The darkness zipped past us as the bus arrived into Saigon, an hour and a half early. So here we were; bags on our backs, in a perfect storm of sleepy and grumpy and in Saigon at 4:30am. Another one of those sleeper busses from hell! Our driver had sped through the whole drive, taking the winding mountain roads as a race track and each sharp turn as an excuse to accelerate. With the bumpy ride and fear of falling from our bunks, neither of us got much sleep. Thankfully though, we had google mapped the route from where our bus dropped us off to where we needed to get our next bus. We would have about a 20 block walk ahead of us in the sleepy late night or early morning hours, depending on who you asked awake at that moment in Saigon.
After orienting ourselves and rubbing the sleep out of our eyes, we headed toward the neighborhood where our bus to Phnom Penh would pick us up. It was still cool out and the streets were dead, the bars had closed and people had not quite made it to work. We marched along the streets in silence as we watched the sunrise over Saigon, as seen in reflections in the tall glass buildings. (I wish we had gotten pictures of this, but alas we were just too tired to think of it.). In passing parks we saw large groups of older Vietnamese doing their morning Thai Chi. We heard much about this, but never found ourselves awake during these sleepy hours.
Around 5:30am we found ourselves bargaining for bus tickets to take us across the boarder. We clearly weren’t the only ones though, since the 6am was sold out, which meant we would be taking the 7am bus. Storing our bags at the bus station, we headed out to find and an egg sandwich and some breakfast rice. We wandered through a busy morning market, with everyone loading up on their fresh vegetables, this was clearly the hour to be at the market. We then loaded up on food from street carts and found a quiet spot for our last Vietnamese coffee. Not having the affects of caffeine in our blood stream yet, we both sat in silence, watching the everyday rigamarole of activity you just don’t see unless you are awake at 6am. Across the street a local shop owner got her delivery of blocks of ice, sitting stacked on the sidewalk. Each block of ice was about three feet long, two feet wide, a foot tall and melting rapidly in the morning sun. How is that little old lady gonna carry that all inside, we thought? We soon realized she wouldn’t have to, everyone from local shops came and bought their daily ice, in one big heavy chunk. A two man job or a heavy on one shoulder carry, both involving getting soaked. We never realized the luxury of an ice maker till now. We watched as the city woke up and prepared for the day, as we too prepared for another bus ride.
Stepping into our bus, we are greeted by a giant plasma TV displaying life under the ocean and David Attenbourough’s voice. Oh Planet Earth and English, you are so welcoming right now! We settle in ready for our ride of relaxing images and the soothing British voice over. But as soon as the engine started the Vietnamese dubbed Chinese action movies begin at full volume, this will be fun! David actually did a great job of following along with each of the story lines, I’m always impressed at his ability to read body language.
Having done some research before getting to the boarder crossing, we knew our Visa was $20, but that the bus company would try to charge us more. We were correct when the bus driver came around and collected our passports, telling us our visas would be $30 each. Not having any of it, David asked for our passports back and told the man we would be getting our visas ourselves. The boarder crossing was hectic, to say the least. The room was filled full of lines that no one listened to, instead they pushed their way forward and slammed the passports in front of the boarder patrol. Taking suit with the locals, David pushed himself forward and got us stamped and through Vietnam way before our bus driver could with his stack of passenger’s passports . Then just as simple as crossing a sidewalk, we were in Cambodia and ushered to buy our visas. The fee for the visa was $20 USD or if all you had was Vietnamese dong 500.000 ($25). Damn! We would still end up being overcharged. Worth the fight though.
Now being in a completely different area then we were dropped off, we waited to spot our bus. We had a slight fear that we wouldn’t know which bus was ours. As we scan the crowd looking for our driver, we try to remember what he looks like…would we even recognize him? But as our bus pulls up and we both spot the driver instantly and we realize it was just one of those quick passing traveler panic moments. Always good to keep listening to that sense while on the road. We jump back on and give the driver a little coy “we did it ourselves smile” and he retorts with a coy smile himself saying, “but you still overpaid.”
