Taking the scenic express boat across Tonle Sap Lake during monsoon season
31.08.2011 - 31.08.2011 31 °C
Siem Reap to Battambang, Cambodia
Picked up at 0615 in a large minibus we were soon heading back to Tonle Sap lake to catch the ‘express’ boat to Battambang. Or at least that is what we had hoped for when we boarded the bus. For the next half and a half we toured the guesthouses and hotels of Siem Reap picking up a variety of strange looking passengers who would be joining us on our six hour boat ride. There were the obvious long term travelers (like ourselves) but with henna tattoos and braided hair. The 2+2 family out for two weeks of adventure travel in Cambodia with their brand new walking boots and Columbia shirts and the couple from Luxembourg (well they had flown Luxair recently!) both dressed smartly, his wife wearing pearl earrings! A veritable mélange of wanderlust travelers.
The early morning tour around Siem Reap, however, offered us a final opportunity to say goodbye to a city we had so enjoyed visiting. Neither of us felt it would be long before we returned.
Following the same route south to the Lake that we had a few days previous we were soon boarding the small, wooden boat that would take us across Tonle Sap Lake, passed the floating villages and up the Stung Battambang river. The early part of our journey would follow the path of the tour boats we had elected not to ride a few days earlier, which was nice.
Reading reviews of the journey on line, before booking, the boat is renowned, for hard wooden seats, a noisy engine and frequent breakdowns. At least we got lucky on the wooden seats, ours had some padding. Pushing back from the dock we had barely started our engine before the crew realized that the wire rope steering linkage had sheered. As we drifted towards a row of moored boats no one seemed too concerned. Gently bumping into them, no more than 50ft from the dock our driver was soon stripped down and jumping into the Lake to fix the problem.
With the rate that the breakage was fixed we assumed that this was a common problem. The day was to prove that assumption correct. With our steering mechanism fixed we were soon onto the Lake. Sat next to the engine the noise put on end to all but essential conversation. Exposed to the air to aid with cooling the cacophony and volume of sound was somewhat intense.
In a short time we were speeding passed stilted houses on the edge of the lake. As we progressed across the Lake these morphed into floating houses, schools and shops, able to move, vagabond like, around the Lake as the season and associated water levels required. Travelling in August the Lake was at least some 6ft over its ‘normal’ level. As we reached the far side of the Lake the shoreline was barely discernible. Bamboo huts consumed by the water and large deciduous trees gallantly pushing their upper branches through the swollen waters of the Lake all emphasized that we were passing over rice fields rather than a typical Lake or river. At times, as we entered the river system the usual path of the river could be discerned by the still visible tops of trees, lining its banks. Yet, with the banks consumed by water we typically left the path of the river to head in straight lines to accelerate our journey. Using compass navigation points, rather than following the river, allowed a typical journey of ten hours during the dry season to be completed in 6 hours typically.
Yet, moving away from the course of the river frequently took us into areas of thick vegetation. Initially, attractive green blankets of water hyacinths and lotus flowers blocked our way. Yet, with sufficient power from the engine we were able to push through, leaving a trail of chopped plant debris behind as our long tail propeller cut through the mass of floating vegetation. Infrequently, the prop would be jammed by an excess of plant matter but this was soon cleared.
Watching village life, unchanged for many years small, naked children would shout loudly for our attention. Waving frantically, offering us loud greetings a returned wave was typically met with shrieks of hysterical laughter or even louder shouts of ‘Hello’. This was a scene that was to be repeated at every village we passed en route to Battambang. Parents encouraging their small children to look at the strange western people passing by. In some villages we slowed to allow small canoes to ferry local passengers to the boat. If seats below deck were not available they would sit on the roof, happy I guess to be travelling to Battambang under diesel power, rather than their own.
Progressing up the river, towards Battambang, the wetland soon morphed into water consumed shrubs and small trees. Clear paths, no wider than our boat, formed narrow corridors for the various canoes and powered boats of the lakes. For our relatively large boat they were extremely narrow. Even with the thick red silk sides of the boat fastened down branches, leaves and a variety of insects were flung, whipped and snapped against the side of the boat. At times complete branches inundated the boat violently whipping any passenger not able to duck in time. For over an hour we tried to dodge being whipped by branches whilst simultaneously avoiding the relatively limited oncoming river traffic. A number of times our wire rope steering mechanism broke causing us to crash at a variety of speeds into the surrounding wall of shrubs and trees. Yet this seemed of no concern to the crew. Certainly, this was no more than a daily occurrence.
Our boat makes the journey from Siem Reap to Battambang each day, returning the following. A second boat, that we passed during our journey, makes the correspondent journey every other day – providing a daily service. Later we were told that whilst the other boat does not breakdown as frequently it does have hard wooden seats. After 7 hours (including breakdowns) our bottoms was thankful for the small amount of padding provided.
From what we could surmise our crew lived and slept on the boat. Rolled up bamboo mats for sleeping and a small bucket of live Amok fish for eating were travelling with us. A strange life for them with family, presumably, only seen every other night. Yet with a nearly full boat I would guess it is a profitable life or at least it is for whoever owns the boat.
As we approached Battambang it was clear that comments about this being one of the most scenic boat rides in Asia were apposite. Floating villages, wetland vegetation and the of course the knowledge that we might breakdown at any moment had allowed the trip to pass both quickly and pleasantly.
Disembarking the boat some six miles short of Battambang, due to the high water levels, we were not, however, sad to leave the thunderous booming of the uncovered engine. Ears ringing we boarded a tuk-tuk bound for our hotel and the city of Battambang.
With little daylight left to explore we spent the early evening wondering along the river. Golden stuphas rose sporadically alongside the brown, fast flowing water of the Stung Battambang river. The centre of the city proffered some excellent colonial French architecture, along with a narrow grid system of backstreets to explore. Yet, within the city there are a limited number of ‘must-see’ tourist sights. Happy that we had seen some of the city we settled for an inviting French restaurant for supper. With the city generally deserted of tourists, due to the monsoons, we had no difficulty securing a table and enjoying a little western food.
A brief walk returned us to our excellent hotel, on the east side of the river. Tomorrow would see us exploring more of the countryside around Battambang.