A Vietnam to Cambodia Border Crossing

The journey from Vietnam to Cambodia via the Mekong Delta began well. The meandering journey by fish-tailed boat was idyllic, revealing some of the most beautiful scenery we’d ever encountered.

But then we reached the border. Somewhere in the endless, humid tracts of the delta, armed Vietnamese and Cambodian border guards eyed each other warily across a razor-wired no-man’s land.

It dawned on us very quickly that this wasn’t a regular tourist crossing place. On both sides of the border we were subjected to the full glare of suspicion as sundry army personnel, border staff and policemen had us sit unprotected under a pitiless sun, argued endlessly over “incorrect!” visa stamps and tore apart a hapless guy’s backpack while waving his malaria tablets in his face and shouting “DRUGS!!!”

The final stop was the Cambodian police post. As we approached a huge, scowling Cambodian policeman, I realised I had an opportunity to head off more hassle. Dropping my backpack (basic politeness in Cambodia) into the dust, I put my hands together, bowed and said “Joom reab sour!” – a standard Khmer greeting.

From the policeman’s amazed and delighted reaction, it was hard not to conclude that foreigners speaking Khmer wasn’t an everyday experience for him. His confrontational stance evaporated, and before long he and I were laughing heartily over my dodgy passport photo. Within minutes we were on our way.

I found that one of best ways to spend time before entering any country is to memorise as many helpful words and phrases as possible. Reading them off your phone or out of a book is fine, but saying them without a prompt makes it look like you really do want to make an effort. For both my partner and I, it opened up the door to real social interaction and eased difficult moments. It even resulted in me spending time in Hanoi swapping English/Vietnamese pronunciation tips with a hostel employee. (Much to my amazement, I was told in Ho Chi Minh City that I’d picked up a Hanoi accent!)

Of course none of this was any use whatsoever when we left the Cambodian police post and were herded onto an overloaded, leaky fibreglass speedboat (with a ridiculously overpowered engine) piloted by a overexcited 14 year-old in a black visored motorcycle helmet and roared off upriver, colliding scarily with floating debris, but that’s another story….

Story supplied by Barry Ramshaw

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