The Bill Bensley Boat Races by Indochine Exploration
‘Nick I’ve got an amazing booking for you,’ said Christian the GM of Shinta Mani. ‘That’s great, what?’ I replied a little apprehensive knowing Christian. ‘Kayak,’ ‘Ok how many?’ ‘120’ ‘We can’t do it.’ ‘Why are you always so negative,’ Christian mocked. ‘We don’t have 120 kayaks. There aren’t 120 kayaks in Cambodia,’ ‘You’ll think of something,’ Christian reassured.
The Racing Platform
Every year Cambodia celebrates the reverse flow of the Tonle Sap River and the flood of The Tonle Sap Lake, with a water festival called Bon Om Teuk.
The Welcome Committee
In Phnom Penh over 400 fifty man traditional Khmer water festival boats race down the river watched over by the King. The celebration is repeated on rivers and lakes throughout Cambodia including Siem Reap, with smaller twenty man boats. The inspiration flashed through my brain in bed that night, a light bulb moment! What say we organise our own water festival? Christian loved the idea and so the Indochine Exploration or Bill Bensley Boat Races were born.
Making the idea a reality was a little harder:
- Where would we get the boats from? – Buntha charged around the pagodas of Siem Reap.
- Where would we race away from the covetous eye of the authorities? – Buntha went to see the Maichrey police and commune chief.
- What would we race from? – Buntha arranged to tow the wedding platform across the lake from Prek Toal 20km away.
- How would we get there? – We hired 3 big buses and 10 local motorboats.
Bill and Tiger
‘Oh and Nick we want muscle boys,’ added Christian so I had the onerous task of choosing 10 chiselled young men from my gym.
Getting Ready for the First Heat
Our guests were the 120 staff from the Bill Bensley design studios in Bangkok, who’d been on the piss the night before and were reduced in number to 80 and somewhat subdued, excepting Bill. I tried to explain what we were going to do. That most of them didn’t speak English might have had something to do with it. Our buses pulled up at the Maichrey boat station where our fleet was waiting. I sensed their interest start to overtake the collective hangover as we motored past the little hilltop pagoda still with its clutch of attendant floating houses. We chugged in convoy down the narrow channel that cuts though the vegetation while the lake is full. Storks wheeled overhead and kingfishers darted from overhanging branches.
The Pink and Blue Team Race
We spied the race platform tied to the trees near the open lake and as we came closer WOW!! Whatever side of the sexual fence you sit, they were gorgeous. Clad only in shorts the full extent of the boys physiques were revealed much to the incredulity of the guests.
An Indochine Exploration Chauffeur
Chaos ensued made worse by me on the megaphone as we tried to assign all present into teams until I found out that they didn’t speak English and the message finally got through that they already had teams so Pink and Blue were first to race.
Making the assumption that an eskimo roll wasn’t possible in a Khmer racing boat an imminent capsize seemed inevitable as they boarded but amazingly settled 2 abreast they paddled the short way to where our Tony was waiting with his whistle in a motorboat at the start point.
A few beers and some rice wine later
Meanwhile our muscle boys waited beside their kayaks until Bill bagged Tiger then Taylor took Little Tee. ‘I need to take photos Nick.’ ‘Hmmm I thought as she settled snugly behind his rippled back.
The races had started – oohps. I fumbled for my phone and clicked on the stop clock. They’d got it! A rhythm of ‘Oi Oi Oi!!’ to power their strokes drifted across the water. ‘Blue!’ I screamed through the megaphone. Then it was Orange and Green. ‘Green!’ I screamed.
Bill and Big Tee
The muscle boys lubricated with a few beers and a bottle of rice wine (we found out later) had started to enjoy kayaking with or without the guests and in and out of the water. The same guests had relaxed and were chomping their way through Rinna’s buffet laid out on the wedding platform.
