How to ferry from Siem Reap to Battambang, Cambodia blog post. This is a quick overview of logistical requirements, maps and facts as well as links to photos and videos. This is a self-guided cultural experience on a shoestring. Follow the links to dig deeper into the article.
When getting on the ferry we were approached by two guys pitching guest houses in Battambang (Royal & Chaya). When we eventually arrived we were herded to one of these two GH vans. Escaping their clutches was pretty much impossible. At this stage we were also offered a flyer from the Bus Stop GH & Bar, which offered free Wi-Fi, 50 cent beer, $10-$25 rooms, and western-only food (but no pickup service). We opted for the Royal ($3-$25 rooms), figuring we could easily reject the GH and then shop around once we were in town. That was easier said than done. After 9 hrs on the ferry we (and most of the other travelers) were too tired to fight. Naturally the flyer was mostly lies or unattainable cheap rooms. We agreed on a $7 night room (no A/C, inside bathroom, not hot water, and no fridge). I complained when I discovered the room came without the promised fridge and threatened to go elsewhere. The boy showing the room called his manager and showed up with a mini-fridge before I could retreat down the hall. I looked at Cristina who was still feeling nocuous so agreed with the plan to check out the following day. Naturally that never happened. Once our stuff was unpacked and spread around the room it seemed pointless to pick up and move.
After a bit of investigation I did find the $3 rooms. There are three of them on the roof next to the roof-top restaurant ($4 if two people). They have no a/c, shared bathroom, two single beds, and ceiling fans. Being on the roof they are hotter than the cooler inside downstairs rooms, but at least they are there as an option. Unfortunately they are almost constantly booked, as evidenced by Manuela who has occupied one for 5 months and is planning on staying there for a year.
Food & Entertainment:
The first evening, after refreshing cold showers, we visited the White Rose restaurant, recommended in the guides. I was not impressed and didn’t return for any more meals. Instead I went next door to the Bus Stop for lunch, the fast free Wi-Fi and 50 cent beer the next day. As a lover of Asian food I didn’t think I would want to eat western, but Cristina was still nocuous so I needed to find a western option. The food was outstanding and reasonably priced, and Brett, the owner, was hospitable and friendly. The rest of my days in Battamburg consisted of lunch afternoon Internet at the Bus Stop, then a short nap, followed by dinner and Internet at the Bus Stop.
So what did I see or do in Battambang? I did a lot of work on my web site, drank cheap beer, ate great meals, and surfed for free at the Bus Stop. Sometimes simple is the best.
Route from Siem Reap to Battambang:
Map of Battambang:
Total Cost Range of this Activity is: $
|1 Night in in Siem Reap before departure
1 Night in Battambang on arrival
Shared slow ferry boat per person
Meals & Snacks
Tuk-Tuk in Battambang from ferry port
Riverboat Ride to Battambang
While walking along the Siem Reap River, after paying $6 in postage to send six postcards that cost me 10 cents each, I decided that I needed a boat ride. The logic for this decision was probably flawed if you consider the look of the muddy and trash filled Siem Reap River, yet it was a feeling I couldn’t shake.
That evening I studied a map of Cambodia in the ‘What’s On’ guide and found that ferries leave the Port of Chong Khneas (south of Siem Reap) every day for the cities of Phom Phen and Battambang. I asked the front desk to confirm the information, the price, and the lengths of each journey. They informed me that the trip to Phom Phen cost $37 per person and took 8 hrs, while the trip to Battambang cost only $20 and took 6 hrs. I studied the map some more and felt that Battambang offered a more scenic route. The boat would exit the Siem Reap River, cross the north side of Lake Tonle Sap, and then enter a very long and winding Sankar River.
I went out for dinner and asked the same questions at a few tourist and travel agencies to confirm the price and timing. That evening I returned to the guesthouse to purchase two tickets for the next morning. The manager then claimed that the tickets cost $22 rather than $20. I asked why the price had gone up and he claimed it was because it was now Chinese New Year holiday. Clearly he was trying to extort money now that it was late in the evening and I had no other ticket options if I wanted to leave on the next morning’s 6 am pickup. We argued at length and finally we compromised at $21 per ticket (knowing that the actual price was $20). Once again I was squeezed by an unscrupulous local who considered westerners nothing more than walking wallets (punch line: Don’t stay at the Home Sweet Home GH).
The next morning I was up at 5 am and eager to depart. I stood outside at the appointed time in the company of swarms of mosquitoes. 6 am came and went as I continued to pace in front of the guesthouse. I asked the sleepy clerk about the pickup delay a few times, but all he did was nod incomprehensibly and smile a lot. Finally around 7 am a white van pulled up. Cristina and I squeezed into the last row of seats. The van was almost full, yet the driver continued to drive around picking up passengers until we had 18 sardine-packed and sweating passengers. We then stopped at a local agency to exchange our tickets with real tickets (with a clearly stated $20 price printed on them), and then started the 1 hrs drive south, following the river, until we emerged on a long, high, red dirt embankment swarming with banana, bread, and drink sales women. We struggled out of the van, then struggled to retrieve our packs from the would-be porters, and then slid down the embankment to a waiting “ferry.”
