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Floating Villages

Our boat was leaving at 7:00 am, but we were told to be ready for a van to drive us to the docks at 6:15. In retrospect it might have been more prudent to wheel the 10 km to the boat dock. But not knowing exactly how to get there and capitulating to our affinity for sleep, we decided to take the van.

At 6:00 am we were in the comfort of our room at the Mandalay Inn, scarfing down cheap German corn flakes from two small hotel water cups, when there was a knock on our door.

It was one of the Mandalay’s staff members. He informed us that the bus was waiting for us, and we proceeded to finish our cereal and hurry down. By 6:15 when we walked out the door, the bus was already filled with sleepy and grumpy looking tourists. The driver proceeded to unload all their stuff from the back of the van in order to best fit the Speed TRs, and the grumpiness level increased.

People on board were worried that they were going to miss the bus; they were tired, grumpy, and about to spend the whole day on a boat together, so would do well getting over it. And they did, but not before the tension in the van reached a near breaking point, as one straggling German fellow sauntered up 20 minutes late, claiming ignorance of the 6:15 departure.

The tension began to soften as we pulled onto the road. We stopped once on the way to fill up a tire with air, and I looked back to see the rest of the passengers snoozing happily with Scott in the back. When we finally pulled up to the dock, it was more of a cluster of fishing boats than a passenger ferry dock. It consisted of some bamboo planks next to a medium-sized open air fish and seaweed market. I scanned the area for the boat that had been depicted at the ticket office. It was nowhere to be found. Interesting. I climbed out of the van and went around back to help the driver unload the bikes.

The driver began vehemently working to extract some sort of extra bike charge out of us. The man was unabashedly slimy about it. Though he had previously referenced a fixed “bike charge” of $5.00 per bike, he quickly reduced his price to $1.00 for both bikes when I offered.

We followed the rest of our groggy fellow tourists down the sandy banks to a small boat, which for lack of a better name, I shall call “The Minnow.” She was probably eight meters in length and about two meters across.

A large metal awning covered the passenger compartment, which consisted of two long narrow wooden benches.  Behind the passenger compartment was the engine from a Nissan pickup truck that had been retrofitted to power the boat.

The same old Nissan steering wheel was fixed to a large metal pipe, through which ran a number of wires leading back to the rudder and propeller unit. The propeller and rudder themselves were another three or four meters from the rear of the boat, held at this distance by an intricate set of welded pipes, which also served as a frame for two rudders.

She was a lady to be sure. Scott and I climbed on and loaded our bags into a bin behind the driver’s seat, where they were tied down with rusty cord and covered with a few bits of tarp to keep the spray out. The boat men — there were two of them — helped us strap the Speed TRs to the roof of the passenger compartment, using our Sri Lankan bungees to secure them.

We climbed down into the passenger compartment. Though one was forced to sit rather upright, there was plenty of room for eight passengers. And there was actually a tiny door, no more than a meter high and less than a meter wide, which said WC, at the back of the boat. No lie there. No one dared venture in.

We were just getting ready to go when a man appeared, carrying a giant wad of tickets, which suggested he played some administrative role in the operation. In bits of English, he proceeded to explain to us that we would need to buy another $20.00 ticket for each of the bikes. The fact that the bikes would need their own tickets was, of course, a blatant and ridiculous attempt at over-charging us. We had not even paid $20.00 for our own tickets. But the guy was a real stickler, frowning at us, selectively understanding our communications, waving his stack of tickets around like a pom-pom, and holding up the departure of the boat. We, of course, didn’t want to pay him anything and kept explaining to him that there was no bike charge, pretending that we had confirmed this with external parties, even trying to change the subject or pursue other technicalities about our tickets or the nature boat. All was to no avail. Finally, we felt it better to just get out of there, so we laid into bargaining. And eventually pulled away from the dock paying $2.50 per bike. Another case of highway robbery here in Cambodia.

As we, dear reader,  discussed before, Southeast Asia is experiencing one of the worst droughts in its entire history. So the water level was low. Very low. We got stuck in the mud twice just trying to get out of the small canal that had been dug to increase the size of the dock. Each time we got stuck, our driver would instruct the other boatman to get out a long pole which widened into a kind of mini-paddle at one end and plunge the pole into the muck. Meanwhile, he would gun the Nissan engine sending plumes of mud flying into the air, often soaking passing fishermen with rust colored muck. Eventually we would depart, and the fishermen would simply roll off their boats and plop into the river, washing themselves clean, and then climb back into their tippy little crafts.

