There are two ways to get from Battambang, Cambodia to Siem Reap. The bus through Sisophon takes about three hours and costs $5.50. The boat along the Sangker River takes seven to nine hours, costs twenty dollars, and requires a five dollar tuk-tuk ride from its remote dock into town. A simple cost-benefit analysis favors the bus. But that would be a mistake, because the boat ride from Battambang to Siem Reap is a memorable journey.
The boat is scheduled to leave every morning at 7:00 a.m. from the dock near the Pharmacy along Route 156, just north of Battambang’s Route 5 bridge. It never does. My daughter Abby, who lives in Cambodia, took the boat in October, when water levels were high, yet passengers were bussed downstream and didn’t embark until 8:30 a.m. We took the trip together in mid-December, and despite reduced water levels, the boat left from town by 7:20 a.m.
Many Battambang hotels and restaurants sell boat tickets, but often charge $1 to $5 more than the $20 fare. We bought tickets dockside a day in advance when we were strolling along the river, but tickets can be purchased the morning of the trip. No matter how crowded the vessel, Cambodian’s never turn away a paying customer.
The boat is about forty feet long by ten feet wide with a metal canopy roof. There are three areas to sit. Below board, doublewide benches line each side of a center aisle. Forward seats are preferred since the rear engine is very loud and the adjacent potty is odorous. A few people squat on the open bow. But the best seats are on the roof, away from the noise and in the breeze.
Cambodia was unseasonably cool last December, but Abby and I climbed on top and claimed a choice spot where the roof cants up to clear the engine below, thus creating a backrest. We were cold for the first hour, but once the weather turned warm we had the best perch.
Leaving Battambang, the Sangker River (also spelled Stung Sangke) is well defined. In December the houses on stilts sit high above the water, but the remains of structures washed out in rainy season litter both banks. Houseboats with canvas covers resembling covered wagons float near the shore.
The vessel is advertised as the fast boat to Siem Reap, but it’s not fast at all. The boat stops often to pick up passengers or drop off packages. It’s the lifeline of the river dwellers. As we approach a hamlet, the captain horns a loud bellow, announcing a delivery. The boat slows and then treads water while a local paddles out to retrieve their sack of rice or vegetables.
Elegant banyan trees define river bends; the banks gradually diminish, until dry land sits mere inches above the water’s surface. Houses on stilts give way to tents that local citizens pitch along the river and relocate as water levels change. Some houseboats are attached to fantastic bamboo fishing derricks that lower giant nets into the shallows.
We stopped for snacks at Prey Chas. Back on board, every structure downstream hovered above the water. Each house had stairs that descended to floating docks and canoes. It was warm by now. We shed our sweatshirts and applied sunscreen; many other passengers joined us on the roof.
At one point the channel ran through a dense stand of trees; we all laid flat to avoid getting struck by the branches. Abby couldn’t remember that portion of the river, until she realized that in October she floated above the thicket. Within two months the water level had dropped many feet.
It took hours for the river merge with the open waters of Tonle Sap Lake. Banks receded to swamp and then to marsh, partially submerged trees testified that land was not far below. The rooftop passengers grew chatty. We met folks from Australia, Germany and Britain. Cambodian passengers remained below, except for a small boy who entertained everyone with his antics.
The final hour across Tonle Sap Lake was like crossing a watery desert. The horizon was so flat and the sky so vast. Tiny images appeared blurry in the distance; fishing boats shimmered, elusive as the sleek fish they sought to catch.
A singular hill appeared to the north. Abby announced, We are entering the insanity that is Siem Reap; folks who live in Cambodia don’t relish this giant tourist town. Before we even docked, hungry salesmen hawking tuk-tuk rides jumped aboard and glued themselves to potential fares. Ten dollars, eight dollars, six dollars. Abby spooked them by replying in Khmer. We fetched a ride to our hotel for five bucks. The peace and reverie of the river was behind us, but not forgotten.
Along the banks outside of Battambang
The boat docks for a break.
Navigating between trees.
Arriving on Tonle Sap – the hill to the left marks the distant shore and Siem Reap.