And so the story begins……………..we had two ways to get to Siem Reap – ferry on the Tonle Sap, largest fresh water lake in Asia, or bus. Both reportedly take about 5 hours, both were reportedly air conditioned and for us the big decider was that one was a unique method of transport, combining a tour of a significant natural feature whilst the other was just a bus ride.
There was a considerable difference in price – originally this stemmed from the ferry service being much quicker and smoother than the bus along the highway (with a reputation for being one of the worst national highways in the world) – however these days with improvements to the roads, I expect it is due to the fact that only western tourists seem to use the service. Why would anyone else pay US$33 for the boat when the bus does the same trip for US$4?
Anyway, for us, we were keen to see the lake, glad to not be on the roads for 5 hours and glad to be on a different type of transport. The ferry in the pictures looked similar to boats we had used previously and like buses in this part of the world, our experience was that they are often icy cold requiring jumpers when inside and with access to everywhere on the boat so easy to get fresh air.
We were actually surprised that the boats were still running as they stop at some point during the dry season when the upper reaches of the lake recedes and some of the main channels become too shallow for the ferries.
The ferry was due to leave at 7am so we were up well before 6am, packing and grabbing a small breakfast before the pick-up down to the ferry port. A ute-taxi pulled up but as it was already quite full and two other hotel guests were also heading to the ferry port, we were asked to wait for a mini-van. When it hadn’t turned up by 6.40 we started to wonder how good the communication system was with the ferry to ensure it waited. We figured there was still a 20-30 minute drive to the ferry port so we were keen to get moving.
When the van pulled up 5-10 minutes later we realized things were probably OK as it was full of other tourists. It was actually quite full of tourists and their luggage so Molly and I got to ride shot-gun up front whilst Julia dived into the back to share a seat with an Italian guy and his cameras, tripod and luggage.
Molly and I found the trip very amusing – we kept turning back to check if anyone wanted any adjustments to the air-con and to make sure that people behind us had left room for the next two passengers. There was actually no air-con and all of the seats were full less one that had 3 large backpacks on it so I thought my sarcasm was quite clever at 7 in the morning. Only Julia smiled so we figured it might be a long trip.
As we pulled up at another hotel I didn’t think that my suggestion that more people were still to get in would become reality. Yep, one more so now the bus was full, full.
We headed away from town and assuming the ferry was waiting, we were only about 10 minutes late. And then we stopped again.
Molly and I were laughing out loud when we looked at the front of the next hotel and saw two young ladies with big packs pick themselves up and move over to the back of the van to put the luggage in the back. Next they appeared at the door next to Julia and the driver grabbed their packs and stacked them next to Julia before pointing firstly to a back seat where he beckoned the people to squeeze up and then secondly pointed to the packs that were now the extra required seat. 14 tourists, their assorted backpacks and suitcases, one Cambodian driver and a 1980’s Nissan Urvan designed to carry at least 11 people in comfort. Molly and I loved it – some of the tourists further back didn’t and by the time we got to the ferry port and they saw the ferry, they were getting a little bit short fused.
The ferry was not like the pictures. It was wooden, open aired, narrow and floating in what really looked like a sewer drain. A large sewer drain but a muddy, grey and rubbish filled sewer drain none the less. To add to the miserable picture, locals surrounded us and implored us to buy water from them – “there is no water on the boat, you must buy now!” Try that one with the next guy, lady, he might have been born sometime in the last week but not us, we have traveled in Asia, there is always water for sale, complimentary water bottles on transport and locals willing to do anything to make money – like sell me a bottle of water! I’ll take mine later thanks!
As we all charged on I soon realized the rush was futile – all the wooden seats were full and standing room was only available next to the obnoxiously large engine toward the back of the boat. People complained, blamed others and sweated annoyance, but not me. This was my hour of glory, I would lead my family to a sanctuary and our ferry ride would be memorable AND enjoyable. I charged back to the front past cursing Englishman and grumbling Frenchman, swung back at the front deck and climbed onto the roof. Past some of the luggage that people had actually let go of in an effort to make their journey less cramped and back to the rise in the roofline – the perfect seat. Molly and Julia joined me and we very happily prepared for the next 5 hours. A German guy living in Bangkok and his Italian friend on holidays climbed up to join us and the 5 of us had the best seats in the house. Cameras came out and as we pushed off from the jetty, Julia wondered if maybe this was just a canal taxi linking us to the “real” ferry waiting in deeper water. We roof dwellers weren’t convinced and dismissed it as wishful thinking.
Heading East along the river/creek/sewer/drain we passed a lot of boats, mostly in dry dock (if you could call marooned on the river bank docked) but with plenty of small boats busily heading both ways up the river. It soon became apparent that we were the biggest boat on the river at this point and that perhaps we weren’t always actually floating – that would infer no contact with land or the bottom and judging from the high revs and flying mud it appeared we were dragging.