Blue – the Winning Team
The time had come for the grand final so Blue and Green, captained by Bill (with kayaking paddles) made their way to the start and somebody gave the go. A primeval collective grunt echoed across the lake as sophisticated designers found their caveman inside and strained on their paddles. ‘Blue, Blue, Blue!!! Yeay, we shrieked as they edged past Green (despite the kayaking paddles) and nudged the virtual finish line. Oohps no bonus this Christmas, Bill was Green.
Bill unnecessarily assisted by Tiger presented the winning team with 3 free nights at Shinta Mani and we bade them goodbye as they boarded the motorboats back to the buses and the hotel.
The grand prize – Tiger (presented by)
The Sangke River Kayak
This is the story of 5 men and their boats as they paddled across the floodplain of The Tonle Sap Great Lake from Battambang to Angkor.
We couldn’t let our muscles go to waste so despite we’d 3 days ahead of us and an unknown quantity of kilometers, the first objective on reaching Battambang was to firm up the engines that were going to drive us and find a gym.
Motors tuned in anticipation they now had to be fueled and this was where we split. The allure of Jaan Bai* was too strong and too expensive for the whole Team. ‘I’ll see you in the morning,’ I told them.
The next morning the call of coffee transcended our budget so we all congregated at Knyei** for a cup of arguably the best coffee in Asia before setting out on our voyage.
Prasat Prahoc*** lives up to its name, smelly – but it gave us a 10K head start.
Setting off at Prasat Prahoc, from left to right; Buntha, Ra, Jin, Lors and Nick
I had an unfair advantage but that seemed reasonable in light of a 30year disadvantage. The green hard hulled composite kayak cut though the water faster than our Gumotex war horses but given they had 2 prime paddlers per boat we were about matched.
* Jaan Bai; initially a David Thompson cooking school restaurant now run by Mark & Jose from Feelgood Coffee, also owners of **Knyei Café. Originally an NGO running cycling trips it now concentrates on amazing coffee in street 1 ½. *** Prahoc a Cambodian staple, fermented fish paste – an acquired taste.
Heang (above) concerned, intelligent, efficient was waiting with his motorboat. Don’t get me wrong, we were going to kayak but we might as well do it comfortably, which meant keeping the beer cold.
The sun was shining (about 40 degrees and humid, a minor point). The river high and most important the current was heading our way.
To set the scene we were traveling downstream with the Sangke as it flowed from the Cardamom Mountains to the West, past Battambang and onto Prek Toal and the Tonle Sap Lake. Our mission was to follow its length albeit with a shortcut at the end to the floating village of Maichrey, our final destination.
The Upper Sangke flowing through rural Battambong Province
‘2 hours then adventure bars*’ I shouted. All was well excepting Jin who was car-sick the day before and quieter than usual. And water, whatever we drank sweated straight out, perhaps 5 liters that first day.
*Adventure Bars; a special recipe created by Dean from Miss Wong, granola bars in global demand but only available on Indochine Exploration Adventures.
Buntha’s app told us we were averaging 7K such that after a couple of hours the river rose to meet the banks. The bamboo clumps and fruit trees thinned as we entered the middle Sangke, a region of endless rice fields.
I knew the route from the perspective of the Amanbala or whatever the motorboat I was traveling on at the time but from the kayak, under our own steam my relationship with the river was different and more connected.
Adventure bars and coffee as we entered the middle Sangke, where stilted houses give way to floating villages.
The current was cancelled by the rising lake, fast breaching the riverbanks and flooding the surrounding paddy fields. It felt like we were rising above the world to where the water met the sky.
On the patches that stood proud the trees were festooned with the strange fruit of weaver nests. Structures of woven grass attached to branches, which the birds entered like a diving bell from below. They sell these nests in Siem Reap, hanging them to their awnings thinking that the tourists will like the rustic impression they give but not caring for the birds that weaved them. It was cheerful to see them undisturbed next to the fishermen‘s huts.
Weaver Bird nests
Into the Tonle Sap Floodplain
It’s true that an army marches on its stomach and now past 12 there was mutiny in the air, rice was need quickly. We found a perfect spot and tied up to the remnants of an old wooden house now mainly underwater and home to a family of rats. A snake swam across the river to join us for lunch.
