Chúc mùng nam mói! (Happy New Year!)
Trip Start Oct 24, 2005
331Trip End Ongoing
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Passport business accomplished, we were set to head south the next day
Kampot is a little town in southern Cambodia (nearly on the Gulf of Thailand) set on a river. Surprisingly, decent sized "hills" jut upwards in the distance ( Cambodia is not a particularly mountainous region). These are the main appeal of Kampot: a trip to the former French hill station Bokor. After arriving in town, we found a hotel and some very late brunch (4:00 PM), and then sat along the river to watch the sunset, where we were joined by some high school students wanting to practice their English. We booked a trip to Bokor for the following day: $6 each (plus $5 each to get into the park).
Before our trip, we had to move guesthouses, as our room was reserved for someone else. We woke up early, packed, moved, and waited for our ride. There were 12 people on the tour, plus a driver and a tour guide: 4 rode in the cab (plus the driver), and 8 (plus the tour guide) rode in the back of the truck. After about 2 hours, we stopped to explore The Black Palace, the former summer home of the King. As nearly all the buildings on the tour would be, The Black Palace was completely deserted: all the fixtures and furnishings had been ripped out, leaving only the building's frame.
After The Black Palace, we hopped back in the truck and visited a (still functional) Buddhist monastery and a (deserted) church. From there we walked to The Casino, a deserted hotel and casino, w/magnificent views of the sea and the forest below. ..> We had lunch there and explored a bit. One interesting feature of all the buildings in this area is their orange color, which is not original, but rather due to a fungus. From The Casino, we walked through a former tea plantation and then drove 2 ½ hours back to town. During the trip we met a delightful couple from the Bay Area (Jen & Jesse) whom we later wined and dined with.
The following morning, we were to leave Kampot and head to Sihanoukville, a beach town on the Gulf of Thailand. We had arranged for a shared taxi the night before, so we were transport stress-free for once. We picked up a Scottish couple, and the four of us decided we'd rather not cram 2 more people into the cab (a regular car, w/a stick shift in the front - how they fit six people in those is beyond me...), and agreed to pay the extra $1.50 a person ($4.50 each)
Redemption (of a sort) came the next day
We liked Sihanoukville so much we decided to stay an extra day. It appeared weekends were much livelier than the weekdays - the beach was virtually deserted on Monday - devoid of both tourists and touts alike. ..> We wandered down the endless beach and over a short headland, and ended up on Outres Beach, which was also deserted, and equally lovely. Another beautiful day at the beach; we wanted to stay indefinitely, but the days on our Vietnamese visas were ticking away, so we had to get back to Phnom Penh
The next day we took an 8:15 bus to Phnom Penh (4+ hours, $3.50 each). We fought our way through the obscene number of touts at the bus stop, and made our way back to our favorite hotel: Superstar. That afternoon we had to go back to the Vietnamese Embassy and pick up our passports. We decided to grab some brunch on the way, and headed out. Of course we couldn't find the place we were looking for - it seemed to have disappeared. So we drifted towards the embassy, looking for a good restaurant. As we were walking, I somehow slipped and fell: scraping my shoulder, landing on a pole on my side, grating my ankle, and gouging my knee. I hadn't fallen down in Cambodia yet, and not being one to buck tradition, I guess I had to get that out of the way before we departed. I limped along and we found an Indian restaurant to eat at. I patched up my wounds, paying particular attention to the gouged knee, which looked a bit deep (we later debated stitches, but opted to go the SuperGlue route). We waited and waited for our food, which finally arrived after about 1 ½ hours (have you ever waited that long for Indian?!). Starving, we dug in - the food sucked. So it goes, on to the embassy. After some difficulty (Konrad had forgotten his receipt, and the guy did not want to give his passport to him - we showed him four forms of id and he had to sign a slip of paper to compare his signatures), we got our passports
Our attempt to make reservations was rather unsuccessful, and we decided to head via bus to Saigon and find a hotel upon arrival. Konrad wasn't feeling too great, so we rested most of the day. That night he got worse, and we ended up staying in Phnom Penh yet another day. Unsure what to do b/c of the sicky, we finally opted to take the bus the following day and bought tickets ($6 a piece).
We were picked up at 7:00, and didn't make it to Saigon until 5:00. The journey needn't take that long, but we got stuck at the border for three hours . Ridiculous! Probably a result of the numerous buses passing through at the same time, all containing passengers who had to be processed by one person. Nonetheless, we had finally arrived in Vietnam! We wandered around and found a great hotel, away from the neon-lit touristy area: $10 a night for a really nice room (despite the fairly small bed) w/a fridge, tv, hot water, A/C, and there was free internet and a shared kitchen! Later we learned we could make anything in the kitchen we wanted
We arrived in Saigon on January 27th, one day before "New Year's Eve." Tet, as the Vietnamese call it, is a huge holiday in Vietnam: the country nearly shuts down (for at least 3 days, although some places close for 10), and everyone travels to be w/their families (thus our concerns over traveling during Tet - most trains, etc. are already booked, and those that aren't are typically 3-4 times the normal rate). For "Tet Eve," we met up w/some people we had met and enjoyed a fantastic dinner, then decided to head to the river to watch the fireworks at midnight. Along the way, a number of us decided we really ought to find a bathroom, and went in search of one. We came upon what looked like a Chinese pagoda of sorts, and asked if there was a bathroom. No one there spoke English, and apparently, my grasp of Vietnamese (tonal languages are hard!!!) leaves something to be desired, b/c we could not get our message across. Finally, after some very comical miming, we were shown through some back rooms, past a family curled up in their pjs, to a bathroom. Relieved (in more ways than one, wah ha ha), we went back to the main area, where the group was somehow communicating w/us. Before they left, they gave each of us an ornament from their New Year's tree; later we discovered they contained "lucky money" - 200 dong each (15,000-16,000 dong to the dollar)
Since then, we've been bumming around town, taking advantage of the "deserted" streets and partaking in the utterly delicious food abound. I think we're headed to the Mekong Delta tomorrow or the next, and then we're going to try to hit Dalat and Mui Ne Beach before our buddy Lerner meets up w/us. ..> I trust you are all well and good and great. Oh, and why didn't I hear until last week that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are having a baby?! WTF, mate?! You guys need to keep me more up to date! Talk to you soon!