The second great surface-travel experience of the Great Rail Journeys’ ‘Vietnam, Cambodia & the Mekong Delta’ [http://www.greatrail.com/tours/vietnam-cambodia-and-the-mekong-delta.aspx#VMG4] is the day-long speedboat-ride up the Mekong River to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.
We spent the whole of Sunday sailing up the Mekong River from a place I’d never heard of, Cần Thơ, on a speedboat, a relaxing and revealing experience because the Mekong, with its various tributaries and distributaries, is a working river.
Its vessels range from tiny craft to huge coasters, carrying sand, rice and bricks to the coast, and there are ro-ro ferries of various sizes plying crossings at intervals. The distributary from which we started was as wide as the Mersey at Liverpool; upstream we joined a channel that was nearer to the width of the Humber at Grimsby.
There was a particularly impressive stretch of river lined with brick kilns, pouring out black smoke, a reminder that the smokestack industries that Britain eliminated after the Second World War remain in the Far East.
Before leaving Vietnam the crew topped up the tanks with fuel, while members of our group tried to work out what two young boys were doing in the water. It appeared they were washing a dead pig.
The Vietnamese formalities were negligible: our passports were processed by the boat crew, and all we had to do was get off the boat, sit around for five minutes and get back on again. There was no attempt to match the passports to the people whatsoever.
In between the two border posts the crew lowered the Vietnamese flag at the bow and raised the Cambodian one, which seemed a polite gesture at least.
At the Cambodian border post a short distance upriver there was the full performance of queuing at a window, and much stamping and scribbling by a heavily uniformed officer, while the lady from the boat stapled slips into passport pages. The process was lubricated by another member of the boat crew silently and dutifully delivering a couple of cases of Tiger Beer behind the counter.
The Cambodian stretch of the river contrasts starkly with downstream. Suddenly the industry, the river-traffic and the populace vanished, and for well over an hour we travelled past fields with very few signs of activity and none of prosperity.
It’s clear that this place is decades behind its neighbour. When you read up the history the reasons are obvious: this is a nation with a tragic past of urban depopulation, genocide, famine. No Cambodian family is untouched by this late-1970s trauma, yet apparently more than half its young population have no direct memory of it.
There are oddities about being in Cambodia.
A member of our group darkly remarked that the BBC News feed was running nine minutes late.