive out onto the huge Tonle Sap, see the floating villages, people fishing, birds overhead, then we enter a river following it upstream. It takes us trough the bird sanctuary of Prek Toal, and in fact throughout the trip we see a lot of birds that look like cranes to me, but we never get close enough for me to take a decent picture of them.
At 11:30 we stop for lunch, a simple, tasty but expensive soup with rice, and as a special treat we see a Pelican behind the floating ‘restaurant’ (tourist trap :-).
But as we leave the lunch station behind, the river becomes ever smaller and shallower. We slow down more and more as the driver tries to maneuver the boat through the narrow river bends with short throttle bursts, sending clouds of black exhaust gas from the diesel engine my way. I’m realizing that I didn’t pick the best spot on board!
But it’s not getting better, on the contrary, we slow down more and more. At first, the local guys on board use an oar to push the bow back into the deeper water when we get stuck, then they have to jump in and push and on the few straights where we can pick up speed again, the boat scratches along the shallow, muddy river bed. Some of the passengers start getting really nervous, and I too start wondering how much further we can make it if the river keeps getting shallower! More than once I’m sure we have to get off the boat, but for 2 hours, we keep scrambling on. On the few straights, the driver is running the engine on full throttle to keep the boat moving even if we touch ground, and I’m really wondering what happens if we drive full speed onto a shallow we can’t get off anymore? I keep holding my camera bag, expecting the impact anytime. And then the engine stops.
I had read about such engine breakdowns in the internet, but experiencing it first hand is another story.
I hear the clonking of tools behind my seat, and I want to know what’s going on, so I climb out onto the edge of the boat and take a look. Whew! Relief! It’s just the water pump, that’s  full of sand, and I think this repair is not really a break down but rather a ‘standard maintenance’! Shortly afterwards we are on our way again, and it seems the hard part is behind us, as we stream is getting wider and deeper again and we move forward at good speed. But it takes 2 more hours to get to Battambang, and after 9 hours crammed into a tight space on the boat, everyone looks tired but relieved about the safe arrival!
2 days later I hear a story from a guy from Slovenia, who took the same trip the day after and was less lucky! His boat really got stuck and the people had to get off onto smaller and lighter boats to pass the shallows. But they too made it, alas taking 10 hours in total.


Anyway, I’ve arrived and I’m setting out to get dinner and explore Battambang a bit. It’s an amazingly sleepy town, with not a single traffic light, only 3 named streets (Street 1, 2 and 3 :-)) and seems to shut down soon after dark. I have dinner at the ‘Riverside Cafe’, built on high stilts above the riverbed. During the boat ride I developed the theory that the houses are built on those stilts not just because of the high water level during wet season, but also to keep some distance with all the rubbish that is thrown out the window! The river banks are littered with all kind of rubbish, with children playing in it, and people bathing, washing, fishing and brushing there teeth in the murky water.


After dinner I’m heading home on foot, and find a place to get a massage with aromatic oils, a wonderful treat after the uncomfortable boat trip. Then I head to the Riverside Night Market, famous for it’s fruit shakes. But as I get to the first stall, it seems it’s offering fried black beans instead. Only at second glance I realize that it’s not beans, but all kinds of fried bugs, frogs and snakes! Small ones, large, black and fat ones, and huge Cicadas, close to 10cm long! Later I learn that during the 70’s the starving people simply ate anything they could find, and some developed a liking for it. One town has got the nickname ‘spiderville’ for it’s deep fried giant spiders! 
But I’ve had fried scorpions before and didn’t like them, so I pass this meal and head home.
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