Saturday, March 20, 2010

Cambodia Day Two: Taking the Scenic Route

Our second day was off to an early start- we got up a little after 6 AM and ate a quick breakfast on the porch at the hotel before heading off to the boat docks to catch a boat to Siem Reap. We'd heard a lot about this boat ride- that it's supposed to be the most scenic boat ride in Cambodia, and that the length of the trip varies between three and ten hours- quite a range. Apparently the boats are prone to breaking down, and the travel times are longer when the river is lower. So we showed up at the boat docks not really knowing what to expect. We were greeted with some precarious stairs down to the river, and a rather rickety boat that was similar to the bumboat that we'd taken to Pulau Ubin in S'pore. I can't quite describe the boat- it had some crazy propeller attached to it, but the propeller looked like it was mounted on some sort of cart, and it was about five feet behind the end of the boat. In addition to the propeller, our boat was also dragging a smaller motorboat. It was all rather cumbersome. Recent estimates for the trip had hovered around nine hours for the boat ride (with this complicated get-up, I could see why), so we went ahead and got comfortable.It was fascinating to see the way people live along the river. People live in stilted houses along the shore, in floating houses that sit on rafts right on the river, in boats, and pretty much any other living situation you can think of. Most of the homes are pretty modest, and have been cobbled together from scrap wood, tin, and other materials. Every once in a while there was a beautiful, expensive-looking house sitting conspicuously in the middle of a line of drab, worn homes. In Cambodia, there does not appear to be a system for dealing with waste, so people along the river just toss their trash anywhere- into the river, onto their lawns, whatever. Obviously this makes the river polluted, but people still use the water for everything. We saw people bathing themselves, bathing their cows, brushing their teeth, collecting it in pots for cooking, fishing in it, peeing in it- anything you could imagine.There were wats along the river too- after awhile I began to feel overwhelmed by the number of wats in Cambodia. They're ALL so beautiful that they seem like people should be flocking to them just to bask in their awesomeness, but they're so abundant that they become almost commonplace before too long.During the beginning of the ride, it was easy to see why it was going to take us so long. The engine would make funny sounds, and one of the boat guys would pull a panel aside and tweak it with a wrench (while the engine was still running, naturally), put the panel back, and we'd lumber on. Then we'd get into shallow water, and another boat guy would have to push us off the sides of the river using a long pole. Sometimes he hopped over the side of the boat, pushed, and then jumped back on. Every once in awhile, the propeller would hit bottom and spew mud, and someone would yank up the propeller and push us forward with the pole until we were in a better position. At one point, pulling the speedboat became too troublesome, so one of the boat guys detached it and sped off in it, then waited for us further up the river. After a few hours, we got into deeper water and things got a lot easier. Eventually we got to Tonlé Sap, the largest lake in Cambodia, and it was nice to be in water that was deep and wide. At that point, the guy who had previously been in charge of engine maintenance promptly went to sleep on top of the engine casing.

