Sunday, May 5, 2013

Chau Doc to Phnom Penh (part 2)

The next day we got up, showered and quickly packed up our belongings.  We made our way downstairs, handed in our room key and took our passports from the front desk.  In Chau Doc we still have to turn in our passports after checking in.  In the past we had to do this no matter where we traveled in Vietnam.  In recent years most places do not require this except areas close to the border. We had about an hour so we walked around the block looking for breakfast.  As we walked I noticed a cart and a woman selling banh mi (sandwiches) with fresh roast pork.  The food looked good and clean.  I decided to purchase a few sandwiches and we returned to the hotel.  The hotel has a cafe so we sat there and drank our morning coffee.  We overhead our receptionist explaining to the two young Russians that their tickets were for a slow boat and not the fast boat.  Apparently when they purchased the boat tickets in Saigon they were told they were traveling by a fast boat.  It turned out that they actually were taking the same boat as us.  I made sure that this time we were not taking any fast boat. Seven years ago we took a fast boat across the Tonle Sap for six hours and I was sure we were going to die.  Imagine a boat shaped like a skinny airplane body without wings, and with tiny seats packed full of Western tourists; basically flying along this huge lake without life preservers and with non-functioning windows that were too small to use as an escape anyway.  I knew that if the boat flips then our lives would be over, we would drown before getting out.  Every time I travel in Southeast Asia my life feels fragile.

early morning in the center of Chau Doc
(everyone is busy going places)
woman selling banh mi (sandwiches)
with fresh roast pork
-all I can say is DELICIOUS!!
(she reminds me of my mother who used to sell banh mi
using a similar cart in front of my grandparents'
shop when I was a child growing up in Vietnam)
After breakfast and checkout, it was time to start our days journey into Cambodia. We followed our receptionist, San, from our hotel, meandering through the busy morning market, finally reaching the waterfront. Heading down a narrow walk of wooden planks high above the muck on the shoreline, we passed by homes on stilts and made our way towards the waters edge where a small boat was waiting. We thought this small boat might take us to a bigger boat, but it turned out this was the biggest boat we would ride today.  There was just the captain of the boat, the two Russian guys, San, and us.  I thought San would leave but she hopped on and joined us!  We headed out and pointed up river, after a while we stopped at a floating fish farm.  All the fish farms on this river are under floating homes. The fish farmers live in the house and there is an opening in the floor in each home beneath which all the fish live.  Here we got to watch the excitement of feeding time. These hungry fish were in a frenzy and made lots of splashes!

we followed San (seen in white clothing) in the market
(here she stopped to buy her food to go)
walking along skinny tunnel-like passages
we walked on narrow wooden planks
walkway, passing homes on stilts,
down to where our boat was waiting
(just don't fall off since
the water is not too clean!)
boarding our small boat
woman rowing along homes on stilts
view of Chau Doc from our boat
typical way of rowing boats in the Mekong Delta
-very difficult if you are not used to this-
(these are generally women rowers and some
work to transport people and goods back and
forth from one side of the river to another)
floating home and fish farm on the water
feeding time at the fish farm
(fish farm on the water)
boats with the eyes
On leaving the fish farm we continued upriver, eventually reaching a small settlement on the bank, a Cham village.  These stops along the way are part of the fun of the slow boat!  There we were quickly accosted by young girls selling waffles to help support their families. We ended up buying from each one of them.  We visited a Cham woman who was painstakingly weaving cloth by hand with a loom. She spent many hours creating beautiful colorful silk scarves and other cloth.  After she said that I looked like her aunt and spoke with her huge smile I decided that I should buy some scarves from her! I learned that she is 5th generation Cham from Malaysia.  They are amazing because they kept their customs and language.  I realized that they are really no different from my Chinese family in Vietnam!

Cham girl selling waffles
3 charming Cham girls
(only to be fair when you buy from one
you must buy from all!!)
Cham woman manually weaving cloth and scarves
colorful hand-woven silk scarves and cloths
We got back on the boat and our driver took us farther upriver, along a narrow canal where we saw local people swimming in the water, washing clothes, fishing, and working along both sides of the shore.  It's truly amazing that anyone can survive in such living conditions, especially with all the parasites and bacteria in the water.  A huge population in the world has no access to clean water and here is one place that is evident.  I believe that if you grew up in this environment and survived to adulthood then your immune system has to be resilient.  If anyone coughs or sneezes on you then you are not going to get sick!    Perhaps that may be one of the reasons my family and I do not typically get colds.

