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Little wobbly boats on the Mekong

We had set our alarm to make sure we were up on time but at 6:30 a loud bash on the door was accompanied by Qui shouting time to get up. Where Trung had been all politeness and smiles, Qui is definitely more gruff and basic. He is probably used to countless numbers of people oversleeping and causing mayhem for him. We were chased again at 7:15, presumably because we had not put in a show for breakfast.

Downstairs most people were already sitting around waiting to go. I think the tour group was split here as it was yesterday because Qui kept talking about the people going to Cambodia, a smaller section of the overall group. Why people would have sat for a couple of hours on a bus to get to Chau Doc to only go back is beyond me but there is no accounting for folk! Our bags were loaded onto a cyclo which disappeared off down to the river. No explanation was given about what was happening or where our bags were going, another example of Qui’s less than great guiding skills.

Eventually we were off too and we caught up with our bags on the river front. We then went down a steep set of steps to the water’s edge to be confronted with the sight I had expected yesterday. There was one big boat with an engine onto which we put our main packs. Around it, about ten small fishing boats were all queued up waiting, with us their obvious intended cargo. These boats were small, wobbly contraptions guided by small but wiry women with oars. I am wary in little boats like these and knew that I had a couple of uneasy hours ahead of me. It wobbled and rocked as I got in, and this was with the benefit of being able to hold on to the bigger boat for balance.

Our oarswoman did her best to chat away to us but with us speaking no Vietnamese and her English limited to “me number 1” they were short conversations. She jabbered away endlessly with all the other women on the other boats all of whom seemed to get a bit irritated by her continual chat. We set off onto the river with me nervously expecting us to capsize at any moment, daft really because the people here hop on and off these boats all day with big heavy loads and they are fine.

We were rowed out to a little fish farm which gave me the first taste of what was to come today – getting in and out of these little boats at small pontoons with nothing to hold onto to stabilise yourself in the process – aaaggghhh! Stef had done his usual and turned around in the boat to take a photo along the way creating a big wobble and getting shouts from me of “stop it” and “stay still”. The next big wobble was getting out onto the pontoon while trying to dodge the piles of dog poo at the same time.

The fish farms were similar in construction to those in Halong Bay in the north of Vietnam. They were floating houses with open central “courtyards” and nets underneath to keep the fish in. Here the water is about six metres deep at this time of year and they have about six thousand (it could have been six hundred thousand but I can’t remember) fish in each farm. They are fed fish meal which the farmers make themselves, a very smelly process. The meal is worked into pellets which are then fed to the fish. I am not sure if the people here get any financial benefit from having groups of people tromping around their farms, there was certainly no evidence of cash changing hands. All the fish farms seemed to have electricity and TV aerials were again a common part of the skyline. The river acted as an open sewer as well as a source of water.

Friendly Mekong people

We were soon back on the boats and on to our next stop, a small village with a Moslem mosque. The fishing boats carrying the tourists were all fighting each other to get to the quay. It was again as if we were back in Halong Bay although the boats here were on a much smaller scale. This is where the rowers got their tip and a young Finnish couple massively over tipped by giving fifty thousand dong for the half hour ride, probably more than the woman was paid for the ride. She was jumping up and down waving the money around, and other women who had generous tips soon followed suit. We both felt that all they did with these tips was to create an expectation from future groups leading to tourist driven inflation. Ah well.

It was another wobbly hop onto dry land and really just another retail opportunity. There was a small workshop with one lady weaving and I am sure she starts and stops as the tour groups arrive. In front of her there is a small shop where you can buy textiles. Steps lead up to a concrete path which links the house up to the main road. There I was surprised to see a tarmac road with traffic whizzing up and down. From the water it looks like a small quiet village that would have a dirt track road and no more.

Off to the right is a small very clean mosque painted white and blue. It seemed totally at odds compared to the poor ramshackle houses around it. Our oarswoman followed us up and onto the road pointing out where the mosque was, we think in an attempt to try and boost her tip. Inside, the mosque was very simple with no ornamentation, presumably so as not to deflect from the important business of prayer. Prayer mats were laid out on the floor but folded over.

