Boat to Siem Reap

From Battambang there are two ways to Siem Reap, the legendarily horrific road or the remarkably beautiful river. We opted for scenery over death-defying adventure this time.

The boat to Siem Reap can take anywhere from five to ten hours depending on the water level – our trip took around seven. We left as the sun was coming up, casting a glow on everything and beaming through early-morning smoke from fire pits, shining through holes in the bank-side canopies and slowly warming away the chill of the morning.

Our boat was a two-story long tail. We chose the roof in hopes of a better view, extra legroom and some sun. In the beginning the river is wide although choked with fishing boats and their nets. Villagers lined the shores, bathing, doing their wash or just coming to see what all the fuss was about.

The villages we passed were simple communities of stilt-built shacks, most seemingly just one room and a porch. Large families spilled out of the meticulously kept huts as we chugged upstream.
Brightly colored laundry hung from every surface and very young smiling children expertly jumped from boat to boat to get a closer glimpse of us. I wondered about those children whose feet very well may have never touched solid ground, having been raised in floating villages. Monks in saffron robes shaded by saffron umbrellas floated by in dugouts collecting their morning offerings. Dogs barked at us from porches and we couldn’t help but wonder what a dog does for fun in a floating village? Swim I suppose.

Some towns along the river were built on stilts complete with stilted Wats (temples) and schools, but more frequently they were a hodgepodge of floating structures.

The homes in the floating towns varied from nice multi-level long tails like the one we were on, to bamboo rafts with lean-tos that looked straight out of Mad Max. Men fished, women cooked on charcoal grills or did laundry in the river, children ran around, old men played checkers and old women gossiped while mending clothes or tending to babies – life looked to me to be very simple and deliberate in these towns.
I was so engrossed in photographing the scenes that I hardly noticed the left turn we took. Some bent twig or scrap of red cloth tied to a tree must have signaled the maneuver but none of us saw it coming. We left the wide slow-moving river and began a few hours of narrow channel passages. Our driver sped up so as to not get bogged down or choked in by the too-narrow channel. Tree branches threatened decapitation or at least stern lashing and many poor souls near the front of the boat fell victim to a hanging nest of fire ants we took out during our trip.
We stopped about midway at a floating shack/restaurant. The water closet consisted of three half-height walls, a swinging door and hole in the floor that opened directly over the river. We bought a soda thought better of eating the fish lunch based on the proximity to the ‘toilet’ and settled back onto the roof of the boat which by now was an Easy-Bake Oven.
Near the end of the trip we passed through a bird estuary and saw many beautifully colored and elegantly soaring birds. After the birds we entered into a floating forest. Large trees towered over us and made a maze of a course for our boat to navigate. When we arrived at the marina a hoard, an actual hoard, of tuk tuk drivers was waiting. Our boat driver toyed with them a bit, pretending like he was going to dock in an early slot, only to pull back and speed on upstream to another spot. The hoard fired up their bikes and began a roman chariot-like race to the newly established docking point.
Nick our driver in Battambang had called ahead and arranged for a tuk tuk to meet us. We arrived to Mr. Ocean holding up a sign welcoming Mr/Ms Robert – Seems Nick confused us for related, most likely he too thought I was Jason’s mom, hence the same last name. As always Jason found this immensely amusing and I started mentally justifying various types of plastic surgery.

We checked into our pre-booked ‘boutique hotel’, which disappointingly was really just a run-down old guesthouse with a fresh coat of paint in the lobby, and agreed that the next day would be a rest day. Sure there were temples to be seen, but their draw was nothing compared to the lure of sleeping in past seven and finding a decent latte when I finally did decide to get up. We ventured out for dinner and managed to stumble onto a European bistro complete with real German sausages, rachlette and fine French wines all for damn near free. I think I am going to really like Siem Reap.


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