We Want to be River Rats: Slow Boat from Siem Reap to Battambang Cambodia

We are up early to get to the riverboat from Siem Reap to Battambang. The ticket price includes a ride to the pier, and our driver seems to have woken up on the wrong side of the bed. There is a wrinkled old woman sitting up front with him, but I can’t quite make out what she is there for and I certainly can’t understand their loud banter. She looks too old to be his wife, so I trouble my brain trying to figure out their relationship.

The mad driving and the loud banter is grating on my nerves. People talk really loud around here, and sometimes I just want to yell at them to stop! Sometimes I say out loud in Finnish, “Ole jo hiljaaaaaa!” But this morning I just try to ignore it. I am excited for our river journey to Battambang, yet nervous about being short one ticket for our group. Plus I have heard that during times with low water the boats can get stuck for hours on end and everyone has to get out and push.

Now one might ask why we want to take a local boat down a river in Cambodia, especially when the tickets cost 3x more than a bus…..

Sure enough when we arrive at the pier the attendant counts the number of tickets and the number of people. I try to explain to him that we were told the kids are half price, but they only issued one ticket. The attendant loudly argues with some other person, and finally grants us passage.

In the meantime, a very pushy woman was trying to sell us food for the trip. She had some baguettes in clear plastic bags, and other random food items on a large tray. I see a fly buzzing around inside the baguette bag. I tell her no, but she still comes on board the boat to push her wares. Luckily I knew enough that we went to a grocery store yesterday and we had bought some snacks for the boat, including PB&J. We are already all set. There are no food stops on this journey and I have many hungry mouths to feed.

Finally we are onboard the boat and ready to roll. It is pretty rustic, to say the least, but seems to be dry on the inside. The seats are made of fiberglass, and aren’t too uncomfortable. We are going to be on this rig for 6 hours…..


When the boat engine roars to life there is a big plume of black smoke. The sound is nearly deafening, and I feel the vibrations through the seat. When the rig begins to ease its way down the river some of the sound seems to fall away behind us.

David catches a great shot of a tuk tuk and driver on the river bank doing what so many do around here…..smoking. You can get a whole carton of Marlboro cigarettes around here for less than $14….hey, I could pay for my trip by buying cartons of cigarettes and selling them at home……

First up the boat takes us through a large but shallow looking Tonle Sap Lake. You can’t see the other side. There is a large floating village on the lake that we pass by.

An then we turn our strict attention to river life! I think it would be cool to be a river rat so that I could swim in this river and observe these people who make this place their home. How do they live? Why do they choose to stay?

Now here is a rare sight in these parts….a church with a cross, much less one that is floating on the river! I am not sure where the parking lot is…..


Pulling into a town. 

A small boat approaches our boat and this man jumps onboard…..I guess there are no stops along the way….if you want on you have to jump.

The kids are getting ready for school to start. Their school buses are boats and their school floats….no worries about flooding….
And here is the local police station.

Business as usual.

This mama brings her pretty daughter to catch the boat. Everyone around here like to wear winter sweaters in the stifling heat. 

Family life on the homefront.

I am not sure what this woman is going to spend her day doing, but to me this looks like a floating “roach coach”…..if you’re hungry you can flag her down and get a meal.

Every child gives the friendliest waves ever…..

This woman is coming through the reeds in front of her home to pick up her daughter from our boat.

She doesn’t crack a grin…..nothing funny about rowing through the reeds….

Pretty yellow house….this could be mine….if I were a river rat I would try to move into this house….

There seems to be a beautiful temples in each river village.

Is this lady moving out? Dumped her husband? Nah, looks like she has a shop onboard.

These two boys paddle very quickly and skillfully through the brown water.

And the little man hops on board our boat lickety split….these kids are very agile on their feet….

And big brother goes back home.

There are many fisheries like this along the river. There are literally thousands of traps on the edge of the river the whole way along. I can’t figure out how there can be enough fish in this river. Then I realize that it’s not just the river, but we are surrounded by vast wetlands….in our advanced society by now we probably would have drained the wetlands and planted high rise condominiums in its place…..

Beautiful flowers…..and a shiny green boat….  

This is a high school. It seems like the upstairs screened in area is like an auditorium or gymnasium. It is actually built on solid ground, but high up on stilts. I think it would be pretty cool to be here during a flood…..maybe….
David is dreaming about moving here…..see….there is that pretty Cambodian girl with the red sweater….there are a couple of other tourists on the boat as well….some snobby French people, and a couple that slept the whole way…..pointless…..

