Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Goodbye Vietnam, Hello Cambodia, 9-10 April 2011

Finally, the motorbike with me and my bags pulled up outside Monkey Republic in Sihanoukville late afternoon, just as the sun was lowering through the sky above. I got off and went into the bar area to see if they had any room for me. They didn't and the motorbike driver who brought me to the place was lingering outside to take me to a place he recommends if my first choice was fully booked. I had no intention of going back out there and spending more money to take me anywhere else as I could decide and walk myself, so I grabbed a well deserved beer and sat down. As I sat down I heard some familiar voices behind me and it was Tom, Nicky and Alan who were staying there and had been there for a couple of nights already. I joined them for a bit before I left with Tom to find me a place to stay. I finally settled on a place further towards the beach that had a good rate for a private room. I settled into my room, unpacked and went to the restaurant to relax and have some decent food that was well overdue. As I sat there, I looked back over my the last 24 hours.

Welcome to the Central Post Office
I was still in Ho Chi Minh City the previous night where Jonas had finally arrived after parting from his new passion for kite surfing in Mui Ne and made the journey to Ho Chi Minh city. Jonas only had a few days left on his trip before he needed to fly back home, so he only had a flying visit to Ho Chi Minh city and had bought a ticket to Siem Reap via Phnom Penh which was the same bus that I was taking to Sihanoukville at 11pm. My number one task for my final day in Vietnam was to post all of my winter clothes onto Australia where I would hopefully pick them up when/if I arrived in Perth. There was no use carrying them around any longer as the sun had finally come out and was relentlessly pounding my sweat pores into seepage!

Inside the Ho Chi Minh Central Post Office
I left Jonas after our lunch and headed for the post office where I had been with Marianne et al earlier in the week as she needed to post back some cuddly toy she had acquired along the way. However, when I arrived, I was informed by a notice on the door that it was closed on that day for one reason or another. This concerned me as I thought that I may have to continue to carry all my winter gear around with me further. I quickly headed into the shopping centre behind the post office to gain some respite from the heat and to have a look at the guide book to see where another post office was. The only other on was further in the centre of town and was the central post office which I thought was just a tourist attraction now. I decided that I should go and check it out regardless. If it was operational, then great but if not, at least I saw the great central post office of Ho Chi Minh City. After finally reaching the post office, I was pleased to see that it was completely operational and also cool inside, so I headed over to a counter to see what I needed to do. The man behind the counter immediately grabbed my bag of items, looked through it, put it inside a box and in return handed me several forms that I needed to complete. As I was completing the form, the parcel was being wrapped in many layers of sticky tape and passed from one person to the next. I finally managed to complete all the forms to the best of my ability and handed them back to the man who initially served me. He passed me and the forms onto a lady further down the line who I paid, I never saw my parcel again and wasn't sure whether it was ever going to get to its destination in the estimated three months, but I was thankful that I had offloaded some more weight from my bag.

Notre Dame Cathedral
I reluctantly removed myself from the cool building colonial styled building and reinstated myself to the sun's mercy. Outside of the front of the post office stands the Notre Dame Cathedral, a leftover from French colonial days and its insurgence of Catholicism in Vietnam. The building stands out from amongst the surrounding building tall and mighty. I couldn't go in as it was closed to the public but walked around the perimeter towards the park that spread out behind the church. I took the opportunity to sit down in the shade and have a look at my guide book for any inspiration on what I should do next. No inspiration came immediately, so I just got up and walked through the annoying men offering me a motorcycle tour around the city. After walking around for a while I found another park to rest in and pull out the newspaper to catch up on some European current affairs. As I sat there, I saw a roughly dressed man in the distance carrying a small wooden tool box, he looked as though he had oily hands and I just knew that he was going to head over to me and ask me for something. Of course he did, he came over and kind offered to clean my trainers. I politely turned his offer down and tried to explain that my Gortex trainers needed special cleaning that he couldn't do. He wouldn't take no for an answer and knelt down in front of me and rummaged through his box and pulled out a brush with black shoe polish on it and begun to rub my shoes. I was outraged and swiftly pulled my shoes away from him and firmly told him no, but of course he refused to listen and began to rub my shoes again. I told him no again but he continued, so the only option left was to stand up and walk away from him. It's so annoying when you can't enjoy some time relaxing in the park without these people trying to take the shirt off your back. I admire his persistence but do not like people pressuring me into any service they offer. They should have learnt by now, Andy doesn't part with his cash easily! After my failure to relax in the park, I headed back towards the hotel where I had planned to meet Jonas again for dinner before our bus journey.

Jonas and I decided to head to an Italian restaurant where a group of us had been a few nights ago but I hoped for a more comfortable meal this time. Last time Alan got into a confrontation with a Scottish girl who accused him of purposefully leaving her behind in the hotel and once she found us, she was so outraged that she demanded the Cambodian sim card she gave to Alan earlier back. There was a big group of us there and there was no way Alan could've checked that everyone in the hotel was with us. Plus, it's not his responsibility but she wouldn't see reason and continually berated him all night long and then started on other people. She even resorted to sitting there with her MP3 played plugged into her ears and ignoring us all. I was thankful that our meal was a lot more relaxed this time and the 'all you can eat' buffet went down like a treat and set us up for our journey. After our meal and before we left to go to the bus stop, Jonas and I had to finish our little pool competition that we had going ever since Hué, so we headed to the sports bar where I had become a regular over my time in the city and racked up the balls. We finished on a draw, so that was nicer than Jonas completely annihilating me as he usually does.

