November - December, 2019
17 days in Ho Chi Minh City, Siem Reap (Angkor Wat), Phnom Penh
Asia, exotic land of dragons and chopsticks, noodles, and strange fruits.
I have been many times to Bali, Borneo, China, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand and my fascination only increases.
Here is yet one more installment of my adventures and discoveries in those faraway lands.
LOW, LOW PRICES
One thing I love about traveling in Asia: Cheap, cheap prices especially for camera and computer stuff.
I bought camera memory cards ($8 for 16 Gigs), a flashdrive ($8 for 32 GB), and USB lamps (for gifts, 85˘ each).
My most expensive meal was a $16 dinner; it was hard to spend a lot on food, and I tried. I had crab several times, even lobster.
Motorcycle taxis and tuk-tuks were $2 or $3 almost anywhere in town.
CRAZY TRAFFIC IN HCMC
There are swarms of motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City.
A tour bus narrator said the population is 10 million and there are 8.5 million registered motorcycles.
(In my week's stay in HCMC, I saw 7 bicycles; it's just too hot to peddle.)
With all those motorcycles, traffic is crazy!
But I must say, motorcycle taxis are a terrific solution in a city straining at the seams fast, cheap, fun (with helmet, too).
There is no parking on the main streets.
HOW TO KILL A TOOTHBRUSH
On the topic of electricity, Vietnam and Cambodia use two-prong plugs, compatible with the U.S.,
but they use 220 volt current compared to our 110v.
Most cameras and computers are rated for either 110 or 220v
so my Sony camera and Amazon Fire tablet computer were fine but I forgot to check my Sonicare electric toothbrush.
Ever wonder what happens when you plug a 110 volt appliance into a 220v electrical outlet?
A quiet death. Never again to light, or make a sound.
That's what happened to my electric toothbrush. Sigh. Beware.
I don't get many chances to eat lobster, so I thought this was a good opportunity.
I found Sonovid seafood restaurant in Google Maps, and after a short $2 tuk-tuk ride,
was seated at an open air restaurant equipped with an aquarium on the side,
surrounded by large buckets full of squirming crab, shrimp, and fish.
With some language difficulty, the waiter told me the prices:
I ordered a lobster, half a kilo, steamed with garlic.
I'm sorry to say, what I got was not one lobster but three small lobsters, heaped with garlic.
This is not as nice as one lobster, the tail being rather important.
Frankly, it was a disappointment, but I made do.
- Lobster: $25/kilogram
- Sea crab: $20/kilogram
Along the way, I ordered a Fanta orange soda. Yes, with my lobster (choices are sometimes narrow overseas).
It arrived warm, but unopened, so I felt no qualms about rejecting it.
(I did have a bucket of ice, but was not prepared to drink the ice water, fearing it might not have been filtered.)
Somehow, I communicated how important 'cold' was, so I soon got a cold soft drink: Fruit punch.
This actually was quite okay with me (my tastes tend toward fruity and non-carbonated),
but when I poured it, I encountered what I think must be a cultural difference:
It was not red fruit punch, but green!
It was, nevertheless, palatable, though I would not recommend it with lobster.
Travel is so broadening.
BENEFITS OF LIVING IN THE USA
Travel to foreign lands refreshes one's opinion of the good ol' USA.
In Vietnam, most streets are in poor repair;
uneven sidewalks, broken curbs, and potholes in the road.
It was not uncommon to find a 2 or 3" drop in a hotel hallway,
even more walking along a sidewalk where properties adjoin.
In Ho Chi Minh City, the main tourist site (the War Remnants Museum) is not handicap-accessible, surrounded by stairs and without elevators or escalators.
I slipped on a steep grade on a public sidewalk in the Mercado in Mexico City.
The rest of the world has few public benches and trash cans.
I've come to realize that we get something for those taxes we pay Uncle Sam.
SOUTH MORE LGBT FRIENDLY
Our (probably gay) bus tour guide made an interesting cultural comment about the historical development of Vietnam.
He suggested that the North (Hanoi) was more conservative due to 150 years of stability and less gay-friendly.
The South (HCMC) was more flexible and thus more gay-friendly because it had had to endure invasions by outsiders (first the French, then the Americans).
DEALING WITH THE HEAT
It is very hot in this part of the world.
It frequently hit 92°F 87°F was a cool day.
