Ho Chi Minh City & Vung Tau: yoga friends, durian, shopping and beer!

May 30, 2018
by Christina

After the long haul from Cambodia, we got settled into our hostel in Ho Chi Minh, Saigon Fantastic Hostel, and went out for a bite to eat. I enjoyed a rice dish that came with a bowl of soup and iced tea and a little road side vendor for 25k VND or just over $1 USD.

The next day we slept in a bit and took advantage of the free breakfast, then got some work done before heading out for a run with a local running club. It was a bit of a haul for this particular one, but we got to see some interesting countryside, including rubber trees and goats!

I am a 99% Invisible podcast subscriber and after listening to their “Fordlandia” episode it was interesting to see the rubber trees in real life. One interesting fact I had picked up: Asian rubber production eclipsed South American rubber production largely because there are no insects in Asia that are adapted to eat rubber trees. Moving the trees to a new continent took them away from all their natural “predators” allowing them to be grown tightly together in conditions that would have killed rubber trees in South America.

The next day we hopped on a Toan Thang bus (90k VND) out to Vung Tau to visit a pair of friends that we met during my yoga teacher training in India: Romain and Tram! Since our YTT they have set up a small business called Namaste Vung Tau, which is part cafe, part yoga school, and part English school, all run out of their home in Vung Tau. It was great to get to catch up with them again!

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Vung Tau is a lovely coastal city, much less busier than Ho Chi Minh, and where a lot of weekenders visit to get away from the city. We took some rides around town on scooters, and we took trip up to the light house to get a nice view of the cityscape.

We also got to try fresh durian. Durian is a large spikey fruit that has a very powerful smell. Most people dislike the smell, but for some it is an acquired taste, and it is very popular in Vietnam and neighboring countries. And it happens to be Tram’s favorite fruit. She knows all about it, and was very happy to take charge of picking one out, as task I would surely have botched.

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One the durian is selected and paid for by weight, the vendor carves the fruit open with a handheld tool that looks somewhere between a chisel and a machete, and removes the edible flesh from inside of it. The weight of the flesh is less than half the total original weight. This flesh is soft and creaming, surrounding a single large pit per section.

We took the durian home and sat down to eat it. Ours wasn’t overly ripe, so it wasn’t especially stinky and we didn’t find it hard to eat. It was sweety and creamy, with a musky flavor that mirrors the smell. Romain said that it took him until his third attempt eating durian to enjoy it, at which point he became a convert of durian, and now he loves it. For me I found it tasty and interesting, but not something I will actively seek out. Tram was positively beaming as she ate her portions (adorbs!).

Tram is a wonderful cook and made several meals while we were in town. We all went together to the central market to pick up supplies and look around. The central market housed all kinds of things under one roof: meats, seafoods, dried goods, fresh vegetables, ready to eat meals, household supplies, and so on. It was a lot of fun getting to shop with someone who spoke Vietnamese and watch how she handled the vendors so gracefully compared to our usual confused bargaining routine.

We tried a famous local food called Banh Khot, which is a small pancake topped with shrimp and fried, served with a side of greens, shredded green papaya, and dipping sauce. It was great!

Dan and I made it out for a run along the coast one day, which was beautiful, though incredibly sweaty. On the way back we stopped for ice cream and ended up with a new (to us) and interesting treat. It was a banana that had been mashed flat and topped with coconut and peanuts before being wrapped in plastic and frozen. We both enjoyed it, and it’s an easy treat that we’ll probably make when were back home.

After three nights in idyllic Vung Tau we headed back to Ho Chi Minh city for a few days before our flight to Australia. We got lunch before we left, and tried out the beef noodle soup called Bun Ho Hue, though I’ll admit I wasn’t able to differentiate very well from pho bo. Thanks so much you two for having us over and showing us around!!!

Back in Ho Chi Minh we did some shopping in preparation for colder climes. We took a gander at Ben Thanh without buying anything. At Saigon Square 1 I picked up a warm pair of socks. Later we went to the Russian market where I found a fun and warm hat.  The whole market was stuffed with all sorts of cold weather gear. We also took a look at Dan Sinh, a very practical-object oriented market that had things like small electronics, hardware and tools.

We stayed at In The Woods Hostel, which had nice rooms and free breakfast, and the manager Hai (sp?) was very helpful. He’s even going to help ship my keys that I left behind to Hong Kong so I can get them back in a month or so!

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To celebrate Dan’s 33rd birthday, we stopped into Rogue Saigon for some beer. It had been so long since we’d had any thing but the characteristic light beers like Tiger and Beer Laos that it almost felt strange trying a flight of things like pale ales, IPAs and ciders. We both enjoyed the beer, though it was on pricier side for Vietnam, almost the cost you would find at a US brewery in the DC area.

Our last day in Ho Chi Minh I got to the park to get a ring work out in, complete with a smoking Vietnamese man who didn’t speak English, but managed to communicate his approval of my biceps. After a shower I had a bowl of noodle soup for lunch, and Dan and I relaxed with our last cup of iced Vietnamese coffee at a side walk vendor before catching a car to the airport and ending our stay in South East Asia.

From there, it was off to Australia. And there was airport yoga. Of cawsss.

