Life On The Water

By Stephen Ewashkiw | April 13, 2014

12,667 km so far.

As the city busies itself with its morning chores, we ride out of Siem Reap along a deep Northern California-red dirt road. All around us businesses are opening, markets marketing, and people are doing trade of all kinds. Scooter repairs, food stalls, fruit juice carts, ice men sawing their chunks of ice, plumbing supply deliveries being offloaded from scooters, and dogs scavenging in the dirt.

We are not 100% confident the boat will leave from where we are headed this morning. There is some debate online about this.

In the queue for Bansky’s first exhibit in LA, the weekend we moved there, we overheard someone say, “If you read it on the internet three times, it’s true.” Quite matter-of-factly.

Google Maps, OpenStreetMaps, and an online tourist map all pointed us to the same spot today. So we’re golden, right?

When we get there, the ticket agent approaches us, and asks us where we are going. We show him the tickets and he says:

The boat to Battambang doesn’t leave from here. In dry season it leaves from the other side of town.

It is 6:40am and the boat leaves at 7:00am. Shit.

Liar, Liar, Pants On Fire

Don’t worry, dear reader. It wasn’t true.

I asked the ticket man to call the number on the ticket. He did, and they told him it did indeed leave from his dock and would be there in a few minutes, as it was parked in the boat parking lot 250 m downstream. That is better news. I am sure they were impressed with his ticket-selling abilities.

This is really the first incompetence we have met in Cambodia. I feel like everyone here is so determined to do one of two things – survive, or advance to the next step on the ladder of life – that there isn’t room or time for incompetence. It is rare to see someone who is just faking it, lazing their way through their day.

Travellers’ note: if you are looking for the dock, our route map linked below goes right to it.

Our bikes began the trip as the only thing on the roof, expertly tied down.

Bikes on the roof, just waiting for departure, Siem Reap boat dock.

Bikes on the roof, just waiting for departure, Siem Reap boat dock.

We linger on the boat with a half-dozen locals for nearly an hour. Finally, a mini-bus carrying 5 farang shows up, and everyone is allowed to leave.

A tourist boat heads out while we wait, Siem Reap ferry dock.

A tourist boat heads out while we wait, Siem Reap ferry dock.

Later, all the farang except for Jane went up to the top deck, to catch some sun, and enjoy the scenery. The views were spectacular.

Smoke, Drink, Work, Live, Die, On The Water

On the edge of Tonle Sap, the lake south of Siem Reap, large communities spin out their daily lives on the water. Many of these communities are made up of Vietnamese refugees, who packed up their floating village in Vietnam and migrated to Cambodia when the climate of fear got too real.

The lake, Tonle Sap, isn’t very wide, and crossing the northern tip of it only takes the first 90 minutes of an 8-hour trip. Most of the boat ride is along a river, Stung Sangkae.

Boating family at the mouth of the Stung Sangkae.

Boating family at the mouth of the Stung Sangkae.

It begins quite wide, with floating homes along its edges.

What I didn’t realise was that the floating villages would continue, all the way to Battambang. There were only a few spaces of undisturbed jungle the entire way.

Life on the water seems challenging, but also peaceful.

The village clusters are almost exactly as we saw them kayaking in Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, with fewer guard dogs.

Boy watching boat watching boy, floating village near Tonle Sap.

Boy watching boat watching boy, floating village near Tonle Sap.

The land behind the homes seems to be farmed, while the river is lined with complex fishing apparatus: meaning these families really live off the water and the land at the same time.

Unexpectedly, this boat isn’t just a tourist boat. In fact, locals outnumber us farang for almost the entire journey.

Little girl on the boat to Battambang.

Little girl on the boat to Battambang.

Most hop on in one small village and hop out a few kilometres later.

Getting ready to hop on the boat, floating village near Tonle Sap.

Getting ready to hop on the boat, floating village near Tonle Sap.

At frequent intervals as we motor past the houses, small boats loaded with people and their luggage shoot out from a doorway to intercept us. We slow down, the small boat sidles up alongside, and then a few people throw their stuff aboard and jump in.

Running for the bus, floating village style.

Running for the bus, floating village style.

Just like the city bus, but wet.

We even make a pit-stop for lunch, where all the locals buy styrofoam containers of rice and meat to take back on the boat.

As we pass through each village, people are always smiling, and waving, and shouting hello.

Waving to the ferry boat, floating village near Tonle Sap.

Waving to the ferry boat, floating village near Tonle Sap.

It seems to me that with this boat running every day (in both directions) they would get bored of waving to the tourists on the boat, but apparently not.

The twice-a-day boat never gets old, near Battambang.

The twice-a-day boat never gets old, near Battambang.

As we neared Battambang, the homes along the river got more and more ramshackle, and moved to stilts on dry land. They are shells of corrugated steel sheets, held together by bamboo pole frames.

Stilt homes just outside Battambang.

Stilt homes just outside Battambang.

Meanwhile, instead of farmland behind, there was a street filled with comparatively fancy homes, multi-story properties, and businesses.

A Heightened Sense Of Life

I read that life expectancy in Cambodia is 63. Let that sink in for a second. In Canada it’s 81. That is nearly a 20-year difference. I am all for not living forever; I do not want to be hooked up to a machine at the end of my life just because we can. But this is a huge difference. The whole arc of life here is so much shorter than mine.

I suspected that life expectancy must be even shorter in this region than the national average, as it was when we cycled through Shaanxi. Just like there, garbage lines the road’s edges.

Except here the road is the river. The garbage leeches into the soil their crops are planted in, but also into their water, where they farm fish, swim, and wash.

It appears to be a happy life though.

The seeming simplicity of it all makes me a little envious. But then I look over at our bikes, tied up just behind me, sailing down a river in Cambodia, and I realise my life is pretty simple as well.

So I smile, and wave, and call out hello to some more kids swimming, laughing, enjoying life.  

Want to see the route map? View it on Ride With GPS.

Hi, I’m Stephen, full-time travelling yoga teacher & founder of Adventure Yoga. I’ve taught yoga in 25 countries and have had adventures in 50! At My Five Acres, we inspire you to live your most adventurous life and help you to travel more and more mindfully.

2 comments

  1. Pingback: Cambodia Itinerary: How to Get the Most from 2 Weeks in Cambodia | My Five Acres. Travel. Adventure. Yoga.

  2. Comment by Jane

    Jane Reply April 21, 2014 at 1:50 am

    Hi Jay (may I call you Jay?),
    Thanks so much for the kind comments. It’s our privilege to be able to visit these places and share them.
    J

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