On our journey we passed by bridges including a monkey bridge, that style is slowly disappearing, possibly due to the danger of walking on it!  At one point during the three hour boat ride our captain decided to take a nap in a hammock at the back of our boat and San took over steering. Most of the time she was steering the boat with her feet!  I have never seen anyone doing that before.  

floating home and convenient boat store
(where drinks and snacks can come to you!)
men carrying heavy bags of rice
man on boat
a fisherman
local kids playing in the water
woman working in canoe
woman doing her washing in the river
view of narrow bridge from below
(when I was a child about six I was
petrified of walking on this type of
bridge by myself due to all the huge gaps
and loose wooden planks)
fearless kids biking on narrow bridge
man walking across monkey bridge in the distance
looking up at the monkey bridge
floating home made from corrugated medal sheets
typical home on stilts on river bank
more homes on stilts, ready for a flood
San (receptionist/tour guide/
part-time boat Captain)
our Captain taking a snooze
(life IS good for this guy!)
cruising down the river... captain in back!
good morning, Vietnam!
After a few more hours we pulled over to a building standing alone on the bank of the river.  It turned out to be the first part of our international border crossing, and we were told to go inside and wait. There was no evidence of any officials around, nobody was working at the reception windows. We handed our passports to San and found a small restaurant in the building.  We went inside and sat with our new Russian friends, and shared travel stories over cold drinks.  After an hour San returned, and asked us to follow her with our bags.  We walked past the official windows, down a hallway past some x-ray machines, and out a back door.  We followed her out the back of the building to a path. She told me that she needs to get some more paperwork done for us, took our passports, and told us to follow a young man that had just appeared. She then hopped on the back of a waiting motorcycle and sped off. This wasn't the way we expected the border crossing to work! We started to walk, somehow I had this idea that we were are going for just a short distance but we soon discovered that it was anything but short.  We followed our new guide in the heat as the afternoon tropical heat beat down on us.  From behind the building, we walked off the paved path along the water, up a hill, across the hot sand of a construction site, and finally down a dirt path where small homes were scattered about.  We must have walked for about 10 minutes when I decided to ask him in several languages where we were going.  It turned out that we spoke no language in common.  He was friendly, smiled and shook his head when I tried to talk to him.  One of our Russian friends shared his fear that we were walking along the border without our passports. I had not thought about it and was not concerned until he said it.  At that moment I wondered how San will find us or worse what happens if she goes back to Chau Doc with our passports?  I figured I knew where I can find her in Chau Doc if I need to!

our boat finally docking at the
international border
a cool drink before the long walk in the heat!
we were walking into Cambodia without our passports
and following our guide (right of photo wearing a white cap)
We must have walked nearly 30 minutes across fields, on dirt paths, and down several roads before we got to some official looking border crossing with barriers across the road.  Our guide motioned us to follow, and we walked past the first set of guards. They stood there in uniform, but avoided eye contact, and then we passed the second set of guards for the other side of the crossing, they also avoided eye contact.  That was easy.  Did we just cross the border without passports?  Ahead on the road we walked up to a silver minivan. Our guide took out a key, opened the back, and made some motion with his hands to us.  We figured he wanted us to put our bags in the back of the van.  Aha, I just realized that this young man must be our driver!  It was going to be nice to sit down inside that van with the air conditioning running.  After we got rid of our bags he motioned for us to go off to the side of the road, there was a large Cambodian temple area. After about 50 feet in to the temple I looked back, he was driving away.  There goes all our stuff, we didn't even know the driver's name, but we did have a picture of the van!  Now what were we doing in this temple?  From the signs, we could see we were no longer in Vietnam, now all signs were in Khmer.  We had no passports, no bags and we were walking into another country.  My husband and I left all of our money inside our bags.  All I had was my camera which is not going to do us much good.  During our walk my husband told me to stick close to the group since I was shooting photos and tend to lag far behind the group.  He reinforced to me that we have no passports and if I get snatched away by a patrol person they would not be able to find me.  Later with relief I noticed the driver stopped along the road not far from where we were. We stood under a tree and to our surprise our guide San reappeared out of nowhere, being driven in on the back of a motorcycle.  As we all stood there she handed us our passports and some new papers.  Apparently all this time she had to wait in government offices somewhere else for proper border documents for us. All this work and she earned $0.50 USD from each of us, as well as spending the whole day on the boat.

walking into Cambodia without our passports and bags
Inside the temple complex there was a small building with two customer service windows, at one was a Cambodian official, this is where we could complete our official entry.  We got our passports stamped and were so happy to finally see them again that we took a group photo with our stamped visas to capture the moment!  We found our driver, got in the van and rode for a long time on small local roads.  Part of the road was used by the locals for drying rice, fish, shrimp, corn and other goods.  The fields in Cambodia seemed to be very fertile and very productive.  After 3 hours in the minivan we ran out of gas.  The driver pulled over and bought gas from the side of the road to fill his tank--the Southeast Asian way!  As we approached Phnom Penh one of our Russian friends wanted our driver to stop at their reserved hotel. Luckily they were able to call the hotel on the phone and the driver was able to speak to them for directions. They ended up in a nice place across from the Royal Palace.  We ended up in a less expensive but comfortable hotel by the market.  It was good for a short stay.

our Russian friends, my husband and I were so happy
to get our passports back that
we decided to document this moment!
our ride into Cambodia
grain and other food drying along the road
water buffalo crossing zone
grain being dried the traditional way along both sides of
the road, leaving little room for cars and other vehicles
fill it up please!
To be continued...

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