Goodbye Vietnam...Hello Cambodia!

Trip Start Oct 19, 2010
Trip End Jul 23, 2011

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Sunday, February 13, 2011

For the last 2 days in HCMC we moved to the Rex Hotel so that we would be closer to the bus operators that take you to Cambodia. This old 5 star hotel was used by reporters during the Vietnam War and a lot of the stories they wrote were written here.  And, it has great rooftop views of District 1's boulevards filled with the Tet illuminations.  It was my birthday, and the hotel presented me with a bunch of flowers and a lovely birthday cake with my name on it.  It was a really nice surprise.  We dined on the rooftop of the Rex as a double celebration, not only was it my birthday but it was our last night in Vietnam too (60 very memorable and enjoyable days).  They had a Vietnamese band on who played Latin music, strangely enough, while we sipped cocktails and ate some delicious steaks cooked to perfection. 

The next morning I had my last proper pho for breakfast (a noodle soup I think is delicious) and got a taxi to the bus station.  The bus took 6 hours to get to Phnom Penh crossing the border through 2 checkpoints, one Vietnamese and one Cambodian.  As soon as we entered Cambodia, we could tell we were in another country.  The buildings were adorned with fancy roofs and unfamiliar Khmer script.  The roads were dustier and potholed.  The bus came to the occasional abrupt halt to allow passing cattle to stroll across the roads.  The land looked flatter and more baron with children and cattle (but not together!) bathing in muddy watering holes along the way.  The bus stopped at a small town to cross a river just before we reached Phnom Penh.  The bus was quickly surrounded by street hawkers offering deep fried critters as snacks in baskets balanced on their heads.  Apparently during Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge Regime in the seventies, whilst the people were starving to death they were forced through hunger to eat such things as tarantulas and acquired a liking for them so they still eat them to this day but we were not that hungry funnily enough! 

As we drove through the huge capital (home to 2 million people) the roads widened and we saw some amazing ornate buildings between shops, restaurants and businesses.  The roads are all numbered so it makes it easy to navigate around as well which is a blessing as the Khmer language is difficult to decipher.  We were dropped off at the bus depot and we haggled for a tuk-tuk to take us to the hotel on street 128 which was just outside the main tourist area but easily within walking distance to most sites.  


If we thought it was hot in HCMC, we were is about 37'c here and the sun is baking hot.  We walked towards the quay and found a restaurant that looked inviting.  We had beer at $0.75 (even though the currency is Riel most places deal in US Dollars) and I had chicken amok (spicy chicken coconut curry served in a banana leaf) and Waffle had pork loc lac (pork in a pepper sauce using peppers from Kampot in Cambodia which is famous for it's peppercorns worldwide).  The food was plentiful, full of flavour and quite spicy. Although, the street food looks less inviting, more like salmonella on a plate with meat and seafood just sitting there in the heat of the thanks!

As the population is 90% Buddhist it was no surprise to see monks donned in orange robes with orange umbrellas.  They were holding pots waiting outside our hotel for offerings of food from the staff as we ate our breakfast.  When they received food, they chanted some blessing to the staff and moved on.  What we didn't expect to see were monks smoking cigarettes or sitting pillion on motorbikes!  We thought they couldn't smoke as they should really indulge in things, they are not even supposed to enjoy eating food.  We got a tuk-tuk to the Royal Palace only to find that it was closed until 2 we wandered along until then taking in the sites.  One place we wandered into was Wat Onalom.  This was one of the oldest temples in the city and had several buildings, one was the sleeping quarters of the Dalai.  All the buildings were extremely ornate and very beautiful.  A monk showed us around and explained about where the gongs and furniture came from as well as what goes on in each building, he even let us strike the gongs and play on the drums!  He seemed very pleased to show us around the temple and when I took a photo of him he even straightened up his robes and posed for me!

After visiting the Wat we walked through a side street full of big green rubbish bins where homeless families lived.  The children were rummaging through the bins and were playing in the street, some of them unclothed.  This was the poverty here we had heard about and was very sad to see what little they had.  The children come up to you begging for money and follow you along the road tugging at your clothes.  They are also notorious pick-pockets too so you have to be on your guard! 

We came across the National Museum where they were practicing an Apsara dance show for the evening.  Being cheapskates, we watched the show for free instead of paying $18 each later.  The girls danced first and it looked like the dance told a story of harvesting rice in paddy fields and bringing it to the men who joined in on the dancing and the storyline continued.  The men then started to dance using monkey actions in the routine which was funny to see a dance involving scratching their asses!  It was good fun, a little girl about 3 years old who was watching them tried to copy the dance.

