Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Cambodian ferries cut travel budget

For $25, you can sail down Cambodia's Tonle Sap lake and river system. CREDIT: Photo-Michael McCarthy
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Michael McCarthy
Special to Vancouver Courier (Canada)

Angkor Wat, the famous abandoned temple complex in the jungles of northern Cambodia, is fast becoming one of the world's greatest tourist destinations. Planes fly hourly from the capital of Phnom Penh and soon there will be direct flights from Japan. However, those wishing to save a bundle on the over-priced airfare have options; the buses are fairly safe, although the roads are insane. Or you can take the fast ferry down the lake.

At $25 one-way, it's only rich Westerners who can afford a ticket down the vast Tonle Sap, almost 180 miles to Phnom Penh. On this day, the 120 seats of the main cabin were full and the roof packed with tourists keen for an adventure. So, yes, we were well over capacity but in Cambodia it's not like there's anybody in charge of such minor things.

About 30 minutes into the trip, the horizon disappeared and the dazzling blue waters of the huge waterway stretched into the distance. The rainy season was over and the vast lake was completely full of water, fish and crocodiles. The great speed we were making seemed to allow water to creep into the cabin. Crammed in like sardines, we grinned at this small annoyance, just one of those situations that make developing countries so charming.

I then noted with some alarm that some passengers were casually putting on life jackets. The water by this time was over our ankles amidships, and even deeper at the back. Two elderly ladies in the seat front started crying, and then everyone stood up and tried to put on life jackets. As the ferry turned, water sloshed back and forth and the boat made slow sickening slides.

It became obvious that it was necessary to find the source of the water immediately because we were listing so heavily. Looking out the window I noticed the crew had secured life jackets for themselves and were ready to jump overboard at any moment. Some of us then told the captain to jump overboard, with strict order to locate the source of the leak.

A very slim passenger went down into the muck of the bilges and found the leak, a hole the size of a soccer ball punched through the hull just below the waterline. All three compartments in the hull were completely saturated with water. This is when we discovered that not only were the life vests useless but there was no rear exit, no life rafts, all the windows were welded shut and the bilge pumps did not work.

A perusal of my Lonely Planet explained there were two fast ferries that plied the waters of the Tonle Sap, one of which actually ran on a somewhat regular basis; the other was known as "The Floating Coffin" for its sad state of disrepair. Evidently, from time to time, various bits and pieces like the propeller would fall off the Coffin and the crew would be required to hail passing fish boats for rescue, although the boat didn't usually sink.

Several volunteers formed a water bucket line, and soon six strong men were throwing five-gallon buckets of water overboard, using an old paint can rousted from the engine room. At the rate of one bucket every 10 seconds, we bailed several tons of water over four hours. We finally got a small portable water pump going, and soon a steady waterfall of bilge water erupted over the side of the boat.

All the time the bucket crew were bailing, the captain had been banging away with a hammer at the hole, a most disconcerting sound inside a crowded metal boat. Finally, one of the passengers grabbed the hammer and went down into the bilge armed with a fistful of T-shirts and some donated rubber sandals. The hammering and bailing continued for several hours as we slowly proceeded, but the T-shirts did the trick and we somehow stayed afloat.

Finally, we approached a small town and a police boat came out to meet us. Conjecture began; would the boat be impounded and certain people arrested along with it? Whom, exactly? Those of us involved in the mutiny discussed our options. The prospect of spending quality time with the local gendarmes weighed heavily upon my stomach, so I headed directly for the loo where I performed emergency business. Searching my pockets desperately for paper, all I could find was my fast ferry ticket so I made good use of it; a rough day under trying circumstances to be sure, but the job's never really over until the paperwork is done.

We jumped into a decrepit taxi idling at the dock, grabbed a six pack of cold beer, and fled 100 miles to Phnom Penh, toasting the fact that we were still alive while discussing our next adventures in Southeast Asia. It was mutually agreed that Cambodian boat captains or crocodiles would not be part of future transportation arrangements. In Phnom Penh, I met with the editor of the Cambodia Daily, who thought our adventure constituted an excellent story and promised to publish it the following week, thoroughly embarrassing the government while allowing us enough time to flee the country. In Cambodia, it's not like there are people in charge of such minor things as boat sinkings, but sending 125 foreign tourists to the bottom of the Tonle Sap does make for bad publicity.

Phnom Penh, as it turned out, was a lovely city full of French colonial architecture and well worth visiting. The cuisine is French-influenced with Thai and Vietnamese flavours. Flights from Bangkok and Hong Kong are regular, although of course if you are heading up to Angkor Wat you can always take the fast ferry to save a few dollars.


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