Slow Boat to Siem Reap

20 12 2008

Sangker River, Cambodia

Despite what you may think, we didn’t really have any desire to go to Siem Reap. We knew that the temples of Angkor were supposed to be one of the most amazing sites on earth, but whenever we thought of those temples the images always included hordes of tourists. After traveling for so long we have become strongly averse to hordes of tourists and generally try to avoid them. So when we decided that we wanted to go to Cambodia, our plan specifically excluded Siem Reap. Another reason that I didn’t want to go there is because I heard that the 4+ hour bus ride was full of bone-jarringly bad roads and that the only alternative route was by boat. A boat that safely holds 50 people and was routinely packed with 75. But one day we were chatting with our hotel owner in Battambang and he was saying that Cambodia and specifically the temples in Angkor were losing thousands of tourists a day due to the Bangkok airport being closed. He said that last week the boat to Siem Reap had only 25 people on it. When I expressed my apprehension about boats in Southeast Asia having a bad reputation when it came to floating, he laughed and said that the water was only about 5 ft deep and the most I would have to worry about would be water quality. And so we changed our plans.

At the lovely hour of 6:40am, a minibus came to collect us at the Hotel Royal for the 7am boat trip. The quick drive dropped us at the river’s edge and we walked down the steep steps with all of the other farangs and boarded the boat. I had read in advance that the seats in the bottom part of the ship was the way to go and that sitting on the rooftop, while fun, was notoriously unsafe and guaranteed sunburn from the strong Cambodian sun. About 10 minutes into the trip I reasoned that the sun wasn’t that strong this early in the morning and that if the boat did tip over we’d have a better chance of jumping off the roof than attempting to climb over people and out the window. We had to dive into our bags and pull out our long sleeves because, despite the warm weather, the boat moves at enough of a clip that rooftop passengers receive a steady cool breeze.

Riding the roof on the Sangker River

Riding the roof on the Sangker River

Our friend Monika had told us that the boat between Battambang and Siem Reap was really beautiful, so we pictured lovely countryside and pretty rice patties. What we did not expect to see was a whole different way of life with stilted houses and houseboats in the middle of a village surrounded by miles of marsh land, hours from any city, and completely enveloped by water. The types of villages alternated as we went further down the river. Sometimes there would be houseboats adrift on bamboo rafts with woven banana leaf walls. One village had houseboats with huge bamboo cranes attached to gigantic fishing nets. Other villages were made of tall stilted houses with steps that went deep into the water for times of low tide. Some of these houses were thatched and simple. Others can only be describes as concrete mansions worthy of a movie star…in the middle of nowhere…on a river…on stilts. I had no idea that something like that could be made.

All along the river we would wave and shout hello to the screaming children who seemed thrilled to have the opportunity to wave at the white people on the big boat. Gage and I wondered what their childhood must be like. To grow up without a yard to run in or firm land under your feet. To never see a multistory building or a car. Six year old kids in school uniforms would paddle by us on boats ten times their size. All of them would ogle us in the same way we did them; how the heck do you live? The answer appeared to be, much the same as you do. Plenty of houses had sleepy dogs on their front porch. One house boat even had a little cage in which they kept a pig and some ducks – river farm animals. When the boat stopped at the local store/restaurant Gage saw Pringles, ramen noodles, bottled water, a TV, a nice stereo, even mosquito repellent. He asked where the bathroom was and they directed him to a little outhouse in the back. When he opened the door he saw that it was a ‘squat toilet’ with a hole in the bottom which opened directly into the river. On his way back to the boat he said that he looked at all of the people eating their various meals and wondered what water they used to cook and clean the dishes. I was glad we had packed snacks.

Thanks to the beautiful scenery, the 7 hour ride went pretty fast. However there were a few times when the journey couldn’t end soon enough. At least three times the boat turned down tiny alleys between thick marsh, barely big enough to fit the boat. The driver would honk the horn to warn any other boats of our presence. If we ever did encounter a fisherman (which thankfully we didn’t) I have no doubt but what we would have either run him over or tangled him in the water reeds of the marsh brush. My research into this trip told me of at least one incident where the boat got stuck in one of these alleys and they had to wait hours for rescue. Every time the boat came to an opening and slowed to a stop, the driver would kick the motor in reverse and several pounds of water plants that had become tangled in our propeller would dislodge themselves in large chunks and float away. Towards the end of the journey the boat started to travel with a very pronounced lean. While Gage and I struggled not to slide off our seats, it seemed that everyone else just leaned a little more to the right and said nothing…for 45 minutes. At the point that I was convinced the boat would flip over and Gage and I were discussing our exit strategy, the boat righted itself and within minutes we were across the great Tonle Sap lake and at the Siem Reap dock.

For more pictures from the Sangker River trip, click here.


  • Rumor has it that the food at the water village restaurant isn’t very good (and of questionably quality) so stop by the local market before the boat trip and pack some snacks.
  • Bring water. There’s a bathroom on the boat, though it’s not for the squeamish.
  • Apparently the boat from Siem Reap to Battambang leaves later in the day, so the sun is down by the time you reach Battambang and you miss a lot of scenery. If you can swing it, it’s better to take the boat from Battambang to Siem Reap.We bought our tickets from Hotel Royal and they cost $16 each including transportation to the dock from the hotel. Their rooftop restaurant can pack up a breakfast sandwich too, so you have something to eat on the boat.
  • Wear sunblock. Do not underestimate the power of the Cambodian sun.
  • Try to book a hotel in advance that gives you a free pickup. The moto drivers at the Siem Reap dock can only be described as scary. They literally jumped on the boat before it was docked and started plying people for a ride.



2 responses

20 12 2008

Sounds like Toto wouldn’t have had any problem figuring out that he wasn’t in Kansas anymore on that boat trip from Battambang to Siem Reap.

21 12 2008

Great to hear from you! I was getting a little worried. Thanks for “taking me along” on your boat ride, although I have to admit, I’m glad to have read about it rather than experiencing it first hand. I’m a wimp. 🙂 Look forward to your experience in Siem Reap!

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