December 3, 2012

A Day In Our Life

I open my eyes and there are Vietnamese people staring at me. We have just spent the night on a sleeper train from Nha Trang to Saigon, also known as Ho Chi Minh City. 

Even though we bought our tickets in advance this time, we still ended up with a bunch of locals as our bunk mates. We think it’s because we chose the slow train. We would rather have more stops if it meant that we could sleep in until 6:45am rather than 3:45am.

Back to the Vietnamese...they are still staring at me. And now there are more of them. It wasn't enough that they had multiple people sharing one bunk last night. Now a gentleman has joined a grandmother and her teenage granddaughter on the bottom bunk across from me. They are using my backpack as a footrest.

The train arrives on time and we waddle off through the tiny hallway that is too narrow for our backpacks. The train conductor flashes me a peace sign as I take a picture, and we're off!

As we emerge from the train station, they are waiting for us. 

We don't know exactly who they are, but they're all wearing the same outfit. We assume this means that they're ready to pounce on tourists to sell us something (most likely a motorcycle ride). We quickly find a side route to avoid them, but no such luck. There are too many of them and one of them has found us. Sure enough, he wants to drive us. His price is so astronomical that we shoo him aside. Actually we have no idea if he is overpriced, but experience tells us that he is. We were right...he was charging more than double what it eventually cost us.

After quickly comparing the price stickers of the small cabs vs. the minivans, we go with the small cab. The trunk is barely big enough for my backpack and so Steve's backpack has to squish between us in the back seat.

We are in Saigon for less than an hour. We're merely here as a transit hub so that we can catch our bus to Cambodia. We don't have bus tickets to Cambodia yet, and we're worried about it. Everything we read said to buy them day of, but we've gotten burned as of late. We only have an hour before the bus we want is supposed to depart. Trying to get through Saigon during morning rush hour is a joke. 

Steve always tracks our progress on our GPS, so he subtly points out to the driver that we're going in the wrong direction. The driver plays coy, but we know what he is doing. He's trying to take us the long way to get more money.

We get dropped off, but it's not exactly in the right location. We have to stop twice to ask directions. Our trick is to ask at hotel reception desks. They don't know if we're their guests or not, so they have to be nice to us.

Finally we find the bus company office that we were looking for. A friend we met in Hoi An told us that he heard this was a good company. We trust our friend of friend's advice because we have no other leads. The store front says Mekong Express, but I am skeptical. There are a lot of knock-off companies in Vietnam. But when the desk clerk confirms the correct departure time and price, we are pretty sure we're at the right spot.

Even though we're paying in local currency, they want to charge us in US dollars and then give us a bad exchange rate. They use the guise that they're a Cambodian company and will need to convert it.'s one dollar lost, and we go with it. We have to pick our battles.

It's now 7:45am and we have bus tickets. Yay!

It turns out that the bus station is not actually a station at all. It's a busy street lined with bus companies. The buses just pull up on the road, load, and take off.

We load our backpacks underneath in the cargo area and receive actual bag tags – a rarity! This tells us we went with a good company.

We board the bus and are pleasantly surprised with snazzy seat covers.

Today there are only 20 people on our bus. That's a relief because we never know what we're going to get. It's always a grab bag. Just as easily we could have people sitting in the aisles.

There is also a nice stewardess who makes announcements on a microphone in Khmer (Cambodian) and English.

In typical fashion we peer outside the bus until it takes off just to make sure no one has made off with our backpacks. Normally one of us will wait outside until we see them shut the luggage compartment. Not today...we trust this company a little bit more because they have given us the luggage tags.

We haven't even left downtown Saigon yet and the nice stewardess walks the aisle passing out a wet towel, bottle of water, and a goodie bag to each passenger. Snacks are a little luxury that we've seen all over Southeast Asia, even on a $13 bus ride. This is really great because we hardly had breakfast and we were worried about the food situation. I turn into a biotch when I don't have food.

We open the box and find a frosting-covered doughnut and a ham and cheese sandwich. The cheese is melted on the outside of the bread. We absolutely went with the right company!

It takes us an hour just to get out of Saigon and then only another hour to get to the Vietnam/Cambodia border. Along the way we fill out immigration paperwork and do some reading about our next couple of cities. I've got my motion sickness bracelets on and I'm popping sugared pieces of ginger that I bought at the market in Hoi An. My bug bites itch.

When we get to the border, nice stewardess handles everything. She takes our entire bus' passports and gets in line. We wait in a mob of people in the background, a little confused.

After 40 minutes they call our names – which we barely recognize because of their accentand we step forward to collect our passports...not even a visual identification. First is the Vietnam departure stamp, and then we do the whole thing over again at the Cambodian entry point.

