The River People

Trip Start Mar 03, 2005
Trip End Apr 08, 2006

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Flag of Cambodia  , Khétt Bătdâmbâng,
Wednesday, June 29, 2005

After spending a morning at Beng Mealea temple, I spent another day and a half chilling out in Siem Reap before moving onto Battambang. Most of my time was spent lazing around my guesthouse reading a book and spending a small fortune on decent western food at the many restaurants around town, although I did manage to squeeze in a few little side trips.

On Sunday afternoon I went for a spur of the moment moto journey out to a landmine museum, based on what I'd read in a flyer I was handed near the old market. The landmine museum wasn't so much a museum, but more a collection of disgarded mines and UXO from the area thrown into a wooden shed. But this wasn't the sole reason I visited this place. The man who set it up, Aki Ra, is quite famous in Siem Reap. He was a former Khmer Rouge child soldier, separated from his parents at the age of ten, and then brainwashed into enforcing the incomprehendible laws of Angka. He writes in his short autobiography that the AK47 he was given was bigger than him. Anyway, with the liberation in 1979, Aki Ra was re-trained by the Vietnamese and Cambodian armies, and later taught how to disarm landmines. For the last 20 years he has dedicated his life to disarming mines and teaching people of the dangers. He has survived numerous attempts by the Cambodian Government against his life, because he disarms mines on his own, whereas NGO's pay a whopping $1500 to the Government for each landmine they disarm. Ridiculous. During his travels in the provinces he met a number of children whose lives had been ruined because they lost limbs from accidents involving mines. From donations he was given, he has been able to provide a home for 16 young disabled boys at the landmine museum, where they get accommodation, shelter, and english and japanese lessons. They also have the opportunity to go to Khmer school, which is something they'd never be able to do in the country. It's quite disturbing to read the names of the 42 countries who refuse to join the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). Meeting those kids and seeing how their lives have been forever changed makes you realise what an atrocity it is that these weapons are still being produced.

Afterward Chhorng met me at my guesthouse and we spent a few hours lazing around on a hammock at the Western Baray. This was an enormous reservoir made by the ancient khmers in the 11th century. It measures 8km by 2.3km, and is still half full of water to this day. It is not known for certain, but it is thought that these giant Barays created by the ancient Khmer's allowed them to produce two harvests each year. Not many tourists come out this way, as it's hardly as spectacular as the temples, but it is a nice setting. I also found it pretty remarkable to think the ancient khmers managed to build something this huge! It's totally different to the temples, but similarly it is still there today.

The next day I decided it was time to finally move on from Siem Reap (after 8 days), and get the boat across the Tonle Sap and down the Stung Sangker to Battambang. My guidebook described it as the most spectacular river journey in the country. Nothing could have been further from the truth, as during the next 9 hours a small disaster evolved.

The first problem was with the water level of the Tonle Sap. This huge freshwater lake, the largest in South East Asia covers has at times covered a third of the country, but after a lengthy drought, the water level is quite low. After zooming past the floating village of Chong Kneas, we got stuck in some shallow water. And I mean shallow, in that it was only 20cm deep. We had to get out and push the boat, which was not pleasant considering the mud was up to our knees. It took us over half an hour to get the boat back into a channel where we could start the engine again.

The next problem was with the disgruntled locals living by the side of the river. The noise of the engine and the rather large wake obviously upset them, and I was quite surprised when the first coconut slammed into the side of the boat. Then a stick. The river people were throwing things at us because of the noise! Rather than continue on, our stupid navigators stopped and yelled at them, whilst more sticks were thrown. It was actually a little scary!

The next hour of the journey was probably the worse. It wasn't so much the winding river, but more the terrible navigating by our drivers. We ran aground on at least five occasions. At this point I had a headache due to lack of caffeine, I was hot and pissed off, and completely unprepared for what happened next. When I got out to push the boat earlier, I took my passport out of my money belt and put it into my bag, so it wouldn't get wet. Unfortunately a much larger boat rounded a bend near us, and the wake it created splashed over the front of our boat and made everything wet. I was very upset to see that my plastic cover did nothing to protect my passport, and the data page was completely ruined. We arrived in Battambang at 3:30pm, and by this time my visa had dried out ok, but the data page was irrepairable.

