Lena & Seb’s Battambang Adventure
Vans, big motorboats, little motorboats, kayaks, bicycles, trains and taxis all had a part to play in our adventure on route from Siem Reap to Battambang. Overnight in the floating village of Prek Toal and the flooded forests of the Core Bird Reserve. Across the floodplains of the Tonle Sap Great Lake and up the Sangke River through the lush rural countryside of Battambang Province to the centre of the farming town in twenty four hours and a bit.
The expedition started at the boat station near Maichrey floating village, where Mr Heang and Finfoot, our comfortably converted fishing boat were waiting. The water was still high enough for us to cross the flooded scrub where we moored to a submerged tree. Lena and Seb were apt pupils as I explained the hydrological phenomena of the Mekong River system until I was rudely interrupted by a virulent green pit viper wrapped around a branch overhanging the deck.
Pit Viper in tree beside boat
The afternoons adventure was to explore Prek Toal floating village and the surrounding flooded countryside by kayak. The police chief took photos as we paddled past his station, children came out to stare as we floated by their houses, while those who were working ignored us.
Our improvised route went between the blackened trunks of flooded trees, under their dense green canopy and emerged beside the floating Catholic Church. We crossed the channel to where a muscled boy was ladling fish into piles in front of squatting ladies who chopped them up with meat cleavers, making a pulp that would ferment into Prahoc or Khmer cheese. So named because it stinks.
Seb and Lena setting off from their homestay
We watched the sun – a blood red orange, set over the Core Bird Reserve from the watchtower on top of the environmental research station, then motored over to the Saray Platform for supper.
Sunset over the Prek Toal Core Bird reserve
Reflections twisted by the wake of motorboats, a cool breeze playing over the boat’s spume.
Hosing the prahok tables ready for tomorrow. Alien clumps of hyacinth drifting on the water.
Single pin pot lights overly bright in the blackness.
Cotton wool fluff of half seen cloud and the glare of a television set as we came close to people’s houses.
The women weavers on the water hyacinth workshop had gone home but their piers were cooking us a supper of fish, vegetables and fruit with rice and a good bottle of chardonnay to wash it down.
Swinging in a hammock in Veasna’s house our home for the night. Manus hid a lime in Baby Buntha’s nappy. His sister heaved the heavy little lump across the floor. The Mother in Law busied herself with not much. The Grandmother on all fours played with the baby. Little sister went skipping to her mummy then wrapped the baby in plastic, all the while pool hall play by the lads in the village. Hide and seek by the water jar, doubled up Grandmother.
Streaky orange lighting the village as the first long tails cacaphonic clatter echoed across the water, the old lady hawked, the batteries ran out on the night lanterns. We awkwardly crossed the tilting boats to the pool hall barge to meet Heang, who took us for breakfast back at the Saray Platform.
Dawn over Prek Toal
Bunhoeurn was waiting in the community boat for the ride into the magical landscape of the post dawn flooded forest. The light of the warming sun reflected by the delicate yellow flowers of floating saray plants. Squadrons of cormorants flew in slip-stream formation. A profusion of black and white; Oriental darters mixed with egrets, pelicans riding the thermals like galleons in the sky and the bird colonies. Avian cities built in the tallest trees.
Back in the village by 9am our journey into the heart of darkness (actually lush, pastoral Battambang) began.
The core bird reserve & view from observation platform
The waterway was fringed by hyacinth and undulating green margins of scrub with the occasional hamlets of floating houses or shacks tied to trees. The first proper village was Kampong Prahoc, which sort of translates into waterside place of good fermented fish paste. I wouldn’t want to be there when the water is low and rotten fish undiluted!
After an hour or so we began to get an idea of how vast the floodplain is. Over 40 kilometres wide where the water rises and falls by 10 meters submerging all but the tallest trees. In the floating villages along our route the only permanent constructions were pagodas on stilts.