All along the river, kids flocked to the banks to wave enthusiastically, sometimes running to keep up with us. Their parents were more wary, hanging back and eyeing us, perhaps with a measure of suspicion. It reminded me of Kenya, and the kids chasing our car, yelling "WAZUNGU! WAZUNGU!!" (white people!) while their parents watched them cautiously. It seems like a cultural universal for kids to be friendly and curious about foreigners, and their parents to be more reserved. It even happens with the monkeys!We stopped at a floating restaurant for lunch, and after four hours of rocking back and forth on the water, I was really ready for a bathroom break. I was pointed in the right direction, and was surprised, although I'm not sure why, that the bathroom was an outhouse with a hole cut in the floor. Everything went directly into the river- right onto the lily pads. As I walked back out, I overheard one guy say "Hey, you might as well just go around the corner and pee off the side- everything's going right into the river anyway," to which another man responded "No. I mean, it goes through some sort of filtration system first. I mean, surely it gets dealt with." I didn't get to see his face after he came out of the bathroom, but I'm guessing it was priceless. Bryan and I ate plain rice for lunch since we were a little wary of unfamiliar food that might give us upset stomachs while we were stuck on a boat for the rest of the day. We also bought a package of cookies to snack on in the afternoon.Every once in awhile as we made our way along the river, some locals would row up on their boats and climb into our boat to join us for the trip up the river. We also picked up and dropped off some packages, as well as an alarmingly large stack of money. We picked up a family- a father, a pregnant mother, and their two young girls. They were among the first locals that we picked up, and the little girls looked somewhat intimidated in the presence of all the white faces. I thought it would be nice to offer the littlest girl a cookie, so I took out the package and gestured to her father to make sure it was okay. I think he understood, since he smiled and nodded, so I extended the opened package toward the smaller of the two girls, and gestured to her older sister, trying to convey that they could both have some. The smallest girl eyed me suspiciously for a moment, and then her hand darted out and snatched the whole package! I threw back my head and laughed, and the people sitting next to her laughed too. Her dad was saying something to her in Khmer, and I think maybe he wanted her to give them back, but I gestured that she should keep them. And keep them she did, chowing away and shielding them from her sister. That little girl ate the entire package of cookies, with the exception of one that her sister finally managed to sneak. And when she was done, one of the men sitting next to me passed around chunks of watermelon to everyone on the boat, and she ate a big hunk of that too. I was surprised to see her eat so much- she didn't look like she was going hungry, and I imagine her parents weren't totally destitute, since they managed to pay the boat fare for the four of them. I hope that she was just a regular little kid with a healthy appetite and a love for cookies. While trying to take a photo of a floating village, we got the mom and the girls in the photo- the cookie monster is the little one in the purple shirt.

My favorite part of the ride was seeing the floating villages. They were big clusters of homes, shops, restaurants, setups for fishing, and sometimes even police stations, schools, big fish processing facilities, and at one place we even saw a floating activity center where kids were playing ball (it was like a caged basketball court- you can see it in the top left corner of the above photo).A floating Total gas station?!It was obvious that a lot of these places relied heavily on fishing for income and food. We saw a lot of these bizarre apparatuses used for catching a lot of fish all at once. One of the fish processing places is below that.There was tons of great birdlife all along the river- egrets, kingfishers, birds of prey, and even a pelican! We couldn't get many good pictures of the birds because we were moving, but we did snap one of the big, majestic pelican.When we (finally) reached our destination, we pulled up to the dock and were immediately inundated with aggressive tuk tuk drivers wanting to take us to town. They were super persistent, and there were kids begging and it was just insanely crowded and hectic. We agreed to go with a driver who was offering to take us to town for US$1, but as soon as we told him that we already had a guide for visiting the temples the next day (not true), the price immediately went up to $5. Normally this type of behavior has me walking in the other direction, but there was a little boy tugging on my arm asking for food (I didn't have any) and there were people everywhere, and I'm ashamed to admit that I let myself be swindled, and just got into the tuk tuk to get out of the situation. It wasn't the money that mattered- $5 to get into town is no big deal, but I just hate to reinforce that kind of obnoxious behavior. I guess I'll be better prepared for the next time it happens. Luckily, the boat docks were, without a doubt, the most that we were hassled the entire trip, and were certainly the only time that I felt like someone was trying to rip us off. Other than this one tuk tuk driver, everyone else that we met in Cambodia was very friendly, fair, and helpful. Anyway, the ride was pretty pleasant- I really like traveling by tuk tuk. It's nice to be out in the open air.

We got into town and checked into our guesthouse, the conveniently located Shadow of Angkor. The place was very homey- pretty wood interior and lovely staircases. Our room had a nice little balcony and we could see the river off to one side. We relaxed for a little bit before heading out to the nearest restaurant, a place called Kampuccino (perhaps a misspelling of cappuccino?) The menu was in an interesting version of English, riddled with phonetic spellings (potaters, beens, vegables, etc.). We got some pretty tasty pizza (better than S'pore's!). After we headed back to our room for a rest before going back out, but just like the night before, our big plans were dashed when we realized we were beat. So we went to bed early in preparation for getting up early to visit our most anticipated destination- the Temples of Angkor!

1 comment:

  1. Kampuccino is probably an amalgamation of Cappuccino and Kampuchea, which is what Cambodia used to be called.

    I've just got back from my second trip to Siem Reap, and am planning my third. Once you can get past the touts, it's a fantastic place.