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Monday 27th September - Phnom Penh to Siem Reap
By Claire
Wednesday, 29th September 2004 11:44

We left the hotel at 6.30 after a hurried breakfast and piled into a minibus to get to the dock. A low, narrow boat was waiting for us, and the driver signalled that we should carry our bags round the 8-inch wide walkway to get to the front. I struggled a bit, and finally a nice man came to rescue me and took my bag. We sat indoors in fake leather seats and at 7am precisely the boat's whistle shrieked and we set off. The trip was to take somewhere between four and six hours, a little less than the bus (but for a lot more money) and I was hoping it would be a nicer journey. It was gorgeous, and once we left the city we passed masses of tiny houses made of woven reed panels with reed roofs. A lot of them were on stilts but some of them actually seemed to be floating. For two hours we passed rows of palm trees hiding tiny huts, and strings of cans and bottles that marked fishing nets. Although there was air-conditioning inside, we ventured out onto the little front deck every now and then to enjoy the cool breeze. At 9am I said to Mikey that this lovely flat, calm ride was a much better choice than the bus. At 9.30 there was a huge shudder and the boat lurched precariously and then juddered to an idle. The engines spluttered and we drifted along the river, men with long bamboo poles testing the depth. We pulled up very close to some palm trees standing in the water, so close that I could have touched them from the deck, and then reversed quite hurriedly. I learned later that the boat had hit a wasp nest and the inhabitants were unimpressed. We chugged here and there and I probably dozed for a bit, because the engines cut out entirely (and with it the air con) and the boat was latched to a tree with a rope. According to a bunch of decent Americans on board, the propeller was dead, and that was necessary to get the boat moving. There followed two and a half hours of banging and clanking from the back of the boat as the old one was removed and a new, shiny one installed.

We had moored quite near to a remote strip of stilted houses, miles from any visible land as the whole area was flooded at this time of year, and just a few palm trees suggested that the ground was occasionally dry around here. We, a large stranded boat full of white people, was quite an attraction for the local children and within minutes a swarm of them had invaded. They came in their own little wooden rowing boats, although some swam in the brown water, and wriggled and climbed agilely over the sides of our vessel to see what was going on. Several intense discussions were had with the ship's engineers and the children realised that we'd be here for some time. More children arrived.

I was trying to find a happy balance between the blazing sun on a metal boat outside and the scorching oven of a metal boat inside, and all of a sudden a small voice said 'hello'. I looked up to see the only open window on the boat crowded with small brown faces - about eight children had squeezed onto the tiny walkway and were peering in intently. I was a tourist attraction for about ten minutes, and the children kept making way for the others to see me. It was a little unnerving to be asked my name nine times but not be able to have any other sort of conversation.

The propeller was finally fixed and we made a tentative exit, although the baot soon picked up speed. Within an hour the river had become a lake and I could not see land at all. The only vegetation was the occasional sprig of water hyacinth floating with the current. We were out of sight of land for another couple of hours, but we eventually arrived at the dock. It was 3pm, the trip had taken eight hours, but it was certainly worth it.

At the dock the boat was invaded again, this time by taxi drivers.The cabin had a narrow walkway between the five seats and it was impossible to escape without being offered a ride. I told one guy I'd think about it, Mikey had said the same thing to someone else, and three people fought over our bags. I was glad I didn't have to carry them, and the dollar or so that it would cost to get us into town was no problem. Our problem had been deciding where to stay. We had been promised to the sister guesthouse of the place we stayed in Phnom Penh but it seemed like a real backpacker place and I was hoping for some hot water! On the boat we had been given a leaflet for a new hotel which looked nice and we decided to try there instead. The driver knew it and was actually well acquainted with the receptionist (and spent plenty of time flirting with her) and he convinced us to go out to Angkor Wat, the temple that was the sole reason for coming to this town, tonight. We checked into the hotel (I only noticed that the room next door had a bath once we'd unpacked, but never mind), went round the corner for a very pineappley lunch/supper and then took the taxi to the temple.

We joined a fast moving long line of tourists for our three-day passes and then our driver, whose name we still don't know, took us to the base of a hill to see the sunset. We passed the causeway to Angkor Wat, and we only glanced briefly because I want to save that for the morning. We climbed the hill, steep and rocky and not really a path, more a dry waterfall of boulders and roots, and came to another temple upon which sat two or three thousand tourists. I felt horrified that these ruins, eight or nine hundred years old, were being clambered all over and were at the mercy of so many people, but the only way up was to step on the beautiful rock carvings and to haul yourself up steps that were three inches wide and eighteen inches high.

We joined the masses for the sunset - there was too much cloud so that the sun set about two feet from the horizon, and then took the elephant path down the hill to avoid the rocks. There were six elephants ferrying people up and down, and I've always wanted to ride one, so we'll make a point of that in the next couple of days. For now I contented myself with stroking one of the gorgeous beasts. I was surprised at how hairy she was, expecting her to be mostly leathery skin and not anticipating the mass of long, wiry black hair. She was very good natured and didn't seem to mind my rambling at her. On the way down the hill an Australian/Welsh couple convinced us that we should keep our driver for the three days so that we can get round the site, so on the way back, having run the gauntlet of guidebook sellers and children offering bamboo toys as well as the normal rush of taxi offers, we broached the subject. He had already hinted that he wasn't going anywhere for the whole time we were here, and had told us that we could pay him when we left for the airport, but he didn't give us a definite price, which worries me a bit. Not that I can really quibble over a few dollars. He'll meet us in the morning and find a bank before we head out for a day of temples.

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