Battambang Boat trip from hell
Jan 8, 2016
|Wow, we seem to be accumulating quite a few crazy transportation stories. Here's why I am pissed off at Lonely Planet right now.....
So LP says that the boat trip from Siem Reap to Battambang is a must see, must do in Cambodia. We asked our hotel and our buddy there said that the water level is fine for the trip (and he could just as easily sold us bus tickets, so I don't think he intentionally deceived us, he just didn't know). We'll see if you think the water level was fine...
Of course, it was pouring rain. After a LONG ride on a sandy, muddy road to get far enough downstream to where the boats could go, we arrived at a boat made for at most 40 people. Forty tiny Cambodian people, not oversized foreign tourists. Over the next two hours, they kept cramming more and more people on board, over 50 people total, so many that not everyone had a seat (and each tiny seat for 2 only had 1 lifejacket on it), AND everyone's massive luggage. The boat was totally overloaded. I couldn't understand why it was so full when just the day before we had taken a lovely boat trip to fascinating Kompong Pluk, a village on stilts due to the massive flooding during the rainy season. As soon as tourists arrived there, same-sized boats whisked them away in groups as little as two people a boat, which I thought was horribly unhealthy for the environment and not cost-effective either. So why didn't they at least use two of those boats for this long and dangerous trip??
We left at 10 (we were supposed to leave at 7:30) and headed across Lake Tonle Sap where the engine overheated. It was rainy so the sides were down and still water leaked in, threatening to ruin our bagged electronics. Smoke puffed out of the back of the boat and we had to stop in the middle of the lake to cool it down. Eventually it was deemed adequate and we carried on.
Then the fun really started.
We headed upstream from the lake on a small river. The rain let up enough for us to put the sides up, and it was oh so cute to see the houses on stilts, floating villages, women selling all kinds of foods off their flat-bottomed boats, kids taking each other school, etc. Watching the river life was definitely a highlight but with the low water levels, all the nasty garbage was obvious on the river banks. This river rivaled the Ganges in terms of filth. The trip quickly became a nightmare when our boat ran aground. Fran stripped and joined the men to push the boat off the banks. Our captain, totally stressed, got all the passengers off the top of the boat (too tippy) and had us shift to the front and the back as needed as he and his helper pushed the boat around with a bamboo pole. The boat ran aground again. Meanwhile, I'm freaking out as I'm holding the laptop and bagged electronics as the boat is tipping to one side and the other, threatening to dump all of us and everything Fran and I own into the filthy water. I started looking around the banks to see if there was a road and hence, another way to get to Battambang.
Then we heard a loud noise and the captain emerged a couple minutes later with the propeller in his hands. You know its a bad sign when that happens. However, as luck would have it, he had a spare which he managed to install after about 20 minutes tipping around some more in the muddy water. I asked Fran, at what point did they finally stop running this damn river trip? When the boat becomes so stuck that they just leave it there until the rainy season?
We finally made it; the trip was supposed to take 5 hours and get in around 2. It really took almost 9 very stressful hours and got into Battambang around 7, well after dark.
We later talked to another couple that took the boat the next day. Sure enough, they started with about half the number of people, and then when they got to the lake, they further divided them into smaller groups (and smaller boats). What no smoking engine? Nope. No running aground? Nope. No on the spot propeller replacement? Nope. I'm sure that after our trip, the captain refused to run it again. So I got my question answered. We were the last big group of the season that they let down that damn river.
The rest of Battambang was quite relaxing by comparison. We had fun riding the "bamboo train," an easily portable method of transporting goods on the rails. We loved watching a circus show at Phare, an organization that helps orphans to gain skills for employment. We also tried to see a winery but it was closed due to a wedding. The wine gods probably figured that tasting Cambodian wine was not a good thing, especially after the ill-fated boat trip. The best part of our stay was at an airbnb, Choco L'art Cafe, run by a former Phare member and very talented artist (Ke), and his French girlfriend and cook extraordinaire (Soline). They were wonderful hosts, our room was great, and I'm embarrassed to say, we did not eat anywhere else in the town. Their blue cheese, crepes, exquisite desserts, and wine and mixed drinks were all soo good we just never could convince ourselves to leave! Not to mention we were joined nightly by adorable frogs; we nick-named one Lint due to some fuzz he picked up from under the couch. (That's a little shout-out to friends Hef and Bruce.) So the one advantage of the boat trip was that it brought us to Ke and Soline.