Thursday, April 24, 2014

UP THE MEKONG RIVER TO CAMBODIA

I leave Vietnam from their oddly designed Mekong River immigration post
As our boat chugs up the Mekong River against the dark water’s strong current, I look to the riverbank. Up on a flagpole, the familiar red flag of Vietnam flaps in the wind. Steps away, a red and white fence marks the border. Our small boat boat passes the fence, where another banner waves above a humble border post. The flag is striped blue and red, with an image of the ancient Angkor Wat temple in the center. 

I’ve just left Vietnam, and crossed into the Kingdom of Cambodia. 

I’m traveling with a mixed boatload of travelers, hailing from China, Finland, Korea and Australia. As usual, I’m the only American and we’ve just left Vietnamese immigration. We could have just walked across the border, but this is all part of a Mekong journey taking me to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Our boat docks, and walking up the riverbank, we pass beneath a large sign: “KAAMSAMNAR-KOHROKAR INTERNATIONAL BORDER CHECK-POINT POLICE STATION”. That’s a mouthful. 


Crossing post with faded paint marks the riverside land border
Compared to the Vietnamese side, immigration here is a small operation. Leaving Vietnam, their new immigration office was strangely designed like some kind of new age ship. It was even air conditioned. 

But not on this side. Cambodia doesn’t have money for that extravagance, so we queue in the hot sun. There are few immigration officers in this small office, so the line is slow moving. Most visitors travel to Cambodia by road or air, so this Mekong border crossing has fewer travelers. 

The first major difference I note, is their priorities. They don't have much money for a big immigration office, but they do have money for their religion. An impressive Buddhist shrine and large spirit house are at the entrance. Both look stunning with gold paint and red trim, outshining the simple government buildings that surround it. Cambodia is no longer a radical communist, atheist country. Buddhism has returned.


Buddhist shrine and spirit house by the border post

After sweating in the queue for awhile, I finally pass into the shade and get my passport stamped. We head back to the river, and end up with a larger boat, though it’s not much of an upgrade. We are joined by 10 more Spanish and English passengers, so it won’t be a very roomy journey. Although our new river boat has a toilet in the back, it’s not quite up to environmental standards. The bathroom is the size of a closet, and the hole where you sit drops straight into the river. Adequate sanitation is scarce here; lots of raw sewage empties into the Mekong.

As we depart, one of the Khmers (Cambodians) on board starts calling out to the passengers for his side business. “Change money… Change money for Cambodia riel.” I decline, due to Cambodia’s unusual currency system. Although the official currency is the riel, the US dollar is widely accepted. The highest riel bill commonly found in circulation is the 10,000 riel note, worth only about US $2.50. Larger purchases are usually done in US dollars. Even Cambodian bank ATMs give out cash in dollars. 


Queuing for Cambodian visa and passport stamps
Settling in for our long river cruise, I immediately notice a major change in the river from the opposite side of the border. Back in Vietnam, the Mekong is a delta with many branches. But on the Cambodian side, this is just one huge river, more than a mile wide. 

River traffic is reduced too. On Vietnam's side, there are many more boats, fishermen, and villages. That is partly due to the fact that Vietnam’s population is more than six times that of Cambodia, so the river gets more use there.

With an open river ahead of us, the Cambodian side is definitely more scenic, rustic, and romantic. Here there's far less evidence of man and modernity. On this stretch of the Mekong, there are few coastal towns, Khmers on the river live mostly in small villages with plenty of distance between them. Palm trees lining the riverbank are far larger, and numerous. There’s not as much logging in this quieter, less hectic corner of Southeast Asia. 

I find the hum of the motor rather relaxing. The hot sun is replaced by clouds, and the boat’s motion gives us a cool breeze as we head deeper into Cambodia. Our long blue boat isn't big on amenities; rather than individual seats, passengers sit on wooden benches that run the length of the boat. The ceiling is strangely decorated with artificial flowers. A woman working the boat makes the rounds with a basket, selling beer and soda. Nobody buys beer, since everyone is hot and dehydrated from the tropical heat. 


