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Day 5, Border Crossing


We slept in today, skipping the morning expedition to a small village in the northwest of the Mekong Delta. Travel weariness finally overcame the excitement of the exotic locale, I guess. That, and most of the drinks at the sun deck bar were complimentary.
Perhaps a few words on our vessel for most of the trip, the Saigon Pandaw will illuminate the appeal of drinking late and then sleeping even later. Travel by river ship, particularly one as luxurious as ours, wouldn’t have been how I’d have done this trip if we were on our own, but hey, it was mostly free. Maybe I’d rather be spending my day writing, but the travel industry does have its perks.

The pandaw ship layout harks back to colonial era river steamers. It’s a design originated by a Scottish river shipping company: open top deck, 2-3 decks below, berths for up to 60 travelers plus crew, and a flat bottom that allows mooring in very shallow water for a ship of its size. Ours was absolutely gorgeous: brass railings, decks and wall paneling everywhere of teak, a canopied upper deck with nice furniture, traditional carvings and textiles in the staterooms, a large dining room, and movie and massage rooms on the lower deck. The only thing I could have asked for was an exercise room — especially given the superb food.

The officers in the wheelhouse, the deckhands, and the engineers were all Vietnamese, save one Burmese engineer. The service staff were all Khmer, save again for a guy from Myanmar named Peter (“I’m Christian,” he said by way of explanation; I spared telling him that I’d probably be Buddhist if I believed in anything). We also had a few managers from the Pandaw company traveling with us. It was an early season cruise, so we had a hospitality guy, a chef, and a couple other managers concerned in a general way with quality control aboard. Several times during the trip we returned to our berth to find that they’d been at work, adding new art to the walls and the like.

One of the Pandaw execs, Alex, gave me a tour of the area below decks — the engine room, stores, water systems and the like. I’ve become a bit of a river boat ops nerd from my time in the industry, and the specs on Pandaw’s ships are impressive, necessitated by the environment in which they operate. The diesel engines are and bow thrusters are much more powerful than you’d need on a ship of similar size sailing a European river to compensate for the Mekong’s stronger current. The water treatment facilities were the other cool part, capable of supplying the ship with water drawn from the river despite high turbidity (floating sand and such) and local parasites that would give American travelers a serious case of the runs. They advised us not to brush our teeth with the water in our cabin taps, but after seeing the water plant I started drinking it — with no ill effects.

From the Delta, we headed upriver. The border crossing into Cambodia took over three hours. We anchored at the border while one of the deck hands got a ride from a local to the border station to have our passports and visas inspected and stamped. A Khmer policeman stayed on board after the crossing, not debarking until we reached Phnom Penh the following day.

After lunch, we watched The Killing Fields. I then┬áspent the afternoon reading about Angkor Wat and the Khmer Rouge era. The story of Cambodia’s political genocide is just big numbers until you get close to it and begin to see the evidence. You don’t see a great many old Cambodians, and not just because of the low life expectancy of a developing country.

Later in the journey, one of our Khmer crewmen proved willing to talk a bit about the Pol Pot era. The subject is a delicate one, but individual Cambodians may choose to discuss it, given time, in more depth than the recitation of history generally given to visitors. The genocide is, after all, in the background of everything about their country, constantly present and undeniable, a jagged scar bisecting their history’s face.

In the case of our crewman, he was 28, born after the worst of the Khmer Rouge nightmare. But his generation does remember the aftermath, the long process of rebuilding, and the period during which it was feared that the remaining Khmer Rouge might return from their jungle strongholds and take power again.

We’d been seeing him every day for a week, and so had gotten to know him a little on a personal level, before he opened up about those times. For older Cambodians who actually lived through it, I expect it might take longer. Any Khmer accustomed to dealing with foreign visitors will discuss the history as such, but prying into how it affected them personally isn’t the done thing. My sense is that if they give you personal stories, it’s a show of some trust. More than that, though, they want the world to know this story — because it’s still a huge part of who they are as a people.
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