WE MADE IT JUST IN TIME FOR CAMBODIA’S WATER FESTIVAL!
We’ve found land border crossings can be quite entertaining* – when crossing from Kenya to Tanzania at Namanga, for example, the “border” was a rusty gate we just walked around and when we paid for our Tanzania visas ($50USD each), the immigration officer “forgot” our change (a not-so-gentle reminder got that sorted pretty quickly however). Travelling by train from rural Romania into Bulgaria we handed our passports over to the immigration officers that boarded the train, as instructed, and then watched in horror as the train took off before the border guards had returned our most prized possessions to us! Luckily the train driver realised soon enough and we soon had our very valuable documents back in hand. The overnight bus journey from Plovdiv in Bulgaria to Istanbul (Turkey) had us crossing the border at about 3:00am, which was pretty crap; luckily THAT border crossing was pretty uneventful (though the bathroom facilities we got to use there were truly horrendous – one of the worst we’ve encountered anywhere!). Today we added the Vietnamese/Cambodian border crossing to our list of memorable/amusing/painful crossings. We made it though and we’re now in Phnom Penh, capital of of the world’s poorest, most corrupt, and most beautiful nations.
*Depending how warped our sense of humour is and assuming you make it out the other side unscathed.
The journey from Ho Chi Minh City (i.e. Saigon) is only about 240km long by road, but it took us 9 hours to get here today thanks to the traffic, the appalling road conditions here in Cambodia, and a 2 hour wait in line at the Vietnamese/Cambodian border. Luckily we were booked on a VIP bus for the journey and had comfortable seats, air conditioning, water, and free wifi (yes, free wifi on the bus), the whole way.
The bus left Saigon around 9:00am and headed North-West to Moc Bai, the Vietnamese border town. We made relatively good time and got there around 11:00am, only to be greeted by a heaving mass of sweaty, frustrated people – all waiting to have their passports stamped by the Vietnamese authorities, allowing them to leave Vietnam. Turns out today was the last day of the Cambodian Water Festival, Bom Om Touk, and most of the people at the border where Cambodians trying to get home after a long weekend shopping up a storm in Saigon. (There were a lot of military personal around at the border so we didn’t take any photos, but you can use your imaginations!)
NEVER has it taken us so long to be allowed to leave a country! We waited for almost 90 minutes in the heat and humidity for the twats on the other side of the counter to check our Vietnamese visas to make sure we hadn’t over-stayed our welcome, and stamp our passports. Talk about the inefficiencies of bureaucrats! Still, at least they let us leave without any fuss and we didn’t have to slip anyone any extra cash as an “incentive”.
Proceedings at the Cambodian end took all of 20 minutes (including purchasing our entry visas), and then we were free! Oh the bliss of being allowed back on to our air conditioned bus!
For the next 4 hours we drove along some of the dustiest, bumpiest roads we’ve travelled since being in Africa, with the Cambodian countryside zipping past. And boy was it obvious we had crossed into another country! Vietnam may be relatively poor, densely populated, and chaotic, but in terms of economic development and infrastructure, it is LIGHT YEARS ahead of Cambodia. There is so much rubbish along the roads here, and it’s incredibly dusty; it’s also obvious how much poorer people are here.
Cambodia is the modern remnant of the once great Khmer Empire, whose legacy is the jungle city of Angkor – arguably South East Asia’s most popular tourist sight and the main reason we’re here. Known as Kampuchea during its years as a French colony, Cambodia was torn apart by civil war for decades during the 20th century and has only been at peace for 25 years. The country remains scarred to this day by the effects of war and by the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge Communist government, who, until the direction of the dictator Pol Pot, killed almost half the country’s population during the 4 years of its reign of terror (1975-1979).
The legacies of Cambodia’s troubled past include a devastated people, where about 50% of the population is under 20 years of age; a countryside scarred by warfare, still riddled with unexploded ordinances; and country struggling with widespread poverty, pervasive corruption, and appalling public infrastructure development. It’s hardly the stuff of romantic novels or glossy travel brochures, but it’s the truth.
Almost 75% of Cambodia’s 15 million inhabitants live in rural villages and towns, working as subsistence farmers and surviving as best they can with little to no government support. We saw during our drive today just how challenging farming can be in this water-logged country; so much of the land is swampy and covered in water for much of the year that all the houses are built up on high stilts, or (if you’re rich), on huge mounds of earth designed to protect against flooding.
By the time we arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s sprawling capital, it was already getting dark and we were starving. So, after a quick shower at our hotel, we headed straight out to find some dinner… and were greeted with one of the most insane traffic jams we have ever seen!
Turns out the last night of Bon Om Touk (i.e. the Water Festival) is A BIG DEAL here in Cambodia! There were thousands of people out to see the fireworks and enjoy an evening picnic down by the river. We following the general crush of people and ended up by the Mekong River, at a great restaurant overlooking the festivities which gave us a bird’s eye view of the chaos below and an excellent vantage point from which to enjoy the fireworks.
Bon Om Touk is the largest annual festival in Cambodia and celebrates the reversing of the flow of the Tonle Sap River*. The holiday lasts 3 days and involves boat races, fireworks, concerts, and festivities.
*The Tonle Sap River connects the mighty Mekong River to Tonle Sap lake, South East Asia’s largest fresh water lake. During the rainy season the Tonle Sap River flows roughly from South to North, carrying excess water from the swollen Mekong to fill the lake. During the dry season, however, the river reverses its flow, emptying Tonle Sap Lake and carrying its waters into the Mekong. The changing of the river’s flow direction towards the Mekong happens in late November, after the rainy season ends, and is marked by Bon Om Touk.
After dinner we walked around for a while, soaking in the atmosphere and marvelling at the revelry around us. Tired after our long travel day, we didn’t stay out late however and headed back to our hotel around 10:00pm, keen for another shower and bed. So even though our evening wasn’t that exciting, we feel privileged to have seen a tiny slither of Cambodian life tonight – it was really interesting seeing families out for their picnics, and groups of young people laughing together. We also saw a lot of very dirty, poor homeless people and street children rifling through bins for food scraps, and a few rather dubious-looking characters scanning the crowds for likely victims*. It was an interesting juxtaposition – seeing so many people having fun and laughing, and others so desperate and sad. Seems Cambodia is going to be an interesting mix of beautiful and ugly.
*We’ve been warned a few times about the bag snatchers and pick pockets in Phnom Penh, and we certainly saw a few people tonight that looked like they had evil intentions.