Watching Cambodia Float By on Tonle Sap

I wasn’t sure how to get from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh — the train lines around the country haven’t run since 2009, when it was finally shut down, and are only now slowly being rebuilt. My options were to hire a taxi, get on a long bus ride, or take a speedboat. After talking with a grad school friend online, her son suggested that I take the speedboat. How could I say no to that suggestion?

tonle sap boat
Speedboat heading in the opposite direction to Siem Reap

The speedboat costs $38 and takes about six hours, which is the same amount of time as the bus but about twice the price. I also figured it’d be more scenic.

The van picked two other hotel guests and myself up from the Angkor Riviera Hotel about a half hour late on New Year’s Day. I figured this was going to take us straight to the boat, but I was wrong. We were told to get out on the side of the street where a group of other foreigners were standing with their luggage. “Oh,” I thought, “they’re going to just get everyone on a single bus to get to the boat.” Wrong again.

tonle sap village
The view that awaited us on the boat

After waiting for about 10 minutes with no one having any idea of what was going on, an oversized pickup truck stopped in front of us and someone told us to get on as they loaded our luggage. We climbed onto the back of the truck with the low rear gate — we were packed on and had almost nothing to hold onto. The 15-minute ride would’ve been fine if the road was straight and completely paved. We were all convinced that the locals on the street were laughing at us for being so stupid as to ride on the back of a truck like this. One fellow passenger said, “We’re packed in here like cattle,” to which I responded, “No, cattle is usually secured in the truck.”

cambodia transportation
Transportation to the port

Fortunately, there were no casualties by the time we arrived at the dock on Tonle Sap — just some legs that turned to jelly. I quickly realized after getting off the truck that I needed to buy food and water for the boat ride — fortunately there were a lot of vendors walking about the docks trying to force overpriced food on everyone.

As we set off much later than advertised, we watched the floating villages — houses, schools, and even a temple.

tonle sap temple
The only floating temple I’ve ever seen

I was originally told that there was a top deck with seats, which provided views and a nice breeze along the way. That top deck didn’t really exist. There was a small area with a low railing at the bow of the speedboat. There was also the roof of the boat for anyone who wanted to sit there, but there was no railing alongside it. I stuck with standing toward the bow so I could at least have that low railing for support.

tonle sap boat
Just hanging out on the side of the boat

As we passed the floating villages, Tonle Sap Lake opened up — it was huge. The coast disappeared behind us and there was nothing but water in any other direction. I was told this lake dried up significantly towards the end of winter, at which point the floating villages also move to be closer to the fish (and probably the tons of poisonous snakes I was told inhabit the lake).tonle sap boat

For hours, there was nothing to see on the ride and I was able to sleep in my empty row of seats — the boat was about half full, so everyone had plenty of space.

tonle sap boat
Looks pretty empty in this boat

Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and was named a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1997. The flow of rivers into the lake also reverse twice a year (something I didn’t even know was possible). It is an important part of Cambodia’s fishing industry and home to the Mekong giant catfish, which I’ve heard goes great with cajun seasoning.

tonle sap
View from the boat a nine-year-old told me to take in Cambodia

The views from outside the boat were beautiful as we came across submerged forests and villages.

floating village
The first floating village on the way to Phnom Penh

And the final view of Phnom Penh as approached the dock was better than the views I had during my stay in the city. There were also some different views of more typical life in the city that most people don’t see.phnom-penh-shacks

After I arrived in Phnom Penh I met with former China expat and current Cambodia expat Paul (@wisebartender) for some drinks. I was the only the person he and his friend have met who actually took the speedboat between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

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