Judging the fairly direct distance to Phnom Penh by water, calculating our current speed, remembering the suggested 5 hour travel time and analyzing the overall situation, I assessed that when we did finally hit open water (assuming it existed) we would have to be in what is perhaps the fastest inland water passenger ferry in the world to see Phnom Penh before hi-tea was served at the Royal Palace. I checked over the side from my vantage point on the roof and doubted that could be true.
30 minutes into the journey, still dragging on the bottom and the river hadn’t become any wider when they seemed to give up – some might call it a navigational error but when the river bends left, regardless of where you think the deepest channel is, it seems pointless to just keep going straight until you hit the far bank!!?? I mean, I’ll be the first to admit that a salty old sea-dog like me knows very little about riverine water craft and their navigation but hey, it really just looked like he must have thrown his hands up, killed the throttle and just let her run aground, And we did, stuck fast and no sticks in the water or reverse thrust were enough Captain!! Scotty gave her more power and still nothing – so three guys who I assume were crew jumped into the water and like Bogart started pushing. With a dopey old Frenchman with an “I know boats” frown waving a bamboo pole around dangerously, I guess to scare the leeches away, the Bogart-three pushed and then floatation was again achieved. Well, we weren’t stuck, but go back a few paragraphs and you’ll remember that maybe we were never really floating.
30 metres on shore, high up above the stubby mangrove trees were triangular flags waving hello from bamboo poles, no doubt the channel markers for navigation in the wet season. They seemed to be just teasingly laughing at our progress on this day.
A boat had pulled alongside and a young girl came aboard with cans of soft drink and beer. Aha, as we expected, it is always easy to get these things, even on the feeder drain to the largest freshwater lake in Asia. No water and the cans not cold so we just got a can of Sprite to put away for later if Molly wanted it. As soon as I bought it I was thinking it would probably be going into some mini-bar fridge in our hotel at night but it was nice for Molly to know she could have a drink if she wanted one later.
The boat seemed to be leaning toward the side that the drinks seller was tethered to so we joined in the fun and looked over the roof – it was all about the photo opportunity!
Whilst the daughter sold drinks, her Mum maintained the boat alongside, inching ahead to allow each row of seats to get photo’s – what of? Well the younger brother and his python of course. To be honest, they both looked so stunned that I couldn’t help thinking the snake was drugged and the kid was suffering from a transfer of the drug through a serious bite! Interestingly enough another boat pulled along the other side and initially both the boy on that boat and the snake looked the same. Yet when they veered off to their floating village they were suddenly joyous and waving happily – maybe they just didn’t like the pressure of the spotlight and fame!
As this was going on we were leaving the drain behind and open waters beckoned. At this point there is a large floating village stuck out in the lake and as we motored past, up ahead was a vision of white, gleaming steel – the real ferry!
Clearly things were as Julia had thought – the old boat was just a taxi between port and ferry, the new boat so powerful and modern that it could not be risked in the old sewer drain we had come down. Air-con, coach seating and probably even a cabin steward – but we were a little sad that we would have to leave our rooftop perch after only an hour…..what, an hour already, wow, this new boat must be fast!
So the transfer was orderly – mostly. Luggage was transferred by the three Bogarts and passengers made there way on, realizing pretty quickly that there was ample room for all. There was a front saloon cabin with an outer triangular seat that would probably sit at least 15 and then the main cabin had room for probably 70 people so things were looking comfy! Everyone went into the coach seating but I explored the saloon, weighing up its viability for us – front of the boat so we would get to Phnom Penh first, had it’s own air-con unit, good seats although low backed, windows had limited viewing. And then some Frenchmen came in blabbering in their native tongue, lounging around to test the seat quality and then gesturing and apparently calling for all of their French friends to join them. I left them to it as the place filled to capacity. Shortly after some sort of patriotic French song could be heard being sung, I guess to symbolically put behind the tears and grumpiness of the last 90 minutes and congratulate themselves on their most recent of victories, the Francophying of a small room but in some small way also demonstrating a superiority unachievable by the “others” on the boat! Yes, they would be the first to Phnom Penh.
So as the big V12 Yanmar diesel belched black smoke out it’s twin stackpots through the rear roofline, the revs rose and we pulled away from our old ferry…..well, pulled away is quite accurate, as would the term dragged away or maybe even sludged away. Remember bigger boat, bigger motor, probably bigger propellers and thus much more mud getting ripped up from the bottom as we pushed through the Tonle Sap’s shallow depths.
I went up top to explore and found the engine at the rear, which I must say did look impressive, even if half its energy was lost through sound and what was left had to struggle with the murky goo of the Tonle Sap lake bed. Fortunately there is a hand rail around the inner part of the walkway around the boat – very handy as there is no railing of any sort on the external part of the walkway. Sure I can swim but that is one useless skill too many when your feet plug 2 feet into thousand year old mud on your descent into the lake and leave just your hair out of water, much to the delight of the French photographers! Note to self, stay vigilant when up top!
