It was a day full of emotions. One of those where all the reasons why I travel are reunited. They all seem to gather in one place, in that one particular moment in time. It was a day of big lessons in humanity. A day where I learned once again to be humble and say thank you. Not even because I realized how lucky I am for all that I have and all that I get to do, but because I got to see genuine warmth in the eyes of people who have nothing. I saw genuine smiles on the faces of children with no future, genuine beauty in some of the most ugly aspects of life. It made me sad, it made me angry and it broke my heart.
Damn you Mekong, you broke my heart…
And to say we almost took the speed boat…
Actually, it’s even worse: we almost decided not to do this at all… When we planned our trip through Vietnam, we soon realized we’d have to choose: either go see the magnificent terraced rice-fields in Sapa, or sail down the Mekong and spend 2 days in Cambodia to see Phnom Penh and Angkor. I would have liked to see Sapa, but I don’t regret one minute having picked the other option.
We start our day at the landing stage in Chau Duc, where we drove by bus the day before from Ho Chi Minh. We’d already stopped at a place where they make rice paper and at a crocodile farm. I guess there’s no need to tell you these were not highlights of our trip (*) and I have to admit we start the day preparing ourselves for the next Vietnamese tourist trap. We get in small boats 2 by 2 and the women rowing the boats guide us around the floating villages.
(*) I don’t think I’ve told you this before, but I refuse to participate in any form of animal exploitation (elephant riding, tiger cuddling, …). I’ve also been a vegetarian for almost 20 years now.
Confusion sets in as we glide over the water. On one hand, this is people’s whole life. A small house boat on the highly polluted water with some pigs or ducks in a cage on the side is all they have. A floating grocery store passing by, children jumping from one boat to another in an attempt to keep busy a bit futher. They seem to be living their lives without even noticing we’re there. Only the smallest children stop and wave at us as we pass. Only minutes later, we stop at a so-called authentic place where they make scarves. Let me just assure you none of the people living on the boats are wearing scarves… Our guide makes us pay tips 3 times and it starts to feel fake.
We try to look past the tourist trap and chose to hold on to the idea that this IS people’s real life. It’s a hard life that doesn’t become easier just because others are exploiting it as a tourist attraction, a way to make money.
After almost 2 hours the biggest part of our group is brought back to the landing stage, but we’re taken to another boat in the middle of the river. The boat’s already 3/4 full, only us and 1 other couple get on it at this point. A woman collects our passports for the Cambodian visa application and leaves on another boat before we even have time to worry about her taking off with our passports. ‘It fast’, the man on the boat tells us.
Until now we’ve been in a larger part of the Mekong, but soon we approach a narrower canal. The landscape changes, it somehow gets more intimate. Bamboo trees and other tropical vegetation define the shore. Our boat is the only one in the area.
Slowly we glide over the Mekong river, rocked by the water for hours, getting tired but refusing to fall asleep. It’s too beautiful and too ugly at the same time to miss even a minute of it. Lush tropical vegetation in stark contrast to tiny rickety houses. A woman using her ‘toilet’ (read board with a hole in it and some panels fixed around it, not even high enough to cover up her upper body) right above the river as we pass, a man washing his cows in it a bit further down the stream.
People are working like animals on the fields, each and every one of them looking up to wave at us. They have the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen. Children dressed in rags running along the shore in an attempt to follow our boat, probably still too young to be dreaming of jumping on it and sailing with us to better places.
After 2,5 hours we arrive at a building in the middle of the river. We are told to get out of the boat and to sit down, without any further information. We wait for 1,5 hours before the passport lady calls us and gives us back our passports, including our Cambodian visa. According to the tour schedule, the trip continues in a ‘fast boat’ from here and in 2 hours we arrive in Phnom Penh. The boat that’s waiting outside, however, is anything but fast. We’re all packed together and the hard wooden seats are so high my feet don’t even touch the floor.
The boat trip takes 4 hours – with a quick stop at the Cambodian border – and is followed by a 1,5 hours’ bus ride. The views along this part of the trip are similar to what we saw in Vietnam. Our hearts break over and over again.
We arrive in Phnom Penh at 7 pm instead of 3.30 pm. It’s another rip off but we’re not even angry. A day like this is worth it.
We get to our room, exhausted. I sit down and cry. These are the moments where you realize what life should be about. It’s not about possessions or achievments. It’s not about trying to take all you can get and ‘have it all’. It’s about starting with what you have and making the best out of it. About being thankful and trying to be happy, even if you have little.
Today I heard all kind of negative comments about this trip, and about Vietnam in general. Some called it a waste of time, I call it a magnificent human adventure. Some said it’s a tourist trap, I say it’s a life lesson.
I go to bed a better version of myself, thankful for this invaluable lesson. I feel like I’m the richest girl in the world.
Thank you Mekong, for breaking my heart…