With Lunar New Year keeping Vietnam in a cocoon of family celebrations, Ricky and I headed West to Cambodia for our continued adventuring.
We’d long before decided that we were going to bus it through the border, but after hearing horror stories about having to pay “extra special fees” and general extortion – not to mention knowing the state of buses in Southeast Asia – we were a little nervous about enacting our plan.
In preparation, I spent a night searching for some tips and happened upon the most amazing explanatory guide – complete with photos for a fully illustrated walkthrough. For anyone else thinking of traveling this route, this is the link and I can’t recommend it enough.
In fact, I can’t recommend traveling by bus to Cambodia enough period. For $12, we got seats in an air conditioned coach bus with water bottles, wet wipes, and snacks included. Sure the seats were small (made for people of Asian stature rather than us broad Westerners), but everything else made up for the minor discomfort. When reflecting on it, I would probably rate their service better than Air Canada (fuck you, Air Canada).
It’s best to book a few days in advance, especially if you and a friend want to get seats side by side (we bought ours 2 days in advance and though we were able to sit together we had to leave on an afternoon rather than morning bus).
Once you’re at the border, the bus attendant (who collected your passport at the start of the journey) takes care of everything. You just have to listen to your name at the border and they stamp you in. Ricky and I applied for electronic visas online and this speeded things up a little, if for nothing else than just because it seemed no one else had done so, which meant we had that line to ourselves. Anticipate photos and fingerprints to be taken.
The website walkthrough recommended we not eat anything at the rest stop, so we just relaxed in the open air and drank in our first impressions about Cambodia.
Funny how we had only traveled a marginal distance West and yet things looked distinctly different. Obviously more poverty stricken, the highways were lined with trash: plastic bags, crushed tin cans, old tires – and everything buried partially under fine silt dirt. The clime was a lot hotter, and being in its dry season there was a lot of dust that would get picked up in the slipstreams of motorcycles, buses, trucks, tuktuks, and any other vehicle passing by.
It was also a lot quieter. In Ho Chi Minh, we’d become accustomed to the permanent purr of scooters vibrating through the city like the throaty growl of a tamed tiger. Yet here it seemed no one really used them.
The few houses we had passed by were all stilted huts thatched with palm leaves. Many had a cow or two tied outside or a few chickens and roosters strutting after each other and scratching in the dust.
The scenery was similar to Vietnam, but with more palms and an orange hued sky low with humidity.
By the time we arrived in Phnom Penh, the sun had already set; a halved blood orange slipping down the sky. Emboldened by our previous taxi exploitations, we haggled a tuktuk driver down to a reasonable price to get to our hostel, Natural Inn (tuktuk being the main form of transport in Cambodia).
It was a little out of the way – in fact we got dropped off at the wrong place because it was so tricky to find – but luckily it was only across the street and down an alley.
Our concierge was immensely helpful and offered to provide a tuktuk driver for us the next day to take us around and see the sights. We said that would be lovely and set to head out at 10:00 am. After that we were shown our private room (the concierge kindly carrying my suitcase up the steep stairs so narrow only half my foot fit on each step). Much to our delight it was a gorgeous suite with a fan, air conditioning, a cathedral ceiling, and probably more spacious than both Ricky and I’s apartments back in Korea put together.
I most certainly recommend staying at Natural Inn. While it’s only a backpacker hostel, our room was comparable to the Hoa Bao Hotel in Ho Chi Minh. It was clean, spacious, and the bathroom was probably the nicest one we’d experienced in our whole trip.
If for nothing else though, the location was amazing. It might get a little noisy because it’s right beside/above a bar, but let’s be honest – you’re right beside a super awesome tropical bar. So depending on your point of view, this can very well be a pro.
Other than that, it’s only a 5-10 minute tuktuk ride to most of the sights in Phnom Penh, the street it’s located on itself is a thriving hub of internationalism. Granted that means there’s a lot of tourists, but that also means a lot of restaurants, spas, shops, bars – and best of all, low pricing as each of these competes for customers.
The restaurants alone made this street more multicultural the the whole of Korea: Cambodian of course, but also Italian, Spanish, Turkish, American, and British. And then “Happy/Super Happy Pizzas” which we thought were best to steer clear of (while it could very easily have just been Mary Jane baked into the cheese, no one wants a surprise shroom trip which was the other possibility).
It’s a place you perhaps want to use caution; happy pizza wasn’t the only drug available as a shifty man in a black cap offered us cocaine and heroin under his breath.
But there were good things too: a book shop, for instance, which though it boldly sold photocopied literature happened to bind them so well that Ricky and I each bought a stack for a mere $2-4 a book.
We tried several restaurants, including tapas on our first night with Cambodian curries, the Turkish restaurant with incredible kebabs and the best baklava I’ve ever tasted (we got free apple tea for complimenting the staff so thoroughly), and a proper English breakfast on our last morning there.
But I get ahead of myself, talking about the last day before even sharing the first! Stay tuned for Friday when I share the tales of Ricky and I’s tuktuk adventures to Cambodia’s museums and markets.