On The Road: Saigon to Phnom Penh

And so the journey around South East Asia begins! We start with Cambodia and continue through to Laos, Thailand and Myanmar before wrapping things up in Singapore. Travelling with an itinerary isn’t as sexy as winging it, but we are on a limited budget ($25-$30 a day) so we needed to get an idea of costs to avoid getting stranded penniless in the middle of nowhere. Have to say though, now we’ve started, it’s nice to have a rough plan, as organising the next lot of buses and hostels every few days consumes a fair bit of time.

  General plan…providing all goes well…

Travelling was my main motive for going Vietnam. It’s amazing that it’s finally happening eighteen months after I began toying with the idea of TEFLing. I don’t feel that I’ve had any sort of break in the last nine months as I went from work, to a crazy summer, to non-stop teaching in Hanoi, so I’m looking forward to what I think is a well deserved break. Yeah, I’m self-congratulating, why the hello not.

I still had a couple of days left in Saigon before my Vietnamese visa expired giving me some time to explore other sights. Dad had booked me in for an extra night at our hotel so I didn’t have to worry about finding a hostel. Absolute godsend! I enjoyed a day to myself and visited the Fine Art Museum, which happened to be opposite my hotel, although I hadn’t noticed. I’m certainly no art connoisseur, and don’t think I’ve visited an art gallery since a school trip years ago, but I enjoyed it very much, bar the squawking lady on reception. I also took a walk up Boulevard Pasteur to check out Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office. 

   Notre Dame Cathedral


Central Post Office. He just has to have his face everywhere, doesn’t he.

I met up with the travel buddies later in the evening. I’ll be sticking with two for the entire trip, bar Singapore: Lindsay, the voice of reason and Sarah, the voice of ‘for fuck’s sake’ (apparently I’m the voice of random knowledge). We were also travelling with another teacher friend of ours, Rebecca, until she leaves us at Siem Reap. 

Unfortunately, our last day in Vietnam was spent trawling through Saigon in the stifling heat to convert money, send packages, book bus tickets, get passport photos and all that annoying admin (interspersed with frequent coffee breaks, of course). Sarah barely got a chance to see anything that Saigon has to offer, so we were feeling a little deflated. Having a weird man approach us three times in one place didn’t improve matters. He was a Vietnamese emigrant intent on telling us how great America is and how terrible communist countries are. Not sure why he was so a eager to discuss it with us. To be fair, he made a few reasonable points, particularly about the policeman as they do feck all, but he was very odd and wouldn’t leave us to enjoy our fries in peace!

Vietnam might not have ended how we’d liked but we started our Cambodian adventure on a high. Whilst the daily budget is tight, we splashed out and booked an $18 Giant Ibis bus, partly because we couldn’t be arsed to walk to another travel office. It was definitely worth it; the bus was mostly empty giving us plenty of space to spread ourselves, plus we were given free water and snacks, decent wifi and plug sockets. Best of all, the border-crossing process was very simple as the bus guide sorted most it. We gave in our passports, exited the Vietnam border and went straight through the Cambodian border. Passports were promptly returned stamped with our visas, which are very pretty, I might add.
Driving through Cambodia was interesting. For miles and miles there were open plains of field scattered with stilt houses. There’s an alarming amount of litter on the road side in the more populated areas. Environment awareness seems to be low so locals aren’t bothered about chucking plastic bottles into the grass. (Education, education, education!) Motorbikes are still the primary mode of transport, but the Honda Dream seems to be the model of choice, as opposed to Hanoi’s favourite, the Wave.

We did have the awkward experience of children begging us for dollars during our first pit stop which inevitably makes you uncomfortable. But guilt aside, we had heard that tourists should avoid giving to children as it encourages them to skip school. And of course, adults exploit them for the cute factor. It didn’t slip my notice that they skipped off with cans of coke the minute we were back aboard the coach. More on this later.

The last leg of the journey was a bumpy ride. I had my neck in a travel pillow so my head was rolling around like a football. Vietnam’s roads are hardly the pinnacle of civil engineering but they seem like a dream compared to some of the ones we have encountered in Cambodia (making this blog rather frustrating to write!) There were several open lorries full of people leaving the city, which I might assume is the equivalent of a local bus service.

Another friend from Hanoi, Karen, had joined us on the journey to Phnom Penh and she organised our hostel, named Me Mates Villa which didn’t fail to amuse. They were due to pick us up from the bus station, and I admit I was quite surprised when we were lead to a tuk tuk rather than a taxi. For the record, I’ve seen only two taxis in Cambodia; tuk tuks are the way to get about.

Me Mates turned out to be pretty decent. We had a six person dorm between the five of us and it was comfy with padlocked lockers and a hot shower. Just a shame about the creaky fan. I was in luck, as a vegetarian restaurant was next door to the hostel, and as we were hungry after the long bus journey we settled in there straight away. We shared a Khmer style hotpot which was really tasty. The flavours are quite different to Vietnamese cuisine so it was great to have a change. In fact, Khmer culture is one of the prime influences on Thailand’s, although you might have thought it would be the other way round. We finished off the evening with cocktails costing only $2. Vietnam is cheap, but this was a welcome surprise.


