There was an immediate difference upon entering Cambodia. Within the first 5km, there are 10 casinos.
The casinos have great names like "Macau" or "Las Vegas Sun" or "Hotel and Casino." Dave wondered how the last one was actually a hotel and casino considering it was only big enough for 2 slot machines and 1 hotel room (but one of those fancy hotel rooms with a jacuzzi bath tub and king size bed). Once over the border, we stopped at a local tourist rest stop for some lunch. We weren't sure about the food being offered so we just got some prepackaged snacks in the shop and hopped back on the bus. The view was pretty amazing. Since it is the dry season, there was little water outside (it looked like a desert). There was some grass, but the skin and bone cows were fighting over it. Speaking of animals, there was a two mile stretch where we saw cows, dogs, water buffalo, monkeys, and a statue of a kangaroo. If only we were taking a video at the time, we would have another scavenger hunt item crossed off the list.
They told us it would be another 3 hours until we made it to Phnom Penh, depending on the ferry. We had no idea what that meant but appreciated the update. Sure enough, about 2 hours later we came to a really wide river and the bus waited about 10 minutes before driving straight onto a large concrete ferry, along with about 4 other buses and several cars. I was a little nervous while crossing since if anything happened while on the ferry our chances of even being able to get out of the bus were slim. But not to worry, we made it safely across and continued on to the city and to the small bus stop in one section of the city. We were very tempted to just continue immediately to Siem Reap, but we had already booked a room in Phnom Penh, so we decided to stay the night (that's what you get for planning ahead by one day).
Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia and has a bit of a sordid past. The Khmer Rouge had taken over the city in the late '60s and '70s during their reign of terror. Now, they've turned these horrors into tourist sites where you can visit the former high school that was used as a torture chamber, or even the Killing Fields where they executed thousands of Cambodians (we have seen enough dead people between the Ho Chi Ming mausoleum and the War Remnants Museum in Saigon). In all, over 2 million Cambodians were killed in the '70s under the Khmer Rouge.
Although Phnom Penh is rebuilding and it's now a bustling city, this part of history is ever-present. We'd read and researched a lot before heading there and I was a bit nervous arriving since we had to find our own way to our guesthouse. The city is complete chaos, the street names change constantly and traffic rules certainly don't exist. We thought we'd researched where the bus would arrive and then the general direction and distance to the guesthouse but once we arrived at the station it wasn't familiar. Of course as soon as you get off the bus you're swarmed with guys approaching you asking, 'lady, you want tuk-tuk?'
We managed to find one guy who agreed to take us and hopped in for our first frightening tuk-tuk ride. He made a detour to the nearest gas station and put in $1US and then we were off to the hotel. Even driving through the streets you could see what chaos the city brings - roads criss-crossing every direction, unfinished and the traffic is nuts. We managed to make it to the front of our guesthouse unharmed and left the tuk-tuk driver to find another sucker.
We checked in and were shown to a room. There weren't a lot of hostels or hotels recommended on our usual websites, and this was the best one we found from Travelfish. I was not impressed - we had to hike up to the 3rd steep floor carrying our own bags and the guy showing us to our room kept looking back like what was taking us so long. They didn't know much English, just enough to try to sell us another bus ticket but we already had one for the next day first thing. The room was very sparse and semi-clean. We just dropped our bags and then headed out to the river walk for something to eat and to explore a bit.
The river walk area (one street that is 5 blocks long) was pretty touristy with lots of guesthouses and cafes. We found one that advertised authentic Khmer food for $3US and sat out front facing the street to watch the chaos. The food was delicious, I enjoyed beef loc lak and Dave tried the amok. We also sampled the local brew, Angkor beer (they translate it to Anchor), which was drinkable.
While sitting at the cafe we saw the craziest vehicles whiz by - anything and everything that you can pack onto a tuk-tuk or moto. The best almost made me choke on my drink - a shirtless man pushing an elephant right along in front of us! I was too stunned to get my camera out in time so the mental image will have to be enough for us.
After lunch we were stuffed and wanted to walk a bit and I wanted to see Wat Phnom (Phnom Temple) which was within walking distance. The legend is that a pagoda was built on the highest point in the city in the 1300s and discovered by a woman named Penh. It's where the city got it's name Phnom Penh which means "Hill of Penh." When we got there the entire front was covered in scaffolding so we decided to enjoy the outside view but not trek up to the top. It was a lovely wat (temple) and maybe once the scaffolding is removed it will be nicer. Other things to see in the city are the Royal Palace that houses a silver pagoda, a National Museum, and the former Khmer Rouge torture/killing sights mentioned above.
