We needed a cheap room between Chau Doc to Phnom Penh, but apparently Chau Doc doesn’t really offer this as a boarder town. Hoa Hung is supposed to be the place that backpackers go before crossing the boarder into Cambodia and where we were taken. We check out a room for $7, which we negotiated down to $6. The owner was very moody and unfriendly about negotiations and even tried to rule out free Internet from the equation. He was an highly unpleasant man it turned out and made everything difficult. The room was the worst we have had since India. We were at the top of the hotel with broken windows, stained bed and a scummy bathroom. We decided to put up for it for a few nights as agreed as per our $6 per night deal.
After getting sorted and heading out we found that there was no Internet available anyway. We asked to turn it on and that was met with raised tones and delay. We left amidst a horrible atmosphere and headed out to grab some food.
We sat at a local food stall and tried a local coconut cake and then headed back to a food stall selling BBQ and rice staple fare. 18,000 vnd was quoted, but our portion was far smaller than other tables. We finished and paid only to be chased down the road asking for an extra 10,000 vnd, which we declined stating the price and pointing the lack of most of the ingredients we had asked for. A man stepped in and the lady was quick to explain that we short changed her. Unfortunately for her the man said, ”sorry but pork and rice is 17,000. That is the price”. Exactly, that is what we paid. We told him this and let them discussing the charges as the bystander judge had simply pointed out that she was trying to rip us off. Unlucky this time.
So leaving lovely My Tho for a few days here, we were suddenly regretting our mistake. We walked to the main square and still hungry I ate a Pho and Laura tried a sweet jelly, rice noodle, red bean and coconut milk, drink that is mixed with ice and typical in Vietnam. It is an offshoot of Sâm bổ lượng that can contain various ingredients. An alien taste guaranteed.
On one side of the square resides a temple, called the Phước Điền Temple that had people coming and going so we decided to pay it a visit. It is special because it contains shrines for two religions, Buddhism and the Cao Đài within the same walls. Take note aggressive religions, spirituality can co-exist between different practices. Some people entered and peeled off the the left to kneel before Buddha, while others turned right and bowed before a Cao Đài Saint. Both shrines were equal in grandeur and attracted a similar presence. A model for all in tolerance.
We walked around to decide what to do, as we already felt put off by Chau Doc. We also learnt that the ”things to see”, were encompassed within a tour package that took you on to Phnom Pen. We didn’t want to take this route as it was the major route taken by all other travelers. We explored traveling to an immigration point further west, but were told by numerous locals that picking up transport on the other side was hard and would take a taxi. This would be expensive. Since there is no need to go against the grain and incur a much higher cost and hassle we (again) eventually caved in and actually decided to book a tour the next day for $10 to Phnom Penh via a boat trip to the Mekong, another boat in Cambodia before a final bus to Phnom Penh. The trip to see the floating village, floating fish farm and the Cham (Muslim ethnic minority) village was free as part of this package, you simply needed to get up an hour earlier. I am not sure who would not take this opportunity.
We told the owner that we were going to leave for Phnom Penh tomorrow, who shook his head with a smarmy smile, as if to say ”what a waste of time negotiating the rate”, now you are going to pay full price. I bit my lip in telling him it was because of this crappy guesthouse that was the main reason for this. He then told us that we needed to pay in advance for the tour, so he could book it and was clearly put out of joint when we told him we had already done it… with another, helpful, company.
We woke up early to see the sun rise and to pay the market a visit before we left and to eat some breakfast. Laura opted for a pate baguette (6,000 vnd), with local Vietnamese herbs, like sawtooth, and holy basil, which has become a favourite of ours over the past month. I wanted something more substantial, which meant rice. We walked down the tarpaulin covered streets, with carts weaving through people inspecting the range of tropical fruit and vegetables. We passed a stall selling a crispy pancake filled with pork, beansprouts and herbs, but thought 15,000 was too expensive, so continued. I found the ubiquitous pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) stall, but was given a chicken porridge made from rice (15,000 vnd or 50p), also containing bean sprouts and chopped spring onion. We sat surrounded by locals dealing out money and the neighbouring stalls watching us, as though tourists don’t sit there to eat often if at all. To be fair the smell of fish was strong and the floor squelchy with a mixture of mud and ”market residue” one might call it.
Passing back through the hustle and bustle Laura was too tempted by the egg pancake affair, so we took that away and headed for a quick coffee before we had to head out for 7am.
Back at the hostel we came to pay and the guy knew we had to leave imminently. He delayed until we pushed him, then tried to over charge us on the exchange rate and would not give us our passports back until we paid it. We were angry at his abuse of what he clearly considered as the upper hand. So as his restaurant was full we made a scene and made sure everyone knew he was trying to rip us off. The tour agent we were booked with came to find us as we were now late and eventually he caved in claiming ”I am too busy to argue”. We left feeling harassed, which takes a lot for us at this point in our travels.
In a group of 2 other couples we walked to the ferry pier and climbed aboard a cloth covered fishing boat, that had chairs added to. Our guide spoke excellent English and took us through proceedings, before reaching the amazing floating village.
It is amazing to think that people live off the water in every possible way. People row produce up to the houses to sell, as you can see from this fruit seller in the picture above.
People hung out lazily looking across the water, as boats completing numerous functions passed each other. We were taken to the fish farm, where fish can be grown in 4 months. We threw food into the meter squared boxes causing an intense thrashing of the tightly packed fish and shown the food being made out of fish heads, which stank.
We were then taken past the village, houses with washing hanging out and kids playing on their isolated island of houses to the Cham village. We clambered off the boat and down and plank walkway to the village and shown the sarong hand weaving process, using a traditional loom.
