Here to There: 5 Transportation Tips I learned the hard way
I am a solo-budget-traveler who likes to book my long-haul flights to/from home and then leave room in my itinerary for unexpected adventures along the way. While this gives me the flexibility and freedom I enjoy, it also means that I find myself spending precious time considering all my transporation options. Here are the top 5 things I learned along the way.
1- Land vs Air = Time vs $$$
Let’s say I want to get from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. First, I’d look up bus/train time tables and prices. Next, I’d hit up Skyscanner and find flights for my chosen time frame. If I could find a flight for under $70, it was almost always worth it since it saved me from sitting in a minivan all day. In Vietnam, I bought a flight from HCMC to DaNang that was the same price as an overnight train ride. Later, I rode the train from Hue to Hanoi and really enjoyed the trip.
2- If there is a border crossing: fly
Crossing land borders adds 1-2 hours to your trip. First, you get out and stand in line to get your visa/stamp. Get back in the bus, drive to customs and unload your gear. Wait in line again. The best bus companies give you VIP passes that fast-track you through the visa process. The worst make you switch buses at the border.
3- Wait…WHERE is the bus station?!?
I noticed that the bus stations were located miles out of town and were only accessible by taxi. Sometimes, this means you arrive to your ‘destination’ only to find the cab drivers are charging $15 for the 7 mile drive to your hotel. The nine hour bus ride was only $14. Haggling usually works, but these cabbies know you aren’t going to walk to town, so make some new friends and split the fare.
3-Pay for the ‘Luxury’ bus
When the option for land travel is minivan, bus or luxury bus; spend the extra $5. I rode five hours in a minivan, with my hands braced against the back of the bench in front of me It wasn’t bolted down and tipped back, precariously, every time we accelerated. Luxury buses often give water or a meal as well. We also paid a bit more for our overnight train berths which slept four people instead of six people.
4- Avoid driving a motorcycle/scooter
During my pre-trip research I read it over and over again; moto travel is dangerous! I promised myself that I wouldn’t travel by motorcycle while in Asia. Reinforcing my fears, I met numerous travelers with broken bones/terrible road rash and scary stories. I was NOT going to be one of them! The last week of my trip, I rented a ‘scooter’ from our hostel to explore the low-key island of Koh Lanta. Luckily, nothing happened to me but my scooter wasn’t so lucky. Uneven pavement and a well-placed guardrail resulted in a hefty repair fine that my travel insurance wouldn’t cover. Lesson learned. Next time rent a pedal bike.
5- Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Eventually, I learned that ANY time I changed locations I should just plan on using a full day of travel time. So, I tried to relax when in transit. I talked to other travelers, binge-listened to my favorite podcasts and watched the world go by outside my window. The journey is part of the adventure and makes the destination sweeter.
One more thing- Ride the SkyTrain from BKK to Bangkok for $3!
A cab can get stuck in traffic for HOURS and cost $27us! Bypass that hassle and figure out if your destination is near a SkyTrain station.
Bad decision: Night Bus to Phnom Penh.
The magic of a package tour vacation is that someone else finds the places you will visit & figures out how to get you there. Solo traveling is always less expensive. Unfortunatey, you spend a lot of time weighing the options.
Boat vs Bus vs Plane? What will it cost? How long it take? How comfortable will it be?
Is it safe?
After gathering all the information, you make a choice and cross your fingers that the weather/government/seat mate/break-down doesn’t ruin you trip.
“Oh, did you want to drive on this road? Sorry, it’s not done yet!”
After Kate & I had our fill of the ancient ruins & street harassment of Siem Reap we needed to figure out how to get to Phnom Penh.
