Leaving our Ho Chi Minh hostel, we were slightly in awe that we were moving onto yet another country. Our bus was booked by our hostel which is always a bit of pot luck on what you’ll get.
Thankfully for us, luck was on our side and our bus had large, comfy seats, AC, free water, hand towels and non stop Vietnamese music videos (winning).
We paid our conductor the visa fee for the Cambodian border and somewhat reluctantly handed over our passports to kept by the conductor until the border crossing. As our first land crossing, we were expecting the worst but were pleasantly surprised by the calm, small building in which all bus conductors were handing over piles of passports for customs officials to slowly work their way through. With locals taking priority, we had to wait a little longer than most but quickly had our visas, were $70 down and on our way to Phom Penh.
Phnom Penh was a kind of an inbetween city for us. The Capital of Cambodia, it’s actually not that popular with tourists with most travellers preferring Siem Reap. That being said, with Phnom Penh being a quick 6 hour bus ride from Ho Chi Minh, most people travel through it and stay a few nights which is exactly what we did.
Wanting a slightly different hostel this time around, we found Aura Thematic Hostel which offered 2 bed dorms but with double beds!
This meant we could split the price of one bed between the two of us and hopefully, thanks to off season, have the room to ourselves for a fraction of the price. Unfortunately this wasn’t quite true as we had been beaten to our room by a German tourist who had arrived about two hours before us. Oh well, we thought. At least it’s just one person rather than two! Unfortunately our positivity started to dwindle when we realised our new room mate had no bags with him and seemed to recycle his few tshirts and shorts without washing them. Similarly, he only had one pair of trainers which were ridiculously smelly. Once he left the room (with seemingly everything he owned in one backpack), the room was lovely and airy, but when he returned it became a teenage boys locker room which no amount of opening the door and blatant hinting could resolve. 🙅🏼
The room itself was small and exactly how you would picture a private room with small en suite except someone had the genius idea to add in a double bunk bed instead of the singular one. Great for business, slightly odd for the customers. The dorm had the distinct feel that you were sharing your private room with a random stranger. Not to mention the stranger being the most serious, stern and smelly tourist ever. 😷
Thankfully, we weren’t in the room that much. Aside from being a stopping point between Ho Chi Minh and Siem Reap, we also needed to apply for Thai visas which you can only do in Phnom Penh. Getting up early on our first day, we rented bicycles for $2.50 from our hostel and set off in the direction of the Thai embassy. Hoping to stop off at one of the free ATMs along the way, we soon found out our map was pretty outdated and we ended up cycling around for an hour trying to get enough dollars out to pay for the visas. We were even helped out by a friendly monk who pointed us in the right direction in the end 🙏🏻.
Knowing that we had wasted a lot of time searching for ATMs and with this being the only day we could apply for visas we quickly cycled to the embassy, arriving sweaty, panicked and confused – never a good combo. Quickly filling in our application forms we grew slightly sick looking at the queue of travel agents with stacks of passports and applications in front of us. Having read up extensively on the visa requirements we just assured ourselves that we were prepared and hopefully the queue would move down quickly.
And quickly did the queue move! This was mainly thanks to the lady manning the visa application desk. While it was entertaining to watch, she was also one of the most terrifying women ever and quite clearly hated her job. I would actually go so far to say I’ve never seen someone hate their job quite as much as this women hates hers. I got a whole new appreciation for travelling while watching this woman shout and moan her way through each travel agent. Should one of them annoy her (by say, not being lightning fast in collected their receipt) she would shout and gesture continuously until they had moved off, then prompting her to put her ahead in her hands for at least 5 mins before readying herself for the next victim.
Needless to say, the stacks of passports each travel agent tumbled over the desk were quickly filed away and the receipts quickly taken with only the occasional outburst and mini time outs.
When our turn came, we quickly handed her our forms and passports. Shoving everything back at us she said we needed proof of travel out of Thailand. Knowing this was coming, we quickly pulled out our eticket which showed our flight in 2 months time. “PAPER!!” got shout at us a couple of times despite us explaining its an eticket. So as to not pole the bear too many times, Fitz set off on a panicked sprint to find a copy shop that would allow us to print off the flight information for the obviously technologically inept civil servant.
10 minutes later and the hero of the hour was back with a print out. While the woman at the desk refused to understand that there were two sheets of paper (the second with our names on it), we finally managed to talk her through the basics of turning a page and we finally had our visa application submitted! With $80 of non-refundable Thai visa payments, our wallets were crying with shame but we were relieved to have finally submitted it – and to be free from desk jobs. With a two day turnaround we quickly planned what we wanted to do next in Phnom Penh.
