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Boat to Battambang

Alex Tzelnic

On the walls of a Buddhist monastery in Siem Reap, Chuck had seen them, the images of hungry ghosts; ghouls with distended bellies doomed to roam the hell realms, forever yearning and forever unfulfilled. Now, in the smoke-choked light of dawn, he saw them in the flesh. There were the ghouls. They wandered from one burning pile of trash to another, picking at scraps, searching for a morsel, their ribs visible beneath coarse patches of fur. Occasionally, one ghoul snarled at another, and a brief wrestling match – a dust up in the dust – ensued. The dust and the smoke would swirl and dance in the sunrise in such a way to as to make Chuck yearn for his camera, which, he hoped, was safely tied down on top of the boat.

Chuck was the only person on the boat. His hotel had told him it was essential to leave Siem Reap at 6 for the 7 AM departure. Now, his watch told him it was 6:41. The taxi had pulled up to a faded blue, bobbing wooden rig;, a man had thrown his pack on top, and he’d been ushered under the veranda, where two planks of wood acted as benches. It was a lovely four-hour cruise to Battambang, noted the guidebook, along the Tonle Sap River, past stilted floating villages on the vast Tonle Sap Lake, and onto the river again for the home stretch. Perhaps Chuck would be the only passenger on the boat, floating idly down the river, laying on the bench and using his shirt as a pillow as he napped in the morning sun.

Perhaps not. A van wound its way along the rutted dirt road, scattering the ghouls with exaggerated honking. It stopped in front of the boat and disgorged a dozen supremely pale people – pale save for the patches of skin roasted to a deep maroon by the Cambodian sun. The people shuffled silently aboard as the driver of the van and the boatman huddled away from the morning chill and smoking cigarettes. The boat quickly filled up, leaving a few white people on shore shrugging.

“It’s full,” said a pale man with sagging cheeks, far too old to be wearing one of the travel fedoras that seemed to be all the rage on the tourist circuit, “There is nowhere to sit.”

“No problem,” said the boatman, and he swung his arm toward the deck in windmill fashion, mesmerizing the pale people until, as if hypnotized, they began to file obediently on board, squeezing onto the boat’s wooden benches while blinking at one another, too tired to protest. Immediately the man shouted orders, and his two-man crew jumped into action, pushing the boat from the shore and hopping on before any of the pale people got any bright ideas and hopped off. The Tonle Sap carried them languidly away from the smoke, from the hungry ghosts, from the grit and grime of land, and out onto the water; a change of scenery that seemed to placate all. Chuck’s watch showed 7:00 on the dot.


On the plank across from Chuck, wedged in at an angle, was a large man with a walrus mustache. Or perhaps it was just a small walrus. German, thought Chuck, or Austrian. He eyed all the passengers under the cover of his sunglasses, and wagered a guess as to their nationality. Few people spoke, so there were no spoilers, save for the Spanish couple that canoodled at the end of his bench, whispering to one another in between delicate Spanish kisses. Could kisses be Spanish as opposed to French, Chuck wondered? In this case the answer seemed to be a resounding “.”

When he was finished with the guessing game Chuck turned his gaze to the shoreline, to the dilapidated shacks that lined the river. On the bank stood a naked, little boy urinating into the shallows, inches away from his sister, who was busy scrubbing her arms and shoulders, ostensibly bathing. The boy’s little prick didn’t have enough weight to succumb to gravity, so the urine arced through the air in a perfect half circle. Chuck longed for his camera. Shack after shack presented a photo opportunity so ripe with authentic life that Chuck could hardly believe it. This was nothing like the “authentic” tourist villages he’d been whisked to in Siem Reap. These were real Cambodians authentically crouching down over authentic pots of steaming food. The kids waved and splashed. The parents looked on with crow-like eyes, their expressions unreadable.

“Breaks your heart,” said the thin, blond girl with cornrows, the tannest of the pale people, with a vaguely European accent (French, Chuck guessed). And suddenly the boat was alive with chatter, with descriptions of all the ways Cambodia had broken their hearts, and what sight had specifically caused the breaking. Having a broken heart seemed as essential as having a guidebook. Chuck remained quiet throughout the animated flutter of conversation, embarrassed because his heart was still, unfortunately, intact.


“The problem remains one of trust,” the man in the fedora was saying. The hat was off now, and he was using it to fan himself, his cheeks jiggling from the exertion. He was British. Chuck had nailed this one.

“If you are alive, and you have all your appendages, well, there is a good chance you were Khmer Rouge. So, when you look around at the people in power, there is a good chance that many of them perpetrated the atrocities – or helped to perpetrate them – that resulted in the Cambodian genocide.”

The man with the walrus mustache nodded gravely, very gravely, too gravely, Chuck thought, as if he wasn’t listening to the actual words but only recognizing that the topic was the problem of Cambodia and the proper facial expression was to convey gravity.

A woman chimed in, her accent either South African or Australian, Chuck could never quite catch the difference: “Trust is the problem, but it is also the solution. You can’t move forward without trusting one another. Trust is the key to repairing, to healing.”

With her accent, the way the woman said trust, it sounded not like the word “trust” that Chuck knew. It sounded instead like a nation-healing elixir, a bottle that could be purchased and passed around to the lips of each thirsty Cambodian, resulting in peace and harmony, a wonder drug, this truss.

Photo by author.

The boat sailed out of the river and into the lake. The sun was alive now, hot to the point that Chuck wondered if the lake might start bubbling – a giant fish stew. The guidebook had mentioned something about the importance of this ecosystem, the water sustaining the lakeshore villages and cities, as well as the villages it islanded – the floating ones. In the distance, wooden structures emerged from the water like partially exposed shipwrecks. It was here, Chuck had heard, that generations had lived rather peacefully – relatively speaking, a couple lost now and again to alligators, some to disease – through centuries of strife. Maybe lifetimes had passed here, on the water, under the hot sun, in the fish stew. This thought delighted Chuck to the point of wanting to share it with his fellow passengers. He was about to speak, to establish ties, camaraderie. Then the boat got stuck.

It happened so slowly it was hard to notice. There was no lurch, no sudden jolt. There was simply a complete lack of movement. One second they had been at the center of the lake. The next second, they were still at the center, only a boatman was stabbing the water with a long oar, and another was removing his shirt and sandals and preparing to leap into the water. The muted conversations amongst the passengers ceased and a hubbub began to arise, the general theme being, “Crap.”


Like a magician, the shirtless, shoeless boatman leapt into the water and walked on it. Not entirely – he was half-sunk, up to his thighs. Which also meant he half-floated. It seemed magical because prior to his jump everyone had assumed the Tonle Sap possessed depth; a lake, after all, seems to suggest that there is an actual “beneath” beneath the surface. His jump revealed that the surface was all there was.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” muttered Chuck, his first words of the journey.

A second splash caused Chuck to veer around and see another shirtless Cambodian thigh -deep in the water. Both men waded to the back of the boat, and along with the boatman working the oar, began to push. The passengers craned their necks, bumping into one another, trying to get the best view of the action. Some took pictures. Chuck could not, for the life of him, believe his camera was tied down with the luggage on the roof of the boat. He resolved to ask for it, just as soon as he had the opportunity. Then the man who’d been working the oar appeared below deck, presenting that very opportunity, and Chuck chickened out. His camera did not seem quite as pressing as the fact that they were stuck in the middle of the Tonle Sap Lake.

“No problem,” said the oarsman, which Chuck thought was a wonderful opener. “Water low. Boat trouble.”

“We’ll need a tow,” muttered the mustachioed man, shaking his head, as if this was his daily commute and he’d suffered a flat tire. His wife nodded enthusiastically. The two sat there, sweat shining on their shaking and bobbing brows.

“Please,” continued the boatman. “Push.”

Overall, this was a terrific observation, thought Chuck. After listening to his fellow passengers wax gravely on the problem of Cambodia, such brevity seemed a higher form of communication.

The reaction to the man’s request ranged from indignant to excited. A couple of young dudes in Beerlao tank tops – American or Aussie – acted as if they had been waiting for this precise moment all along, whipping off their tanks and flipping off their sandals in one motion, leaping into the water, muscles glistening. Next came eyebrow raising and laughter. Excitement seemed to win out.

Chuck unstrapped his sandals and began to unbutton his shirt. A couple others stood, some begrudgingly, some eager to seem as heroic as the first responders, and began to prep for Tonle Sap immersion. The blonde, corn-rowed girl lifted a tanned leg over the side of the boat and looked back. Chuck chivalrously offered his hand and helped ease her into the lake. “Oooh!” she squeaked, upon touch down. “It’s muddy.”

Chuck climbed over the edge and plopped on the water. His feet immediately sank into what felt like cool, wet peanut butter.

“It is muddy!”

He and the girl smiled at each another. The half-dozen pale folks in the water returned to the boat and lined up with the Cambodian men, exchanging raised eyebrows. The people on the boat snapped photos, which Chuck could only assume were poorly focused and improperly framed.