Here is the Bad Decision we made…
After weighing the options for transport from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh Kate & I decided that a night bus would save us time and money- since we wouldn’t need a hostel that night! We purchased $15 tickets for the Giant Ibis Luxury O/N bus. The bus had an upper & lower double rows of ‘beds’- so if you didn’t reserve both seats, you’d end up sleeping next to a stranger all night. (Tip: The lower row didn’t have any air vents…)
These photos were taken BEFORE we began our journey and were entertained by the novelty of a bus with a bed. It was also BEFORE we realized that 2/3 of the 9 hr journey would be on washboard dirt road and we would bounce & slide around in our seats all night. We were excited about the journey… then I had to buckle myself down to avoid getting tossed into the aisle.
After a loooong sleepless night we arrived in PP at 6am in a grouchy fog and were deposited into a swarm of ambitious Tuktuk drivers. We were NOT interested in being pestered so we just started walking, we knew where our hostel was located. It was 6am and a stroll along the Tonlé Sap River seemed relaxing since it wasn’t insanely hot yet.
60 minutes later we arrived at the Royal Palace!
Our hostel should be a few blocks from the palace (Google maps is dumb) but we spent the next 30 minutes overshooting our mark and finally flagged down a Tuktuk driver who charged us $2 to drive 3 blocks to our hostel tucked down an alleyway. It was worth it.
Luckily, when we arrived at ‘Me Mate’s Villa’ we liked it so much we stayed a whole week! ($5/night!)
Te Prohm: Da Bomb
Back in the 2000, Angelina Jolie did a little film called, Tomb Raider. The most memorable scenes take place in the ruins of an ancient city and were filmed in Te Prohm, Cambodia. (Kate and I are doing our best Laura Croft poses!)
Te Prohm is BY FAR my favorite site in Siem Reap! Oh, the trees are glorious! In the oppressive, wet heat of Cambodia, the lush, shady trees of Te Prohm offer magical amounts of shade.
We wandered, we sat in the shade and contemplated this ancient city. We took lots of photos and took in this amazing city.
Te Prohm has numerous and winding paths to navigate. Kate & I tried to find our way to the most picturesque spots with a map from my Lonely Planet.
We were mildly successful yet were spotted by an entrepreneurial local who offered to show us around, for a fee, of course. We happily accepted and he guided us through the complex, pointing out note worthy sights, like this giant Bayan tree.
Everywhere we turned, the trees show their strength by slowly dismantling this ancient city with sinewy roots.
The empty nooks along this wall used to house statues of Buddha. When a new (Hindu) king began his reign, he ordered all 180 of the Buddhas to be chiseled out of their nooks.
Gosh, I love Te Prohm!
On the way out, we passed by the ubiquitous stands of handmade treasures: paintings, carvings and trinkets. The dealers are so insistant that you buy from them and I’d bet they would try to sell this darling, sleeping mouse if you looked at it twice.
Hire a guide for the Grand Circuit: Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom & Bayon
8am: My new friends had arranged for both a Tuk Tuk driver and a guide; Angkor Archeological Park has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since1992 and a guide enhances the experience ten fold.
Most tourists spend 2 days exploring the ancient temples. Day 1 is the Grand Circuit consisting of smaller temples, further apart. Day 2 is the Small Circuit, featuring 2-4 of the more spectacular temples. The Circuits’ names seem counter intuitive to me…anyways. Today was the 2nd day the boys had spent touring, so I accompanied them to see the Grand Temples on the ‘Small Circuit’. First up, Angkor Wat!
Without our guide I would have walked right past so many interesting details in the relief carvings. (For instance, there is a woman, washing someone’s hair just to the right of our guide’s elbow!) This impressive wall of reliefs was restored in 2012 and tells the story of the war of 1177 when the Cham people over threw the kingdom of Angkor. The Cham are taking seated Khmer people back to their land by canoe to be slaves.
Riding an elephant into battle. (I figured this out on my own!)
Often, our guide was able To tell us the history or mythology behind the carvings. I love hearing creation stories. My favorite was the creation of the Apsaras (aka. Celestial dancers with impossibly curved fingers.)
