If you are traveling to Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos and you want to see the traditional boats, it’s really quite easy; go to where there’s water and look around. In Cambodia, you have your choice between the superb, heavy-timbered sea-going vessels of the coast on the Gulf of Thailand and the long, graceful river boats of the Mekong River and its tributaries. (Take the time to see both if you can.) As elsewhere in Indochina, there are fascinating boats just about anywhere there is water enough to float one. But to increase your chances of seeing interesting sorts of boats being built or being used, here are a few suggestions.

Cambodia

If you have your own transport or plan to catch a bus from Ha Tien in Vietnam across the border into Cambodia, it’s only a few km to the border crossing. It was a very pleasant place to cross the last time I went there, though I got the feeling they weren’t used to Americans crossing the border riding Vietnamese bikes. The Vietnamese side in particular was fussy about my bike’s paperwork, but the bill of sale and title were in order, so there was really no problem. The Cambodian side was also very professional, though I got the immigration officer who stamped my passport into the country to come pose with my motorbike outside his office. We weren’t interrupted by other traffic. It’s a fairly new border crossing facility and wasn’t much developed then (early 2008), and the road for the first 10 km inside Cambodia was still under construction and “dreadful” doesn’t even come close to covering it. If you’re planning to get transportation on the Cambodian side you might better make inquiries before you commit and stamp your visa out of Viet Nam. No doubt you’ll at least be able to get a moto ride into Kampot, the first major town you’ll come to, and from there buses will take you anywhere you want to go in the country. In 2008, although those first ten kilometers from the border into Cambodia were awful, shortly thereafter the road becomes a well-paved and nicely marked highway on into Kampot, a wonderful place to stop and catch your breath a day or so. While you are there, figure out the currency situation and learn to say “hello” and “thank you” before you move on.

Boat Moorage near Kampot

Boat Moorage near Kampot

Kampot

If you are driving into Kampot on your own, you’ll want to stop at the very confusing five or six way intersection in the middle of town. It’s the only thing like it in the town and you will want to pay attention to which way you came in, to keep track of which way you’ll want to leave. There are several excellent inexpensive hotels around that big traffic circle, and a good breakfast spot near a real gas station (in Cambodia you’ll get used to buying gasoline in glass bottles when you are away from major towns). There’s a great used book store not far from the hotels and in the bookstore, if you ask, they can send you to a nearby beauty parlor. The husband of the beauty parlor is an English teacher with excellent English and he can be persuaded to give you a two-hour “Essential Phrases in Khmer” class (in the private classroom next door to the VERY busy beauty parlor) that will make life a great deal easier thereafter. Kampot is a riverfront town, though not far from the bay, and, although I didn’t find a boat yard, there were fascinating riverfront wharves and boat moorages, small boat traffic trading back and forth along the river, an absolutely beautiful riverfront walkway with a variety of expatriate restaurants to choose from and often a really vigorous volleyball game going on in the park across from the river. It isn’t a place with “star power” but you might find yourself quite happy there.

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Sihanoukville Boat Yard

Heavily Timbered, Superbly Built Fishing Vessels: Sihanoukville

Sihanoukville

When you finally move on—particularly if the lure of a fabulous beach front vacation is calling you—it’s only a day’s ride on to Sihanoukville. Sihanoukville has a large artificial harbor for major ocean going ships, the only significant harbor for the whole country, so once you join the main highway into town (depending on what route you chose) you’ll have to keep watch for the heavy freight traffic. It’s worth the effort though. To the South as you come into town, you’ll find one beautiful beach hotel after another, restaurants catering to every taste, and beaches full of happy people, Khmer and foreigners both. It seems the whole world loves a tropical beach and you’ll meet people from everywhere. If you’re really on a budget, look for a room a block or so off the beach, but even the beachfront cabanas are not all that expensive.