“Are there snakes in here?” someone asked.

“Ya, ya,” answered the boatman to Chuck’s left. No one was sure if he understood the question, so the response was nervous laughter and more raised eyebrows. Never had Chuck seen such consistent eyebrow communication. His mirror neurons firing, it seemed the only way to respond to an eyebrow raise. He and his fellow travelers half-floated on the Tonle Sap, eyebrows dancing at one another, trying to get the boat unstuck.

Everyone pushed, the boat began to slide, and with each step, one sank into a new patch of mud. Hidden in the mud were rocks and reeds – at least Chuck hoped they were rocks and reeds and not something more sinister – and they were surprisingly sharp.

“I’m getting all cut up,” said one of the first responders – American, definitely.

“Baby snakes,” said his pal. “Nibbling your legs.”

The third boatman, still on deck with the oar, peered ahead into the sun, pointing in various directions, the group pushing in those directions until shouts went up in Khmer, resulting in a full stop and a new direction. Chuck worked alongside the blonde. During a break in the pushing, he splashed water on his brow, and, clearing his eyes, found them face to face.

“My name is Chuck.” he said.

“Jana,” she said. Czech? Croatian?

Jana had her hands on her forehead, shielding from the sun and squinting at Chuck, her eyes turning to pinpricks of green. Her navy t-shirt was soaked and plastered to her torso, revealing an alluring shape. Chuck had heard stories of travelers finding each other on the road, spending weeks together in casual bliss, a couple of rolling stones bounding down the banana pancake trail in perfect harmony. Perhaps the Spaniards entangled on the end of the bench were just such a couple. It had not happened to him, however. Not yet.


After twenty minutes of pushing, whispers came down from those on board that the problem was in fact electrical. The pushing was just a diversion. There was no way to confirm this rumor, and it sure seemed like an extravagant diversion, since two-thirds of the crew had been pushing along with the tourists. But soon after the rumors began the crew scampered back up the side of the boat, and so the pale people, mirror neurons firing, did the same.

Chuck gave Jana both hands to ease her transition aboard, and then accepted her hand and awkwardly raised himself over the side, flopping down on the bench like a fish that had leapt straight out of the stew. He self-consciously straightened up, the boat’s engine rumbled to life, and the rig put-putted its way back into mechanically produced motion.

There were exaggerated claps on backs, a few high fives. Those that had gone in the water accepted the towels offered by those that had stayed behind, so that they could wipe their mud-caked feet, revealing the scrapes, the wounds of the operation, deemed by all a success despite the rumors of electrical failure. If anything, the whole event had acted as a social lubricant, the lubrication coming from the muddy water of the Tonle Sap. The previously stiff demeanor of everyone aboard gave way to a more social vibe, as if the trip had ceased being a commute and was now a cruise. A few of the pale people remained standing, or sat on their backpacks, creating more space on the benches. Chuck, emboldened, sat next to Jana, who was busy rooting through her own pack.

“Do you think I need to cleanse these cuts?” she asked, pausing and thrusting a bronze leg in Chuck’s direction.

“I guess it couldn’t hurt,” said Chuck, “Though there is alcohol in that stuff. It might hurt.”

Jana pulled out a bottle of handsanitizer. She began to rub the gel on her leg and fake-winced. It was so incredibly sexy that Chuck had to distract himself by strapping on his sandals. While doing so he began to fantasize about their course through Cambodia and the rest of Southeast Asia together. Perhaps they’d become one of those rolling stone couples, bounding along in perfect harmony.

He finished strapping his sandals and leaned back on the bench. “I’m a photographer,” he said.

“Oh!” said Jana, rubbing sanitizer on her other leg now. “What do you photograph?”

“Oh, you know,” answered Chuck, “the real, the authentic, daily life.” He looked away, the sight still too sexy to take in. He hoped it gave him an air of cool detachment, this looking away, and not an air of easily aroused.

“Very neat,” answered Jana. “Can I see your camera?”

“Um.” said Chuck.


The boat found its way back to the river.

“How do they do that?” wondered one of the first responders. “There were no landmarks, and that lake was as big as a fucking ocean.”

“Ever heard of a compass?” replied his companion, and they chortled. These were the kinds of dudes that chortled often, that punched each other in the arm in good fun.

The surrounding country was unpopulated. Or, if it was populated, it was impossible to tell – the river was so low that all anyone could see from the boat were deep, sandy banks. Jana wrote in a notebook. Chuck conceived of ways to retrieve his camera that didn’t involve actually asking for it. With the camera in his hands, he knew he and Jana would have talking points.

