Taking the slow boat to Battambang

Trip Start Sep 29, 2010
Trip End Nov 30, 2011

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Tuesday morning we had a 6am pick up for our boat trip to Battambang. We were the first people in the minivan so we had to do the rounds of the hotels to pick up the other eleven foreigners and by the time everyone was squeezed in, we didn't actually leave Siem Reap until 6.50am – I couldn’t help thinking I could have had another hour in bed!

We were late arriving at the port, so were quickly herded on to a rather rickety looking wooden boat, closely followed by lots of locals with bags and boxes of various shapes and sizes. The water level of the Tonle Sap River was incredibly low so we made slow progress leaving the port, following a line of other boats down the middle of the channel, and occasionally having to cut the engine to free the weed. We had seen advertisements for day trips on the Tonle Sap Lake aboard the Tara riverboat, the largest boat on the lake, so I was a little surprised when we passed it and saw that it was aground.

The river soon opened up on to the Tonle Sap lake, a very large expanse of water, where we were finally able to put the throttle down, passing some of the local fishermen on the way. Tonle Sap Lake is home to a large floating village community, and unfortunately it appears that the lake itself seems to be suffering from the urbanisation of its waters. As we sped across the lake, passing close to the floating village, we could see that the water washing away from the bow of the boat was a toxic looking forest green colour – certainly not healthy looking and not a water colour I’ve seen before. Crossing the lake I was also very intrigued by the channel markers which seemed to consist of wooden sticks with coloured plastic bags attached!

Less than an hour later we turned away from the lake and once again headed down the Tonle Sap River. The water level was so low that we were unable to get to the first village, and the captain had to ask one of the fishermen to take a passenger as it was too shallow for our boat to get through. Unfortunately we had only been going again for a couple of minutes when we had to stop to change the propeller – I’m not sure whether it was damaged by the weed or hitting the bottom, but luckily we had a spare one on board.

A few minutes later we arrived at the first of many floating villages – houses constructed on floating platforms complete with televisions and satellite dishes; chickens and pigs running around in large netted enclosures and crocodiles kept in wooden boxes; and people carrying out a wide range of daily activities such as washing, mending nets, paddling from house to house in their boats trying to sell their wares, swimming and sleeping in hammocks. Hopefully you can see some of this in the photos.

At each village we passed through we picked up more and more people, so that not only were all the seats taken, but the roof space as well. The Khmer New Year was beginning in the next couple of days so I imagine a lot of people were going to visit their families. The boat made for some good people watching, and what struck me the most was the friendly faces, but also the seemingly haunted look of the older generation. I was also a little shocked when the lady in front of us just threw her rubbish overboard – she had two young daughters with her, and I just wonder how things will ever improve if this is seen as acceptable.

We had been told by the travel agency that the boat trip would take about 6 hours. It did seem that we were making slow progress though, with all the stops to pick up people and having to go very carefully through the weeds. Around 1pm we stopped at floating shop where we could buy snacks, use the bathroom and stretch our legs, and it dawned on me that this might only be the halfway point.

I was thoroughly enjoying the boat trip, passing along the narrow waterways and watching the people who live along the river. It was interesting how the style of the villages changed from place to place, some with floating houses and others with land based ones. However, as the hours passed, the wooden seats became more and more uncomfortable, the sky above darkened, threatening to rain, and the stunning boat trip began to lose some of its enchantment.

As the banks of the river started to become more built up, with evidence of roads and bridges, we realised we must finally be approaching Battambang. We had heard some thunder in the distance, and seen some flashes of lightening so were silently urging the captain to speed up so we could get to the dock before the heavens opened. We literally got off the boat, climbed the steps up the riverbank and got into the waiting tuk-tuk the hotel had sent for us, when the rain started pouring down. Good timing!

After what turned out to be a ten hour boat trip, we were very happy to reach our hotel in Battambang. What we subsequently found out was that in the dry season when the river is low the boat trip takes a lot longer than in the wet season, but obviously the travel agency had not told us this as they would have lost out on our money. We were both famished, so after dropping off our bags, we headed towards the riverfront where we found a nice little restaurant for dinner.

There were two reasons why we had decided to come to Battambang – one was the scenic boat trip, and the other was that we could apparently get our Vietnam visas in a day. Wednesday morning our priority was to find the Vietnamese Consulate, which was actually quite close to our hotel. We were greeted by a very friendly man, who after checking through our forms, told us to come back in half an hour and the visas would be ready – what service!

To pass the time we headed to the riverfront to look at the colonial buildings and the old French shop houses. We stopped in at the post office too, but they were already closed for the Khmer New Year. After collecting our passports and booking our bus tickets to Phnom Penh for the following day, we headed back to the hotel where our tuk-tuk driver was meeting us to take us to the bamboo train.

The bamboo train, also known locally as the norry, is an ultra light bamboo frame powered by a 6hp gasoline engine. It runs on an old French era, single track line, so when two click-clacking bamboo trains meet, the less loaded one is quickly dismantled to let the other one pass. It was a lot of fun, and a nice way to see some of the countryside, but unfortunately we only saw other tourists on the norry rather than the locals transporting vegetables, charcoal and wood to market.

Having seen most of what Battambang has to offer, we returned to the hotel for the rest of the afternoon. Once again we were the only guests in the hotel - surprising as it was nice and new, although we did have to ask them three times to service our room! After spending a few hours relaxing and blogging, we headed out to a restaurant which was full of locals for dinner.

Next stop is the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

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