Here are a few tips on how to stay cool:
- Don't walk, taxi
- Wear shorts with pockets roomy enough to carry a small water bottle
- Avoid outdoor or exerting activities in the afternoon
- Carry a handkercheif or rolled washcloth to mop your brow when it's hot
- Wet a washcloth or hand towel then wring it out. As it dries, it will cool due to the miracle of evaporation. In 20 minutes, you'll have a cold face wipe.
- Shop in enclosed markets with A/C rather than outdoor markets. Similarly, dine in A/C comfort rather than al fresco.
- Buy iced or refrigerated cold beverages
- Wear loose short sleeve shirts
- Don't bring a jacket to hot climes easy to lose and it takes up space, burdensome to carry, and you can buy one there (souvenir)
- Carry a sun hat
- When you pause walking, try to do it in the shade
READY, AIM, FIRE
When I arrived in Siem Reap (near Angkor Wat), I engaged a fixed rate taxi ($10) from a booth at the airport.
On the way to my hotel, the driver convinced me to engage him for $40 a day.
I had heard you can shoot any weapon you choose in Cambodia, so I was not surprised when he showed me a photo array of 'Things to do' which included a shooting gallery.
It seemed like a fun idea, so the next day after a pleasant drive in the country, we passed the army base as we arrived at RN Shooting Range, a half-hour drive out of Siem Reap.
Oddly, they had no brochure and said there was no website or email address.
I was shown a menu of pistols, rifles, and machine guns.
I chose the M16, the iconic American infantry weapon of the Vietnam War (they call it the American War). For $60, I shot 30 rounds, much of it on ‘full auto’.
I have no experience with guns, so I was impressed by the loud report, the smell of the cordite, the lack of recoil, and the puff of dust as each bullet hit the target and – mostly – the wall.
BEST TRAVEL SOLUTIONS
Every experience teaches lessons. My trip to Vietnam+Cambodia was no exception.
These are my favorite tips revealed by this trip.
- Shoe inserts (gel soles) make sure you get coverage of the ball of the foot (thank you Dr. Scholl's!)
- Pre-arranged taxi (from airport to hotel) to speed and smooth exiting the airport.
You can stroll past baggage claim and see your name on a welcoming sign;
they'll know your (hotel) destination, and you won't need any cash to pay.
HolidayTaxis is one company that will contact you at the end of the process of booking your hotel online.
Reduce stress, leave the ATM for later. Recommended.
- Spiral-bound notepad, 3.5" x 5.5", lined I like the Mead "Five Star" College Ruled Notebook which I bought at Target. Clip a pen in the spiral, optionally add a rubber band.
- Mobile Internet access for hotel, restaurant, and tourist site research
- Your hotel's reception desk or concierge even better than the Internet for restaurant recommendations, directions, and Q&A
- Spray-on sunscreen
- Hydrocortisone anti-itch ointment (bug bites!)
NOTES ON TRAVEL TIMING
- There is no reason to queue up for boarding (if you have a reserved seat), unless you will be in competition for bin space
- A night flight will help you sleep
- Schedule arrival/departure times to avoid commute hours so the taxi to/from airport is minutes, not hours
- Avoid problems and stress by allowing an extra hour to get to the airport
- Morning hours are cooler
- In country, go early to hit a travel agent or your hotel's tour desk to schedule next-day tours that is, plan ahead and allow lead time
Circle K and small modern shops with names like "Mini-Mart" were everywhere, and a good source of cold beverages.
When I entered one in Phnom Penh, I found it mobbed by a bunch of Aussie teenage girls, on a school trip, they said.
(Due to the proximity, it's common to encounter Australian tourists in Asia.)
When they saw my dilemma, at the end of a long line to the cashier, one shouted "Make way" and they let me go ahead to the front of the line.
I promised to visit Australia soon.
DEAD DATA ON THE WEB
An alarming problem is growing on the web.
Twice, obsolete Google Maps entries required abrupt changes to my dinner plans, complicating my vacation.
The restaurants had apparently gone out of business.
And an entire shopping mall had closed in Phnom Penh, despite a guidebook description and Google Maps entry.
Recommended: Avoid problems by double checking locations you plan to visit based on potentially outdated web sites, Internet searches, and Google Maps.