Swings in a restaurant! How cool is that? 


Phnom Penh’s biggest attractions are, sadly, rather disturbing and depressing thanks to the legacy of the Khmer Rouge. I’ll admit that I’d only really heard something about a man named Pol Pot who had facilitated the slaughter of thousands of Cambodians, so this was a dark history lesson that addressed my ignorance. We thought we’d get the biggest to-dos done on our first day in Phnom Penh, which are The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S-21 prison. After the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power, the regime set out to implement their unrealistic and idealistic vision of a self-sufficient and classless, communist society which resulted in the death of 1 in 5 Cambodians. All citizens were forced to work the land and increase rice production threefold with immediate effect leading many to die of exhaustion and disease. Then began social engineering in which any ‘urbanised’ or ‘bourgeois’ citizens were slaughtered, as well as defectors.

We took a tuk tuk to Choeung Ek, one of many of the fields in which these mass executions took place. Instead of a tour guide, we were given headsets to listen to as we made our way around the site. I liked this as it maintained a peaceful silence and we were free to do things at our own pace. Mass grave areas were marked and teeth and bones are still regularly uncovered after heavy rain falls. Details of killing methods were also pretty graphic; basically ammunition was saved so bamboo and poison were used to ‘dispose’ of victims quickly and cheaply. Music and machinery were played to drown out the cries. Perhaps the most disturbing stop was the Chankiri tree which was used to kill children by bashing them against the trunk. That way, no one would be left to avenge their family.  

There is a stupa at the centre of the site to commemorate the 8000+ victims and inside are the recovered bones. It was very surreal looking at the mounds of skulls and trying to get your head around the fact that these were all once people who endured such suffering.  


  May they rest in peace.

I have to admit that I wasn’t hit with emotion in the same way I had been at the War Museum in Saigon, but I think the sheer scale and horror of the killings was almost too much to take in. I think some things are just too awful to comprehend.

We headed over to S-21 afterwards, or Security Prison 21. The former school was used as a prison during the regime, where some 20 000 prisoners were tortured and interrogated before being sent to their graves, perhaps Choeung Ek. Headsets were also provided here, but with our limited budget we just paid the entrance fee, although I wonder whether we should have just forked out the extra money. I think the first thing that struck all of us was how similar the school was to the ones we had been teaching in for the last six months. Despite various differences, the three tiered concrete structures were similar in size and layout to modern Vietnamese schools. 


In each classroom were rows and rows of mugshots taken by the Khmer Rouge to document their prisoners as well as written testaments from the few survivors. The project is clearly still a work in progress but it was enlightening, for want of a better word, nonetheless.


We brightened our moods in the evening by taking a walk to the Royal Palace and trying Cambodia’s national dish, amok. It was a decent meal, but we had our second taste of being targeted by children, this time selling bracelets. We asked them questions and were told that they go to school in the morning, but have to earn money in the evening so they can pay for their afternoon English lessons, which cost $10 a month. Their English was very, very good, but when one told us that the previous day she had earned $40 we began to question who, exactly, the money was going to. Our suspicions were only reinforced when we noticed a woman hovering nearby. I’d read that Cambodia has the highest number of children used for sex tourism worldwide – a harrowing thought – so they must be exploited in many ways. Perhaps not every child selling goods on the street results in something sinister, but I don’t think children should ever have the responsibility of earning money. 

The following day was a little more uplifting and we began by having breakfast in our favourite cafe, Joma. After, Karen and Rebecca headed over to the Russian Market, and the rest of us walked over to the Central Market. We were done after an hour or so, so found a rooftop bar to collapse in for a few hours, something we are very good at. It might sound daft, being in a far-away country and sitting about in cafés everyday, sometimes for hours at a time. But for me it’s one of the things I’m enjoying about traveling. We are free from lots of responsibilities that you’d have at home. We all know how even at the weekend there are jobs to do, or you feel as though you should be making the most of your time. Going from attraction to attraction can be exhausting, especially in the 35 degree, humid heat, so why not spend time relaxing, watching the world go by, reading a book and conversing?


Independence Monument near Joma

Once we had recovered we walked over to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, the official residence of the King of Cambodia since the 1860s (I hadn’t even realised Cambodia had a monarchy until I got my visa!) It’s pretty magnificent, and possibly the best example of Khmer architecture that you’ll see. Definitely worth a visit, if only to see the hordes of Buddhist monks posing for selfies with their iPads and drinking Red Bull.

I’m a tourist now. I am obliged to take these sorts of pictures. Oh, that big thing behind is the Throne Hall.  

 The Moonlight Pavilion. How fancy that sounds. The open space for Royal Dancers during banquets.  

 The ‘Silver’ Pagoda. Stupidly didn’t notice the silver tiles on the floor so wondered where on earth the name came from.

We finished the day off with some TLC; Rebecca, Karen and I got a foot massage for just $3 which was much needed on our manky feet. 

Cambodia has a very different feel to Vietnam, and it’s generally quieter, smaller, and dare I say poorer. But we thoroughly enjoyed our first stop. We shall see what else Cambodia has to offer.


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