Monday, 10 October 2011

Saigon to Phnom Penh

My plan was to travel up the Mekong from Siagon to Phnom Penh by boat, unfortunately all the traditional ferry routes have closed down as most people now travel by road. Apart from local boats the only significant river traffic are the expensive cruise boats, usually costing well over $2000. Its possible to get a boat to PP from Chau Doc but its an 8 hour bus journey from Siagon & then another 6 on the boat, whereas PP is only 6 hours directly from Saigon - so it would be crazy.

The only sensible option is to travel by bus which I booked at my hotel for $15, it included a transfer to the bus station by taxi & being seen onto the correct bus. The international buses are smart with air con, toilets, free bottled water & wet wipes - as good as bus travel gets & they're pretty full.

One of the bus conductors collects everyone's passport & fills out Cambodian entry forms. It takes almost an hour to get clear of Siagon but within minutes we're in another lowrise urban area. There are clear signs of heavy rain & local flooding which is strange because Siagon has had virtually none for the week I was there.

The border is about 2 hours away. Passengers get their passports back with filled in entry forms & exit the bus with luggage to pass through Vietnamese border control - & then get back on the bus. 100 yards later its off the bus again sans luggage & through Cambodian border control. They take all 10 fingerprints electronically plus an iris scan; then its on to quarentine where a heat sensor is pointed at your head to detect signs of sickness. Back on the bus for 50 yards & off again for a half hour rest break. Lots of people eat & the women selling fruit & cooked sweetcorn do a roaring trade.

I'm the only European on the bus but there are a couple of English speaking travellers from Malaysia who are on holiday. Quite a few money changers busily work the border crossing (presumably black market) but the officials don't seem to mind. I said no but regret not off loading my surplus Dong. People were also selling Cambodian SIM cards, which presumably work.

There's an instantaneous change after crossing the border. There's much less commerce, there are loads of dogs, wandering hump backed white cows & the driver speeds up, even though the roads are smaller. The architecture is noticably Khmer, saffron robed monks can be seen collecting arms & the landscape is distinctly more pastoral.
A Bollywood style DVD gets put on the TV & then an awful crooning DVD about idylic Indian couples falling in love in different situations.

Every mile north the flooding seems to get worse & rivers, ponds & paddy fields are overflowing but fortunately the road is raised & free from water. About 4 hours north of Saigon the bus takes a ferry across the Mekong at Neak Loeung. A woman brings on board a huge tray full of roasted small birds on her head & unsucessfully hawks them to ferry passengers - the crawling flies might have put some people off.
Towns look really poor, often with dirt roads off the main road & a continuous ribbon of ramshackle buildings beside the road; & then a surprising large group of well dress school children in one small town.

There's a noticable improvement in infrastructure on entering the precincts of Phnom Penh, police pull over traffic & check it & three-wheeled tuk-tuks swarm everywhere.

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