By the Rivers of Battambang

OK, it’s the finale of rainy season 2013. It was PchumBenh weekend, so what could go possibly wrong?

Last PchumBenh found me in Siem Reap, out in the swamps doing a bit of Buddhism and chowing the family ‘pet’. This year, due to an ill-conceived career change and the majority of the Khmer staff needing to return to their ‘homeland’, there was no break; just extra-long graveyard shifts, from chilly rainy morning through the rainy day into the endless chilly, rainy night until the following chilly, rainy dawn- all for a decidedly reduced salary.

The karmic powers that be were not on my side, as, post night-duty, panda eyed and exhausted, I arrived back to my house, slapping my face along the way to remain focused on the road. I was less than impressed to see the tent of doom erected outside. A PB ghost party with granny’s ashes sat in an urn and a bunch of monks mingling with the mourners ready to take the mic. Joy.

Around 11am there was a brief respite from the speeches and screeches, allowing me to nod off before being scared out of my skin by an ensemble of traditional Chinese drummers scaring off ghosts with bass drums and dustbin lids. There was little else to do in such situations, save go out and get drunk – very drunk. And still the rain kept tumbling down.

The Sangker River was rising fairly rapidly, and how I laughed with sarcastic mirth at the labour intensive, but frankly quite shit sandbag defence system laid down infront of the entrance to my favourite riverside watering hole.

It succeeded in repelling customers and judging by the smell of urine, attracted local cats, but probably wouldn’t stop a bucketful of wet stuff, less so the impending flood. Anyway, God rewards a trier and my guffawing would soon be back to bite me on the arse – hard.

Water was flowing along Highway 5 that evening, not impassable, but ankle deep. Sure as eggs is eggs it would be gone by the morrow, as per usual. The heaviness of the rain, however, was disconcerting, as if the entire South Pacific was being emptied out over our heads.

The drummers earlier in the day were an unnecessary expense, a downpour and metal roof had the exact same noisy effect, and if I were a restless spirit haunting the house, I’d be diving for cover in the underworld.

The tent was still there, as expected, and a candle light séance taking place in the house opposite, with old women knelt in the darkness beneath a giant canvas image of the Buddha. I went to bed, anticipating the racket that would start up around 5am.

It all happened at once. The loud speakers roused me, and befuddled my foot went down into a wet puddle. Before I could puzzle out if I’d spilled a bottle of water in the night or had a catatonic toilet mishap, the phone rang – the neighbour/landlady’s son.

“Pedro, we need to move the refrigerator.”
“The refrigerator which doesn’t work because there were rats living in it?”
“Yes.”
“Why?”
“The water!The water!”
“What fucking…… oh”

The kitchen is a step lower than the main living sleeping space. That step was now gone, brown waves lapping at its edge. The view outside was apocalyptic, swirling eddies lifting and sinking what things were left out in the garden. Dogs were paddling about in circles in avaliant effort to keep heads above water.

The water got higher and the dam was breached as the entirety of the house became a muddy indoor boating lake. All manner of creepy crawlies came creeping, crawling, swimming and drowning. Personal tat was floating about, drenched clothes, a lonesome flip-flop, beer cans and fag ends; a sad sight to behold.

Like the band on the Titanic, the ‘ghost party’ outside continued to wail, as the waves licked against empty plastic chairs in the higher ground of the road, only recently tarmacked. The marquee was no longer functioning solely for the benefit of a deceased relative, but now a sort of hybrid ghost appeasement meets Salvation Army centre-crossed with the Hari Krishnas. The village welfare HQ was up and running, with chefs knee deep in water, preparing fried rice and entrails over smoky charcoal stoves.

Anyone who’s ever visited my last known addresses (and met any previous women in my life) can confirm that I have pretty low standards.Yet even I steadfastly refused to stay anywhere that remained two-feet under highly infectious tropical H20. I collected a few dryish items and skedaddled, feeling a twinge of guilt about abandoning the rest of the street to their ill-sodden fate.

The roads into town were washed away. ‘Big water!’ the locals said and pointed out the bleeding obvious. Ta Dambang statue had a strange almost holiday atmosphere, with a heap of holiday type traffic. Kids squealed in delight, swimming and splashing about- the closest thing to a ‘snow day’ Cambodia could know. Even grown-ups seemed jovial, having a paddle as their nippers dunked around in the raw sewage laden inland sea- still, to be fair, probably still cleaner than Weston-Super-Mare or Blackpool.

Battambang now was cut off from the south, accessible only by waist high wading, boat or cnuts in 4x4s taking great delight in watering down those wading peasants who don’t drive 4x4s.

My misplaced sense of arrogance kicked in once more. I chuckled as Dailims and Dreams set off into the choppy waters, only to become stranded in the depths. Some more enterprising folk had attached various style tubing and pipes to their exhausts, creating a snorkel in effort to cross to the other side.
‘My moto’s bigger than your moto’ thought a hapless me, engaged into 1st and revved off into the unknown.

When undertaking such acts of foolishness it would be advisable to remember a few ground rules.

1. Roads in Cambodia are terrible enough at the best of times. When submerged there are even more pot holes, trenches and other hidden hazards are 100000000x more dangerous.
2. Flood water has a current, a surprisingly strong one. Speed and top revs are the key (but don’t tally up with rule#1).
3. It’s always deeper than you think.
4. Electrics and water are not happy bedfellows
5. Whatever happens, you gonna get wet.
6. Plastic bags are needed for phones, wallet, cigarettes etc.

I stalled, conked out and had to push to an island of higher ground, where others were click-click-click-clicking downed engines. ‘Yes’, I had to agree with one smiling youth ‘I think my bpussee is wet too’. (between the Khmer word for ‘sparkplug’ and my team Newcastle United’s director of football Joe Kinnear, the hilarity hereis never ending).

Restarting with the now dried bpussee, I hit the surf once more, only to stop, start, stop. I made it through. Then there was the dreadful feeling of leaving something behind. The journey was repeated until everything of minor importance was removed. Then the bike caught on fire, with real flames – in a flood. The alternator shorted and caught ablaze – seriously, not my day.

The Sangker River did not burst, although nearby,Kampong Pouy reservoir did. A few people were rescued (or botched rescued by the looks of a poor woman decidedly unrescued on a Facebook posted video) by the cops with inner tubes on ropes, who stood guarding the closed bridges.

After 3 days the flood by-in-large subsided, leaving craters and missing road. Siem Reap-Battambang could only be accessed by boat or pick-up truck. More than a few farmer’s crops have been washed away. There’s still plenty of slosh about, in lower lying areas, and now, after blazing heat since the clouds departed, the temperature is that of a scalding bath. A micro-biologist’s dream and a white hypochondriac’s worst nightmare is swimming about down there. I can feel dengue and typhoid coming on already…… how I wished I’d gone to the pagoda and prayed for the soul of last year’s dog.

Pedro Milladino

6 thoughts on “By the Rivers of Battambang

  1. Jacked Camry Reply

    Good article, quite enjoyed it. Just a minor correction – the reservoir is “Kamping Pouy”.

    • pedro Reply

      What’s a vowel between friends? Khmers have loads of them. Battmbong, Battambang, Battambing….

  2. Geoff Lorimer Reply

    Great, wish I’d been there. Been flooded in Phnom Penh but not so bad.

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