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The Great Cambodian Border Debacle of 2018 or Why you shouldn’t renew your passport in Cambodia

May 18, 2018
by Christina

It was a hot sunny Tuesday when Dan and I went to board our 8:30 am Mekong Express bus from Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. We had just renewed our passports at the US Embassy in PP due to a shrinking number of available visa pages. Which meant that our current valid passports no longer matched the numbers on our visas. This, we had been assured by the embassy and a local travel agent, and the internet, was not a problem. We just needed to present both our canceled and valid passports and all would be well.

Perhaps the title may have tipped you off that it wasn’t, but we didn’t know that when we got on the bus.

It is Mekong Express’ policy to check passenger visas upon check in, and when the staff looked our information over and said okay, we figured we were home free. The ride out to the border was about four hours, and all seemed well. We got off the bus, got in line and the border agent was checking my passport when the Mekong Express staffer who handled the passports pulled both Dan and me out of the line.

We watched as she spoke with various officials, and then explained to us that because our valid passport did not match the visa that we had entered Cambodia with, we would have to go back to Phnom Penh to fix it. We protested enough that we were finally presented to someone higher ranking, whose English was pretty good thankfully, but the answer didn’t change. We had to go back to Phnom Penh to the Department of Immigration and apply for a new exit visa to be permitted to exit Cambodia.

This was a shock. All along it had been the Vietnamese visa we had been worried about. It had never even occurred to us that Cambodia wouldn’t let us leave!

The Mekong Express staff told us to wait thirty minutes for the return bus to Phnom Penh. So naturally it was several hours later when the MK staff resurfaced and put us on a Giant Ibis back to PP for $15 USD total, or about half the price of the full ticket.

We finally got back to Phnom Penh, and to the hostel we had just departed that morning, at 7 pm, just in time for 50 cent draft beer for happy hour, which we availed ourselves of liberally.

The next morning, Wednesday, we made our way to the Department of Immigration, which is opposite the airport. There is a new airport train service that runs from the main train station to the airport, which is currently free and will be so until July 2018. But it doesn’t run on a fixed schedule (at this time) so we ended up taking a Grab (Uber) instead to get there quickly.

When we arrived we were directed to a door with the sign “Exit Visa” above it. The door was closed and no one was there despite the fact that we had arrived within stated business hours (7:00 am – 11:30 am and 2:00 pm to 5:30 pm). As we were milling about in confusion, someone arrived and told us the person we needed would arrive shortly.

So we waited. While we were waiting, a woman came around and began to move about the yard lighting piles of garbage on fire, including plastics. This was evidently a house keeping task, and we shuffled about to avoid the smoke as the breeze shifted occasionally. All in all it seemed like an apt metaphor.

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At last the lady we needed arrived! She was a delight, very friendly and easy going. She explained we had two options. Buy a one week extension for our visa, or apply for a new visa. Both cost $30, but the extension would be quicker to get, so we got the extension. They needed to keep both our new and canceled passports, and we could return at 9:30 am on Friday to collect them along with our new exit visa. She gave us paperwork to show if we received any questions about our passports, and told us the extension would be good for one week from the day we filed the paperwork, so we didn’t need to worry that our current visa was expiring that day (Wednesday).

On the way back we were able to catch the airport train into town, which was nice because the traffic going into the city is significantly worse than leaving, so it’s a faster and more pleasant ride than a car. Once back at the hostel we got our new eVisa applications for Vietnam submitted with the hopes it would be ready on Friday as well.

On Friday we caught the train back to the airport and presented ourselves at the Exit Visa office at 9:30 am. The office was packed this time. We waited about an hour to get our passports back, and then hot footed it back to the airport just in time to get the train.

Then we spent the rest of the day obsessively refreshing our email for notification of our Vietnamese visa being approved. Because if we didn’t get it before the end of the day Friday, we would have to wait over the weekend as well. And at 4:15 pm, our visas came in! At last, we were ready to go!

Thus after a four day delay, on Saturday we were back on a bus, Sorya this time, and on our way to Ho Chi Minh. Sorya does not check visas before boarding, it seems to cater more to locals than westerners, though we weren’t the only gringos on our bus.

This time, we sailed through the Cambodian border. We actually already had our stamps from the Immigration Department, so didn’t have to do anything. The official looked at our exit visas and waved us on without any further ceremony.

But the Debacle wasn’t over. Just the Cambodian part.

The Vietnamese side was very busy. The bus staffer had all of our passports and was in charge of getting them reviewed. After waiting an hour, we began to get restive, and we asked him what was going on. He just said it was slow because there were a lot of people. It took another hour or so, of watching other buses arrive and depart while we just sat there, for him to admit the real reason. The border official that was checking our visas was “a crazy guy”.

Whether our advocate was just bad at his job, had pissed the official off, or the official chose to delay our whole bus because of the eVisas that Dan and I had, we’ll never know. But after three hours of waiting, Dan and I were the very last people on our bus to get our entry stamps. We weren’t the last by long, maybe 10 or 15 minutes, but it felt like an eternity as we sweated bullets, waiting for the result.

I know that the worried grin on my face as the border official came back from checking our eVisas must have looked rather rictus when I asked if everything was okay, but he said everything checked out, and AT LAST we had made it into Vietnam.