At this point in the day we were nearing sunset and the other sites weren't of interest to us so we headed back to the guesthouse via the local market. We ended up calling it a night rather early as we were so full from our late lunch and tired from the travel day.
The next morning we woke up early and said goodbye to the very mediocre guesthouse to head for Siem Reap. We found a tuk-tuk right out front to take us to the bus station. When we had booked our ticket the previous day after getting into Phenom Penh, the ticket agent wrote the name of the station down for us in Khmer and told us to tell the driver to take us there. Sure enough once we negotiated a price and got in the tuk tuk we went in a different direction and turns out this was a different bus station just a few blocks away from where we were.
We arrived and were the only gringos in site - this was 100% local bus station. We confirmed with the ticket agent up front that were in the right place because there were no buses in sight. We were about half hour early for the 8:15 bus so we sat and waited. When 8:15 came and went we moved out front to watch the chaos of buses showing up, people and luggage and motos squeeze in. One did come that was going to Siem Reap but that was the 7:15 bus.
Finally around 9am a bus rolls up that looks like a beaten-up version of yesterday's bus and we were ushered on. They took our bags from us right away but gave us a tag at least. We had the second to last row of seats which I wasn't happy about but then another couple got the last row of seats behind us and the seats weren't even attached. So I decided to look on the bright side, at least our seats (although the screws were loose on the bottom which made our seats into rocking chairs during the bumpy ride) were attached and the vents promised a/c. Once we were rolling they turned on music and the tv so loud that I couldn't hear my ipod audio book even turned all the way up. I tried some music but couldn't really hear it either. So for the next 7 hours I enjoyed Khmer singing variety shows at full blast.
I did enjoy the local experience because watching the locals enjoy the TV was entertaining. And there was one family with little kids in front of us and like many Asian cultures, they don't believe in diapers. Every country we go to, the kids wear less clothing. It started in China with a slit in the back of the pants, by Cambodia, they disregard clothing altogether for little boys under the age of 2. So every so often when I looked up I was greeted by a cute little 2-year old tushie or weenie. The bus would stop often for locals to get on or off but we weren't sure since no one really told us what to do. At one point someone in English said that this stop was a rest stop so we got out and used the w/c but no way were we going to eat at this stop (except for a mango which was actually pretty amazing). As much as I enjoy the local experience this place had 'stomach nightmares' written all over it. We got some fresh fruit and water and then right back on the bus.
The last two hours of the bus ride was when the sun was beating down on us. The a/c was working, but the vents would either be completely closed or completely open (which was in a direction not pointing at us). Since Dave really needs his steady stream of air in order to stay cool, he used his engineering skills (some people have cake building skills, Dave has engineering skills) to jimmy his piece of gum into the vent in order to point directly on him. I just suffered (I am half Dominican, so I can handle the heat).
We arrived in Siem Reap finally and turned into the bus station but then we just did a lap around and turned right out of it back onto the main road. We finally pulled into the bus company offices and thank goodness our wonderful hostel had sent their driver, Perry, to collect us. The poor guy had been waiting for an hour for us and then followed us from the first bus station here. We were able to pick up our bags and after the staff verified we had the right luggage (I wonder how they verified this at all the other random quick stops along the way - whatever), we were released. Very happy to have finally made it to Siem Reap!``````````````````````````````````
We left the Green Suites Hotel in Saigon early Saturday morning to head to Cambodia. We enjoyed one last patio rooftop breakfast, before boarding our first long distance bus of the trip. We have heard stories about buses in Asia. They are always delayed, with broken seats, broken a/c, a very bumpy ride, and they pack you in like sardines while blaring music in whatever local language you are currently in. The bus company picked us up and walked us to the double-decker air conditioned bus that would take us to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Our seats were towards the front of the bus which was great since I can get carsick sometimes. I was really impressed with how clean the bus was, how strong the a/c was, and how the flight attendants (there were guides for the bus, not sure what to call them, so they are now flight attendants) kept us informed of where we were and where we were heading. The bus was full, made up of about half locals and half tourists. The flight attendants helped us exit through Vietnam customs and then helped us obtain a Cambodian visa and get through the border in about 12 minutes (I guess those rumors about the bus were not very accurate). We paid a $5 premium for the flight attendants to get the Cambodian visa for us, but they saved us loads of time. The American bloke (first American we met since leaving Hong Kong), behind us didn't want to pay the $5, you know because he has made this crossing a whole three times and thought he could do it himself. The flight attendant said no problem, but the bus will only wait for 15 minutes on the other side for him, at this point he paid the $5.