The slow boat to Battambang

When you are travelling around a country, the journeys from place to place can take up a lot of time and are an integral part of the holiday. Sometimes, these trips go without a hitch, and are easily forgotten. Sometimes they are more of an adventure, and you remember the experience – these trips usually make interesting stories. I wasn’t going to blog about journeys for a while, but I just had to write about my recent boat trip from Siem Reap to Battambang in Cambodia.

The Lonely Planet book said the boat trip was stunning and took from 5 hours in the wet season to 9 or more hours at the height of the dry season, so we were expecting it to take all day. We bought our tickets at our guest house the night before. These were US$24 each for the boat trip and transport to the boat terminal. Pick up was at 6.30am and the boat was due to leave at 7am.

All squashed up on the old boat
All squashed up on the old boat

There were about half a dozen other people in the boat when we arrived. The boat was fairly small with two rows of seats facing inwards. The boat to Phnom Penh, next to us, was a bigger affair with double seats in two rows facing forwards. Maybe there weren’t enough passengers to Battambang to warrant a bigger boat? But the passengers kept coming. Soon we had about 30 people on board, all squashed up facing each other, and three crew members. Our luggage was put at the front of the boat and covered with a tarp.

Our luggage on the old boat
Our luggage on the old boat

Then another nine passengers arrived. They were ushered onto the top of the boat. The roof of the boat was plywood and obviously not meant to have people on top. Also, it gets very hot at this time of year and they would be exposed to the elements all day, and there was no barrier to stop them falling off. But there don’t appear to be any occupational health and safety regulations regarding transport here and the boat insisted on taking off. By this time it was after 8am.

We drove a short distance, but every time someone moved the boat rocked dangerously. We would capsize for sure if we attempted the journey in this inadequate boat. The people on the top and at the front of the boat told the driver forcefully it was unsafe and that he had to go back and take a bigger boat. He must have been worried because he complied. I later read on TripAdvisor that once the small boat had attempted to leave with 60 passengers. Thankfully, they had also returned for a bigger boat.

Back at the boat terminal we transferred to a bigger more sturdy boat, like the one that went to Phnom Penh, grabbing the few life jackets from the other boat. These were used mainly as seat cushions to protect our backsides from the hard wooden seats. Our luggage was transferred to the top of the boat and tied on and we set off again. By this time it was 9am. We were already two hours late.

The old boat
The old boat
The boat to Phnom Penh, we changed to a boat like this
The boat to Phnom Penh, we changed to a boat like this

We chugged off along the river and into a big lake. About 9.30am the propeller got stuck and needed to be cleared of fishing nets, wire and weed. One of the crew had to jump in and hit the prop with a hammer. Unfortunately, he dropped the hammer and had to dive into the water and find it. I don’t know how he managed it in the brown murky water, but he did and we set off again. I glanced over at the crew member as he got dressed. He didn’t look very happy. Maybe he knew what lay ahead of us.

We travelled along the top of the lake, past a floating village, and into another river. From here the journey got more interesting as we passed close to more floating villages. Many of the homes were ramshackle places with the walls cobbled together with tin and wood, and tin or thatch for the rooves. Children waved at us as we passed and we saw people bathing, cleaning clothes, playing, fishing, and growing water weed in the river. It was a fascinating glimpse of life in this Venice of the east.

2015-03-06 11.00.36 2015-03-06 10.48.29

We had one 10 minute stop for refreshments at 1.30pm at a floating café. We bought a plate of curried veg and rice and wolfed that down just in time to get back on board. A young English guy told me he’d heard it was another five hours from here.

2015-03-06 15.42.54From then on, things deteriorated. The next stretch of river was very shallow and twisty. The boat continually got stuck in the mud and the driver had to rev the engine to get it out. Half the males on board stripped down to their undies and helped to push the boat out numerous times. At one point the guy in front of us, who had a GPS gadget, told us it had taken 15 minutes to travel one kilometre. He estimated that we were 50 kilometres from Battambang – at that rate we had another 12 hours to go. The crew were looking harassed. They had very little English so no one knew what was happening.

2015-03-06 12.57.26Thankfully, after a while the river deepened and we were able to travel faster. Then the engine overheated and one of the hoses on the engine blew off and sprayed boiling water. This continued to happen and one of the crew members was assigned to the back of the boat to watch it. We were sat two seats from the back so it was rather too close for comfort.

Later, we found out that one of the crew had been drinking and kept falling asleep at the wheel. A Danish guy had to keep prodding him to wake him up. I think he was driving the boat when the accident happened.

Just as it was getting dusk, about 6.30pm, the boat drove too close to a fish trap and a sharp bamboo pole hit the side of the boat and then rebounded into the boat and hit the young English guy in the eye. I heard the bang and a cry and looked across to see him covering his eyes with his head in his girlfriend’s lap. There was blood on his hands.

Thankfully, two guys on the boat were medically trained. They got him onto the ground between the rows of seats and cleaned around the eye and examined it. Everyone on board contributed first aid equipment and torches for the procedure. The boat had to be stopped momentarily to allow the doctor and patient to speak to each other as the noise of the engine was deafening. Then it was full steam ahead again. The crew organised for a tuk tuk to meet the boat at the next available landing point 40 minutes away to take the patient to a clinic.

It was now dark and another problem emerged. The boat had no lights. One crew member stood on the side with a torch looking out for hazards. We narrowly missed a canoe with a couple of kids in it, I don’t think the driver even realised. The mood of the boat was tense. Would the young man lose his sight? Would we make it to Battambang tonight? Alive?

The boat landed at the town with the clinic and the young man and his girlfriend were helped ashore. One of the doctors went with them to the clinic. Then we sped off towards Battambang. Thirty minutes later, at 7.50pm, we docked. I have never been so glad to get off a boat!

Our tuk tuk driver told us we were lucky, sometimes the boat didn’t arrive until midnight. The manager of the hotel said that wasn’t true but I looked on TripAdvisor and found that it has happened. Our story was not unusual.

So, am I glad I did it? Yes, it was certainly an experience. Would I do it again? Not in the dry season!

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6 thoughts on “The slow boat to Battambang

  1. Cate, what a story! You have amazing adventures and write so colorfully about them, and the pictures are wonderful! You make us feel like we are right there with you, only I am glad I wasn’t! Much better vicariously through your fun spirit!

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  2. Thanks, Mary. It was certainly a journey I won’t forget in a hurry. On the positive side, I wasn’t afraid of drowning as there was so little water in the river!

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  3. The bizarre thing is that, for you it’s a one-off adventure, but for the locals it’s just scheduled public transport!
    It’s great to hear that the world still contains crazy enough places for proper back-packing adventures!
    BTW, I start a new job on Monday.

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    • There weren’t many locals on the boat, Pete! And, yes, there are still plenty of adventures to be had in the world for people who are willing to get out of their comfort zone.
      Good luck with the new job.

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