So there are several morals to this story:

  • Don’t renew your passport in Cambodia; it will cost you the price of another visa and the pain of paperwork and bureaucracy. In general, try to be strategic about when you renew, considering your existing visas and whether or not they can be updated.
  • You can’t trust your embassy to give you up-to-date information about the local country’s regulations. All the information we got from the US Embassy and the pamphlets that came with our new passports was wrong for our situation. This rule about the exit visa has been in place for four years in Cambodia, which you would think would be enough time for the embassy to get hip to the latest jive, but not so much.
  • While there’s nothing wrong with getting the Vietnamese eVisa, it may cause you a delay at the border getting into Vietnam because it requires more verification steps than the adhesive one you could get from a travel agent.

Kep, Cambodia: bungalow life, crabs, and rotting mansions

May 11, 2018
by Christina (and Dan)

While Dan and I like to travel slow, it can still be tiring. So after our latest adventure, we decided to find a place to hunker down and relax for a while. We wanted some place that was beautiful with minimal tourist attractions. You can’t feel guilty for not going out and “doing stuff” if there is no stuff to do!

I came across Kep while trawling Nomadic Matt’s site (an excellent resource) and he mentioned it almost as a footnote in his Kampot post. “There’s really nothing to do in this tiny town besides eat” is how he described it. Sold! We made a reservation and bought our bus tickets down.

It’s a 4 hour drive from Phnom Penh, and our mini-bus broke down, so it took us a bit longer as we waited for a replacement vehicle, but we made it. We had booked two nights at Khmer House Bungalow, and we decided to walk the ~2.5 km from the bus station to the property. Yes, in the high heat and humidity, with our heavy bags. Suffering builds character and saves money! Weren’t you supposed to be relaxing? Shut up!

The walk was actually very fascinating. Kep has a sleepy small-town vibe, it’s on a small peninsula on the bay of Thailand, and it definitely has a bit of an island feel to it with water on two sides. The strange thing about it is that there are large paved roads, with almost no traffic, and almost completely unoccupied parks and monuments. But the biggest contributor to the ghost town feel are all the rotting mansions.

 

Kep was French seaside resort town during the colonialist period, and then a popular destination for rich Cambodians after the independence. Many villas were constructed in the popular modern styles of the era. The town was pretty much completely destroyed when the Khmer Rouge came to power; Kep was a particularly targeted since it was a place for the rich and elite. Despite nearly a half century since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, most of the buildings are still abandoned, with trees and weeds taking over, their edifices crumbling. It gave Kep a bit of a surreal feeling, the bright sun and the lush vegetation, accompanied by large empty roads and crumbling buildings. More on this later.

We made it to Khmer House Bungalows, which turned out to be nice enough. Our bungalow was very spacious, but it was rather far from convenience stores and food vendors, as well as far from the water, so the next day we rented bicycles for $1/day (each) to have a look for something else. When my bike almost immediately blew a tire in catastrophic fashion, they paid for the repair at a local shop. With that fixed up we wandered about the peninsula checking out our accommodation options.

 

We ended up at White Sand Bungalows, which is right on the water (but not the beach). We got a deal on a room with large windows, a water view, and a private bathroom. The proprietor Sai Hie (sp?), was a lovely Khmer woman who said she had “no internet, no dot com” for her bungalows, she didn’t need one. She was a wonderful hostess, and very kind to us. We stayed a total of 9 nights at White Sand, and we were very happy with the decision. Most of that time we slept, sampled the local cuisine, and worked on projects.

 

Our impromptu office where we worked was a table under a thatched roof with a bay view, and there was also a nice deck above the common area where I did my daily morning yoga. Not too shabby!

 

As to the local food, there was tons of papaya salad, fruit shakes, rice porridge for breakfast, and something called banh chao. Banh chao is a crepe like item wrapped around cooked meat and veggies, including a lot of bean sprouts. Often times food vendors have a large mat spread for you to sit and eat your food. We had some delicious picnics this way.

 

Dan went exploring the ruins one day, and collected a bunch of pictures. So let’s turn it over to Dan for a bit.

Dan:

I love exploring abandoned buildings. So after seeing all of the empty villas on our walk in, and reading up on them I really wanted to go see if I could poke around. I was especially interested because there have really been no restoration efforts and some of the buildings have been torn down by developers to build new boring buildings. So the opportunity to see some of these may be short lived.

Off I went exploring on bike. Based on what we had seen walking in I figured it wouldn’t be to hard to find something. But it actually took me quite awhile to find any buildings that I could really explore. Many buildings are on private property and I was only able to see them over a fence. Often times I would see fences repaired with sticks or a red stripe spray painted on a fence, which I took to mean no trespassing. Or if there were dogs. Dogs are like no trespassing signs but more bitey.

 

The first place I was able to explore without feeling like I wasn’t explicitly told to keep out was a big building on the top of the hill. Roughly here. I think it was an old mansion, but is undergoing restoration. Maybe it’s all new construction, but that’s just a fun I think.

 

Finally, after about an hour with no real luck I started to head home and hit the jackpot. It was basically walking distance from White Sand Bungalows, here. There was a set of three very modern buildings right in a row. They had great style. Some of them still had the original paint and tiling. There were deep water filled pits to watch out for, staircases with dubious structural integrity, and trees growing out of unlikely parts of the houses. The was an entire side of a two story house that was just cantilevered with only one of the two original support pillars. It was a magical place to explore.

