A Trip Up the Mekong
27.03.2009 - 27.03.2009 35 °C
The goal for today was to make it to the Vietnam/Cambodia border via a passenger boat on the Mekong River. We got up early and were crammed on the back of a cyclo by 6:45 AM and we were pedaled down to the riverside. We were transferred to a small row boat like the one we had taken the night before and a woman paddled us to a bigger boat where we unloaded our bags. There they told us to stay on her small boat, and our rowboat woman began to row us away from the larger boat. We were a little confused by all this as the woman rowing the boat couldn't really speak English, and thus couldn't answer any questions as to where she was going to take us, or what time we would return to our bags to continue the journey to the border. We were worried for a bit that we had gotten on the wrong boat, but soon we saw some other foreigners who told us they were also going to Cambodia, so we felt a bit relieved but were still confused as to what we were doing. The route the woman took as she rowed us looked quite familiar, and we sat patiently while she brought us down through the floating village, later arriving at the same fish farm that we had visited the day before. We got off the boat and there we finally spoke to an English-speaking guide who informed us that we would be taking the exact same tour (to visit the fish farm and the Muslim Cham Village) that we had done with Nam the night before! If we didn't want to do the tour again, he told us we could go back and wait for an hour on the boat which we decided to do. Although it was nice that this tour was included in the already comparatively inexpensive boat ticket price, we were a little annoyed that we had not been informed that the village tour would be part of the boat ride to Cambodia because if we had known in advance, we would have either skipped it the night before or slept in a bit. But since we were first on the small 10-seater boat, we claimed the best seats in the front where we could stretch our legs out and get some sun. We didn't have to wait too long before the other 6 people joined us on the boat, 8 of us all together and it was quite comfortable.
We really enjoyed the first two hours on the river ways to the border, as the small boat (smaller than we had anticipated, but still quite comfortable) weaved through narrow canals and past sleepy villages on stilts that rested on the banks of the river. The boat took us through a series of narrow canals and we really enjoyed observing the river life on the river. There was a lot of activity already that early in the morning- people bathing, fishing, washing clothes and as the day approached noon, we saw TONS of kids swimming. The kids were really fun to watch and they were excited to see us. They took every opportunity to interact with us as much as they could, with big smiles waving and shouting "hello", and putting on little shows for us by doing dives off the docks and splashing each other. Along the river there were also a whole network or small paths containing people on bicycles, water buffaloes, and the occasional motorbike. There were many small, simple bridges along the way that spanned the river ways.
Along the way we fill out the necessary paperwork for Vietnam exit and Cambodia entry. Although Nate had lost his exit form (required to exit the country), he was given a new one and it didn't seem to be a big deal. Two hours of touring the narrow river ways finally led us into the mighty Mekong River, from where we took a short ride upriver to the border crossing. Our boat operator took care of our exit visas and exit forms for Vietnam and obtained our visas for Cambodia. We broke for lunch while our paperwork was processed, and were a little disappointed--but not entirely surprised--that the food was expensive and not that great, but we were at least able to find a seat a short way up the bank from the river on a deck that overlooked the port. We observed many people transferring rice and produce from one boat to another, overseen by two bookkeepers--one from each boat so they could keep each other honest--who carefully watched the weighing of each load and marked it carefully in their log books. All of the loading and unloading was done by hand with big woven buckets. It was a slow process, and must have taken them all afternoon to finish the transfer.
We still had to wait for a bit after lunch, but another boat finally came that would stop at the Cambodia border and then bring us the rest of the way to Phnom Penh. We border the larger boat, and our group was joined by a few Cambodian people, and after border we were on the way without any further delay. The Cambodian border was just a few minutes farther upriver, and we just had to get off the boat to fill in an entry/exit form before getting our passports stamped. We got back on the boat and were really pleased there was no "extra charges" at any point of the trip, as we had worried about after hearing of others getting scammed with this kind of border crossing.
There was not much special to note about the following three hours of the journey upriver. The Mekong is quite wide all of the way up to Phnom Pehn, and there were not as many villages along the river, or as much activity. There was also not much to look at, so the ride was quite boring. The final hour of the ride became more interesting, as there were some villages along the river, where we could see more water buffalo, stacks of hay, and of course plenty of children playing and swimming in the water along the riverbanks. Everyone we saw along the river, but children and adults, seemed to be quite happy and extremely friendly, as they enthusiastically smiled and waved to us as we moved past along the river.
We finally made it to the boat docking station which was located about an hour outside of Phnom Penh, and we were to take a minibus the rest of the way into the city. We were happy to find that the minibus was nice, clean, and well air-conditioned, so the ride into the city was at least going to be a comfortable one. The beginning of the ride into the city was rough, as we moved along slowly on a bumpy dirt road past small rustic stilt houses and shops. Although we knew that the country had been ravaged by civil war, had suffered greatly under the hands of Pol Pot in the 1980s, and subsequently its roads and infrastructure were some of the worst in Asia, we didn't have a clear conception of what the country would look like. We sat quietly during the ride, conjecturing how developed Cambodia would be, as we were a bit shocked to see the lack of development so close to the center of the capital and largest city in the country. After about ten minutes of travel we already saw a drastic improvement in the development of the buildings along the road, and the road itself was significantly better as well, transitioning from a simple dirt road to pavement after a few kilometers. After a few more minutes of driving, we arrived near the city center where we were greeted by traffic lights, well-paved roads, and a modern-looking infrastructure, complete with gas stations and convenience stores that looked like they could have come straight off of any street corner in the US. It was really quite shocking to see such a drastic change in development in such a short time, but at the same time we were selfishly comforted by the fact that we would be able to enjoy the comforts of modernity.
We had the driver stop the minibus near Boeng Kak Lake, whose banks were surrounded by a network of narrow alleyways, shops, restaurants, and guest houses, and serves as the heart of the backpacker district in Phnom Penh. We were greeted there by a few hawkers, and we trusted them to bring us to a clean guest house with cheap rooms--which they did. We settled into our room, ordered some food and beer, and made conversation with a Swedish guy while eating. The atmosphere of the guest house there was really cool--we found that it was actually built out over the lake, with a nice open-air deck that stretched over the water and was filled with tables and chairs which were filled with a variety of different people who were eating, chatting, playing pool, and mingling freely. A good mix of music played all night, and the main common room had a large-screen TV with a DVD player and wide selection of DVDs that insured movies would be playing all day and night as well. We watched the movie "W" but afterwards felt tired after a whole day of traveling, so we turned in for the night.