Before going, check stores and restaurants for recent reviews, ask your hotel reception desk (concierge), or telephone to confirm location and hours.
A dose of skepticism can improve your use of web resources.
THE CRIME REPORT
Italy still takes the cake as the tourist location where I encountered the most crime.
I have found Asia to be quite an honest place.
For example, at an outdoor market in Phnom Penh, I was called back to receive my change.
(That preserved egg was not the $1 that I offered, but only 30 cents.)
On my last day, I forgot to ask the price as I got in my A/C cab to the airport
I guessed it would be $20 or $30, but the driver asked for ... $14!
But I do have a story worth telling:
(Note: You don't need local currency in Cambodia the Riel; all goods are priced and sold in US dollars.)
I wanted to test the new U.S. $100 bills, so I offered one to a money-changer (near the Old Market in Siem Reap), he said he'd give only $95 in value because it had infinitesimal wrinkles.
I refused, took back my bill, and walked on.
Several days later, on my last day in Phnom Penh, I took a $3 tuk-tuk ride to the Nagaworld casino.
I presented my $100 bill at the cashier window, and that's when the trouble started.
The cashiers looked at each other, ran the bill through a machine, made a phone call, asked if I wanted cash or chips ...
After a wait of several minutes, a man in a black suit with a wire coil in his ear appeared at my side.
"Please come with me." Very politely, he ushered me to a back office. He walked ahead, leading the way, but kept looking back sideways to make sure I was following.
We went through double doors into an industrial back corridor. I became a bit concerned as the music and sounds of the casino faded.
We entered a room that was half office and half computer-room, a dozen computers in racks, walls covered with monitors showing camera views of the casino.
A chair was pulled into an unfriendly position.
"Please sit." We waited while, one by one, several other men (and one woman) in suits arrived.
"Please empty your pockets." They scrutinized the rest of my cash and photocopied my drivers license and the copy of my passport I carry.
"May I search you?" He poked my pockets and found the rolled-up washcloth I carry in hot climes to mop my brown.
I dumped it on the desk.
I waited for the bright lights and rubber hose to come out.
Finally, one of them said we were waiting for the boss me, four smiling men, and a woman.
One wall was a bulletin board headed "BARRED" and covered with notices complete with photos of people who were not smiling.
After several minutes, the boss arrived.
He looked at everything and pointed out to me that my $100 bill actually had the word COPY on it!
(I've concluded it was a color copy of a counterfeit specimen, probably circulated by law enforcement.)
That Siem Reap money-changer conned me! He must have swapped bills while he examined it.
He took me for $100! Ouch. I'll bet he works that scam daily.
The casino gave me a warning, but allowed me to gamble with the rest of my cash.
I broke even playing blackjack, but came home with an interesting story.
The entire time, the security officers smiled and were very nice. But they took my $100 bill.
And they photographed me. I am probably on a warning list in Cambodia and they will be concerned if I ever show up again to gamble.
(In a very strange side-note, during the wait, I had a thorough look around the security office and saw a notice posted on the side of a cabinet near me.
It was at eye level and in English, so I could read it. I remember what it said:
"Since the new installation, the audio alerts do not function." Huh?!)
- My multi-tool (with a small blade) somehow got into my carry-on and they took it at security.
- I sometimes foolishly bargained hard over trivial amounts of money distracted by all those zeroes. $1 is roughly 23,000 dong.
- I handled cash (for taxi, etc.), then licked my fingers eating (crab ...).
- Take only perfect US dollar bills (no tears, folds); my $100 bill was refused due to wrinkles it was hard for me to see.
- The cloth lanyard I wore around my neck to hold my camera at-the-ready had a metal clasp which rusted in the perspiration and 89% humidity staining my shirt.
- I was lucky my shorts covered my knees. Women especially are often refused entrance to temples if they wear shorts that don't, or if their shoulders are exposed.
- Better planning would have saved me some money I ended up buying two one-day tickets to the Angkor Wat temple complex vs. a 3-day pass and saved a trip to the ticket office.
- I knew I had traveled to the edge of the world when I learned there is no Google Translate for Cambodian (Khmer)
- Airfare was only $983 SF-HCMC-Siem Reap-Phnom Penh-SF on Cathay Pacific and Cambodia Angkor Air
- Free wi-fi in hotels
- Breakfast buffets many have omelette chefs! And I really enjoy fresh sliced fruit, fruit juices (pineapple, watermelon, OJ)
- Air conditioning!
