Asia, Cambodia

Cambodia’s Water Highway

Cambodia’s biggest highway wove through the country without any shoulders, lanes or exit ramps, ferrying travelers from Siem Riep in the Northwest of the country down to the South of Phnom Penh.
The highway was the Tonle Sap River, and I caught my first glimpse of it at its source in Tonle Sap Lake, only a short bus ride from Angor Wat. As the bus pulled into the gravel parking lot in front of the quay baskets began to appear in the windows, resting on the heads of local women underneath them and filled with stack upon stack of golden baguettes, hints at what France had left behind after over a hundred years of colonial rule.
I fought through the thicket of baskets and extended hands that offered food and drinks and climbed onto the long squat boat that was moored at the dock. It was painted orange and had a white, single-story roof with a racing stripe circling around it that matched the color of the water. I stepped down the stairs into the hold and rested my backpack into a seat next to a woman and her groceries.
Around me locals settled in for the six hour trip, laying blankets down on the seats for their children to sleep on, unfolding newspapers or crossing their arms infront of them and closing their eyes for a nap. None of the foreigners had followed me downstairs, but I could see them through the windows, hoisting their bags and then themselves onto the roof.
“We recommend riding on the roof,” I read in my guide book on Cambodia. The boats weren’t safe, there were no emergency procedures, they were over-sold, and every year there was an accident that left dozens of people trapped in the hold to drown. I looked around at the children, talking amongst themselves, sleeping parents taking up the aisle seats and heavy plastic bags filling the spaces between. I got up from my seat and went upstairs.
The blue sky arced across the water with a smattering of perfectly-rounded clouds. On the river bank, the water exploded into lush green grass and shapeless trees, the calm of the slowly-moving river broken only by the sound of the boat’s engine.
The sun burned down without a spot of shade onto the expanse of white skin that covered the roof. There were piles of tourists, sunbathing, lying on their packs, strappy sandals and running shoes mixed up with tan cargo shorts and layered collared shirts. A few had wide-brimmed canvas hats, the strings of which were tied tightly under their chins so as not to fly away.
Suddenly the boat listed to the left and I had to grab the edge of the roof to steady myself. A few legs fell over the edge of the boat, unwrapping themselves from underneath sleeping owners, swinging across the water, until the people woke up and tucked them back under. A murmur rose up from the crowd as people began to sit up, look across to the banks of the river, holding their bags with one hand and gesticulating with the other.
I could almost feel the boat sinking now, the water already flooding into the cabin, the people lost below, the steady cold rise of the river creeping up my ankles, the tourists abandoning their sunbathing loungers and swimming for the banks, their swimming-lesson strokes cutting evenly into the calm surface, each moment leaving behind the wreckage and the bloated bodies of those left behind.
And then the boat righted itself, and the people settled back down on top of the roof, using their shirts as pillows, couples lying in each other’s laps, eyes turned back behind camera shutters and ragged copies of travel fiction.
I turned and went back downstairs to the hold.

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