Monday, December 26, 2016

Cambodia and Vietnam Pt2: Getting Around SE Asia

My husband and I took our honeymoon in Cambodia and Vietnam.  We knew little about the countries before we went. This is what we learned during our three week trip. Part 2: Getting Around 

-Getting around -
You can go by boat, you can go by plane, you can go by bus or you can go by train. We took every means of transportation other than the train. The most popular way to get around is motorbike and we got the full experience. Buses are very inexpensive, around $5 dollars for a 4hr trip and motorbikes you can rent for about $5/day plus $2 in fuel.

-You Can go by Tuk-Tuk-
From the moment we stepped outside the airport we were approached by a dozen or so transportation drivers. We went with a guy who looked like an established cab company. Turns out, his cab is what is known as a Tuk-Tuk. A Tuk-Tuk is a carriage type thing that is attached to the back of a motor bike and driven thru the streets like any other car, bus, or bike. We hopped in and decided to enjoy the ride. The open air carriage was enjoyable in the warm late night air of this tropical country. It was big enough to hold maybe 4 adults, or two adults and their luggage. On our 15 minute drive to our hostel we realized we had a lot to get used to. The street lights didn't work, every one took the rules of the road as more of a suggestion, the constant weaving in and out of traffic with no wall between us and the on-coming bus was a bit unnerving, going into the on-coming traffic's lane and basically forcing your way through an intersection just hoping the other guy would slow down or go around you.  The thought that kept crossing my mind was a statistic I had read about Vietnam: 22 people die each day due to traffic collisions. We ended up loving the rides through town in a Tuk-Tuk. When left Cambodia and crossed over the boarder to Vietnam a week later, we were disappointed to find out they don't have Tuk-Tuks in Vietnam. 
Riding in a Tuk-Tuk at night
Tuk-Tuks are the best way to travel in Cambodia

Tuk-Tuk driver waiting on passengers. Everyone has a hammock
Shawn riding in a Tuk-Tuk

Loving our transportation in a Tuk-Tuk

-Walking in the Streets-
 Neither Cambodia or Vietnam has much in the way of public transportation. You can book a bus from one city to the next, and boats are available in high tourist areas by the water. Once you're in the city, you're on your own to find taxis, tuk-tuks, or braving the streets by foot. We tried walking in most cities and discovered it to be, not only difficult, but rather dangerous. We started on the sidewalk, only to find out locals set up shop selling fruits, veggies, fish, and trinkets right on the sidewalk. So we found ourselves walking around them and into the street dodging cars, motorbikes, not to mention parked cars and motorbikes that squeeze into any spot they can find making the traffic navigate around them. As much as we liked seeing the cities by foot, we sometimes opted to wave down a Tuk-Tuk or taxi depending on how far we were going and how busy the street was. 
The sidewalks are used for everything but walking
Fish market set up on the sidewalk
Fish market spilling into the street

Chickens on the sidewalk

-A Boat up the Siem Reap River-
We decided to take a boat up the river to Siem Reap where the famous Angkor Wat temples are. This was our first experience with public transportation so we didn't know what to expect. We made reservations at the hostel we were staying at, they informed us a mini bus would be by to pick us up at 7:15AM. At 7:20AM they still weren't there and I was getting nervous. Our boat was scheduled to leave at 8AM and I wanted to make sure we made it, as there is only one boat per day. The mini bus finally arrived to shuttle us down to the dock. We got to the dock at 7:45 and had to exchange our hand scribbled ticket for a more formal ticket. We just barely made it in time to run down the ramp to catch the boat. Shawn's hat flew out of is pack and, like a crazy scene from a movie, had to run back up the ramp to get it and just barely made it on board before the boat pulled away from the dock. The boat was not what I was expected. It was long and narrow like a submarine, and low to the water. In my mind I was thinking it would be more like a two-story ferry I'd traveled on in the US and Greece. When we first got on, I thought we would be stuck inside this stuffy boat with dimly tinted windows. Luckily we discovered you're allowed to go sit outside on the deck. There were no real railings along the side between you and the water. You had to hang onto the railing on top of the boat. We boosted ourselves up to enjoy the scenery as we went by. The homes that we saw along the river gave some good insight into how many people in Cambodia live. Their houses are on stilts. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters are out in boats catching fish. Naked children wave at us from the shore. Goats, cattle and water buffalo are everywhere eating what grass they can reach from their tethers. Some villages are floating houses, while others line the shoreline. They are all modest, patched together shacks that seem like they would let water in any time it rains. In contrast there are temple-like buildings with ornate gates and solid expensive-looking structures.
The boat was not what I expected for a ride up the river