At 2pm we walked back to the Royal Palace.  A young friendly boy who spoke to us earlier remembered us and convinced us to buy some water from him instead of paying more inside, we agreed after negotiating a good price (we would rather give him the money anyway).  The Palace was a lot bigger than we expected.  It was full of well maintained gardens surrounding gold and white buildings, stupas and walkways adorned with murals.  We also walked through a few water sprinklers meant for the grass and plants - just to cool us down in the searing heat.  Within the walls of the Palace grounds was the Silver Pagoda which had a silver tiled floor and more Buddha statues than you could imagine...all sizes and positions from lying down, sitting, standing, gold, silver, jade, diamond encrusted etc. etc.  I actually heard Waffle say wow a few times at the Palace (which is something as he isn't impressed easily).

After walking around for hours and getting a little sunburnt we went for something to eat.  We sat down at a table close to a big fan and perused the menu.  The menu was a bit strange with stuff like cows tongue with red ants and various cooking methods for intestines but we found some soups to be a more to our taste...It was supposed to be a light afternoon snack but it turned out to be a feast...the soups came in huge bowls and had rice to accompany them, peanuts and fresh pineapple to end.  We were stuffed so we skipped tea that day.

The next day we walked to the Independence Monument set on a large roundabout by all the main embassies. Then we walked to the other side of the city to Wat Phnom to which the city takes its name.  Grandma Penh founded the Wat in 1373 on the only hill in the city after finding 4 Buddha statues along the Mekong River. Phnom means 'hill' hence the name Phnom Penh.  Just outside the Wat Waffle found a elephant named Sumbo.  He bought some bananas and after feeding him he gave him a bit of a hug around his trunk...the highlight to his day (Waffles that is, not Sumbos!).  Next we went to one of the shopping malls and at the top floor we watched some young Cambodians rollerblading in a cage doing loads of stunts like somersaults and backward flips.  It was getting late so we found a restaurant for some beer and nosh.  The owner, who was very giggly said that if we could manage 3 jugs of beer she would give us some bbq food for free but we only managed 2!  Every time we took a sip of beer they came and topped our glasses up - very attentive I must say...We ordered some food and after we ate what we ordered and some of the peanuts they kept giving us they brought us free desserts, green noodles in coconut milk (they were really nice).  They really want to make you feel welcome and well fed here.  When we got back to our hotel the extremely happy tuk-tuk driver who parks outside our hotel (never seems to stop smiling) offered to take us to the Killing Fields the next day so we arranged that for 10 am, just after breakfast.

At breakfast the tuk-tuk driver waved and smiled at us through the window and when we stepped outside he seemed overjoyed to take us out for the day for $14.  He took us to Toul Sleng Museum first.  This used to be a school before Pol Pot took control, who turned it into a torture prison called S-21.  A horrific site of electrified beds, small cells and various methods of torture given to people who were educated, skilled, infirm (including people who wore glasses), 'traitors' of the Khmer Rouge Regime, foreigners, religious people and just about anyone really.  Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge carried out a program that included isolating the country from foreign influence, closing schools, hospitals and factories, abolishing banking, finance and currency, outlawing all religions, confiscating all private property and relocating people from urban areas to collective farms where forced labour was widespread. These actions resulted in massive deaths through executions, work exhaustion, illness, and starvation. At S-21 14,000 prisoners were held here before being sent to the Killing Fields to be slaughtered within a day of arrival...That was next on our itinerary.

The Killing Fields, or Choeung Ek is 15km south of the city so we were taken along dirt roads passing small hamlets and stilt homes along waterways.  At the Killing Fields, a memorial stands 17 tiers high of bones from some of the mass graves excavated in the area.  As we walked through the grounds passing the ditches we could see clothing still half buried and we even saw a guy pulling up some bone fragments and laying them by a tree which was used to smash babies up against to kill them, now a small shrine in their memory.  They estimate that about 20,000 are buried here in shallow graves and when it rains more bones and clothes are exposed!  We watched a film there that showed more horrifying images that occurred during the 1970s.  The 4 top officials are still yet to be tried for these war crimes, only one accepts and apologises for his actions.  Pol Pot died of a suspected heart attack in 1998 under house arrest aged 73 so justice has not been done as yet for the killing, starving and torture of 1 in 5 Cambodians, an estimated 2 million people.

We had a rest back at the hotel and went out for our final night in Phnom Penh.  We went to a restaurant on the quay which was a bit more expensive than some of them and when it came to the bill, Waffle realised he hadn't brought enough money with him...he had no choice but to dash back to the hotel and get some more cash, he ran all the way.  He was asked if he wanted a tuk-tuk and a free woman!  He declined and continued to run on...when he came back to the restaurant he looked shattered as he had run about 2 miles and all for being a dollar short! 

This morning we got our tuk-tuk friend to take us to the bus terminal for our onward journey to the beach resort of Sihanoukville.  We pre-booked a hotel close to the beach with a big swimming pool too.  We are going to spend a few days topping our tans up.  The bus ride was very comfortable, 4 hours along a newly laid tarmac road.  They had a TV and put on Ice Age 2 and Resident Evil to watch.  After a bit of a rest (it's surprising how tired sitting on a bus makes you) we are going to go out and explore the town.
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