Wednesday, 8 November 2017

The Mighty Mekong (or A Ride on THE River from Phnom Penh to Chau Doc)

Anthony Bourdain opens his No Reservations episode on Laos with the words: "The Mighty Mekong.  My favorite river in the world, by the way."  

What can I say?  I concur  ;-)

I've taken a speedboat on the Tonle Sap River before.   

SO IMPRESSIVE and if you haven't spend at least half the journey of the speedboat from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh on the boat's roof luggage area you are still missing out on one of the great joys in life. 

But I digress.

I've taken a ferry across the Mekong here in Phnom Penh (Guava with fermented shrimp seasoning!) and I've taken a ferry across the Not So Mighty Mekong up in Luang Prabang and I also walked in unbelievably slippery Mekong River silt up there.

But I've never actually traveled ALONG (up or down) the Mekong.  

So pay attention ! This is a FIRST ;-)   
(LOL, if I ever get advertising on this blog, I would have to ensure it would be only Wine Advertising).

Note the people lounging at the bow ;-)
As the ticket above indicates, I'm taking the Blue Cruiser Speedboat today.  If you check out their site, you will find that illustrious passengers took this boat before (admittedly, John Kerry did NOT go on the swine-class regular trip to Chau Doc, but probably CHARTERED the boat for a private cruise ;-)

OMG, the man's got HUGE fingers !!!!
But I'm getting distracted again.....

Where am I?

It's noon and I've just sipped the last of my wine at La Croissette in Phnom Penh.  NO, you shouldn't go to La Croissette.  It's a tourist restaurant.  It has good food but it is outrageously expensive for a poor country like Cambodia (OK, let's put that into perspective:  My glass of wine was $4.50).  But if you need WiFi (tick), a breezy place to sit (tick) or a clean toilet (not today), this is the place to go.

I walk towards the boat piers through the many many "Tuk-Tuk, Sir?" calls.

Yes there are many of them.  None of them has enough to eat and many sleep at night in their vehicle.  

My routine now consists of executing a small Namaste, 
He knows why he's doing the Namaste

followed by "Arkoon, No, thank you".  Might as well smile when you do that.  It doesn't sound like much but THIS is a way to to experience true Cambodian life.

The face of one of the Tuk-Tuk drivers lights up. He quickly bridges the few meters separating us and touches my arm with his hand and with a HUGE smile and a slight bow of the head says:

 NO, THANK YOU !!   (Remember, I DECLINED his offer !)

(Half an hour later I hear a German tourist say "Here in Cambodia everyone smiles for a dollar".  He has NO idea how far he is from the truth.  Sad really.)

The Tuk-Tuk dance happens about every 10 meters, and while the other drivers refrain from touching me, seeing those beaming smiles spread over their faces melts my heart every single time.   

Why would Cambodians with barely enough money to feed themselves, never mind to pay for housing, react in such a strange way?  The following might shed some light on this:

A Western, most likely European couple gets up from a table and is exposed to the Tuk-Tuk? offer.  Not even a single word from the Westerners , all I see is downcast eyes with a tiny side-wards movement of the head and a look of disgust. Not even a SINGLE word to acknowledge that the Cambodian even exists.

If you've ever wondered why natural justice is so slow, here is your reason:  Karma is BUSY dealing out retribution for all those asshole tourists abusing brown people in the third world.

It gets WORSE

I'm early at the boat pier and the 'waiting area' of the Blue Cruiser is the 'fancy' restaurant I had noticed before but always avoided.  Some Western White Trash woman at the next table is complaining loudly about the lack of beef in her Tacos.   Why would anyone eat Tacos in Cambodia to begin with?

The SKY on my table !

I just can't help it.  I start filming the show.   She must have noticed that I was filming her. 

Because 3 minutes later I hear her say "Please" to the waiters, LOL. 

Oh, please, Please, PLEASE !!! Can I use the title of Karma's little helper for just one minute ? LOL

my ride arrives

REALLY?   The name of a restaurant at the BOAT pier?
Just before boarding I witness a Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Audi A8 deliver two thick men with short hair to the restaurant that I just ate in.    One of them is wearing A LOT of military medals.   The other one, with even more impressive shoulder epaulettes, is wearing a sew-on tag on his shirt that says Russian Navy in English.  I know!  That doesn’t make any sense, LOL. 

The Siem Reap boat. Notice the people on the luggage rack? LOVE that boat !

The boat finally leaves. 

