Despite having an earlier nap the following evening, I end up running late this morning. To the point that when I finally lug my bags down to the reception to check out, I’m immediately set upon by the woman whose meant to be taking me to my bus. Naturally the one time I’m running late I’m the first person being picked up. All my other tours I’d still have had plenty of time.
There are dozens of companies that will take you across the border into Cambodia, and there are as many scammers are there are respectable groups. After going online and looking for advice, I’d gone with the Mekong Express Limousine Bus. It was a good price, and had yet to find any obvious complaints about it. The bus itself is nothing special – no extra leg room, and does have a TV – but the volume is usually down to something you couldn’t possibly hear. However you did also get a box of crackers and a bottle of water for the journey.
All things considered, the journey started off quite well – I spent the time looking out the window taking in my last glimpses of Vietnam – a country I would quite happily go and explore again today if I had the option – and listening to my iPod, until we got to the border.
I’d heard so many horror stories about crossing into Cambodia. People on buses would take your money to buy Visas only to have you pay again at the border, getting threats where you need to pay more, people eyeing up your luggage – I was expecting absolute chaos and to be constantly on guard.
As it happens, no. The woman on the bus did take our passports, and in the cases of those who needed visas, gave us forms and took the $25 required. However when we got to the border, she went to the desk and had them all processed in bulk. From there they’d call our names, give them back and have us go through border control. I was through in less than 5 minutes. Similar situation on the other side of the border, completely clear sailing.
I was in a pretty good mood from how well it went, and even managed to make small talk with the guy next to me. He was Cambodian (very little of the bus was western to be honest), who’d been working in Saigon in Interior Design. He would point things out along the way that I might not have noticed, and when we stopped for lunch, showed me how to order and made small talk while we ate. Sadly, have noticed the first obvious difference between Vietnam and Cambodia. The number of insects – flies were everywhere in the outside cafe place we ate. Cannot get away from them.
This wasn’t a big issue all things considered, but it marked the start of the journey’s downhill. There was a gentleman sitting in the seats opposite us. He was elderly, and needed help from the hostess on the bus or other customers to get on and off. After lunch, and we were heading into deeper Cambodia, he went to the toilet at the back of the bus, and when he came back, everyone became acutely aware of a rather pungent stench.
The gentleman hadn’t been able to clean himself properly, and he’d stained his trousers (and by location the seat), as well as leaving the toilet quite rank. It got so bad in both places they had to stop and let us out for fresh air, while they desperately tried to communicate with the man (who I believe didn’t speak Khmer, and the hostess only knew a handful of Vietnamese, or vice versa). Finally got someone on the bus who did to translate, and found he didn’t have a change of clothes, so he was stuck with the filthy trousers.
Honestly don’t know how they ended up solving the problem. While we were off the bus everyone went exploring – we were next to a handful of small houses, and my seatmate was showing me around, and by the time we got back on board, the smell had diminished slightly, while others had moved seats (though the bus was busy so it was hard to find spares), and they handed out face masks to anyone nearby should they need them.
Finally, about a hour later than estimated, but 30 minutes faster than I predicted, we rolled into Phnom Penh’s local market, the final stop. Unfortunately, my pick up service didn’t appear to be here yet, so to escape the constant tuk tuk offers, took refuge inside the bus station office.
This turned out to be a bit of a problem as my tuk tuk driver arrived not too long afterwards, and didn’t think to look inside. Instead he was going around talking to other drivers about the bus, and ignoring the obvious tourist who kept leaving the office to look around. Eventually, one of the other drivers pointed me out, and we finally got going.
My first reaction to Cambodia was very much like my reaction to Malaysia when I left Singapore the first time. It felt like a far more run down, messy, chaotic and dangerous version of Vietnam. The roads have a lot more cars, but people wander through the roads, tuk tuks scream their way around and bikes are dotted everywhere. There’s almost no pavement since its been taken over by stalls and street cafes, and its hideously dusty to the point I have to dig out my glasses.
Thankfully, this was just the first impression. Once we actually got out of the crush, and further from the transit stations, the roads calmed down and I finally got to see Phnom Penh rather than its population. It still feels far less developed than Vietnam, and I’m definitely keeping an eye on my bag, but its not as bad as the knee jerk reaction thought it would be.
My hostel for my short stay in Phnom Penh is Me Mates Place, just a stones throw from the river and right next to a tattoo parlour. Since it was Christmas, I’d decided to splurge and I was staying in a private room while in Cambodia. Huge double bed all to myself…though the room didn’t have a window, which meant I had to have the fan on almost constantly – though did mean less insects could get in. Did have a tree though – a mural painted on the wall.
By the time the tuk tuk had gotten through the traffic and I’d settled in, the sun was setting and I had maybe 40 minutes of sunlight left. My first point of call was a cash machine – Cambodia does have its own currency, but even the locals don’t like using it. Just about everything is listed in dollars, and you really only get Cambodian for change. Originally I would have had enough, but thanks to the incident in Hong Kong I needed to get some more out stat.
This proved to be a bit of a problem as my map reading skills screwed me over. And I’d been SO good up until this point. I mistake one road for one for further along, made easier by the dying light, and by the time I realise my mistake I’ve gone a lot more North than I wanted to. So I end up doing a pretty big circle to try to get to the town centre. Along the way I do find cash machines, and figure I can save some time and just go to them.
Uh uh. Of the three I find along the way, not a one will take my card. That’s not good.
Thankfully, blissfully, I manage to get to a Canadia ATM, which my card DOES like, and get out as much as I dare. I’ve got to pay quite a bit for a tuk tuk tomorrow, not to mention food and entry fees. With my bag now full of monies, I head back to the river and try to get back to the hotel on food.
One small problem with that plan. I’d left in the day, and it was now pitch dark. On top of which the riverfront is full of tiny little streets that look pretty much identical. And they don’t have names, they have numbers – and not on every street either – so I spent a good hour wandering around just trying to figure out if I was even in the right area, before having another look at the map and finding the few signs I could to make my way back.
Was happy to keel over after that, but had one last little surprise before I did. A quick glance at the hostels bar menu had something wonderful. You could get cheddar cheese as an ‘extra’. Actually dairy type cheddar cheese! Not the plastic chewy gouda or ememental or American cheese! Real cheese!
So on Christmas Eve in Cambodia, I had a traditional Scottish meal. Chips and Cheese. God Bless Us, everyone.