This was something we were really looking forward to: Taking a tour of the Mekong River delta and then boarding a boat to travel up river to Cambodia. If you come to Southeast Asia, skip the bus or plane from Saigon to Phnom Penh and take a boat instead. This is slow travel and it’ll take a couple of days, but it was amazing. We didn’t where to organize this, so we just visited a tour company suggested in Lonely Planet. They did a perfect job. We booked our own hotel in Phnom Penh based on the recommendation of a traveler we met on the street in Saigon. Sometimes, it’s best to let serendipity do its thing.
We left Saigon at the crack of dawn on the 10th of March. We said good bye to Michael and Anita and boarded a bus with a couple of coffees in-hand. In less than an hour we arrived at a dock and got aboard our first of many different boats. Our first stop on this tour was the floating market near Cai Be.
From there we stopped in a village and got off our boats where bikes were waiting for us. We earned our lunch by biking to a local fruit garden where we had a nice lunch on a quiet patio and chatted with our tour group. We were also given the chance to wear a giant Boa Constrictor or Python (not sure what it was, but it was massive). We declined the opportunity.
We don’t generally go in for organized tours, but this was the easiest and most cost-effective way to get to Cambodia by boat. As it turned out, we were very lucky. The tour guide is really wonderful and the people in our group are surprisingly thoughtful and interesting. Accompanying us are three nurses from Newfoundland who live and work in Calgary, a young Vietnamese-American man from California who is visiting the country for the first time since his family left Vietnam in 1979 as Boat People. He was an infant then, and came to discover a part of his personal history. There was a law student from Germany who is working for the German Embassy in Phnom Penh, a young Australian corporate lawyer on a sabbatical trying to figure what she’s doing with her life, a middle-aged Australian television producer fed up with the emptiness of middle class career and suburban life, a forensic investigator with Scotland Yard, and two young Irish women on a year-long trip around the world. They were a diverse and interesting bunch of people to spend a couple of days with.
In the afternoon we found our way to another boat, much larger, that took us a few hours up river into the evening. We had dinner and sat around on the deck chatting and watching the countryside slowly floating by as the sunset lingered long into the night.
We arrived after dark in Chau Doc. There was no organized transportation for all of us, so we were taken in twos by cyclo drivers to a very plain little guesthouse. It was almost institutional in design. We each assigned to rooms and shuffled off to sleep. The next day would start early. It had been such a picturesque and charming day that we quickly got over the utterly basic accommodation. No AC, no mosquito nets. We’ve never been in jail, but the industrial touches of our windowless room left little to our imagination of what it might be like living in a prison. We slathered on DEET and slept in our clothes (the beds looked like the sheets hadn’t been changed in a while. We were told our door would be knocked at 6:00 am for a 7:00 am bus departure.
Karen woke in the night to the sound of knocking on our door. She bolted up and poked Scott, “Honey! It’s time to get up!”
“No. It’s not,” he said.
Karen insisted she heard a knock at the door. Scott showed her his watch. 3:00 AM. But she might have been high on DEET. It turns out there were sounds in the room. It was Geckos eating bugs and making loud clicking sounds. But we didn’t yet know about the various noises Geckos make. A little terrified and anxious, Karen just lay there awake. Listening. When the actual door knock came, she was already up, trying to have the world’s fastest shower without touching the floor or walls of the bathroom. It was quite dirty.
Thankfully, breakfast was pretty good and included our last Vietnamese coffees. Then we were taken back to the dock where we boarded another boat.
We spent our last day in Vietnam stopping in various small towns, a couple of different buses, and a large ferry. Eventually, we boarded a small boat – one of the smallest yet – and headed up a skinny arm of the Mekong to a little dock that led to the Cambodian border control. The great advantage of doing this trip by organized tour is the fact that the border crossing is organized by the guide. She collected our passports and $50 US each at mid-day while we had lunch. Then she set off on a motorcycle. She returned a couple of hours later with our passports, now all stamped with Cambodian entry visas.
We arrived at a square of small buildings made from wood and bamboo. We all got in line and took turns handing our passports to Cambodian officials who checked our documents and handed them back to us. Then we marched back to our little boat and headed up river once again. Things changed quite dramatically once we left Vietnam and crossed over into Cambodia. It’s hard to believe how much a landscape is shaped by culture and history. Evidence of Buddhism’s mark on the country was now everywhere. Small pagodas and monks seemingly walking to or from somewhere along the riverbank. Children played in the river in front of houses that now rose above the water’s edge on long stilts. And palm trees grew in abundance now.
With only a couple of hours before sunset, we disembarked for the last time at Nek Luong and were told to get in to a small minibus. There were about 15 of us altogether. The bus had room for eight, if you included the driver and had no luggage. He other buses must be late. They’d be along shortly, we all said, nodding to each other. Then the driver started grabbing our packs and throwing it on the roof and squeezing it into the back luggage compartment. Then he again told us to get in and waved his wand toward the us. We were stunned and started to giggle. How? How do we all fit in there? “Where’s the other van?” someone asked. “We can’t all fit.”
“No van. No problem,” he said. Then got in and started the engine. Wow. It was the funniest, longest two-hour drive. We challenge you to find Scott in the photo. He’s there if you hunt long enough. You won’t see Karen, though because she was behind another passenger. It was good thing we all knew each well by this point and we all laughed at the situation. What else can you do? Walk? The land was forested in a red and sandy soil, marked by tiny villages of bamboo houses all raised on stilts. Very different from the open green landscape of Vietnam.
We entered Phnom Penh at dusk. There was only one paved street, the main boulevard we rode in on. The rest of Phnom Penh was dirt streets piled with garbage. We passed houses with expensive Lexus SUVs in the driveway. Scott looked closely and noticed the license plates were a little weird. One was a Virginia plate, another Massachusetts, and many were from California. These were perhaps stolen vehicles, kidnapped and put on container ships to Asia. Instead of bothering to change the plates, these were now an odd status symbol.
Thankfully, we had booked our hotel in advance (unlike everyone else on our tour). We had literally bumped into a traveler on the street in Saigon. Somehow we ended up chatting to him and gave some advice about where to go in Vietnam. He in turn had told us about the Superstar guesthouse. Now, with the sun slipping under the horizon in a city with no streetlights, it was dark. But our host from Superstar was waiting for us where the mini bus had stopped. The Calgary nurses had nowhere to stay and so they came along with us to our hotel. Others drifted off into the dark night to find a hotel, something we were very glad we didn’t have to do. All we wanted was a shower.
We are currently sitting in the Foreign Correspondents Club, the only such club in the world that is open to members of the public. It’s been a journalistic institution for many decades, having been the location for many dispatches during the years of the Vietnam War and the horror of Pol Pot.
In a few days we’ll fill you in on our tour of the Russian Market, the Killing Fields, and Tol Sleung Prison…