Vietnam and Cambodia: Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh and ក្រុងសៀមរាប

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It's that time of the year when my college girlfriends and I take a break from work and bond just like old times. I talked a bit about that in this post
Although we've all been friends for nine years now, we've only started this yearly excursions three years ago. An on the spur-of-the moment decision we've made over a random group chat one summer night on Facebook. There are about eleven of us but we never actually got to all go together (yet) since seven are now residing in London, Oxfordshire, Montreal, Riyadh, Dubai, Brunei and Sydney. Only four of us are left here in the Philippines and whoever has the time and budget, those are the only ones who can hop on in the adventure. It was a good thing that our trips were only in or near the Philippines, otherwise, I'd be pretty bummed that I won't be able to go.

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This trip happened last January fifteen to nineteen. We had so much fun despite having to spend it for only four days (initially ten). There were six of us. All girls. 
The guy in the picture above was our tuk-tuk tour guide, who probably hated me so much because I kept mocking him when he was trying to be funny. So many good memories were made and I only ever recorded nearly half of those moments in photos. I was having a Snow leopard moment (if you've seen The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, you'd know).


I will try to tell, some that weren't photographed, in words.


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We're all used to traveling, that prior to this trip, my friend Leslie and I hadn't researched much and told ourselves that we just arrive there in one piece and see what happens. Cloudine, Kat, Vinna and Fayne just happily rode along.

We flew nearly midnight, as is with all Cebu Pacific international trips and around 15-20 minutes before landing, I saw a beautifully lighted town (I wasn't sure if it's already HCM) below the clouds and was such a lovely evening sight to behold. Had I not seen an even lovelier sight before, I would have sworn it was the most glorious thing.  But when I was aboard Air Canada on my way to Vancouver, about a few hours after we took off, I woke up and saw the most beautiful evening view of a certain city I will probably be never able to know. That image is engraved in my mind forever. It looked like a city described from something out of a dystopian young adult novel– surreal, out-of-this world.

I took pictures but only on my phone because my film camera is of no use to me at night. But sadly, my camera phone cannot give enough justice so, I did what I felt was the most perfect thing to do at that precise moment. I slid open my phone and searched for my playlist. I haven't updated my Itunes with my latest favorite songs at the time so I pressed the first song on my winter mix and stared dreamily down below. I did this on my way to Vancouver as well.


 While I was sitting there, tracing the beautiful lines created by the unlit areas of the road against the well-lighted infrastructures and the oddly- ethereal shape of the clouds hovering them, I felt a lightness in my heart that words will never be able to explain.


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We were in Ho Chi Minh for less than fifteen hours because we needed to catch the afternoon bus to Siem Reap. We were supposed to be exploring the city for two days but plans changed because we needed to meet Cloudine in Siem Reap the next day. The bus ride from Ho Chi Minh to Siem Reap is twelve hours.

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I asked for a locally made map of the touristy places to see in HCM and the receptionist gave me a photocopied handrawn map. I was so eager to explore the city that when I asked how far these places were from one another, she answered me almost immediately, in minutes. It wasn't until we got lost, with me heading the trail, that I realized that I never asked if the minutes were by foot or by CAR.

Thus begun the adventure.

We found ourselves in a market that we thought was the market we were looking for and tried to ask the locals how to go about the place from where we were. But we were pointed to different directions that we felt even more lost. Perhaps, it was the way we spoke of the name of the place that brought furrows in their brows. From hints of English we got from asking the locals, "far" and "that way" were just about enough words to let us know that we needed to get a cab to make most of our time in Ho Chi Minh City.

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Luckily, we found a cab after two minutes of walking . We initially wanted for the cab driver to just take us to Old market but thought of hiring him for three hours and tour us around the city instead. 

It was when I started speaking in English that he signalled for me to stop and wait that we knew there will be another problem. The driver cannot speak more than one word in English! So I watched him stirring the wheel on one hand and fumbling over the numbers on his phone on the other. After about two minutes, he faced me and said "friend" then called someone and handed me to talk to what sounded like his boss. Good thing that person can speak and understand English and so we  negotiated and were able to go about and see some parts of the city.

I hoped there are unlimited call plans in Vietnam because we asked so much and he called so many times because he cannot understand me at all. Our conversations with him consisted mostly of hand signals and facial expressions. We probably got ripped off with the final charge for the cab fare because we exceeded a ridiculous twenty minutes in that three hour-deal, but we didn't mind.

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I've completely forgotten where that above picture was taken but that Vietnamese guard asked my friend to have his picture taken with me. Funny. So, I took a picture of him afterwards for posterity.

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We went back to our inn after lunch before check-out and the receptionist of Golden Wind Hotel was kind enough to help us get a bus to Siem Reap. She nearly had a heart attack when I told her that we still haven't booked a ticket to Siem Reap and that we needed to leave at three pm (it was around one pm when we asked her). She was still smiling though, being the nice receptionist that she was, even though I can tell in her voice that she was already panicking because almost all of the bus were fully booked. Thankfully, she managed to get us a 1:30 pm bus. It was rather cheap compared to the ones we've checked online and Leslie and I exchanged looks. We knew this was gonna be one of those provincial buses– ones where only locals ride and with chickens and produce aboard. 

