On the river road from Battambang
"I started to dream ever more exclusively of water. I grew convinced that following water, flowing with it, would be a new way of getting under the skin of things." From Waterlog, by Roger Deakin
CONDITIONS on the six-hour car journey from Phnom Penh to Battambang tend to discourage Deakin-like musings on the transcendental powers of H20.
An hour outside of Phnom Penh the rainy season seems more rumor than reality, while the cratered ribbon of rubble that replaces the road beyond Kampong Chhnang is itself a study in desert-like dryness.
Convoys of heavy trucks that ply the route between Phnom Penh and the Thai border churn the surface of the road into the equivalent of a tropical sandstorm directed at the hapless traffic stuck behind them.
The resulting dust penetrates even those rare vehicles with properly-sealing doors and windows, treating the exposed skin of passengers to a fine, dry coating that perspiration transforms into messy brown streaks.
Visitors disembark in Battambang longing only for the cleansing properties of a long hot shower and a less punishing mode of onward travel.
Thankfully, earlier this year that wish was granted.
In March a daily boat service between Battambang and Siem Reap was officially inaugurated.
The water link marks a milestone in the slow evolution of Cambodia's transportation infrastructure, providing travelers with a speedy, comfortable and reasonably priced alternative to standard overland or flight routes between the two cities.
With fares set at $15 a passenger (25,000 riel for Cambodians), the boat trip from Battambang to Siem Reap is a bargain in comparison to flying and a welcome break from the exhausting 12-to-15 hour trip by road.
What travelers get for their money is one of the most rewarding travel experiences in Cambodia: a four-hour journey that offers spectacular views of one the largest and most pristine wetland areas in all of Southeast Asia.
Mist is still burning off the top of the water as the boat is readied for its 6:30am departure from a small jetty on the Stung Khiev River in central Battambang.
The boat is a scaled-down version of the craft that service the Phnom Penh-Siem Reap route, but similarities between the two journeys are banished minutes after departure.
As the boat moves down the relatively narrow Stung Khiev, the sullen stares and jaded demeanor of fishermen and riverside dwellers so common on the Tonle Sap route are nowhere to be seen.
Instead, the newness of the boat service still sparks spontaneous waves and smiles from fishermen laying their nets.
Like a flashback to UNTAC's arrival in remote areas of Cambodia, the sound of the boat's approach causes groups of waving, cheering children to line parts of the riverbank on both sides.
Forty minutes into the journey, the smiles and waves come to an end in response to a drastic change in the landscape. Suddenly the riverbanks on both sides merge with the water and the land falls away.
Stretching far into the distance on all sides are vistas of shimmering water that stretch into the distance. The triumph of water over land is broken only by patches of mangrove and forlorn-looking dwellings built on high stilts.
It's a hauntingly beautiful landscape in which soil is an abstraction and the lives of the people who live here are determined by the seasonal rise and fall of waters that both feed and isolate them.
The demeanor of the people who live in this area changes as markedly as the environment which they inhabit.
Gone are the happy waves and ubiquitous chants of "Hello" experienced just minutes before upstream. Instead, adults and children alike peer warily from water-stranded shacks or small fishing craft, and resolutely ignore the intrusion of the Siem Reap ferry.
There's good reason for these people to be skeptical about the intentions of strangers: for more than two decades this area was an unchallenged domain of Khmer Rouge guerrillas.
After 1979, sporadic government efforts to take control of the area were successively frustrated by an enemy that could seemingly attack and disappear at will through slits in the trackless marshy brush.
Only since the defections and surrender of Khmer Rouge forces in the last year has this area been judged safe enough to justify the resumption of regular civilian transport.
While the years of being cut off from much of the rest of Cambodia have done little for the physical and material welfare of the inhabitants of this area ("Do You Have Leprosy?: These Are The Symptoms" a sign posted in a small, newly opened clinic on the route warns), the environment in which they live has remained insulated from the ravages of modernity visited upon numerous other of the Kingdom's bodies of water.
Cool, dark water flows through the surrounding marsh, a natural filter, unsullied by plastic bags and slicks of oil.
As the channel narrows to a mere four meters between high stands of mangrove, an impressive array of bird life takes flight overhead, no doubt attracted by the teeming schools of fish in the shallows.
At several points in this section the boat slows to a crawl as it passes families of fishermen setting fish traps and laying nets.
Eventually, the channel opens up into a far wider river, passing nomadic floating communities at rest in their rainy season berths or en route to new beginnings elsewhere.
The last half-hour of the journey involves a brief dash across a section of the Great Lake itself, culminating in a docking beside where the boats to and from Phnom Penh embark. Boats make the reverse journey from Siem Reap to Battembang at 6:30am daily.