As the bus drove on, we were actually quite surprised by how much the scenery actually changed across the boarder. We were excited to see the culture of Cambodia – taste it’s food, meet the people, learn some of the language….the money part would be easy though, they use US dollars along with their own Cambodian riel. As we drove past villages and crossed over the Mekong Delta toward Phnom Penh (the capital city of Cambodia), we began to notice differences from just watching the roads out of our bus window. In Vietnam everyone on motos wore patterned fabric masks over their mouth and nose to keep the smog and dust out. In Cambodia they wore helmets with full face visors. This made way more sense, and would have been so awesome during our rainstorm bug episode in DaLat. Looking at all the signs along the road, we saw the Cambodian alphabet. Vietnam used the same characters as english, so even if it was near impossible to pronounce a vietnamese word correctly, you could recognize it on a menu. We would soon come to realize everything written in Khmer (the Cambodian language) would also be written in English, so it was never an issue. The architecture was also quite different, though their building materials were very much the same, brick and concrete. The Vietnamese built very skinny tall houses while the Cambodians’ houses were more square with the top level being a roofed porch. We were going to love Cambodia.
We arrived Phnom Penh at about noon, when the sun was at it’s highest and hottest. We read about a hotel 15mins away that we wanted to check out, so we decided we would walk it with our backpacks. We were both still in our cold weather clothes from DaLat, David in jeans and me in my leggings, and it was getting hotter by the minute. After repeatedly saying no to tuk tuk drivers (which are carriages pulled by motos) we started on our way. The walk was actually not too far, but given the heat, our heavy bags and exhaustion, it felt like we walked for an hour. We would stop at every small shady tree and chug our water, not only to hydrate but to lighten our loads that much more. If this was any indication, Phnom Penh was going to be a hot one!
We ended up going to Top Banana hotel in the expat neighborhood of Phnom Penh. The streets were so fancy with boutique hotels and night clubs and then right smack in the middle a traveler hotel. And luck have it reception was on the third floor…..so up we went with our heavy backpacks. For $9 we got a not so nice concrete room with no windows and two fans. We were excited to be home again!
The roof of Top Banana is the main hang out space which has the bar, restaurant and lots of couches. Though it has a roof it is actually a giant porch allowing for any bit of much needed wind to come in. Looking down the street all the nearby establishments were built this way, open air roofed restaurants. Starving, we ordered some food from their menu and were shocked by the prices. Maybe the fact that they were in dollars also surprised us, but everything was $4-$5, almost double what we were paying in Vietnam. We both got a bit nervous about our daily budget, but figured it was simply the fact that we were in a city and in an expensive neighborhood. We also knew Phnom Penh would just be a short two day stop over on our way to Rabbit Island, so we would enjoy it through all of its expenses.
That night we decided to wander the streets to find a spot to eat dinner. The neighborhood around Top Banana were so incredibly fancy, with pools and iron rod gates, it reminded us a bit of Miami. Everywhere we went there were suited expats and ladies in fancy dresses. The menus all had over priced western food; $6 cheeseburgers here and $7 pizzas there, where was the affordable food?! As we wander, a little bit defeated, we see a small neon sign, that says Ocean Restaurant, tucked into some ivy on a quiet looking street. We head over and look at the menu. The food sounded so tasty and was very reasonable for the quality – tuna tar tar for $7. We looked at each other and knew we were going to throw our budget out the window. Being foodies, we decided it was much better to spend a little more money for under priced fancy food, then a little bit less for over priced non-fancy food.
