Monday, October 29, 2007

Crossing Mocbai-Bavet Border

I have to admit I had lots of apprehension crossing the Mocbai-Bavet border to Cambodia. Land border-crossing is never my favorite.
(I remembered taking the night train from Paris to Madrid. For the convenience of the passengers, a train steward would take our passports before bedtime – so that we can supposedly enjoy out cramped couches without being bothered with the immigration formalities! Meanwhile, at a particular city in Spain, the train would make a stop. The last 5 cars will be detached from the front cars that will then proceed to Madrid’s notorious Atocha station. I was pins and needles thinking, hmmm, what if they leave my passport behind while I was enjoying a sound sleep? What if I hopped on the wrong section?)

Though my itinerary’s been planned, it took all my guts to finally buy a bus ticket to Cambodia. I also knew that once I buy my $20 ticket, there’s no turning back. Would be all-systems-go from there. If I wasn’t alone traveling, it would be a no-brainer, but traveling alone is trouble waiting to happen. I have read soooo many horror stories of border crossing from Lonely Planet to Fodor to web/blog entries.

One article mentioned that it’s a lot easier to get out of Vietnam than get right back in, and this statement actually echoed persistently in my mind. Wikipedia says, and I quote,
"Immigration is notoriously strict." Not only that, some of them would allegedly ask for imaginary tariffs, currency exchange that's way off the market rate, etc. (Although such things were more common in less-visited borders, i.e. O Smach (Cam)-Chong Jom (Thai), Prum (Cam)-Daun Lem (Thai), and even the regularly traversed Poipet-Koh Kong border from Thailand.)

Another source of concern is, I have never met a Pinoy who has crossed the border (there should be thousands now). Common sense dictates though that Pinoys must have passed this way before. Nevertheless, it didn't offer relief. Assumptions never do! Most Pinoys I know “fly”; and those who do not, have passports other than a Philippine passport. Since Pinoys are visa-free, I reckon it would be easier for me than other backpackers who had to pay $25 passport processing fee on site. So…

I mustered enough courage and off I went. John Williams’ “Jaws Theme” was humming in my head.

I was ready as early as 5AM. I went down and didn’t have the heart to wake the lady sleeping at the foyer. I wanted to go out and look for food, though I wasn’t hungry. A nearby go-go bar was still blaring loud garage music. I turned toward DeTham and got offered, “Good girls! Good girls!” Some Caucasians were already carrying their Vietnamese girls. It’s really the same everywhere – Paris or Luxembourgh, Patpong or Jakarta. Although I have to admit that this trade isn’t as pronounced in Vietnam as it is elsewhere. Further on, some more guys offered their business, “Cheap girls, very pretty!” or “Nice girls work hard for you!” What a way to start my morning. One was tugging at my sleeve, pointing to a girl at a dark corner. She can't be over 16. Geesh! She was licking a lollipop. If that was meant as a tease, it looked awkward and silly to me.
I was told that my bus would pick me up at 5:30AM. Someone finally came at 6. We rode a car to where the Sapaco bus was parked. Our baggages were deposited at the backseat, and I took my seat 2 rows in front of the bags. Three Canadians were seated in front of me; an old French guy infront of them. The whole row of seats was all mine so I was pleased with myself. Ten minutes into the departure, the driver’s assistant started giving away a packed meal (ham sandwich and a bottle of water) which was amazingly part of the $20.

Our SAPACO bus - airconditioned, spacious, and only 60% occupied

The road we travelled is well maintained, so it was one comfortable ride, except for the music that kept playing during the whole trip. I mean, how much more can you take of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” played 6x – it sure made me wanna hit some icebergs and sink the Titanic.
I amused myself by observing the scene as it constantly changed. Half way into the trip, we reached the province of Tay Ninh (famed for their local festivities), then, the border town of Mocbai. Our passports were collected ($25 fees were also collected from the other foreigners who needed visa, and none from me) by the bus assistant, and I relaxed. Everyone seemed so. The border building is an imposing structure. We got off our bus, made a queue at the border’s immigration counter, and waited for 10-15 minutes. Then our passports were returned to us. No interviews. We walked through the counter, passed a small duty-free shop; showed our passport to the immigration police at the exit, and went out. The very same bus was waiting for us at the other side.

Border immigration counter (the 3 Canadians at the center)


Now here’s what I observed. As we got back to our seats, the driver and his assistants deposited loads of bottled water at the police quarters from each side. Bribe? Could be. This would facilitate a faster transfer. No more manual checking of baggages- as that would take forever. Every tourist should take a Sapaco bus when crossing the border to avoid transfering to a different bus at the other side of the border, and you didn’t have to disembark your baggages anymore. That said, I settled back to my seat.
Whew!! That was easy!

The road: Vietnam Side (Mocbai, Tay Ninh)

The next kilometers (a constituent of the province of Svay Rieng) were lined by big KTV establishments, casinos, and massage parlors; many of these places serve allegedly as prostitution fronts, much like the same establishments in Haiphong City (Vietnam’s 3rd biggest city) south of Hanoi.

It was a good moment to observe local color. The roadsides were underwater - farmlands, marshes and wetlands - water hyacinths of wild pink, lilies in white and purple lotuses were abloom. 75% of Cambodia lives off farming.

I took note of the town names as we passed them by - Chiphou, Prasot, then the provincial capital of Svay Rieng’s imposing building; Kraul Kor, then
NEAK LOEUNG, where we stopped for a bit.

Now that was a treat!

The road: Cambodian side (Bavet, Svay Rieng)

Our bus got on a ferry to cross the river. I have been wanting to cruise the Mekong River. I regretted not having had enough time in HCMC for a Mekong Cruise (it was 2 hours away, and I'd need an extra full day to do so). MEKONG at no extra cost! I got off the bus for some fresh air as we sailed the Mekong. 15 minutes later, we were on land again.
As we reached Banteay Dek, the roads got a little rough. Potpoles abound and the last hour to Phnom Penh got a bit uncomfortable. I wasn’t complaining though.

Cambodian Immigration Police

Here's my 2nd crossing in the same border, but going the opposite direction a year after (2008):

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