Sunday, December 14, 2008

Boat To Battambang and a Special Visit with Vanna

Friday December 14th saw me up at 4:30am to catch a bus down to the Siem Reap boat docks to get a 7am ‘Speedboat’ ride to Battambang. This boat ride which goes partially through Tonle Sap lake and through the dense mangrove swamps of the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve can take anywhere from 4-6 hours depending on water levels. There is no ‘speed’ experienced with this boat ride as there are many obstacles to overcome along the many narrow waterways encountered. One has the option to sit in the boat’s covered sweltering bottom level, or fry in the baking sun on the flat top roof of the boat. From experience I knew that there was at least a rewarding breeze on that hot metal roof. The ride from 7am to 4:30 pm gave my skin a new shade of red.

This boat trip is well-documented as the most scenic ride in Cambodia, and one not to be missed. The scenes of rural Cambodian life as they unfold along the shores of the river are a panorama of smiling waving children running from their simple bamboo homes , fishermen working their meager nets out of aging wooden boats and a flotilla of colorful market boats floating by. There is never a boring moment and the ride gives one an in-depth glimpse into daily Cambodian life.

The boat is always full, mostly with tourists, who are ready upon arrival at Battambang just to head to the nearest hotel for a nice cool shower. Tourists are barraged at the dock by friendly hotel staff seeking much-needed business the moment they are off the boat. These hotel ‘boys’ swiftly sweep you and your bags up to their representing hotels, and for the most part of it, you really don’t care – you want that shower and bed so bad that you’ll pay any price for it!

Hotels are bargain-priced in this part of Cambodia, and feature all the amenities that one could need. I am staying at the Hotel Royal, and have air-conditioning, satellite tv, fridge and private bath with hot shower – all for $20/night – the monthly wage of many Cambodian people!

Battambang province is a vital agricultural area, famous for its fertile fields and abundance of produce and rice crops. The huge Battambang Market is a favorite haunt of mine where I fill up on wonderful local fruits for only a dollar. Battambang is Cambodia’s second largest city, well-served by bus, boat and rail, and bustles with busy markets and food stalls from 5am to 9pm.

It was here I came to find a special landmine victim, spend a couple of days visiting with her, and see how she was doing. Vanna Minn was only 5 years old when she was feeding the chickens on her family property near Battambang and befell a landmine accident which took her leg. Vanna had aspired at a young age to become a dancer. Now 17, Vanna has overcome many challenges in her life since then and has inspired a documentary and a book written about her experience. My good friend and Canadian author, Maria Almudevar Van Santen, wrote an inspirational children’s book about Vanna – ‘Vanna’s Dance Some of the proceeds from this book fund Vannas education. In November 2007, Vanna made a special trip to Canada to attend the “No More” Landmines Symposium held at Winnipeg University attended by former Foreign Affairs Minister Dr. Lloyd Axworthy and Paul Fawcette from the Canadian Landmines Foundation.

Saturday morning I was amazed to make immediate contact with Vanna by cell phone. I never had the opportunity to meet with her in Canada, and was quite delighted when she immediately walked over to my hotel: unknown to me she lived just around the corner!

We’ve spent a wonderful two days together. Vanna is currently in Grade 10 and attends school from 6am to 6pm six days a week. Her goal is to become a tour guide in Cambodia and I’ve given her the opportunity to practice on me! Today she arranged a tuk-tuk ride for me and took me out to visit the 11th century Angkorian temple ruins of Ek Phnom, 14km outside of Battambang, after which we rewarded ourselves with a hearty Cambodian lunch.

I’ll be returning to Battambang in mid-March on my last trip back to Siem Reap and am hoping to have another countryside temple tour with Vanna then.

Tomorrow will be another early morning for me as I take a long, bumpy car ride to the Cambodian border town of Poipet and through customs into Thailand. Recent border disputes between Cambodia and Thailand have made land border crossings questionable. I am hoping to reach Bangkok by early evening where I’ll spend two nights. My purpose for this Bangkok stop-over is to visit with ‘Project Enlighten’s’ Burmese scholarship student who recently was able to make his way out of Burma and has just started his first year at a Bangkok university.