Slow Boat to Battambang

Slow BoatWith a hotel pickup at 6:30am and a boat departure at 7am you would not be out of your mind in Asia to assume the real times could be pushed back as much as a couple of hours. You would also not be mistaken if you were to assume the opposite. That the boats would leave early and your absence, if you got left behind, would mean little to anyone.

In this case it was the former.

A minivan picked me up, traveled a couple of city blocks, went in a circle, and evicted me about 100 yards from where we started. Only now we had picked up an extra 5 people and their baggage.

On to a tuk-tuk where we were shuffled and squeezed. Bags piled high on laps. Not really knowing why to any of the obvious questions. At this point it is 8:30am and the boat could have conceivably left already if it was sticking to its timetable.

It wasn’t!

We arrived at the dock and were maneuvered onto the correct boat with efficiency. If only that efficiency was adopted all the time. But then it would take all the fun and surprise out of travel in Asia!

The boat cranked up and with a large billow of black exhaust smoke we chugged onto Tonle Sap Lake. Not that you would know it was a lake at this point. It was more like a flooded forest.

The rainy season in Cambodia officially ends in October however all the water that has accumulated over that time does not instantly disappear. Many fields and lowlands remain submerged for some time as the water drains away.

Passengers began making their way up onto the roof. With every extra passenger seeking sunlight the boat began to list slightly. Crew attempted to shuffle the weight unsuccessfully and eventually stopped the flow of folks to the upper deck.

We continued our journey leaning ever increasingly to the right.

Tops of evergreens, palms, and pine-like trees protrude above the water’s surface. Our boat navigates through this maze with ease and of course the skill of the crew.

Small floating villages appear around most every bend. Some houses actually floating on inflatable bases while others are built on twenty-foot stilts; shanty skyscrapers. Both protected against the seasonal rise and fall of the water.

The villages are fascinating. They are like any small town with shops, schools, government department offices, gas stations etc. The difference is that nobody walks anywhere. Everyone moves about on small boats.

We frequently picked and dropped off passengers throughout this watery maze; along with cargo.

After about an hour the treetops gave way to open water. It is here the lake proper starts. There are no treetops, just a watery expanse of which the other side is far in the distance.

Once across; now the fun starts.

The channel which will eventually develop into a river is narrow. It is barely wider than the boat; but it is a two lane channel. Other vessels plough through the river towards us.

The construction of these boats is wood and very open. Double seats sit like pews the entire length of the boat. Those sitting on the outside, like me, with a good view and somewhat of an escape from the engine noise now were confronted with possible decapitation.

As the vessels past each other the thick branches of the mangrove forest bent and twisted along the hull. Eventually reaching maximum torque they sprung up with vicious force into the boat. Anyone sitting on the edge and not anticipating this onslaught was whipped into realization.

The thick grasses were not so bad but the branches could do damage. Luckily the grasses had proven to be adequate warning.

Even so, one of the branches slammed into a support beam with such force that it took a chunk out of it. The beam had moments earlier been my headrest. In any other circumstance the dude next to me would have thought I was making a move on him as my head, mouth open with shock, raced towards his lap.

This battle with branches continued for several hours until we left the flooded zone of the lake and entered the river. It had evacuated nearly fifteen feet of water in the last few months but was still a formidable river.

Fishermen populated this river and occupied every square foot of it. Lines, nets, cages, all in place to fully optimize the diminishing catch.

As the water recedes so does the bounty of fish; until next year.

Along with watching the various fishing techniques the other amazing thing was the river banks themselves. You could easily see the high water mark and compare it to the current water level.

A drastic change.

We rounded many corners, dropped off many local passengers and their belongings, until finally our stop was in sight. There was Battambang. The river bank loaded with hotel wallahs all vying for our attention. The hope was to get a fare into town to a hotel that would then pay them a commission.

Not all hotels paid so the idea was to take unsuspecting passengers to a “Good” hotel no matter if that was the requested destination.

I selected my man and off I went; to Battambang, a city I have heard much about and have been excited to visit.

It only took eight hours to get here.

For photos of Cambodia click here.