The inside of the boat had tinted windows and was hard to see out

We were so happy when we realized we could sit up top

Livestock grazing on their tethers along the river

Local families fishing the river behind their house

Floating houses

Local boat on the Siem Reap River
Ornate temples are everywhere in Cambodia

Naked children waved to us as our boat passed their houses

Houses on stilts in the center of the river

-Cycling in a Small Village of Cambodia-
One day while staying in Siem Reap, Cambodia we rented bicycles (for $2/day). They are just your basic single speed rental bike that hadn't had a tune-up in a year, but it didn't matter, the city is flat which makes for easy riding. We rode our bikes along the river out of town. The farther away from town you get the more run down the houses are, and the less likely you'll find someone who knows English. We rode for about 7 miles and were near a stretch of houses that backed up to some lotus fields when Shawn's bike chain broke. Shawn is a bike mechanic, and with the right tools and parts he could fix it in about two minutes, however we didn't have a single tool. We started to think creatively. If the people around here can build their houses out of scrap wood, we can find a way to fix a bike chain. The street is filled with random trash, so we start scouring the side of the road for anything metal, like a paperclip or something to fix the chain. Soon the neighborhood kids came to see what we were doing. With no language in common they figured out what we were doing and started to help. We eventually found a piece of metal that might work and Shawn started fiddling with the chain. The kids gathered around to watch. It seemed to work at first, but after peddling a short ways the metal piece proved to not be strong enough to hold the chain. Two of the kids followed us on their bikes, they were still eager to help. While Shawn was fiddling more with the broken chain they kept coming over and pointing to a house and saying something that sounded important. Finally we followed them and realized they had found an old man who fixes bikes. He happily helped us, but only after laughing for several minutes over our patch job. He had the piece we needed to fix the chain and he went to work - still laughing. His adult son knew a few words of English and took the time to form a few basic questions as if he'd just started to learn the language. He asked us "Where are you from?" "Are you hungry" "How far did you ride".  They were very nice and we gave them two $1 America bills. That is about half a day's wage for an average worker in Cambodia.  
Bike chain broke
Village children come to see Shawn fix the chain

They all wanted to help

Found an old man who works on bikes and had the part

So happy to have a fixed chain

-The Night Bus Through Cambodia-
We opted to take the night bus from Siem Reap to the southern part of Cambodia and transfer there to go to Vietnam to eventually end up on Phu Quoc Island. This turned into the most memorable trip, and not in a good way. We got to the bus station with a ticket that had Phu Quoc scribbled on it (it seems like it's normal to have hand-scribbled tickets). We needed to do two transfers to get to Phu Quoc, but first we needed to take a 12hr night bus. It may have been an ok experience had it not been for something we ate earlier that day. The night bus is set up with rows of beds (not the most comfortable, but you can stretch out). There are two levels, like bunk beds. One side of the isle there are double beds, the other side single beds. We get on the bus and, protocol is to remove your shoes before entering and place them in a plastic bag. We get to our bunk and get settled, the pillow is dirty, the blankets are worn out fleece, the whole thing felt dirty. I brought my sleeping bag, so I used that instead. I laid down looking forward to a good night's sleep and then I felt it, the uneasy queezy feeling you get when something didn't settle right on your stomach. I managed to get a little bit of sleep early on, then I was suddenly awoken by a well meaning bus attendant who thought I needed to transfer to another bus. After showing him my ticket he confirmed with the driver and told me I would stay on this bus til 6AM. At this point the food poisoning was hitting Shawn pretty bad. I tried to calm him by saying it might be motion sickness, but I knew it couldn't be, he's been on boats for months at a time in rough seas and has never been sea sick. The biggest  problem - there are no bathrooms on the buses. You are at the mercy of the driver stopping maybe every two hours. What do you do? Shawn had fluid trying to exit his body in whatever way it could. We found a plastic bag for him to puke into - actually we ended up finding several plastic bags. That was not the end of it though, the other end was ready to explode and there was no telling when the next bathroom stop would be. And, on top of that, these bathroom in the middle of nowhere Cambodia are traditional Asian toilets where you squat and then use a hose to clean yourself off. I remembered I had a little bit of toilet paper in my bag for emergencies, and this was most definitely an emergency. Finally the bus driver stopped and announced "TOILET" to the whole bus. Shawn scrambled for his shoes and I found the TP. I don't know what went on in that stall, but Shawn said it wasn't pretty. He was thankful we had that little bit of toilet paper. And I was thankful my stomach was keeping everything down.
WARNING: When you ride the night bus through Cambodia, bring toilet paper and bring a plastic bag.   
We will get thru this night