Around a bend and Wat Cheu Khmao or temple of the black wood, came into view like a Burmese monastery with a beautiful modern pagoda framed by sugar palms behind. It was built in 1944 copying the Bayon Temple in Angkor and completed with Loksvara, the smiling faces at the cardinal points but they were blamed after accidents and disease struck the village then removed.
The salapali or space for teaching of Wat Cheu Kmao
Great clumps of yellow green bamboo towered over the floating houses. The stems are harvested to provide the floating platforms on which the villages are built.
A regal Grey-headed fish eagle on guard beside its nest in a tall tree, while on a lower branch a hunched up night heron the servile vizier to the magnificent bird above.
We passed a tacky tourist lunch stop as bad as any bus station for the back packers crammed inside and on top of the fibreglass tourist boat.
Grey-headed Fish Eagle
A single file short cut through the scrub, stopping for long tail boats loaded with beer and rice and wooden boats with giant water jars. We emerged onto an open plain where the trees had been cut down. Home to a transient people living on their small house-boats or shelters on the river bank as the water receded. Strange pivoting bamboo fishing nets were lowered into the water then raised revealing a whicker basket tied to the bottom to trap the fish.
A floating house being towed to deeper water through a village of stilted houses
A fat pelican sat on the porch of a floating house. An unhappy monkey ran around on a chain in the full sun on a bamboo fishing platform and a full grown otter seemed ok as it scampered round the girl who held it’s leash.
The stilted houses lining the still flooded banks of the middle Sangke River
Telephone masts were visible in the distance. Riverbanks rose above the water and motorbikes parked beside houses. We’d reached the upper Sangke.
Beautifully painted pagodas in stark contrast to Cham mosques. Elegant stilted wooden houses with tiled roofs between sugar palm and kapok trees.
A pagoda on the riverbank not far from Battambang
Lena and Sebastian safely delivered to their garden enclave in Phum Wat Kor upstream of the town, I breathed a sigh of relief as the extra hot, double shot latte created by Chenda was placed on the little wooden table in front of me at Knyei Cafe.
Twice cooked beef with Seb and Lena at Jaan Bai cooking school restaurant then Jamesons and bed.
Weddingitis had infected the town and the Seng Hout Hotel where we’d booked to stay had a particularly virulent attack so we kept on going to find another bland box like building with half the Cardamon Forest used to make the furniture but ice cool rooms with no aesthetic distractions to sleep.
Day 3 The Battambang bicycle tour of the city with San.
First stop gold, bras, wigs, fruit, meat & fish, the crammed Psa Thmei or new market, built by the French.
We crossed the quayside and down the dry banks to the ferry man who took us across the river to the monk school at Bovil Pagoda.
Manus & Lena crossing the river and a monk house at Bovil Pagoda
Singing rang out from the Catholic Church, which had the enthusiasm of an American black baptist congregation not the stilted formality of a Catholic communion. Time was getting short and the Bamboo Train beckoned so we had to forgo the black man in the middle of the road, another of Battambang’s attractions.
Giant wood spiders had weaved their webs over the rail tracks. The view extended across bright green rice fields to Phnom (hill) Sampeou in the distance.
A one-way system, lift off the bamboo platform, remove the axles and let the oncoming norrie through before putting it back together again.
Nick (left), Lena & Sebastian on board a norrie
1. The finfoot is Hatched
finfoot was born in Prek Toal and conceived in the myriad of marshy waterways that come and go with the flood and ebb of the lake across the floodplain.
The Tonle Sap Lake during the ebb and Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve (below)
The Masked finfoot is a shy and reclusive water bird skulking in the marshy vegetation lining rivers and lakes. Spotting the bird is a rare and wonderful experience, which seemed a good enough reason to call our boat finfoot (masked is too difficult to pronounce).
Early morning egrets in the Core Bird Reserve
I came to Cambodia as a volunteer business advisor to a French NGO. The aim was to provide alternative livelihoods for the families we were working with on the lake. One of these livelihoods was ecotourism but they hadn’t got any guides, hence my first encounter as a bird guide with The Tonle Sap Lake and Prek Toal Core Bird Reserve.
