The cheerful receptionist at the Thuan Loi Hotel in Chau Doc was remarkably casual about my Speed Boat ride from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh. Firstly, she had misunderstood my departure date. I quickly corrected her, making desperate circles with my fingers and wrist to indicate "two days later".
She helped me buy the ticket, rather, she pulled out a receipt book from the drawer and wrote me a receipt to acknowledge receiving payment for the boat ride. I paid the equivalent of US$24 in VND, after a ballpark conversion using the hotel calculator. That's it? I wondered. "Pickup 6:45 from here", she said, and smiled even more. Seeing my doubtful look, she continued "Confirm, 6:45."
Part of her day's work. First time for me. Maybe once in a lifetime for me. Well, looking back, I hope not.
Life started at 4 AM on the river, as usual. I was up early, listening to the sounds of boats chugging up and down the river and was down by the reception well before 6:45 AM. Several other passengers showed up. All of us waited. Some peered at their watches or mobile phones, wondering what the next step would be.
The staff in this hotel start work early, by 6 AM. So my cheerful receptionist friend was already there, smiling away, ready for the day. I suggested in sign language that she call the boat company. She did that. "Pickup coming", she cheerfully informed me. In about a minute, two Cyclos showed up. Cyclos, ok, I understand. To pick up the passengers. However, two cyclos? How on earth can 4 people and about 10 bags fit into 2 cyclos?
One of the drivers pointed to his Cyclo and said "Bags". Ok, I get it, we arrange 10 bags into 2 Cyclos, but where do the people sit? The Cyclo drivers quickly made off with our bags, without another word. The passengers looked at each other and quietly followed. It appeared by then that the group had given up. As for me, all I wanted to do was keep an eye on my red bag. There she blows!
We passed my favourite cafe that was not open yet. A few metres later, the Cyclos suddenly turned into a gate. I realized with a huge sense of relief that we were at the pier. Our speed boat was waiting, and bags were being loaded. The staff checked our tickets and asked us to wait.
Other passengers showed up soon, all the bags were loaded, and we were all aboard the Hang Chau Express Boat. No seat numbers, you need to clamber in and find a seat.
The seats are quite comfortable, reclining, aircraft style. We passed homes set by the water and soon the Mekong river began to open up.
The sunlight from the rising sun painted light and dark patterns on the surface of the river.
The crew of the boat soon started handing out the colourful Cambodian Visa-On-Arrival form along with the Cambodian entry-exit form. It turned out that forms are needed for exit from Vietnam. So, all the forms that I had carefully pre-filled, printed and brought were not needed. For entry into Cambodia, we had to hand over a photo and the US$30 visa plus US$4 processing fee. While some folks object to the unofficial processing fee, it has in fact become a part of life in developing countries. I treated the US$4 processing fee as a 'chill fee', allowing me to look around and enjoy the scenery while the passport and immigration work got done.
The Cambodian entry-exit form looks like this.
We were also provided with a packet that contained snacks, a banana, juice and water. Looks good for a few hours.
The Vietnamese border check point housed an X-ray machine, cafe, toilets, money changer and a waiting area. Quite relaxed. The passport stamping work was done in a room inside the building. Once the passports were stamped, all the passengers were asked to clamber back on board.
In hardly a minute or two, we reached the Cambodian check point and had to get off again. I asked the smiling official whether photography is allowed. "Yes", he said.
The Cambodian immigration facility was set in a large garden. First step, the stacks of passports and forms were 'processed' in the covered area by the gate.
The 'processing' took a while, maybe about 30 minutes, good for wandering around all over the garden. The garden presented an amazingly relaxed atmosphere, almost like a temple site that visitors go to on sight seeing tours.
As I waited, the view across the broad Mekong River was remarkably soothing. As if the world was in no hurry to go anywhere. Reminded me so much about another relaxed border crossing experience. Junior and I had crossed the land border at Namanga between Kenya and Tanzania in July 2014. It's such a pleasure to come across border crossings that are still cheerful and relaxed.
After about 30 minutes, maybe longer - I have no idea since I had not taken the trouble of peering into my mobile - the crew of our boat brought the stack of passports, read the names. held up the passports and handed them over one by one. We then had to line up by the adjacent building and present the passports to the officers inside. Windows served as counters. The officer verifying my passport thumbed through the pages, and suddenly broke into a h-u-g-e grin. "Second time?", he asked, absolutely thrilled. The stamps from my previous Cambodia entry and exit in April 2011 had made his day. In turn, the happiness of the officer made my day.
Back on the boat, I gazed at the waves caused by the speed boat and the greenery of the Cambodian landscape for a while. No stilt houses here.
I hopped across to the front section and sat by the driver. Two hours more, he seemed to indicate, in sign language. Quite typical, no English spoken here. It was a different view from the front, watching the massive Mekong go quickly by.
Predictably enough, it rained. Quite hard. The front door and windows were closed, I went back to my seat and watched the scenery change as we approached Phnom Penh. A massive suspension bridge and then several tall buildings appeared.
Over the next couple of days, I would be meeting friends in Phnom Penh. We had got introduced to them during our last visit. A simple family that had got devastated by the atrocities of the the Pol Pot holocaust and have been quietly rebuilding their lives since, and also helping many others along the way.
Previous: Chau Doc, Sam Mountain and Tra Su Forest
Coming up: Phnom Penh, a second time