I leave Siem Reap at 6.30am to catch a water taxi to Battambang. The boat is 10m long with bench seats on either side. There’s just about enough room for two adults to sit opposite each other, with backpacks squeezed between our legs. The sides of the boat are open to the air and a soft breeze keeps us cool. It’s a nine hour journey to Battambang, through the rivers and tributaries of Tonle Sap, a vast lake in Cambodia’s north.
We start in a tiny stream, laboriously negotiating the shallow muddy water, grounding on sandbanks twice; the engine screaming and straining, the skipper shouting instructions to the boat boy as he reverses us back afloat. After an hour or so the river gets deeper and wider and soon we’re on the lake itself. We skim across the point where it is at its thinnest but even here land soon disappears so that it feels like you’re travelling across an inland sea.
Eventually, at some invisible marker, the helmsman turns the boat and we head down a wide river and find ourselves among floating villages. Everything is based around water here. Men fish from narrow boats, others walk in groups of three or four, pulling a net behind them, shoulder deep in water.
Women squat on boats loaded with produce – limes, bananas and herbs – and trade with floating stores. Others wash clothes or dishes in the yellow green water or cook on the verandas of their house boats.
Children, wet and slick like brown seals swim in the river, laughing, shouting hello and waving enthusiastically. All the houseboats and narrow boats are brightly coloured: blue, white, red, green and pink.
Occasionally someone signals the skipper with a wave and the taxi slows to a stop. Passengers row out to the boat, load up their luggage and squeeze in. By 11am we’re crowded together and every new arrival surreptitiously checks out the foreigners in their midst.
Two young brothers squeeze up beside me. They whisper behind their hands and giggle and nudge one another. Eventually the younger of the two gathers up his courage and asks ‘what is your name?’ I tell him and ask his in return. He is Chong Ler, he tells me, and his brother is Chong Lim and they spend the rest of the trip sharing their sweets with me, teaching me to speak Khmer and pointing out everything I need to see.
As the day wears on the heat rises and the river narrows. The smell of the water, a rich muddy scent flavoured with diesel and fish, grows stronger. Reeds and trees line every bend, cane crab pots sit low in the mud and the skipper ploughs a furrow deep through the centre of the river.
Eventually the houses of Battambang appear, scattered at first and then more dense and the river bank grows higher and higher. Each house is built on rickety stilts. Now, late in the dry season their bare legs are exposed as they stand and wait for the rising water to wrap them in its soft wet curtain of modesty.
We draw up and deposit passengers at makeshift back yard piers along the way until the final stop, when only tourists are left and we heave out our backpacks and climb rickety metal stairs to street level.