Archive for May, 2012

Holiday in Cambodia

Friday, May 11th, 2012

How do you spell the capital of Cambodia?  How do you say it?  If you are traveling overland from Saigon on the Sinh Tourist (recommended for reliability and safety), you will arrive on a dusty, filthy street about 5k out from Riverside – the backpacker haven of the city.  It’s stated on travel blogs, Lonely Planet and forums online that Phnom Penh is abrasive to the senses, sprawling outwards from the Royal Palace with 2-3 storey fury.  It’s a place filled with scams and more expensive than Vietnam.


A view of the riverside. Was this your idea of what Cambodia is supposed to look like?

Every source mentions caution at the mere thought of traveling in Cambodia – from land mines to rapist tuk-tuk drivers.  Overland border crossings herald stories of foreigners being stranded kilometers from any transport other than methods designed to extort.  Apparently, there’s a lot of sour grapes amongst the visitors who must be quite naive to be taken by such scams and experiences.  Phnom Penh is an Asian capital:  it’s all of the above and less.  We found it to be just fine and the border crossing, though a relatively long trial, was without incident or extortion.

We also settled at Riverside for 12 dollars a night and spent a few days wandering around the markets and numerous alleyways between major streets.  The market nearest our temporary abode, Diamond Guest House, was authentically local.  Every type of object could be procured and every sort of service required by human beings rendered with the famous Cambodian grin.  The folks of the capital are pretty helpful and friendly.  Tuk-tuk touts should be compensated no more than 2 dollars for most places around the city.  They will start as high as 5, with a bit of friendly banter and going through the general bargaining ceremony, they all feed poor families and such, they can be talked down.  By the way, bring dollars for this leg of your travels.  The local riel in Cambodia is only used as change returned after using USD and for small purchases.  It’s possible to use riel as a bargaining chip to go lower than a dollar; pretty handy for us budget travelers.

The Royal Palace is worth a trip, though, those content with only seeing Angkor Wat in Siem Reap are granted leave.  The palace is grand, it’s full of Buddha images and shrines, it houses a pagoda fashioned from silver but it ain’t no Angkor Wat.  The dry season would only further deter visitors not masochistic enough to brave the outrageous flames emanating from the sun.  There aren’t many places for respite inside the palace grounds and the cost has been raised to 6.5 dollars from 3.  It’s now 70/40 in favor of spending the time and cash of seeing it.  Be sure to dress modestly when visiting temples around Cambodia, Thailand and Laos or you may be refused entry; even if you paid to enter the shrine area.  Shoes are to be removed, no hats are allows, shoulders should be covered (no tank-tops or sleeveless shirts) and if you wear shorts, they must reach past your knees – men and women.  Ladies, don’t touch the monks!

There are other shrines and sites about, but two must sees are the S.21 Genocide Museum (Tuol Sleng) followed by the Killing Fields.  I won’t wax historical here as wikipedia and google and world history has exposed the Khmer Rogue enough.  Seeing the stained instruments of torture, barbed wire installed to keep prisoners from plunging to their deaths, skulls, portraits of death on the walls, photos of prisoners and guards, makes it real.  It makes it more than just some far flung atrocity in foreign lands with people that speak strange tongues.  It was real; it is real.  The fields erupt from a similar vein.  Some of the acts perpetuated here rival the Holocaust in brutality:  babies slung against trees in front of their mothers and impaled upon spears; people beaten to death with shovels to save bullets.  Molded with grim, fantastic violence, the 2-storey skull monument in the center of the Killing Fields could star in any Black Metal music video.

We got a ride out via tuk-tuk to the street near S.21 for 2.5 bucks to check out Baitong restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet; another failure of experience.  It’s not that the food was “bad” per say, just merely infinitesimal in portion size compared to price and watered down in flavor perhaps to suit “foreign” tastebuds.  Local dishes include Amok which is a type of fish curry eaten with rice and the filling Lok Lak.  If you hunger, try the Lok Lak.  It’s stir-fried beef with gravy served over rice and a fried egg with some tomatoes, onions, and a salty citrus dipping sauce.  Most places have it for 2-3 dollars and it’s enough for a meal.  We also tried a Khmer spicy soup/curry similar to the Thai “Tom Yum” but less flavorful.  The food court in the shopping mall near the Central Market has all the dishes you would need to survive for less than two dollars and fresh juice for less than one.  It’s a must for those seeking to escape the infernal heat.  Not surprising, many locals can be seen eating there with the same idea in mind.

Street vendors will charge you two to three times what locals pay for stall food.  Be sure to bargain everything while in Cambodia and do it with a smile.  Anger will only cause reactive smiles from the locals and you won’t get any cash off.

The lazy capitol Phnom Penh is worth a few days.

We no love you long time in Ho Chi Min

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

One can’t help recalling the famous lines from Full Metal Jacket while walking through the alleys of Saigon, passing up offers of massage and cheap hostels.  The city did appear to have a better layout than Hanoi, and there seemed to be more activity amongst the locals.  Loitering is by far the most popular activity in Vietnam; yes, it is considered “activity.”  Don’t blame me because I’m rich and you are poor – it’s fallacy, actually if I were so rich, why would I travel in Vietnam overland?  Don’t overcharge me because of this reasoning.  Perhaps you could go find employment other than pestering tourists to take your motorbike.  Perhaps you could do something besides nap between rides.  Business sense, forget business sense, how about logic, should tell you not to try to charge more than air conditioned taxis.

The through-fares are smashed with motorbikes as Hanoi, though Saigon at least has a good network of sidewalks – unlike the capital.   Street foods stalls line every walkway and each narrow, shaded crevice between buildings.  Coffee, baguettes, rice, all types of noodle soup, fried everything, garbage wafts through the dust and motorcycle exhaust assaults when your foot first hits the pavement.  We ended up at a small hostel along one of the “hotel alleys” on Pham Ngu Lao road called Ngoc Linh:  12 a night.  A bit more bargaining could have chiseled the price a few dollars more, probably.

The local good stuff.

Search out this beer at all costs. The restaurant mentioned has it.

Two or three days walking around Saigon is more than enough unless you are searching out historical specifics.  We saw the Reunification Palace that was built in the 60’s but not much else.  There are many museums and sites to see but Vietnam-fatigue had taken us.  We were satisfied with escaping the insane heat by ducking into coffee shops for a cup and relaxing.

Coffee is around 10k in street stalls; baguettes can be had for around 10-15 which noodles being 15-20.   Search out the Saigon Special lager in the small, green bottles; it is by far the best beer in Vietnam.

Night brought us to the Nha Hang Ngon restaurant which turned out to be better than the famed Quan An Ngon at similar prices.  After all, there’s only so much Pho and baguettes a weary, hungry traveler can handle.  The restaurant features cuisine from all areas of the country and is worth the cost; mains from 2 bucks and up.  Do walk in the evening to see the Saigon Notre Dame Basilica church across from the old Post Office.  It’s quite scenic and interesting to see this old, small church under the canopy of huge, modern buildings.  It’s also a favorite evening loitering spot for locals.

The rest of the time was spent in wait for our ticket out and walking about.  The market near the backpacker area is filled with the ever present  Made in China souvenirs:  t-shirts, knick-knacks.  Skip it and the other markets as they are tourist traps.  Fresh fruit juice and some snacks can be scored but for not much of a discount as it is only for foreign visitors.  Saigon was easier to stomach than Hanoi and deserves a few days.  If it is the first destination, it could be quite enjoyable if visited in the correct season.

Cambodia next.