by Maria Ruiz
Maria often shares stories with us about Santa Barbara history, her travel all over the world, her dogs, and life.
We left Bangkok early in the morning to travel the 100 miles to the border between Cambodia and Thailand by bumpy bus. Once at the border, we crossed with dozens of hand-drawn carts and trucks, all carrying goods into Cambodia. Traffic going to Thailand seemed to be just pedestrians. After clearing Thailand immigration, we had to walk about a block into Cambodia to get our visas. Along the route, large casinos lined both sides of the road, evidence of Asians’ love of gambling. One fact that we discovered before we left Thailand is that Cambodia uses U.S. dollars. A few people along the border will use Thai money and although some merchants will accept riel (official Cambodian currency) most require dollars. There are no ATM machines except for a couple in Phnom Penh and no credit cards accepted. Cash Only!
Finally we got our stamps and were ready to experience Cambodia. Already we could see that we had stepped back in time; poverty, dirt, garbage and debris. We hired a taxi to drive the 60 miles to the second largest town in Cambodia, Battambang. The first part of the trip, Poipet to Sisaphon was bumpy, the road having some asphalt between the potholes. But we made good time, three and a half hours to cover 60 miles.
Battambang used to be a pleasant French town built along the river but time and the past regime have taken their toll. Colonial houses still line both sides of the waterway but have fallen into disrepair. Our hotel was located a few blocks from the center of town so we took a motorcycle cart for a tour of the city. That took about half hour, driving down all the main streets of the town. Our guide stopped by the large statue of a Hindu holding a large black stick. Legend has it that with the stick he was a powerful cattle owner. One day he lost the stick, the Bang, and forever lost his power and cattle. In Cambodian, Battam means “lost.”
Early the next morning we headed toward Siem Reap. The route is down the river to the lake, across the northern part of Tonle Sap Lake through the “Bird Santuary” and finally up river from the lake to Siem Reap. The trip cost $15 each and was advertised as three and a half hours. It was now at the end of the dry season and there has been a drought for the last five years so we were told the trip might take a little longer. It Did! Nine hours.
The trip downriver was very interesting. Aside from getting stuck in the shallow waters a few times and once waiting while the pilot freed the propellers from a dirty rag, the trip was so slow that we were able to see and picture life in the many small villages along the shore. There are hundreds of fishing villages, some on land but many where the whole village is on boats. During the rainy season the whole village floats high on the water.
Where sheds are built on the ground, the river washes them away to be rebuilt the following dry season. All along the way, the only sign we saw of modern times was that almost every grass house and every house boat had a television antenna. We learned that the TV’s are powered by car batteries which then can be recharged by using them on the boats during the day. Every village has a distinctive smell of fish. We watched fishermen using baskets and nets.
Nearing the lake, where the water was a bit deeper, we saw large nets being lowered and raised by large bamboo structures. Each net is about 20 feet by 20 feet. The net is lowered down into the water and after a little time, raised up catching any small fish at the bottom of the net where a small basket traps them. The fish caught seemed to be about two inches long. Along the river small farms grow the few vegetables needed and local fruit trees. Fish is traded for rice, which is the staple food everywhere.
We stopped finally and were transferred to a larger boat that would take us across the lake. Along the shores of the lake we saw many more villages and larger fishing boats. Stopping at the other side of the lake, we were expecting a boat ride up to Siem Reap but the river is dry. So a shiny red mototuk, a rickshaw for two attached to a motorcycle and really quite comfortable, bounced us along a rocky riverbed drive to town. The sides of the rocky road are lined with very poor shacks selling food and tourist stuff. We later learned that not much work is put into building the shacks because they will wash away when the rains come.
Siem Reap is probably the second largest city in Cambodia at this time or will be very soon. Guest houses and hotels are everywhere and more are being built daily. Large resorts line the road from the airport, and money exchange shops fill in any empty space. There are two large market places in town, one for locals and one for the tourists. The smell of fish permeates markets and streets. The majority of vehicles are bicycles and motorcycles, interspersed with mototuks and minivans carrying tourists back and forth.
Finally we made it to the hotel, a very lovely place run by an English couple that specializes in tours for photographers. We had come to see Angkor Wat and for the next three days we roamed all over the large ancient city. Check out the previous article for more of that adventure.