Holiday in Cambodia, the Impossible Journey?

Peter’s blog is regularly updated as he travels across the world. Here is a recent extract from his time in Cambodia.

Saigon to Phnom Penh
My plan was to travel up the Mekong from Siagon to Phnom Penh by boat, unfortunately all the traditional ferry routes have closed down as most people now travel by road. Apart from local boats the only significant river traffic are the expensive cruise boats, usually costing well over $2000. It's possible to get a boat to Phnom Penh from Chau Doc but it's an 8 hour bus journey from Siagon & then another 6 on the boat, whereas Phnom Penh is only 6 hours directly from Saigon – so it would be crazy.

Eastern and Oriental ExpressThe only sensible option is to travel by bus which I booked at my hotel for $15, it included a transfer to the bus station by taxi and being seen onto the correct bus. The international buses are smart with air con, toilets, free bottled water & wet wipes – as good as bus travel gets and they're pretty full.

One of the bus conductors collects everyone's passport and fills out Cambodian entry forms. It takes almost an hour to get clear of Siagon but within minutes we're in another lowrise urban area. There are clear signs of heavy rain & local flooding which is strange because Siagon has had virtually none for the week I was there.

The border is about 2 hours away. Passengers get their passports back with filled in entry forms and exit the bus with luggage to pass through Vietnamese border control – and then get back on the bus. 100 yards later its off the bus again sans luggage and through Cambodian border control. They take all 10 fingerprints electronically plus an iris scan; then its on to quarentine where a heat sensor is pointed at your head to detect signs of sickness. Back on the bus for 50 yards and off again for a half hour rest break. Lots of people eat and the women selling fruit and cooked sweetcorn do a roaring trade.

Open air market - Phnom PenhI'm the only European on the bus but there are a couple of English speaking travellers from Malaysia who are on holiday. Quite a few money changers busily work the border crossing (presumably black market) but the officials don't seem to mind. I said no but regret not off loading my surplus Dong. People were also selling Cambodian SIM cards, which presumably work.

There's an instantaneous change after crossing the border. There's much less commerce, there are loads of dogs, wandering hump backed white cows and the driver speeds up, even though the roads are smaller. The architecture is noticably Khmer, saffron robed monks can be seen collecting arms and the landscape is distinctly more pastoral.

A Bollywood style DVD gets put on the TV and then an awful crooning DVD about idylic Indian couples falling in love in different situations.

Every mile north the flooding seems to get worse and rivers, ponds and paddy fields are overflowing but fortunately the road is raised and free from water. About 4 hours north of Saigon the bus takes a ferry across the Mekong at Neak Loeung. A woman brings on board a huge tray full of roasted small birds on her head and unsucessfully hawks them to ferry passengers – the crawling flies might have put some people off.

Towns look really poor, often with dirt roads off the main road and a continuous ribbon of ramshackle buildings beside the road; and then a surprising large group of well dress school children in one small town.

There's a noticable improvement in infrastructure on entering the precincts of Phnom Penh, police pull over traffic and check it and three-wheeled tuk-tuks swarm everywhere.

 For more information about Rail travel, read Peter Lynch’s Blog

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Peter Lynch

Journalist, rail and wildlife specialist & contributor to Great Train Journeys of the World

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