Featured / PLACES

Cambodia: Stay Off the Tourist Path

In 2005 my husband, Joel, and I traveled to Cambodia. Joel was a seasoned traveler. I had been to a few countries in Europe and on a lot of camping trips in Canada but that was the extent of my experience. I was willing and excited!

During our stay in Siem Reap – where the world renown Temples of Angkor Wat are located I became very ill. I had managed to pick up some kind of intestinal infection, we think at a local restaurant. Amongst other things I’d rather remained locked away in the recesses of my mind, I had a very high fever and actually don’t remember about two full days.

A couple of days after I finally felt human again we embarked upon what should have been an easy trip. We needed to head back to the capital city, Phnom Penh and had heard about a scenic boat ride that took four or five hours to Battambang.

We got up at five am and went out to wait for the car that was going to drive us down to the harbour. I should have known something was wrong when the staff kept coming up to me and asking how I was feeling and if I really thought I was well enough for a boat ride. Foolishly, I was thinking that all I had to do was get in a boat and sit there for a few hours.  How hard could that possibly be?

We were crammed into a car with a German and two French girls then after a bumpy ride were deposited unceremoniously at the “harbour”. There were quite a few “tourist types” wandering around looking lost. A fellow we would later find out was from Saskatchewan told us we were all waiting for the same boat. As no one had told us where to go we all agreed it would be best to head toward the water – and it was the German who told all us to “follow the smell”. The harbour was definitely fishing central and our German cohort was correct; the smell was a good hint to where the water was.  It made sense so we headed off together.

The harbour was actually just a collection of hundreds of boats that looked almost identical. They were beautifully painted in primary colors and were about ten deep in some places. There were people selling food and water and we were just about to buy some when it seemed like we needed to move.

Someone who looked official…he was Cambodian and wearing a strange uniform kind of jacket, told me that there was, in fact, a boat and pointed. He told me the boat was nearby but three boats out.

I was so nervous about the entire thing that as soon as I realized which boat the fellow was talking about I just bolted. I shimmied down the side of the boat and hopped onto another boat (all of which were still moving and had seen better days) then I realized I couldn’t get through the window of the next boat with my backpack. I took my pack off and threw it through the window…climbed in and down over a bench.  I did that twice to get to the designated boat.

Everyone else came down the stairs I had completely missed while blinded by my determination to get on the boat.

Our Cambodian crew, three young men and one older wizened looking soul were lovely. In typical Cambodian fashion they were smiling, warm, welcoming – and even though we didn’t have a common language between us we were all quite happy.  Soon we were settled on benches with the wind whipping in our hair and enjoying the ride.

That lasted about half an hour.

The short version of this boat trip? Let’s see. I almost got hit in the face with a fish. It was leaping in the bow wave and almost killed me… well, ok, no it didn’t – but it slammed into the ceiling support and certainly gave itself a nasty headache in addition to splashing water all over me.

Then the real fun began.

The boat broke down. The crew waded into the water and fixed it. The propeller got snagged and the crew headed back into the water and swam around until they were able to hack the roots away. This was repeated a few times – and it seemed to us that there wasn’t enough water in the river for the boat.

The fishermen who live along the river sometimes looked pissed… one of them even threw fish at us and not in a nice “here have a fish” kind of way. We didn’t know until much later that the boats are a real bone of contention on the river because they create a wake that ruins the banks, houses and frightens the fish.

We stopped, finally, at a floating shop or gas station; we weren’t quite able to tell what it was. Joel went to look and see if there was water or food and managed to get some water for himself. You see – the problem I had was that the toilet on the boat was just a hole in the floor of the boat. As weak as I was – I wasn’t even sure if could actually use it and I was quite certain I didn’t want to so I was refusing to eat or drink. Please don’t think less of Joel: he tried to get me to drink but when I’m stubborn? Well, look out.

In hindsight it was probably ridiculous but then, I should probably have spent a few more days recovering at the hotel before trying a trip.  Hindsight is, as they say, 20/20.

Someone managed to get some information and let us know that we would be switching to a different boat. A smaller boat.

So we got into a smaller boat and it was small enough that the passengers had to now go into three boats when we had previously fit in one. Our boat had rather unstable floors, tiny plastic deck chairs and was hot-wired …literally. The most frightening thing that I noticed was the leaking can of gas that was sitting right by the engine and the fellow who seemed to be charge of the engine. He was smoking and smiling away.

The other boat (which by now looked like a luxury liner) took off and as we watched it disappear into the haze of 32 degree heat – we noticed that our crew couldn’t get ourboat started.

Half an hour passed and our boat continued not to start. And, didn’t start… and the French girl across from me started telling everyone about how she figured that Cambodians always underestimated how much time it took to travel. She said it would take forty hours to get to Phnom Penh on the train and 9 million years to get there by bus and topped it all off by saying that our 4 hour scenic water cruise would culminate with us being dragged up the bank and thrown into a pickup truck for another four hours of travel.

The entire time she was telling me all of this I was feeling so ill and tired all I could think about was how chipper she was and how I suddenly wanted to throw a fish myself.