When we crossed the Tonle Sap, it was about a meter and a half deep at its deepest point, but you would have no idea as you crossed it, for in terms of latitude and longitude, it is a giant sea of a lake, and the water is a totally opaque sedimentary brown. We ramped up to cruising speed as we made our way across the lake. Soon we were totally out of sight of the shore.

The Tonle Sap is a very interesting lake. As Scott snoozed inside the boat, I climbed out on the roof to read a little about it on the WikiReader. It is the largest lake in Southeast Asia and is the source of 60% of Cambodia’s protein intake. It is also one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems on the planet. The muddy waters are astoundingly rich with life. As we rode, we saw hundreds upon hundreds of people fishing in the river, with nets, lines, and even their bare hands.

Soon we had crossed the lake and found our way into a section of floating villages. These must be what our great helmsman was talking about. As we entered each one, our driver would slow down, and I would climb once again onto the roof, or hang off the side of the boat to see the action. Most of the locals looked at our boat full of white people with distrust, but a few were willing to smile and call out greetings.

We had not yet had any coffee that day, and I was beginning to regress into a primordial torpor. Luckily I had a Red Bull Energy Shot laying in my bag. I sucked the thing down, grimaced, and wiped my face with my sleeve. Whenever I drink one of those potions, I feel like Han Solo drinking a strange alien liquor.

Somewhere around the third floating village, we started picking up passengers. Now each time we entered a town, we would pull up to the local passenger hut, which usually had a bunch of boats parked out front. People would emerge in strikingly dressy clothes. These were villagers in their Sunday best, getting ready to head into Battambang for a little bit of the old “Bright Lights, Big City.” They carried little luggage, but sometimes many small children. Our driver would negotiate our boat reasonably close to the dock, then wait as the new passengers picked their way out to us, walking or hopping from boat to boat, until they had made it far enough to be picked up by one of the many 12-year-old boys who were operating little wooden water taxis, which they propelled using smaller versions of the large pole/oar device that our boatmen used to get us out of the mud in which we frequently got stuck.

Perhaps our 12th time getting mildly stuck, our driver attempted to turn the rudder when it was submerged deep in the mud. The rudder and some parts of the pipe frame around it snapped. Now the entire rudder/propeller contraption rattled terribly, and both the man poling and the driver were required to work full time controlling The Minnow.

Luckily, we were able to find a village just around the next bend, where there was a boat repair and makeshift welding station. A number of men took off their shoes and climbed into the water. First they took a few long metal poles, and began to use them for leverage in bending the metal of the cage back into alignment. With that done, they called over to a one-armed man who put on a pair of King-of-Thailand-style sunglasses and grabbed a length of wire and large alligator clip, which he plugged into an electrical generator. He then perched himself, balanced on a boat next to ours, and took out a length of wire. He clamped the wire between the jaws of the electrified alligator clip. He took another clip (presumably of opposite charge) and attached it to the frame of the boat.

Now whenever he made contact with the frame of the Minnow’s rudder, a huge shower of sparks would fly into the air, and some red hot melted metal would be left behind.

With that problem welded away, we kept moving upriver, picking up more and more passengers, all of whom were paying far less than we had paid for even just the Speed TRs. Around 1:00 pm, we stopped at a floating restaurant and convenience store.

Scott and I purchased some more coffee, thanks be to Jah, and a couple plates of rice and boiled chicken and lake-weeds. It was delicious.  From there, we kept going up the river. As we putted farther and farther up, the river got narrower and narrower. We began to get stuck more and more often. One time all the men on the boat had to take off their shoes, get out, and push us through the mud.

Then suddenly, we had stopped. The guys were tying the boat to the banks and we were asked to climb up a ladder made of sticks, then catch our luggage as it was hoisted up to us. We piled our stuff on the grass and looked around. This was certainly not Battambang, but none the less everyone was getting off. Where were we?

Well, at least part of it was a cabbage field. There was also a small grass hut, under which a few locals lazed, escaping the searing afternoon sun. There was also a single medium-sized Toyota Hilux pickup truck. People were beginning to load themselves into the truck. A couple of the boatmen began to do the same with our luggage. Scott and I were still wrapping our minds around the situation, when we looked up to notice that all our luggage was on the truck and wrapped up with tarpaulins. The entire boatload of people was crammed onto the vehicle as well. How would we fit? More importantly, how would the Speed TRs fit?

