Rama Ariadi finds out what’s it like to take the air-conditioned speed boat, with a flushing toilet, to Takmao.
What was once considered the grand boulevards of Phnom Penh, are now choked beyond its intended capacity with motorised vehicles, causing traffic disruptions that could double, or even triple an inner-city journey time. While those who reside within the city’s boundaries could still navigate their way through the capital’s back alleys (of which, there are many to choose from), others are definitely not so lucky.
Take, for example, the residents of Takmao – an area that could be categorised as Phnom Penh’s satellite city despite being located in Kandal province, due to its proximity to Phnom Penh’s city proper. Despite being less than 15 kilometers away from the beating heart of the city, residents of Takmao are no stranger to more than an-hour long commute in and out of Phnom Penh. The reason is quite obvious – the road heading towards Takmao is one of the most congested routes south of Phnom Penh, shared by commuters, tuk-tuks, logistics vehicles and what not.
For a couple of years, residents had two choices: either sleep it out on of the buses that link Takmao to Phnom Penh or persevere on the road on vehicles of their choice. However, residents of Takmao now have another option – an express service that would let them bypass the bitumen, on the backdraft of the Bassac River.
The service – not unlike the much-hyped airport train service that was announced and softly launched just shy of the 2018 Khmer New Year – has the aim of reducing congestion on the city’s increasingly blocked streets. This is considerably a breath of fresh air for those residents who have had to deal with the choking jam and smog that is only going to continue to worsen as Cambodia’s burgeoning middle class grows. But is this something that the water-taxi can deliver, unlike its rail-based relative?
Well, I tried to find out recently.
Upon arriving at the dock – of which there are four docks in total, from Prek Pnov to Chhbar Ampov – I discovered that the signs don’t bode very well for this new mode of transportation. First, the timetables are not clearly signposted (with the exception of the dock at Chhbar Ampov and Prek Pnov) – which means that anyone who wishes to experience this new mode of transport at its intermediary stops, has to do a deep research on the internet just to know when the boat will arrive.
Two things to note: anyone wishing to go take the boat should forgo it altogether during public holidays (of which there are many in the Kingdom), and that services between both terminus only run during peak hours. Come midday, one would have to wait for a good five hours before the service resumes. But when the skies are friendly and the times are right, one will be immediately greeted by loud siren – the sign that a boat is due to dock and depart within the next 15 to 20 minutes.
Second, there are currently three speedboats that serve the route – so any mechanical breakdown would wreak havoc on the timetable, considering that the majority of the services run during the morning and the evening rush hours. With each boat capable of carrying approximately 50 people, a technical disruption would easily render the service futile. Considering that the airport train also promised so much that it borders on downright deception – one could be forgiven for thinking that delays, cancelled schedules and sub-par conditions are to be expected. But will that be the case with the express service to Takmao?
Just before the midday sun reached its zenith, passengers began to stream towards the makeshift dock right in front of the Night Market to catch the 11.25am service to Takmao. “When you come at the right time, the boat is usually on time because there is much less traffic on the river,” said Kouch Serey, a businessman making his way back to Takmao. “And since there is no traffic, it usually takes about 25 minutes to get to the pier in Takmao.”
The blue boat in service then slowly docked to allow passengers to board in a surprisingly efficient manner before leaving to pick up more passengers in at the Chaktomuk pier. The boat itself is clean and surprisingly not sub-par – comparable to the boats that used to shuttle tourists between Cambodia and Vietnam – and within minutes of leaving, the boat zoomed past the Royal Palace and Koh Pich, before turning into a slideshow of the peri-urban realities faced by underprivileged Cambodians on the banks of the Bassac. The boat, then suddenly slowed as a traditional long-tail boat appeared. “The wake from this speedboat are dangerous to smaller boats,” explained the captain of the boat. “The same goes with the wake from bigger barges – that’s why the boat has to slow down.”
That said, despite one or two stops in the middle of the Bassac, all passengers disembarked from the boat right on the dot – as written on the time table on Chhbar Ampov pier. “I like this service because it is fast and convenient,” said Serey upon disembarking. “But once the free-trial period is over, I doubt that this will help with the congestion on the main roads.”
And Serey may be correct. Simply judging by how the boats are appointed – each with its own air-conditioned cabin and a fully-flushing toilet – it is quite clear that these services are aimed to get the middle-classes to ditch their private vehicles for public transportation. But for this service to be a viable commuting option for Takmao middle-classes, there needs to be more boats. For without, like a ghost, the boats will disappear at twilight, only to reappear silently at dawn.