Maye and I decided to travel from Phnom Penh to Siam Reap by boat. Cambodia is home to two major rivers (which converge in Phnom Penh)- the Mekong, and the Tonle Sap. The Tonle Sap River has its birth in an enourmous shallow lake in the north of the country. As well as being home to some unique riverine fauna, Tonle Sap has another curiosity. It is Cambodia’s safety-valve. During the monsoon, when the Mekong River increases many times in size, the Tonle Sap River actually reverses its flow, and instead of water flowing south from the lake and joining the Mekong in Phnom Penh, floodwaters from the Mekong flow back up the Tonle Sap and empty into the lake. The lake swells, but downstream the banks of the Mekong are spared.
The trip itself was a dissapointment. I think we had the impression of an atmospheric cruise up an exotic river, with chance to lounge in the open air and enjoy the scenery. The boat, however, was a purpose-built speedboat which resembled a floating coach. It was long and narrow, thoroughly practical but with no thought given to the passengers, other than to ship as many as possible up the river in one go. For the first few minutes we joined fifty or so other backpackers on the roof of this thing, but once it got going it was hairing up the river at fifty miles an hour, and the toll of cold morning wind and splashing river-water picked people off one by one who retreated into the depths of the vessel, until there were only half a dozen braves left cowering in the open. Down below it was dark, the windows were tinted orange preventing any decent views or photography, and it stank of diesel fuel. Quite honestly, the trip would have been more fun by bus- and I put that as a serious recommendation for any travellers heading to Cambodia.
Early on in the trip we passed some of the settlements outside Phnom Penh, where long lines of ricketty shanties lined the banks (below). The morning light was a little watery and flat, and the images worked better in black-and-white, but I’m glad I took a few. The most interesting features were the floating houses that we rocketted past that punctured the river for the first hour or so of the journey. They seemed to be set up in rows across the channel, and I’m not sure if they were peoples’ homes, or simply temporary shelters which they used while fishing the river. Nonetheless, the top image of this post remains my favourite as it captures the colour and detail of one of these little structures bobbing out in the middle of the Tonle Sap, as we careened past with a great spraying wake.
The Tonle Sap lake itself was visually dull- a vast expanse of borderless brown water that chopped slightly in the frail wind. However closer to Siam Reap, the river channel narrows again, and there are entire floating villages lining the banks. I didn’t take any photos of this, as I didn’t realise at the time the extent of these villages and structures, nor how interesting they were. I was tired after six hours perched in the rather dissapointing and very cold boat, and my camera was buried below decks somewhere. Nonetheless, next time I go to Siam Reap I think I will take a boat-trip on this portion of the lake (available in Siam Reap) as it’s all kinds of curious.