- Shooting an M16 machine gun it's a guy thing
- Boat ride on the Mekong River
- Shopping at the huge Central Market in Phnom Penh
- Walking shorts (must be below the knee for many temples, palaces, and casinos)
- Pepto-Bismal for diarrhea prevention
- Hop-on, hop-off bus tours (free wi-fi)
- Hotels that provide 2 bottles of water each day
- ATMs in Cambodia, unlike any other foreign destination I know, dispense U.S. dollars. I used ATMs in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh and received U.S. dollar bills, rather than Riels (the local currency).
- Most fun: tuk-tuk rides (cheap, cool, and easy on the feet)
- There is no sales tax.
- Hot chili sauce in various flavors is a universal condiment in Asia
- My favorite SE Asian fruits: mangosteen and rambutan also pomelo, jack fruit, dragon fruit, and mango.
- My favorite cold drink: lychee sweet nectar! and chocolate soy milk (real milk is rare in a population that is largely lactose intolerant)
- In Vietnam, with its French influence, I enjoyed snails and banh mi (spicy meat sandwiches on a baguette often with paté). And with such long coast lines, I ate seafood every day: lobster, crab, shrimp, scallops, squid, cuttlefish and amok the Cambodian signature fish.
- Best meal: Surprisingly, poutine along with pumpkin soup (and watermelon juice to drink) on 178th Street in Phnom Penh
- My favorite meal was chosen from a glass display case, and my appetite was excited by the array of delicious choices. I chose a couple of huge shrimp, tender pork belly (attached to a 1" slab of fat!) with hard-boiled egg, and stuffed cuttlefish $11.25
- Curry, Indian and Khmer
- Eel in a countryside restaurant in Siem Reap
- Vietnam and Cambodia vie with Thailand for the variety and quality of street food. Many restaurants offered Indian food. I like quail eggs, meat-on-a-stick
- Losing 4 pounds due to the walking, the heat, and a discombobulated eating/sleeping cycle upon my return
- My trip got off on a bad foot when, an hour before leaving, SuperShuttle called to cancel my pickup. I have since read that they are going out of business leaving only Airport Express dominating the shuttle business in San Francisco. Apparently, Uber and Lyft offer stiff competition.
- Half-hour wait for a visa in HCMC; then another half-hour wait at Passport Control
- Frequent, brief power failures in Siem Reap
- Mosquitos in my Siem Reap hotel room (despite asking them twice to spray)
- Bug bites in Phnom Penh (all those open air tuk-tuk rides)
- Almost forgetting a bag of souvenirs in the WC in Phnom Penh airport
- Being charged $1 for a wetnap at restaurants a common scam
- No Cambodian (Khmer) in Google Translate
- Being interrogated in the Phnom Penh casino (Nagaworld) when my $100 bill turned out to be a counterfeit!
- One night I bought a beautiful dragon fruit on the street and cut and ate it for dessert in my room.
They are lovely purple/red and green outside, with white flesh inside, specked with small black seeds.
At bedtime, I was alarmed to see what I thought were bed bugs on my hand black, shiny, oval, tiny.
But they didn't move, or have legs.
Foolish me. They were just dragon fruit seeds.
- There are a lot of pharmacies in Siem Reap. Much of society gets its health care through them. It is considered a sign of high status to have a doctor.
- All gas stations are full service.
- Face masks are worn by many drivers and pedestrians, presumably to filter pollutants.
- Driving through the countryside, I noticed many houses on stilts (because the river floods) and gasoline is sold in old Coke bottles.
- Signs in Cambodian airports barred "15-inch Macbook Pro - mid-2015" in carry-ons.
- A sign at the check-in desk offered a 15% discount for direct booking at my beautiful, well-located (somewhat new) hotel in Phnom Penh (Okay Boutique Hotel).
- My hotel had no 13th floor (top floor pool on 14, just above 12).
- It was clear that one was to remove shoes prior to entering the dining area there was a pile of shoes spilling over from a rack at the entryway. Diners wandered the buffet in stocking feet.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam:
Siem Reap, Cambodia:
- $21 - Open air dinner of crab+corn chowder and a plate of snails
- $0.60 - Motorcycle taxi back to hotel
- $8.60 - 16 Gig camera memory card (speed 48K)*
- $2.15 - Wooden hand fan
- $2.60 - Admission to one of the main attractions (War Remnants Museum)
- $15 - Hop-on hop-off tour bus (free wi-fi)
- $2.55 - Lunch in a food court (A/C!): Banh canh cua (crab soup plus shrimp and quail eggs) yum.
