Friday, December 2, 2011

By boat to Battambang

The small city of Battambang is about 5 hours from Siem Reap by bus but anywhere from 4 to 10 hours (or longer) by “fast” boat, depending on the lake and river conditions. The boat trip is reputed to be an unforgettable adventure in Cambodian travel, though by no means comfortable. Right on both counts!

This boat is like ours but goes to Phnom Penh instead

The boat is similar to a school bus—hard wooden seats with wooden backs (no padding), facing forward, bus-style. There’s room for about 50 passengers inside and more on the long roof. The open-air windows are topped with rolled up canvas that can be pulled down if need be to protect against rain or sun. Baggage is loaded onto the roof along with any passengers who want to subject themselves to a full day of brutal sunshine. We chose inside. Price for either inside or outside: $20.

We reserved tickets through our hotel and were picked up there about 6:45 a.m. in a small bus that already was quite full with tourists heading toward either Battambang or Phnom Penh by boat. The bus continued around town, picking up other passengers at various hotels and guest houses. Every time a couple more people (and all their bags) piled into the bus we were convinced it could hold no more, but jump seats were pulled down, the pile of luggage was shifted, and more were squeezed in. The bumpy ride to the boat dock on Tonle Sap lake took about an hour and a half. And we weren’t on the boat yet!

The boat finally loaded up and we pushed off around 8:15. I stopped at the rudimentary w.c. before we got on because I was sure I didn't want to use the even more rudimentary toilet on the boat. Tonle Sap is a huge interior lake that expands and contracts according to the season. Though the rainy season is now over in Cambodia, the lake is still expansive. Fortunately the houses in the area are all built on stilts to withstand the waters. 

For the first hour or so the boat went through vast flooded forests, then we got into open water that reminded us of Lake Nicaragua—you couldn’t see the banks in the distance, the lake is so large.

Before long we were passing our first floating village—there are 7 or 8 of them along the way—and picking up some more passengers. The new passengers were transferred to our boat on smaller rowboats. Eventually the boat was a mix of about 60 percent tourists and 40 percent locals, including the sweetest little girl who sat in the seat across from us with her mother. I made her a couple of origami cranes out of a hotel brochure we'd been handed as we boarded, and she entertained herself with them for much of the trip.

The floating villages were really interesting to see—they weren’t as neat and orderly as the floating villages we’d seen in Halong Bay in Vietnam. All kinds of commerce and daily activities were taking place as we passed, and we were almost always greeted by a friendly wave from the kids as we went by.

Eventually the route turned into a narrow channel lined with partially submerged bushes that whipped at us as we went by, requiring some serious leaning in to the boat to avoid being hit. (I got a couple of slaps.) All the while the motor in the back of the boat was roaring. Hard seats, noisy motor, aggressive bushes, loooong ride—now I know why it’s termed “unforgettable.” But it was also great fun!

After the whipping was over we entered the river section of the trip, the final stage. The banks were lined with wooden houses, some in better condition than others, and the river was full of plastic bottles demarking fishing nets as well as the fishing people in boats checking their nets. And kids swimming. A beautiful scene. At one point our boat broke down—I think it ran out of gas—and we floated over to the bank, where someone disembarked with an empty container and reappeared about 15 minutes later with enough gas to get us going again and finish the trip.

About 8 ½ hours after we had been picked up at our hotel, the boat finally reached its destination, the dock in Battambang. We unloaded our bags and walked up a rudimentary set of steps to a throng of tuk-tuk drivers and hotel representatives holding up signs and calling out advertisements for guest houses. Fortunately, we had arranged a (free) pickup by our Battambang hotel the day before we left Siem Reap, and we quickly spotted the sign with our name. We were led to an awaiting tuk-tuk for the short ride to our new accommodation, the Sanctuary Villa, in a quiet neighborhood at the north end of town. It’s a perfect place to recover from the long and noisy ride. We’re here for 2 nights, so tomorrow we’ll take a full-day tour (by tuk-tuk) of the highlights of Battambang.

The river in Battambang

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