We were right. 

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The 6-hour drive to Pnom Penh was bearable enough. We were all from a small rural city so that's not new. What bugged us though, was during those times when the locals were getting their stuff on the floor or under our chairs or on the overhead compartments before going out of the bus. They didn't know how to excuse themselves and they just kept on shoving our feet or kept hitting us with their stuff without saying sorry. It happened to me and to my friends as well. I thought to myself that even though they may not be able to say it in English but they could always express it in gestures or facial expressions. I don't know if that's just how they do it there, but manners, man, they should learn a thing or two. So anyway, the most fun part started when we reached the bus station in Pnom Penh. When we asked if we needed to book the bus to Siem Reap as well, the receptionist said we'd be able to book upon reaching Pnom Penh. So we did.

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We arrived in a corner of an unlit street full of tuk-tuk drivers awaiting passengers around 9 pm-something. Sweat started forming in the corner near my eye because I couldn't find another bus apart from ours. I thought we would have to stay overnight in the streets but it's as if a light has shown directly to the side of the street where a small office is situated. On cue. I turned around to see that it was that bus' bus station. That bus was after all for all locals, thus the size of their station. We walked our way past through tuk-tuk drivers negotiating to us in Khmer and into the station. The girl from behind the counter informed us that bus only stops at Pnom Penh and there were no more trips after that. Sweat started forming in the corner near my eye. Again.

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My friends and I have concluded that in our trips, we've been so blessed with cheap plane fares, some free meals, good food and kind people but we've always been so unfortunate when it comes to local transportations. We've experienced a lot of mishaps along the way and life-threatening routes that when we're sitting or Wechatting and reminiscing about those times, we couldn't help but start out with "OMG. Remember that time when the bus was... and we had to..." and we start out with wide eyes and nodding and end the conversations always laughing even though we thought we'd almost not make it. I couldn't agree more when Hellen Keller wrote “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.”  

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The girl behind the counter was probably so used to so many backpackers and travelers getting lost finding their way from one city to another that right after she said there were no more bus going to Siem Reap and saw our faces, she got her personal phone and called what was probably an acquaintance who had access to a bus from another company. She called and handed me a phone and with a hint of hope in her eyes, she said in broken English, "There's one bus left leaving for Siem Reap at twelve midnight, and you need to talk to the guy on this phone. He has questions for you."


I didn't catch what other words the man on the phone said but when he told me there's a sleeper bus to Siem Reap, I immediately said "We'll take it" without hearing the other words he said. Then when he asked me how many we were, I had to let him repeat because his English was bad and the area was so loud. He shouted "HOW MANY!" that almost deafed my right ear. If he were in front of me, I would've strangled him.


We paid for the fare and Leslie and I once again exchanged looks because we only paid 9 USD instead of the ones we've seen online that's around 15 USD. (Travel tip: If going to Cambodia, you need not have to have your money exchanged especially if you brought US Dollars because almost everywhere in Cambodia accepts USD. Even the kids who sell postcards on the streets.)

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We hopped on a tuk-tuk to take us on another bus station and relieved to see many buses parking on the street.  We got off the tuk-tuk and imediately rushed to the bus without checking our tickets, thus we ended up boarding the wrong bus. Good thing someone rushed to us and told us in broken English again "Not your bus! Not your bus!" We got off relieved and laughing because the sleeper bus we got in looked liked something I wouldn't want to stay in for the next 6 hours. Leslie and I thought that was just like the provincial bus we were on earlier but the difference is that we needed to lie down instead of sitting. With actual used blankets from the passengers before us. It was our first time to be on a sleeper bus and you cannot even imagine the look in our faces.

It was around ten in the evening then and we had two more hours to spare so we walked around and were on a hunt for a place to eat. We were so occupied with fear of the possibility of sleeping in the bus station or in the streets that we forgot to stuff our stomachs.

Come midnight, we hopped on the sleeper bus again only to discover it has the same look and atmosphere as the wrong bus we got in. We had no choice but to move forward since we were stopping the aisle. We were lucky enough to be there first so we had the option to stay on the upper back area where the area is wider (despite the conductor's protest) enough for the 5 of us to sleep together on because the rest of the bus were divided into 2 passengers on the right and one on the left. Then 3 more down below where you can see people's feet walking past you while you're sleeping. We didn't want to be separated because we might end up sleeping together with a stranger.

The sad part was that we can see from our windows, the first class buses, the ones we thought we'd be in, looking all clean and cozy. And there we were in dusty, cramped up bus with the worse restroom a bus could ever had. Or at least that's how the story got to me when my friends went in and they told the story when we got off. I couldn't be more thankful for my bladder for holding up for 6 hours!

