The majority of travelers in Cambodia travel by bus between the major cities; it is cheap and reliable. But not as much fun as a day spend on the Tonle Sap River, traveling between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap by boat. Having read several other reviews of the trip we went in expecting it to be mostly sketchy and we were not disappointed. We also expected to have a great time on the ride. That most definitely happened, too.
The boat departs relatively early and, unlike the buses, there is but one a day. We booked in advance (~$35/person) through our hotel and made our way to the dock for the departure after wolfing down half a breakfast; the early departure is especially early when jetlagged and the hotel breakfast doesn’t open early enough. We checked in quickly and headed down the ramp to the boat to discover we were some of the last passengers to arrive for the day’s ride. This gave us few options for seating – most the outdoor spots were taken and those same passengers had stuff on seats inside as well. We ended up sitting near the back inside and standing when outside, frequently shifting between the two locations to minimize sunburn potential on the first full day of our trip. Not ideal, perhaps, but also not awful.
The ship was an interesting experience, mostly for the mix of facilities it did and did not offer. There is plenty of air conditioning on board, for example, assuming you sit towards the front of the cabin. There is a conspicuous lack of safety railings on deck, making for entertaining scenarios when moving about as the boat is cruising up-river. It also provides a feeling of something more “real” as there is definitely potential to slip and fall off the boat. Oopsie.
The first couple hour of the trip involve river time, with the banks close in and many locals out fishing. The sun is also not quite as high in the sky, making for a more comfortable ride, in addition to having the distractions of the locals smiling and waving every few minutes as we tourists plowed through.
As the day wears on the boat gets into the Tonle Sap lake and the shoreline recedes from view. This is also the point in the trip where you’re likely starting to get hungry and wondering just how much longer it will take. And when the cell service fades out as you’re no longer so close to shore. Solving the connectivity problem is easy: put your phone away.
The food problem is more challenging. While one of the mates did walk through a couple times offering cold beer ($2 each, a 3x premium over typical prices but still cheap given the setting) there is no food on offer during the ride. For most travelers this should not be a problem; there are plenty of opportunities to purchase food in advance at either end of the trip. For us it was more challenging. We arrived at 9pm the prior night and were on the boat by 7:30am meaning scant time for grocery shopping. Fortunately we had a stash of granola bars and such to tide us over until we got into town, but that was a logistical miss on our part for the trip.
Eventually the boat finishes its crossing of Tonle Sap lake and the engines give up some of their power for the sake of navigating the shallow inlet at the Siem Reap end of the trip. Sure, you think you’ve finally made it but there is an extra 30 minutes or so of cruising through the muddy waters to finally arrive at the dock where the cacophony of life in Cambodia returns, with vendors anxious to sell you a trip into town, including our pre-booked tuk tuk driver who insisted that the pre-payment we made in Phnom Penh was just a “reservation fee” which he did not receive and that we had to pay him separately for the ride to our hotel. There was the woman selling bottled water who tried to short us $7 in change on the transaction by mixing currencies (Cambodia uses US Dollars and its native riels interchangeably at a fixed rate and doing the math quickly can be challenging). And, eventually, there was the relaxed 30 minutes in the back of the tuk tuk through beautiful countryside as we finally pulled into Siem Reap some 7 hours or so after leaving Phnom Penh.
The boat was absolutely the right way for us to make the trip. The steady hum of the engines was soothing and the ability to get up and walk around, to move between inside and out was spectacular. Plus, being on the water is nearly always better than being in a car or bus. And even with the couple minor hiccups in the process we had a spectacular time. Maybe a smidgen slower than a bus and fewer frequencies, but also a great way to spend a day, relaxing in the outdoors.
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