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readers' submissions


Three Days in Kaam Samnor

by Dan from London

I wanted to let you know about the few days I spent at the border town of Kaam Samnor. Most people only pass through the immigration police checkpoint in this little border village when taking the tourist boat between Neak Leung (Cambodia) and Chau Doc (Vietnam). I got stuck there 3 days because I foolishly didn't check that my Vietnam visa had the right start date. This e-mail might be a bit verbose, but I wanted to describe as much as I could.

I knew things weren't right when the stern looking policeman shook his head and didn't stamp the Cambodian exit document. He pointed out the error and told me to wait outside. As I fumed outside, a couple of Irish girls asked what the problem was - it turned out they had a similar problem. We were told there was no way the Vietnamese would let us in, and had to collect our bags from the boat. It was very disheartening to watch the boat pull away with everyone else on board. We returned to the checkpoint compound and sat in shade of the wooden shelter just inside the entrance. A policeman with fairly good English sat down and said he'd go and call the Vietnamese to see if they would let us in. My hopes raised slightly - perhaps there was a small fine I could pay, something like over-staying but in reverse? Chatting with the girls, we decided we really didn't want to go back to Phnom Penh. When the man returned he said unfortunately there was still no way we could go on, and would have to go back to Phnom Penh. At this point we asked if we could stay in Kaam Samnor. He paused a second, and said he'd go and check. Ah ha! Maybe this is a little game of bluff :) I'm stubborn, so let's stick with it.

He returned and said that there was a place to stay, and we should follow him - he vanished out the back of the compound. No bluff then. We shouldered the rucksacks and walked out the back of the checkpoint to see where he'd gone. About 4 moto riders were there looking at us - "Hello. What your name? Where you from? One dollar?". One dollar to where?! Looking left I spotted the man about 30 yards down the 'street' on the other side, waving to us. We ignore the motos and walked over into one of the houses. The house was one large room with red-orange tiles and a corridor leading out the back of it. We were led down the corridor to 2 rooms on the left. $2/night for me.$1.50 each for the girls sharing. The rooms were almost as basic as you can get. Sunlight filtered through between cracks in the walls. The internal partitions opened into the supporting roof timbers. One bed, one mosi net, loops on the door for a padlock, and a small table. Power goes off at 10pm. Further along the corridor, we were shown a squat toilet and a tank full of water with a plastic scoop - the bath.

So we're in Kaam Samnor for a few days. After ditching the rucksacks we decide to go for a walk through the village to explore. There's not a lot to see really. The village runs in a line along the dusty road - no tarmac here - and follows the riverbank. Walking back upstream, in the direction of the checkpoint and then beyond, the buildings are a combination of homes and shops. Some places are general stores, some cook food, some look like cafes. There's the usual array of chickens and dogs in the street as well as people, bicycles, and motorcycles. We feel like the strangers walking into town in an old western movie. People stare, some smile, and there's just a few "Hello - how are you? What's your name?" calls. On the river side there's a few more official buildings - quarantine and such. About 10 minutes along the shops take on a slightly more market feel, and the area is called the Psaa (Khmer - market). There's a few jewellery stores here, who I reckon will be good for changing money. 5 minutes beyond that the houses thin out, and the road heads off to who knows where. Time to try the other end of the village. After just about 50 yards passed our guesthouse it's looking grim. There's a building downstream on the left blaring out something unintelligible. We head back to one of the cafe-looking buildings (it has 3 round tables inside) and ask and gesture to see if we can go in. The surprised looking woman smiles, nods, and calls to someone out back. We sit around a table and a teenage girl comes from somewhere are asks what we want. "Tiger? Bei Tiger bia?", holding up 3 fingers. She nods and goes to get them but returns quickly - no Tiger. She offers ABC "ah-beh-seh", which I've vaguely heard of, so we accept. Then she shouts something to a little kid in the street and gives him some money. A minute later he's back carrying 3 cans in a plastic bag! No laws about selling alcohol to minors then. ABC turns out to be an 8% stout. Before we know it she's pouring the stuff into 3 glasses with a big block of ice in it. What the hell, when in Rome. In fact, I find it rather refreshing, but I think the girls might be less impressed. We sit, chat, and relax for a while, letting time go past since there's a few days to kill here. When we leave the owner wants $4! A little cheeky but I'm tired and we're not feeling like bargaining hard. Back to the guesthouse before sundown to see about dinner. Some laminated menus appear, in English, with most things priced about $1.20. I guess somebody has stayed here before? While we wait we have the company of the guesthouse owners family and friends. A very forthright girl (19 years old?) spends much time leafing through the Khmer section of my phrasebook, and eventually offers to be a guide tomorrow. We agree. Then we eat as the sun goes down, and go to bed. Through the night, the noise from the place along the road continues and by 10.15pm I'm desperate for the power cut to kick in. It does 5 minutes later.

