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Our Gateway to Vietnam...


sunny 32 °C

2nd March 2011

After a lazy day yesterday where all we did was eat, watch tv and blog (and go out for the obligatory Pizza!) we were up, packed and ready early this morning. We were a little tired having been kept awake by some idiot in the adjoining room playing music at a ridiculous level until Stew had had enough of it by 1am and politely asked him to turn it down! We were leaving Phnom Penh today and were downstairs eating our small breakfast at 7am and reviving our shattered selves with Cambodian coffee while we waited for our tuk tuk to pick us up at 7:15am and take us to the bus terminal where we would be boarding our transport to Sihanoukville in southwest Cambodia. Although a beach resort, we were not heading there for any other reason than to obtain our visas for Vietnam from the consulate in the town. (Our research on the internet had told us that it was a fifteen minute procedure at the most and it was not possible to get Vietnamese visas at any of the border posts). Our driver was late and, because it was a bus we were catching that should leave roughly on time, we started getting a little edgy, asking the guys who made our breakfast to phone the bus company and ask where our transport was. No sooner had he lifted the phone, our driver turned up. We recognised him immediately as the guy who drove us here a few days ago and whose services we didn’t require the following day. He was more subdued than the first time we met him! We said hello but got a sulky grunt in return. We squeezed everything and ourselves back onto his wagon and trundled off, our driver completing the fifteen minute journey in total silence, and once we’d arrived at the terminal we unloaded our bags and took a seat on a bench while our bus was being readied. We were surprised, therefore, when a short time later that same sour faced, petulant driver came and sat with us and asked us what we had been doing in Phnom Penh. He asked us if we had visited Choeung Ek (the Killing Fields) and Tuol Sleng (the S-21 Prison) and when we said we had he asked us what we thought of them and Pol Pot. We told him our feelings on the Killing Fields and S-21 and exactly what we thought of Pol Pot and his insane ideas. His next comment absolutely floored us both and raised an anger in Stew so strong he had to get up and walk away. He told us he loved Pol Pot and agreed with what he did because without him he wouldn’t have a job! We couldn’t believe what we were hearing and told him so. We were so disgusted we just got up and walked off. We weren’t sure whether or not he was serious or just playing Devil’s Advocate, saying it to shock us as we had neglected to use his services as a driver during our stay. We were so glad that we didn’t give him the job of driving us around Phnom Penh! Thankfully, at almost the same time as we got up and moved away from him, they called us to board the bus so we lugged our stuff over, stowed the backpacks in the hold and climbed aboard. The bus pulled out of the terminal on time and we were set for our five hour plus journey southwards. The journey itself was nondescript and we zoned out for almost the entire trip with our earplugs firmly screwed into our ears and had a single lunch break in another roadside cafe around the halfway point. Once again we chose to dine on our snacks of biscuits and crisps rather than risk going for anything on offer here. The place was probably perfectly ok but we opted to give it a miss. When we did finally arrive in Sihanoukville it was, once again, at the customary bus station, some way out of town and, as before, we were required to employ the services of one of the many tuk tuk drivers to hand. Once again it was feeding time at the zoo when we all disembarked and headed for the luggage hold. The drivers fell on us like ants to jam and bargaining a price with them was impossible. They all stuck to their price because they knew the alternative for us would be a long walk! We tried in vain arguing with our driver that he was asking too much for such a small distance and he showed us a map and told us our hotel was a long way away. We just wanted to get there and in the end just agreed on the fee, carried our bags to his cart and set off for the White Beach hotel on the beachfront. It wasn’t very far at all and we were there within five minutes, both of us voicing our displeasure to the driver for being conned yet again. He actually apologised and said he couldn’t lower his price because nobody else would! He helped us unload our stuff, we paid him