Going back to the boat we stopped to watch some of the local kids playing volleyball in a court under the concrete walkway. A couple of Aussie girls from the boats had joined in. I had expected that we would be bundled back into the little fishing boats but we were sent off with a different man to a bigger boat. He kept saying there was not enough room in the boat for everyone but we had no real idea what he was talking about. We were taken across the river where we had to step off the front of our boat and climb in through the window of a larger boat, a sort of small river cruiser. My “boat” nerves were well and truly fraying by this stage.

The cruiser soon set off and the process began of sorting our visas for Cambodia. The chap on the last boat had taken our passports but was now nowhere to be seen. Stef rightly got concerned but we were reassured that all would be OK and that our passports would turn up at the border. We filled out our visa applications, handed over cash and then spent the next three hours cruising along the Mekong watching the world go by. I was glad we had ended up on this boat where you could at least move about if you wanted to. Kids along the river bank shouted and waved hello as we went and it was a relaxing experience.

We finally made it to the Vietnam border and the boat pulled up at the riverbank. There was no pontoon or jetty to get off onto just a jump to shore and then a short but steep climb up to the path above. There was still no sign of our passports and we were told to leave our main packs on the boat while we went off for lunch. We finally pieced together that we had ended up on the boat from a different group, who had lunch on board the boat, because our boat was too full. There were no guides in sight telling us what was happening and what to do, we simply had someone from one of the cafes by the border telling us to come for lunch.

We were both wary of what was happening and fully expected the boat with our bags to start to set sail with our bags still on board. We headed back closer by so we could at least try to hop on board if it did start to move. Next we were told that we needed to get our big bags off the boat. Armies of small kids appeared with their hands going everywhere. Stef wandered off to do I don’t know what and totally ignored me when I was trying to talk to him about how to get our bags off. This combined with the kids was making me lose my cool, not the thing to do in Asia!

In the end a couple of the kids hoisted our bags up the slope for us. They were pretty strong and our bags must have weighed almost as much as them! We finally got our passports back, went through the Vietnamese border and into no-man’s land. Here we had to get onto a different boat to continue up to Cambodia. This last boat was meant to be an express ferry up the river but there wasn’t much “express” about it. At the Cambodian border we had to get off again, this time there was a proper landing stage which was the first and only one of the day. The boat tried to leave without a Finnish couple who for some reason took about twice as long as everyone else to go through passport control.

We then had another couple of hours meandering up river. The guide had changed again to one from Sinh café’s Cambodian counterpart. He was quite entertaining and was on hand to change currency which was useful. By this time though my patience was wearing thin. We were meant to have reached our hotel in Phnom Penh by 3:00pm but this time came and went and we were still on the water. Eventually we got to where the boat stopped and we did our last “walking the plank” impression of the day and transferred into a bus. By this time I regretted that we hadn’t paid extra to get a boat all the way to Phnom Penh because I suspect that that was the express option.

We were both hot, tired, sticky, thirsty and irritable by the time we got on the bus. It was a small one and there was only just enough room for everyone and their bags. The road was pretty awful with lots of bumps and holes along the way. There are signs of improvements underway but it looks like it will be a long and slow process. I think it was about another ninety minutes before we made it to Phnom Penh. Along the way we passed through lots of small villages like many we have already seen in South East Asia, very poor looking bamboo shacks raised up on stilts.

Heading into Cambodia, aided by eager little porters

In Phnom Penh we were dropped at the Capitol Café, the Sinh café counterpart. We had been given the expected sales pitch on the bus about where to stay together with the “you stay here, very safe, can walk around at night OK with no problem” patter. The local tour companies obviously read Lonely Planet as much as the foreigners as they had picked up on the LP warning that some parts of town are dodgy at night. The place where the bus stopped was manically busy. It was next door to a market and the streets were solid with traffic and people and lots of western tourists were all over the place.

We had decided that we wanted to stay somewhere a little quieter and a bit more comfortable than we had for the last two nights. We got a tuk tuk down to the Star Royal Hotel on the river which seemed a little soulless on the outside but was comfortable on the inside. Stef did his usual scout of the rooms which are large and clean and will do very nicely.

Long, cool showers left us both feeling refreshed and we headed out to eat at the Ponlok Restaurant. It was recommended to us by the hotel but as we walked in and saw familiar faces from the boat ride we realised it was also in Lonely Planet. The food was OK but not great. One dish we ordered was a shrimp salad and they came on the plate, raw, with lots of ice and salady bits. Needless to say we didn’t eat them!