With the exception of walking, cycling, hitchhiking or driving yourself, there are two ways to go from Siem Reap to Battambang.
1. You can take the air conditioned bus for $7 and arrive about 4 hours later
2. You can take the Angkor Express “boat” for $25 and arrive between 6 and 10 hours later
I chose option #2.
It wasn’t an easy choice. I liked the option that saved me $18, but something about the boat being referred to as “not safe by international standards” sounded perfect. Despite the Cambodian hotel employees blinking at me in confusion when I told them I preferred the boat, I shelled out the money and at 730am I was throwing my backpack on the roof of a boat to be shoved in a corner in the back with a tarp over it for the next 6-10 hours.
The boat is about 35 feet long, with two benches along each side which ensures that everyone gets to be near the outside. There are no actual glass windows, so when we set off the cool morning air was blowing around and everyone was happy. Looking back, the feeling shared by everyone on the boat was probably similar to that of starting to run a marathon you haven’t prepared for. During the first mile you think “Well, this isn’t hard at all! I must be in great shape!” At mile 3 you realize how stupid you really are.
But, to start, everything was gorgeous. It was a cool morning with a nice breeze and I had 6-10 hours on the open water ahead of me.
I had read that the benches (if you get a seat at all) are very hard and to bring something soft to sit on. I luckily got a seat near the front, away from the engine, and asked a German woman if I could have one of the two life jackets she had unfairly claimed. She tossed it over and it became my seat cushion.
The journey on the Angkor Express begins on the Tonle Sap River outside Siem Reap which ultimately lets out into the Tonle Sap Lake. The lake is full of fish and is hugely important to the people who use it as their source of food and income. The best part of the trip (and the reason why I chose to take the boat) are the tons of villages located on the banks of the river from Siem Reap all the way to Battambang. When the boat hit the lake, about 20 minutes into the trip, there were fisherman in small boats doing all sorts of things with their nets. At this time of morning the air is still quite hazy and in both directions it’s impossible to see where the lake ends and the sky starts. I mean that in a literal way and not in a prose-y, literary way. Just want to be clear about that.
After the lake, the boat spends the rest of the journey on the river to Battambang.
One of the things I like about Cambodia is that virtually nothing is set up for travelers only. I worried that the boat would be full of backpackers and while there was a good number of people like me, we also stopped frequently at the beginning to let Cambodians on the boat. There are no scheduled stops for people going from one village to another. Instead, when the boat enters a floating village the driver (I just can’t call him a Captain) sounds the horn and those in need of a lift have someone paddle them out to the boat and on board they come! If you haven’t watched a Cambodian woman dressed for traveling (pants, nice shoes, actual suitcase) get off of a small local wooden boat and onto a slightly larger boat in the middle of a river, you haven’t lived a life on the seas!
The more Cambodians we took on, the less seats there were and people went to the roof. If the fact that there were only enough life jackets for about 2/3rds of the passengers didn’t make me question the measures taken to ensure safety, the complete lack of any railings on the roof certainly did. Not only did the roof lack railings, but in order to actually get onto the roof, you needed to be pulled up by someone who had already jumped from the inside of the boat to the top. Luckily I was something like number 10 to get up and I was helped by a nice woman who spent the entirety of the trip on the roof and got off in Battambang looking like a plum.
The view from the roof was worth possibly falling into the Tonle Sap River and being left to forge a life with the locals. In addition to floating villages, the boat travels between all sorts of areas where fisherman have set up their own system – from setting up nets with markers to indicate where their section begins and ends to gigantic nets shaped like funnels that are lowered into and lifted out of the water. Despite a (lazy) internet search, I can’t tell you what these are called. If you know, please teach me.
After about 4 hours, the cool breeze stopped and it felt more like someone was blowing a fan through a heater. Those on the roof had lost out on a seat inside, which was just as well since being inside felt a bit like sitting inside the trunk of a car on the hottest day in July you can imagine. Up on the roof was far better since the boat’s movement brought a nice breeze. The roof was mostly flat, but had no rails. It’s a good thing our boat was probably the largest because any sort of wake would have sent a few Germans on their gap year off the roof and into the river.
Unfortunately, the dry season makes for a bit of an arduous trip on a river. The first time we ran aground the driver’s friend (the skipper?) grabbed a giant bamboo pole and helped push us out of the muck. The second time the driver pushed the engine so hard that a tube detached. If you click here you’ll be brought to a video of the boat being un-run-aground.
The third and fourth time became less interesting so I can’t really recall what happened. Only once did I wonder who would pick us up (and in what) to take us to Battambang. I think that’s pretty good for a boat that’s “not considered safe by international standards,” with fewer-than-necessary life jackets.
Around the time that I thought I might just wade the rest of the way into town, we spotted a bridge and realized Battambang was just ahead. About 8 hours later, we pulled over to a bank of the river and tuk-tuk drivers pushed each other over to be first to offer passengers a ride to the hostel that would pay them commission.
The more ambitious ones jumped feet first through the sides of the boat.
I got out, got my bag and found one that had just woken up from a nap. I liked his casual “manana” attitude. Turned out to be a great choice as the following day he took myself and a new hostel friend all around town. More on that later.
For now, let me be clear: I really did like the boat. The heat and the hardness of the seats and the errant tube were all part of the adventure. Now that I’ve done it, I’m not sure I’d do it again, but my advice to you is to take the boat. The bus is easy and the boat views are pretty great. NOTE: As I sit writing this I’ve just arrived in Phnom Penh on a bus and I’d like to amend this by saying the bus is most definitely not guaranteed to be easy. Despite a nice woman who offered to share her corn on the cob with me, this bus ride was harrowing.
More on that later also. More on that here!
Here’s how to recreate my experience:
- You can buy a boat ticket at most hostels, hotels and guest houses throughout Siem Reap (except the Angkor Orchid, apparently, which is where I stayed.) You can also buy them at tour storefronts throughout the Psa Cha (Old Market) area. Make sure you’re not paying more than $23. You may even be able to get it for cheaper than that. I noticed that if you google the “Angkor Express” at least one website comes up that allows you to buy the ticket online for $25. Seems unnecessary (during the dry season, at least) so you’re better off just buying it a day or two in advance if you can plan that far ahead. I bought mine around 8pm for the next morning.
- Sit near the front, the back is loud.
- Remember that if you’re sitting on the roof, you’ll lose out on a seat once local Cambodians begin to board. I recommend forging your place inside at the start of the ride and then moving to the top once it’s clear to everyone that the area you’ve chosen is yours. This might not work for everyone, but it worked for my trip.
- There’s one stop along the way and you’ll be able to buy water, snacks or even sit for a bowl of noodle soup prepared by the woman who owns the floating store.
- Things I’m glad I packed: crackers, water, a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and my Garmin. I haven’t downloaded the mapped route from my watch yet, but when I do you’ll be the first(s) to see it! (NOTE: The downloader thing is packed in a box in Brooklyn, so don’t get too antsy on this one)
- Things I wish I’d brought: A cheap market pillow. The life-jacket became much less luxurious from hour two, onward.
- NOTE: Based on pictures I’ve seen, there are a few different types of boats that make this trip. The other boats have seats set up more traditionally in rows. ALSO, you can make the trip from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh as well and those boats might be less crowded. I’m not basing this on anything I know as fact though, so check that out beforehand.