Oh how time flies! A year ago, I was making my way through SE Asia and had just met up with my Aussie friend, Troy to travel through Vietnam together.
This face says, “How do you eat this Báhn Xêo, which is larger than my torso?” Troy and I met in Ho Chi Minh City and spent the next day on a tour booked from our hotel, exploring the Mekong River.
The tour was very ‘touristy’ but gave a nice glimpse into the culture of the Mekong and lunch was a vast array of food. Including this giant fried fish.
HCMC was a big, noisy city full of an intense number of motorbikes. We didn’t enjoy it. In an attempt to ‘tourist’, we went to the War Remenants Museum. It had with a bunch of leftover US tanks/planes and interesting exhibits with graphic images of war. It was from the Communist view but I didn’t feel is was entirely propaganda- just the view from the ‘enemy’ in a controversial war. We were ready to move on pretty quickly. The only other entertaining thing we did besides eat a lot of Bahn Mi and gelato was take a walk in the park… where there were groups of high schoolers doing team building activities. Of course Troy inserted himself into the fun and harassed a poor teenager, then tried to put him in the trash can. There were also groups of women doing dance routines.
We HAD to get out of there. After pricing the train from HCMC to DaNang and then finding a flight for THE SAME amount of money, we began our journey north. That night we stayed at a homestay in the darling town of Hói An.
Our homestay was really lovely. The house was new and the hostess was a local chef who gave us cooking lessons.
The best part of cooking class was walking through the morning market, buying the ingredients for our dishes. I adore this photo of colorful legumes and rice.
Everyone in town knew our hostess and she took great care to describe what we were buying to make spring rolls, Báhn Xéo and Cau Lâo: a pork dish made with yellow noodles made only with water from Hòi An.
Hói An has a beach, but we never saw it. Partly because Troy lives in Sydney and partly because of the weather. The rain turned the streets into rivers and when cars would pass by, the waves of water would lap up under our table inside the restaurant. Yeah, there was a lot of rain.
Our favorite hang-out was DK’s hostel, with insanely cheap ‘happy hour’ specials, wi-fi and a pool. We didn’t stay there, but we hung out enough to know that it’s a pretty nice hostel and we booked our onward travel with them. They can hook you up with some great trips. The ‘Top Gear Tour’ to Hue was a popular one- it’s from a popular British TV show with old guys who like cars. I was still determined not to be injured in a motorbike accident so we took the train.
One last tidbit: we met Thuy Anh Nguyen, the star of the Indie movie ‘Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere’ which played in Venice and Toronto Film Festivals. Of course, Troy was happy to give her an acting lesson.
This is me, in front of the royal palace as Kate & I walked to our hostel, ‘Me Mates Villa‘. (Weird name, great hostel! They organized my Vietnam visa for $65!) I ended up in PP for 4 days longer than expected but there was so much to do! Here are some things I thought were fun. Also, markets and foot massages.
4- Eat/shop/get a pedicure or use the Wi-fi at Sister’s Cafe where women learn hospitality skills to become independent. The service at Sister’s isn’t amazing because each of these woman is in training. They are learning! The food is nice, the store is adorable and the women and kind. Give them your money.
5- Have Lucky the elephant paint your t-shirt at Phnom Tamao Zoo. We paid $150 each for a behind-the-scenes tour with Wildlifealliance.com and it was totally worth it to spend time with such amazing animals and their dedicated caregivers. Please carefully research any tourist sites that feature animals as an attraction. Do not take elephant rides or selfies with tigers. Lucky the elephant has recently fallen ill and needs $40K in treatment. Donations can be made at their website.From their website: ‘Lucky was rescued from traders at the tender age of 6 months, and has been at the Center for almost 15 years. Her gentle nature has made her our Elephant Ambassador, and she has since touched the hearts of thousands and helped inspire the next generation of Cambodians to protect this Endangered species. When the injured elephant Chhouk arrived as a baby, she even took him under her wing and provided the orphaned elephant with motherly comfort. Lucky is an incredible animal that continues to inspire us all.’
All these outdoor activities may leave you dehydrated & exhausted. Plan a mid-afternoon smoothie stop then head back to your (hopefully air conditioned) hostel for a nap.
Since my previous posts have been about the terrible history of the Khmer Rouge, I thought I’d share an upbeat song with the lyrics, ‘Just a little bit of history repeating.”
In this version, Shirley Bassey (who sang the 1964 theme song to James Bond’s ‘Goldfinger’) is backed by The Propellerheads. Enjoy!
*This post will be upsetting to most readers because it describes a place where atrocities were committed. None of it should have happened but history continues to be repeated.
After an emotional morning at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, our trip through Cambodian history continued to The Killing Fields. I was a bit apprehensive but with Kate by my side, I took a deep breath and walked through the gates. At the end of a flower-lined path is a tall, Buddhist Stupa- a memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. This regal structure holds the skull of 5,000 Cambodians- a small fraction of the 1 million people who were killed on this site.
