Look back on Sangker

Cambodia Part 2- on the river

Battambang is Cambodia’s second city. 

Do countries need second cities in case the first one gets lost in the dark on the way home ?. Who decides what constitutes a second city ?. 

Battambang reminds me of Battenburg, the two tone, marzipan flavoured cake of my childhood. That was memorable for being sweet and tasty. Battambang was memorable for its hotel. Only not in a good way. 

The Steung Sanke hotel (hereafter known as the Stinky hotel) was a curious affair. Upon entering the lobby from outside, where the temperature was in the 90s, the hotel management had decided that freeze drying the guests should be introduced and had installed vast air conditioners to pump out icy blasts of freezing air and leave us torn between rushing back outside to warm up or putting on multiple layers of clothing. The gift shop was in a suitcase (it was so small they shouldn’t have bothered but perhaps they had no suitable gifts to offer) and the lift had trouble accommodating a single person and their suitcase. I am even less impressed when I enter our room to find the air conditioning has been switched off and I go from extreme cold to being roasted alive. 

Our meal in town, at the Khmer Delight, is delightful. We have soup enriched with coconut milk, meat and fish satay, sweet and sour fish and a chicken curry. All quite mild but very tasty. The soup is a special highlight with its deep, full flavour. 

At some point in the night the worlds most constipated person finally empties their bowels. How does Patrick know this I hear you say ?. Was he there ?. Did he witness it ?. 

No, I didn’t actually witness it. I might be weird but I’m not that weird. However, the magnificent groan of pure, unadulterated relief that echoed through the hotel was proof enough. It was a “I’ve finally done it” groan. Magnificent!. Unfortunately it’s not the only sound that echoes in the night. Slamming doors, talking in the corridor, banging, crashing and the faithful being called to prayer lead to a disturbed night before I throw back the curtains onto a waking city and look down at the sunlight dancing mischievously on the inviting pool. 

So to breakfast. Long story. Short version. Canteen. Plastic chairs. Dirty tables. One chef. One egg each. No butter. Two slices of barely toasted bread. Smidgen of jam. Bloody awful. 

I have no bottom. 

Some people, unkind people, have said I do, occasionally, talk out of mine. I can’t. I don’t have one. 

This is important because, for the next 8 hours, as the temperature rose into the early hundreds, I was going to be on a boat, exposed to the elements, with hard wooden seats. And not having a bottom makes sitting on said seats very painful. 

Life along the Sangker river is fascinating. Stilt houses line the banks, fishermen ply their trade from long boats, some decorated with ever watchful eyes. Nets bob in the gentle current, their position marked by a floating cola bottle. We do our best not to err, rock the boat, but our motorised passage inevitably leads to small waves that ebb and flow and disturb some poor fisherman and catch. 

There’s little to do save plug in the iPod, try and ignore the rectal discomfort (even using life jackets as padding!) and watch the world go by. Slowly. 

Our journey along the river takes about four hours. There is one incident of note when a boat ahead of us, carrying a French group, gets tangled up in some weeds. We sail past offering words of “encouragement” to them and, as lunch is served, we emerge into the vastness of Tonle Sap lake. 

I am wary of lunch given its come from the hotel but I am quite pleasantly surprised at the fare on offer. Our boxes contain a curious pasty, a sandwich which contains meat of an indeterminate species, a cake, a biscuity thing and some fruit. 

Tonle Sap is vast. During the wet season it measures over 155 kilometres in length. It is also, virtually featureless. At one stage in the crossing we travel for over an hour without seeing anyone or anything else. It’s quite an eerie place. I wouldn’t want to be stranded in the middle. 

Eventually civilisation begins to emerge. Floating towns with all facilities. Schools, shops, doctors, all floating on the surface and only accessible by boat. We stop at a school to pass on our unwanted food and the reed boxes it came in and there is a general clamour of excitement at our arrival from these warm, welcoming, polite people. The children wave at us as they paddle by and a genuinely warm welcome, not one put on for tourists. They are such a friendly people, the Cambodians, but they also strike me as being quite docile, non complaining, tolerant and not particularly hard. Perhaps, given their history, that’s not surprising. 

Approaching land we stop at a virtual city on the lake for a refreshments break and the chance to look at some mean crocodiles before its back on the boat for the short journey to our next stop, Siem Reap. 

From what I can see, Siem Reap is a lovely town full of quality hotels, decent shops and markets yet compact and easy to get your bearings in. This is important to me. I am hopeless at reading street maps. I get lost easily. Our hotel, the Allson Angkor Paradise, is an attractive building set back from one of the main thoroughfares with a deliciously cool lobby and a gorgeous looking pool. Our room is interesting with its broken socket, safe that’s unsafe and the absence of toilet paper. It also lacks a view. But it’s a room, it’s cold, it’s lovely. I am exhausted. 

And for the next part of our trip I’m going to need all my energy. 

Angkor Wat. Your up! 

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