The very front of the boat did have a small seating area catching plenty of breeze and in full view of 15-20 smirking Frenchmen in their Salon Avant as I imagine they were referring to it now – probably not how I wanted to spend the next 3 hours, 50 minutes. Assuming we were still running to time of course.
So back inside to test the air-con and coach seating. Walking in I noted the doors were tied open, no doubt to keep the air con at a reasonable temperature and to not freeze anyone up the front of coach class where the big air-con purred out her cooling hum. Good call I thought walking past the big vent blowing out cool air but then moved two more rows rearward and started to think it might take a while for things to cool down further back. I sat down and played a bit of musical chairs with Molly as we now had 5 seats between the three of us – pretty roomy now that coach class was sans-Francais. Restless as I was, I figured the roof would be more fun until at least the air-con spread its charm further rearward. Yep, I’ll go up top and come back in when the cabin steward does his rounds with food and drinks……….
Up with the luggage is definitely the place to be, particularly in the morning air. I read a little, watched some clouds form and disappear and watched the mess our wake made, wondering if and when the black mud would stop bubbling to the surface as we tore up the lake bed. Whilst we seemed to now be making good speed there were still regular hiccups.
Stop, start, stop again and send someone under the boat seemed to be an important part of the routine. Over the course of the journey the chief engineer (well I assume that is his title, he lived with the engine and the only other crew with us now was the Captain) collected garbage bags, rice bags, Hessian material, rope and fishing nets. Apparently it is all quite bad for the propellers and no doubt quite prevalent on the bottom of the lake, the thing we were skimming along to get to Phnom Penh.
And so it went……..for hour after hour. And the cabin steward didn’t appear. Nor did any water. And then as I returned to our seats, I realized the open doors and air-con were conspiring to create a bubble of warm air in the back of the cabin - actually warm is not an accurate description. And just after sitting down the Sauna took its first victim - Molly had the sort of bleeding nose that a prize fighter wishes to inflict on his opponent. The sort that is difficult to contain and more difficult to stop. One sarong wasn’t enough and a trip up top only cooled her momentarily. Two nice ladies from the Netherlands very kindly offered some water to help which I used very sparingly, knowing I had nothing to offer in return. A lovely Korean man behind us offered a wet-wipe which at this point I politely declined, thinking I may need to call that favour in a little later. Molly continued to bleed but to her credit, she did so very much in silence and with grace. By the time things were under control I had been in the cabin for at least 10 minutes – it was quickly becoming apparent that this may be the limit of exposure for me as I slopped out of my seat and dripped my way back up top.
And so we continued on……..for hour after hour and then we entered the Tonle Sap river canal. Gone was the magical inland sea where you couldn’t see land in any direction, now things were getting interesting!
The river banks were sparsely populated but very entertaining – padi’s, water buffalo, playing kids, fishermen, washerwomen, small boats. But I was starting to wish I could have a drink……so much water and having been in the sun now for almost 4 hours, I was wind burned, sun burned, hot, dry and really, really thirsty. Sprite time!
In hindsight we may have been better injecting the Sprite because between the three of us, with Julia and I only having two mouthfuls to spare the child, the fluid seemed to do so little. And yet when on buses and trains where they provide water we always curse having carried so much ourselves, unnecessarily burdening ourselves. We thought we were so clever.
We started eyeing off other passengers – and we weren’t thinking of asking for their precious water!! By now we had chatted quite a bit with the Dutch ladies and we were all quite sure that we would not quickly forget this trip. 6 hours into it now we were amazed that from the top we still couldn’t see any signs of the city’s fringe – clearly, we thought, Phnom Penh is very agricultural and just around the next river bend.
By now the three of us were on the roof and to be honest, but for the absence of drinking water, we were all really enjoying it. We had been running at high speed along a meandering river for the last two hours and every bend opened up to new scenery and visual entertainment. If only we could drink from the Tonle Sap………..not quite delirious enough yet!
And then a ferry crossing was passed and I started to guess from a tourist map that we must be only 45 km from Phnom Penh – oh, even at 45km/hr that is still a long way off! Then we passed another ferry crossing 10 minutes later and then another……….and an hour later still no city.
So after over 7 hours something stirred our imaginations and lifted our spirits – a bridge. And not just any old bridge – a really big bridge and, therefore, we figured an important bridge and, therefore, we figured it must be close to an important place and thus the city must be close. And it was. And we were happy.
So as we left the boat and loaded our luggage onto a tuk-tuk I thought that the first priority should be to first get some bottled water. I walked around the tuk-tuk and as I went to enter a store I looked up and saw a Pringles can hurtling through the sky at me! I ducked and weaved and then as the monkey that threw it jumped along and set off an alarm on the store, I also jumped around. Looking back at Julia and Molly who hadn’t seen the monkey, I think they just thought I was still getting my land legs or that maybe I was just hallucinating. I hoped the monkey wasn’t representative of the other residents of this new city.