So ended our trip from Cambodia’s second city to its prime tourist destination. The journey had begun at 6am, with an early transfer to a makeshift ferry duck. Being the middle of dry season, the gang plank stretched 30 metres or so down a steep overgrown bank, towards what the owners like to call a ‘speed boat’. This narrow jalopy of a vessel was to be our home for most of the day, and we’d been told by countless locals and travellers that there was nothing speedy about it. With slack water and the river running low, the journey cold take up to 10 hours to complete.
Pleasingly, most tourists seem to favour the far swifter option of the bus when heading to the temples of Siem Reap from Battambang. It meant that of the 40 or so passengers crammed onto the boat, only seven were foreigners. This made for a true local experience, even if the neverending cargo of bread, pineapples, coconuts and even a boxed outboard motor being loaded on board meant we were listing dangerously before we even set off.
The first stretch, which took around three hours, saw us wind through small floating villages, with men and boys wading through the water to check on the overnight catch, while naked kids paddled and swam in the shallows. The searing heat was tempered only by thin drapes on either side of the boat, with bum space at a premium as we picked up more passengers and goods at every meander in the river.
Thankfully, after a brief rest stop, we resumed minus a string of passengers, with more disembarking as the river grew wider and larger villages homed into view. With the sound of the boat’s horn, friends and relatives drew narrow rowing boats alongside, with bags and boxes being casually thrown from the main boat before their owners waved goodbye with a smile and spoke happily with those who’d come to meet them. Soon we were moving at pace through the stunning Prek Toal nature reserve, tended brilliantly by Wildlife Conservation Society of Cambodia. Egrets and swallows dipped down to the water, while a heron casually flew past into the reeds.
With the last of the villagers leaving the boat, we motored out onto Tonle Sap lake, the outer reaches of Siem Reap on the distant horizon. This eight hour journey might have taken longer than rattling along Cambodia’s knackered highways, but it was definitely the best way to see rural Cambodia drawing life from the endless waterways which run through its heart.