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26 thoughts on “Slow Boat to Battambang

    1. It is an interesting concept to think that your whole life is spent on water. Instead of getting in your car to go to the shops you jump in your boat. Nowhere to walk either. I have seen this once before in Peru.

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  1. You would really need to have a personality that ‘rolls with the punches’ to travel in this way. I can adapt to a certain extent, but even I might be nervous wondering if I would make the boat before it departs or actually get to a hotel I intended to go to. Glad you are enjoying it.

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  2. It’s a great adventure for you. From tuk tuk to boat and we will see what you use to travel in Battambang. I hope you will have great stay and I was amazed to know about such high water level in people’s property and it is nice to see plants in water. The homes that are built on water seems amazing. I am thinking about those who go through such adventure each day while traveling in those parts by boat.
    Nice to know about those parts that we have never visited or heard about. Thank you tim for sharing your experiences of travel with us.

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  3. Okay so maybe I shouldn’t but I have to admit I was laughing at the image I conjured up of you on that boat. That you have an adventurous spirit is a given, but you must also have the patience of a saint to endure some of your experiences with such a good nature.

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    1. I think traveling does that to people when in developing countries. You expect things to be less than efficient and even borderline harmful; part of the adventure and excitement of it all 🙂

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  4. Ah the fun and surprise of traveling in Asia! That phrase conjures up so many memories for me. It’s an exercise in flexibility, both physical and mental. Glad you weren’t decapitated!

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  5. Ok, I was really nervous reading that story. I’m so glad you got there in one piece. I love the pictures of the submerged town. I’m not sure I could brave the journey but everything did look beautiful. This reminded me of when I was a little kid in Florida. Our school used to flood so badly when it rained that little lakes would form and we would catch tadpoles. I also once saw a picture in the paper of someone rowing their boat down the street. Not quite as flooded as Cambodia, but still an adventure.

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  6. I admire your patience Tim. But the whole trip looks fascinating. You usually only see scenes like these when you are looking at a news report of a flooded area. For this to be a normal state of existence is pretty interesting. Worth the wait? Seems like it.

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  7. Such an adventure! I think my heart would be in my throat most of the time…worried about missing boats and if the guide was taking me to where I actually wanted to go! Looks like such a beautiful part of the world. I guess it’s all about adapting to the culture…pretty much have to do that everywhere, right?

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    1. I do remember being somewhat reassured about the branches whacking the boat as it meant there would be something to hang on to if the boat began to sink. Fortunately that didn’t happen 🙂

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  8. Tim I don’t know about Cambodia but in other countries my husband and I have traveled, I found that the locals are highly connected. A private tour guide we hired had people who he worked with wait for him, and us. Like once in Egypt we were late getting to lunch and even though the restaurant was officially closed, it wasn’t for us.

    Your pictures and descriptions of Cambodia make it seem like a most interesting part of the world.

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  9. Tim, is it still like this today in Cambodia. It must have been amazing navigating through all those buildings. I think the ones on the inflatable bases show a lot of ingenuity. Just hope they don’t spring a leak. Must have been just as exciting for the people living in those houses to see you passing by as it was for you. Another interesting read.

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    1. This post is from a very recent trip Lenie so absolutely it is like this today. Cambodia is a fascinating country and I am looking forward to a return trip.

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  10. I never got to make that journey when I was in Cambodia. Maybe next year. Next month I am doing a Mekong River trip in Laos. Should be fun. Hopefully smoother than your trip. Does make for great stories!

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  11. Looks like quite the adventure, Tim! I really enjoy getting to places by boat. There’s something more dramatic about it, and the fact that you smell things along the way really connects you to the land and the culture.

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  12. Beauty descriptions of SE Asian aquatic travels Tim! It brings back similar memories of our water taxi from north of Chiang Mai down towards Lao’s Luang Prabang…

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    1. Thanks Tomas. I have another Asian aquatic adventure coming up. This one a little more harrowing. Really loving Cambodia and glad I finally got here. I can see it changing very quickly and imagine it has changed a lot since you were here. Can’t wait to get Alison down here sometime soon. That is the only part I wish was different.

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