Saying all of this, the scenery along the river was quite pleasant, and it was a nice change from the National highways!

After a thirty minute sulk session in my hotel room, I ventured out to my favourite restaurant in town, the White Rose, where I had a much needed Iced Coffee. Whilst here I met three English girls on a short holiday between graduating from their Med degrees and beginning work as doctors (Hi Laura, Hester and Zee!). The four of us hung out at the restaurant and by the river (with much more water and greener banks than when I was here in March) for a few hours, before getting some dinner and planning a moto journey around the countryside for the following day.

I think our plans were quite ambitious, although the trip around Battambang the next day certainly made up for the disastrous journey to get there. When I first arrived in Cambodia, I was too blown away by the city of Battambang, and short of time, to check out the surrounding sites. That was the reason behind visiting the area again.

Our first stop was an 8km ride on a bamboo train. This typically Cambodian invention is basically a motorised bamboo plank on a set of wheels that zooms down the train tracks at a ridiculously fast speed! The locals use it to transport goods around the province. If the train comes from the opposite direction, it only takes a minute to unload the bamboo train and take it off the tracks! It was quite an adrenalin rush, especially as you swore you were going to fly off it everytime it bumped over different rails. Aaaaaaaargh!!!!

We then visited a pineapple plantation, which was quite interesting, before driving through some beautiful countryside to Phnom Banan. Up some ridiculously steep stairs was an incredible view over the countryside, as well as a very dilapidated 10th century Angkorian temple. One of them was precariously close to collapsing over the side of the hill.

After another coffee and some lunch at the base of Phnom Sampeau, 12km on from Phnom Banan, one of our moto drivers showed us a rather grizzly cave halfway up the mountain. Thousands of people were executed here by the Khmer Rouge, pushed into a small opening. The skulls and bones had been collected and put into a cage, and there were thousands of prayer flags around the site. Our driver said there were a lot of spirits trapped in the cave, which was hardly surprising. He also had a lot to say about the Khmer Rouge times, and being the same age as me, it was quite awful to hear his stories about how his aunts and uncles were all killed. For the first time I felt comfortable asking some burning questions, mostly about how it feels to live side by side with the same people (and race) who killed and tortured so many friends and family members. With Brothers number 2 and 3, Ieng Sary and Heng Sophorn (2nd and 3rd in command to Pol Pot) living a life of luxury just beyond the hills in Pailin, completely immune to all forms of prosecution including the Khmer Rouge trials, I couldn't comprehend how it would feel, or what the people would think. Our driver told us that people just went about their daily lives, upset with the situation, but they said nothing. After fifty years of war, first against the French, then with the Americans, then the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese occupation, the last thing they want is more fighting. If that means living side by side with hundreds of mass murderers who will never stand trial, then so be it. Such a horrible situation.

After checking out the view from Phnom Sampeau, which was simply incredible, we continued a further 20km on to Kamping Poy. We took shelter for half an hour from an incredible downpour, but arrived there around 5pm. This was another incredible place. Unfortunately though, yet another of the many places with a horrible past. An 8km wall was constructed between two hills under forced labour by the Khmer Rouge, in order to create a huge dam which would be used for irrigation. The grand plan, to have an immense irrigation scheme allowing the Khmer people to have two harvests a year, just like their ancestors. This wasn't to be, and 10000 people died during construction. But, the dam was finished, and the people in the area are now fortunate enough to have some of the most fertile land in the country. The view from one of the dam gates was absolutely spectacular. The lake, surrounded by lotus flowers, and a 180 degree view of green mountains. The surrounding countryside was just as beautiful, with incredibly green rice paddies. The scenery here is some of, if not the best I've seen in the country. It's really sad to think that in this little corner of the world, with such amazing scenery and friendly people, there is the lasting legacy of a tragic past. And the people here really are friendly. Undoubtedly the friendliest Khmers in the country. Whilst driving around the countryside, all of the kids shout "hello!" and "bye bye!" when they see you. It's a really special place.
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