The boat yard is a very compact little spot north of town, just past the big ship terminals. There are two long piers jutting out into the bay, one for container ships and one for tankers, and just North of the piers you’ll spot the boat yard on your left. They build superbly there, absolutely beautiful small seagoing fishing vessels, up to perhaps 60 feet long, heavily timbered in simply wonderful wood, heavily planked, the framing fastened with galvanized bolts and the planking nailed off with wooden “trunnels” (wedged wooden pegs).

Frame detail of a Sihanoukville fishing vessel

As if that weren’t enough, the little restaurant in the boat yard serves delightful lunches. Even better, they’re great people. I left my day pack on the bench after I ate lunch and rode off to explore to the north for an hour or two. When I realized I’d left my pack behind with diary and map and other precious things inside I hurried back, hoping against hope, but expecting the worst.

Boat builder sawing a timber

When I pulled up in front, parked the bike and went to look below the bench at my table the young waitress of the house came up and lead me to the back of the place (dark and dubious but full of good smells), opened a cupboard and pulled out my pack with an enormous smile. Do go to Sihanoukville. Take a boat ride to an island, buy charcoaled shrimp on skewers from young ladies, watch the sunset with a local beer and a plate of rice and fish (or chicken or pork or whatever you like) and swim in the surf—in between visits to the boat yard.

When you begin to start thinking of buying a house and settling in Sihanoukville, it’s probably time to move on. There is, after all, the entire length of the Mekong River to trace through Cambodia and Laos, not to mention a side trip to Angkor Wat and the amazing (shrinking and growing) lake called Tonle Sap and the river that both feeds it and drains it again.

Phnom Penh River Boat

Phnom Penh River Boat

Phnom Penh

Your first stop North of Sihanoukville should certainly be Phnom Penh, for any number of reasons. Perhaps most importantly, if you are planning to enter Laos, to go to the Lao embassy to get your visa. There are some border crossings where you can obtain a Lao visa on arrival, but the crossing from Cambodia is not one of them, so if you’re going by road, get your visa here. If there are boat yards in Phnom Penh I didn’t see them, though there are some very interesting boats trading back and forth on the Mekong river and the Tonle Sap River, just across the street from the main tourist hotel zone. I got the impression from my guide books that Phnom Penh would be less than nice and, for a city, I think that’s completely unfair. It is as pleasant as any other big city in Asia, with friendly people and fine accommodations. In any event, in Phnom Penh you’re likely to see boats that look very much like the Vietnamese delta boats as well as the first of the true river boats, longer and leaner with their distinctive high bow and stern.

Siem Reap

On your way to Siem Reap, the town nearest to Angkor Wat, which I presume you will make the effort to see, you’ll pass either north or south of the Tonle Sap River and Lake, but in the dry season (when I went that way), you won’t see any water from the highway. I confess, I never saw river or lake or any of the thousands of boats on them, but went straight to the Wat by the northern road and then back again to the Mekong and the long, long trek up into northern Laos. Another time. Perhaps in the wet season.

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Cambodian River Canoe

Cambodian River Canoe

The Mekong River Above Phnom Penh

The Mekong River above Phnom Penh is not the quiet delta any more. It’s a narrower river, though still very wide, and even in the dry season it moves a lot of water on to the South. The boats respond by becoming longer and narrower, the farther upstream you go, until, in Northern Laos, they become exquisitely long and slender and slip through the water with hardly any fuss. There’s a magnificent waterfall just across the Laotian border which makes a firm break in the boat styles. There are Cambodian boats downstream and Laotian boats upstream and the two have never met. Years ago the French built a narrow gauge railway around the falls to transship freight, but it is gone now.

The Cambodian towns are strung out along the Mekong like beads on a string and these days, a quite satisfactory road joins them. Sadly it’s often out of sight of the river except at the towns and there is no passenger service on the river any more, the busses are much quicker and cheaper. So your visit to the Cambodian Mekong is likely to be an impression gained at every major town and not much in between. There is a very expensive cruise line running a boat up and down the river, which might be a grand thing to do, but my motorbike and I haven’t done that yet.