Masked Finfoot Hellopais personatus
I didn’t know anything about either but was overwhelmed by the spectacle of the place.
Years spent in Cambodia passed by but my love affair with the lake remained. The phenomenal change driven by the backflow from the Mekong River was maybe reminiscent of the massive tidal zone around Jersey where I’d spent my childhood holidays. The extent of the lake and its inaccessibility, but not if I had a boat!
We’d got something to go on. The uber luxury resort Amansara had a boat called Amanbala. She was the brainchild of Sally the GM and a friend, so not to be copied while she was here but now she’s long gone, fair game.
We started with a wooden hull that seemed enormous and a rusting tangle of metal passing as an engine. It had towed a wedding platform from Prek Toal to the mouth of the fishing channel that leads to Maichrey when we staged the Bill Bensley Boat Races.
The message from our Thai business partners was full steam ahead, just put a business proposal together. So Buntha and I set off for Prek Toal. Buntha’s brother in law, the BiL, in more prosperous times had been a fish merchant as well as crocodile farmer. Moored behind his house was the hull. Once a container for transporting fish across the lake to Chong Khneas where some of the cargo made it to Thailand or Vietnam, while the rest rotted back to where it came from.
finfoot as it was behind the BiL’s house
The BiL connected a big battery to the engine, turned a key beside the Camry steering wheel and the machine roared to life. We nosed round the Chheang collection of floating houses into the main channel. The boat was steered by ropes connected to a long tailed propeller shaft that slowly shifted it in the desired direction. There was no cover or sound proofing but the powerful sound of the big V6 engine was infinitely preferable to the minding numbing cacophony of the 2 strokes that drove the fiberglass long-tails screaming through the village.
Safely away from where our wake could do no more than shake a floating carpet of vegetation, the BiL pushed forward the throttle and the boat took off! The distant lake rapidly loomed large as we almost planed towards it. Two tons of solid wood doesn’t exactly lend itself to planing. The fuel gauge if we’d had one would have been spinning as litres of diesel exploded in the cylinders.
That was last year – 2017, when the lake reached its zenith. This year – 2018, as the water and our guests receded my focus returned to the boat. I put the requested proposal together for our business partners and waited for the green light but after umpteen revisions the light went orange and finally nothing at all.
The dry season window was evaporating when the boat builder could work all day, and most important the next tourist season looming.
I was back in the UK and weary with the sound of my own enthusiasm coming to nothing so the project stalled. Skip a month to Menorca, a weekend away with Laura an industry friend and her pal Duncan. ‘Tell us about your boat,’ they said so I did. ‘We’ll give you 25% – each.’ Ok so the projects incubating. ‘I will too,’ said my brother and the egg was on its way. Another investor in Siem Reap had agreed to 25% but that was talk so the last share became mine.
‘Buntha what’s happening with the boat?’ Was nearly the first question I asked when I got off the airplane from the UK, ‘nothing Bong,’ ‘well let’s make it happen.’ So we did. Mr fixit AKA Buntha found the boat builder at the tourist port of Chong Khneas, who’d built the Amanbala for Amansara.
The metamorphosis of finfoot
We forced our way through the tourist port, ‘not come here,’ the check point charlie ordered. ‘I’m not a tourist, I’m having a boat built.’ My Khmer didn’t cut any ice, I was white and therefor a tourist. I sat and glowered at him until the boat builder fetched me to see what would become a finfoot. We agreed a price, paid him something to show we were serious and that was actually that. Weekly visits to watch the metamorphosis of the bare wooden bones into finfoot went incredibly smoothly such that within a couple of months she was born.
