Round the World trip
November 2014 – May 2015
week 4 of 24
CAMBODIA | VIETNAM
Preăh Réachéanachâk Kâmpŭchéa | Cộng hòa Xã hội chủ nghĩa Việt Nam
There is a risk that this blog might read like Great Bus Journeys of Southeast Asia – of interest to any other transport consultants reading but probably nobody else. However, we have spent a considerable amount of this trip on buses, and some of them have been quite memorable, generally not for the right reasons.
This particular journey started with a short boat transfer to the mainland, then a two hour wait, and a short bus ride to the Cambodian border, where you pay US$2 for Lao officials to stamp you out of the country, US$1 for a derisory “medical check”, US$30 for the Cambodian visa, and an extra US$5 which the border guards charge, apparently, for being stationed at such a remote crossing with only one daily bus load to process. The bus company offered – in fact were very insistent – to handle all this for us for a small fee, but we didn’t see the point in that so we did it all ourselves. Once all the paperwork was sorted out, we crossed into Cambodia.
We thought the road ahead couldn’t be worse than those we’d left behind. Oh, how foolish of us. It took another ten dusty, boneshaking hours to cover the mere 400km to Phnom Penh, with a brief stop along the way for people heading to Siem Reap to change buses. Here we said goodbye to our kayaking buddies, who’d come on the same bus. We wish them all the best!
photo © Samantha Bill.
And so we arrived in Phnom Penh, and what a surprise it was to find our backpacks – which had traveled in the hold – covered in a layer of dust from the road, so thick we couldn’t recognise them at first. Even the tuk tuk driver we hired to take us to the hotel wouldn’t put the backpacks on his old and rusty vehicle without beating some of the dust off first.
In a moment of budget-waiving weakness brought on by the nasty stomach bug he got in Don Det, Simon had booked us into a very comfortable looking hotel for our stay in the Cambodian capital. It turned out to be a very nice hotel indeed. The lovely staff managed not to look too horrified when we fell off the tuk tuk looking rather bedraggled and with our filthy backpacks in tow. A hot shower and a few cold drinks later we felt much, much better, and in keeping with our new surroundings.
Next day we ventured out to see the sights of Phnom Penh. These tend to be focused on the legacy of the Khmer Rouge, one of the most brutal, genocidal regimes the world has ever known, killing more than a quarter of Cambodia’s population in the less than four years they were in power in the 70’s before they were overthrown by the Vietnamese. The Khmer Rouge, led by the monstrous Pol Pot, closed all the schools, the hospitals, and the factories, and forced the entire urban populations to leave the cities and become agricultural labourers. One school in Phnom Penh became the infamous S21 detention centre, where the “enemies” of the regime, mostly Cambodians, were held and tortured before being sent in trucks to sites outside the city (known as The Killing Fields) for extermination. Both the S21 prison and The Killing Fields are now haunting museums and memorials. We visited some of these sites over a couple of days, the sickening horror of what happened there will stay with us for a long time. Here is a brief video:
source: HistoryUnshelved channel, Youtube.
Having spent a relatively quiet few days in Phnom Penh, our next stop was – yes, after a six hour bus journey and yet another border crossing – Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, the commercial capital of Vietnam and hands down one of my favourite places on Earth.
We had first visited Saigon a couple of years ago, and spent a most memorable Christmas there. The traffic is still as insane as we remembered, merely crossing the road is a truly exhilarating experience though oddly it is illegal for foreigners to drive. There are great places to discover, a million things to do (and buy), and the people are great. In short, it was good to be back in this fun, crazy, amazing city.
Our time in Saigon was spent mostly chilling out, doing the odd sight-seeing, and generally soaking up the sensory overload that is this city. On our last night, after an unsuccessful attempt to go to the cinema (all films were in Vietnamese, except the last instalment of The Hobbit, which Simon refuses point blank to sit through) we were walking back to where we were staying when we got pulled over by a group of local University students who, as we found out, gather in the evenings in the same area several times a week, and ask passing foreign visitors to sit down and chat with them, for language practice. We ended up spending over an hour chatting with a lovely bunch of 18 year old boys and girls; many of them seemed very ambitious for their futures in booming Vietnam, wanting to work in finance or become Company CEOs (and why not). Some were also keen to talk about Vietnam’s politics and government – to the evident discomfort of others. As in China, the abandonment of communist economic ideology has not meant abandonment of the absolute rule of the Party. At one point one of the boys said he had difficulty pronouncing words that begin with “tw”, like “twelve” and “twirl” (sic.), and was keen in overcoming this handicap – to which I agreed, since there are other words in the English language that also begin with “tw” which he should find very handy to learn, especially if he wished to pursue a career in finance.
When the time came for us to make our excuses they surprised us with an amazing parting gift: an awesome “survival” guide for foreigners, and a set of shuttlecocks – đá cầu is a very popular game in Vietnam. We declined an offer to play, though we may give it a go at some point!
We seem to have some trouble uploading a couple of videos we took in Saigon, so here is a brief one we’ve found on the web instead. It sums it all up quite well, even shows some foot-shuttlecock (1:15):
source: Jan Kalserud channel, YouTube.
It was with great sadness (especially from my part) that we left Saigon, after one last drink at one of its rooftop bars, and we are now back in Hong Kong, for the festive season.
More on that on the next post, Merry Christmas for now!.