Right from jump street we know that today’s going to be a race. Everything always turns into a race. We’ve got a bus at 8:30 am back to Phnom Penh which will presumably drop us off around 12:30, from there we need to find the port where we can grab the boat we reserved to get out of the country and down the river to Vietnam for 1:30. We’re supposed to be there half an hour early so we’ve only got thirty minutes of fuckup leeway time. Murphy brings up our boat reservations to make sure we’ve got the time right and we do but we managed to fuck up the day – our boat left yesterday. Well… Let’s just go there and see if we can get on another.
Another mini-bus but this one isn’t as shit, at least not for me. Murphy and Drisdelle are in the front and seem to have terrified expressions. I’m sitting next to a German guy who keeps lifting up his shirt to rub lotion on a new Che Guevara’s Face tattoo on his stomach. Definitely not going to talk US election with this guy. The boys get even more uncomfortable when the driver buys a giant jack fruit and puts it up front, leaving Murphy with pretty much no leg room.
We burn back and get stuck in the apparently-always-shit Phnom Penh traffic. We still don’t know where the port is but the driver is dropping off a few people here and there, he drops the German and his girlfriend near the airport, another guy on the side of the street. Starting to wonder if we should just jump out but we have no idea where we are so we stick it out. We’re down to one hour.
Out of the mini-bus with forty-five minutes to spare and we’re into a remork, we show him the address of the place and he knows it and he starts whipping through traffic way quicker than the mini-bus could have just due to size. We’re following the river (a good sign) and see dragonboat races going past. We pull into a parking lot and it’s 1:10. Right inside and the guys from Blue Cruiser are super helpful, we throw down $35 USD a piece and we’re booked for three seats at 1:30. One of the guys even brings us over some complimentary water and two bananas each.
We get down to the dock and wait for the boat. Good view of the races down there. Murphy caught a video of a victorious Dragonboat returning from the race
The dragonboat races kind of fuck up the game though, our boat in is delayed and it takes a few minutes for the forty or so white folks to gtfo then we pile in… The three of us have the entire boat to ourselves. Another delay rolling out but the important thing is we made it. We leave our seats and go to the back deck of the boat to get a better view on things. There are some dinky little grey police boats with rivercops giving us the eyes but I’m fairly certain our speedboat could out-Miami Vice them.
We’re out of the crazy-urban part of Phnom Penh surprisingly fast. The cityscape recedes into the distance. Boat ride Monatage!!
Our crew is drinking and smoking and offers us beers which we gladly accept. We watch little villages and ports go past, houses on stilts, dredges working on the river, the odd temple here and there and what were probably palm oil plantations. The boat is surrounded by the smell of burnt circuitry… Not sure what that is but we keep moving, the riverbank is close enough that if everything goes to shit we’re all decent enough swimmers to make it out alive.
At one point the boat just stops running and we’re drifting downriver. I look up and over to see one of our guys climbing on the roof and fucking around with a bunch of wires. After about thirty seconds the boat begins moving again.
As we reach the Cambodian immigration checkpoint the same guy comes back and tells us to get out our passports and fill out the pre-stamped departure cards we received upon arrival in Siem Reap. We kill our beers (on about our fourth or fifth round by this point) as we pull up and jump off.
It’s an easy checkpoint, we hand them over one at a time, the guard doesn’t say a thing and they come back stamped. Back on the boat and we’re headed into Vietnam.
Surprisingly we don’t see any obvious border patrol boats before we reach the border, just a couple of what looked like observation towers but they may have not even been operational, they looked a bit disused. Our boat pulls up to a jetty and we grab our passports and prepare to jump out but one of our crew members tells us not to and just asks for our passports… Okay that’s weird, he tells us to stay put and goes ashore inside of the immigration compound. We wait for a few minutes, see him walking back and forth but don’t lay eyes on any Vietnamese officials and ask another crew member whether we should go ashore, he says no. A few minutes later our guy comes back with our passports and they’ve got entry stamps. It makes no sense whatsoever, surely the immigration officials would want to at least see that we look like the people in our passports but apparently not. We’re waiting for a follow-up stop further down the river but somehow it never comes.
We didn’t see much traffic on the Cambodian side of the border but it picked up fast as we left the main river and cut into a little side channel. “Well boys, I guess this is where we’ll be chopping up fish guts in white slavery for the next five or six years.” The looks we’re getting from people on small fishing boats don’t look real friendly. Some guys hanging out on a dock wave to us, when we wave back they grab their dicks and flip us off. Besides the small fishing boats and people on the riverbanks we’re seeing a lot more industrialization as well, small factories and what looks like some kind of rice depot with huge tubes coming out of it, one pumping loose rice onto a barge.
Fortunately the sun is setting so besides being scenic as fuuuck it also means we aren’t immediately recognizable as foreigners so the dirty eyes don’t come as fast.
