Monday, April 21, 2008

Mekong Meandering

PHNOM PENH: I caused a small ruckus on the international border yesterday. A major tension between rival parties. A couple of primary school aged siblings raging over who would sell me a bottle of water.

Originally the boy would not drop his price for a can of soft drink from 15000 dong, even though I continued to offer 10000 for it. A price for which you could buy one anywhere else in Vietnam. I kept offering, even showing him the note. He wouldn't budge. His sister was cluey. She offered me a large bottle of water for 10000. Water was fine and we needed it, so off she raced to get one. The brother saw and raced off as well. The brother was quicker returning, and without thinking I gave him the note and took the bottle. The sister was furious as she caught up, bottle in hand, and screamed obscenities at me and then her brother.

We had made it to the border via a fibreglass river boat. The six hour fast boat was more than twice as expensive as the 10 hour slow boat, but at least it didn't involve a change of boat at the border and then a bus, or a lifetime on those hard wooden benches. The fast boat was for us, and we zoomed up the mighty Mekong calling in at the Vietnamese border checkpoint and soon after the Cambodian equivalent to formally enter the country.

Welcome to Cambodia. That was yesterday and in the meantime we have been wandering around this hard to love capital. On first glance the city is not quite up to Vietnamese cleanliness, but perhaps the country is yet to fully warm to us. Not like the weather though. From noon to about 4, escape from the suffocating heat is needed. Dry season still. Although back in the delta there were signs of it breaking.

Can Tho was the first instance when the heavens opened. Having just sat down to an evening meal the rain started to sheet down with a force I haven't seen since living in Lae. We watched the locals scatter to any sort of shelter available and a poor street vendor try and sit through it with the cover of a tiny umbrella while the gutter in front of her overflowed. Cracks of lightning filled the sky and massive claps of thunder boomed close by and the vendor eventually left her post drenched. More of these sights will no doubt occur as the wet begins over the next few months.

We had come south to Can Tho from HCMC as part of our Mekong Delta meanderings. Floating markets were a hot ticket item and so they proved to be. We had signed up for an early, 5.30am departure, for a long day touring the canals and waterways around the city.

The wizened boatman
Our old man river

Come morning we were met at the guesthouse by our wizened old boatman. He set off in the half light leading us towards the wharf, through an amazingly already bustling city, at a pace which deceived his bent frame. His little boat was on par with its owner - possibly on the way out. It was just wide enough to seat both of us and long enough to lay down in. If only it deceived in speed as well. Old man river knew how to handle it though, and with his stoop, he stood on the small stern and guided us down the river. Putt putt went the adapted lawnmower motor ... for the next 7 hours.

After coursing down the river, guiding up and down wakes of larger craft, the small size of the boat did benefit getting up close and personal with the floating markets. One in particular was full of similar sized boats. So with the lawnmower silent we bumped and squeezed our way through conical hat donned women haggling over the price of a bag of mangoes or buying noodle dishes off vendors. The vendors targeted us as well. A drink seller rocking up next to us with the gift of the gab was quite amusing, he made me buy a coffee and can of drink for our driver.

The water world of the Mekong Delta hasn't all been floating around. There have been sights to see on land as well. For a change from footing it we hired bikes in the border town of Chau Doc to see a local holy mountain (I am guessing it is holy because it is only bump in the flat landscape for miles around) called Mount Sam. Vietnamese bikes are something different. Mine had forgoed the chain and instead had something akin to a fan belt.

With much a-squeaking our bikes did do the trick and we made it out to the bottom of the mountain at around breakfast time, aka 6.30. I should have had some food, but instead we parked the bikes in the Vietnamese equivalent of a valet service and wandered off past the motorbike riders offering a lift (for a price) to the top.

The start of the track led through a Buddhist cemetery. It wasn't long after the graves before it was huff and puff time as we climbed past numerous places to stop and rest. Not for us, as it was only a small mountain (200 odd metres) and eventually it took only half an hour or so to reach the top. But the sweat glands had worked profusely in the early tropical humidity and I was wetter than kids at a Wet'n'Wild themepark. The breakfast situation wasn't that great either and I was feeling mildly faint. This was easily remedied on top after a hearty meal of packet noodle soup from a kiosk.

Hammock adorned rest stops on Mount Sam

Overall the food had been excellent in Vietnam. I am a big fan of cheap eats anywhere, but especially so when it is really cheap and extremely tasty like Vietnam is (the delta is by the way the origin of fish sauce). So far Phnom Penh has been more expensive than across the border but hopefully once we escape to rural Cambodia it will be similar. As long as I am more careful not to cause any more international incidents between rival siblings.

No comments: