This might be the experience I look back on and say yes that was it – that’s when I experienced Cambodia and the thing I was looking to discover: authenticity.
I’m on an open air boat on the Mekong River, Southeast Asia’s Danube, with all tourists traveling from Siem Reap to Battambang, a small French colonial Cambodian town. The trip is set to leave at 8 am; we’re still at the dock at 9:30 am. I decide to climb onto the roof and catch some morning rays.
The trip is finally underway and not only have I met another friendly female solo traveler, but the most interesting British ex-hippie has told me his entire life travels in exchange for his sunscreen.
After descending back into the hull of my water taxi, I’m somehow sitting next to an old Cambodian man who is scrunched up on the bench seat next to me – as only someone half my height can do. He must have been one of the local passengers we’d picked up once we were on the water. We exchange sideways glances as we try to make sense of each other: he wears socks with his plastic black sandals and a weathered woven hat with the name of his country imprinted on the brim. A complete tourist outfit if it wasn’t for his cracked tan hands and slim red Buddhist bracelet that I’m sure he didn’t get at Angkor Wat (unlike mine). He smiles back at me as he notices my lingering stare at his hands. I offer him some of my dried mango slices which he declines hastily. Has my American generosity come off insincere? Or has the irony of the packaged Trader Joe’s snack hailing from Thailand given him doubts of my mental status? Why isn’t this silly girl eating fresh mango he must be thinking as our gaze travels over the muddy water.
The rhythmic sputtering of the boat’s engine lulls me deeper into my thoughts and for the first time in Cambodia, I’ve found a oneness with the country. This water haven was the last thing I could have expected after Siem Reap – with its iridescent signs illuminating Pub Street and the walking bridges linking one tourist trap to the next. In a country driven by tourism, the majesty and sacredness of Angkor Wat is marred by crowds pushing their way up the steep wooden steps to the Bakan Sanctuary, the third level of the world’s largest religious monument. As much as I tried to separate the tourist from the site (and granted I was one of them), I was unable and ultimately left disappointed. Now with a lovely breeze blowing across my face and ruffling my top, I feel that disastrous day of temple climbing as only a distant memory. My Khmer travel companion has begun to drift off in the late morning sun that streams through the upper railing.
The boat approaches another floating village, alerting the locals of its arrival with three short beeps of the horn. It seems almost pointless for one to pay for a separate tour given the regularity that our transit boat has passed through them. My fellow international passengers rouse from their slumbers, camera shutters alighting with renewed frenzy to capture this charming Khmer town upon the water – a place where real estate is your hut and boat. A motorized dinghy with two young Buddhist monks – their bright saffron robes reflecting off the water in sharp contrast to their vegetation background – is an instant crowd favorite, and I swear I feel the boat shift slightly as the lens zoom toward their direction.
We’re docking for lunch! At last! My Trader Joe’s rations were quickly depleting – both from me and the blazing sun. After a hasty meal of rice and veggies, we shuffle back onto the boat and immediately I sense something is amiss. The small leather briefcase that my pseudo Cambodian grandpa had stored under our bench is gone. I’m floored. WHERE IS HE? HOW COULD HE LEAVE WITHOUT SAVING GOODBYE! I finally locate his hat in the back of the boat, smoking with one of the crew members – a smile bigger than any I had coaxed out of him after 4 hours of bony shoulder-to-shoulder comradery.
If anything that boat ride showed me what rural Cambodia is like – the floating villages, the poverty, the pollution. At times, the river was so low that the motor was raised and a stick was used to guide us around shallow corners. I love that the locals we picked up along the way never paid for passage. Maybe there’s a barter system I was privy to, but the good will of the Khmer people is so palpable. They’ve been through so much.
Small homes begin to appear around each turn of the Mekong – house on land. As we draw nearer to Battambang, the occasional stop is made for one of the local passengers, front door service at its finest. I watchful to make sure my guy doesn’t try to slip away again. But at last, we reach our destination with him chatting animatedly in the stern. As tuk tuk drivers begin to swarm the bow of the boat, eager to find their next dollar (yes – the USD reigns supreme here), I lock eyes with him and he gives me a small bow and large smile. That instant is frozen in my memory.