We hit the neon lights of Chau Doc expecting to pull up at some kind of port of entry but instead we pull up to an empty riverfront restaurant with an old guy who seems to be running the joint and a youngish waitress. They just kind of smile but don’t offer us menus, we stroll out the front of the restaurant and now we’re on a side street in Chau Doc – no signs indicating where to go, no taxi queue, not really at all what we expected. A really frail old man comes up with a rickshaw – a manual one, not a moto-rickshaw – and tries to convince us that the three of us and all of our gear should get in. There’s almost zero chance it would fit one of us with gear let alone three, have to decline and he seems disappointed but I think he narrowly avoided a busted rickshaw at best and a heart attack at worst.
We just pick a random direction and start walking, after ten minutes or so we reach a street with a few little hotels that seem to cater to locals, they sure don’t look like the Best Western. A lady flags us into one called the Hotel Vinh Phuoc and it’s $12 USD a night for a three-room bed, can’t beat that, let’s do it. She takes us upstairs and it’s got an air conditioner but it seems to be blasting out warm air. 13″ TV on the desk, the third bed is really a cot rather than a proper bed. There’s a door in the back corner that looks like it might lead to a balcony but we open it to find it’s to a narrow, extremely grungy staircase that goes downstairs into the kitchen and upstairs to who-knows-where, it’s not lit and it looks filthy.
Won’t be having beers in there, pretty sure we’re not supposed to be in there, let’s hit the street instead.
In many ways the streets of Chau Doc are a lot like those in Cambodia but the most immediately noticeable difference was the lack of anyone trying to hustle us with shitty sunglasses, paper fans, tuk-tuk rides or just straight up begging. We got almost zero hassle just rolling around. Another massive difference was the lack of the wealth disparity that was so evident in Phnom Penh, where you’d have some people driving Lexuses while others were about as dirt poor as you could find. On the surface it seemed like no one was doing really well but no one was in dire straits either, at least not to the level that it so common in Cambodia.
We spend twenty-five minutes looping around through a fish market and several back streets before coming to a town square that was 50 feet from our hotel had we gone the right way. There’s a super-western-looking restaurant advertising pizza, burgers, quesadillas and dim sum. Once again Drisdelle is like “Really guys?” but me and Murphy are pretty keen on avoiding fish. Murphy’s occasionally dipping his toe into the local cuisine but I’m saying to hell with that, my goal is to eat a quesadilla in every Southeast Asian country. A couple from Florence sits next to us (on their way to Cambodia headed up the Mekong the next day) and the girl orders pizza, that makes me feel a bit better about my absolute rejection of local cuisine.
Back to the Vinh Phuoc and we grab some Tigers and Saigon Greens from the fridge and nab a table next to a couple other white dudes drinking there, one guy’s from Holland and he’s biking from Saigon to India over five months. Really hilarious guy, he’s got story after story but the majority of them end up with him having diarrhea somewhere in the middle of nowhere on the side of the road in Asia. Tells us he’s 54, he looks in killer shape, says he was a fat dude until 39 then he started going to the gym constantly and now he does a long-distance bike trip through Asia every year.
The other guy is a French dude named Bryce who’s also coming from Saigon and gives us a pile of good intelligence on where to stay, it turns out the hostel we were looking at is way out of the main drag so he tells us about another place called the Hideout that’s right in the middle of it all and does a pub crawl every night. Great tip, we book it right away, he’s surprised they have any beds available.
Drisdelle heads upstairs at one point and comes back down telling us there are red ants all over our beds and presumably all through our gear. Fuuuuck, this is going to be a great sleep.
We’re leaving an impressive pile of empties around our table and watching one of the most overly dramatic TV shows we’ve witnessed since Racecar Detectives in Mexico. It follows the escapades of a group of Indians (dubbed into Vietnamese so the mouths weren’t even close), every twenty minutes one suffers some kind of accident and ends up in the hospital either in a catatonic state or with amnesia. They’re all in hospital beds but none are hooked up to any machines or wearing hospital robes, they all get better when their friends show up, drama bombs get dropped and they come to in the middle of it. Close-up shots of facial expressions abound. We called it Hospital Detectives and look forward to sending some box sets back home as Christmas gifts.
I went upstairs to drain it and scope the scene and found zero ants on any of our beds. It seems he’s having some kind of T34 ant-hallucinating episode that only the Hospital Detectives can solve.
We’ve booked an early bus to Saigon through our front desk so after smashing a few more cold ones we do a quick snack run, peanuts and beef jerky mostly, say later to Bryce and thank him for his info and call it quits. The room’s actually pretty cold, it’s verifiably antless and the beds are pretty damn good, turns out to be one of the better places we’ve stayed.