The entire passenger contingent seems to EXCLUSIVELY consist of GERMANS. OH NO, LOL.

No-one runs to the front to occupy DiCaprio's Titanic spot.  VERY UN-German, I guess, LOL.

But I no longer have those Teutonic hang-ups.

To Zulema:  The riddle of the sand-carrying boats is SOLVED !
The boat operator returns the previously collected passports.  Mine is at the very top but he does not recognize me from the picture.  So I point at it from my seat while he stands in the middle aisle.  
He looks at me; he looks at my passport picture.  Then he points at HIS nose, because MY nose happens to be rather large in profile but not in the passport picture.  
I turn my head to squarely face him and his hand stops pointing at his nose and he starts laughing out loud.   
Have I mentioned that I LOVE it here?   EVERYONE seems to have a sense of humour and good-will.
Bad choice of seat. I am surrounded by Germans.  They have no idea that I can understand every word they speak.  The smiling steward brings lunch.  A Hong-Kong-style crustless-sandwich with ham and egg.  The Germans are in FULL GERMAN MODE.  But they don’t complain to the steward.

 NO, they bicker among themselves about how BAD EVERYTHING is.  The egg on the sandwich.   The view along the Mekong.  The condition of the roads in Cambodia. 

No, they don’t bring specific examples of WHAT exactly is so bad.  It’s all innuendos. “OMG, How about his egg?"  In that down-putting tone of voice.  And the other Germans go “Yeah,  unbelievable!  I don’t know how they get away with that“ 

Bicker Bicker Bicker Bicker.

And on, and on, and on.

I have seen ships flying the Viet flag for a while now and after almost 3 hours of travel, we are getting close to the border.  Are they going to send an Immigration Boat to meet us on the river or will our boat just continue to the its destination deep within Viet Nam before our passports get stamped?   Oh right, it’s not just the Viet entrance stamp I need; the Cambodians have to stamp my passport to confirm that I’ve left.  

There are only 3 or so bridges crossing the Mekong in Cambodia 
We’re still about 10 km from the border when my cell phone is going cuckoo.   
This phone in service with a major Canadian network provider couldn’t be bothered to roam in Hong Kong, Malaysia, or Cambodia.  
It didn’t make a single network-related sound for 2 weeks.   
But like me, my phone feels right at HOME in Viet Nam and it is roaming !!!!!
A few km before the border, the boat stops at the dock of the Cambodian border post. Everyone OFF the boat to get their exit stamps.

The boat starts up the engine and is already moving away when the last passenger comes running down the jetty waving his arms.  No attendance taking here. You go to the loo at your own risk.

We cross the border and the Mekong looks like a different river.   LOOK at that commotion and industry!

5 minutes later we dock at the jetty of the Viet border post.  While at least in Cambodia one of the two border guards was working, here we sit in a waiting room and no one has an idea how long it will take until someone shows up.

But it’s all good.  I’m back in Viet Nam !

The grace !

We're leaving the Mekong arm and are turning into a man-made canal.  Judging by gazillions of ferries crossing and the industry everywhere, lots of people must live here.

Notice the Eyes at the bows ;-)

Google Maps gives the impression that I am traveling along a perfectly straight canal 

Chau Doc across the Bassac River
 The boat first stops at the Victoria fancy hotel dock, and then leaves again only to dock again 50 meters further.  I guess they didn’t want us to commoners to dirty their fat people red carpet.
THIS way to my hotel ???
After first FINDING and then checking into my hotel (none as easy as it sounds).... 

... I head back out to the Banh Mi stand I noticed on the street outside my hotel.

Oh MY GOD.  The taste of this Banh Mi Cha Lua almost justifies using the Lord’s name in vain. Like in Vancouver, the lady composing the Banh Mi uses her tongues to lift of some spicy chili peppers and gives me that tempting questioning look.  HELL YES!  Red chili, FRESH daikon, liver pate, crunchy carrots, pork terrine, spring onions all on a perfectly crisp AND tender baguette bun.  

The picture is blurred because my hands were shaking in anticipation of the first bite !

This sandwich should be in the Louvre.  It’s a piece of art.  The way the flavours blend is unbelievable.  All for 10,000 VND.  Yup, that converts to the outrageous price of 44 US cents. 


Wow. A long day and I can feel it.  I’m tired !

A last news item.  While I arrived today in the very South of Vietnam, someone else arrived in the North.
These two flags don't colour-blend well !
As for the prime ministers: One is prettier but the other one looks less phony ;-)

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