Out of the blue – literally, out of a bright blue sky – dark clouds appeared, and then, like inflating balloons, grew. A rain shower commenced, sending the tourists on the other side of the boat to hunker down.

“What’s next? A plague of locusts?” asked the Australian/South African woman.

The first responders, addicted now to their heroic tendencies, tied several articles of clothing together in an attempt to block the rain, which of course meant removing their tank tops again, muscles glistening in the downpour. Then the shower was gone as quickly as it had come, and the general feeling persisted that it had actually been quite refreshing. Group think had an amazing capacity for turning near-disaster into triumph, thought Chuck.

“How long has it been?” asked Jana.

The bald Russian, who had since ten been silent, looked at his watch. “Four hours.”

Up ahead a wooden structure appeared in the middle the river. Instead of veering around it, the boat aimed right at it. A new hubbub arose, though it wasn’t a collision people were fearful of – the speed and scale of the situation was more bumper boats than Titanic – rather, the hubbub concerned the time taken for the journey already, and why a stop was necessary. Group think has an amazing capacity for indignation, thought Chuck.

“This must be the last stop before Battambang,” he assured everyone. “It can’t be far.” He didn’t mind stopping anyhow. It would give him a chance to use his camera.

The structure was raised twenty feet above the river on wooden stilts. The head boatman appeared.

“Bathroom,” he said.

“This guy gives great speeches.” Chuck whispered to Jana.

They climbed a ladder up to the stilted bathroom island. There was a shop, selling Pringles and Coke, a couple of outhouses, and a room with a mattress.

“Do you think someone lives here?” Jana whispered to Chuck.

“Looks like it.” Chuck whispered back, excited to be on whispering terms.

The passengers lined up outside the outhouses. It became clear, as the first people went in, that the houses did not take the waste “out” to anywhere. It simply dropped through an opening down into the river below. The reaction to this was disbelief, displayed, of course, with raised eyebrows. When it was Chuck’s turn, the American, tank top secured around his skull like a bandana, clapped him on the back and said, “Don’t fall in.”

When Chuck emerged, he found one of the crew. “How long until Battambang?” he asked. The man held up three fingers.


Returning to the boat, Chuck dug out his backpack and removed his camera. He slung it around his neck and ducked below the veranda, ready for conversation. He found Jana sitting near the Americans. The one with the tank top bandana was showing her something, which, upon closer inspection, was a pamphlet about the place in Siem Reap, where he had donated blood, the fucking hero. His friend, tank top back on and functioning more or less like a bra, looked wistfully off in the distance, eyes hidden by large Aviator shades.

Chuck sat across from Jana and immediately began to snap photos – of the receding water rest-stop, of the sandy banks of the Tonle Sap, of Jana. When the blood donation conversation ran dry, Chuck showed her the pictures he’d taken. If the other dudes were going to play hardball, donating blood and looking all wistful, so was Chuck.

“Whoa!” said Jana, genuinely impressed. “That is very neat! What kind of camera is that?”

“It’s a Nikon D200,” said Chuck, and he began to rattle off its functions the way a car buff rattles off engine specs.

“Can I try?” asked Jana.

Chuck showed her how to use it. It was like one of those movie scenes he always found so unrealistic: the leading man teaching a naive beauty to play pool, his body cradling hers, tenderly maneuvering her limbs, mimicking the act of making love. And yet, here he was, not quite cradling Jana, not quite mimicking lovemaking, but tenderly maneuvering her fingers over the controls of his most prized possession. Click! Jana snapped several photos, marveling at the clarity of life framed on a tiny screen. “Very neat,” she said.

Chuck took the camera back and went through her pictures. “You know,” he said, taking on a grave tone, the one typically reserved for discussions on the problem of Cambodia, “You’re a natural. You’ve got a great eye. With a bit of technique, I think you could really shine at this.” The implication being, of course, that Chuck could tutor her on the technique.

“Yeah?” asked Jana excitedly, green eyes flashing. “I’ve always liked photographs.”

They talked photography. Actually, Chuck talked photography. But Jana was actively listening, her interest piqued. Please God, thought Chuck, even as he spoke, let the boat berth. The time was ripe for the casual “where-are-you-staying” conversation, leading to “oh-you-don’t-have-a place-booked-yet?” followed by the joint scouring of the guide-book, the decision to check out a place together, have a beer together. Before they knew it, Chuck and Jana would be volunteering at an elephant orphanage in the hills of Thailand, taking the train down to a remote coastal island, perfecting their photography techniques, as well as other, more sensual techniques.