Around 5-6am I'm woken by the sound of the blaring voices and odd music again. I'm starting to figure this is some sort of government broadcast. At about 9am I give in and get up. No sign of the Irish girls but the "guide" has appeared. More painful phrasebook interaction, and she leads me off to the shop she runs. I'm in trouble here. She's more dressy than yesterday's jeans and t-shirt. There's make-up. We sit. I have iced coffee. We struggle through the phrasebook. Names, jobs, ages - when she hears I'm 27, she becomes 22, not 19. Hmm. She (Saravdry) suggests the beach which sounds fantastic, but then I realise it's 2 hours away in Vietnam, and I'm not willing to risk the Viet police. Eventually we agree to be just friends and I rush back to the guesthouse to find the safety of the other girls. We chat and relax in the shade for an hour or so, and then Saravdry turns up again on a Honda. She wants to take us (all) for a tour. The three of us head off on two bikes and go see a few Buddhist wats on the outskirts of town and drive through a schoolyard where lots of children (and teachers) come out of the buildings to wave, shout and stare. Odd. Back to the Psaa to change money and then four doors down we go through a house to sit by the riverside - lunch time. We have a Vietnamese style of cooking. A central charcoal burner is placed on the table and a domed cover placed over it. There's holes in the dome, and an inch wide trough around the dome. Much fat is put in the trough and bits of meat are dipped in it and then cooked on top of the dome. Vegetables and fruit are cooked around the edge. It's great, and for about 140,000 dong the five of us have plenty to eat, and three cans of beer. Money here is dong not riel. I don't know why.

At 4pm we head back to the guesthouse, and relax for a while. As sun sets however, another beer seems a good idea and we know there are some places in the village that sell cans of 'Anchor' and 'Crown'. We walk back into the village, but now there are loads of children. We're surrounded by them, tugging at our sleeves, prodding, pointing, and all the usual rote-learned English phrases. I meet one man who's a teacher and speaks a little English. He says we're 'not usual' and I think I know what he means. We finally find three cans of Anchor ($2) and rush back inside the guesthouse and lock the door to the room. A few of the children outside try to follow but we hear someone shout them away. However after a little while one beer isn't enough. Aideen decides to go back for more but the place has already closed. Eve says there's a bar of sorts across the road in the other direction, but wants some backup because it's full of men drinking. Fair enough. We all go across and slowly approach this place. There are about eight men around a table, karaoke on a TV, and a pile of cans under the table. Hmm. There's also a very timid young girl serving beer. We politely ask for three cans of Crown - 24,000 dong - and turn to leave. At that point one of the men speaks up. "Hi. Do you remember us? We're the police. You know? Visa?" We've stumbled onto the local police forces drinking session. They invite us to join them and quickly places are cleared for us, and glasses (with ice) are brought out. I can't fully describe the rest of the night adequately. The beer flowed freely (333 brand) and the pile of cans under the table grew. There was karaoke and dancing of sorts. There was broken conversation along the lines of "Cambodia police - no problem. Vietnam police - visa problem". At all times they were friendly and not threatening. However it did occur to me that we were probably disturbing the locals a little. The power to this one establishment managed to keep going till after midnight whilst all along the road the lights were out. Clearly things work different for the police.

Well. Kaam Samnor turned out OK. The following day the Irish girls left on the tourist boat to Chau Doc just after midday. I had an extra day to wait, spent much more sedately. I left the following morning on the back of a motorcycle to Chau Doc. The Vietnam border is 2-3 minutes up the road - at times little more than a thin dirt track. Just before the Viet paperwork we stop and a woman says something about Chau Doc and $5. I already agreed to 30,000 dong before though so after a few minutes failed negotiating she gives up. I still don't know what she wanted - maybe she's a tout like at Poipet? After the border, the trail turns immediately into the thin streets of a small village. The shops are packed tightly along the side, and already feel different to Kaam Samnor. However five minutes later we're out and onto tarmac! Soon there's telegraph poles and electricity lines. After 30 minutes we pass through somewhere and I definitely see the word Internet. Between the border and Chau Doc I'm transferred to another driver, and there's a couple of ferries (1000 dong). Mostly the road is tarmac, apart from a few places. Total journey to Chau Doc is probably about 1 hour. I paid 40,000 dong to the second driver. I don't know how the first got paid.

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