River adventures

Today, too, the alarm clock wakes me up at dawn. The boat, which will take me from Siem Reap to the colonial city of Battambang, leaves at 8 and I have to get ready at the reception at 7. After twenty minutes waiting, a robust lady, dressed in faded clothes appears before my eyes. She loads me and my luggage on a dusty scooter and leaves me one block away on the road that splits the city in two. She tells me to wait. After five minutes, she brings another girl and leaves once more to take another tourist. The carousel is repeated until 8 am, by that time, at the corner, we have become about twenty people and it is clear to everyone that the time written on the ticket is nothing but indicative. Only half an hour later, the minibus that will lead us to the pier arrives. We drive along a road that sneaks through beautiful green rice fields where in the distance the tall graceful shapes of sugar palms stand out.

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Through poor villages in precarious state, on rotten wooden stilts, we finally reach our destination where we are assaulted by young women trying to sell us snacks and bananas at prohibitive and unacceptable prices. The boat on which they put us on is a small white one, peeling from the sun and stained with rust. Inside it, several people are already crammed, sitting with backpacks on their lap. The space is ever so tight: to contain all of us we need to shrink a lot and someone ends up on the roof among the luggage and parcels. The tourists’ faces around me do not look convinced; they probably expected a more comfortable and reassuring-looking boat. But in the end we leave.

We sail on a stretch of Tonle Sap, the largest Cambodian lake and the main fish basin in the country, and we then enter the yellow Sangker, the waterway that leads to Battambang. The river route winds through placid floating villages where women wash clothes in the river and men untying their fishing nets, sat at the entrance of houseboats. Kids have fun diving into murky water near canoes laden with all sorts of goods. Small houses covered with tin roofs, are made of pastel painted wood and have no doors, allowing us to see through: a single room where there is all they need, dropped on the floor or hung to the walls.

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The journey goes on calmly and the boat makes its way through the placid villages getting out of the patches of water hyacinth weeds. After a four-hour voyage, the river narrows and the least populated stretch begins, with higher river banks; this is the dry season and the water level is much lower than usual. The river villages disappear to give way to the mangroves. We gradually sail on as the river becomes shallower. The journey, first broad and straight, has now become winding and narrow and the boat has to decrease the speed drastically. All of a sudden, it stops. DSC_0511pThe guy at the helm, a young man with sunburnt skin, tries unsuccessfully to restart the boat. He gets up and goes to ask for explanations to the rest of the crew, travelling on the boat roof. They start going back and forth walking barefoot in balance on the outer edge of the boat. They talk, bustling about some tools and eventually one of them neared the ship to the shore and stops it with a rope put around a tree branch. We figured out that the rudder got broken after getting stuck in the mud bed. We have to patiently wait for the mechanics called by the boy.

If at the beginning of the journey the atmosphere among the passengers was cold, little by little mishap and inconvenience unites us. We talk, telling about travelling experiences and socialize. I find out that the majority of young people on board are on a tour of South-east Asia, and many of these are girls travelling by themselves. There are lots of Germans and some Americans. After half an hour, rescue arrives: a canoe carrying two boys, wearing hats and with their face covered in order to protect themselves from the sun rays. They jump onto the boat and in a few minutes repair the damage and let us leave. But from that moment on, the navigation will be interspersed with different problems due to the lack of water in the river. Shortly after, once more we stop again, this time, stuck down in the muddy bottom.

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Cambodian boys get down from the roof and begin, under our incredulous eyes, to push the boat. No way, the boat doesn’t move at all. The “captain” looks around and his eyes stop on passengers. He consults with the crew and in the end, they find a solution. He makes us understand speaking Khmer and with the help of gestures that they need a hand; then, all the men on the boat have to get off board and push the boat along with them. The situation amuses us and some of the guys take off their shoes and jump onto the mud. DSC_0556pThey begin to push, but nothing happens. In the end, the Cambodians say that the boat is overloaded and cannot go on in these conditions; all the passengers should thus continue on foot. At first we think we have got it wrong and we look at each other wondering what they expect us to do. Actually the message was clear: everybody down and walk! We leave our shoes on board and one after another we get off awkwardly. We queue up behind the guy who guides us through a path in the middle of fields of bright, green soy plantations. We keep walking along dry piles overlooking the red shore, among browsing free range roosters and farmers who, swinging in the hammock, are looking at us amused and incredulous with lit cigarettes in their mouth.

The boat stops a few kilometres farther. The walk is good for everyone, happy to stretch our legs after having sit for hours. We talk and walk while the sun slowly begins to go down on the horizon. We go back on-board and reach our destination without any further inconvenience.

In the warm light of the sunset, we can see the silhouettes of the peasants working alongside the thatched huts and the children laughing and running to the shore to greet the boat sailing by. The sky is on fire, the water turns red and on the Cambodian countryside evening falls.

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