Nice stewardess had collected $25 per person for the visas. When we arrive at the Cambodia checkpoint, a sign clearly states that tourist visas are only $20. We ask nice stewardess about this and she says that if we don't pay the extra $5 it will take forever because we will have to be questioned. We are in no hurry, but we don't want to keep the rest of the bus waiting. We begrudgingly pay the extra $5 each. We only have two empty pages left in our passports.

We examine our new stamps, which is always so much fun to do. And even though we know the other is completely aware of this fact, we smile and remind each other that this is the last country on our trip. 25 out of 25.

Just after the border the bus stops for 30 minutes so that we can eat lunch. I see a sign that says Khmer noodles. Something new! I motion to the girl behind the big pot asking if I can taste the bright green sauce. She obliges and it's good. We go with it. Steve picks up two massive pork spring rolls and we share. We can't remember the last time we didn't share a meal. We get to taste twice as many dishes this way.

It's now 12:30. We board the bus again and continue on our way. Gone are the conical hats of Vietnam. Like in Europe, all it took was a border crossing to completely wipe out a formerly ever present scene. It takes us three more hours to reach our destination, Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital city.  

Buses are probably my favorite form of transportation because I can observe the daily life around me without feeling like I'm encroaching on anybody. I watch as even a smartly dressed young man throws a plastic bottle into the river. Immediate observations are worth a lot. We know that after a few days, what makes our eyebrows raise now will almost begin to feel normal. There is more garbage here. And the beggars...they look even poorer than what we've already seen to date. 

There are lots of white cows, and they all look pathetically skinny. I see two of them eating a pile of trash. The road signs tell me that the alphabet here is crazy and certainly beyond our capacity...reminiscent of Thai and Arabic. The monks are wearing orange again.

When we get off the bus we are bombarded with people trying to take us to our hotel. It's overwhelming and I feel like I need space to breathe.

A tuk tuk driver approaches Steve as we're collecting our backpacks. I immediately like him. We negotiate down from $3 to $2 and we set off. The tuk tuks in Cambodia are spacious and comfortable. We feel like we're riding in a chariot. 

We like our driver. He speaks excellent English and asks us to let him take us to a couple of sites outside of town tomorrow. We take his phone number and will ask our hotel if the price is reasonable.

Steve has picked out a hotel sight unseen from one of his favorite Asian travel websites. It's along the river and the staff are immediately friendly. We ask to see two rooms and we pick the cheaper one with no window for $18 (the view from the window was crap anyway). They try to do a switcheroo on us for the $23 room, but we call them out on it.

They give us a map of town and tell us where the nearest ATM is. They confirm that our tuk tuk driver's price is actually quite good for someone who speaks English. We call him and set a pick up time for tomorrow.

We unpack, enjoy our air conditioned room for 10 minutes and then hit the streets. We are hungry and there's a new city (and country!) to explore.

We start out walking along the river promenade, getting our bearings for how far things are on the map. The river smells, but there are still people fishing and bathing in it. There are also people exercising with silly public workout equipment. 

There is a photography exhibit along the sidewalk. The photographs are stunning and it leads us to believe there is more to this ramshackle capital than initially meets the eye.

Before dinner we stop by the boat sales office to do a price check for our next transportation leg in a few days. Steve makes a trip to the ATM (the US dollar is the only currency dispensed here). Then we drop by several restaurants before stopping at one with a perfect corner table to watch Cambodian life pass us by. 

We both order local specialties and the local beer. The food is delicious...much better than expected!

During the course of our meal we get asked 10 times if we want to buy something. That actually feels light  because it is all within the first 15 minutes. The hawkers disappear as soon as the sun goes down…they must be hungry, too.

There is an obnoxious Australian who sits down next to us. He is drunk and obsessed with his camera. He takes way too many photos of local people, which just encourages more begging. He tells us he was a hip hop star.

After dinner we walk the street taking in the nighttime scene. There is a disgustingly smelly night market. The smells are worse than normal...what could possibly be going on here?

We end our walk at the Royal Palace, all lit up and with pre-recorded music in the air. We join hundreds of locals on the grass enjoying this quiet little oasis in the noisy city.

It is only 8:00pm and we are beat. We retire early because tomorrow will be a big day of sightseeing. It hasn't been an earth-shattering day, but transportation days never are. They're always either really good or really bad. We got lucky today. Day #306 is in the record books and it’s been a good one.


  1. I do not look forward to riding those trains one day! Wow you two are on your last country! I can't believe it has almost been a year. When do you get home? Whenever you two head back to SD for a visit, we would love to see you.

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