So far, Saigon, so good
I enjoyed my last day in HCMC for now walking around before setting off to explore new territory. I woke up pretty late. So late in fact that the girl working at the hotel commented “I can’t believe you woke up at midday… And missed breakfast!” Well those who know me know that lazy lie-ins are not unusual for me, but I did feel embarrased having a stranger comment on it…!
I tried my first Vietnamese coffee. Yeah, OK, not from a street seller; from a posh hotel cafe, Lanmien, haha. It was nice. Strong black coffee, bit ‘spicy’ if that doesn’t sound weird, and drunk with condensed milk, which actually made they whole drink taste like chocolate. Yum but must try not to have too many…
And on to my 2nd visit to the War Remnants Museum. I was really enjoying my walk and bought a coconut from a man on the street for about 50p. I was enjoying drinking it and enjoying the sun. I thought about having some lunch pretty soon as I missed breakfast before going to the museum, so dug out my Lonely Planet. It said there were a couple of nice lunch places just up the road from there, so I reached the museum and carried on walking, enjoying my coconut. I finished it and almost immediately my stomach gurgled. A strange hot feeling and a pressure below. Damn it! I needed a toilet. Fast! I rushed to the restaurant as highlighted by Lonely Planet. Damn it! No longer there!! So scurried into a local bar where lots of local men were smoking…not the best choice but a necessary choice.
I never used to use a Lonely Planet. I did my solo RTW trip without a map or a book. OK, maybe local maps once I got there. Why am I now depending on guide books when I used to be a real pro at turning up somewhere with no accommodation booked and no idea who I would meet or where I would eat? Sad that naive me has gone into hiding.
So… disaster averted. Decided to have some noodles at this bar and went to the museum. Fascinating to discover the upper floor was exhibiting photographs as taken by war photo journalists, one a Brit called Larry Burrows (who became a casualty of war in Laos). Great stuff.
The next day I was no longer running for the loo and was ready to move on to Cambodia! Ill return to HCMC at the end of my trip to fly home. As I walked to the bus station, I felt worried.. sad.. but why? I think I’ve become complacent, stuck. I’d been here 4 days and there’s so much to see. Why did I feel anxious about moving on? Getting too comfortable in old skin; need to force oneself to push off and discover!
And once I felt able to being open, I started to enjoy the ride. While waiting for the bus, a strange man started to hover. I looked at him. He looked at me. I thought about asking if he was OK (I would have started jabbering without hesitation on many other trips) and then he asked me if I had seen his friend? He was looking to say goodbye to his friend with “long hair and a beard”. He was having a bit of trouble conversing. I asked him where he was from. “France” he replied. So I told him I spoke French & we started jabbering! He told me he played the violin and that he had originally come to Asia because he had a Chinese girlfriend, and in English, added “She was a bit crazy” (keep running this over in my mind for a giggle – the way he said it hahaha) and he told me that he used to wander into Angkor Wat after hours and play his violin and security would wander the grounds trying to work out where the sound was coming from. He told me to remember this when I visit. I shall.
Soon, I was asked to get on the bus. Sure enough, Monsieur Violin’s friend was already on the bus and sat across from me. We didnt talk though. I was still tired – dunno why – heat? still jetlagged? – and slept all the way to the border.
Phnom Penh – Good enough to eat?!
So, border controls and visas were not an issue. I have a multiple entry Vietnam visa bought over the internet and paid for on arrival (US $50 + $25 online) and also paid for my Cambodia visa online for $25. Could still pay at immigration if needed to. Just queue up, they stamp you on exit at Moc Bai and then you go a little way into Bavet in Cambodia and they stamp you again. My immigration officer asked me where I was going.
“Siem Reap. To see Angkor Wat”.
“Maybe Laos. Then back to Vietnam”
“And then you come to see me again, OK!”
It was a cute little moment.
Once through the controls we went a tiny way again and we stopped for lunch. Thanks to Madame Cuc’s breakfast I didnt feel the need for a cooked lunch. Neither did the French hippy dude. I never got his name but he told me he was a lorry driver in France and he would work for 4 months of the year and then bum around Asia the rest of the time. He had tried to open a bookshop in China but said it was too complicated to work out. He was cool. He paid for a coke for me and he had a coffee. We were rather hurried by the bus crew. I thought about having an emergency wee but so rushed were we I just thought, no probs, there’s a toilet on board.
