I am digging through our backpack for some food, when our friend Genevieve stops by. She's excited to inform me that there is an enormous praying mantis on the railing at the back of the boat. As if I didn't think Genevieve was cool enough already, she likes bugs too!
Always eager to hold a giant insect, I make my way to the stern of the boat, where the majestic translucent creature is resting on a wooden guard rail. It is swaying rhythmically (that's how they see) next to a peaceful looking French girl, who is quietly working on her handwritten journal.
I sit down and introduce myself, and we have a nice chat about her travels and the surprise she got when this visitor landed next to her.
Then, I ask if I can borrow her new friend, promising to return it when I'm through. With a laugh, she consents to a brief loan. So, gingerly scooping up the weighty mantis, I head for the bow of the boat, bug in hand, excited to show Tara, and some other people we've gotten acquainted with in the last few hours: Colin from the UK, and a French couple, Pierre and Sophie.
As I stride up the aisle, holding my arm steady like a waiter with a serving tray, the reaction of our fellow passengers (the ones who notice, anyway) is pretty much an even split between disgust and fascination. Soon, I am surrounded by cameras, all flashing at the green guest on my arm.
When everyone has enough photos of their own, I manage to capture a pretty good macro image, while the predator intently rocks to fro in my hand like an expert boxer, waiting to strike. Later, I ask Tara to hold it in the light, hoping for an even better frame, but the mantis shoots out a ninja-like arm, slicing Tara's thumb when she tries to pick it up!
Photo shoot complete, I am walking to the back of the boat, ready to return the guest of honor, when a shy little boy with piercing blue eyes cautiously approaches and asks to see the mantis. Happy to oblige, I hold it out in offering, hoping she doesn't decide to strike again.
The boys eyes widen as the creature deftly crawls into his waiting hands:
When he is satisfied, motioning with slight concern for me to take it away, I carefully retrieve the insect and return it to the back of the boat, as promised.
There is no shortage of entertainment on this ride, from the people, to the bugs, to the captivating views from our glassless windows! We pass village after village, all either floating, or wading on spindly stilts, rickety and worn from the elements.
Travelling through these colorful cities, watching floating families going about their daily lives, we're reminded a little of the klong canal tour in Bangkok. Like that day, this engaging boat ride is quickly becoming one of our favorite days.
Inside the boat, people try to get comfortable, spreading out, finding seats in the aisle or outside on the prow. Some passengers mingle, talking about travel and their lives back home, while others lose interest and try to get some rest.
While everyone is chilling out or enjoying the scenery, our drivers are hard at work communicating with one another, getting full body workouts from all the cranks and pedals and levers, guiding us safely through clogged canals of lotus.
Throughout many portions of the ride, we pass through marshy areas, and places where the river is scarcely wide enough for our boat to pass. These times are exciting because, just as we're going to navigate the waterways, another boat inevitably wants to do the same.
Our boatman toots his horn, and then other guy toots his. We scootch to one side, and they scootch to the other, and then comes a moment of cringing and hoping, and then wood scraping against wood.
While all of this commotion is going on outside, the window-side passengers inside the boat (us included) must duck and lean away for our own safety. As the boat butts up against woods and shrubs, branches scrape along the wooden sides, poking into the cabin whenever they get the chance. Some twigs get caught on the window frames, and then come whipping past as they break free and fling themselves inside!
As our ride comes to a close, nearly six hours after it began, the floating homes which surrounded us earlier are slowly replaced by ones on built on stilts, precariously perched on the shores of the lake which is morphing into an ever-narrowing river.
As our boat laboriously chugs up the last few hundred meters to shore, our exciting ride has nearly reached its end. When our vessel comes to a halt at a tiny dock, everyone's attention is re-focused, now intent on the chaotic effort of extracting themselves and their luggage from the ship.
With Pierre's help, we haul our bikes down the stairs of the boat, then push them onto the concrete dock, then, one by one, up the steep staircase to ground level. Once our backpacks are stowed and our panniers re-attached, we don our helmets once more, and ride off into Battambang.