Border Crossing
Crossing the border by bus was also something of an experience. We were in a van which they call a mini bus, the driver takes us to the border crossing and asks for our passports and $1. We hand them over and he heads into the building to start the process. We drive about 100yds further, he has us get out, grab out bags and head into another building. We still don't have our passports but fill out a few forms and wait. We wait and wait and wait. We don't know who has our passports, or if they are coming back, or if we will be stuck here in limbo forever. After about 20 minutes our driver points to another guy and says he will be your drive from here and take you from the Vietnam side of the border. We continue to wait for our passports to be stamped with no explanation. We try to ask the driver, but he has no answers for us. We wait another half hour and finally a 3rd guy comes out with a stack of passports. We all gather around him, it seems to be many mini buses have all converged here and they will hand out passports to all these people, maybe 30 or 40 of us are waiting and hoping ours is in this stack. We see two America passports in his hand and since there are very few American who travel here we expect they are ours. One by one he calls peoples names. He finally gets to ours, and we breath a sigh of relief. We follow our new driver to the van and somehow end up getting to the Ferry just in time for boarding.     

Everything Works Out in it's Own Time
Near the end of our trip we wanted to go from the beach town of Mui Ne to the bustling city of Saigon, we decided to take a 5hr bus to get there. We arranged it with our hotel, which seems to be the most reliable way to arrange transportation in these countries. They told us to walk across the street and wait for the bus there. They said it would arrive between 1:45 and 2:15. We walked across the street, and stood there looking for some indication of this being a bus stop. There was nothing. We asked a few people just to be sure, they all told us this is where the bus would pick us up. So we stood in front of a shop and next to an empty overgrown lot filled with trash and weeds. The sun was hot like it always is in this tropical country and we put sunscreen on to wait it out. Eventually the bus showed up at 2:15pm and we got on for our final big travel to the city of Saigon. 

The cities have a constant stream of traffic and noise. There is endless amounts of motorbikes, automobiles, bicycles and pedestrians. A few oversized tourist buses look out of place on these roads, but somehow they all seem to flow together. The constant beeb-beeb sound of the motorbikes and honking from the cars becomes normal, but by the end of my trip I was ready to get back to the quiet of the country side. Crossing a street in this kind of traffic flow seems nearly impossible. Our first instinct was to wait for a bit of an opening and then dash as quickly as we could to get across before getting hit. After observing the locals and how they navigated the roads, we started to get the hang of it. You can't expect to get across the entire road all at once. You look for just the smallest bit of opening in the lane nearest to you (I use the term "lane" loosely as no one really stays in lanes here). Once you're in the road, you stop and let the motos go around you until there is another opening, then you slowly walk across the next "lane" of traffic. By this time you may be able to hold up your hand to stop the oncoming cars and finish getting across the street. The important thing to remember is to be patient and predictable. Take it slow, and stop if you need to, but don't hesitate, they will go around you. There is not need to run, just slowly make your way across one bit of lane at a time.  

Everything in these countries seems to go at it's own pace. Nothing is really rushed or forced, although at times it seems slow and that you might be standing at the wrong bus stop, you always seem to end up where you intended to go and at the time you intended to be there.

Saigon traffic

Constant traffic makes it nearly impossible to cross the street
How do we cross this street?

Will this traffic ever end?

The traffic never stops

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