2. finfoot flies
Our Team together with Joni, the GM of Treeline, friend and witness went to Chong Khneas as apparent tourists. Well that’s how Joni & I appeared, the rest are Khmer. We were herded down the gangplank onto the boarding platform and whichever tourist boat and disinterested driver we were to be allocated with. ‘We have a boat,’ I dismissed some tout having spied Heang our captain and finfoot moored and ready, then with a huge surge of pride stepped onboard.
finfoot powered across the floodplain with its big six cylinder lorry engine. Out on the open lake I took the wheel, opened the throttle and felt a surge of oomph. There was still another 30% to go. Our direction towards the forest was slightly disconcerting, I thought as I tried with no effect to correct it. Heang you’d better takeover, I suggested. It steers a little to the right. ‘Yes Bong,’ as if to say that’s why I’m the captain.
My efforts as Captain and Heang correcting them
We moored at the mouth of the Maichrey channel, opened a bottle or two of Prosecco and took self-congratulatory photos.
The Team felt good and on the way back Lors was trying to engage Joni with the usual Khmer chat up line of why aren’t you married, not known for its subtlety. Grasping that the approach wasn’t going well he changed the subject. ‘How do you spell biopsy Nick?’ Sadly his mum had a breast tumor. Tiger grinning, ‘how do you spell f – – – Nick?’ ‘Not sure Tiger, ask Joni,’ even Lors laughed.
The Team (left to right) Bunthy, Tiger, Me, Buntha, Sreymom, Heang, Lors & Ra
I wanted a space where Dean our partner in cocktails and canapés could work his magic so I commissioned Oyen the cabinetmaker to make a bar with an inset sink behind. Dean had to see it so just before setting off to the UK, Dean & Buntha together with Tiger & I launched our kayaks behind Phnom Kraum and paddled 10km to where the Maichrey Boat Station should be.
It started this year with a dam across the Mekong collapsing in Laos just North of the border with Cambodia. The surge of water that flooded down the river kicked off the backflow up the Tonle Sap River, which in turn flows into the Tonle Sap Lake. Heavy monsoonal rains filled the tributaries adding to the tsunami of water that was swelling the lake near to where it had risen in 2011. We glided across what was and soon will be again the semi-swampy floodplain straight to the boat station except the road was now flooded and the tourist boats were moored in the grounds of the local pagoda, usually a kilometer away. Tiger reappeared with a cold beer, my hero then the van bearing our guests and Dean’s cocktails arrived.
Naida’s IPhone photograph of the lake as we headed back to the pagoda
Moored behind a semi-submerged tree, we finished Dean’s cocktails as the sun sank through strata of cloud. Then Naida and the boys moved onto neat gin. We’d run out of tonic.
3. The final fit-out
Yes, yes, yes, said the fabric lady, when I explained that we wanted her unsightly but protective plastic curtains rolled up and wrapped in our beige canvas. The result was reminiscent of a 1970’s B&B in Aberystwyth and I should know, I’d lived in one! We’d also commissioned a canopy for the top deck to shade the mattresses she was going to make. The canopy remained elusive and the mattresses bore no relation to the space where they were to fit. She the fabric lady had sent someone to fit it all out but I don’t think they could count and I had to pay for the changes as she’d got our material that we’d sourced from Australia.
Meanwhile Oyen the cabinetmaker had finished everything he said he would by the time he said, though his daybed collapsed when he sat on it (he quickly came back to fix it). A ships wheel not the steering wheel of a Toyota Camry, the usual method of changing direction for most boats on the lake. I’d managed to find one at a ships chandler in Newhaven, Sussex along with the LED lights we needed for our sunset cocktail trips.
October last year I was back in the UK having one of our weekly Skype calls with Buntha. ‘Bong I’ve got good news and bad,’ or words to that effect. ‘Yes?’ ‘Well which?’ ‘Bad news,’ ‘the engines broke,’ ‘go on,’ I said, just in case you’ve lost the thread of this conversation. As soon as the subject gets technical English ceases to be an effective vector for communication. ‘So what’s plan B?’ I asked. One of the great things about Buntha is he has plan B’s. ‘I’m going on holiday.’ He didn’t actually say that but that’s what happened. He and the mechanic first went to Battambang no luck then to Phnom Penh. Bingo they got the required widget, something to do with the gearbox, and returned. Widget cost $250, traveling costs $250, fixed engine priceless and $900 cheaper than the ‘Bong it’s going to cost $1500.