From there, if you take the road north through a little shanty village you’ll come across two other great abandoned buildings here. One is kind of being squatted on by a family, so I only explored the unoccupied portion. I really loved getting to see these places. They reminded my of my grandparents house. Not that they lived in an abandoned building, but the style and era of architecture felt similar. I think it would be really great to see some of these buildings restored.

 

Back to the studio!

Christina:

We wandered down to Kep beach a few times to get something to eat. The beach was usually pretty busy, but didn’t look especially appealing to me for swimming. It also featured a statue of a Cambodian woman over looking the shore. One of the food vendors told us that the clothes she was wearing were put there by conservatives who thought that she was too naked.

 

I tried swimming only once. The water in general was warm and on the muddy side, and very shallow. I walked/swam about a 100 meters from the shoreline at White Sand, and I only got about chest deep. What really rocked was relaxing in one of the several hammocks on the property as I dried off a bit.

 

The only “to do” thing in Kep aside from the beach is eating crabs. This is a big local business, and Kep greets its visitors with a statue of a giant crab holding a welcome sign. Two articles we found very useful about how to buy crabs in Kep are here and here. From that we learned you want to get big crabs, and you can pick and bargain and sift through the basket yourself, because their claws are all rubber-banded.

We tried to buy crabs nearby to the bungalows without any luck, so we set off to the crab market proper. We bought 1 kg of crabs for $10 (bargained down from $12 (Dan says I believe this is roughly the equivalent of the price for crabs that you’ll get at the DC crab market!)). Evidently the price is highly variable from day to day and can be as low as $5/kg.

 

We paid 2000 Riel to have them steamed, and another 2000 for limes and seasoning. You can sit and eat them at one of the nearby buy drink vendors tables as long as you buy a beverage, which is what we did! Speaking of Maryland Blue Crabs, these had much thinner shells, making them much less work to eat (though Dan still cut himself, poor dear).

 

While we were in Kep, we received our notice from the US Embassy that our passports were ready. We headed back to Phnom Penh for a few days and took care of some errands before picking up our passports on Monday. Tuesday morning, one day before our Cambodian visa expired, we got up bright and early and boarded our bus for Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Little did we know we were heading directly into the maw of The Great Cambodian Border Debacle of 2018… Our blissful ignorance wouldn’t last long.

To be continued…

Passport renewal at the US Embassy in Phnom Penh or Are we lost on Vogsphere?

May 9, 2018
by Christina

Did you know that it’s possible to fill up a passport? And that once your passport is full countries will not accept it, because there is no space for them to put in their visa? Further still, some countries won’t let you in if you don’t have two blank visa pages remaining. You also have fewer visa pages than you think you do (if you have a US passport), because those last few pages? Those are for “endorsements” and are NOT where visas go.

Why can’t they just put visas on the endorsement pages, you’re not using them for anything? The answer to that question is one of such Vogon-like complexity that I am not even going to attempt the process of losing it, burying it, digging it up two weeks later, and attempting to answer it. You might get lucky and find an immigration official who will use an endorsement page for a visa, but unless that’s your super power that’s probably not the best way to travel. (Sidebar: so excited for Deadpool 2)

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Suffice it to say, Dan and I weren’t thinking about all this when we renewed our passports back in 2013 and didn’t request the passport book with the extra visa pages.

This issue was brought front and center as we chatted with a fellow traveler in our hostel back in Bangkok. Laos had refused her entrance because she lacked two fully empty visa pages, and she was sent back to Thailand from whence she had come. Back in Bangkok she had gone to the US Embassy to renew her passport and wait the two weeks for it to be ready before she could resume her journey.

Well, that got our attention. Yes it did. I looked through my passport and discovered that I had only three visa pages remaining, and that after Cambodia and Vietnam I might be SOL.

Well, fortunately, there’s a US Embassy in Phnom Penh.

On our bus ride from Siem Reap I got onto the Phnom Penh US Embassy website and made two passport appointments. There was a bit of confusion there, because it stated “for anything other than adding pages to your passport”. What I discovered is that their webpage is in serious need of an update. In yea olden days back in 2015, the US officially stopped sewing in new pages to your current passport. They also stopped charging for the larger passport book. So you can’t get pages sewn in, and why it is referenced still on the website is somewhat beyond me, so we will add that into the pile “things far to Vogon-esque to be bothered with”.

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The passport services section says to bring your printed and filled out forms (DS-82 for a 10 year passport (normal), or a DS-11 for a 5 year passport (not normal)), two passport sized photos, and cash to pay your fees, stated as $110 for the passport and $35 for the processing fee, but we were never asked to pay the processing fee.

Take these recommendations seriously. We saw zero copies of forms available inside the embassy, and when I forgot that cash would be necessary (why would it be? really?) we were told we had to leave the embassy to find an ATM. No plastic accepted and no ATMs on the premises. Period.

Which leads me to the way ingress and egress of the embassy is managed. When we first showed up about half an hour before our appointment, we were the only people there, and when we spoke to the gatekeeper at the information window, he told us we could only enter 15 to 10 minutes before our appointment.

