Going to Cambodia

May 7, 2004

The thermometer reached 99 degrees Fahrenheit (37 deg. C.) in Saigon on Thursday, and by 7:30 am on Friday the temperature was already rising quickly. Another scorcher on the way.

At that hour I was at the Export-Import Exchange Bank, trying to trade in my million-and-a-half Vietnamese Dong for a hundred U.S. dollars to carry across the border to Cambodia. I'd been warned that there were no ATM's in Cambodia, so I should bring a wad of dollars to tide me over until reaching a bank in Phnom Penh. But of course, the bankteller announced that "Sorry sir, new government rules, not allow to give dollars." I was pretty sure I wouldn't be able to get rid of my Dong once inside Cambodia. Well.....shit.

Soon enough it was 8 am, and the minibus operated by the backpacker-oriented Saigon travel agency arrived at my hotel for a front-door pickup. The bus quickly filled with a dozen "backpacker tourists" from almost as many countries: Australia, Cameroon, Denmark, England, Finland, France, Sweden, and yours truly representing the good 'ole EweEssay.

The road between Saigon and the Cambodian border is crowded but paved and has good traffic flow. This part of Vietnam is still agricultural, but there are many businesses along the road and the area is clearly "developing."

road between Saigon and the Cambodian border

We arrived at the border about 11 am. After dropping us off, this bus would return to Saigon, leaving us to find our own way across the border. Supposedly another bus would be waiting for us on the Cambodian side...

We pulled into a border parking lot and witnessed two sights: first, a group of Vietnamese moneychanger ladies were having a screaming-and-shoving match with each other. Second, our bus was immediately surrounded by touts offering to carry our bags across the border. The bus conductor tossed our bags out onto the ground, and by the time I got out of the bus a tout had hold of my bag and I had to fight him for it. He finally let go.

Next we walked fifty yards to Vietnamese Immigration to "check out." I'd been dreading this moment: when I had accused the maid of stealing money from my room in Hanoi, the front desk clerk who returned my passport somehow "lost" the yellow immigration paper that I'd gotten upon entering Vietnam ("Sorry sir, no paper in you passport when check in.") Our group stood in line in the hot sun for about 20 minutes (I'm sure today had long since surpassed the 99 degrees of the previous day) while the Vietnamese immigration officers stamped passports. I was one of several missing the magic yellow paper, and a group of fixers wearing 'official' name tags were doing a lively business arranging papers for those without. They started bugging me to do the same, offering the "cheap" price of only ten dollars. I decided to wait my turn to see what the Immigration guys would say.

I finally reached the head of the line, and as expected, the Immigration officer threw my passport back at me: "No paper!!" The fixers smiled and waved blank papers. I handed over ten dollars worth of Dong and miraculously, within three minutes my passport was stamped, allowing me to leave Vietnam.

Throughout the wait, the moneychanger ladies had been waving stacks of Cambodian money in our faces. Normally I wouldn't have paid them any mind, but realizing I had no dollars and that my Viet Dong would be worthless across the border, I started paying attention. I really needed to get my hands on some of those Cambodian Riels.

I started jabbering with the moneychangers and they offered me 3000 to the dollar (official rate is 4010.) I turned away and they started screaming "OK, OK, terty fie hondred!" (3500) Minus what I'd paid the Immigration fixers, I now had one million three hundred forty-three thousand Dong, so I offered to trade one million three hundred thousand for Riels. We did some haggling and I finally got an offer of 3800. This seemed acceptable considering my near-desperation, so I signaled OK to one of the moneychangers and she gave me a huge stack of Cambodian Riels to start counting (the largest note was five thousand and I had to count five hundred sixty thousand.) I made it to two hundred thousand when another moneychanger lady started waving a stack of Riels in my face and screamed at me, "NO GOOD! NO GOOD!" (referring to the other moneychanger.) I yelled at her to leave me alone, and then, having lost my count, started again. This time I got about halfway through the stack and then the same woman as before waved her money in my face, screaming "NO GOOD! NO GOOD!" again. I lost my count again, and was sorely tempted to punch her in the face. I yelled at her, "Get outa my face you fu_____ bi____!!" Realizing her only goal at this point was to prevent me from doing business with the other moneychanger, I got up, grabbed my pack, and started walking the kilometer to the Cambodian side of the border. Hopefully I'd be able to change my money over there.

Looking into Cambodia from Vietnam

After walking the dusty, potholed kilometer to Cambodia, I arrived at a collection of little huts where 50 or so foreigners were standing around, waiting for Cambodian Immigration to stamp entries into passports. Fortunately I'd gotten a Cambodian visa in Saigon two days before; but others hadn't and were now doing the requisite wait, and greasing the requisite palms, to get entry visas. I got my passport stamped in less than three minutes.