We briefly considered unfolding the Speed TRs and riding whatever distance this pickup was about to traverse, but in light of our lack of conclusive data as to the actual length of the journey, the fact that our luggage was already well stowed and tied down underneath a tarpaulin, and the certainly dubious quality of the road, we chose to squeeze into the back of the truck with all the rest.

The fellows in the grass hut began to stir, and produced a great length of cord made of cut up truck tires. They used this to strap the Speed TRs to the back of the truck.

They did a good job, and I felt confident they would not come loose. The elastic nature of the tire strips, however, did mean that the bikes did a fair bit of bouncing around. We crossed our fingers and put our faith in the cycle’s fine Chinese craftsmanship.

I climbed in and essentially dove into the center of the crowd, allowing myself to be slowly sucked in, as though in quicksand. As everyone squirmed around and shifted their personal items, I eventually found a place amidst the mass of bodies. Scott took a seat on the side of the truck bed, with his feet inside the pool of humans. However, as we drove, the roller coaster-like quality of the road, the many giant potholes we were forced to traverse, and the giant low-hanging branches that threatened to sweep those in the highest positions right out of the truck, forced him to eventually join me on the ground.

We rode on for about three quarters of an hour. My knees were about to explode from the strange position they had worked their way into. Each time we went over a bump, my head grew closer and closer to whacking one of our fellow passengers in the crotch. Extreme.

But then we stopped at a roadside stand and everyone climbed out for a little break. I thanked the powers that be for relief from the knee pain. We strolled around and stretched a bit. All in all, the entire group was in rather high spirits. Certainly today had been an adventure.

Another 30-minute ride brought us to the outskirts of Battambang, where the boat would have dropped us off, had the water level not been so low. We were instantly surrounded by a horde of touts offering us tuk-tuk rides, hotel discounts, bus tickets, drugs, and prostitutes. We were able to silence most of them by merely unfolding the Speed TRs. The now quiet horde placed their hands behind their backs and watched patiently and intently as we put the pedals back on the bikes, and removed the protective padding from the rear transmission. We bid them farewell and took off into the city.

We had no idea how this city was laid out, but we knew that we needed to find the bus station. We stopped from time to time and asked people where the bus station was, using pantomime and various languages. All attempts were inexplicably unsuccessful. Finally, we stopped by the side of the road, and bought two cans of Coca-Cola from a nearby lady. My stomach was making a recovery, but for some reason the Coke was still appealing.

She pulled them out of a cooler full of murky gray water and went to great lengths to clean a thick layer of slime off  each can before giving them to us. She did not overcharge us, and was more than happy to let us set up shop on the curb near her stand to investigate the Lonely Planet PDFs on Scott’s machine.

We looked into the distance and identified a large statue of Shiva in the center of a roundabout. This allowed us to ascertain our exact position. From there, we were able to make our way easily to a delightful Chinese business hotel (we are, by the way huge fans of the Chinese business hotel), which offered us a double AC room for  $10.00 a night. It also happened to be right across the street from the bus depot.

The pieces were falling into place. We purchased a ticket the rest of way (about 6 hours) to Phnom Penh for $4.00 a person, and confirmed that there would be no bicycle charge.

With all that done, it seemed fitting that we wheel Battambang. And so we did.


  1. Mark/Dad | May 16th, 2010 | 2:11 pm

    What a bizarre but fascinating sequence of events! The video of the pickup truck ride was something else–the mix of tense comments in several languages alone was descriptive. And then Shiva next to a Coke billboard. The boat ride was oddly reminiscent of your trip to Mantabuan back in February.

  2. Freelance Feminist | May 17th, 2010 | 7:45 am

    I love that “Navigation Stop” photo of you two with Scott’s computer. You guys look like such adventurers. And really enjoyed the article. This is quite the public service: bringing Cambodia and the rest of Indochina to life for your readers. Thanks!

  3. John Norton | May 17th, 2010 | 6:59 pm

    The picture with the bikes in the foreground and the floating village in the background is a money shot.

  4. Brian Bikes | October 23rd, 2010 | 9:38 pm

    Thanks for posting the ad link of Facebook, it’s a great story told, full of video, photo and superb, descriptive writing too! Fantastic thanks guys!

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