Down the River and Through the Minefields – Our Trek Out of Cambodia

Bear with me, this is long.

After a few days in Siem Reap, we decided to head back to Thailand. We didn’t want to return the same way we had come – the border town of Poipet is not a nice place. So, we opted for a boat ride down the Stung Sangker River. We read that it is a scenic journey and it would get us closer to Southwestern Cambodia, where we could cross back into Thailand.

Well, as I mentioned before, the 4 to 6 hour boat ride lasted almost 11 hours. Although it was torturously long, it was indeed beautiful and intensely interesting to see the changing scenery and the way that the Cambodians live along the river. Let me give you a little description with photos of the journey!

The ride began on the outskirts of Siem Reap, on the shores of the great lake of Cambodia – the Tonle Sap. We were overwhelmed by tiny little thatched-roof huts crowding the road built on a dike. Each hut contained a family and a bunch of fish that were either freshly-caught or placed out to dry. You can imagine the smell. The closer we got to the shores of the lake, the more intense the smell, and the more crowded the road became – with people, huts and trucks. Tonle Sap’s water level fluctuates dramatically with the dry and rainy seasons. The main community of people living on the shore of the lake live in floating house boats. As the water recedes, their homes float further away from the main road and as it rises, they get closer to the city of Siem Reap. The houses we passed built on the dike are stationary. We had to drive further out into the lake bed to arrive at the floating village where our boat waited for us.

To get to the Stung Sangker river, we had to cross over part of the lake and enter into the mouth of the river. The lake was not interesting – just a big expanse of water. The Stung Sangker is what was fascinating. All the way down the river to the city of Battambang, we passed a series of riverscapes, with different kind of homes and lifestyles. The first kind of scenery we encountered was a wide river with flat river banks, bordered with floating fishing villages. Along the banks were green fields and palm trees. All kinds of homes could be found here, from floating shacks to more proper homes with four walls. At first I thought we were on a tourist boat since most of the passengers were like us, however, very quickly we discovered we were on a local boat used to taxi people down the river. Because it was the Chinese New Year, we stopped often in these little villages to pick up people who wanted to move down the river to their relatives’ homes, sometimes just a few miles away and for others, hours more along the river. Because we stopped frequently at the doors of the homes, we experienced quite an intimate view of the way people live. There were many children, playing inside their houses or sitting on little porches with their feet dangling in the water. They all waved at us like crazy! In many of the villages they even had floating schoolhouses, libraries and activity centers that included a chain-link fenced in floating basketball court. Many of the schools and activity centers sported signs saying they had been donated by UNICEF, which seems to have a pretty big presence in Cambodia, not surprisingly. Most interesting? The floating pig and chicken pens!

As we progressed, there were fewer villages and the riverbanks turned more wild. They were bordered by lush jungle and I shuddered to think of the mines that might have been hidden among the trees. Instead of large villages we would pass just a cluster of more modest floating houses or thatched-roof huts. It is quite humbling to see how people can make do with a one room hut with just a few cooking pots, a hammock and a sarong or two. It was also surprising to see some of these humble huts had large TV antennas on top and a TV and stereo inside.

After a while the scenery changed again, this time to a narrower, more shallow river that snaked among dry rice fields. The homes here were definitely  huts, and you could visibly tell that the area was poorer then the fishing villages. There were children everywhere, mostly naked, running around, waving at us. We also saw several farmers tilling their fields.

After several more hours of farmland, we entered an area where the riverbanks became more steep. They were covered in majestic, tall palm trees and weeping willows, and the homes here were more traditional – on stilts but made of cement or wood with walls and real roofs. The river straightened out and widened a bit as well. This was an area that was more populated and, unfortunately, the riverbanks were covered in the trash and garbage that the locals throw out their back windows. This is a problem that I have seen in Central America, the Middle East and China. I can understand that for developing countries, the environment is not the first priority, but it is a shame.  I know that I have seen public education campaigns to stop littering and the contamination of the rivers, but it is a difficult thing to spend money on when your people need medicine, food and shelter.

The trash got worse and worse until we knew for sure that we were within the city limits of Battambang. Battambang is the second-largest city in Cambodia and home to many ethnic Chinese and muslim Cambodians. We saw several large mosques along the river. The city was gearing up for Chinese New Year, which was kind of welcoming, seeing all the Chinese characters and decorations. We stayed the night at a mediocre guesthouse. I suffered for my stupidity of staying in my seat for 11 hours. I was dehydrated and exhausted and my ankles were swollen. Next time I am on a boat for 11 hours, I am getting up and walking around, no matter how crowded and difficult it is to move around.

From Battambang we arranged to take a taxi to the border because there are no public buses down the road we wanted to take. We had heard that the road was very bad and that it travels through the heart of an old Khmer Rouge stronghold, littered with mines. Turns out that the road is very good, although dirt and gravel, and it only took us a few hours to reach the border. We did pass many signs, in English and Cambodian, saying that the field beyond had been cleared of mines, usually by an organization called CMAC, with Cambodia and US flags. I wondered about all the fields we passed that didn’t have a sign. Had they been cleared yet? There were lots of small huts along the sides of the road and many fields appeared to be under cultivation (or awaiting rice-planting, as this is the dry season.) There were also lots of signs in Cambodian only, with pictures, warning children and adults of unexploded mines and other ordinance. I had read that there was a big education campaign in progress because some people who are new to an area don’t know about the mines.  I really wanted to stop and take pictures of the signs, but our driver didn’t speak any English and he was pretty bent on getting to the border as quickly as possible.

I found these photos of landmine billboards on the internet:

Click on the photos above to go to websites with more photos!

For further reading on landmines in Cambodia, and for some interesting photos of minefields, see these websites:
Cambodian Mine Action Center
Landmines in Cambodia
Cambodia Photo Gallery
Another set of Cambodia photos by a tourist (A really great set of photos, including some of the Tuol Sleng torture museum and Choueng Ek Killing Field, with mass graves and landmine removal.)
Cambodia Landmine Museum – In Siem Reap, but we didn’t get a chance to go.
More info on the musuem

We crossed the border at a place called Pruhm, and what a difference to Poipet. It took us only a few minutes and we were 2 of only 3 foreigners that had come through that day. The place was as sleepy a border crossing as I have ever seen! We practically had to wake the guard up to stamp our passports.  (Poipet was packed with Koreans and Thais crossing the border to go gambling in casinos and was full of people trying to get you to come to their hotel, or use their taxi.)

From Pruhm we continued via taxi for 2 hours to catch a ferry to Koh Chang island.  I was in desperate need of a hammock!

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