Racing Canoe: Temple North of Kratie

Racing Canoe: Temple North of Kratie

Cambodian river canoes are superbly graceful little boats, square sterned and with lovely bows at the end of their long slender hulls. They are powered by a variety of air cooled long-tail outboard somewhat different from the Vietnamese style in the delta region. Oddly enough, they seem to be planked boats, though I didn’t find one stripped out to where I could be sure. They have long, nicely planked fore-decks and tidy floorboards, which block the view of their structure. Even so, they look to be built on a single, somewhat thicker bottom plank, and several planks each side. You’ll see them frequently above Kratie all the way to the Laotian border, always beautifully painted.

The typical Cambodian river cargo boats are just the opposite. They are almost devoid of grace or beauty, with terrible temporary shelters over the passengers and the skipper, unpainted, and not overly well kept. On the other hand, they too are planked up boats, not dugouts, with several planks each side, and they seem to do their work well enough. They’re usually powered by a typical single cylinder Chinese tractor engine driving a large prop on the end of a long tail shaft. You’ll find very interesting lever arrangements to pick up the prop to get over shallows and rocks. They steer with a rudder ahead of the prop, and so are not overly maneuverable at low speeds.

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Picnic Area North of Kratie

Picnic Area North of Kratie

Kratie

From Kratie, riding North along the river out of town you might find two amazing things. First, at a temple across the road from the river they build and race 16-man canoes, slender as a needle and incredibly long. They’re true dugouts cut from a single log, with their sides raised by one additional plank each side and bow and stern pieces added to raise their sheerlines to high proud ends. With sixteen young monks paddling hard the boats must simply fly through the water. While the extreme slenderness and length are not typical of Cambodian boats, the construction actually is. Many—even quite good sized boats along the river—are true dugouts with their sides and ends raised in exactly the same way.

Just a kilometer or two further North in the low water season you’ll come to a remarkable play and picnic area built in the sandy river bed. There is a steep short trail down to the water’s edge, then a maze of bamboo walkways built out over the shallow water, with thatch-roofed picnic shelters and restaurants scattered all through the river bed. Children splash in the water while their parents sit in the shade with their drinks and snacks. On a hot Cambodian afternoon it seems a perfect paradise.

Cambodian River Fishermen

Cambodian River Fishermen

Strung Treng

The Cambodian border town on the road to Laos is Strung Treng (you will see it spelled several ways). It has the feel of a border town, perched on the high bank above an oddly narrower Mekong, but there are still several good hotels to choose from and delicious food in the restaurants and food stalls. At low water time there will be a barge or two building on the bank, big plates of steel welded together at a carefully calculated altitude, to float off and to be ready to float off when the river rises. I also met a tribe of river fishermen there, living on their small double ended boats and rebuilding a pair of them on the beach. Again, the working and living boats were dugout canoes, though quite beamy, and had added planks on each side and a stem and stern very similar to the racing canoes in Kratie. They also had several beautiful long slender canoes powered with air cooled longtail outboards. These people puzzled me a good deal. The men, as do most men all through the region, wore ordinary western pants and shirts with a baseball cap, if anything on their heads. The women and girls wore long full skirts and the young girls covered their hair with scarves, all very unlike typical Khmer women. I’m quite certain the old man who was rebuilding the boats on the beach made a point of telling me they were Muslims. He said it several times, waving his arm to include the others and tapping himself lightly on the chest: “Muslim.” That would of course be extraordinary in Cambodia, a profoundly Buddhist country, but it would explain the women’s very different style of dress and the fact that several of their beautiful long canoes were painted a pretty green.

From Strung Treng, if you continue North, the next stop will be in Laos.

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A quick note: The information for this article was gathered by riding around the countryside on a small motorbike for months at a time. That isn’t practical for most people, and perhaps is not terribly safe, but not to worry. Most of what I saw you can see just as well traveling by ordinary planes, trains or busses to the major destinations and renting a bicycle or motorbike from your hotel or a shop nearby or even hiring a car and driver—just ask!

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