Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Day 4 - More of Phnom Penh

Woke up at 6 again - but I guess this isn't a bad thing if you want to get an early start to the day. I got another tuk tuk driver for the remaining half-day I was in Phnom Penh and told him to take me to a travel agency that had offered to arrange my Vietnamese visa within five hours. But he took me to a slightly cheaper place that got it done even quicker. Ah, the end of my visa woes - I was ignorant enough not to realize I couldn't get a visa on arrival until a week before I left Japan, and there wasn't enough time for me to mail it to the Vietnamese embassy in Japan. You can get a sort of prepared visa if you apply online and fly into one of the main airports, but I was going by road on a bus. The easiest and cheapest way to get a Vietnamese 15-day tourist visa is to apply for one in Cambodia - you can turn it in at 8:30 and get it back by 6 on a weekday for $45. But I realized I would get to Siem Reap late Friday night (which doesn't have an embassy in the city so it takes longer here) and not get to Phnom Penh until a Sunday when the embassy is closed, leaving me only Monday morning. Since I was leaving on a 2 pm bus on a Monday to HCMC, I had to pay $75 for a 30-day visa because that's the only one you can get rush, but still a lot cheaper and faster than the $100 I would have to pay in the U.S. Even before I left Japan, the airline agents stalled to give me my boarding tickets after learning I didn't have a Vietnamese visa and told me they weren't responsible if I got stuck in Cambodia. They say a U.S. passport is one of the best in the world, but I still have to pay for visas in every country I'm going to on this trip... (not to mention China if I wasn't just a transit, but I won't rant here).

Anyways, I went to the Royal Palace as planned, but there was a Buddhist ceremony going on, so only the Silver Pagoda was open for a while. The main building houses a ton of gold Buddhas with stupas and shrubs dotting around it.

Silver Pagoda

I kept going to the gate of the Royal Palace to ask if the ceremony was over, but they kept telling me one more hour. Well, such is life ... they did open up the Royal Palace an hour and a half later so I got to take some pics. But I was a little disappointed you couldn't see anything but the main courtyard - I've been to the Grand Palace in Bangkok and there's a lot more ground you can see there. They also say the Royal Palace's architecture is a lot more coherent than the gaudiness of the Grand Palace, but I think I prefer the outrageousness of the Grand Palace. Still, I was glad I got into the Royal Palace and the architecture was awesome.

Royal Palace

Since I still had some time to kill, I had my driver take me to Wat Ounalom and Central Market. It's basically a huge dome with the jewelers in the middle and aisles of electronics, clothing, souvenirs, kitchenware, and anything else you can think of branching out from it. I ate some noodles at one of the food stalls (I don't know any Khmer so all I could say was noodles), but I think the lady charged me extra because I was a tourist (although it was still pretty cheap). Note to self - decide on a price before eating. Also, I kept seeing these Starbucks logo shirts in the clothing stalls - how is this fashion? And strangely enough, I hadn't seen any Starbucks while I was Phnom Penh, although I saw KFC, DQ, and a lot of other brands.

Starbucks trend?

$12 Beats - too good to be true

I waited for Mekong Express to pick me up at my hostel, but I started getting a little worried when they didn't show up after 10, 20, 30 minutes the time they said they would come. I was about to ask a tuk tuk to just take me to the bus station, but suddenly the bus rolled up right on time.

The bus from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh takes about 6 hours with a ferry crossing at Neak Loeung and of course, customs and visa procedures at the border. Unfortunately, our bus had technical problems halfway, so we were delayed an hour and a half as we changed buses at the border. The border process also took a while, as there were busloads of people being called up individually through a stack of passports. As we got back on a bus and crossed into Vietnam, I asked the bus attendant if I could call my friend who I was staying with in HCMC on his phone, and he was kind enough to get another attendant's phone.

My friend's brother picked me up on his motorbike while it was drizzling quite a bit in HCMC. It was my first time on a motorbike, and I must say - it was AMAZING. The streets of HCMC are even crazier than Phnom Penh -  most people drive motorbikes as it's really too crowded for a car, although there are the persistent few. We zipped past bustling streets with neon signs, food stalls, as well as familiar places like Pizza Hut. I always wondered how other people on the back of motorbikes sat without falling off, but now that I've been on one, I find it's not too hard to balance yourself on it. I seriously want to rent one somewhere while I'm SE Asia, but given my terrible driving record in the U.S., I think it's best if I don't.
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