The Hindu story: Once upon a time 54 gods & 54 demons were searching for the Elixer of Life. They discovered that they must wrap Vasuki the snake around a volcano in the Ocean of Milk and churn it back and forth for 1000 years. In the reliefs, this looks like a giant tug of war. After 500 years of churning, the Apsara sprung up from the froth and danced in the sky.
There are SO many carvings of Apsaras, in unique poses, with wild hairstyles that the Cambodian culture devised a very slow dance based on transitioning between the poses. Girls who aspire to be Apsara dancers when they grow up must start training their fingers to gracefully bend backwards at an early age.
Here I am, chiseling an Apsara at an interpretive station.
There are lovely views from the central towers in Angkor Wat. There are also shrines in each of the four directions. As the kings who ruled the area changed, the religious persuation of the temples occilated between Hindu and Buddhist. Therefore, most of the free-standing statues have been removed or vandalized. Luckily, this Hindu god has kept most of his arms.
Most of the original staircases have been closed or covered over with scaffolding; unlike this portion.
After 2 hours in Angkor Wat, we were ready to move on down the road… to Angkor Thom. (Which means Great City in Khmer.) These giant statues are playing tug of war with Vasuki the snake, as they churn the sea of milk.
It was hot as blazes by this time in the day, but those smiling faces kept me strolling for over an hour. These gentle faces are most likely the Bodhisattva Lokesvara, although some people think they are modeled after Jayvarman VII, himself. Either way- I could look at his serene face all day!
After soaking in the peaceful smiles of Bayon Temple, we headed to lunch to get out of the heat and rehydrate.
No, that is not us on an elephant on our way to lunch… we took a Tuk Tuk.
After lunch, slightly refreshed, we took on Baphuon.
It had an impressive raised walkway and children cooling off in the water.
Thoroughly exhausted, we headed back to the hostel for a nap!
Life List: Siem Reap
Angkor Wat has been on my 'must see' list since before I was 10. Growing up, I remember the colorful photos on the cover of G'ma's National Geographic alternating from 'boring' archeological digs to covers like this one-
Monks in saffron robes, the roots of jungle trees pulling down the walls of ancient cities. Who could resist dreaming about those leafy ruins?
Not me! I bought a ticket to Siem Reap on Bangkok Air and off I went! Since Bryan lives so close to the SkyTrain, I spent $3 getting to the airport instead of $27 to take a cab!
Siem Reap is small and very touristy. Everyone gets constantly harassed by Tuk Tuk drivers and 'massage therapists' – even if you wear this t-shirt.
I spent a day gathering information, maps & opinions and walking the neighborhood near my hostel The Welcommen. I had only stayed in Tokyo, Kyoto and Bangkok; all cosmopolitan cities compared to Siem Reap. This was the first time I saw street barbers and gas stations selling petrol out of Johnny Walker bottles. I crossed the river and followed the shade lined paths until I spotted this Wat, whose entrance is guarded by the 7 headed servant, Naga.
Apparently it was the monk's laundry day.
If you linger long enough at a temple, a monk will come to practice their English with you. “Where are you from? Is this your first time in Cambodia? How long will you stay?” This monk showed me this retention pond & asked if I wanted to go swimming…. No thanks. The second monk was listening to a teaching of the Dalai Lama on his MP3 player.
That afternoon, I rented a bike for $2 and rode the 5 miles to the entrance of Angkor Wat to buy my ticket. (Tip: If you buy your 3 day pass at 3:45pm the day before you can go into Angkor Wat for free that day from 4-5:30pm.) I rode up to the main temple just as the dark clouds rolled in over the entrance.
The dark skies added a bit of mystery to my first glimpse of these ancient ruins. The souveniers hawkers were selling $2 ponchos: it was a sound investment… Even though it didn't stop the deluge from filling my shoes with rain. Upon returning to the hostel, my 'drowned rat' appearance drew the sympathy of a pair of Guys from Toronto who invited me to tour Angkor Wat with them the next day. Early start tomorrow = early bedtime for me. Goodnight, Cambodia!