Monday, 22 July 2013

Day Fourteen - Battambang to Siem Reap - Cambodia

We woke at six at the Delux Villa in Battambang to get our tuk tuk down to the river to catch our boat to Siem Reap. We had the choice to either get the bus to Siem Reap or the boat and after the recent bad experience with a bus we decided to take the boat. The boat takes much longer than the bus and has a reputation for being long and uncomfortable. The up side is that you go through all the beautiful river lined countryside through floating villages and ending crossing the Tonle Sap lake before reaching Siem Reap.
We boarded the boat which was already quite busy and within five minutes there were twice as many other people joining us on board again. We were all siting shoulder to shoulder with each other and many other people were on the roof along with piles of luggage. There were also bags of baguettes, vegetable, fruits as well as a large wooden shrine loaded on board. This made me nervous about how long this boat journey would last and how little we had prepared with two bottles of water, some chocolate cakes and crackers!
We had read that depending on what time of year it is (wet or dry season) the river can change in depth and width having a dramatic impact on the length of the journey. In wet season, which we are just entering now, the journey is supposed to take between six and nine hours. In the dry season however it can take up to twelve hours as the boat can keep grounding out.
We set off and realised that the boat was far too big for the river and that we were way over weight. Every corner we took we were pushed by the strong current of the river and the weight of the boat to a sharp angle that often felt like we were going to tip and capsize. I decided at this stage that getting around in Cambodia from one destination to anothe depends entirely on luck! I just hoped we would make it to the next destination as we had two days before on the bus!

The first part of the river meandered heavily and there were so many twists and turns it made this part of the journey three times as long! After a short while we pulled over and collected even more people. After five more stops the passengers must have increased by another third not to mention the bags, vegetables and other produce put on board too. The river at this point was lined with floating villages and fishing nets. It's incredible to see how people conduct their lives from these small put ups and shelters on stilts. Even pigs in cages, cows and dogs float on pontoons. Schools and temples are also set on be banks in more permanent looking structures placed on stilts too. Smarter drinking water and generator pontoons for electricity and clean water are also seen in the larger settlements often donated by charities such as UNICEF.

As we carried on, the banks of the river became more and more overgrown with less and less settlements. As you looked out to the flat countryside all you can see is dense bush with the odd palm tree sticking out. Every so often you would reach another village and then back to bushland. After a few hours smaller boats pulled up to our boat and collected local passengers and relieved us of some of the the big bags of produce. At the last stop a small family got off and took the shrine and final bags of baguettes and vegetables. Now it was just us tourists left on our way to Siem Reap.

By this point in the journey we were all suffering after six hours of being cramped and squished. People kept fidgeting to try and get into a more comfortable position without succeeding and we all knew we were probably just over half way. Jamie and I started to tuck into our lunch (or what was left of it after Jamie ate the crisps while I must have closed my eyes for a second) Our delicious lunch now consisted of melted chocolate cakes and crackers.
As the journey carried on everyone tried to get some sleep now there was more space but no one could however hard you tried as there was nowhere to rest your head. Instead we all looked like nodding dogs in the back of cars as our heads grew heavier with the weight of our tiredness and kept bobbing.

After another hour our narrow snaking river suddenly opened up into an area of water that you couldn't see they end of. We had finally reached the Tonle Sap lake! Everyone's faces lit up as we let go of the claustrophobic feeling of the river and started to enjoy a ride without any bends!

This lake is truly amazing - it's the largest freshwater lake in south east Asia and we had been traveling along side it and it's tributaries as well the land that survives due to its existence for the past six days since leaving Saigon in Vietnam. The lake provides fish and water for irrigation to half the population of Cambodia as well as a home for 90,000 people who live in the 170 floating villages around it.

The lake links with the Mekong river in Phenon Penh (how we arrived in Cambodia) forming a 100km long river known as the Tonle Sap river. During the June to October wet season the rains raise the Mekong river level backing it up to where it meets the Tonle Sap river in Phenom Penh. This actually makes the Tonle Sap river start flowing in the opposite direction as it can't filter water quick enough into the Mekong. During this time the lake increases in size by four or five times from between 2500 and 3000 square kilometres to 10,000 to 16,000 square kilometres. The depth also increases from two to ten meters in depths - this explains why at this time of year you can leave the banks of the lake and ride miles on tuk tuk's and still see house on stilts sitting on scrubland that will flood in the next few months! Twenty percent of the Mekong's wet season flow is absorbed by the Tonle Sap. In October, as the rains leave and the level of the Mekong decreases, the Tonle Sap starts to flow into the Mekong again and out into the South China Sea.
The process makes the lake an excellent habitat for wildlife not that we saw much if it unfortunately today. The lake is home to a huge variety of animals including birds, snakes, turtle and many varieties of fish. Experts believe that that fish migration from the lake help to restock fisheries as far north as China. The source for this delta also goes back as far as the Tibetan mountains giving an idea of the vast amount of land these rivers and lakes drain!
Just over eight house since we left Battambang we finally arrived at the port of Siem Reap just after three int he afternoon! Exhausted from our uncomfortable but beautiful journey that really made you appreciate this river and lakes impact on the local area - Jamie has gone to sleep and I'm off for a massage. Tomorrow morning we will be up early to explore the amazing temples that make this towns surroundings so famous!

Location:Wat Bo Road,Siemreab,Cambodia

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