his money and we walked out of the hot sun and into the cool, bright reception of the hotel. After the formalities were completed, we carried our bags to the lift and then to our room. It was a pleasant room and fairly large with two, wide beds, a long unit across the wall for storage, and a small, flat screen TV. Our first impressions of Sihanoukville itself, however, were not so impressive. Although the hotels and properties on the beach road (including the one we were staying in) were impressive and mostly new builds, the area itself was quite scruffy and unwelcoming. Feeling peckish, and Jen wanting to see the beach and the sea, we crossed over the road to the beachfront to find somewhere to eat. The restaurants and cafes on the beachfront itself were straw roofed, timber constructions in one long line, almost directly on the sand. None of them were in the least bit appetizing but we were hungry and chose the nicest looking cafe, taking a seat looking out over the scruffy sands and to the waves lapping the shore. Choosing something simple to fill us up we opted for a cheeseburger and chips. Nice and easy. Not too difficult. Can’t go far wrong with one of those ..... What was actually brought to our table was a French stick cut in two, with lettuce upon which was piled a layer of minced beef, complete with fat still dripping from it, and with the top part of the bread covered in a thin layer of Dairy Lea spread! It was quite disgusting and neither of us could eat more than a bite. Stew called the waitress over and told her that this was not a cheeseburger! The reply was a shrugged “I know, but that is all we have”! The chips were ok so we made do with those. Jen decided to eat the bread on its own so proceeded to scrape the minced beef and lettuce onto her plate before gingerly tucking in to the baton. Out of the corner of his eye, Stew noticed a shape looming before us and looked up to find a bedraggled, dishevelled, filthy figure standing in front of us, both hands clasped together in humility staring goggle-eyed at the mess sitting on our plates. Although we were staring goggle-eyed at the mess on our plates too, it was for an entirely different reason! We motioned for him to sit and eat but what he did next quite shocked us. He produced a dirty plastic bag and emptied the contents of both our plates into it! At almost exactly the same time, the waitress turned up with our bill and just smiled at the poor man as he cleared our meals. Stew took some money out of his pocket to pay the bill and thought the vagrant was going to have a cardiac arrest as he stared at the money, his eyes bulging in their sockets and he started to whimper pathetically, pointing at the cash before clasping his hands together again. We felt so bad for him that we paid for our meal and handed him some money for which we received an almost embarrassed and pitiful look and, once more, the hands went together and he bowed as he backed out of the beach cafe and trudged up the road. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only beggar who wandered the beach front, hands held out in front of them. Some kids came and stood in front of us, waiting for us to finish our drinks so that they could claim the cans as they clearly received money for what they manage to collect. We walked back across the road and back to our room, quite sickened by what had just occurred as well as the meal! After a long while of doing very little, hunger overtook us again so we elected to go for a little walk up the road to see what was around there. It was almost pitch black as we left the hotel, the bright stars and some dim lights a little way up the road offering the only illumination. There were very few people around and it made us feel quite uneasy. While staying at Rosy’s in Siem Reap, we were warned of the beach area in Sihanoukville as muggings were not uncommon, especially at night. Indeed, a guest at Rosy’s was approached by two men while walking in Sihanoukville and they demanded, at knifepoint, that she hand over her handbag and money (unfortunately for her, she had her passport in her handbag at the time!). Undeterred we sauntered on in the humid night air and, after ten minutes or so, happened across a mini-mart of sorts. Deciding that was an easier (and probably safer!) option, we chose a load of rubbish like biscuits, crisps and soft drinks to see us through the night and walked back to the hotel. Our sugary, syrupy supper laid on our stomachs as we laid on our backs and looked forward to the morning, when we could fulfil our mission and, if all went well, obtain our visas for Vietnam!

