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Mean Lean first brought his boat to Battambang in 1991.
Mean Lean first brought his boat to Battambang in 1991. Kimberley McCosker

The ol’ man river of Battambang

A living anachronism, ferryman Mean Lean keeps rowing even as the city changes around him

On the wide Sangkae river that runs through the centre of Battambang, a solitary boat shuttles back and forth throughout the year – a small wooden sampan painted in faded red and blue, its one oar tied on with an old krama.

The boat is an anomaly. Tethered on what was once the city’s rural east bank, it now edges a busy road and shares its mooring with a banner signposting an upmarket Italian restaurant and lounge bar.  
  
Mean Lean, the boat’s captain, doesn’t seek out customers. If they find him, he will rise obligingly from the wooden platform where he spends his days dozing, and escort them down the bank and onto his rickety boat.

With his passengers seated on wooden footstools, Lean will row the boat slowly across the river to Battambang’s busier west bank, mooring near the popular central market.

White haired and with a round and crinkled face, Lean is a man inured to change.

The 67-year-old has been ferrying passengers across the same stretch of river for the past 24 years – since soon after the last of the Vietnamese forces withdrew from the city in 1989.  

Having worked on the land during the Khmer Rouge regime, Lean decided in 1991 to build a boat and take it to Battambang, which was being flooded with poor country dwellers.

“Before I came here, I heard that the town was silent, then just with some Vietnamese living here,” Lean recalled, unhurriedly oaring the boat through the quiet water.  

For a fair stretch of time, Lean was operating a canny business. Villagers from the east bank were keen to trade in the newly bustling town, and would pay him 500 riel to transport them to the other side of the river and back again, laden down with market goods.

He still had competition from the two bridges that cross the river on either side of him mooring. “But people didn’t want to walk so far to cross the bridge,” he explained.  

Today, the town’s rapid development means that trade has all but dried up: “Everyone has motos.”

But Lean has ploughed on regardless. His boat is the same one that he first steered into town in 1991, although with so many substituted parts that it brings to mind the old philosophers’ dilemma of Theseus’s ship: if every plank in a boat is replaced over time, is it still the same boat?   

He still works the same daily 12-hour shift from sunrise to sunset. “I just do it by myself because I don’t have a job,” he said. “If I don’t come here, the money doesn’t come either.”

Watching from the water, Lean has watched the city around him alter dramatically.

In the 1990s, it was the stomping ground of UNTAC troops, who brought a development boom of sorts, fuelling high property prices and filling riverside nightclubs with international revellers.

But it was a turbulent time. Political violence and assassinations marked the lead-up to the 1993 general election, and there was a moment in 1994 when the Khmer Rouge threatened to reclaim the city, with the frontline a mere 23 kilometres to the west.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Battambang’s Central Market in 2000. Wikicomons/Cianboy

“In the 1990s, [Battambang] seemed to decline a lot,” said Helen Grant Ross, an architect who published a history of the city’s urban heritage in 2003.

Grant Ross last visited the town in 2009, and recalled being struck by how little it was changed. “It was still basically the same as when I first went there in 1999,” she said. “It was stagnating.”

But today, Battambang is one of the most popular stop-offs for visitors to Cambodia, thanks in part to its architecture (the city has more than 100 old Khmer and colonial buildings and over 1,000 pagodas and temples) and in part to its burgeoning reputation as a hub for arts and culture. 

According to Som Sangva Sak, a spatial planning expert based in Battambang, Grant Ross visited just when the scales were tipping. “I think the number of tourists started to increase from 2010,” he said.

During the early 2000s, Sak said, Battambang grew in line with the national development boom, and tourists began to slowly trickle in.

Then in 2010, the city launched “Our City, Our Heritage”: a well-publicised push to preserve and promote the city as a cultural community.

Today, the city’s historic west bank looks at first glance to be remarkably unchanged, although many of its traditional shop houses have been transformed into upmarket boutiques, restaurants and lodgings. 

Sak feels relatively confident that these prominent residences won’t be bulldozed to make way for high rises any time soon.

Although there is no law preventing the demolition, he believes that public visibility would make the project unfeasible.

“But in some locations it’s possible,” he said. “You can see some high rise buildings under construction at the moment inside the old quarter. It’s done by the powerful or well-connected.”

As the city continues to be swept up in a tide of gentrification, Lean has accepted that it will not carry him with it.

He speaks no English, and is a man of few words even in his native tongue. Road transport has all but robbed him of his local customers, and if visitors do chance across his quaint ride, it is only by chance.

“I don’t know how tourists find me,” he pondered. “Maybe they just walk past.” He sometimes still ferries monks across the river, but provides the service for free.

For Helen Grant Ross, the idea of Lean’s timeless journey conjures something romantic. “The first thing the boatman made me think of was the story of Siddhartha, who ended his life ferrying people across the river: the symbol of the person who is taking people from one side to the other,” she said.

For Lean, it is more prosaic. His children are not in a position to support him financially, he has no land, and his wife doesn’t work.

The 10,000 riel he earns on an average day gives them food and a place to sleep.

“There are many people, but my job is still the same as before,” he said, adding that he had no intention of retiring from his post. “There is a big gap between me and the development in this town.”

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