Right when we walked in we felt like we were transported to Napa valley. The service was so great, with three waitresses working the floor. Looking over the menu we were overwhelmed by the choices of mouth watering food. We decided to order some of the daily specials – tuna tartar to start, followed by red snapper and ricotta-spinach gnocchi. We also ordered a carafe of wine from Australia, so fancy! Before our meal, they brought an amuse-bouche – patté on toast and bruschetta. There was a moment when they first brought it out that we thought the bruschetta was the tuna tar tar, and had a fear that we were getting ourselves into one of those “precious meals”, the kind where you have to stop at a burger joint on the drive home to actually fill up. But once we realize we were getting a treat from the chef, we became giddy at the thought of the meal ahead of us. Each bite was delicious and executed so well, our appetites were ready.
The yellowfin tuna tar tar was presented next and on a bed of freshly picked green arugula salad, contrasting the fresh minced red tuna. The tar tar combined with tomato, onion and citrus gave the taste of a ceviche. Taking in our first bite, our taste buds explode in the perfect harmony of the peppery crisp texture of the arugula and the cool citrusy finish of the raw tuna. Clearing our heads of flavor shock, we wet our mouths with a shockingly complete finish, the rosé paired perfectly.
The main courses were equally as good if not even better and we ordered a carafe of cabernet to pair. The snapper was simple but so light and buttery and came with a choice of sides. When ordering, we tried to make one of our sides rice but the waitress gave us a puzzled look and said, “we don’t serve rice here.” We both got a chuckle out of her statement and opted for the green beans and roasted potatoes.
But the stand out of the evening was the ricotta-spinach gnocchi. It was unlike any gnocchi we ever had; fluffy and melting in your mouth. It seemed like it didn’t contain flour as a binder, but instead was whipped egg white with ricotta, spinach and potato. The dish was then covered in fried sage and topped with first press virgin olive oil. Delicious, we could have eaten those all night.
We ended the night with a rich chocolate mousse, my chocolate taste buds had been deprived in Vietnam, where you had to pay up for the sweet brown stuff. To top the night off our waitress brought us complimentary shots of sambuca and amaretto. The whole dinner was $38, which is more then our daily budget, but had we been in the states, we would have easily paid triple. If you ever find yourself in Phnom Penh, definitely stop into Ocean Restaurant, even if its a little more then your budget allows, it’s always nice to treat yourself to a fancy meal.
The next day we rented a tuk tuk to take us to the Killing Fields. This was something I really wanted to see after hearing about it from other travelers. It is a “must see” when going to Phnom Penh, but given its subject matter it’s not what you would call a tourist attraction. The ride out to the Killing Fields is about 40minutes on a dusty road, so we opted to rent a tuk tuk driver, opposed to driving out on a moto ourselves. It was nice to see more of Phnom Penh, since we had only really experienced the expat area near our hotel. It was a big city with a lot of hustle and bustle, but everyone had on such big smiles. A little girl on a moto between her two parents kept laughing and waving at us each time we would stop in traffic. I could already tell we were gonna love the Cambodian people, so extremely friendly!
Despite the intense heat, we headed into the Killing Fields prepared for an emotional afternoon. In the mid 70s a man named Pol Pot took power of a group called the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Over the course of four years, 1.7 million Cambodians died at the hands of Pol Pot in a devastating genocide. The Killing Fields was one of the many places Cambodians were taken to be executed. Horrifying. There isn’t much left on the site, but there are graves and a temple was erected many years later. There is a path you walk around while listening to an audio tour. The tour explains what happened during Pol Pot’s rule and the terrible and horrifying things that happened to Cambodians when they arrived at the Killing Fields and didn’t leave. It is an emotional tour, which also accounts of many people’s personal stories during that time. There are mass grave sites all over, but so many of the bodies have still not even been dug up, that due to the rain bones peak through the dirt, including on the paths where you walk. At the end is a memorial to all the people who lost their lives during that time and specifically there. It was an emotional afternoon. We rode back in silence.