Khmer fisherman on Mekong River
As we continue, the river craft begins to list to the port side, and our boat slows down. The Khmer pilot comes aft to the passengers, making hand motions to a portly Spaniard. I chuckle, realizing what he’s trying to say. If he could have spoken English, he would have said, “Would the heavyset Spanish gentleman please move back to the other side of the boat?”

Once the Spaniard gets his meaning, he says, “I didn’t know I was that heavy.” There’s laughter, as he changes sides, the boat is righted, and we’re off again. 

Looking upriver, I see mist ahead of us. Rain. We’re about to get poured on. Soon we’re in it, and the crew scrambles around the riverboat, bringing bags of rice down from the rooftop. Then they quickly lower the cabin’s side flaps, hoping to keep us dry. 

The rain grows heavier, and I hope the downpour won’t last. As we shelter from the deluge, I ponder the Mekong’s stormy past. On this slow boat up the Mekong River into Cambodia, I'm reminded of Joseph Conrad’s river journey in ‘Heart of Darkness’, and the Vietnam War era movie "Apocalypse Now" that was based on his book. Much like the movie and book, there was a time when the journey here led to madness. During the war years, this was the world's most dangerous river. It started with the communist fighters of the Khmer Rouge. 


Our crowded boat heads upriver into Cambodia
I'd already encountered former communist fighters in Vietnam, but as I'd also seen in Ba Chuc, the Viet Cong had nothing on the Khmer Rouge when it came to murderous brutality. Some of that violence was seen here. This stretch of the Mekong River was a lifeline for the US backed government of Cambodia during the war; in the early 1970’s the Khmer Republic received most of its supplies up this Mekong route. But as the communist Khmer Rouge gained in strength, they began targeting river convoys here with a fury. Many supply ships, escort boats, and lives were lost on this river. Much of that war refuse remains; marine wreckage and a great deal of unexploded ordinance still litter the river bottom. out of sight beneath the darkened waters.

Khmer Rouge attacks here brought heavy retaliation from the US military, using B-52 bombers. When the Mekong’s river banks were seen later from the air, a US embassy officer remarked that the countryside, “looked like the valleys of the moon,” from all the bomb craters. Just like in Vietnam, B-52’s weren’t the answer to stop guerrilla warfare. In time, the Khmer Rouge eventually cut off all resupply convoys, blocking river access to Vietnam and the coast. When that finally happened, the days of the Cambodian government were numbered. 


Some river boats look overloaded, low in the water
Before long we motor ahead out of the rain, the flaps go up, and our lovely river views are restored. River traffic picks up, and we pass wooden boats carrying sand, gravel and bricks. It’s good to see that military cargos have been replaced by construction materials. These cargos are meant to build, not destroy. Some overloaded boats look so low in the water, that you’d swear that they’re sinking. At night, some don’t even use running lights. They appear as long, dark silhouettes in the water; some have been sunk after late night collisions.

My fellow travelers aren’t a talkative lot, except for the Spaniard, who asks aloud, “Is this country communist also?”

An Englishman corrects him, “No, it’s a kingdom”.  

This 'kingdom' is one of the poorest countries in Asia, as poverty is widespread in Cambodia. There are few signs of modernity, we see only a rare cell phone tower, and a pair of new Buddhist temples. A farmer with an ox cart walking the riverbank reminds me that most poor Khmers get by as farmers. Many villages we pass are all thatched roof homes, lacking electricity. My journey is during the dry season, but in the rainy season, much of the shore in view will be underwater. I see no bridges over the river either; Cambodia remains seriously underdeveloped.

As the hours pass, I find myself yawning. There are too many passengers on our boat’s benches for anyone to lay down. Still, some are already asleep. With the motor's hum acting as a lullabye, I give in, and close my eyes. Sleep finally comes. 

Soon, I arrive in Phnom Penh.  

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