“Mister, you buy”
“Lady, you buy”
Somewhere between a question and a command, these phrases rise in a nasal Cambodian accent from an army of tiny women standing guard at the entrances of any attraction or transit hub in Siem Reap. They come armed with shallow palm baskets filled with soda, fruit, baguette, bracelets and a variety of other nonessential items. They are as relentless as they are numerous.
If you aren’t interested, immediately decline. Any hesitation is taken as possible interest and the inevitable response will be, “When you come back, I remember you”, and can sound much more like a threat than an offer. Trickery is sometimes involved and on one particular day their refrain was a new verse.
“Buy now. No food on boat.”
This was a lie of course but it is effective enough to fool at least a few of the less travel hardened tourists and make several others hungry as we wait for our first boat to depart. Though sometimes pushy, their insistence is always paired with a big kindhearted smile which however insincere makes a rude or curt response impossible.
We are travelling from Siem Reap, Cambodia to the capital Phnom Penh via the Tonle Sap River and as usual things are running behind schedule. Our fast boat was supposed to depart at 7:30. It is now 8:45 and we are waiting for the slow boat to leave to take us to the fast boat that lies some indeterminable distance down river. Added steps in the process are inevitable and expected departure times are silly trifles as the locals feed fickle tourists.
An hour passes before we begin to slowly putter down a polluted canal towards Tonle Sap Lake. We enter the lake at the floating village of Chong Knees. Here dozens of wooden homes and shops bob up and down on pontoons far offshore. These villages depend on fish from the increasingly polluted lake (our guidebook warns us under no circumstance to swim) and all local transport is conducted via canoe or small outboard boats.
A unique environmental phenomenon provides ample reason for this precarious city layout. Each summer, thousands of miles away melting snow from Tibet mixes with monsoon rains in Thailand, Lao, and northern Cambodia that rush down Southeast Asia’s greatest river, the Mekong. By the time the water reaches Phnom Penh and the mouth of its tributary the Tonle Sap, the Mekong’s swollen banks are so want for space that its muddied waters burst up the Tonle Sap River, completely reversing its direction. Running backwards, the river dumps so much water into its source that Tonle Sap Lake rises as much as 10 meters.
But currently we are in the heart of the dry season when scorching suns parch the already dry brown landscape and the skies are hazy with dust that hangs in the air and coats everything in a chalky film. Though the lake is shallow during the dry season, only about 1.5m deep, its presence is still formidable. Behind the floating houses the muddy waters extend to the horizon in all directions.
Finally we reach the fast boat that will take us to Phnom Penh moored at the edge of the village. It is a sleek fiberglass vessel with tinted windows that floats on mere inches of the water’s surface. A look in the cabin reveals that this may not be the scenic, relaxing ride we had hoped. The air in the cabin is thick with the smell of fuel while and torn vinyl seats bordering badly tinted windows shake violently to the noisy engine’s vibration. Along with several other passengers we opt for the craft’s upper level seating.
After tying down our bags so as they do not vibrate off the roof, we make ourselves as comfortable as possible, now in full sun seating for the five hour voyage. With fresh air and unobstructed views we realize the roof is much more optimal than the cabin – now our only menace is the sun. Completely exposed to the sun and surrounded by water, we are at the mercy of Cambodia’s brutal heat. Despite numerous applications of sunscreen and copious amounts of water we arrived at our destination burnt red and dehydrated.
All the inconveniences and discomforts aside, the boat ride to Phnom Penh offers an exceptional picture of Cambodian life that is often squandered on an air-conditioned express bus whizzing down one of the country’s few highways. Cambodia is overwhelmingly a rural and meagerly developed state where life largely progresses by traditional means and for many of its residents life depends on its waterways and the cycles of drought and flood which punctuate them. As the banks of the lake close in to become the river, the timeless practices netting fish, cultivating fields, and tending livestock in a terrain untouched by paved roads flow with the rhythm of the waters which give it life.