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Girls row themselves to their floating school.
Our slow 'speed boat' plowed through the flat, glassy water of Tonle Sap, making the carpet of water lilies that extended to the horizon undulate in its wake.


We started out at a nondescript pier, built by a cluster of stilt houses occupied by fishermen and women who try to sell water and bananas to tourists like us. We settled in to our straight-backed wooden seats and ate bread and butter while the boat set off into the dawn.


The lake, the largest in Southeast Asia, was busy at first, but then our boat turned into a narrow path cut through the choking purple-flowered surface plants and soon we were snapping pictures through the floating villages.


Small houses, usually just a center room, a porch and a back deck, floated on oil barrels and car tires or balanced above the water level on thin stilts. They were brightly colored: blue and purple, pink and orange. Women and men crouched on the very front of their long thin boats, paddling beside us and bringing in their nets or washing clothes. A few boats of children in the same immaculate white and blue uniforms as the city kids in Siem Reap paddled by shouting “hello!” They were on their way to a floating school, where more kids poured out onto the deck and waved at our boat going by.


We stopped for lunch at a floating convenience store and Dan bought us Styrofoam boxes of sticky rice and honey barbecued pork for a few dollars. The locals seemed happy to smile for our boatload of sunburned, camera-happy backpackers. Small kids either stared at us, mouths hanging open, or waved so hard I worried they'd fall in the water.


In mid-morning we turned again, going straight into a mangrove swamp. A channel had been cut for boat traffic, but it was barely wide enough for our thin ferry, and in places the springy branches of mangrove raked the sides of the boat and into the open-sided cabin like giant grasping fingers. They scraped the sun-lovers who'd chosen to ride topside with the luggage.


Gradually the mangroves subsided and we started seeing shallower areas and finally the yellow and russet clay banks of the river that would take us to Battambang. We saw shrimp nets suspended by small fishing platforms and the occasional tree, branches often stacked with cut logs—keeping the firewood dry.


Later, we came to small communities built on the riverbanks. As we got closer to Battambang, the houses got nicer. They started as cooking lean-tos built temporarily by docked boats, then progressed up to houses with bamboo roofs and palm-frond thatched walls and finally to concrete and paint and glass, the ones closest to the city with proud blue pipes extending to the water—indoor plumbing.


**Click here to see pictures of our trip to Battambang!**




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