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The SIAMPEDIA Expedition to Cambodia – Ferries ‘n such

Friday, September 17th, 2010

© 2010 Frank P. Schneidewind

Ferries were a common sight for all travelers, that braved to tackle road 48. Way back, when it was built (mainly by Thai pioneer battalions), just after the Millennium. The ferries looked much different than in the later half of the first decade after the Millennium. Rowboats were then tied together with cables as crude pontoon platforms and any dirt-road travel across the Cardamom mountain range was limited to off-road two-wheelers! When I made this trip in 2002, it took two full days from the border in Koh Kong to the intersection with road number 4 past Sre Ambel by motorbike.

Today’s traveler will be fond of the fine bridges now. They were all built up, but not all open to traffic yet see our short video below to give you an idea. We were amongst the last tourists, which still had to use some car ferries for certain river crossings.

The road itself can hardly be in a better shape. Crazy loads on rooftops are some sort of trademark in Cambodia. Minivans do face a serious life here with passengers clinging to the loads on top of it all. This reminds me of the Cambodian trains, that used to push one empty long flatbed trailer in the front. The purpose was to trigger any mines on track and prevent damage to the engine. Anti tank mines would have been fatal to the trains engine, so they pushed the cheap flatbed rail car ahead for any case. Besides a few sandbags, these mine trigger wagons were often full of people! Enjoying the free rides on it, courtesy of Cambodian State Railway on their only route operating in those dark days (Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville).

The ferries operated now near or even under the existing bridges. This created opportunities for smart locals to set up basic food-stalls and coffee-shops. The heavily loaded minivans had a chance to cool down from the ride over the Cardamom mountain range a bit. Note the motorcycle on the roof of the blue van left in the picture! It even picked up a rider on it later! 

The coffee was my first real Cambodian coffee for months, brewed fresh on top of each single served cup and quite powerful. More than one cup may be dangerous to your heart rate, but they sure give an extra caffeine boost, which would STARBUCKS dudes place some poop in their pants – all for 10 Thai Baht, as Thai currency is the best liked money around here. US $ are accepted too, the exchange rate to local Cambodian Riels has remained fairly stable over the years.

Snacks sold here are all of Thai origin, unless the were agricultural produced from around here. With a 4-car capacity, we had to await our turn and watched the ferry haul a load of cargo and people across.

It took the captain just under one hour to return with a full westbound load. Never put Cambodia on your agenda, if you are in a hurry.

Once the ferry unloaded its freight, it was time to board in a hurry. Quite a task for someone riding a car with a low ground clearance like ours, but we made it without damaging the exhaust pipes or undercarriage of the Proton.

The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and their assault rifle slinging staff did board our ferry too. No real nice photos possible, as this would equal an immediate confiscation of the camera. Do not attempt to photograph anything military looking outside Phnom Penh, you ask for serious troubles if you do it.

People guiding you with wild gestures. It is certainly best to ignore them completely, as they may never have been in a drivers seat before. Make sure to remove any  loose screws or nails from the dirt roads surface, as tire shops are fairly scarce here.

Some of those kamikaze-style minivans haul unbelievable cargoes. Anything from livestock to motorbikes, tons of rice in sacks or even people goes. This one had a fat steel bar reinforcing his springs, probably not cushioning the ride at all anymore, but maxing out the cargo loads to new levels. I felt a bit claustrophobic behind such a towering load, wedged into the rear of the ferry. So I stepped out on the captains bridge, which gave me time to check out this ferry’s sophisticated 1950s technology.

No comment needed

Sre Ambel, the sympathetic little pirates nest near the 4th river was passed, almost forgotten were the old days, when AK 47’s were left to rot in barns, or sold for around 100 $, if in firing condition with a box of tracers. Hotels were a big void then and the two guesthouses in town had both rooms blocked. I do remember the 3 $ per room-night, that we forked over back then, when we were covered with mud and must have looked like hobos, sleeping somewhere the locals did. The worst thing back then was the non existent shower, we had to chase nasty scorpions out of the bucket shower in the outhouse first.

The intersection with number 4 road was finally reached and the final stretch of road into the capital would be a piece of cake, so we knew. Many times we traveled here by bus before and civilization was near.

With Sihanoukville being the only container port of the country, truck traffic was fairly dense at times. Even small mopeds carried hefty loads towards Phnom Penh, we were getting closer quick. Never would have expected to be there in time for a good lunch!

This sign greets the arriving traffic near Pochentong, the Cambodian Capitals International Airport here:

After checking into the old Angkor Hotel, I paid a quick visit to my favorite barber here. His sidewalk business outside the temple wasn’t exactly booming. He had a lot of competitors setting up stalls now to the left and right on the sidewalk.

The Royal Palace on or near Sisowath Quay was alongside the Tonle Sap river, the only known river in the world, that really reverses its flowing directions twice each year!

We toured the city excessively for the rest of the day, ate dinner at the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) and headed back to our area of the city. Neat blacktopped roads now everywhere. They have replaced those awkward red dust streets from a forgotten time in the past.

Outside the new shopping complexes near Monivong Boulevard and Psar Thmei, we watched for a moment, as minivans into the countryside filled up and steamed off. Quite a sight to see – we counted up to 20 passengers plus enormous amounts of luggage and cargoes per van.

We were sure glad, that our transport was somewhat more comfortable. There was a bad storm brewing up on the night sky and we were a bit exhausted. Slept for a few hours back at the Angkor Hotel, but then woke up in the middle of a horrendous monsoon rainstorm, that flooded half the city.

See it to believe it, this was taken right after the downpour:

To be continued :)

Read here about the first part of this Expedition: Eastbound pioneering