Thursday, February 24, 2011

Up the Bassac and Mekong Rivers to Phnom Penh

This morning at 6:00, after a poor night’s sleep, I dragged myself downstairs and waited for the Blue Cruiser boat company people to pick me up and bring me to their boat launch. I made it there, after a bit of confusion, and immediately declined a seat in the lower section and ensconced myself in the boat’s open back.

I was joined by about 25 other passengers, mostly European retirees, and we set off ever so slowly down the Bassac River.

The first time I visited the Mekong Delta was in 1995, at the end of my first year as a volunteer teacher in Bien Hoa. This trip brought back quite a few memories of that time, though my first trip here was to Can Tho, and then through a maze of tributaries and channels, and stops at snake farms, such as you might see in a National Geographic expedition. While this wasn’t nearly so lush and exotic, it was still fascinating, and full of color, and one hundred times better than taking a bus or airplane from HCMC to Phnom Penh.

I’ll let the photos tell the story of this day’s travels.

After maybe two hours our boat pulled up to the Vietnamese customs station. We stopped here for about 15 minutes and then reboarded, only to stop once more about 200 meters further along.

Our second stop ended up being the Cambodian customs station. Here we paid $22 to get our passports stamped with Cambodian visas. I got mine done first because the Vietnamese boat guide seemed to like me. Somehow she knew I spoke Vietnamese and kept testing me to see how much I knew. I’m telling you, it helps to speak the local language whenever you live outside your country…

From there it was another three hours to Phnom Penh. As the day progressed, the sun increased in intensity. I thought I was sitting in the shade of the boat, but later, when I was able to see myself in a mirror, I realized I’d gotten sunburned…quite badly.

In any case, the scenery along the Mekong (we’d earlier made a left turn from the Bassac to the Mekong) changed drastically once we’d entered Cambodia. Gone were the colorful houses, numerous fishing boats, and many people populating the shores. Instead, the landscape was mostly dotted here and there with thatched houses (though sometimes a larger community would appear), rows of corn, the very occasional pagoda (wat), and people bathing themselves and their cattle in the river.

Phnom Penh came up quickly near the end—a sudden rise of modern buildings and cranes and then various landmarks along the river.

In the lives one saw along the river itself one was struck by the poverty there, yet above them were signs of wealth. Phnom Penh is not a wealthy city, but it’s developing.

When you see English advertisements 30 meters wide for Hennessy, towering over wooden boats that house entire families who manage somehow to survive off the river—I mean, think of the money that went into that sign alone—you know there’s going to be a crazy mix of wealth and poverty nearby. And from what I can tell of Phnom Penh, it’s true. Of course, it’s hard not to compare Phnom Penh today with the Phnom Penh I last saw in 2002. Back then I heard gunshots at night, many people on the street still looked traumatized from the long war here, and Vietnamese brothels seemed to be fairly numerous. I’m writing this after having spent only two nights here during this trip, but these three memories don’t have the same kind of footing in the city any more. At least as far as I can tell they don't.

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