Later that day we decided to search for Cambodian street food, we loved eating Vietnamese street food and were pining for that same experience in Cambodia. We hadn’t even seen any Cambodian food yet! We began by walking through our neighborhood, but quickly found that to be a dead end. So we did what we do best and just wandered the streets in hopes to come across something tasty. We wondered down alleys and then turned onto busy streets, hoping to find some sign of a food vendor, but it seemed a fruitless task. It was so easy to find street food in Vietnam, this seemed as though it wouldn’t be the case. But in the distance we see a cart and excitedly scurry over. Laid out on display were sugary fried dough pockets in different shapes and sizes. We try to ask the man what was inside and he smiles and points and nods at the dough pockets. There was a picture of a chicken on a canister and David keept pointing at the chicken and saying, “meat inside?” again the man nods and points. With the language barrier being what it was, we decide to try some of the dough to find out what was inside. Not to mention we were starving and would have probably eaten anything at that moment. The bread was both savory and sweet and filled with grilled onions in one and a bean like paste in another. We ordered two more to help curb our appetite just a bit longer until we found some more substantial street food. We then began our journey again. Wondering up an down streets hoping for a sign of people gathered around a cart, or a little old lady crouched by a stove cooking, but we saw nothing. We were getting defeated once again, no street food to be found. Then down the street we see a woman cooking and three young Cambodian girls eating at a table. We walk up to see what she is making and immediately get giggles and stares from the three girls. We brush them off as we peek inside the woman’s big pot, it looked like boiling broth with floating spicy green peppers. Not appetizing. The girls giggle more and begin to taunt David, with one of the girls clearly being the ring leader. And by girls, I’m really being nice, they looked a little more like cocktails waitresses at a cheesy strip joint or overly classy night walkers. Either way they were mean girls and the food looked questionable, so we moved on. Just as we lost all hope, there on the corner were little pop up tables filled with people and off to the side was several bbqs covered in skewers. Not knowing what anything was or even how to order, the waitress just brings us one of every skewer.
The skewers were all dipped in the same slightly spicy and sweet BBQ sauce that hung in a bucket next to the grills, but all were different presentations of proteins. And the only way to find out what you were eating was to try them. One was small round sweet sausages, one was more of a beef kabob sharing the stick with onions and peppers, unfortunately for my taste buds one was liver, so David finished that skewer, another was a tough long grained charred crisp meat, but our favorite was the beef wrapped around beef fat. Yum! Though a grueling adventure we had our first taste of Cambodian street food.
That night we made our plans to head to Rabbit Island (Koh Tonsay). We had researched about this island back in Utah, back when traveling just seemed like a distant plan, a plane ticket in the future. David had wanted to find a small piece of paradise in Cambodia, and Rabbit island seemed to be just that. A magical place with $5 bungalows and a long un-inhabited beach. The way we were seeing it was a vacation from our vacation. The six weeks before leaving had been a cluster of to-dos before we left: moving out of our house, settling bills, getting our immunizations, getting our gear, saying our tearful goodbyes, there wasn’t a moment of rest. Then as amazing and inspiring Vietnam was, we put a lot of miles under or feet, sleeper buses, trekking, numerous hotel beds, we were a bit run down from our constant movement. We were ready to relax with a cold beer on the beach and finally open our books we had been carrying for an entire unused month. That night we booked a bus to take us to Kep in the morning. From there we would take a 30min boat ride to Rabbit Island. Paradise was only a day away. The bus was $5 each and would get to Kep in about 3 hours, a drop in the bucket compared to most of our bus rides. We then began gathering our supplies for the island. We both needed to get an additional book and found great ones at D’s Books. We also lucked out when back at Top Banana, one of the owners offered up a bottle of sunscreen to us, when he heard me mention we needed to buy some. Sun screen in Cambodia is more expensive then in the states at about $9 a bottle, so we were happy to take his handout. We also decided we needed to fill up on some good ol western comfort food before we went to the island, I had been eyeing the chicken tacos on the Top Banana menu since we got there. It was the perfect end to our short stay in Phnom Penh – Cheeseburgers and tacos. Then once again we packed our bags ready for our next adventure to relax and do nothing.