So like the slackers we were, we hustled off to get our forms printed. We’d been telling ourselves, they’ll probably have the forms inside, but just in case let’s get them printed… There is a print shop a few minutes walk away and that was taken care of easily, but when we returned there was a line. Now, there are two marked lines, one for Cambodian visas, and one for US Citizen services. No one was in the US Citizen line, so we went there and waited as the Cambodians at the front of the line talked with the gatekeeper.

A line of Cambodians defecting from the Cambodian line began to form behind us.

Whatever was going on with the window was taking a very long time. So long a time that we were now late for our appointment (which it turns out, doesn’t really matter that much, but we didn’t know that). So I walked up to the entry door next to the window and rang the bell. The guard inside informed me over the speaker box that I had to speak to the man at the window before I could come in, and I said that I had earlier, and that I had an appointment.

But the apparent policy is that the gatekeeper has to signal the guards to open the door, and no opening of the door is to be had without getting the gatekeepers signal, which is done by speaking with him at the window.

However, my fussing had called the gatekeeper’s attention and when I approached the window he recognized me and said, “Of course, come in!” and signaled the guard, and we were permitted entry to the screening area.

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In the screening area we were asked to present both our passports, and our driver’s licenses. Since our hostel had required an ID for deposit, I did not have my driver’s license with me, and there was some more fussing, but finally I was let through the metal detector where I was required to leave my bag and anything electronic except my watch. That included not only my phone, but also my wearable fitness device.

Thus, badged and with a number to be used to collect my bag upon return, I entered the embassy proper with only a pen, my forms, and my passport. Might have been nice if they’d told me to bring my wallet, because once in the building our first step was to show the cashier our documentation, and pay the passport fees.

Here is when the issue of cash was brought back.

Rather than have us both struggling to get back into the building, since it was so hard the first time, I stayed behind and Dan went in search of the ATM. At the end of the half hour when I had said I would come looking for him if he hadn’t returned yet (because I wasn’t permitted the use of my phone) he finally appeared.

He had been forced to sit through the line, which had gotten longer, a second time, in order to get the gatekeepers attention, in order to signal the guard, in order to get back in with the cash. “Of course, come in!” said the gatekeeper after Dan had been waiting twenty minutes through the Cambodian line, because no notice was taken of the US Citizen line.

Now, a detail to remember here is that for some horrid inexplicable Vogonity, ATMs in Cambodia spit out $100 bills. This is a place where you can find a dorm bed for less than $4 and a meal for $1. Why the $100? So Dan is now in possession of multiple $100 bills to pay our $270 in passport fees… and the cashier says they don’t have small change.

So we had to wait for enough transactions to process that he got small change and called us back. Then finally, at last, we were officially in the queue. Everything went smoothly after that. We had to fix a few small details on the forms, but then we were told that everything was in order and to expect an email when our passports were ready within the next 10 business days. We actually got our emails in six business days, faster than expected.

Upon our return to Phnom Penh, and according to instructions we presented ourselves at the embassy between 10 and 11 am (the afternoon hours were 1 to 3 pm) with our current passports and print outs of our notification email. There was no line, and getting in was a breeze this time. We went to the cashier who gave us our number, and after a short wait we got handed envelops with our fresh new passports.

But, we asked, what about our visas? Our Vietnamese visa had our old passport number on it, did we need to do anything? Nooooo problem, said the lady at the window. Just show your new and old passports, and it will be FINE.

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Do my subtle use of upper case and Loki give you a sense of foreboding, dear reader? Well, they should. Suffice it to say, the lady was wrong, so was the internet, and so was the local travel agent we spoke with on the matter. The situation that has come to be known as “The Great Cambodian Border Debacle of 2018” will be discussed in a later post. But before that, you’ll be getting another post about how we spent our time while we awaited our new passports, resting by the shore and snacking on crabs in the idyllic province of Kep.

Cambodia: Temple and City Levels (or Siem Reap and Phnom Penh)

May 4, 2018
by Dan

After our journey from Bangkok and a few days of rest in Siem Reap, we were joined by our good friend Kali from DC who came to visit for about ten days. Unforeseen by any of us, she arrived on the night before Khmer New Year. After our experience with Tet we were worried that it would mean everything was closed and/or super expensive. But after hearing that we just missed Thai New Year (Songkran), which sounds like a huge city wide party in Bangkok, we were kind of hoping that it might be something exciting like that.

Turns out it was the latter, very much the latter. I read some posts that said the festival used to be much more subdued and traditional. Whether or not that is true, Siem Reap was a huge party place over the next three days. This is evidently the destination for Cambodians traveling on the holiday.

On the first night of New Year, April 14, we went out to see what the deal was. As we approached the city center there were crowds of young Cambodians on the street with water guns and talcum powder. Generally they would just shoot random passers by or smear talcum powder on your face. The streets were soaked and Khmer pop songs that had just been released for the new year were blasting over speakers covered in plastic sheets.

The party was centered around Pub Street, which is the main place to party in Siem Reap. It’s full of bars and restaurants selling mostly overpriced western food and 50 cent draft beers during happy hour. Typically it’s relatively empty except for the visiting foreigners getting too drunk on cheap beer. But on these three nights the several blocks surrounding Pub Street were crammed full of Cambodians dancing. It was unreal and extremely damp. There was no avoiding it. The atmosphere was great and there was no belligerent drunkenness or any hint of negativity. Just really wonderful high spirited partying.

