There are two ferry options when leaving Chau Doc for Phnom Penh. There’s the “slow boat” which takes eight hours and the “fast boat” taking five. Of course, these time frames are approximations and either boat generally takes longer than the marketed time. We choose the “fast boat” in case the other ends up in China.
Not wishing to miss our ferry we breakfast at 6am, in good time for our 6:30am pickup, which finally arrives at 7:15. In a whirl and flurry of rucksacks we’re plopped on to the back of a rick shaw and cycled through town to the ferry where we join dozens of other people standing around aimlessly next to the boat.
There’s a certain predictability to these transportation events. The travelers and tourists stand around looking at each other, checking their watches and mumbling to themselves. Officials take great delight in not being able to communicate in any language but their own and avoid any eye-contact in order to not pass on any information. So we all stand around and gaze into the distance and trust things will happen when they’re ready to. Which of course they do, but at an alarmingly fast pace this time.
Within minutes, bags and rucksacks are hauled down to the ferry and we’re herded on to it where we all squeeze on to the deck. After a few minutes of gereral mayhem and incomprehension our dazed group of travelers get sorted out. Some head for the formal seating in the cabin and a few of us head for the open, but shaded, deck at the back … next to the thumping diesel motor. When on a boat, I prefer to feel the wind on my face and to see the water I’m on. Of course, I also want to take photographs.
We depart the jetty, leave the Bassac river and plough our way up the Mekong to Phnom Penh. Now the problem with sitting on the open deck is that the seating consists of a long slatted bench that is about a foot high off the deck. Two problems result; the bench first numbs and then destroys your arse and then your knees protest at being so unnaturally bent for so long. And did I mention the deck covering is only a metre high … when you’re six foot tall, this is more than a slight inconvenience. But the journey and the sights more than make up for any discomfort.
Surprisingly, the journey does indeed take only five hours and this is inclusive of the two breaks to navigate the border crossing which was completely uneventful as a young man took care of all the formalities – we only had to stand around looking like tourists during the proceedings. What a breeze and what fun.
The Vietnam border post was well laid out and organized and in complete contrast to that of the Cambodian. On the Cambodian side we crawled up a rickety old wooden walkway from the jetty to the immigration desks. There, lots of officials stood around doing nothing other than messing with their mobile phones or gazing into the distance. I checked out the three dusty pagodas in the tourist waiting area. Each contained a statue of some or other fierce looking God or warrior or hero, I really don’t know which. Several dusty, flea bitten dogs hung around, one even decided to chew on a discarded light bulb … taking this whole Buddhist enlightenment thing a bit too far. By comparison, the Vietnam border post was organized and neat. Vendors sold snacks and coffee, a money changer exchanged cash and there was an open air deck for us smokers to congregate on.
The Mekong is the World’s twelfth largest river and tenth largest by volume and has long been viewed as a potential source for hydroelectricity – China already has begun to dam the river and from what I can gather, Laos and Cambodia seem set to follow. No-one knows yet the environmental consequences and it would be churlish to assume there’s been an Environmental Impact Assessment done. In years to come, these dams may have a significant impact on the Mekong, the communities it supports and the countries that use it.
In both Can Tho and Chau Doc it was evident that fruit and vegetables are grown in the delta and therefore an important source of employment and business for many people living there. Fishing, whether for subsistence or commercial, is an equally important endeavor employing whole families as fishermen or as vendors in the market.
Also, the river is the pre-eminent method of transportation of primary goods such as minerals and agricultural produce.
Throughout this trip, in Can Tho on the river cruise, in Chau Doc in the markets and today on the river, the importance of the river is clear and obvious. Geopolitical analysts suggest that the powerful nations of the world all have magnificent rivers systems that are exploited to drive commerce – the Rhine, the Danube, the Mississippi, the Nile, the Ganges and the Mekong are examples. It is often cited as a reason for the lack of commercial transformation in Africa, with Africa lacking a network of river systems by which countries can trade and exchange. So who knows where the damming of the Mekong will take the countries that depend on it in the future.