Clouds ominous, the boys had the rice on the boil as the heavens opened and the rain poured down while Lors entertained us with his sexual encounters, apparently he doesn’t like sucking nipples. Other valuable advice was to follow the beaten path so you don’t have to cut the bush? Oh and we also learnt that he weighs 72kg before a shit and 70kg after.
The encroaching lake
The rains have been good this year and the water was high so still with 2 months of flood to come we were able to cut off a 20K meander with a 5K cut through the seasonally flooded forest. An enchanted alley glistening from the recent rain, sunbeams splashing on shiny wet leaves.
I was thinking about Silver Langurs. Our hike through the Kulen Hills to the North of Siem Reap was set up to give the local villagers an incentive to protect the monkeys. But for all the talk honestly I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen them. On queue, perched on a branch just 5 meters away was a Silver Langur and a few strokes further more brought me close enough to confirm.
The shortcut, an enchanted alley cut through the seasonally flooded forest
The birdsong beckoned but we weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the narrow channel. Most boats slowed as they came near, a few young idiots threw a wake over our Gumotex coming to an abrupt halt when they met Heang and his motorboat.
Phum Bakprea, the halfway point where the Sangke meets the Monkul Borey River. A water hyacinth jam, we could see the telephone masts of the village but 10m of compacted weed meant it could have been the moon. Of course Lors the machine that he is could heave his way through but the rest of us waited for Heang to tow us.
Heang towing us out of a hyacinth jam
Heang threw a line to me and Buntha attached his rope to my tail, slowly we squeezed through the floating mat. The broad blades of his propellers were alarmingly close but after our recent battles see a water hyacinth workout, they were preferable to be being stuck.
Google Earth shows a road reaching the village in the dry season but for now its isolated in the The Tonle Sap floodplain. A river rendezvous where the tourist boats refuel on route to Siem Reap. A big sign advertised a Battambang boutique guesthouse complete with swimming pool somewhat at odds with the largest pool in South East Asia, where we were currently floating.
Phum Bakprea, picking up bananas
It was half past four, we’d been going since eight and were getting tired, a coconut stop. ‘Wat Chou Kmao 40 minutes,’ Heang told us. We could sleep with the monks at the pagoda.
Chased by rolling waves of angry grey clouds getting darker and darker pushing a wall of wind behind us we surfed down the river, flying in the face of the storm.
Chased by a storm down the river
As the storm surge subsided we approached a village looking for a place to rest. Despite the statuesque youth in underpants, the thump of amplified base persuaded us to keep paddling. A little further on was an empty platform but for some nimbi- ish reason it was off limits so we wearily continued in the twilight.
A pale flicker of light bathed the river as we put forward our paddles after 10 hours and floated towards our mother-ship, where we were going to sleep that night.
The clear water was alive with fish minus one as Lors caught a half kilo catfish on a thin bamboo pole, which together with a bucket of snails that kept escaping was lunch for tomorrow. Compelled by hunger the team had rice pots boiling and were dicing and cutting vegetables and meat. Caught in a limbo of disconnected and contented exhaustion I looked on with a cold beer while they cooked supper and contemplated my paddling companions. Ra an old woman but eternally nice, Buntha smart as always, Jin the baby but never complaining, so full of goodness he should be on the front of a breakfast cereal packet and indestructible Lors. I felt extremely fortunate.
The boys were content to lie on mats. I had a mattress. Under mosquito nets we lay across the width of the boat. The heavy and humid air was contained by blinds hanging on either side with the aim of stopping us getting wet. The rain started just as we were dozing off.
Lors and the boys cooking dinner.
Attempting to sleep the volume increased and it started to seep through the covers slowly filling the boat lapping at my mattress by now more of a sponge. Heang turned on the bilge every hour ensuring that only glimpses of sleep were snatched. I must have drifted off as a pale dawn penetrated my Valium induced torpor.