3rd March 2011

Today is visa day. We were keen to get our visas for Vietnam and to leave Cambodia tomorrow so didn’t want anything to go wrong. We were tucking in to our obligatory eggs, toast and coffee in the white-walled restaurant atop the hotel at a fairly early (for us!) 8am. It was another beautiful day as we ate and chatted, looking out every now and then over the wall and out to the sea beyond the grass roofed bars and cafes on the beachfront. Ready for our all important task, we made sure we had all the necessary documents before walking out of the cool, white interior of the hotel and into the hot, yellow glare of the morning sun to track down a passing tuk tuk. We didn’t have to look very far as one was waiting in the parking area just outside! We asked what the fee would be to take us to the consulate and prepared to barter a decent price. Feigning indifference when our suggested fee wasn’t accepted we started walking away (always a good ploy!) and the driver quickly changed his mind and accepted our price. Hopping aboard, we trundled away, enjoying the sun and the cool breeze flowing over us as we chugged into the town and beyond to the Vietnam Consulate. The trip lasted a refreshing fifteen minutes and we were soon standing inside a small building that could have been a small town library. It contained a wooden table around which were six chairs, posters and leaflets adorned the walls and a small glass windowed counter sat at the far end. The place was empty but for the pleasant official who handed us the required forms and we sat down at the table to fill them in. Once completed, we handed them back with the correct fees and a passport sized photograph each. By now we had been joined by two other couples going through the same process, and within ten minutes we were walking out of the door with visas in hand and back to our waiting driver who returned us to our hotel safe and sound. The first item on our agenda was to book our escape route out of Cambodia which we did at reception. The journey was to be by overnight sleeper bus to Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as it is still known). Buoyed by our successful day so far we went back to sleep for a few hours, spent the rest of the day watching TV and updating the blog until our stomachs started complaining and we ventured out once more, this time choosing a side road to walk up where we found a few more eateries. A little reluctantly because of our previous episode with the beachfront cafe, we chose a restaurant that had pizza on the menu just to be completely safe! After ordering, we waited an hour for our pizzas having asked a couple of times if there was any danger at all in getting them tonight! Jen’s Hawaiian turned up complete with green peppers! It was all frustratingly amusing and we now couldn’t wait for tomorrow to come. We were done with Cambodia and were really looking forward to Vietnam as we wandered back to our room in the black of night and went to bed.

