Alex and Chickpea Do Southeast Asia: Cambodia takes a turn for the weird on the trip from Poipet to Siem Reap

Getting to Cambodia was only the beginning. After clearing customs, we walked out of the minuscule, un-airconditioned visa office into the dusty heat. Looking through the lazily-guarded fence, we could see the Thai bank where we had just changed our baht for dollars. (Cambodia has two officially accepted currencies: the riel and the more desirable US dollar. )

Our initial relief at a successful border crossing deflated almost immediately. With no real direction beyond few tips gleaned from travel blogs, we started wandering toward what we hoped was the shuttle service. Fewer than 20 feet from the visa office, we saw a naked baby, dirt-streaked and screaming on the sidewalk. He was alone. Someone had put an empty soda cup in his hand to collect money.

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Alex and Chickpea Do Southeast Asia: Cambodia in photos

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Ten years of watching travel channel shows could have never prepared me for Cambodia.

It’s a beautifully sad country. Beautiful rice paddy and palm tree vistas. Sad, slumped wooden shacks in the distance. Beautiful, bright-faced children, their sad voices pleading for dollars. Amazing stone temples seemingly created by the gods. Broken arms and decapitated Buddha statues sad reminders of looting and the descrution of the Khmer Rouge.

It might be cliché, but it really is a beautifully sad country.

Alex and Chickpea Do Southeast Asia: The quest for the elusive Vietnam visa

As I’ve mentioned before, the winter vacation for English teachers in South Korea is one of the most important times of the year. After nearly six months of cultural assimilation and the onset of winter blues, a few weeks on a beach in Thailand is just the rejuvenation many teachers need to continue their contract. For many teachers, this is the closest they will be to many of the Asian countries they’ve only read about and they take full advantage of the opportunity.

We’re no different, the only exception being we wanted to visit ALL the countries. So, in addition to Thailand and Cambodia, we planned a trip to Vietnam.

Planning the trip was the easy part; getting the visa was a different issue.

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Alex and Chickpea Do Southeast Asia: The Night Bus from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

First, your hostel proprietor gives you wrong time for the bus.

Well, not necessarily the wrong time for the bus, but the wrong time for the mini-van to come pick you up and take you to the actual bus. After some frantic calls, you finally get to the bus terminal — a small, nondescript storefront with two huge buses in front. You wait. As people of various nationalities rush around you, asking worried questions and receiving no answers from the Cambodian bus operators, you start to wonder if you’re at the right place. After all, there is more than one night bus that leaves from Siem Reap.

You shove your $24 ticket at someone who looks like he drives the bus, or at least has ridden it before. He points to one of the buses. Inside the seats are numbered. A girl agrees to switch with you so you can sit by your girlfriend (the guy who booked your tickets didn’t make sure of that). That girl is headed to a different city (Sihanoukville) and you’re a little nervous that this might not be the correct bus. But when you ask, there is no definite answer.

The bus is a little larger than a Greyhound and has comfortable multi-colored blankets on the seats for you to use, which is great because the bus is freezing. Despite the seemingly unorganized nature of the whole affair, the bus leaves right at midnight. You settle down to sleep, occassionally adjudsting your blanket or peering out of the windows.

At 6 a.m., you arrive in Phnom Penh and the bus driver empties everyone into the parking lot of a small, outdoor bus station. “Wait here,” the driver says and then he’s gone. Your fellow passengers look confused too, heads darting back and forth, looking for any indication of where the connecting bus may be. So we all wait together under a tin awning. Several times, men come by asking where we’re going. When we answer, “Ho Chi Minh City” they say “OK, OK” and walk away.

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Alex and Chickpea Do . . . Southeast Asia?

It’s true. Right now, Chickpea is on her way to Thailand — I’ll join her at the end the week — for a whirlwind tour of Southeast Asia. And I do mean whirlwind. Between January 19 and February 6, we’ll visit the traffic-clogged, neon-lit, pagoda-stuffed skyline of Bangkok, Thailand; the ancient and mysterious temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia; enjoy a few days of R&R on the beaches of Vung Tau, Vietnam; battle motorbikes and stuff ourselves silly with pho in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; and wrap up in Vietnam’s burgeoning capital of Hanoi before flying back to Seoul.

Visiting other Asian locales is a large part of an EFL teacher’s overseas stay. If you ask 10 English teachers why they came to Korea, nine will list “travel” as one of the reasons.

We’re no different. So we’re using our 2-week winter vacation to see three countries we’ve watched countless travel shows about: Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Consequently, there will not be any new posts until the second week of February. But check back here for a series of posts about our travels, including how to find the cheapest plane tickets and navigating visas to what fried tarantula tastes like.