After a nail-biting ride through the streets of Siem Reap, we make it twelve kilometers to the ferry port, bikes fully intact. As soon as I emerge from the truck, it's show time – women carrying baskets full of food and water descend upon us, and people swarm to help get our bikes off the truck. Amidst the chaos, I haggle for some muffins and bread while a backpacker behind me pays nearly four times as much for the same items.
While Tyler and a pack of helpers heave our bicycles onto the upper deck of an old, rickety-looking boat, I run aboard to snag us a pair of good seats, under a canopy in the shade, right up front by the drivers. I'd hate to be languishing under the hot Cambodian sun this afternoon!
The boats in the harbor are moored so closely that little kids goofing off at the waterfront can skip between them, from one top to the next. As I watch them play, I wonder about their lives: are they the kids of the food sellers, the boat drivers, or neither? Do they live aboard the ships?
With the good, under-canopy seats full, people are now inundating the upper deck. Soon we're as packed as the pickup truck was, only this time, there are probably one hundred people aboard. After the mountain of luggage is dealt with, the drivers hop on.
With one man on the prow of the ship heaving us around with a stick, and another operating a system of pedals and levers and pulleys, a sputtering diesel engine comes to life, and we pull out of the dock.
We've scarcely left the harbor, when a man on land signals our driver to come back. Apparently, we've left without an entire truckload of people. We pull back into port so even more passengers can pile on board, looking sour-faced and disappointed as they take their seats atop the boat with the luggage.
Watching the pandemonium together, soaking up the experience, we can't stop smiling. I am grateful Tara found us such good seats. As the wooden vessel groans beneath the added weight of twenty more travelers and their baggage, it dawns on me that we are on an overcrowded boat, crossing the Tonlé Sap lake, from Siem Reap to Battambang, in Cambodia. How is this my life? This rules!
As we churn through the water, a pair of petrified girls behind us point out there is water seeping in through seams in the side of the boat. It's not a trickle, but more like someone left the tap on. Curious, Tyler goes up front and dips his head below deck, returning with a smile to report there is "only" about three inches of standing water underneath the floorboards.
After pausing just long enough to make them worry (I know better), he adds with a chuckle that there must be a bilge pump somewhere underneath us too. Surely everything is fine. Right? Unable to help ourselves, we start looking around more closely, noticing other questionable aspects of our ride. For instance, the boat is controlled by patched-together steel cables, running through PVC pipe to the motor:
…and the "life preservers" look more absorbent than buoyant:
Honestly, we don't mind a bit if this thing is held together with nothing more than spit and glue – the dilapidated nature of our transportation only serves to enhance its appeal. When Tyler asks the driver if they usually carry so many people, he tells us with a smile that the amount we have today is pretty much normal. Not empty, not crowded, just about right.
Once the initial excitement of our boat trip has been tempered by the realization that we'll be on it all day, we settle in, making ourselves comfortable, hoping for a good five or six hour ride. Apparently, it isn't uncommon for this route to take ten or twelve in the face of shallow waters and mechanical failures.
So, we while away the morning, chatting with the lady in the blue shirt who sent us a friendly smile as we were boarding the truck earlier. Her name is Genevieve, and she speaks pretty good English, so Tyler has a nice talk with her, while I zone out to some music.
Eventually, I join the conversation, scooting onto the edge of the bench. Genevieve is thrilled to learn that I speak French, so Tyler I and switch places. Now that we can hear one another a little better, we get carried away with a good long conversation. Tyler doesn't mind, heading off to take some pictures while we chat. As Genevieve, a good story teller, recounts some of her own adventures, I listen with rapt attention.
She tells me about how when she was younger, she traveled often, always finding work as a nurse wherever she went to further fund her voyages. Back when women didn't really travel much, she backpacked around India for six months with a friend of hers. I am enthralled listening to her stories of sleeping on train luggage racks, and being evicted from the women's-only train car, because without traditional colorful sari, the conductors assumed they were men!
After many years of independent adventures, Genevieve settled back in France, where she raised a family and had a stationary nursing position at a hospital. She just retired from that job, and this trip to Cambodia is her first foray back into the world of travel. How cool!
Our conversations with Genevieve are interrupted when we pass though the main attraction of a Tonlé Sap boat trip: floating villages. These towns, inhabited by mostly Vietnamese immigrants, were cleverly built to evade a few legal restrictions. Namely, that they weren't allowed to build on Cambodian soil. Apparently there's no law saying they can't reside on the waters!
The Tonlé Sap is also home to many ethnic Vietnamese who have emigrated to Cambodia over the last 50 to 100 years, often to the consternation of the native Cambodian population.
Despite the local ethnic tensions, the Vietnamese Floating Village on the Tonlé Sap in Siem Reap has become one of the areas more popular attractions with tourists touring the area on boats.Tonlé Sap.net
So, we pass through through entire cities built atop the water, including floating schools, houses, stores, and restaurants.
Though boats full of foreign tourists pass this way multiple times a day, the novelty hasn't seemed to have worn off for the children of these villages.
No matter where we go, kids here are always elated, greeting us with unbridled excitement.
In one village, our boat stalls and drifts, waiting for yet another passenger to arrive. I find the image striking: it's a single monk dressed in orange, standing quietly aboard a boat sailing smoothly towards us.
Once he is safely aboard, we continue on, ready to pass though narrow, marshy waterways on our ride to Battambang.