Not nearly long enough in Cambodia (VN visa run)

by Ben Bangs, Nov 24, 2002 | Destinations: Cambodia / Phnom Penh

If you ever find your visa about to expire someplace and want to make the most of a side trip to a neighboring country, DON'T do as I did May 1999 in Sai Gon, DON'T 'just' take the backpacker's bus to Phnon Penh, get tired of the sleaziness right away, then return to Sai Gon by day three. This is how it happened. I knew I'd have to pay more than usual for my second visa extension (usually these get more expensive the more successive times you do them), so I thought I'd do Angkor instead of just hanging around Pham Ngu Lao. The bus leaves Sinh Cafe after breakfast and gets to the Capitol Guesthouse in PP in time for dinner. The day trip is a gorgeous romp through the cliche emerald green rice paddies as far as the eye can see -- with this interesting touch of local botany: the "cay thot not", or Cambodian sugar palm. These really do look like cheap, upturned brooms, being more contained on top than the more graceful Vietnamese coconut palms and bannana trees. The Cambodians have a simple way of knowing which territory's supposed to be theirs: They say wherever you see things, that was their land, and the Vietnamese swallowed it up! There are two ferries along the route, where the cutest kids you could ever hope to see will dive bomb you relentlessly with truly COLD Cokes for less than you'd pay across the border (about fifty cents, it works out to). Try to do your bathroom business before you leave in the morning as the fly-infested "restaurant" you stop at once everyone's been cleared into Cambodia probably doesn't have one -- and you definitely wouldn't want to use it even if it did! Also, remember to wear shoes (preferably hiking boots) you don't care about getting lots of mud on; you'll walk between border posts in the hot sun (or the pouring rain) to get stamped into Cambodia at a lonely lemmonade stall-type outpost. You do this trek with all your gear, for you are changing busses here, probably from a comfortable, Greyhound-style forty-eight seater to one of the Toyota minibuses-cum-Coke can which, in an accident will pancake, taking you with it. This is why the price of the trip is so dirt cheap: You only spend the two hours it takes to get from Sai Gon to Tay Ninh on the bigger bus! When you get to PP, don't be in a rush (as I and many of my cramped companions were by this time) to get to the Vietnamese embassy just as they close their doors, thinking how great it'll be to have visa in hand the next afternoon. You'll pay MUCH more for this, and you did come to Cambodia to actually see something of it, didn't you? Pay no attention therefore to the US dollar prices you'll be charged at the Capitol (or any other place in town), the cramped, unromantically named streets (St. 101 just doesn't have the royal ring of, say: Monivong Blvd) or the fact that there are no street lights, so the whole town calls it a night at 5:30 except for the street walkers, some of whom are seriously under age and many of whom doubtless carry AIDS. Pay no attention to the blandness of the food you'll be served factory style inside the overcrouded and classless Capitol dining room. I promise there's more to Cambodia than this! It's true that you only need one good day to do Phnon Penh -- including the nearest killing fields (at Cheuong Ek). If at the end of that day you have your new Vietnamese visa, the pathetic state of the capital can easily get your spirits down to the point where the next morning you'll be eager to do the return trip. Don't do it! If I had it all to do again, this is what I would do: 1. Take the bus from Sai Gon for the sheer beauty and novelty of country hopping overland to Cambodia, which has only been safe these past few years. You can also do this from Bangkok via Aranyapratet/Poi Phet over a crumbling bridge, or even by sea via Ko Kong. Again, the historical value of being able to do this trip alone makes it worth it not to fly. 2. Instead of "doing" Phnon Penh on day two, I'd arrange onward transport to Siem Riep for Angkor -- probably by boat on day three. You could fly, but again, you came to SEE this country, remember? I'd hit the Vietnamese (or Thai) embassy first thing, book my passage next, then rent a bike and explore PP on my own. When the sun goes down, I'd head someplace to drown my disgust with a cute Phnon Penoix (pick one who looks at least twenty) on my arm, but no closer than that, no matter how badly you're tempted. 3. On the third day I'd go to Siem Riep by whatever means I'd arranged the day before (probably the boat), find a nice hotel and check in, buy my Angkor tix, then rent a bike... 4. Not being a huge arcitecture fan myself, I'd plan to do Angkor in one (very busy) day, bringing plenty of water and a Khmer guide with some English I'd interviewed and hired the day before -- a kid with a working bike and some street smarts to keep us out of trouble. Ticket prices go up steeply the more days you plan to be at it, but if you're a building or sculpture buff, this is one of the true highlights of SE Asia -- a place you do NOT want to skimp on. Bring along a book such as: Angkor: A Guide to the Temples which, thoughtfully, you have splurged on in your home country where it comes in color. Bring a camera and plenty of film. Practice your technique in natural light way ahead of time so you'll know what to do without thinking about it out at the temples. You're going to be very hot: Bring along AT LEAST four liters of water PER PERSON. Pay no attention to the gaudy Malaysian-backed joint venture (complete with laser light show) which may be in operation as you read this. Plan to spend the whole day out at the temples, then go back to town as sunset turns into real night (You still occasionally hear about kidnappings in this area) and get a good night's sleep before either doing it again, or... 5. ...going onward to Sianoukville for a day of beach fun. 6. Finally, return to the capital to retrieve your Vietnamese (or Thai, or whatever) visa. Arrange to FLY wherever you're going, even back to Sai Gon as it won't cost that much, but the trip you just took in reverse won't be any more interesting than it was the first time! Of course, if you're doing the grand mainland SE Asia tour, you should be shooting right through Cambodia entirely by land, entering from one side, and exiting from the other. This would be more convenient if you could somehow arrange for your passport to be dropped off in one city and picked up in the next, i.e. drop it in Siem Riep and pick up in PP. This presumes there's a consulate in Siem Riep which will issue visas to the place you're headed to next, or that you're going the other direction and can work something out with the authorities in PP so that they forward your passport by some secure means (an oxymoron in Cambodia, be CAREFUL!). Backtracking will probably be necessary, at least it's a small country. There's one more detail you must attend to before entering Cambodia: getting enough actual cash (in US dollars) into your hot little hands FOR YOUR ENTIRE STAY IN THE KINGDOM. This is what clenched my plans to go right back to Sai Gon: the sticker shock of the prices you'll pay here, combined with wondering just when I might next see one of those modern conveniences everybody likes to bash but nobody can do without these days: an ATM. It turns out I was right to listen to my instincts. Had I done last time what I advocate here, I would have run out of money in Siem Riep and been in real trouble, for as I write this I understand there may still only be one lonely ATM in the whole country -- in PP, of course, and not even connected to the international settlement networks. Thus if you ignore this advice you will either have to change traveller's checks for whatever misserable exchange you can get or hope to "hitch" across some border! You'll give everyone dollars and get back crumpled, ripped, faded and dusty riel in return; use these for drinks and snacks -- and for souviners; they are worth exactly zip outside Cambodia. Again, pay no attention to the sticker shock. Remember: Backpackers didn't make up the backbone of this place's economy in the 80s and 90s, aid workers did. Thank them for having to overpay for everything, and make sure to get REAL UNESCO tickets to Angkor; rumors of counterfeits circulate a lot, but even if you could sneak into Angkor with one, don't you think this is one of the few World Heritage Sites that really deserves the money for restoration? Pay no attention to the (hopefully groundless) rumors that most of the funds get misappropriated, and never reach the restoration fund. All in all, Cambodia is a beautiful country with graceful people who've been through a hell of a lot recently. Go prepared, but make sure to really GO! It's more than a pit stop, more (MUCH more) than a visa run.