- $20.65 - 2 "Saigon" T-shirts (I should have bargained harder!)
- $8.60 - Leather wallet
- $3.44 - Grapefruit sections
- $6.88 - 16 Gig camera memory card (speed 48K)*
- $3.35 - Dinner of pho, spring rolls, and Fanta (A/C)
- $1.30 - Dinner of Bun cha ca (fish soup with noodles and crab loaf) - open air
- $2.58 - 3 USB lamps
- $9.46 - 32 Gig flash drive
- $2.15 - Dried pineapple slices, about 1 cup
- $30 - All-day Mekong boat trip (+ A/C bus) tour, including lunch
Phnom Penh, Cambodia:
- $16 - Dinner of duck curry soup and amok (local fish) in gravy in Siem Reap (with A/C!)
- $17 - Dinner of fresh spring rolls, Tom Kha soup with shrimp and tomatoes, grilled pork ribs, pineapple juice, and 2.5 liter water - open air
- $21 - My driver steered me to an expensive restaurant in the countryside.
The meal was excellent: Avocado shake (nutty taste, sipped through a bamboo straw), deep fried spring rolls, aubergine (eggplant with tofu, onions and garlic), Curry Moan (roasted chicken in red curry) (no A/C)
- $5 - Short sleeve straight-collar shirt (bought another later for 86 cents!)
- $3 - Natural fiber clutch purse with elephant design with string
- $1 - Black hand fan, highly decorated
- $5 - Black scarf with gold threads
- $15.10 - Lunch in an Indian restaurant: Saag, and prawns tika (spicy fried shrimp), both excellent (power failure: no A/C!)
- $4 - Tube of Hydrocortisone 1% cream, 15 grams (anti-itch)
- $14.70 - Excellent Indian lunch at "Spicy Asian and Western Restaurant" on 178th Street,
near my hotel: Prawns tika, mutton curry, saffron rice, pineapple juice. (A/C!)
- $8.50 - Lunch at an open air restaurant, $3 shrimp dumplings (with raw shaved garlic), $4.50 noodle soup with boneless duck, $1 Fanta orange soda and an array of condiments including hot chili sauce and fish sauce.
- $7 - Seafood lunch at an open air restaurant, crab with black pepper and fabulous bell peppers, a plate of (tiny) grilled oysters, rice, 2 cans of lychee drink.
When I ordered, I pointed at the English word 'large'; but I did not get a large crab, I got two small crabs.
- $8.15 - Dinner at David's Homemade Noodles: $2.75 fried pork dumplings, $3.50 fresh noodle soup with shrimp dumplings, $1.90 pineapple juice.
(I enjoyed the side-show of noodles being made and stretched for my dinner.) - open air
- $10 - Admission to the National Museum
- $14 - Open air dinner: $7.50 Hungarian goulash topped with a fried egg, $5.50 smoky delicious eggplant dip with garlic and coriander, jasmine rice, free ice water! The dip was fabulous.
- $8.75 - Lunch at Golden Home on 178th Street: $3 creamy pumpkin soup, $3.75 poutine, $2 watermelon juice - open air
- $7 - Crab dinner a block from my hotel: $3 crab with black pepper sauce and bell peppers, $3 BBQ shrimp, $1 orange Fanta.
- open air + bug bites!
- $10 - Ho hum lunch at Kabbas on 178th Street, near my hotel: $3.50 excellent fried shrimp, $3.50 curry with pork (ordinary), $0.50 rice, $2 pineapple juice, $0.50 bottled water. - open air
- $16.50 - Fabulous Indian dinner at Punjabi Kitchen on 178th Street, $4.50 tandouri chicken, $3 egg curry, $6 Mutton Roganjosh, $3 vegetable pulao (rice) - open air
- $10 - Lunch at seafood restaurant Tipsy: $3.75 spicy baby octopus, $3 scallops in shell, $3.25 grilled squid - open air at the Aeon Mall. No English menu.
Happy travels, and many exotic meals!