Backpacking Vietnam and Cambodia last year… #saudade
Source: Angkor Temples, Cambodia: photos
Backpacking Vietnam and Cambodia last year… #saudade
Source: Angkor Temples, Cambodia: photos
Cambodia: we see it as the land of impressive Angkor temples, a turbulent history and the tuk-tuk (the most we had seen in our entire trip!).
It is such a beautiful country but undoubtedly more impoverished compared to neighboring Vietnam and Thailand. We arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital, with low expectations.
Immediately the air pollution and dust hit us – it was the worst we experienced during our trip. We took a short tuk-tuk ride to the hotel. We had booked a 5* hotel for our stay – only 18$ a night, and at that price, I am so glad we did it! It turned out we were staying in a more up-and-coming residential area of the city, near good restaurants too.
After checking in, we immediately set off for some food and a walk around the city. We could see a lot of new development taking place and we were excited to see that Phnom Penh was so much more than what we had previously thought. As Cambodia uses the US$, we did notice that it was much more expensive in comparison to Vietnam which had been dirt cheap. The monsoon hit when we turned back into the hotel’s road. We returned, soaked, flip flops barely staying on our feet!
We visited the S20 Prison and the Killing Fields – this is the main reason travelers come to the city in order to get some context for Cambodia’s history. Although it was unpleasant, these sites really are key if you intend to get some scope of what Cambodia has faced and the consequences which are still on-going. We booked a tuk-tuk driver for the day through our hotel for 15$, who took us to the Killing Fields, to S20 and back to our hotel. Unfortunately, the tuk-tuk broke down along the way. Luckily we broke down next to a garage – what are the odds?! In 10 minutes, the driver fixed the tuk-tuk with a mechanic while we were in it (James and I looking at each other a bit worried and weighing up whether we should escape or not). It was not long until we were back on the road.
We only spent two days in Phnom Penh and actually, it was not enough! Other than walking around, taking the tour to S20 and the Killing Fields and eating at some lovely restaurants, we didn’t do anything else. I would recommend at least 3 days in order to fully appreciate the city. We did not manage to see the Royal Palace which was a real shame. The monsoon hit every afternoon so it was impossible to do sightseeing for several hours as the downpour was so heavy! A good excuse for an afternoon nap.
All in all, a brilliant start to our travels in Cambodia.
Hotel: Balconitel Boutique Hotel
Must visit: S20 Prison and Killing Fields
Today I did something that I have been putting off since I came back from backpacking around South East Asia last month. I loaded up my camera and plugged the USB cable into my laptop, to find that I had 230 pictures to upload. Normally I am quite prompt with uploading photos from trips, but this time it didn’t come so easy; by resisting going through my photos, I managed for some time to shake off the feeling of nostalgia that always comes when I am in the UK for any lengthy period of time, away from the thrill of travelling.
Although I enjoyed my time immensely in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, each one of the three countries was so unique and diverse, with its own cultural norms and views towards backpackers. Truthfully, I was not expecting my experience to be so different each time I stepped across a border, but it made the trip all the more eye-opening. Without further ado, let me explain why Vietnam was my favourite part of the trip, and why you have to go!
1. The chaos. If you can cross a road in Hanoi or Saigon, you can cross a road anywhere in the world – fact. Every time you step off the pavement, there is always that worry of whether you will get to the other side. When you do make it though, it is a triumphant feeling, as you have lived to see another day, well, until the next road crossing that is… There is definitely a knack to crossing the road in Vietnam, and you can read countless articles and watch videos online to prepare before your trip – yes, this is a thing and I would recommend it! Not only is crossing the road exhilerating, but seeing a family of 5 or 6 sitting on a scooter made for two, with perhaps a large bag on there too. Seeing the ladies ride side-saddle when wearing dresses or skirts, one on each side of the scooter maybe. Seeing the kids hold onto the handle bars while standing, while their parents sit behind. It is a whole other world on the streets of Vietnam. Why pay thousands (or in Vietnamese Dong, millions) for a car to carry four when you can have a scooter that can do the same job, right?!
2. The pavements. These are reserved for: parking millions of scooters, driving scooters, pop-up shops and street-food vendors, sitting to eat your pho noodles, anything and everything, all except walking. More often than not, you have to walk in the street – no escape from the chaos that is the scooters.
3. The food. How could I talk about Vietnam without mentioning the food? Personally, the food here was the best of the trip, albeit quite (read: very) limiting for me as they eat so much pork, which I avoid. Yet it is so cheap, so you will never go hungry, whereas in Cambodia the local food lacks flavour and Western food hurts your wallet. In Thailand, be ready for spice as even when you ask for it to ‘not be too spicy,’ you will still have a generous helping of chillis on your plate, and if you’re anything like me, you may suffer a bit! On the first night in Hanoi, we were recommended to eat at a small restaurant. When we arrived, it was packed with locals but no travellers. We ordered our pho bo (beef noodle soup) for the equivelant f £1 and Coca Cola bottles for 20p and slurped up the best pho I have ever eaten, while sitting on the tiniest, most uncomfortable plastic stools you can possibly imagine.
