There are two ways to get to Battambang from Siem Reap: 1) bus on reliable roads, 5 to 6 hours or 2) boat on less than reliable waterways, 5 to 10 hours. We chose the boat option, having read that the journey along Tonle Sap Lake is the best water trip in Cambodia, where beautiful scenery and active floating villages accompany you most of the way.
The night before we took the boat, Dan received an email from a friend who had taken the same journey a year ago with her mother. From the email, we gathered that the highlights of their trip included arriving to an already overloaded boat, numerous breakdowns along the way, including one where the crew took the motor apart on the roof of the boat. Her mother saved the day, pulling out a full-sized monkey wrench out of her daypack, which was apparently just what was needed to repair the motor. They made it, eventually.
We were picked up at 6 AM at our guesthouse. The driver arrived with a pick-up truck already brimming with people and luggage, and managed to squeeze us and three others, and our luggage somewhere on the tail end of the sagging truck. All good, we thought, until another stop where four others waited. The driver insisted they join the back of the truck. He motioned as if to say “no problem” but these folks were sensible and and hailed a taxi to follow the truck to the pier instead.
The pier is located on the outskirts of Siem Reap, past fishing villages and tucked away in an inlet. The smell in the villages leading up to the dock was pungent, like poverty and rotten fish stewed to the point of putrefaction. Anyone familiar with the movie Silence of the Lambs remembers the scene with the body in the morgue. As the body bag gets pulled away, the characters swoon at the stench. This was one of those moments, but we had to endure it without the aid of smelling salts. This was a bit more than most of us could take at 6 AM. We couldn't imagine living in it full time, filling our lungs with the smell of death.
Boarding the boat was nothing exceptional, for us. We were one of the first trucks to arrive at the pier, so seats inside were plentiful. Others were relegated to the top deck to bake in the sun. And while we appreciated the shelter from the sun, our bums were quickly aching from the hard benches even curiously harder cushions.
The reason everyone takes the boat is to see the many floating villages and communities on the Tonle Sap lake near Siem Reap, complete with electricity, TV, schools and churches. People get around everywhere by boat, with boats carrying kids to school, selling breakfast soups and all manner of goods. We saw floating churches, but the Buddhist temples always always seemed to be securely fixed on land.
A large number of ethnic Vietnamese also live here. Many came to Cambodia after 1979 when the Vietnamese helped overthrow the Khmer Rouge. We were told that since they are not full Cambodians, they can't own land. As a result, they build their homes and businesses at the margin – in this case, the water.
Since we were traveling in the dry season (February), the water level in the river wasn't high enough to allow us to make the entire trip to Battambang by boat. Eventually, the longtail motor, apparently accustomed to turning heavy mud, became bogged down with trees and water weeds. After eight hours on the boat, 20+ of us got in the back of a pick-up truck for the remainder of the journey, some 90 minutes over washed out ruts passing as roads. Our driver managed an impressive, yet bouncy ride through steep craters and pits. Burdened with loosely strapped bags and weary passengers, our truck listed heavily sideways, testing its rollover tolerance with each obstacle. Our asses were sore and we were alien-like, covered in brown dust. But our truck didn't tip over and we eventually arrived in Battambang…and were thrilled to do so in one piece.