Kids in the village came up and squeeled with delight, with broad smiles, asking for money and to buy things ”for their school. In one hut a school lesson was in progress, but stopped to look at us and test out their English.
We tried on some of the traditional Cham clothing and had a brief look around the village and the yearly high water levels that were above our heads!
Back 0n the boat we had a 3 hour cruise down the smaller rivers feeding into the Mekong. Traditional life at its best and we were suddenly really glad we took this option. We passed men taking their water buffalo for a wash, numerous duck farms, with kids fixing the enclosure netting.
House boats were alive with usual daily chores of washing and renovation. Fisherman pulled on nets and arranged them to section of parts of the river. All while we chugged by at a lazy speed. Some people on our boat slept, but we were raptured by Mekong life, a sight we had been looking forward to for a long time.
Board walks emerged from the land to a small enclosed area, sometimes a large barrel cut open, sometimes some old rags. We soon learnt through seeing someone squatting in them- they were toilets. Not too private ones either as people watched us crawl past, as we watched them!
Paths lining the banks occasionally saw activity of a bike or two. The only other times the sound was broken was when the kids at every single house shouted ”hello” and waved ecstatically.
This continued until the boarder, where we waited for our visa exit stamp to be proceeded. Then we said goodbye to our tour guide, who only then told us that the man driving the next boat had a funeral and so we would take a bus all the way to Phnom Penh from the boarder. We think this was a lie as a bus ride is cheaper than a boat journey, and at this point there was little we could do about it. So, with a goodbye she was off!
We climbed into a modern minibus and set off on rocky mud roads through no mans land. We arrived at the Cambodian boarder and thrust some forms. I noticed that a man approached the counter with a folded newspaper. The customs official made sure the paper was put under his desk. When we got back into the minibus I noticed a stack of newspapers, which is when I realised it was a bribe that was paid.
People watched us as we passed by. Although living close together and obviously Asian the Vietnamese and Cambodian have distinctly separate features. We passed similar stilt houses though. This time cloth was laid out and the brightest orange corn I have ever seen was out drying in the sun. We saw flashes of waves as we sped past onto Phnom Penh 2 and a half hours away.
The outskirts of Phnom Penh looks like a third world country, dusty, shacks and nothing built to a very good standard. The motobike volume increased rapidly. Yet when we entered the centre down Preah Norodom Boulevard, everything adopted a modern feel. New buildings, some in French colonial architecture stood and the road was lined with English schools and embassies.
We were dropped by the riverside that we had heard was the tourist strip. Dropped off outside a hotel that was $7- 8 per night, we decided to head elsewhere. A tuk tuk suggested Lakeside which was cheaper and like Vietnam we would get a free ride out there. We agreed and were soon winding down a small lane, past a falling apart mosque, bumping down a run down road to a dead end which housed a few guesthouses. We ended up in the Grand view for $5 per night for a small, but clean room. A strong fan that is needed. Did everything we needed.
Hungry we then set out for food and found an all you can eat Indian. We had fancied an Indian for a while and for $2 for vegetarian (including banana lassi) or chicken for $3.50 (with a beer)- bargain! We could see why though, as despite posters on the wall written by past satisfied customers, every curry had the same sauce! It filled us up though, actually to the point where we needed to sleep!
We slept for 3 hours before the sun was setting and we headed to the roof terrace to watch it set over a distant skyline that was separated by the ”lake”, which was being filled in as we speak to house a new development funded by the IMF and the Chinese. No one knew what it was to be exactly, but it meant the area was dying. Guesthouses were closing and houses had already been bought out and demolished by the developers. The rest were holding on in order to attract a higher buy out price.The remaining slither of the lake, diminishing in front of people’s was still being used for fishing and as a front to a few bars and the 2 remaining guesthouses.
We found a bar that had cheap 75 cents Ankor beer (the tourist staple beer while Cambodians prefer Anchor), called the Magic Sponge and new owner Hugh. Man what a character, he was hectic and yet everything he did was through a running commentary of his evolving to do list. A really entertaining guy though and interesting. The bar clearly attracted regulars including a few dope smokers and a guy who sat with his head swaying, asking for more Mekong whisky on the rocks ”on the tab”. Music would go up in volume and then down again depending on the popularity of the tune. Beer was served by a tap attached to a cool box that was filled with ice. A little gem.
The next day we headed out to check out the town and see some of the sights. First stop was Wat Phnom the central temple in town and the oldest in the country.
The conical form towered over the surrounding area amid trees, creating a haven in the centre of town. A lone elephant tied to a tree as a tourist attraction was being stroked and fed by a group of tourists, looking unhappy with its existence.
At the top of the Wat there were cages of birds that you could by and release for good luck. All I could think was how unlucky their capture must be.
We walked all day, past the beautiful museum and presidential palace. The architecture and awnings of the Cambodian temples are more impressive than any other I have seen around the world. They are a dominating sight.
Past the market and then to riverside. We sat for a happy hour drink which is in every bar between 4pm and around 9pm, when the night really starts in Phnom Penh. Then heading towards Lakeside we stopped in another 2 bars before taking a ”motodup”, as we were told they were called here, back to lakeside, while giving the man directions , as he wasn’t 100% on where he was going.
We ended up back in the Magic Sponge bar and sat again at the bar chatting with Hugh until we had to go to bed for a bus we had booked earlier leaving at 7am. The tuk tuk driver that brought us to lakeside in the first place touted us for a trip to the killing fields, S21 prison and shooting range for $10, but we wanted to get to the beach for Laura’s Birthday. We promised to return, much to his disbelief and headed off with egg baguette and iced coffee to the bus station and Sihanoukville.