Cambodia to Phu Quoc: A crossing
Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam
Half the fun is in getting there. The goal isn't the destination, it’s the journey. Life is the road you travel, and the roadside bar you get drunk in. Okay, okay, that one is made up, but there are loads of sayings to this affect: whatever journey you are on, enjoy yourself along the way.
This lesson applies to every part of our lives. There are only a few milestones: graduation, a wedding, a birth, a parent’s death. The rest is just details and daily living. The smell of laundry coming out of the dryer. The tone of your mother’s voice when she answers the telephone. A dinner on the back porch with all of your closest friends.
The same is true when traveling. There are only a few really big destinations: Angkor Wat, the Pyramids, Easter Island, the Eiffel Tower. Everything in between is the stuff that is made for remembering. The smell of fish in a coastal village. The satisfaction of a cold beer after a long day of lugging a 20 kilo pack. An early-morning bus full of locals, a strip of the Asian highlands and an i-pod.
A long enough journey will yield countless memorable details and traveling in the Southeast Asian mainland, one of those details will doubtless be a border crossing. The mainland, made up of five countries, is rife with crossings. Going or coming into Cambodia there are six crossings, Thailand there are twelve, Vietnam has eight, Laos has six. Travel overland for any amount of time and crossing a border becomes inevitable.
Inevitability, however, does not preclude the stress and shock of transferring from one country into another. There is a change of currencies, language and people. A border crossing is sudden immersion into a different economy and government, which affects everything from road quality to food quantity (if not for travelers, then certainly for the people they will be interacting with along the way). It is terrifying and exciting, but most of all, it is a logistical challenge above all others.
The borders have hours, just like a bank or post office. If the journey from the town to the border isn't allotted enough time, sleeping in a border town will add to the fun of the crossing; border towns can be either notoriously expensive or uncomfortable to sleep in depending on geography. Transportation to and from the border varies in speed, quality, type and price. There are often tour services that will transfer backpackers from hotel in country A to hotel in country B. But a traveler who decides to DIY will find everything necessary to make for a great memory and an opportunity to put some old sayings into practice. It isn't the destination…
We start at five o’clock in the morning. Any crossing requires an alarm clock. The first challenge (we checked out and packed the night before) is finding a motorcycle taxi to the local bus station outside of Phnom Penh. Three people, two twenty kilo packs, and three kilometers of white knuckles and aching abdominal's costs 6,000 riel (US$1.50).
The bus station is buzzing. It is all mini-buses and their drivers and before we can dismount we are swarmed by them yelling, “Where you go?! Where you go?!” We ignore everyone, tip our driver and head into the swell of minibuses across the street in a dusty parking lot. The first official-looking/impartial person we see is a cop in a rickety lawn chair. He tells us a bus ride to the border should cost 4,000 riel. We bargain a driver down to 3,000 and on the way out of town we realize that asking the cops was like asking the mafia; our driver pays off three of them before he’s able to drive out of the village.
It is ten in the morning when we arrive in Neak Luong. The minibus drops us at a ferry crossing throbbing with people coming, going and selling. After we arrange for a boat to take us up the Mekong to the border crossing, we chill inside of the throb and tease the girls selling coca-cola, fruit and bread. The boat driver finds enough people to make the trip to the border worthwhile and we board a six-man speedboat that had seen its better day. Just as it pushes off from the dock, black clouds creep across the horizon and make a speedy charge for the bow of the boat. Within minutes we are soaked and crashing through hefty waves. Squinting against driving rain, I watch a different world flash by the boat on the shore. Fishermen and children are up to their chins in the murky Mekong and when we pass they give us toothy smiles. In places, the green shoreline disappears and it is just a muddy wall meeting the muddy water so that we are in a brown box capped with a black lid made of sky.
The stillness of land, after an hour of having our chins pounded into our chests, is blessed. I am soaked through to my underwear and my fingernails are blue. For a moment my mood threatens to turn as black as the sky, but there are many kilometers to go, we have yet to cross the border and our bags were tightly wrapped in plastic tarps, which means I have dry clothes. I take a deep breath, don my pack and we pass through the Cambodian check-out without a hitch.
The walk from the Cambodian to Vietnamese offices is a one kilometer wander through a border village. The people are going on about their daily routines as we pass through, but they pause or glance up to say hello. A few groups of children join us as we walk and encircle us, chatting with each other and touching our packs or hands, intermittently showing us broad smiles. Their homes are wooden huts with palm leaf roofs. The porches have all been extended beyond their front door and this is where young and old have gathered and watch the parade of two foreigners go by. A young woman appears and immediately takes my hand in hers. She is young, but filled with something that makes her seem very old. She begins to babble at me in Khmer, smiling and laughing. Looking down at her I am fascinated by this strange familiarity with which she regards me and the way she talks as though I could understand. Finally, another older woman comes, armed with a broom, and chases her away. I smile at her and make the universal sign for ‘crazy’. She laughs and nods and we walk on.
The Vietnam border offices are a series of concrete buildings spaced out over the next five hundred meters. The first building we stop in is not immigration, though the young man behind the counter demands our passports. Sahand reaches behind the counter and picks up a stamp on the counter. The lapel of the young man’s jacket says, ‘Quarantine’ and the stamp says, ‘Passed’. The girl sitting next to the young man is glancing tentatively between Sahand and her coworker. She holds a book of tickets, each marked for 20,000 dong. Sahand turns and walks out of the office while the young man shouts at his back, “Hey! You! You! You!” We are not followed.
The next office is immigration and they glance over our Vietnam visas, then tell us to go to the inspection offices. In the next building over they hoist our packs onto a conveyor belt and run them through an X-ray. It takes all of thirty seconds. Our inspection papers are stamped and we return to immigration to have our passports stamped. All checked out, we grab two motorcycle drivers and head to the first major town on the eastern border of Vietnam, Chau Doc.
The ride to Chau Doc is a fifty kilometer zip line on a motorbike. The drivers speed through traffic, beeping their horns, whizzing past trucks and bicycles and twice driving right onto ferries to cross the Mekong, which is the life-blood of Southern Vietnam. Across the second ferry ride we are still one kilometer from the center of town when our moto drivers abandon us. We argue with them to take us to the center, but they refuse, become indignant, angry even, and we finally pay them off. We hire two cyclos to take us to the nearest hotel. My legs tremble as I climb the stairs and once I am at the top I cannot muster the strength to go back down again. We agree to stay here, though the room is cramped and the shower smells, it is a motionless Eden. It is five o’clock in the afternoon and we have been on the move for twelve hours solid. We dump our bags and collapse. In two days we will head for Phu Quoc, an island off the eastern coast of Vietnam in the Gulf of Thailand where we will immerse ourselves in the sun, sand and sky of what the guide book calls “beach-out nothingness.” Before we make that journey, though, we take a moment to stop enjoying the ride and just for a day, we enjoy the destination.