On the third night, there were military folk guarding the pedestrian areas and even they were soaked with smears of talcum powder on their faces. I was in love with the Khmer music, but unfortunately Shazaam was not able to recognize any of the songs. In other countries also, new pop music is released during New Year celebrations.

I find a lot of SE Asian music kind of homogeneous (to my ears) and sappy. There’s stuff I like, but that’s my general feeling. But from what I’ve heard, Khmer music is way way different than pop music in the neighboring countries. Much more upbeat and energetic. It seems to incorporate a lot of elements of Arabic and Indian music (I know this is a gross generalization on many levels, but I really don’t have the technical vocab to describe it).

But the main event in Siem Reap is the Angkor temple complex, including Angkor Wat. It is massive, covering 500+ acres and containing dozens of temples.

It’s also one of the big reasons that Siem Reap is the destination for Cambodians for the New Year holiday. A lot of the Cambodian tourists stick to the main temple area and are generally just picnicking, but it is much more crowded on these days, so since we had time, we saw some of the more peripheral temples first, saving the main temple complex for after the New Year. We chose to see the temples and ruins by hiring a tuk-tuk driver for the day, which is one of the most common approaches. He didn’t even want to go to Angkor Wat for New Year either.

The tuk-tuk routes are pretty standardized and there are two common loops that you can take, small and big. The going rate for hiring a tuk-tuk is around $15 for the small loop (red) and $18 for the large loop (green). I guess it’s just less gas money. If you want to see anything for sunrise they tack on an additional $3. These were the rates listed while we stayed one night at Le Tigre, but other hotels charged additional fees.

Angkor-Loops

We were staying at The Cockatoo Lodge and they wanted $25 USD for hiring a tuk tuk. Possibly the driver would have been more flexible and helpful with suggestions and facts, but we just found a guy on the street (Mister San) and bargained down to $20 since it was (in theory) more expensive for New Year.

Mr. San stuck to the routes pretty strictly which meant following the crowds to some extent. That made me think it would be worthwhile to hire a well-recommended driver if you want to be more creative with your your route or see specific/special things. But the standard loops pretty much work well enough and we still had a great experience.

The other option that we considered was hiring a driver through Grab which is the main/only car sharing service in Cambodia (pass app exists in PP) and SE Asia (as of just a few weeks ago when Uber merged with Grab in SE Asia). It was only $20 to hire a driver for 10 hrs. That would have been more than enough and then you could deviate from the standard path however you wished and have transit throughout the city if you want to go out and see other places at night. We were uncertain about this option and planning our own itinerary, so we decided to hire someone off the street instead.

We got the three day pass to Angkor ($62/person) and did the outer portion of the large loop, followed by a day of rest, the short loop on the third day, then on the evening of the fourth day we hit up some various smaller sights that we had missed before and saw sunset.

The first day picked up tickets at around 9 am, Mr. San took us there. We were worried about long lines especially due to the New Years visitors. The massive number of tour buses outside the ticket office was not a good sign, but we were able to walk right up to the ticket counter, probably because we arrived passed the big rush. A lot of people show up early to get a one day pass, with the first of the ruins opening at 5 am for sun rise. We had the option to pay by card but chose to pay in cash since ATMS here spit out $100 bills and those are nearly impossible to break in Cambodia. I mean jeez, it’s hard enough to break a $100 in the US and the price of a meal is like 10x higher.

Day one was sunny and hot. The temples we visited included Pre Rup, East Mebon, Ta Som, Neak Pean, but the unanimous favorite of the day was our last temple Preah Khan. It is extensive, with lots of shady halls to walk, sparser tourists, and has a lot of fallen structures giving it an abandoned feel though clearly a lot of reconstruction work had been done. Generally this turned out to be a theme in the temples that we found most interesting. Scrambling through ruins really isn’t that exciting in a large pack of people. Despite all the advice to get up early to see the temples, it seemed like the afternoons were the best time to be there crowd free.

Our day dedicated to the small loop was the day after Khmer New Years ended. The small loop included the most popular of the temples and so we were hoping that the crowds had died down a bit. That wasn’t the case. First up was THE Angkor Wat, the main temple of the complex. We showed up later than planned and the crowds were still pretty big. But this may just be the everyday reality of Angkor Wat. Most of the visitors were Cambodian though, so there was probably still some new years pour over.

Angkor Wat is a huge temple and it has been almost entirely restored. The main walkway was a huge swarm of people, largely Cambodian, so we went in a smaller side door. Despite the quantity of people, the only real crowding was at the very center of the temple. There is a queue to get into the central tower that took us about 15 minutes. I don’t think any of us were really that interested in this part of the temple. We had much more fun with the huge carvings on the outer walls of the temple. There were far fewer people there, and it was visually much more interesting.

After this we headed off to probably our favorite temple of the whole visit, Bayon. The temple was again super crowded, but this time with more foreign tourists. I think we would have enjoyed it even more if we had gotten here a bit earlier. On top of the temple are towers with four large heads carved into them, many many faces. Below the temple is maze-like with great bas-relief carvings on the outer walls. It started to drizzle while we explored this part, and it produced a cooler pleasantly eerie atmosphere. Unfortunately then the rain picked up and it cut our visit a bit short.

