Leaving Siem Reap, we had two transportation choices available to get us to the northwestern Cambodia city of Battambang: one of the harrowing minivans, whose drivers routinely engaged in passing maneuvers that brought new meaning to the term “near miss”; or the slow, scenic boat trip on a river steamer, about which the Lonely Planet book says “…the river scenery is truly memorable” and “breakdowns are very common” (their italics). By the end of the trip we would agree wholeheartedly on both counts.
The “river steamer”, which looked for all the world like “The African Queen”, turned out to be a diesel-powered craft; by the sound of it, it could have been Rudolf Diesel’s original prototype. It assaulted both the ears and the nose from some distance off (and the remaining senses as we got closer), and left a plume of oily black smoke in its wake as it made its way down the river and out onto Tonle Sap Lake. There were seats
inside, but it was quite a hot day, so we opted to travel on the roof of the boat. Twelve or fifteen of us staked out seating space on the fibreglass floor, only to discover that the boat was listing alarmingly to the starboard side; the captain’s aide came topside and quickly hustled a number of folks across the boat, thus adjusting the horizon back to its preferred horizontal orientation.
The scenery was as advertised by Lonely Planet: lush jungle, with brightly colored birds and chattering monkeys, punctuated by floating villages, long-tail fishing boats, and countless kids smiling and waving as we went by. I had one of those life-imitates-art-imitates-life moments when I made the observation that it was
rather like the jungle boat ride at Disneyland, the big differences being that the Disney ride lets you off at the designated time, the engine doesn’t catch fire en route and halt the ride for several hours, and it never (but never!) gets stuck on a sandbar, requiring assistance from myriad nearby fishermen. Despite all that, or perhaps because of it, the boat trip was one of the finest travel experiences I have ever had, one with National Geographic photo opportunities at every bend of the river, and I heartily recommend it if you should ever find yourself at loose ends in northwestern Cambodia.
We finally got into Battambang after a dozen hours or so; rumor has it that the boat trip typically takes eight hours, and you can do the parallel route by car in about three hours, tops, and in air-conditioned comfort as well. But where’s the fun in that? Our hotel had promised us a driver, and indeed one awaited us at the top of the stairs from the dock. He wore a slightly perplexed expression as he surveyed the scraggly bunch of travelers ascending the steps. In his hand was a hastily scrawled sign that read “Mr. Blues”. “That’s me,” I said, pointing at the card. I hefted our luggage into the tuk-tuk and off we went. He spoke virtually no English, so I felt entirely comfortable in saying (in a dreadful approximation of an upper-crust English accent) “Home, James, and don’t spare the whip!”