The ride was bumpy to say the least. We couldn't see the road because the streets were poorly lighted but from what we can feel, the road wasn't flat or hadn't been finished with asphalt. We were so tired, we fell asleep despite the weird, squeaky noise of the air-con, the loud, endless clashing of rocks at the bus' bottom metal parts and the annoying thud the bus made everytime it hits a big hole in the road.

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We woke up with thick, powder-like texture on our faces brought about by the dust from the red soil that entered the bus' premises despite the shut windows. We probably used all of my wet wipes in an attempt to clear it all out. We had so much fun laughing at our faces that when we're told we've arrived, we checked on the area and we didn't know where we were, because the station, this above all other previously stated stations, was the weirdest. We thought the driver dropped us off in an uncharted area of Siem Reap.

We called the inn that we will be staying where we were. We described to the receptionist the look of our surrounding and about what felt like forever, a tuk-tuk has come to rescue us.

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 Now I as I think of it, I imagined us being like the three brothers in The Darjeeling Limited. Only we weren't aboard a train. I always have a smile on my face whenever I think about our adventure or whenever I tell this story to other friends.

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I love Siem Reap! To be honest, I was partial about going because I thought all we'd see were temples. But I was wrong. There's more to Siem Reap than just Angkor Wat. The art scene and the Khmer culture are bustling. We loved going to Pub street and the streets beside them. I just researched cafe's and art galleries to visit while we were there and Google mapped each area. I learned that there are so many non profit art shops and cafes and correct me if I'm wrong, but most if not all are committed to give their profits in helping the Cambodian kids to go to school. Most of these cafes and shops are run by foreigners. I thought of volunteering but maybe in another time.

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Around four in the morning the next day, we left to watch the sun rise in Pnom Bakheng. I read in a NY times article online that the place was best to visit during sunrise. We hiked for around 15 minutes with the help of a flashlight app on our phones. Our tuk-tuk driver/make-shift guide told us there were snakes on the trail and no one goes there to climb during sunrise. I shut him an evil look when I saw a few other foreigners passing-by us and preparing to climb up and went straight ahead.

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We had quite a lovely experience. But view-wise, I was a little disappointed because the trees were blocking the sun and the misty forest in the horizon. Even the Angkor Wat was nothing but a pointy triangled-shape structure and not the view I had seen in other photos in the interwebs. It was only later that I knew that it's best to watch the sunrise in Angkor Wat and sunset in Pnom Bakheng. Ha Ha. That is what happens when you don't research well enough.

Nevertheless, we had a grand time. Waiting in maybe 16-17C weather and talking and making funny Cambodian jokes while waiting for the sun to rise. There were less people and we felt like we own the place since almost all the tourists were in Angkor Wat at that time. When I look back to it now, I felt like that was actually the kind of experience I signed up for– few people of different races all coming together with smiles in their faces, patiently waiting for the sun to rise. The moment the sun rose, we stood in awe with cameras ready in both hands. It was magical.

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If I had to pick a favorite temple, I would definitely say the Bayon temple. I was just beyond amazed by the ancient Khmer people's craftmanship. No wonder the art scene in Siem Reap is bustling. Their ancestors were extremely talented! Angkor Wat was my least favorite.

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Everytime we go from temple to temple, I opened my phone and read information aloud while marvelling at the handiwork. I became a sort of our tour guide even though what I have is a free tour app with general information about each temple. We were on a self-guided tour because we didn't want to do too much touristy stuff and we wanted to explore the country in our own pace. Maybe in our future trips I'd be more armed with a physical book in hand.

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The artist's brother in lieu of him, signing the watercolor painting I bought. I cheated there but it's not like I will sell it in the future. I just wanted it to feel more, I dunno, personal. Oh and it's marvelous in person!

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On our last day, we rented these bikes for 3 dollars a day and armed with only a local map (with me heading the trail yet again) and a thirst for adventure, we biked around the city. It felt so good!

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I'm embarassed to say that I didn't read much about the Cambodian history or about the temples prior to the trip since I was so busy the past few months (having come from Canada and finishing my production work and coming home from the Holidays). I only downloaded a few tourist apps for reference, in case. Thus, there were so many details I cannot point out in every photo, especially when it comes to the temples. If you were looking for a more in-depth, touristy guide to Siem Reap, this blog is not the place.

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I guess this post was more of our mishaps and how we were able to bring ourselves back in one piece than a tourist's rave but that is just how I and my friends do it– seeing the world with only ourselves armed with intuition and a sense of adventure. We had more bloopers than the ones I've mentioned above but I will only dig them up when I felt like it.

I wish our mistakes would make for a great story in the future but if it won't, I hope that it would inspire others who've heard or read to avoid them. Or make more for themselves for them to create stories of their own. Either way, what matters is we learn, we share and we keep moving forward.

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xx

Until the next adventure!