Like the van, the economies of space and profit were exploited as more and more vans pulled up to drop off additional passengers. When all the seats, floor space, and the roof of the ferry were filled it looked as if we were about to finally depart. Then a man in a uniform (perhaps police) arrived and inspected the boat and passengers. He said a few words to the captain and clearly they were at odds. Reluctantly the captain shrugged and turned off the engine. While we waited a smaller and sleeker ferry pulled up and the locals on our boat started to hop over the railing and board the smaller one in haste. Then a number of westerners at the front of our boat were directed to switch to the smaller boat. I immediately knew that I should also change to the smaller boat, but I was located at the very back of the ferry and my backpack was buried near the bottom of a 2 meter high stack of packs, so I resigned myself to my fate. Clearly it is always wise to follow the lead of the locals when traveling. I could see they knew what was going on while we Westerners all looked like lost sheep. Yet the trip would only last 6 hrs long, so how much difference could a smaller and faster boat make, I wondered?
Both ferries pulled away from the shore at the same time and turned down stream at full speed and without regard for smaller boats or their wake that sent the floating houses bobbing. The small ferry passed us almost immediately and disappeared downstream quickly.
The trip down the Siem Reap River was interesting as we passed floating homes, schools, shops, and scores of waving and smiling children. The river was muddy and the color of the orange soil and thriving with human activity and traffic. Within 15 minutes we exited the river into a broad lake that stretched beyond the horizon. I had seen the size of the lake on a map, but was still surprised by it.
The ferry followed the north shore in a westerly direction at full throttle (which wasn’t really that fast) as we settled down to our first phase of boredom. The day was already hot and I began to feel a mixture of laziness and nausea from the occasional diesel fumes, but at least I had some leg room and the boat was no longer over loaded.
About an hour later the opposite shore began materialize. I was sweating, in spite of the breeze and being in the shade so wondered how the twenty or so passengers sitting on the roof were holding out. The sky was clear, without a single cloud, and the sun was relentless.
We entered the wide opening of the Sankar River and began the up stream phase of the journey. The initial stage of the river was mostly wild, with a few fishing nets staked to poles that were laid out in large rings or squares. In time more and more boats (wooden skiffs or sampan styled) appeared as we approached the first of what would become many floating villages. There didn’t appear to be any solid land around these villages. The shore line was mostly swampy shallow wetlands. As a result the villages relied on the river for basic transport, food, and accommodation.
On occasion our ferry slowed as a skiff drifted into our path and a local jumped on board. Clearly the ferry also provided local inter-village transport services. Women with children, young men, and even a soldier hopped on or off as the day wore on, the sun continued to cook, villages came and went, and the river gradually began to wind back and forth like a snake.
Around 1pm (our scheduled arrival time in Battambang) we came to another large floating village, but with some stilt homes along the shore. At this stage the ferry pulled up to a very fancy floating restaurant and informed us that we were making a 30 minute lunch stop. Most of the passengers stayed on the ferry and assumed, as I did, that we were only moments away from Battambang and that the lunch stop was a ploy to squeeze some money out of us before dumping us on shore.
After the lunch break we pulled away from the restaurant and cruised thru the remaining village. I kept scanning the shore for sighs of a harbor, but none appeared. Soon we were out of the village and back at our usual cruising speed. I was disappointed, but foolishly still felt that our destination was close at hand.
As the shore continued to roll past, small floating villages came and went, and the hours ticked by while the frustration and exhaustion levels of the passengers grew. We were all restless and the people on the roof seemed to be losing the battle being fraught between sunscreen and sunburn.
By 2pm many of the passengers had passed from hope, to lethargy or from white to lobster red. Although I nodded off for short naps, I still found the scenery fascinating and couldn’t stop taking photos or filming. We had started out in an orange dirt river, crossed a large lake, entered a wide flat flood plain, passed numerous floating villages of different character, passed families that lived their lives on small exposed sampans, and now started too evolved into a narrow and shallow steam with high embankments.
By 3pm the banks had grown very steep and high (3-7m) and the area above became increasingly cultivated. A few scattered huts eventually turned into a few scattered solid homes, then a dirt road appeared parallel to the river, and eventually the appearance of a land-based town began to materialized (motor scooters, an occasional car, power lines, a boat ferry crossing, and then a solid bridge).
It was late in the day, just after 4pm, the sun was low, and groups of small children splashed along the banks as the river got shallower and we finally got closer to our destination, rounded a final bend and sighted the wooden pier, high stairs, and waiting tuk-tuk drives. The relief on the faces of the passengers was evident. Most of the passengers were complaining about the 6hr trip taking almost 9hrs, but I simply smiled and continued to film as we disembarked.
It wasn’t until the next day when I met Brett, the owner of the Bus Stop GH, that I found out that the ferry always takes about nine hours and that the ticket sellers lie about the length of the trip to encourage ticket sales. I laughed at the tactic and fell that perhaps being honest about the length of the trip might actually sell more tickets. Oh well, it wasn’t my concern. I had enjoyed the trip and felt as though I had gotten a boat adventure at a discount 6hr price.