So on the bus, I finished my coke. After about 20 minutes I knew I needed the loo. So I went to the back of the bus and to my shock, horror, the door was well and truly blocked. By piles and piles of packages of rice! I sighed and went down to the front of the bus. The crew were asleep (obv not driver!). I tried to wake them but they were well and truly out of it. I sat back down and tried to enjoy the lush and green countryside. I told the hippy dude and he shrugged in a French kind of way. 20 minutes later I knew I would really need the toilet so I walked back to the back and tried to move some of the packs myself. They weren’t heavy but the pile went deep down and I just thought maybe we would stop again soon. I couldnt be the only person needing a wee? I went to wake one of the crew up again. He woke up and I told him I needed the loo. He came to the back and saw what my problem was. He gestured to me that it would be OK and he walked back down, sat down and fell asleep again! This time, hippy dude became concerned for me and walked to the back of the bus to see the problem for himself. He now understood what a problem this was and together we lifted the packs together and chucked them on the empty back seats. A woman, I think she may have been Vietnamese, her husband, certainly could communicate with the crew, came to help and then her husband came to say the crew had said we’d be stopping in 5 minutes. Well, we continued to unload and deblock anyway. We came down to the final pack blocking the door from opening. I felt so excited. Hippy dude tried to open the door. It was locked on the outside but the lock wouldnt slide. Oh no! But then I shook it a little, it gave, slid away, Hippy Dude opened the door and… found more stuff inside!!! NOOOOOOOOOO! “Ah… non plus!” said Hippy, rather dejected. We both went and sat down. I didnt even have a pot to piss in.
Crewman finally came up to see what exactly was going on because maybe-Vietnamese woman alerted him that 5 mins had passed and I still needed the loo (she may have too but perhaps too ladylike to admit). I saw crewman go to the back and start to empty the toilet of all these packs. Yes oh yes oh yes!!!! He came down about 5 minutes later and said I could go to the loo. Oh boyyyyyy!! Never been so happy! I ran to the back, sat down, didnt even shut the door and let go! I didnt even mind that the seat was scorching hot! Happy, I went back to my seat and fell asleep. And in all… my bladder was waiting almost 100 minutes for relief.
At least I didn’t drink a coconut today.
So… Phnom Penh. At first glanced looked like Chiang Mai in Thailand. But not as pretty. HCMC had a lot of French influence. It reminded me a lot of Port Louis on my island. I wasnt sure if I was going to like PP. A tuk tuk driver took me to my hotel – www.bluetonguecafe.com
I’d been told to get a room by the lake but after trying to work out where to stay around the lake and reading bad review after bad review regarding bed bugs, uncleanliness and being hassled to buy drugs I just thought bugger it, spend a bit more and stay somewhere nice. So I have! But what I made up for by not staying at the lake I lost elsewhere; constant requests to take bike rides, moto rides, tuk tuks… ahhhh! It would have been OK if it wasnt so relentless! I got pretty tired of it all to be honest. I wandered around the riverside where it seems life is abuzz, stopped by a cafe for some ice cream, and thought about calling it a day. I got talking to a waitress. Her English was very good. She told me she too had travelled around SE Asia (she didnt like Thailand). We talked about Cambodia’s history and she told me foreigners knew more than her own people. She also advised against walking around at night alone and gave me a good well-lit route back to my hotel (and a safer way than I had planned originally), which worked. Bonne nuite, Farrah!
Finally I get it
I tried to wake up at 7am to get a good headstart on seeing things today. I failed miserably and got up at 9am instead. Wanted to get breakfast pretty quick so went downstairs without doing my hair or putting any make up on. It’s about time I left my western face at home. I got chatting to the waiter. He paid me a compliment and said I looked very young. Well that was enough for me. Buh-bye Monsieur Dior and off out I went.
There were 2 things I wanted to visit in Phnom Penh; S21 and the Killing Fields. S21 was the concentration camp during Pol Pots regime. It was exactly as they left it. Old beds upon which they tortured prisoners. The gallows. The barbed wire. I read a lot about its history, the Khmer Rouge, and looked at every photo of those who died. They deserved to be given attention; every man, woman and child. I spent a good, maybe 2hrs, reading and digesting everything and though it was sad, terrifying and made me angry, I felt somehow as if I had seen so much horror already, maybe from what we see on the news daily, that I felt largely unaffected. Towards the end of touring the former prison, a young girl approached me and introduced me to an old man. This man was one of only 7 survivors. I immediately burst into tears and then wouldn’t stop. I’m sad now as I write.
I had some lunch across the road at a beautiful cafe, the Boddhi Tree and arranged with the owner for his friend to take me to the killing fields in his tuk tuk, a good 35 minute ride. At first I was scared of riding all that way in a tuk tuk but I soon sat back, remembered how to be carefree, and enjoyed the ride.
The killing fields is where prisoners came to be executed. It’s strange that in Buddhist thought you must be buried for your soul to rest, but there are thousands of skulls and bone parts on display. I treated the whole site as a graveyard and with respect. I saw several teeth and even part of a jaw in the ground off the path; as time goes by and rains come and go, body parts and clothing emerges from the ground. The best I could do as I walked around was ask god to bless these poor, poor people. When I went to meet my driver at the end I spoke to his friend (cambodians speak more English than their Vietnamese counterparts I find). I said I was very sorry for him, his family and his country. He said it was a very long time ago but I was very lucky to come from England. Indeed, I am.
Back in town, I felt a new warmth for Phnom Penh. I smiled at everyone asking if I wanted a ride. I even joked with a couple of the drivers I came across. And I really noticed how many old white men really reckoned themselves for having a fine young Cambodian filly on their arm.