The boat, however, would not arrive at the dock. After an unfortunately mundane conversation that seemed lifted from a basic guide to English (“Do you have any siblings?””Do you like the weather?”). Jana turned to a book. Chuck thought of the three fingers the boatman had flashed. How long could this trip possibly take?


As the afternoon dragged on, the passengers began to look more and more bedraggled, like the dehydrated survivors of a shipwreck, stranded now on a makeshift lifeboat. The bald Russian seemed to have developed a sweat-induced salt lick on his dome. The Australian/South African woman was asleep, but for all intents and purposes she looked dead. Gone was the easy camaraderie that had developed in the wake of the two near-disasters: getting stuck, and what everyone now referred to as “the monsoon.” The disasters, it turned out, were the highlights of the trip. The languid floating, on the other hand, hour after hour, seemed to sap the life from everyone. Floating along the Tonle Sap was pure hell. Only the Spanish couple seemed to have any life left, attacking one another’s mouths like famished woodpeckers, sucking the last drops of moisture from their withered lips.

With an exaggerated sigh, the darker of the first responders, the wistful one, whipped out a pack of cigarettes.

“I’m sorry,” he said to the group. “I was trying to wait, but this boat ride is so long! Does anyone mind if I smoke?”

The group, impressed with his courteousness, grateful for something to break the monotony, offered their general consent. Jana, meanwhile, snapped her book shut.

The wistful American stood and stuck his legs over the side of the boat, propping himself on the edge. Jana knelt on the bench next to him and coyly leaned over. “May I borrow one?” she asked, green eyes flashing a sparkling shade the camera conversation had failed to tease out:emerald, perhaps, or jade.

“Of course.” said the American. And like the chivalrous prick that he was, Chuck watched him fish out a cigarette, light it in his own mouth, take a puff, and then hand it to Jana; a metaphor for a kiss.

Chuck had never smoked. He hated smoking. Not because of the health concerns; not because of its addictive qualities or the scourge it was to society; not because lung cancer had claimed a favorite college professor. Chuck hated smoking because a fifty-cent pack of cigarettes could be more appealing than his $700 camera. He hated smoking because smoking always united smokers and left him out. Jana and the wistful one puffed in blissful silence, watching the river, sharing a moment that was so connected it required no talking. The other American meanwhile, looked at Chuck and did something that made Chuck want to punch him, and not on the arm: he raised his eyebrows.


As they approached Battambang, seven hours after setting off from Siem Reap, signs of civilization began to appear. First there was trash, then there were dogs, mangy dogs, picking at the trash. Then there were children, waving and pissing and splashing, clothing optional. Chuck’s Nikon hung limply around his neck. The Spaniards continued to canoodle, had not stopped canoodling, for seven solid hours. The walrus consulted his guidebook, muttering suggestions to his wife, whose blond curls now hung as limply as Chuck’s camera. The Australian/South African woman, arisen from her coma, did yoga-esque stretches, groaning with the satisfaction of the born-again. The bald Russian, as soon as the American had set the precedent, had begun chain-smoking at the backend of the boat and hadn’t let up.

The ramshackle wooden huts turned into rough concrete buildings. The boat was eased onto the bank, where more dogs lurked, sniffing, fighting, fucking. The tourists, pink and weary, filed off, grabbing their packs above deck and descending planks to the stairs ascending to Battambang. Chuck grabbed his backpack and watched Jana and the American bound up the stairs together, no doubt on their way to a beer, a meal, a kiss, and an elephant orphanage.

A couple of nearby dogs, a small white one and a larger, tan one, began to scrap. It was hard to tell whether they were playing or fighting. It seemed, in fact, like a combination of both; fangs bared, yelps emitted, followed by breaks in the action, during which both dogs sat in whatever grotesque tangle they had paused in, panting frantically. Chuck turned on the camera and aimed it at these two yearning souls, attempting to catch them in the frame, in all their entangled panting glory. Yet as soon as the camera was trained on them, they leapt into action again, snarling, playing, fighting, the dust rising all around them and shimmering in the dusk, the picture, in the end, just a blur.

Alex Tzelnic is a teacher and writer living in Cambridge, MA. He spent several years studying Buddhism, teaching, and traveling in South Asia and his journals from that time are his most prized possessions. He is currently pursuing an MA in Mindfulness Studies from Lesley University. Follow him on social media @atz840.