Southeast Asia Update #3 [Cambodia to Vietnam]
My previous post was written while Madison and I were already on another Giant Ibis bus to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. That previous post, however, only covered our journey up until the end of Siem Reap, Cambodia. This current post will cover the brief time we spent in both Phnom Penh and Saigon.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Our time in Phnom Penh, Cambodia was relatively uneventful compared to Bangkok and Siem Reap. The main reason for us going to Phnom Penh was to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, so we decided to only spend one full day there. From Siem Reap we hopped on a Giant Ibis bus and rode seven hours to Phnom Penh. On the final stretch of this ride, we drove across a giant bridge over the Tonle Sap River, a small branch off of the great Mekong River. While crossing this bridge we also glimpsed our first look at the city of Phnom Penh.
After being in Siem Reap for almost a week, the sight of Phnom Penh was a bit surprising with its level of development. It was a relatively small city but boasted many impressive skyscrapers including the row of riverside hotels lining both sides of the Tonle Sap River. On the east side of the river, at the tip of the small peninsula separating the Tonle Sap River from the Mekong, stood a large luxury hotel called Sokha Phnom Penh Hotel. We were to stay on the western bank of the river at a hotel called Nou’s River Hotel. Upon arriving at the bus station, the Tuk Tuk situation was the same as in Siem Reap. We were immediately bombarded with Tuk Tuk offers to take us to our next destination. Luckily our hotel was just a 20-minute walk from the bus station, so we dodged all of the Tuk Tuks and made our way. The concrete jungle of Phnom Penh was sadly much less charming than the red dirt roads and village vibes of Siem Reap. About five Tuk Tuks tried to offer us rides by the time we reached our hotel. Nou’s River Hotel ended up being a brand new hotel (only about three months old when we arrived) owned by a young, friendly Cambodian gentleman who happened to be working the front desk when we got there. He was excited to learn that we were from America. It turned out that he had lived in America for a few years before returning to Cambodia and founding this hotel. He was also thrilled to inform us that there was another pair of Americans staying there too. After checking in we rested at our room for a bit before tracking down some food, walking the riverfront after dark, then returning to our room for some sleep.
We woke up early the next morning and prepared for our one and only full day in Phnom Penh. After eating breakfast, we hailed a Tuk Tuk and rode to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, otherwise known as S-21. Cambodia has a very grim recent history involving mass genocide, much similar to (and soon after) the Holocaust. Roughly 40 years ago, an educated dictator by the name of Pol Pot rose to power forming the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Pol Pot believed that Cambodia should be an ethnically pure country ruled by the peasant class. He set out to rural areas of the country and recruited farmers to join the armed hand of his party. These soldiers came to be known as the Khmer Rouge, and that name alone is strongly associated with evil and violence today. Towards the end of the Vietnam War, Pol Pot and the CPP were finally able to take control of Phnom Penh. They immediately began herding people who didn’t have clear allegiance to the CPP to concentration camps all over the country. Thousands died during this evacuation effort. One such concentration camp was located within the city at an abandoned high school called Tuol Sleng, or later, S-21. Tens of thousands of people died via torture, starvation, and outright execution (see: Killing Fields) at S-21 over the four-year course of the Khmer Rouge’s reign. Tuol Sleng was only one out of hundreds of these prisons. The Khmer Rouge eventually murdered almost two million Cambodians, 25% of the population at the time — including some foreigners — in the four short years that they ruled. This recent, bloody history has left a deep imprint on Cambodia, and in fact, former members of the Khmer Rouge are in high political positions of power today. Madison and I learned all of this and more during our two-hour audio tour of the Genocide Museum. We left the museum with a sour taste in our mouths, and it was hard to get back in the happy-go-lucky mentality we had coming into our trip. Seeing the faces of all the innocent and ordinary victims at the museum made us realize how easy it is to just be in the wrong place at the wrong time in history. We left extremely grateful to have grown up in a time of relative peace back home. Thankfully, with events like the Holocaust and Cambodian Genocide so prominent in our memories, it’s hard to imagine something like that happening again in our lifetimes.
The rest of our day after the Genocide Museum was spent exploring the city in the hot sun. We discovered a few cool city landmarks such as the Royal Palace, Independence Monument, and Wat Phnom. At night we found a nice Cambodian restaurant owned by a woman and her husband. After our meal, we talked briefly with the woman who told us all about her inspiring story of growing up on a poor farm, going to school (against her family’s wishes) to learn English and German, and eventually starting a restaurant business with her husband. The next day we ate breakfast, packed up and set off on another Giant Ibis bus to Saigon, Vietnam. Another day, another country.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam
Depending on who you speak to or where you are, you will hear this city referred to as either Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City. The city’s name was changed from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City towards the end of the Vietnam War. I usually just call it Saigon because it’s quicker off the tongue.
As soon as we arrived at the city the first thing we noticed was the lack of Tuk Tuks. We later realized that Tuk Tuks were non-existent in Vietnam. A few taxi drivers hassled us when we got off the Giant Ibis bus, but it was nowhere near as persistent as the Tuk Tuk situation in Cambodia. Saigon was actually a far cry from the Cambodian cities in many respects. It exceeded Bangkok in size and population but not so much in extravagance… Bangkok was just a little more showy with its many brilliantly lit skyscrapers. Still, Saigon oozes with modernity and prosperity. Unfortunately, like with Phnom Penh, our short time in Saigon was a bit uneventful; we were really just passing through for a couple of nights before heading to the coastal cities. We did consider doing one of the popular Mekong River tours but by the time we decided to book one they were unavailable. Instead, we hung out at our hotel and the surrounding area known as District 1. Our hotel had an amazing rooftop pool with a panoramic view of the city and we spent most of our time there drinking mojitos. Every once in a while we’d head out into the city for some food. One of the restaurants we ate at — Saigon Vegan — was where we had our first authentic Vietnamese pho, and it was the best we’ve ever had!
First impressions of Saigon were great. If we have the chance we’ll definitely return there, explore the massive city more, and book some of the super fun-looking tours in the area. But for now, we are having an incredible time at the Vietnam coast. I’m currently writing this post from the rooftop of our hotel in Da Nang. My next post will cover our time in the coastal cities of Nha Trang, Da Nang, and Hoi An.