I have to say, previous traveller warnings were correct. Despite being the capital, Phnom Penh doesn’t have much in the way of tourist delights. With everything spread very far out, we soon found that walking was extremely long and difficult, especially in the soaring temperatures. Similarly, Cambodia works largely in US dollars which means everything is infinitely more expensive. “Just one dollar” is constantly used in all Cambodian sales pitches but the problem was, when converting that into Vietnamese Dong, Cambodian Reil or Thai Bhat, $1 is actually really expensive and the dollars add up fast. Having just shelled out for both Cambodian and Thai visas, we were in no position to treat ourselves and therefore opted for a simple self-made walking tour.
📷 Walking around the city
📷 Taking in the street life
While the walking tour was a slight disaster in finding that all the sights were rather underwhelming, we did manage to find some of the best eats in town. Cambodia isn’t particularly renowned for its wide variety of local dishes and upsettingly, all the TripAdvisor recommendations were restaurants dedicated to Western food. Determined to have a lovely dish that wasn’t pasta, we found a family run guest house and ordered some beef fried rice and vegetable noodle soup – pretty simple right? Maybe not so simple after all. After eating our meal (or in my case, leaving it untouched), we soon found why people tended to steer away from Cambodian cuisine. While noodle soups usually come with lovely broth, flavoursome veg and home made noodles, this one came with what seemed like warm bath water, tasteless veg and with instant noodles. The fried rice was average and eatable but with food prices being high, we quickly realised why people decided to spend their money on more palatable flavours.
With this realisation, we quickly dived into satisfying all our western cravings. Ticking off Tripadvisors best ‘cheap eats’, we went to Hummus House (falafel and chicken Schwarma wraps), The Pizza Factory (amazingly delicious Italian Pizza) and La Dolce Vita (pasta heaven).
📷 Hummus House
📷 Hummus House – Chicken Schwarma and Falafel wrap
📷 2-4-1 on pizza and cocktails not only meant we had a feast but also meant we had the most delicious authentic Italian pizza half way around the world
Having spent two days in culinary cravings (if rather stodgy) heaven, we returned to the Thai Embasssy, waited 45 minutes for someone to actually come back from their lunch break and received our Thai visas! Hallelujah! As it was our last day, we decided to celebrate by having a rather more modern version of a Cambodian delicacy.
While we were blissfully ignorant, reading up on Cambodia, you will soon find that they are famous for their marijuana. Much like the Indians and their Bhang, Cambodians put weed in everything but the most popular source is pizza. Pizza does seem to be Cambodia’s favourite food with almost every restaurant selling it and even street vendors holding up signs saying ‘I am Pizza’, making it clear that you can literally get pizza anywhere. Hey, we’re not complaining – we’ve never been known to turn down a pizza and now was our chance to try a slightly more mischievous one. Having both skipped the weed-smoking that seems to always come with school or uni, we were both happy to now try a new (and much lighter) Cambodian experience and we tentatively picked ‘Happy Herb Pizza’ as it was highly recommended for innocent newbies like ourselves and really, with a name like that, how can it go wrong?
Ordering one pizza to share, asking for it “happy” (wink wink, nudge nudge) and then having two $0.50 beers (the only cheap thing in Cambodia it seems), we ate our pizza, finished our drinks and took a long walk back to the hostel.
PNot really sure what to expect, we made or way up to the hostels bar to order happy hour cocktails and see what happened. While no huge differences occurred (which is good), we did find ourselves chatting a bit more, finding that time had flown by and just feeling very giggly and elated. What really proved we had indeed been given weed as opposed to oregano, was that a huge group of 30 Australian teenagers were at the bar with us. Singing far too loudly, downing their drinks in one and literally creating such havoc they were continuously getting told off by security, everyone at the bar was mightily annoyed that these lads were ruining their evening. Everyone that is, except us 🤔.
While everyone tutted and sighed, we found it pretty hilarious, giggled to ourselves whenever they got a telling off and happily sang along whenever the karaoke machine was cracked out. We were so amicable that when the boys finally got kicked out, they invited us to come with them and carry on the party. Thankfully, we still had the sense to say no and decided it was probably time for bed.
Waking up the next day feeling not too fresh, we were glad to have tried a rather unconventional Cambodian delicacy and at least having come out of Phnom Penh with some good stories and our Thai visas! Setting off to Siem Reap, we were sure that there would be more Cambodian dishes to enjoy, and of course, the wonders of Angkor Wot that awaited us.