Another travel dream is about to be fulfilled – Saigon to Phnom Penh by boat.
We have been wandering through the Mekong Delta for about a month and have will have spent a total of around 24 hours on various boats during this time but this is the final stage. After a considerable amount of research I had decided upon the “Blue Cruiser” company for the Chau Doc to Phnom Penh leg. Apparently safer and more comfortable but twice the price of other boat operators. Can’t put a price on safety, right? Well all my research is wasted as when I have a chat with the guesthouse owner, he assures me that the Hang Chau Tourist Express Boat, which is almost half the price at $26 is just as good. The only thing it lacks is a bottle of water and a sandwich!
We arrive at the boat dock by cyclo as the feeble sun is just filtering through the morning haze. Fishing boat silhouettes bob around on the river in the distance and we can see the Cham villagers going about their daily business, no doubt having been up and about since well before dawn. I love this time of day! Along with around 20 other passengers we board the boat. We are told to put on our life jackets but that we can take them off as soon as we have passed the police post!! We cruise up the murky but photogenic Bassac River, a Mekong tributary, past wooden houseboats and a few villages until eventually, we join the main branch of the Mekong.
After a while we stop inexplicably for around twenty minutes. No explanation whatsoever until an Indian couple, who had clearly missed the departure, join our boat. The woman immediately starts moaning that some people are taking up two seats (myself and Alan included). Sadly for Alan, he is the one asked to move by the boat guy because this woman wants to sit near the front! Not entirely sure what her problem was but she did not stop moaning and shooting dirty looks at us for the remained of the journey. On our way again and couple of hours cruising along the river and the scenery gradually became less Vietnamese more Cambodian in the form of lots of golden stupas rising from the temple lining the backs of the river.
Eventually we arrive we arrive at the Vietnamese immigration post and are herded off the boat to have our passports scrutinised and stamped. (At this point the Indian woman is still whinging to the boat guy about the “white people taking up too many seats”). The exit stamping takes 30 minutes or so, pretty quick considering two boats arrived at the same time. We get back on the boat ( the Indian lady is naturally first in line) and cruise for another 30 mins to the Cambodian immigration post at Kaam Samnor (why they can’t get their act together and put them both in the same place?)
On the boat we had already been relieved of $34 cash for the visa fee by the “guide”. After waiting for ages in the heat staring at a signs saying that the visa fee saying $30, I asked why we were being charged an extra $4? He tells me that this the “express” fee. Why, I then asked asked had the “express” service taking two hours? The normal service takes 24 hours was the reply – my a*** it does. There were at least ten police, customs and immigration people involved in the process and all of whom no doubt we’re getting their cut of our $4. Sitting at long table sifting through piles of passports just heaped on the tables I was beginning to doubt we would ever see ours again!
Probably as a result of my moaning about the $4 bribe, mine and Leigh’s were amongst the last to be processed. Will I never learn? We have visited Cambodia numerous times and crossed borders, overland, by river and by air and each time there has been someone trying to rip us off. I really like Cambodia and its people, but the capacity of there police and immigration services for bureaucracy, corruption and incompetency beats never fails to amaze!
As expected the ride up the Tonle Sap river took a lot longer than we were told but it was a pleasant way to arrive in the city that used to claim it was the Paris of Asia. It has always been one of my favourite cities in Asia and as the next few weeks pass, I realise it still is..
- Hang Chau is a good solid choice for a boat operator at a reasonable price. We heard horrendous stories from some other travellers who were only taken half the way by boat and then had to get buses, some taking up to 12 hours!
- You probably can book a boat on the day at the office by the dock, but in high season it might be safer to book in advance ( your guesthouse will do this for you) Expect a long wait at Cambodian immigration – find a seat in the shade before anyone else does and read a book!
- Lots of tuk tuk touts at the dock in Phnom Penh. Walk up the ramp to the road to find less pushy and cheaper drivers. If you like the guy, consider booking him for the few next days. Agree a rate. $20-25 is a fair rate. Any less than that and you are ripping him off!