I expected this site to have the same heaviness as Tuol Sleng but I felt a difference here. The site is thoughtfully ‘curated’. The Killing Fields were not left alone to testify to history- the memorial tower surrounded by bright flowers and shady trees lets you know; what happened in this place will not be forgotten. No one lost here will be forgotten.
The most exceptional piece of the experience is the audio tour where people tell their own stories about Choeung Ek in their own voices. This doesn’t make the experience less sad but I was grateful not to be left with my own thoughts.
I left a friendship bracelet on the bamboo fence pictured below.
After a few hours, it was time to head the 11 miles back to our Phnom Penh hostel.
The road work and traffic slowed our pace but Kate & I weren’t in the mood for cheery traveler banter. We shared a ride with a couple who had purchased a touching book called, “First They Killed My Father.” (You can purchase it on Amazon.)
This book offers a look into the privileged life of a government official’s family in 1975 – when the Khmer Rouge evacuate Cambodia’s capital city. I read out loud for an hour- everyone was mesmerized by the story and I didn’t stop reading until our Tuk-Tuk pulled up outside the hostel. Read a bit for yourself:
There is so much more to say about this day, but I will leave you with this happy glimpse into 1975.
*This post will be upsetting to most readers because it discusses a terrible event that should never have happened but continues to be repeated.
Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge evacuation of Phnom Penh. Tanks rolled through the Cambodia’s capital city and the population was forced to march back to the countryside to grow crops like the Chinese Communists peasant society. Below is a map of the evacuation.
Over the next four years, nearly 2 million people were exterminated as Pol Pot ‘purified’ the population. There are enough similarities to Nazi Germany that I can’t quite fathom this tragedy was still happening in 1979 not 1939. I visited Cambodia less than four decades later and the country is still recovering.
One of the more noticeable results of the genocide is the absence of older Cambodians. In 2014, the population was estimated at 16 million but only 9% of the population was over the age of 55! Today, the median age of the Cambodian population is 24.1 years-old. In the States, it’s 36.8 years-old. One of the elders I met had a spectacular story of surviving Pol Pet’s regime.
This adorable man is Bou Meng and I met him on a visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or Security Prison-21 (often called ‘S-21’). In 1975, S-21 was a Phnom Penh high school.
Tuol Sleng is a popular tourist destination for both local and foreign visitors interested in learning about Cambodia’s recent history and that history weighed heavy on me as I walked the corridors of this school.
Most of the rooms of the school have been left empty except for leg chains or a steel bed frame but brick cells have been built into the classrooms of one of the buildings.
Other rooms were filled with photographs like these, which documented each prisoner in a very systematic way. These photographs and detailed logs immediately brought to mind the comprehensive record-keeping done by the Nazis.
The bendable, metal clips that these girls use to pull back their bangs are just like the ones I had growing up. I have to keep reminding myself that these grainy black and white photos were taken less than 40 years ago. Below is the ‘chair’ used for procuring uniform photographs.
When the prison was liberated in 1979, a photograph was taken of the 12 people found alive that day. Bou Meng and Chum Mey were two of the survivors who have written books about their experiences. Chum Mey is also in a documentary on Tuol Sleng. (The tour guide is pointing to Bou Meng in the photo from that day.)
Both men were spared because of a certain skill they possessed that could help Pol Pot. Chum Mey was a highly skilled at repairing machines for the armed forces. Bou Meng was an artist, which normally would have marked him for immediate execution along with the scholars; but his artistic talents were used to produce Pol Pot’s likeness. Drawing propaganda posters of a tyrant kept him alive.
It is remarkable that he voluntarily comes back to the place where he was imprisoned. He comes to tell tourists about Cambodia’s history and I got a bit misty-eyed when Bou handed me his book. A big fat tear rolled down my face as he leaned over to hug me.
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.
Oct. 10th, 2014
When you last left us, we had stumbled into Phnom Penh and finally found our hostel, Me Mate’s Villa. We ate breakfast at our hostel and by then, they had clean sheets on our beds. There was major amounts of sleep to make up.
(Oooh- high ceilings, a bathroom and A/C!)
Kate & I didn’t think we’d stay in PP too long. Unfortunately, that terrible bus ride threw us off our game & we didn’t end up making it to Sihanoukville (4 hrs) or even Kampot (2.5 hrs) since we couldn’t fathom being on a bus that week. We walked the city and treated ourselves to massages and smoothies. It was still hot as blazes & super humid, so we needed those smoothies for hydration…
This is me, in front of the Palace, with the river behind me.
Today, we wandered down the shady pedestrian road and went to the Nat’l Museum. It was $5 and pretty interesting, although I must admit that I was expecting A/C… Or at least glass windows. Nope- there were 2000 year old artifacts (Like this ancient statue of Garuda) just a few feet from a wide open window. No humidity controls here!
The museum was worth a few hours and could have been more interesting with a guide since the signage isn’t especially informative.
We ended our low-key day by meeting up with Meaghen, (my camp friend of 20+ years!) for dinner! We took a Tuktuk to an Aussie bar and had super yummy hamburgers! It was great to get to catch up with Meaghen and I’ll get to visit her school later this week!
Good night! More Phnom Penh adventures to come!
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.
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!)
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 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.
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.