Annika and I chuckle at the suggestion of moving here…..we just want to be river rats for a week…..

Another village.

Pretty little red house

And pretty little blue house with beautiful flowers.

This is the boat throttle….tied together with a piece of rope….

If I were a river rat I would climb into that hammock and lazily watch the world go by…..

You would think that life on the river would be nice and peaceful, but these boat engines are deafening, and the young men love to race along.  They seriously are huge motors with no mufflers!

David’s butt is getting sore from sitting on the bench for so long, so I tell him to stand up for a while…..the ceiling is not quite high enough to accomodate him…..

The boat operator is very skilled at navigating the shallow waters.  

Did they arrest those kids, or did they go to work with a parent?  

Now this house is built up on some serious stilts! I think that maybe flood waters could knock this contraption down in a short hurry….can you imagine hauling your groceries up there…..  

There are kids swimming everywhere….  

This is the dude who scouts the water for the best place to navigate…he too wears a winter sweater….no Nike DryFit clothes here…. 

Aundrea is super excited….or exhausted….

Remember the little boy that jumped on earlier? Well, looks like he is home now. He jumps off just as nimbly as he jumped on, and embraces his baby brother. Hey….the child has no life jacket on…..where is the Coast Guard when you need them? If your kid falls in the water I doubt you will find them too quickly…..and do they have sonar equipment? I wonder if many kids drown here…..


Nice smile…..

Fortunately there is a bathroom on board. You have to be agile to use it because you have to climb over a pony wall into the engine compartment (don’t touch any hot engine parts by accident or you could lose some body parts). It’s really loud back here!

The toilet is hilarious….it is a bit dirty, but it has a continual flush of river water going through the toilet bowl….so you know where your doodoo goes….and everyone elses? Ugh….I don’t think I want to be a river rat after all…..

The farther away that we get from Siem Reap down the river it seems the poorer the people are, or at least the condition of the homes deteriorates significantly.     

This is a river bus bussing people to who knows where. If you were to look closer in those bushes you would see tons of trash, so maybe this is their garbage dump, too….I can’t help but think there has to be a way to stop the plastic bottle litter!

Daddy threatens to throw Annika overboard into the sewer….I mean river….

Our navigator poses for a photo…

These kids in the river were so happy to see us and giggled their heads off when we waved to them.

As we approach Battambang the river banks are higher up….here these kids are triple riding a bike….they are pretty talented! One steers, the other pedals….I don’t know what the stick is for….

More pretty temples.

Kristoff uses me for a PLP……private leaning post….

We only get stuck once very briefly on this journey, so it is not nearly exciting enough! I have to say it has been an awesome experience, to say the least! I am glad that the hotel staff did not talk us out of this amazing adventure through some incredible landscape, where we were briefly able to admire the resilience and courage of these Cambodian people who make their lives on this river.

In a way it is a relief that the journey is over and we are in Battambang. When the loud engine finally shuts off, a quiet peace fills the air. The brief moment of silence is pierced by men yelling again….”Off….off….” I guess that means it’s time to diskembark. The scout brings our bags which are stored back in the engine compartment (where the funky toilet is)…..David’s and Annika’s backpacks are wet…..toilet water? I don’t know…..I guess it will dry!

I have decided that maybe I don’t want to be a river rat after all, but I do think it would be awesome to do a homestay in this amazing place…..wonder if anyone here would be up to entertaining me and my clan?

We clam or up the steep, unevenly spaced steps up to the waiting tuk tuk drivers. They know the boat is coming, and they want customers. We fight off a throng, and finally decide on one driver and his friend.  

We had no hotel booked, so the tuk tuk driver brought us to his recommended hotel….Seng Hout Hotel….just down the street from guess what? One of those Cambodian markets…..with flies and meats and funny odors. It is actually a great central location.

We talk the receptionists into this awesome room….it’s for four people, but they relent and agree to let all six of us stay for only $37. You might be interested to know that in Cambodia we do virtually all our transactions in U.S. dollars, and when you withdraw money from the ATM it spits out the mighty greenbacks. Not a bad deal for our hotel room. The king size bed even has a nice soft mattress, which is unusual in this part of the world. There’s no window in the room, though, so if there is a fire we might never get out….


Once our bags are dropped off in the room our tuk tuk driver takes us for another adventure….a ride on the bamboo train….

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