Lors was the first thing I heard. ‘How many nights do you need to get by without sleep before you get tired?’ ‘What?’ ‘He means shut up,’ Buntha interpreted and handed me a hot mug of tea. Heang lifted the covers revealing the grey green river-scape and the next day seemed possible.
Setting off a little less enthusiastically on our second morning
‘How far now Heang,’ we asked. ‘I think you do 55%,’ he replied rather too diplomatically. The prospect of another sodden night was enough for us to decide to try and make it back in one day.
The current had gone, the river was wide and meandering away from the prevailing Westerly wind that had propelled us the night before so we paddled by ourselves.
Heavy hanging grey clouds at least meant we weren’t being grilled by the sun.
It was a good call to have stopped where we did, Wat Chou Kmau was another hour from where we had moored for the night.
Heang was waiting after another 5km beside a pagoda in the center of a large stilted village.
The river was completely blocked by hyacinth so when we saw a seller boat heading off into the flooded forest on one side of the channel we reckoned they knew a way through. We followed and came out the other side, which was more than Heang managed and for some unfathomable reason he’d headed back towards Phum Bakprea. ‘Why don’t they clear it?’ I thought. Collective action for the benefit of all but it’s less effort to get a long tail with a reverberating 2 stroke and cut through alone – I answered myself.
Grey water under a grey sky, open stretches of river in shoulder aching straight lines between floating villages now the flood lasted longer than the ebb. Seasonally flooded forest fringed the river. A Black-shouldered Kite flew near an untidy nest of random twigs watched over by a Grey-headed Fish Eagle. I just made out a monkey on the far bank but too far away to tell what flavor, parakeets, pelican, duck.
Lors and Jin towards the end
Another floating village where we waited for Heang who’d lost us in the water hyacinth, coffee and adventure bars, well done Dean.
Approaching our lunch stop at Kampong Prahoc we saw the 3 telephone masts of Prek Toal, visible from a long distance as it wasn’t K. Prahoc but another village 30 minutes the wrong side. Buntha had an excuse to go to Prek Toal, we didn’t but we ended up paddling there anyway. ‘Why didn’t we take the shortcut?’ I grumpily demanded. ‘Water hyacinth,’ mumbled Buntha. The excuse for everything, I thought but didn’t say.
The short cut to Maichrey an hours breeze with Jady a few weeks back but today a balance between general ache and the freedom of well just being free.
How many thousands, maybe millions of paddle strokes did we do? Shoulders aching, back in seizure, legs cramping, twenty hours in the kayaks and 80 kilometers paddled. I nearly cried when we got to the boat station at Maichrey.
‘So tired, ‘ Buntha said the first morning now a lifetime away, no stress, work and self irrelevant, just us Heang and the river.
Lors, Heang, Nick, Ra and Jin at the end.
A Water Hyacinth Workout
Heang was waiting at the Maichrey Boat Station with what looked liked the oldest wooden boat Bo the owner could find. The Team sprang into action, had the kayaks out the car, inflated and up on the roof of the relic that was taking us into The Tonle Sap Floodplain. I watched redundantly and remembered when it was only me that could set them up correctly.
The Team setting up the kayaks (left), Buntha & Lors (below)
The lake is on the flood penetrating up the waterways that for half the year flow in the opposite direction and with the current comes the clumps of water hyacinth. A weed introduced from South America that floats on air sacs in its stem and was enemy No 1 for the day.
The same floating house that we saw yesterday on a customer trip was still stuck half way up the channel. Four young boys in a sad shack that didn’t look like it would make it through the next storm.
For once the mind numbing long tailed engines served a purpose cutting a path through the floating weed that unless you nose tailed perilously close to the churning propeller, fused back together after the long tail had made its way through.
Moving house as The Lake fills
We launched our kayaks over the side of Heang’s boat and headed off into the unknown, flippantly and later regretfully I mentioned ‘to get lost.’ ‘Keep with us,’ my futile call went unheeded. Lors with his shirt off like some smooth gorilla together with Jin, who’s just so nice, paddled off. Bunthy and Ra, Buntha and Sreymom plus me solo, which with these fit guys puts me behind.
A little way past Maichrey we met our first water hyacinth barrage, easy as we followed the long tail through the chopped weed.
The Team in the open channel
Like ginormous birds the A320’s circled overhead waiting to land at REP Airport as we struck up a rhythm in our kayaks along a wide channel. Smiles on our faces as we waded through the water. Note Gumotex inflatables reliably wade. The Feathercraft K1 whose tubes are being realigned in Singapore glides.
Confidently we waited at the second carpet of floating hyacinth for a long tail to cut us a path. I powered after and came to an abrupt halt after 50meters extricating myself backwards. No more boats appeared to cut a path for us. ‘Where’s Heang?’ I wondered. ‘Boss shall I try?’ Lors shouted over his back as he heaved their way through. We heard war cry’s as he attacked the floating mat with his immense strength ably aided by Jin. His shouts got fainter and their heads disappeared into a sea of leaves.
Lors and Jin heading into the hyacinth
The rest of us looked at each other, sort of shrugged our shoulders with resignation and headed after them. I’d followed first but my shoulder muscles don’t compare so after 20 meters came to a grinding halt, wedging the kayak on the floating carpet. Ra and Bunthy squeezed past with Bunthy at the front clearing a way and Ra providing the power behind.
‘Two questions Buntha, where are we going and how long to get there?’ ‘Prek Toal, by boat it’s close, by kayak through the hyacinth tomorrow.’ Hmm, actually he was wrong on both counts. An hour later we’d cut though to an oasis of clear water in the desert of hyacinth. ‘Nick just wait for Heang,’ said Buntha after he’d called him for the fourth time. Either Buntha or Heang and probably both of them don’t know where we are. The sound of fiberglass long tails could be heard tantalizingly close but not the chug of Heang’s heavy wooden boat.
Hijacking the illegal fisherman’s long-tail
‘Heang’s not coming and we get the first long tail,’ I concluded. It turned out to only be another 20 meters where Lors and Jin waited on what appeared to be clear water.
The reverberating crash of the 2 stroked long tail engine grew and 2 kids appeared one clad in a fetching turquoise velvetine jacket and clashing orange wedding bonnet. ‘Its blocked,’ (in Khmer). The next driver didn’t have much choice as Lors turned pirate hijacked his boat. We transferred in pairs. Lors and Jin hauled the kayaks on board, deflated and rolled them up in the narrow boats. 7 of us sat on top of our rubber bundles while our driver headed off who knew and after the hyacinth, who cared where.
We’d come a long way, taller trees, clearer water and alleluia no hyacinth! Two Black-headed Ibis amongst Open-bills, a Grey-headed Fish Eagle disguised as a tree trunk, cormorants, darters and White-throated Kingfishers. We could have kayaked, I thought but an hour later we were still nosying our way through the flooded scrub with no sign of the Prek Toal telephone masts in sight. We came to a stop at an illegal fishing net blocking the narrow waterway. Our driver was an illegal fisherman but at that point we weren’t complaining. We gently untied the net and carried on. It had been a while, there were a lot of us in the boat and my thoughts turned to exactly how much fuel remained in the tank. And how long could our driver continue hacking through the undergrowth with a laboring engine before it gave up. The telephone masts appeared over the flooded scrub before my thoughts became reality.
The main channel in Prek Toal floating village presented the next challenge as the wake from other speeding long tails threatened to sink ours laden with us and our kayaks.
Heang was waiting for us at The Cheang platform (Buntha’s family), he and Poo our van driver had cooked lunch. We hadn’t been heading for Prek Toal but Kampong Prahoc 10km up the Sangke River and were nearly there before our illegal fisherman saved us. Chicken, cabbage and beer had never tasted so good.
Left to right; Bunthy, Nick, Sreymom, Jin, Buntha, Poo, Ra & Lors
Pride swelled up in me, Khmers have a calm stoic strength though the flip side is that means they allow shit to happen before they do anything about it. Talking of which Heang’s boat broke down on the way back.