4th March 2011

Checkout time was at noon, so we didn’t bother to rush at all this morning. We went for breakfast quite late (just before they stopped serving it in fact!) and returned to the room to finish off packing our things. We had a long wait for the bus as it was not due to arrive to collect us until 19:30. We were already wondering what sort of bus was going to arrive. We had been assured it was a sleeper bus, but you never know what you are going to get here! Packed and downstairs by midday, Jen checked us out while Stew plugged the laptop into their reception wall socket and the both of us sat and updated our blog until our bellies moaned at us for neglecting them for so long. We also wanted to make sure we ate as late as possible in preparation for the long night’s journey ahead. By 17:30 we were famished and needed nourishment so headed out to the same road we ended up at last night but elected to give the same restaurant a miss and walked on a little further before choosing another establishment that looked exactly the same as every other one along that street! This one was chosen because it had some identifiable pasta dishes on the menu! On sitting down we were served by a young girl and ordered our meals and drinks but became somewhat confused when the same guy who served us at the restaurant last night came walking in and started moving tables and chairs around! He saw the puzzled looks on our faces, smiled and told us he owned both restaurants! He and some others then started moving the tables and chairs under cover as the owner was sure it was going to rain – but he left us where we were! We sat chatting, enjoying our drinks and the cool evening breeze but kept a wary eye on what was happening above our heads while we waited for our meals to arrive. Ordering a meal around here is something of a lottery as you never know what is going to be on your plate when it is finally placed in front of you but, thankfully, our pasta meals looked pretty normal and tasted good too! Keeping tabs on the time as well as the weather, the pair of us ate up quicker than normal, paid our bill and were heading back to the hotel before the rains and the bus were due to arrive. Only one of them turned up – it was our bus and it was precisely on time too. Not only that but we were very pleasantly surprised to find that it was indeed a sleeper bus! After placing our backpacks in the hold below, we climbed aboard, obeyed the grouchy driver’s barked command to remove our shoes and walked on. There were three rows of ‘beds’ – two rows side by side on the right side of the bus and one row on the left side with a narrow aisle between the rows. Our beds were side by side and we stowed our remaining luggage (our rucksacks and a bag containing snack items) by our legs and got as comfy as we could. A short way into the trip we pulled out the laptop, plugged in our earphones and sat watching some TV programmes we had downloaded prior to leaving the UK. We were more than comfortable in our little zone and things were going really well! Well, that is, until the three hour mark when we pulled into Phnom Penh. We must be picking up more passengers we remarked. But, no. We should not have been so surprised really! We were told to get off the bus as this was as far as it was going and to wait for another one! It was utter confusion and chaos. People were milling around not knowing what to do, including us. In the end Stew walked over to a ramshackle booth and queued behind a gaggle of people all filling out forms. Pushing his way to the front he asked a guy standing behind the crumbling, makeshift counter what the hell was going on and was told we needed new tickets for the second bus and for those new tickets we had to fill out a form and present our passports. There was no explanation and no eye contact. After fetching the necessary documents and queuing again, we completed the forms, handed over the passports for verification (necessary as we would be crossing the border) and were given fresh tickets. Still nobody knew when our bus would arrive. Every time a new one came in, we all assumed that was the one only to be told it wasn’t. At around midnight our ride finally pulled in and we joined the crush of aggravated, tired souls around the luggage hold before climbing aboard. We were disappointed, but not surprised, to find it wasn’t a sleeper bus. The company had supplied us, for the longest section of the journey and overnight at that, with an ordinary bus. It had very little leg room, even for us, and was quite uncomfortable. We were tired, irritable and extremely fed up with being ripped off in Cambodia. You expect to be ripped off at least once in almost every country you visit and you can deal with that, but here, it seemed to us anyway, that we were being screwed over at every turn. We couldn’t wait to get out and couldn’t wait to get into Vietnam. But would things be any different there? Only time would tell. For now, though, we were still on the road and willing for the end to be in sight. After a brief stop for a comfort break we headed off once more into the night until at around 6am we pulled into yet another grotty looking roadside restaurant where we were asked to get off the bus. Everyone piled off and into the eatery and we just found a table and sat down without ordering anything. Suddenly we saw the luggage being hauled out of the hold and dumped onto the wet, muddy floor! Stew ran over and asked the driver what the hell was going on and just got a shake of the head in reply. Beginning to seethe a little, Stew grabbed the guy and, in no uncertain terms, asked again what was happening. The driver just grunted and walked off! We were then informed that our luggage was being removed because another bus was on its way to pick us up and take us over the border because the border license for the bus we were currently on had expired and couldn’t go across into Vietnam! Everyone was pretty annoyed at this point, but there is absolutely nothing you can do but grin and bear it, smile and wave boys – smile and wave! We waited .....and waited ..... and waited for over two hours before the relief bus arrived! The luggage was stacked into the hold and we all