The other major attraction on the small circuit is Ta Preah. It’s notable for being ‘maintained in an apparent state of neglect’. The strangler figs and other trees growing out of the temple walls have been left alone and a more minimal amount of reconstruction work has taken place. This is the one that is known as the “Tomb Raider” temple, where filming for the first Lara Croft film was done.

On comparison though, Preah Khan had more of the abandoned feeling that I think they were trying to achieve with Ta Preah. There are more of the enormous trees here, but it was more polished and there were moderate crowds. But that’s fine, it’s a really cool place to visit still. The trees here were definitely some of the most impressive specimens of nature interacting with the ruins.

After four nights at the Cockatoo, we moved to Le Tigre for a change of pace. For both of these housing we cashed in on booking.com and airbnb.com rewards system to book some really fancy digs. While traveling we mostly use booking.com. In general, it seems to be the most consistent booking platform across various countries. It often has the best rates too and I think they take little to no cut from the hostel as opposed to hostelworld.com (Christina says “Boo Hostel World!”).

We have a referral code where if you use this link to sign up for an account and book a stay with a total cost of >$50, you get a $25 cash credit, and we get $25 as well for referring you. It’s a great deal and it’s for real.

We also used a similar deal on Airbnb to get $40 off the booking (it was at a hotel though). Using these discounts for our lodging we were able to stay at places with pools and A/C for less than $10 per person. After a hot day of exploring temples it really was nice to have A/C. The advice to get a place with A/C is the sort of thing I read all over the internet and wouldn’t necessarily heed, but it turned out to be very nice.

We went back and forth on what to do for the final day, but ultimately we decided to visit more of the ruins in Angkor Thom (of which the Bayon is a part) and then to finish with sunset at Preah Rup. We had moved to Le Tigre and gotten a different driver, for $12 from the front desk. This was actually one of my favorite parts of the visit. We arrived around 3 pm and everything we visited was virtually empty. First up was Phimeanakas which was notable for a steep climb to the top and a barely visible reclining Buddha made out of the bricks on the back side of the temple.

From there we hiked through the woods hunting for mangoes and visited two other small temples in nearly complete solitude. We finished the loop visiting The Terraces of the Elephant and Leper King. These were walls along the main wall with a huge amount of carvings. It was one of my favorite places in the whole complex. The stone carvings are amazing here and there is a really high density of them at these terraces. Both inny and outy carvings and ones made by staggering bricks (I’m sure there are proper terms for these things, but hopefully that makes sense enough).

There are two ruins open late enough to see sunset around 6 pm, Phnom Bakheng and Preah Rup. We eliminate Bakheng dues to tails of crowding and decided to try Preah Rup for viewing the sunset. The top of the temple was jam packed with people. The falling sun did light up the temple beautifully, but the sunset itself was not anything special. To me enjoying a sunset is much more enjoyable in solitude. Even if it’s not a particularly nice sunset, the point is to be relaxed. But in a crowd of people jockeying for sweet pics, it’s actually pretty unpleasant imo.

An exciting part of that excursion is that as we went back along the road, we got the driver to stop so we could purchase palm fruit. We had seen it on our first day and thought they were maybe weird coconuts and probably we should try one some time. It basically tastes a bit like coconut but not as meaty and rich. It roughly has the texture of a slimy lychee I suppose. I wouldn’t go out of my way to get it again, but I’m very glad I tried it.

Based on my preferences I would suggest prioritizing Bayon during a visit to the small loop. That may be a temple were it would be worth it to get up early and try to beat the crowds. Then finish the loop and hit up Angkor Wat towards the end. I would avoid the sunset concept. I’m guessing the sunrise is about the same, but you would get a nice atmosphere for exploring the temples. Unfortunately only select temples are open for sunrise and Bayon is not one of them.

An interesting local activity that Christina and Kali partook of was a foot treatment that consisted of putting their feet in a fish bowl and the fish eating dead skin off of their feet. Apparently it tickles. A lot. A whole lot. I found it quite entertaining to watch, but had zero desire to partake. I particularly hate tickles and don’t enjoy fish snacking on me. But we all had fun.

The spot we went to was located on Sok San Rd (somewhere between Sivatha Blvd and the Temple Mini Mart, failed to tag it!). It was $1 and you got a drink included (beer or soda) along with complimentary wifi. Note that the places on Pub Street were asking $3 for the same service. I really don’t understand how the economics of the place worked, but it was a killer deal. We passed the place several times and never saw anyone there. But as soon as Christina and Kali were shrieking with laughter new customers started arriving until there were almost ten people voluntarily submitting themselves to this. We were good for business I guess.

Siem Reap has really good cheap street food. And Khmer food is excellent. Wow, I had no clue. We basically survived on the same three street food items during our entire time in Siem Reap: noodles, papaya salads, and fruit shakes. The fruit shakes I think are more of a tourist thing but for $1 they are a steal. We also supplemented this with found (ground) mangoes since fruit trees are everywhere here.

The noodles typically were just instant ramen noodles, but eventually we found something quite distinct called Lort Cha. It’s a short stubby noodle and eaten with a spoon. The noodles are fried in a wok with some morning glory and carrots. then seasoned with a combo of sweet chili sauce and fish sauce which ends up tasting kind of like barbecue sauce and then topped with a fried egg. Simple but tasty.

