SLOW BOAT TO OBLIVION
By Andrew Biggs
As any long-term expat knows, Christmas and New Year is the time of year when relatives and friends of yore suddenly pop up on our doorsteps.
I’ve seen decades lapse between last seeing a face and the unheralded Facebook-friending back in August, followed by, a few messages down the track, casually mentioning he will be “passing through Bangkok” with his wife and child from a previous marriage.
I must have been asleep the day my primary school teacher explained the definition of “passing through” as being “spending four nights in your guest bedroom and may we borrow some towels oh and my wife is lactose intolerant.”
My younger brother does not belong in this group, though he is the first out-of-towner on my doorstep this season, arriving last Sunday and disappearing exactly two and a half days later to avoid being equated with fish.
Like most of my house guests he is not over here to specifically see me; he’s off to Cambodia to help out a charity in Siem Riep that is building a school for a local community.
“I’m thinking of spending a couple of days in Phnom Penh then going up to Siem Riep,” he wrote to me in a cyber conversation we had earlier this year. “I understand there’s a boat you can take that goes up across the picturesque Tonle Sap to Siem Riep.”
The sentence froze me in my tracks.
“Fly,” I replied.
“But I wanna see the countryside along the way and –“
“Listen. I know that I’ve done some terrible things to you over the years, such as when I bullied you into getting a mullet back in 1983.”
“Not as bad as dragging me along to that Limahl concert.”
“You’re totally making that up.”
“No I’m not. You claimed Kajagoogoo were the new Beatles.”
“Yeah right. And keep that story to yourself, okay? Anyway the point is this: despite all those terrible things, you have GOT to believe me on this one. Fly to Siem Riep. Whatever you do, don’t take the boat.”
One of the very worst days of my life was the day I took the slow boat to Siem Riep.
This was back in 1995 when the United Nations was still a presence in Cambodia as the country dragged itself out of the post-Pol Pot era on all fours.
My friend Catherine and I decided Cambodia might be an interesting place to visit. That’s how we ended up spending four fascinating days exploring the Cambodian capital.
Then we wanted to see the Angkor Wat, and Catherine mentioned there was a daily flight up to Siem Riep from Phnom Penh.
A domestic flight? In Cambodia?
There was no way I was getting on a domestic flight in Cambodia. That’s the sort of thing that made all of three paragraphs on page 16 of any Australian newspaper buried below the story about Fiji’s National Day: PLANE CRASHES IN RURAL CAMBODIA: NO SURVIVORS.
I had a fear of flying back in the nineties. As a result when the Internet spread its tentacles around the time of my Cambodian trip, I was already a regular visitor to airdisaster.com, scaring myself with black box audio of ill-fated plane crashes that inevitably occurred in such countries as Cambodia.
To make matters worse Cambodia’s national carrier had the dubious name of Royal Air Cambodge, which sounded way too much like it rhymed with “dodgy” or “botched take-off” for me ever to book a ticket on them.
“Oh no,” I said to Catherine one day outside Toul Sleng. “It’s the boat for us!”
That is how we ended up at a travel agent who showed us a picture of a sleek speed boat with a handful of happy western-looking people waving on board as it cut a swathe through the tranquil Tonle Sap on its way to Siem Riep.
“SEATS 20!” The caption roared in happy italics.
“Tomorrow morning at 9 am boat go! You go to jetty at 8 am!” a friendly man claiming to be a travel agent shouted at us, despite being only 50 centimetres away.
That following morning was cursed from the minute I woke up.
I had the worst stomach. Who knows what precipitated it; I blamed a plate of vegetarian fried rice I’d eaten the night before, though Catherine meekly suggested it may have had something to do with the 10 cans of Angkor beer washed down with a cleansing bottle of traditional rice whiskey that seemed such a good idea at three in the morning.
The jetty had no public bathrooms, and so from 8 am until 11 am I was on a tour of substandard bathrooms in shanty houses beside the jetty.
That’s right. Three hours. How foolish of me to even think the boat would leave on time.
And while indeed our boat may have seated 20, I guess they weren’t counting the extra 30 they could fit on the roof; which was where Catherine and I ended up.
It was a creaking rickety old boat nothing like in the picture, without a single happy waving western person in sight, at least not in the vicinity of the hot roof we were forced to sit upon.
The two-dozen Cambodian passengers crammed themselves, their chickens and their rice sacks into the compartment below deck.
Me? I sat with my arms wrapped around my legs, dehydrated, throbbing head down my lap, trying to remember any meditation techniques that would aid in shoring up the onslaught of dysentery.
For 15 minutes we chugged down the river.
“At least it can’t get any worse,” Catherine whispered to me as we left Phnom Penh.
There should be a rule against friends saying such things.
crack crack crack crack
The sound of gunfire.
It was at that precise moment we started being fired upon.
I looked up and saw smoke coming from a man standing on the banks, pointing in our direction. With the smoke rising, he clearly wasn’t just pointing his finger.
“Oh god,” I whispered. “We’re gonna die in the Cambodian countryside. That doesn’t even warrant page 16!” Catherine had no idea what I was talking about.
The engines were cut. The entire boat, especially the roof where we were sitting ducks, went eerily silent. Time seemed to stand still.
Soon after the boat started up again and we continued to move along.
To this day I have no idea who was firing at us or for what reason. What I do know is this. I learned more meditative mind-over-body control tricks in that eight-hour boat ride than I ever have in any new-age incense-filled alternative therapy center, and believe me I’ve been to a few.
Yes, eight hours.
We broke down in the middle of Tonle Sap and floated for a good hour or two in the unrelenting heat.
By the time we reached Siem Riep I was a shell of my former self. My face was drawn, shoulders slumped, and gluteus maximus muscles well and truly fused.
It goes without saying the first stop in Siem Riep was not the Angkor Wat. It was Royal Air Cambodge, where I booked two seats back to Phnom Penh in three days’ time. Seats close to the bathrooms.
As Murphy’s Law would have it, Royal Air Cambodge had a brand new fleet of airplanes thanks to Malaysia Airlines having bought it out not so long before. The flight lasted 30 minutes, up and down, with a delicious dinner and a journey smoother than any Thai silk.
“Are you sure I should fly?” my brother asked me again via email. “Aren’t I missing out on the boat experience?”
“Do you miss Limahl?” I asked, and the online booking was quickly made.
Merry Christmas, dear reader!