4. Finfoot adventures
Stephanie and Jules from Bangkok together with Manus & I photographed by Serey and spoiled by frilly curtains
Christian + partner with Tommy on the top deck while Tiger mixes martinis by the bar
Christmas eve BBQ on board (you can just notice the correct curtains)
Our finfoot adventures had been piling up since that happy day we set off on our maiden voyage. It had been a hard week, the constant stress of our impending Smexit (a legal separation from our business partners) and a whole host of other obstacles real or imagined. We needed an excuse to get out of the office.
Manus uncharacteristically turned up on time so we; Buntha, Ra, Lors, Jin and Tiger with Manus set off to recce a big gay wedding party booked for next month.
Left to right; Ra, Tiger, Heang, Lors, Jin, Doitch (our van driver), Buntha and Manus
The context was Bill Bensley’s Boat Races in 2013 https://indochineex.com/blog/bill-bensley-boat-races-indochine-exploration
We had towed a wedding platform 15km from Prek Toal to Maichrey. His staff raced traditional water festival racing boats, while our muscle boys, ten of them including Manus, paddled Bill’s inner circle between the racing boats. A photo of Little Tee (left in 2013) and his biceps sold the trip this time so a newly married gay couple will use us to set up a party, with muscle boys on a platform at the edge of the lake.
The issue was the platform we’d used before had sunk when they drove a Caterpillar earthmover on it, so our mission today was to find another one. A job for the Sisters of Mercy and their volleyball court, unfortunately it was holding up the school, which wouldalso sink if we towed it away. Buntha had yet to come up with plan B.
Lors had a chicken smoking on the BBQ, Ra laid the table, Tiger took his shirt off, Jin blended into the background, Buntha sorted out the Sisters of Mercy while I relaxed with Manus and thought about our next adventure, a night on the lake with Manus on finfoot.
‘I want to sleep on the boat,’ Manus told me, and so did I but customers got in the way until the staff lunch.
Sunset on The Tonle Sap Lake
Upstairs or downstairs was the question. Cool with a view was the answer until I thought about falling off when I need to piss in the middle of the night so we strung up a mosquito net above the downstairs daybed.
Our rival operator as in David and Goliath, where we play the role of David, had kindly constructed and conveniently situated a small platform where the Maichrey Channel meets the Tonle Sap Lake.
Manus on Goliath’s platform and Heang on the prow of finfoot
Heang moored finfoot alongside and I set off in a kayak to watch the sun sink into the Lake. The fishing season has started so the lakeshore is fringed with a maze of fishing nets designed to catch fish, not kayaks presumably. It was a puzzle how to avoid being funneled towards the trap where the unfortunate fish end their life’s journey.A few weeks ago quiet would have settled on the still waters as the sun sank now the staccato clap of 2 stroke engines reverberated as the fishing boys took watch.
A golden path lead from the West to finfoot and our platform for the night, where Manus had a set up a table and chairs. Heang was cooking. I’d forgotten any oil so he was braising our chicken in Cambodia beer, in the meantime I’d bought a bottle of champagne.
February sunrise over the Lake
Heang and Manus sat on the platform as dusk descended and I popped the cork on a bottle of Moet. Manus likes champagne and so unfortunately did Heang, which meant there was a little too much sharing and not enough beer afterwards because it had been poured on the chicken!
It was cool so Manus and I curled up together. The precautionary Valium induced a soothing torpor little penetrated by the predawn clatter of fishing boats. Manus sweetly bought me a mug of tea when I woke and we watched the sunrise through the fishing fences from the East.
Breakfast on the Lake
A couple of coffee’s later we reluctantly headed back. We’d missed the sweet spot when the lake’s high and the fishermen are back in the village mending their nets but it was still a beautiful experience.
Philip and Stefan’s wedding party a couple of weeks later amongst the fishing fences and Mali the muscle boy with one of the guests