The papaya salad here is distinct from Thai papaya salad, but roughly the same concept overall. The most notable difference is that there is always a big plastic jar full of crabs available. Maybe raw crabs. I don’t understand shell fish. But the vendor will take a whole crab toss it in with the rest of the salad ingredients in the mortar and pestle and mash it up. I’m not sure if you are supposed to eat the whole crab or part of it. But we have just been picking out the crab bits out. A bit unsure of how safe it is. I wish I was more adventurous in this regard but I’m not a huge fan of shellfish in general so I’m not super motivated to push myself here.

Christina being Christina found a gym, PNL Sport & Ping Pong, where she managed to get a few workouts in. They offer weights, cardio machines, and ping pong tables (no AC though). I didn’t go with her, but I support her efforts. Good job!

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We ended up really liking Siem Reap. It’s a tourist town for sure and Pub Street definitely caters to Westerners. But it’s also a major tourist spot for Cambodians and so it has plenty of Khmer feel. I feel like the city has done a good job not being overrun by tourism. Even with the New Years insanity we were able to find some pretty nice rates on hotels.

After almost a week in Siem Reap we headed to Phnom Penh for the last few days of Kali’s visit. PP is not a big tourist destination, but I loved it. We took the Mekong Express bus between SR and PP. I booked online at bookmebus.com, but it would have been far easier and also a bit cheaper to just book at their office in town.

I ended up going to the office to try to arrange pick up from the hotel. Which was successful, until the pick up never came the next morning. I called in time to figure this out and we ended up walking to the bus (which left from the office, not where bookmebus said). Other than that confusion, it was a nice bus line. Nothing fancy but it left on time and everything was in good working order and the service was good.

We were staying near the Olympic stadium in PP and we visited the Olympic market on the first day. Man, did I really wish I needed new clothes (or had space for extra). This was probably the best density of cool men’s clothes that I’ve seen. Even topping the malls in Bangkok. It was all mostly wholesalers and I didn’t ask any prices, but it looked like a really fun place to shop. We also got lunch here, including some mochi-coconut dumplings, papaya salad and stick food.

After this we went to Moha Montrei Pagoda which is a molded concrete temple nearby. A lot of Phnom Penh is molded concrete. I think it’s pretty cool. A passing monk let us inside and took some awkward photos of us posing in front of the altar.

Along the way we walked through the Olympic Stadium. It was built to Olympic standards to host international sporting events, but it was never really put to full use because the tragic take over by the Khmer Rouge was shortly after the stadium was constructed. It apparently is one of the few remaining examples of New Khmer Architecture, but was unfortunately closed to entering when we passed by.

We also visited Wat Phnom. It’s located near the city center at the top of a hill. The temple wasn’t particularly ornate but the murals inside were fantastic. From there we also walked along the water front of the Mekong River, which has some exercise equipment and a nice view.

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Next to Wat Phnom we found an amazing sandwich stand. It was some of my absolute favorite food. As best I can tell it’s the Cambodian version of Bahn Mi. Maybe it’s called Num Pang. It’s a baguette spread with some sort of sweet mayonnaise and maybe anchovies. Then filled with a fatty pork with insanely crunchy fried skin and topped with a vinegary papaya salad. It blew my socks off.

On the last day of Kali’s visit Christina dragged us to an hour of meditation at Wat Langka. It was totally new to Kali and me. There was supposed to be an instruction portion, but the usual monk was away, and his apprentice (?) didn’t speak much English, so the advice we got was “sit up straight”. So it was a tough hour sitting on the floor, but an interesting experience.

After meditation we went to Ratanakiri Restaurant for dinner. This was exactly the sort of place that I had been hoping to find. It was more expensive than our typical street food meals (we’re talking menu items in the $3-4 range versus $1-2), but the quality of the food was way better. We tried Samlaw Cachou Kreoung (a curried morning glory stew) and Lok Lak (stir fried beef). They were both delicious and we at way too much food. I had ordered the Lok Lak at a cheaper restaurant and been unimpressed because the quality of the meat was terrible, but this was amazing.

Stuffed to the gills, we went out to check out one of the many mini movie theaters. Apparently, back in the day, there weren’t official movie theaters in PP and so there were enterprising individuals that would set up mini theaters in a room and show three films simultaneously.  This has somewhat continued with small independent movies which charge $3.5 per day and show several films (sequentially) throughout the day.

One of these theaters is Meta House, and we went on Berlin Music night (it’s located above the German Cultural Center). We arrived after the movie for what had been advertised as a dance party, but it ended up just being a bar with a DJ and only a couple people inside.

We walked around some of the parks and plazas in the city center, which is really pleasant in the evening when the temperature drops to something reasonable. The whole city is lit up with lights on just about every tree and light pole. I felt like I was in some Sonic the Hedgehog level.

And that about wraps it up. It was great to get to see our good friend Kali and run around ancient ruins with her! (Thanks for coming to visit Kali!). After we began a new adventure… in bureaucracy! Up next: How to renew your rapidly filling passport at the US Embassy in Phnom Penh.

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cool cape, eh?