There were a few moneychanger ladies on this side of the border as well. I picked one who didn't look like a screamer and she quickly offered me the same rate as I'd been offered over in Vietnam. I immediately accepted and we walked to a small table where a group of about fifteen locals watched me count her money, and her mine. I gratefully pocketed my hefty stack of Riels and walked to where the minibuses were parked, waiting for us Phnom Penh-bound travelers to gather.

We finally got going in the Cambodian minibus. Cambodia sure did look a lot poorer than Vietnam: absent were the hordes of motorscooters and newish trucks brimming with produce and building supplies. Instead, we now shared the pothole-filled roadway with numerous cows, dogs, horse-drawn carts and ancient, overloaded trucks; and our driver expertly swerved at high speed to avoid them all. But within ten minutes we saw a large flatbed truck alongside the road with a smashed-in cab surrounded by a gaggle of curious bystanders. Our driver laughed and smiled.

This area of Cambodia, known as the Parrot's Beak, was intensively carpet-bombed by American B-52's from 1970 to 1973 (a greater tonnage of bombs were dropped here then than were dropped on Japan during the whole of World War II.) Later, from 1975 to 1978, the area was largely depopulated in genocidal purges by the murderous Khmer Rouge. It looks like it has never recovered.

About an hour into Cambodia we passed through the town of Svay Rieng. I wanted to get a taste of rural Cambodia before arriving in the capitol city of Phnom Penh, and this seemed like my chance. I started asking the driver to stop so I could get out, but he just grinnned and replied "No English!" By the time we were a kilometer out of town I started waving my arms around and yelling "Stop! Stop!" He slammed on the brakes and deposited me and my pack on the side of the road.

I flagged down a passing 'moto' (motorbike) driver and he gave me a ride back to town. I got off the bike and felt transported to another century...

A Khmer woman smiled shyly.

Khmer woman

A group of men enjoyed a Cambodian version of bocce ball, and children posed by a sign for a wedding studio.

Cambodian version of bocce ball wedding studio

I found my way to the Independence Monument at the center of town. Pretty slow for downtown.


I rented a room at the Vimean Monorom Hotel, one of two hotels in town. I signed the guest register, and noticed that mine was the first signature in over a week....busy place, huh?

Vimean Monorom Hotel

By late afternoon I was hungry. I found a restaurant where I was the only customer and ordered fried rice with pork, not bad.

When it started getting dark, I found a guy who sorta spoke English and asked if there were any Friday night activities in Svay Rieng: movies? disco? karaoke? The answer to all three queries was a wan smile and "Sorry!"

So I spent the evening hanging out with the prostitutes on the sidewalk in front of the Tonlay Walkor Hotel, across from the Vimean Monorom and supposedly owned by the chief of police. They didn't speak any English nor I any Cambodian, but they let me hang out and watch them...uhhh....work. A number of local men came by on motorbikes or bicycles and chatted briefly with the girls, but no business transpired. This was a POOR town (sorry, no pix; the working girls wouldn't let me use my camera.)

Next morning I said goodbye to the hotel staff...

hotel staff

...and found my way to the market, to search for transportation to Phnom Penh. There was a minivan loading up and the touts excitedly grabbed my bag and threw it inside, as if the van were leaving momentarily.


I waited inside the broiling van for about ten minutes, and then got out and stood in the shade under a nearby roof. After a half hour or so, the driver gunned the engines and we five passengers got in. We started driving, rounding the market, and then came back and parked in the same place we'd been before. Not enough customers yet for ciritical mass. the driver repeated this maneuver three times over the next half hour, and finally we had eight passengers; apparently enough to leave.

We finally got under way and drove about five kilometers out of town. Then a woman by the side of the road yelled at the driver and he pulled over to chat. Soon we were headed back the way we had come. We stopped at a house and the driver and baggage boy disappeared into the back yard. They soon re-appeared hauling bamboo poles, which they began piling on the ground next to the van. Everybody disembarked and went inside the house to relax.

loading bamboo poles

The break gave me an opportunity to take photos of my fellow passengers.

photos of my fellow passengers photos of my fellow passengers

Finally we got going again. We continued picking up additional passengers across eastern Cambodia, and eventually there were 25 of us packed inside the minivan. Plus the baggage boy and a huge pile of bags and bamboo up on the roof. We passed a few more wrecks alongside the road, and an army patrol who were busy clearing mines. Land mines still claim 40 to 50 victims a month in Cambodia, a legacy of decades of war. Finally we arrived at the Mekong River and a ferry crossing.

Mekong River and a ferry crossing Mekong River and a ferry crossing

Another hour or so after crossing the Mekong, we arrived at a market on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. The minivan stopped and was surrounded by touts offering rides into town on motorbikes. I grabbed my bag and dashed through the crowd to find a place where I could sit and enjoy a cool drink. So this is Cambodia.

Next: Phnom Penh

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