Along with the night train and the rundown bus, the slow boat is one of the true pleasures of travel in Southeast Asia. A trip down the Mekong in Laos or Vietnam figures into many travelers’ plans, but since I won’t make it to Vietnam and might not have time to spend sailing lazily downriver in Laos, I jumped at the chance to cross Tonle Sap from Siem Reap to Battambang — possibly one of the best, if somewhat forgotten, boat rides in all of Asia.
I’d also heard rumors that these boats are known for running aground and sometimes even capsizing. Challenge accepted.
For the first time on my trip, the slowest travel option and the cheapest were not one and the same. The boat is an exorbitant $22 compared to the $6 bus, and in spite of the pretty poor road quality, the latter takes about half the time. Even so, the benefits of taking the boat are many. First, it’s different. There are plenty of uncomfortable bus rides to be had in Asia, so anything else is a welcome change. Second, the boat is a “free” way to see the floating villages on Tonle Sap. Tours head out from Siem Reap for >$20 a day, but with the slow boat you pay for the tour AND find yourself in a new destination. Last, it’s a wild experience, especially in the dry season. The narrow rivers were so low during our journey that we had to navigate less than a foot of water for miles and at one point dig the rudder out of the mud.
I spent the first few hours of my day fighting the urge to panic about logistics falling apart, and I had to remind myself over and over that in one way or another I’d get to my destination. After all, I am in no (real) hurry. Let’s review:
I booked my ticket through my hostel, which also arranged my transfer to the pier. I was told to be downstairs at the stupid early hour of 6am, and when I arrived, bleary-eyed, the lovely girl at reception cheerfully told me that the transfer actually wouldn’t arrive until 6:30. The boat was scheduled to leave at 7. At 6:55, I inquired again and was told that the boat actually leaves at 7:30 and that the driver was on his way to collect me. The boat may or may not wait, she added. At 7:25, a rickety bus pulled up at the door. Once I was onboard and found a similarly exhausted-looking bunch of backpackers, I felt fairly certain that the boat would wait.
Schedules mean nothing at all in Cambodia, if you haven’t figured that out yet. We pulled away from the dock around 8:45.
So, the boat. The bottom level, inside, has two rows of benches lining the walls below open windows, so passengers sit facing each other. The top level, the roof, is a free-for-all with railings to hang on to. Pros to sitting inside: it’s cooler and slightly less alarming when the boat tips from side to side. Pros to sitting on the roof: great views, more space, and the option to get some sun. As one of the last to board, I didn’t have much choice, but the advantage goes to the roof.
The boat is not large — there were maybe 20 people packed in downstairs and 10 sprawled on the roof — and it rocks pretty heavily at the slightest wave. It took a few hours to get used to the idea that no, I (probably) was not going to go sliding off the side.
Siem Reap is pretty close to Lake Tonle Sap, so the river trip is fairly short before the boat reaches open water. At this point, we could travel at speed and enjoy a short period of clear blue below us. This was also our first glimpse of the floating villages.
“Floating” is not an exaggeration. The houses and common buildings are found literally in the middle of the lake (and up and down the sides of the smaller rivers). Residents get back and forth between spots in motor or row boats.
I saw restaurants and government buildings and health centers. It seems most people who live in these villages and along the shores of the rivers make their living from fishing.
It’s a slow lifestyle, one that I couldn’t (and can’t) quite wrap my head around.
Once we crossed the lake, we spent the next five hours navigating the narrow, shallow, and muddy rivers and streams that lead to Battambang. The views are less stunning as the water becomes murky and the poverty of the people living along the shores becomes more obvious. But the kids are fantastic. All of us seated on the roof spent the majority of our ride waving to children who shouted “Hallo!” and ran alongside the boat for a few dozen yards.
I have come to the conclusion that Cambodian kids are the absolute best.
The boat is not so much for locals, at least not during the high season. We picked up and dropped off a few folks along the way who paddled out from the floating villages and hopped on, but most of the passengers were tourists making their way from one itinerary stop to the next. But it’s interesting, because we seemed to be as fascinating to the people we passed as they were to us. Tourism can go horribly wrong in situations like this — where we treat people’s real lives like Disneyland — and I think it’s important to remember as we snap away that everyone we gawk at actually exists this way. I’m guilty, I had my camera out too, but it’s one of those things about poverty tourism to places like hill tribes that irks me just a bit. And while this wasn’t a tour, but rather a mode of transport from A to B, I think it’s a good reminder of the need to be careful about choosing responsible and respectful ways of visiting places.
Anyway, the boat was wonderful and relaxing, and I took several naps in my bathing suit over the course of the ride. The most exciting moment might have been when we ran aground and one of the captains had to wade into the water and dig us out.
You can’t tell, but he’s not even waste deep. The water is that shallow. There was nothing to do but shrug and watch and believe as hard as I could that somehow we’d get moving again. After about a half hour, we did.
In summary, the boat is 100 percent the best way to travel between Siem Reap and Battambang (or Siem Reap and Phnom Penh). It’s sketchy and unsettling, but it’s got all the makings of a good after-the-fact story. It might have eclipsed the night ferry as my best travel decision yet.
If you find yourself considering a slow boat journey, here are a few tips: 1) Bring water and food. There are no stops along the way, and it gets HOT. 2) If you can handle the sun, definitely sit on the roof. The views are better and you have more space. 3) The boat can take anywhere from 6-10 hours depending on the time of year, but even at nearly the height of the dry season, we arrived in 7.5 hours including 30 minutes of digging out of the sand. 4) Also, no bathroom. Pee before you get on! 5) The boat probably won’t capsize, but put your carry-on bags in the middle just in case you tip a lot from one side to the other. 6) Wave at all the kids. It makes them so happy.