The Journey to Cambodia

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(The Cambodian side of the border with Vietnam)

I spent three days in Pleiku, Vietnam, resting and enjoying my time with the new friends I had made. I also, started to plan the next step on this massive trip: Cambodia and Angkor Wat. The jump to Vietnam had scared me. It took me three days to get out of Hanoi when the original plan was to stay just one or two days. This is partly because journeys like these are beasts onto themselves and do not particularly listen to plans. And that is partly because the person involved is terrified of many things.

The jump to Cambodia was even scarier than Vietnam. In Vietnam, I was met every step of the way by ready-made friends: friends from Korea, friends of friends, or the couchsurfing community. They helped me get a SIM card, arranged hostels, knew where the best food was and even guided me on how to bargain.

In Cambodia, I knew nobody. I knew nothing about safety, how I was going to travel around, how expensive Internet on my phone would be, etc. I gleaned as much information as I could from my facebook community, but ultimately, I was left to discover Cambodia on my own. I just had to keep trusting my soul. Friday morning, I woke up very early and went to breakfast with my friends for the last time. I’m going to miss those wildly warm people.

They piled me on the mini-bus that would take me to Banlung. We had sussed out that much: there was a mini-bus for 170,000VND that would take me through the border (instead of just leaving me at the border) and to a small Cambodian town called Banlung. Once safely in Banlung, I planned to stay the night while sorting out how to make it across northern Cambodia to Siem Reap. My Vietnamese friends also told the bus driver (in Vietnamese) that I wanted to go to Siem Reap. Just a few simple words and now even the bus driver was going to help me cross Cambodia.

The mini-bus was full of Vietnamese people. I was the only foreigner. The journey through to the end of Vietnam was largely uneventful. Immigration too was simple. I was greeted with surprisingly excellent English at Cambodian immigration. They walked me through the visa process, even asked me what my ethnicity was, and didn’t ask for more money on top of the 30USD tourist visa, as I’ve heard they do on other borders. One officer seemed rather jazzed to see a US passport– because he wanted more tourists to come and learn about Khmer culture and history.

My first impression of Banlung wasn’t changed by seeing much more of the Cambodian countryside. It was hot and humid and very dusty. The economic disparity between Cambodia and Vietnam was strikingly obvious. Vietnam occurred to me as solidly middle income as the Philippines, with its share of the very poor but with a growing middle class. But I stuck mainly to the cities of Vietnam, my impressions of the Vietnamese countryside made idyllic by the train ride and abundant greenery. Cambodia was poor through and through, all the way to Siem Reap where the tourist dollars were at least causing some kind of growth.

I thought Banlung was the end of the day for me, but my bus driver kept saying “Siem Reap… Siem Reap” over and over again. This was about the only thing I understood from what he was saying. He dropped off a pair of guys and told me to get off too, seemingly trusting my Siem Reap mission to these two men. We were heaped onto another bus.

It was at this point that I started to panic. The plan was to stay in Banlung! But they kept saying Siem Reap over and over again? My soul had gone quiet and was more alert than ever… did it even have an answer? I got onto this other bus and saw that one of the guys had “New York” written on his flip flops. Much like the bus driver from Vietnam had “New York” written on his shirt. New York popping up in my life is a story for another time, but in that moment, I wondered what it all meant.

Thus pacified, I stayed on the bus while the new bus driver drove around Banlung looking for passengers to fill up his van. This was proving to be standard practice in Southeast Asia and took about a solid hour. It was hot and cramped; at some point a basket with roosters was tied to the back of the minivan. Past the discomfort, there was nothing dangerous about the trip at all. Everyone was perfectly normal, but Cambodian (except the two Vietnamese guys?) which meant I understood exactly nothing of what was happening around me.

We arrived in Stung Treng at about four, just in time for the sun to start setting. I knew about Stung Treng from my trip planning and knew it wouldn’t be a bad place to stop and take a break. Supposedly my bus driver had contacted someone who was ready to take me the rest of the way to Siem Reap, but with it getting darker and darker, I decided to stay put for the night.

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The bus had stopped conveniently in front of a guesthouse (no doubt this was deliberate) so I got a room all to myself for $7 then decided to grab another bus to Siem Reap in the morning. I had been talking to one such guy who arranged those things in front of the hostel and I managed to talk him down from $13 to $12. I had heard about a taxi driver who could get me from Stung Treng to Siem Reap for $10, but he was not available. If I had stood firm, I probably could’ve gotten less than $12, but the difference between $12 and $10 for me, as an American, is nothing. For Cambodians, it’s the price of a meal.

(Nevertheless, Southeast Asia is a place to keep practicing one’s bargaining skills because the difference between their first offer and the going rate can get pretty outrageous pretty fast. I’m looking at you, $3 scarves bought for $10.)

The trip to Siem Reap was supposed to take 6 hours but of course it took longer than that. They told me the bus would leave at 8, but it didn’t leave until 8:30 and had to pick up a bunch of other people besides. It’s Southeast Asia, I just accepted it and was simply grateful the air conditioning was working and I had a bit more leg room this time. I was very grateful for bringing bread and bananas from Vietnam. I skipped the lunch break because I wasn’t sure of the quality of the food at the place we stopped at. I also mostly just didn’t say anything. Vietnam had made me lazy about learning even the minimum in the local language. I mostly made noises that didn’t sound like anything in particular, especially when I was pacifying the baby traveling with us.

I did speak English when one of the passengers asked me where I was from. He turned out to work for APSARA, and at the time I didn’t know, but they are the people in charge of Angkor Wat Archaeological Park and the temple conservation efforts.

Once in Siem Reap, I was dropped off at another guesthouse. I managed to get myself some wifi, did a bit more research, and found Bun Kao Guesthouse. I decided to dorm there for $5/night in some effort to make friends with fellow travelers but so far, I’ve had the room to myself. I made friends with Kao and he set me up with my first Angkor Wat tour and a list of recommended Khmer food. After two, unbelievable whiplash days, I was in Siem Reap, ready to take on the temples of Angkor Wat.

[This post was originally published on April 28, 2015. It has been backdated for the sake of tidier, chronological organization.]

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