Chúc mùng nam mói! (Happy New Year!)

Trip Start Oct 24, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Guesthouse California

Flag of Vietnam  ,
Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Well, we got stuck in Phnom Penh a bit longer than we intended.... If you'll remember, Konrad needed new pages for his passport before he could get a Vietnamese visa. The plan was for him to wake up early, go to the embassy when it opened at 8:00, get the pages, then hurry over to the Vietnamese embassy to apply for his visa. We figured that would all be accomplished by 10:00 or 11:00, and that we could then take off for Kampot. Konrad did wake up and get to the US Embassy by 8:00, but they only help US citizens between 2:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon (some service, eh?), which scratched our plans for leaving that day. We went back that afternoon and got the pages (after waiting an hour for them) and applied for the visa. Not that we minded staying in Phnom Penh longer - great city. Plus, it gave us an opportunity to hit the FCC (Foreign Correspondents' Club) for happy hour and watched the sunset over the river.

Passport business accomplished, we were set to head south the next day. After a bit of confusion regarding transport from Phnom Penh to Kampot (only 148 km), we finally ended up at the minibus/taxi station we had requested (our tuk-tuk driver first took us to the bus station, where we would have had to wait for 2 hours before boarding a bus that took 5 hours to go the 148 km). We secured seats in a minibus (only $2 each), and squeezed ourselves in beside 19 other people (21 of us (plus a baby) in a vehicle suited to transport 8-10 people). The ride was just under 2 hours, so it was worth it.
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. Bokor Hill Station had been built around 1928 by the French, and then abandoned when they left the region in the 1950s. The locals refer to it as a ghost town - a bit eerie.

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 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). 1 hours later, we were in Sihanoukville, searching for a hotel. We decided on a newer place near Ochhauteal Beach for $5 a night and hit the beach. We were pleasantly surprised: the beach was great - soft white sand stretching on for miles and miles - and the water was beautiful - nice and warm, clear and shallow. We made our way down the beach, past the multitude of restaurants and bars, and set up on a fairly deserted stretch of sand. It seemed we had chosen our spot well, as we were undisturbed by the plethora of vendors that crowded the beach further up, so we passed the afternoon relaxing, sunning, reading, and swimming. Around 5:00, a group of 6 small boys (probably 5 or 6 years old) handing out flyers approached and essentially besieged Konrad: they climbed all over him and asked him to help them w/their English. I tried to ignore them for the most part, keeping an eye on my jewelry (we had heard stories about robberies on the beach, so I wanted to be careful - smart to bring it along in the first place, eh?). ..> After they left, Konrad suddenly reached for our bag and checked to see that his wallet was there - it was. We wandered back to our hotel, taking in the gorgeous sunset. At the hotel we realized the little boys had left the wallet, but had taken the $30 it contained - boo hiss! No time to ponder it, as we were late for dinner w/our taxi companions (who were also fantastic - such luck in two days!).

Redemption (of a sort) came the next day. We eventually ended up on the same stretch of beach we had the day before. Around the same time in the afternoon, we saw a group of small boys approach - initially we weren't sure it was them, but grew convinced when they handed out flyers to everyone but us, and glanced nervously over their shoulders at us. They disappeared down the beach, and we resolved to approach them if they returned - just to follow them or something, hoping the scare them. As the time passed, it looked as though they wouldn't return, but suddenly, there they were. I started out of the water, glaring and them, followed by Konrad. As we started after them, a Russian woman sitting near us appeared suddenly, shouting in Russian, and grabbed one of them. While our language barrier was a problem, we were able to discern that the boys had stolen $50 from her family that afternoon! Konrad chased a few of them down the beach, and the Russian family bawled out the little boy they had caught - he walked away in tears and rubbing his arm.

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 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. ..> We intended to head into Vietnam the next day via the river, but after some internet searching, we got a bit worried about difficulties traveling due to Tet (the Chinese New Year), so we decided to stay in Phnom Penh one more day and try to make reservations.

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. Needless to say, the owners are great and extremely generous (how many places offer you as many free beers as you want?).

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). Such a treat! From there we walked to the river and watched the fireworks w/the locals. All in all, quite a delight.

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!

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