Sunday, 29 August 2010

Wham, Bam, Battambang

What is it with travelling and these early mornings? A 6am pick-up for the slow boat to Battambang, Cambodia's I say a 6am pick up, but the minibus turned up about 45 minutes late, and was already full of people. We managed to queeze in, then it stopped again to pick up another two, so now I know exactly how many people will fit in a Toyota van (it was 14, in space for 10).

We rrived at the jetty nd immediately this friendly chap oicked up one of our bags to carry to the boat, then promptly asked for a dollar when we got there. Cheeky sod! The boat got incerasingly full, and I knew it was going to be a long uncomfortable day, having heard the trip could take anything between 4 and 10 hours, depending on the river height. The boat was a long vessel with two rows of thinly padded seats facing eachother. Most of the other pasengers were European, with a few locals, and there wasn't a great deal of space on the seats or to stretch your legs

Setting sail we went down the river, we went onto Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in SE Asia, and this was easy to believe looking at it on the map as it appears huge. We were on this for at least an hour and were only traversing a small corner of it between river inlets. The wind was relatively high and caused a lot of spray from the bow, so we had to put down screens to try and stay dry. There was a poor local lady at the prow who was catching the worst of the spray, though people on that side of the boat refused to move down to spare her the worst. One English guy was heard to say "Toughshit" when this the idea of moving down was mentioned. I had visions of pushing this miserable tw@ into the Tonle Sap to leave him at the mercy of whatever might belurking beneath the surface.

Past the lae we went up river (getting increasingly uncomfortable due to the cramped position) where the spray lessened meaning we were able to raise the screens and get a bit of a view of the passing countryside. We sailed past rice fields, through low level bush and the occasional dwelling. We waved at children who waved back, often shouting hello.

After about 4 hours we reached a place where the boat was refuelled, and we could stop for food. We hadn't brought any food, besides a couple of small croissants we'd nicked from breakfast, so were quite hungry. We bought some bread and I ate some warm food, not sure what. It had aubergine and some sort of omelette with plain rice, which was brave of me because I refused to care about the alimentary consequences. We loaded back up and set up further up river

The next part of the trip was along a windy section of river which reminded me of scenes in Apocalypse Now with added cramp. We kept running aground which meant the guy who wasn't the pilot had to keep getting a stick-cum-oar to push us back into deeper water so we could get going again. It was a very long trip. It started raining maybe an hour from our destination so the screen had to come down again which mant we couldn't see the scenery. Worse still, the screens were red which made the boat feel like you were sitting inside a huge womb with nothing to look at.

Eventually, as in 8 hours later, we arrived at Battambang and were immediately assailed by a horde of drivers touting for business and trying to get you to go to the hotels they had a kickback from. It was no good for us as we had a booking, so we got a tuk-tuk man to tke us to La Villa on the river. We also arranged to have him take us on the obligatory tour the next day. His name was Chin Chin, which is a name well worth drinking to.

We checked intot the hotel, and it was stunning. A boutique place with only a small number of rooms, but decorated in the most elegant colonial French style. Our room had a four poster bed, and a bath which was big enough to drown a camel in. While large chain hotels may trump them for luxury and consistency, small hotels such as this almost always offer so much more in character and atmosphere, and this is what makes a trip all the more memorable.

We freshened upo after our ordeal and wandered out into the town again. we passed the promoenade where the locals did aerobics, and played football, and wandered a bit over the river. It was getting dark and it was surprising exactly how dark it gets in a town with very few working street lights. This makes Battambang a dificult town to navigate at night, especially with poorly maintained roads and pavements. We stopped for dinner at a place called the White Rose Restaurant, recommended in Lonely Planet, which turned out to be a bit of a backpackers/locals cafe. The food was passable, but given that this was apparently one of the best there was to offer in the town, it wasn't much of an pinnacle in culinary achievement.

We went back to the hotel for a drink to find the bar was closed, so wandered down a nearby side street where there seemed to be some activity and ended up in one of those bars you only seem to get in tis part of the world. I'm not sure what they are to be honest. The place has a lot of girls who seem to be hostesses but if it is some sort of knocking shop, it's a very family friendly one as the crowd is usually mixed. Also, the girls take it in turns to go up on stage and sing some local songs. The point it though that they are quirky, friendly, cheap and most importantly, a local thing. We were the only white people in there, so it's nice not to be surrounded by backpackers.

We went to bed after this

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