Eventually, our high tech Cambodian warriors get the boat started. I really didn’t want to know how or with what. And off we went… we sped up really fast for about two minutes and then we would slow down abruptly to try not to kill fishermen. It was kind of horrific for me, considering the condition I was in. And it just kept going on and on – except for the moments when the boat would lurch to a halt when the prop was fouled again. Our four hour boat ride had now been about seven hours by this point…. Or something like that; it was all a blur to me. An entire day and I still hadn’t had anything to eat or drink, nor, you’ll be interested to know had I peed.

I was dehydrated, nauseous, tired, anxious and starting to cry. Joel kept saying over and over how sorry he was even though he hadn’t done anything.

The French girl remained chipper and I continued to want to throw something at her.

We arrived about an hour later – at a steep river bank. We only knew had arrived because the passengers in the other two boats were standing around by a – yes, you guessed it – pick-up truck.

The rumour the French girl took such delight in passing on to us was true.

I looked down at the bank which was about a meter below the deck. I figured that in itself might not be a problem but it was all goopy mud. I knew this because there was a Cambodian sunk up to his calves in it. People scurried around…. eventually logs were gathered and laid down on the muck.

Joel took charge of me at this point because he could see I was ready to lose it. I couldn’t figure out how I was going to get down off the boat and then past the mud to the logs. “Sit on your Bum,” he commanded and down I went. I tried to dangle my feet and find the log. “Let the man help you.” So I clung to the shirt of a tiny Cambodian man who had to have thought I was going to kill him by pushing him down into the mud up to his neck.

When I was finally on a log and the helpful Cambodian man was buried up to his knees in mud I ran over the logs and up and bank and was doing really great until I lost my balance right at the top edge of the bank.

While balancing on the edge of my salvation I grabbed the only thing in front of me… a German lady’s purse. She obviously thought I was trying to steal it and tried to yank her purse away from me, hauling me up over the bank.

I apologized after I was on solid ground and she seemed less inclined to thump me over the head with her bag.

Joel was still bravely hauling our bags off the boat and flinging them to the Cambodian man I had buried in the mud. I was standing and waiting right where he told me to only I was sinking. I began a strange dance trying to stay on the surface until I finally found some sticks and twigs to stand on.

There were three Toyota 4 x 4′s and 2000 tourists, 8 Cambodians and a baby. I have no clue where all the Cambodian folk came from except that the trucks must run semi-regularly to Battambang. Okokok, I’m exaggerating.  There were 30 people and all their baggage, 8 Cambodians and a baby. The baby was very nice.

By the time Joel and I arrived with our bags the backs of two of the trucks were stuffed full. The third was filling quickly and I was in a blind panic. Joel was doing his level best to keep me from freaking out. He tried to negotiate a place for me in the back of the truck. There was a Dutch couple with bicycles and they hauled their bikes up in front of us and took the remaining space despite our pleas for room.

Finally, one of the Cambodians took pity on me and told me to sit in the cab. This was the thing that finally made me cry because I realized I wasn’t going to know where Joel was. Joel put me in the truck and assured me that everything would be fine and closed the door.

The Cambodians in the truck seemed to think they had upset me. I couldn’t tell them otherwise because no one spoke English and I knew only a few words of Khmer. They all began being extremely nice to me, patting the seat and my shoulder, pointing all the air conditioning vents at me and showing me the baby.

We took off in a cloud of dust and I could see Joel clinging on for dear life in the rear view mirror. He was also grinning like a fool because he’s the adventurous one.  It’s one of the many things I continue to love about him.

If memory serves it was an hour and a half of 4×4′ing in an overloaded truck – out back – Joel was having the time of his life. There’s a bit of Indiana Jones left in him yet.

Up front – the Cambodians were trying to make me happy. The air conditioning was blowing dust and feathers all over me, the baby was cooing at me and I was banging my knees on the dash. We drove over holes and ruts that were big enough I thought they were going to swallow us whole.

We got high centered once and all the travelers piled out and tried to move the truck. I think every time they thought they were pushing forwards the driver would suddenly go in reverse. Then the guy from Saskatchewan yelled “we’re getting this truck out of here” and everyone managed to co-ordinate themselves enough to get us moving.

Everyone piled back in. We drove more and, thankfully, the road eventually improved. We rather abruptly found ourselves being left in an empty lot with no idea where to go. The fellow from Saskatchewan summed it up best when he said “Holy my ass hurts.”

Fortunately, a mini bus driver from another hotel took pity on us at journey’s end and drove us to our hotel even though it wasn’t on his list of places to go.

It had been thirteen hours since we left our lovely hotel in Siem Reap that morning. I’d had no water and no food and no, I had not peed.

As soon as we were in the hotel I collapsed onto the nice clean bed and Joel and I started to laugh. Really? That’s what makes trips special. The laughing, not the actual ride. Okay, maybe the ride was worth it – and yeah- I’d almost recommend it if you weren’t recovering from a rather serious illness and feeling a little fragile. Life is about adventure after all. I know one thing. We’ve told the story a lot and never fail to laugh now.

The really bizarre thing is that I was so exhausted that even when we heard the Muay Thai tournament music playing outside I couldn’t summon the energy to move.  I lay there and when Joel returned from investigating the Martial Arts Display I was watching “Terminator 2″.  It was kind of surreal.

We’ve been back to Cambodia and even took my folks with us. We love the people there and the place. We love it all. Even the boat rides.

And in case you find it hard to believe I went back.  Here is a photo of me on our return trip a couple of years ago.

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