4. The scenery. Get out of the bustling cities and see some of Vietnam’s spectacular natural beauty. With only two weeks in the country, it was not possible to go everywhere. We will defintely have to go back to see more. The major highlight for us was surprisingly not Ha Long Bay which is raved about online, but a day-trip to nearby Ninh Binh (a 2-hour drive south of Hanoi). Ninh Binh receives fewer tourists and therefore it gives you the sensation that you are going slightly off the beaten track. We caught a little slice of paradise while taking a leisurely boat-ride down the river to marvel at the rock formations, and cycling past the lush paddy fields.
5. The locals. The Vietnamese are friendly and a smile and a few words in Vietnamese can go a long way. When we took the overnight trains between Hanoi-Da Nang and Da Nang-Ho Chi Minh City, the locals we met in our berth and along the train loved nothing more than to let us join in their coversations (albeit with difficulty), celebrations or meals, as it was quite rare for Westerners to walk up to the restaurant-car for dinner and pass the second and third-class carriages.
Yet like with any trip, there were issues. We had so many people trying to scam us, to donate money to false causes, to harrassment with people trying to selling us things. Although we didn’t fall into any of their traps, and most of the time we laughed it off, the encounters remained unpleasant. The amount of locals and Chinese tourists who invited James to have group photos with their children, to the people doing selfies trying to get a glimpse of him in the background, just because he has red hair, was uncomfortable. Still, it is a reflection of the many tourists that take photos of local people without permission. The important thing is to remain aware, don’t make any rushed decisions and don’t take any photos of locals or they may just follow you down the road demanding money. It was painful watching tourists getting scammed that way.
Vietnam does not use tuk tuks like Cambodia or Thailand, but the question ‘tuk-tuk? tuk-tuk? tuk-tuk? tuk-tuk?’ when we walked along the road every 5 or so meters, in places like Phom Penh, Siem Reap and Bangkok, does begin to have an annoying effect. Nevertheless, you have to bear in mind that this may be this person’s main source of income, which puts the situation into perspective.
Our overall experience of Vietnam was that it was very affordable for backpackers on a budget, the food was delicious, the country is welcoming to respectful travellers and that it is such a diverse country. With so many opportunities for things to do from North to South; golden beaches, to lush mountanous regions and huge bustling cities.
Since booking this trip in November 2015, knowing that I will be backpacking around South East Asia for four weeks between my final university exams and Graduation with my boyfriend, has been the thing getting me through the cold Yorkshire winter and university assignments. Technically I have already been to Asia (Israel 2014), but I am looking forward to scratching off a completely new part of the world on my wall travel map this summer.
We have Qatar flights and accommodation booked in advance; although we will be backpacking, we have booked comfortable hotels which still only range between £5-12 pp/night. We decided we would rather do that than stay in some questionable lodgings. We booked them all through Booking.com, which has some good deals and also allows us to pay on arrival and get free last-minute cancellation if necessary. We also have a rough idea of what activities we are interested in doing while out there, thanks to so many hours of research.
The trip will last 29 days in total: 11 days in Vietnam, 7 days in Cambodia and 11 days in Thailand.
We were initially tempted by spending just 2 weeks in Vietnam, especially because until 1st July 2016, Vietnam has given a VISA waiver for British Nationals who stay 14 days or less – very tempting indeed. After Vietnam had been decided, since we were going to be in the region anyway and with more free time before we had to return to the UK, we thought why not add on Cambodia and Thailand as well – I particularly wanted to visit Angkor Wat and it is doubtful we will be able to return to the region soon after.
We will be working our way down from Hanoi in North Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh City in the South, with stops including Halong Bay, Ninh Binh (possibly) and Hoi An in between. We will then cross over the border to Cambodia and spend a few days in Phom Penh the capital, before catching a day bus to Siem Reap (Angkor Wat). We will then be flying to Northern Thailand to Chiang Mai (the overland border crossing looks a complete nightmare), before finally heading south to Kanchanaburi and finishing in Bangkok. Although we are visiting quite a few places, we have made sure to spend at least 3 days in each place – we have no intention of rushing about unnecessarily but still want to make the most of the trip.
Apart from splashing out on a flight between Siem Reap (Cambodia) and Chiang Mai (Thailand) to save travel time, we will doing the entire trip overland in sleeper trains, day buses and tuk tuk!
The things I am looking forward to the most are:
This week I managed to purchase a very affordable and practical 40Litre rucksack to take with me which has got me all excited about going. Minimalist skills will be in full force when I have to start packing!