Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Holiday in Cambodia: Sleepwalking the Mekong

After visiting Siam Reap and the Angkor Wat, I rode a small wooden boat to the city of Battambang. I was taken by surprise: I basically didn't know anything about the Mekong or the people who live on it, and found the journey completely fascinating. The Mekong is a river that also flows through Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. In Cambodia, the water level varies immensely depending on the time of the year, routinely flooding vast areas in shallow water. So small villages and houses are built on stilts, or more commonly floats, to accommodate the change in water level.

While the river was pretty continuously populated, there were parts that, as far as I could tell, had absolutely no land anywhere in site. There was a fair amount of green from brush and trees and water-plants, but no solid land at all, the only place to set foot would be the small groups of floating houses.

In fact, there were small boats just for the livestock to live on. Usually this was chicken, although I saw pigs as well, with special floating pigpens.

As could be imagined, there were boats everywhere, usually just small hand-paddled canoes. While it may not look it from the small picture up top, the boat to Battambang was about half tourists, half river people. Our boat didn't dock for these river people, or even come to a full stop. Instead, their family would pull up a canoe alongside the boat, and they then hopped overboard. It all happened surprisingly quickly.

It's impossible for me to fully imagine living like this. For one thing, there's not going to be much to eat besides fish, and maybe water-vegetables? Actually there were a number of trader-boats going up the river, selling oil, bananas, and basic staples – it can be seen a little in the following picture:

Also, life there must be so immensely boring. Basically every single kid waved at our boat as it passed by, there was a lot of mutual gawking going on. I imagine that larger boats passing by is about as eventful as things get:

The river changed character as it got closer to Battambang, narrowing substantially. Much of this area was the center of village life, with small shacks on both sides of the river.

There were still constant small boats going from one side to the other, and a lot of people in boats were net-fishing or going about other business:

So, that's an amazing journey that everybody should do sometime in their life. Battambang itself isn't a highlight of Cambodia, and basically the whole town is lights out by 8:30 pm, but there's things to enjoy. For one, a few nice temples:

And there's a very interesting wet market, in the center of town, they also sell snack foods and the blended fruit drinks I love. After a positive experience in Chiang Mai with a one-day cooking school, I tried one again, from a restaurant called The Smoking Pot – it wasn't nearly as good a school, but it gave a fun chance to explore the market, and I'd recommend it. Here's some vegetables, very colorful:

And here's a lady skinning frogs, for our class! The secret is to cut the head off first, then just peel the skin back.

That's all I'll have to say about Cambodia for now, but visiting was a great experience. I really hope to go back and explore the country more thoroughly.

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