Beautiful colonial architecture left over
Following our final pool match together and stupidly telling the waitress that I loved her, which she wrongly took completely seriously and said “But....but....Andy, we're just friends....!” as she fell back into a chair, we quickly gathered our bags and headed to the tour office to board our bus. We arrived early and were ordered to sit down on a few plastic seats on the side of the street where we were handed our immigration and visa application forms to complete and hand to the bus driver before we got on board. We quickly finished the forms which have now become second nature to me and my passport details are stored inside my head. The bus was parked across the road and I was looking forward to getting on board as Alan and I had been taken aboard the bus a few days ago to see what they were like and we were pleasantly surprised. On the bus we checked out, there were no beds but very spacious chairs that reclined to a decent angle with lots of leg room. Needless to say, when we got onto the bus that evening we were confronted with a completely different scene. Small chairs, with barely any cushion or leg room and the chairs that were assigned to us were at the front of the bus and were near enough at floor level. I shouldn't have expected more when it came to the Vietnamese and their embellishment of the truth. With a tut and a sigh we round two different seats and resigned ourselves to yet another uncomfortable journey.

The journey should only take 14 hours from Ho Chi Ming to Sihanoukville, seven of those hours was to include getting from Ho Chi Minh to the border, a 3 hour wait at the border until it opened and then the remaining hours to Sihanoukville. At the time I was still confused that Jonas and I were going to different places in Cambodia and yet I was told that I didn't need to change buses. Part of travelling is to just get on with it, roll with the punches and adapt your plans regularly to suit your ever changing circumstances. I plugged in my MP3 player and packed my ebook reader away as I couldn't continue to read as they immediately turned the lights off. I had just started a new book, 'First They Killed My Father' by Loung Ung which records her experience during the Khmer Rouge era of Cambodia. I will tell you more about this in a later blog. I soon managed to fall asleep and was incredibly thankful that nobody claimed the seat next to me so I could spread out across the seats. It always takes a while to find your most comfortable position when you're sleeping on a bus or a train and that position isn't exactly the comfortable but it will do. The journey was arduous, I kept waking up every now and again but as soon as we reached the border and parked up I fell asleep for a decent few hours. When I got woken up, the sun had emerged and the tedious border routine awaited us. Luckily the tour company were very organised and the whole crossing process went seamlessly and with our new Cambodian visas and entrance stamps in our passports we were back on the bus and speeding off towards our destinations.

A few hours later we arrived at the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, and were all instructed to grab our bags and change buses despite my travel agents assurances that I was not going to change buses. I was informed that my bus to Sihanoukville was leaving in an hours time from another location in the city but they would organise a minibus to the bus station at no extra charge so I relaxed a bit and forgot the irritation of being lied to yet again. In the waiting time I went to the currency exchange place to investigate the new rates for Cambodian currency. I asked how much Cambodian money was to the Great British Pound and was informed there was $1.6 to the £. I was confused and repeated my question in a different fashion. She replied that if I gave her £100 I'd get US$160. This made me a little frustrated as I had got annoyed with the constant demand for US Dollars when I was in Vietnam. I kept saying, I'm British and I'm in Vietnam, why am I going to have or give you US Dollars when I've got Vietnamese Dong. I soon gathered that the De Facto currency for Cambodia is US$ and is more widely used than their legal currency of Reil as it's worth much more. Although when you pay in Dollars, you usually get Reil in return especially if your change comes under $1. Having cleared up the issue of the currency, Jonas and I quickly found an Irish restaurant to eat at, sat down and ordered a full English breakfast but at that time I had only thirty minutes before I needed to return to the bus stop and catch my minibus to the bus station. I quickly ate my meal when it came and had to bid my final farewell to Jonas as he would be on a very short visit to Siem Reap for Angkor Wat and then back to Ho Chi Minh to catch his flight home.

As I stood on the corner where the bus from Ho Chi Minh dropped me off, I was immediately aware that the temperature here was a lot hotter. The minibus turned up and I was ushered onto the bus which was one hell of a sweat box. There was a couple of people on there already and I was hoping that no other people would join us as the rickety old bus had no air conditioning or fans, just slightly open windows that barely let any air in. After a few hundred metres we stop and pick up some more people. Too many people for the space available in the minibus, so we all get very familiar, very quickly and the journey becomes increasingly unbearable. Once we reached the bus station around five minutes later, we all jump off the bus as soon as we can to grab fresh air. The next bus was scheduled to take a further two hours to Sihanoukville. But the bus was comfortable enough for the last leg of the journey. By this time, however, it was already early afternoon and not surprisingly had already passed its estimated time of arrival in Sihanoukville.

The bus finally pulled into Sihanoukville bus station that seemed to be a few kilometres away from where I needed to be. I'm sure they do this on purpose so you have to pay for a motorcycle taxi or a Tuk Tuk to your hotel. Anyway, by that point in time, I had had enough and grabbed the first motorbike man I saw and negotiated a price, of course not paying the full asking price but also knowingly paying too much. He got $2 out of me. However, I did have my huge backpack on which is equivalent to another person! The motorbike journey was refreshing as we zoomed through the streets of Sihanoukville town as the sun was getting low, so the air was cooling every minute. Only two months previous to this I was petrified of getting on the back of a crazy Asian man's motorbike with all my gear and without a helmet, but at this very moment I didn't care at all. I even wished that I could have had this man take me from Ho Chi Minh to Sihanoukville instead of the bus. I felt refreshed and excited, I was finally out of Vietnam and in Cambodia, a land that I knew absolutely nothing about.

Next Time, Sihanoukville, Beaches, Peaches and Mushrooms

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