It’s not hard to figure out that my love for food is very much tied to my love of travel. So before I move on to the letter C (at last!) I thought I’d share a short story about Cambodia, which, conveniently starts with that very letter.
OK, so the story isn’t exactly about Cambodia – it’s about how I got there. It has nothing to do with food, although at one point on the journey someone offered my friend Heather a baby chicken, which I do believe they intended for her to eat.
Up shit creek without a paddle
A short story by Joanna Haber
“If I die, tell my mother I love her!” Heather shrieked into the wind, passing back the bottle of ‘fine whisky from Vietnam’. I took a big sip.
As we whizzed along the Mekong in our small fishing boat past wooden houses on stilts, small children bathing in the river waved, shouting over the din of the overheating 40-horsepower engine. Kaleidoscopic temples peeked through gaps in the shrubbery. More children bathing. The afternoon rain had given way to the sun, which set in radiant shades of crimson and orange.
We were six in the boat, on our way to Cambodia to see the awe-inspiring temples of Angkor via the bustling capital city of Phnom Penh.
The most common route to Phnom Penh from Vietnam is either by air from Saigon or Hanoi or by bus and boat combination. Several companies offer daily services departing at 7 am from designated pick-up points near the border. These transfers can be easily arranged in advance at many hotel and travel agencies.
We did not do it this way.
We left the island of Phu Quoc, a veritable tourist-free (or, at least five years ago, it was) paradise at the southern tip of Vietnam with less than 24 hours before our visas expired. Reluctantly abandoning our beach houses we boarded a ferry to Rach Gia, where we piled into a minibus bound for Chau Doc at the Cambodian border. We rode in the back seat, with our knees pressed up against our sweaty chests and throbbing bladders, as miniature women attempted to shove sandwiches through small openings in dusty windows every time the vehicle lurched to a halt.
When we arrived at Chau Doc, we realised that Chau Doc was, in fact, not the border at all. To officially exit Vietnam, we would have to check in at the border post at Bavet/Moc Bai, and we would have to find our own boat to take us there. The daily slow boat to Phnom Penh had departed hours earlier. We were approached by a friendly man with a decent English accent.
“You go to Phnom Penh? No problem!” he said, cheerily. “Tomorrow morning we go, ten dollar.”
We need to go today, we explained.
“No problem!” He exclaimed. “My brother owns private boat. Thirty-five dollar. Private car to border, air condition, very good!” From there, he said, we would cross into Cambodia on a “very fast” boat.
As convenient as this sounded, we were sure we could find a cheaper alternative. Two members of our convoy left the safety of the bus depot in search of another deal. “You no find better deal. My brother, only boat,” our new friend assured us. Steph and Heather returned a quarter of an hour later, with soup. They no find better deal.
I looked around me. Two dogs fornicated in the shadow of an overflowing rubbish bin. I think one of them was missing a leg. A pool of blood-red liquid was slowly expanding in the sand, inching its way towards our feet.
“Cow blood,” a stranger affirmed proudly. We got into the waiting SUV.
We arrived at border services and were ushered into a small room by an equally small man with no teeth. He flipped through our passports, and stamped us out. Good evening, Vietnam.
We walked down a narrow muddy path and a six-person rowboat with an engine dangling off the rear appeared in front of us. “Very fast,” our friend reiterated. I wasn’t so sure.
“Lifejackets?” Becs asked passively. No response.
Our trusty vessel brought us down the river to another checkpoint. We got out, bought some more whisky and some Pringles. They had some good flavours.
Our 15-year-old Cambodian captain seemed anxious to speed things up.
“We go now,” he insisted, calmly but firmly. “Dark soon.” We got back into the boat.
“If I die, tell my mother I love her!” Heather screamed, laughing, her hair blowing in her face. We were all in high spirits – as twenty-something backpackers with no obligations, the world was our oyster. Darkness came upon us quickly, and there were no lights on the boat. Only a mild cause for concern.
The light rain was welcome after a hot and heavy day. The thunderbolt lightning, moving in on us from both the east and the west, however, was not. I was pretty sure I’d read somewhere that it was a bad thing to be in the middle of a body of water in a storm. Are we there yet? I bothered the Cambodian child.
Twenty-five minutes, he told me. I could feel my heart pounding fiercely. Twenty minutes, fifteen, ten. And then, an unmistakeable sputtering sound. We were pretty much in the middle of nowhere, and we had run out of gas. There was no emergency supply. There were no paddles. Once again, there were no lifejackets.
Our guide explained to us in broken English that he had no credit on his phone and would not be able to call for help. It started to rain harder. He smiled at me – maybe smiling was a sign of fear in Cambodia? “Can you do something to help us?” I asked him. Smile. “Are we going to be here FOREVER?” I shouted. He answered: “Yes.” I put my head in my lap and cried.
Crying did not make our boat move. Nor did blowing my rape whistle, trying desperately to attract the attention of any passersby, of which there were none. It was pitch black, and somewhere in the Lonely Planet I’d read that the Mekong was not a great place to be after sundown. The river claims a number of lives every year – I really didn’t want to be one of them.
The boy put his feet in the water and started to kick; Duncan and Tyler paddled with their arms. I blew my whistle some more. We went in circles for a moment and then stopped moving altogether. Time passed – too much of it. We drifted aimlessly for a while. I tried to figure out how much our six wet backpacks would weigh the boat down, and considered chucking them over the side. Suddenly the mobile phone rang (I thought he had no credit?) and we became entranced by a conversation we could not understand. What was happening? Would we be saved?
Not long afterwards, I heard the sound of an approaching boat. It pulled up next to ours, and after a failed attempt at filling our gas tank and then fixing our engine when it became clear that that, too, needed attention, tied the two boats loosely together and towed us slowly, but surely, to shore. This had been the only solution- swimming to land, as I had suggested earlier, had not been an option. As the dock lights began to light our path, we could see the barbed wire fencing which lined the riverbed, reminding us of the dramatic history of the country we were about to enter.
There was a shiny white fan waiting for us – salvation! We got in, still a bit on edge. We took comfort in the dry ground beneath us and in the warm meal, cold beer and sleep which lay ahead. I curled up tight – safe.
My eyes flew open at the sound of the skies opening up. Less than ten minutes down the road to Phnom Penh, the sky exploded, sheets of water pounded the van like a steel drum band and the driver was forced to pull over to the side of the road to wait out the worst of it. An uneasy silence filled the space as we all came to the same unspoken realisation: had we been in that rickety old boat for even ten more minutes, we wouldn’t have stood a chance – we had made it out of shit creek in the nick of time.
Next time, I”ll bring my own paddle.