piled on, sat down and set off again – for a whole five minutes before we came to the border! Off we all got once again and presented our passports to the immigration officers who stamped our visas for exit and we climbed back on the bus. Two minutes later we were climbing off the bus yet again and as we did so, our driver’s assistant asked everyone for their passports so that, while we were queuing to put our bags through security, he could get them all stamped and checked, saving time. We were reluctant to do this but, yet again, had very little option but to comply! We lugged our bags through the Vietnamese immigration terminal where they were scanned and were thankfully handed our passports back as we walked out of the building, stowed our luggage and boarded the bus for, hopefully, the final time. At last we were in Vietnam and on our way to Ho Chi Minh City, HCMC or Saigon depending on your age or preference! We preferred Saigon as it still evokes so much from the seventies. Feeling completely exhausted and frustrated we finally pulled into the bus terminal at 11am – a full five hours later than our scheduled arrival time! Unfortunately we weren’t out of the woods yet as we still had to find our way to our hostel in the backpackers district of Saigon. No sooner had our feet touched Vietnamese soil than the familiar sound of taxi drivers hawking their availability filled our ears. No tuk tuks, just proper taxis! We grabbed the first one that came to us and asked how much the fare would be to our new home. Our driver didn’t speak much English and just pointed to the meter. A metered taxi! A proper fare at last – no negotiating, no bartering but a proper taxi! We were relieved we didn’t have to go through that particular charade as we just couldn’t be bothered with it at that time! Luggage stowed and bodies flopped into the comfy back seat, we were on our way – suddenly realising, as we were weaving in and out of flowing traffic in the way that only a taxi driver can manage, that we didn’t have any Vietnamese currency. We had to ask our driver to stop at an ATM on the way! He understood that ok and chose one a few minutes away from our hostel. With cash in pocket we drove a little further down a very busy road and stopped at the end of a small alleyway where our driver told us that our little hotel was just a few metres up on the left hand side. Stepping out of the cool aircon and back into the blazing heat and scorching sun, the last thing we wanted on our weary bodies were our heavy backpacks and rucksacks! Donning them was like carrying a body on our backs! We paid the driver, thanked him and walked into the relative cool of the narrow alley, lined with small street cafes and stalls – but no hotel! We just couldn’t believe it! The driver had dropped us off at the wrong place! We ran out to the main road again but he had already disappeared. Jen popped into a hotel and asked for directions and luckily we weren’t too far away but it was a pretty long and uncomfortable walk in the oppressive heat. Still seething and even more weary we finally came to our lodgings and gleefully dropped our bags in reception and almost hugged the receptionist, a lovely young Vietnamese girl named Nungh who made us feel most welcome. All we actually wanted to do was go to our room and collapse on the bed and this is exactly what we did – after we had climbed the three sets of stairs to our room as there was no lift! The door opened into our small, windowless room, our bags dropped where we stood and we collapsed, fully clothed, on the most fantastic bed we had seen in over a day!
Jen woke first – five hours later – before waking Stew from his deep slumber and we showered, changed clothes and hit the streets of Saigon – our very first purchase being a delicious looking (but not tasting!) ice cream from a small store just down the road. We continued round the corner but there wasn’t a great deal going on so turned around and walked in the opposite direction and turned right into the main thoroughfare. It was full of every type of store available – art shops, laundry services, hotels, cafes, bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, bookshops, clothing stores, photographic services and many more. It was a smorgasbord of businesses for the backpacker, traveller and tourist! Very busy, very colourful and noisy with a plethora of different smells radiating from the cafes, bars, coffee shops and eateries. We settled on the strongest (and nearest!) aroma that filled our nostrils – an Indian curry house! The smells made our mouths water and we were welcomed in by an elderly Indian man who we presumed to be the owner. The place wasn’t exactly bustling with diners but we were hungry and willing to give it a go. The meal was reasonably priced which was just as well because it was just about a reasonable curry! It filled us up enough though and we walked back to our hotel once again feeling the onset of weariness. It had been a difficult non-event of a day and we wanted to forget it and make the most of the next few days in Saigon. We headed straight to our hotel, straight to our room, straight to bed and straight to sleep.

Posted by StewnJen 14:45 Archived in Cambodia

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Hi Stew & Jen:
What wonderful story tellers you are!! Such interestng, fascinating, informative "facts re living on the roads" so to speak.
A question -- when you are travelling on the buses, are most of the other people tourists like yourselves or is it a mix of tourist and native populaton?
Love getting your blog. Keep safe.

by Barbara Smith

We agree with Barb. You have hidden this writing talent very well! I could feel your tiredness when you flopped on that bed!!!!! Your patience is sure tested on this amazing journey!!! Sending lots of love from The Howleys x x x

by The Howley's

Mmmmmmmm unusual take on a Cheeseburger!!! Mind you, sounds like it went to a good home in the end! Bless him! With everything that went on with your bus journey to get out of Cambodia, I bet your blood pressure went through the roof!!!
Keep safe. Lots of love from the Howley's x x x

by The Howley's

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