Sonja’s Travels – A lone western female traveling the Far East
Note: Sonja is a scuba diving intern here with us at Mermaids Dive Center in Pattaya, Thailand. Sonja is from the Midlands in the UK and a wonderful girl. Certainly not one to shy away from adventure Sonja decided to turn the negative boredom of a visa run (updating a visa) into a really positive adventure travel around South East Asia for a month…and why not? Please do read Sonja’s account of her trip. (Un-edited).
The hangover from hell, the early morning rise with zero sleep, the cramped minibus blaring insanely painful Thai music………..the dreaded visa run.
At some point all of us interns here in Pattaya have to make a trip to a border, even with a multi-entry educational visa. However, this doesn’t have to be such a tiresome ordeal as you may expect.
What started out for me as a three day visa run, and temple tour to Cambodia quickly became a month long backpacking adventure. And lets face it, apart from scuba diving, (of course) that’s what we all come here to do.
I had no idea that travel could be achieved so easily, and cheaply, particularly for a young single girl, until I actually arrived in Siem Reap. With a luxury coach ticket from there to Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, costing only nine dollars, I set about the beginning of my mini adventure.
The day I arrived in Cambodia, I must admit, the nerves were silently shaking! Especially as I realized I had actually arrived in the dusty border town of Duan Lem rather than the casino town of Poipet I had been expecting!
Originally, I planned to take the afternoon bus straight to Siem Reap, however as there are no buses from Duan Lem I resigned myself to taking a taxi, this was the most expensive journey I paid for during my entire excursion!
In hindsight, I could have reduced this cost by taking a taxi only to Battambang, and spending the night there to then go on to catch the bus to Siem Reap the next day. This would have immensely & appreciatively broken up the six hour long dusty, red, and extremely bumpy road journey! (I say road however, I really should say the worst dirt track in the world! Unless of course you have a Land Rover with a V8 engine, a lot of gasoline & enjoy off-roading).
On my arrival in Siem Reap I made my way to the Greentown Guesthouse which had been recommended to me, and although it was very basic for a meager three dollars a night-who can complain?
The Cambodians really are genuine lovely people, and will do anything to ensure you feel comfortable, safe, and happy. I soon befriended a member of staff, Nak. Within a few moments Nak had my tickets for the temples sorted and, the next day off we went a touring.
The temples of Angkor are a must if you pass through Cambodia. I would recommend that you reverse the normal route so that you start with the oldest temples first and, finish with the most recent to date. This allows you to see the progression of the architectural structure, and amazing stone carvings over time.
If you can handle early rises then defiantly enjoy a beautiful sun rise, if you prefer to sleep in then aim for the sunset. Both are truly inspirational but, do try to find a nice quiet spot as it can become quite busy with all the tourists.
If you intend to do Siem Reap on a budget then your hostel will more than likely not have a pool. So, if you fancy a relaxing day sunning yourself then why not head down to the recently opened Aqua bar run by Bristol ex-pat John.
For two dollars a day you can swim in the pool for as long or as little as you like.
Doubled with the intense heat, and the fact the pool has a built in bar you won’t want to leave! Alternatively, you can relax in the hammocks, play chess on the giant table or marvel at Johns snake collection! John is a great source of travel information so if you’re feeling “Temple’d out” then it’s definitely worthwhile heading down there.
So, after a relaxing (And slightly drunken!) afternoon spent at the Aqua bar I headed down to Phnom Penh on the (Semi!) luxury coach. On arrival at the coach station I found myself overwhelmed by Tuc-Tuc drivers all touting for my fare. This can be quite un-nerving especially for a lone female traveler; however Tuc-Tucs are very safe. If you’d rather not tackle them alone to begin with then it’s very easy to jump in with a couple of other Westerners as they do all tend to head to the same backpacker area.
Phnom Penh is a very relaxed city, particularly the backpacker area. I recommend finding a hostel on the lakeside. Try Number Nine Sister or Lakeside Guest House. Both are within a tight budget, clean, and have very friendly, helpful staff. After a hard coach journey it’s great to sit, and watch the sun go down across the lake sipping a cocktail or the local beer.
The main attractions in Phnom Penh are the infamous Killing Fields, and S-21 prison from the Khmer Rouge Regime. Both can be done in a day, and upsetting as it may that human nature can sometimes be that cruel, I feel that if we are honored enough to be able to visit such places where atrocities against human kind have taken place it’s our duty to visit them and, hopefully educate people that maybe will never get the chance to experience them.
If you find you have a couple of days spare while visiting Cambodia’s capital then try to spend a day about the town as there are some nice local attractions worth seeing. With its relaxed feel, and friendly locals it’s very easy to navigate your way around with the help of a local map.
You can also spend a day working with children, and give something back to this special city. The street kids are really great, and in all honesty it is hard to see them working instead of playing. To be able to spend a day with them painting and telling stories is extremely rewarding, and great fun to boot.
There are some great little bars/cafes down Backpacker Street. There were two in particular I frequented on several occasions. The lazy Gecko Café, and The Moskito Bar. The Lazy Gecko Café is a great place for vegetarians, vegans and, anyone who loves organic food. The bannoffee pie is a must! (Especially if you haven’t seen your boyfriend for a while!) With its own movie room, and book collection it’s easy to lose an afternoon there.
Moskito Bar is exactly as it sounds, a buzzing little bar! (Pun totally intended!) Recently opened by Glaswegian ex-pat Eddie, Moskitos is a trendy little place with extremely comfy sofas that stays open until the last person leaves. Eddie has a lot of fantastic theme nights he wants to introduce so it’s well worth a visit…..or two.
Now, for those of you who just cannot resist the lull of the ocean, head to down to Shianoukville. It’s only a short coach ride from Phnom Phen, and really shows Cambodia at its best, and most relaxed.
With approximately eight different beaches to chose from you really are spoilt for choice. The nicest beaches I found were Occheuteal and, Serendipty. If you’re looking for complete R&R then head to Occheuteal Beachas Serendipity can become over crowded being a popular backpacker haunt.
If you find you are beginning to dry out on land then head to Victory Hill to book you’re diving with Gerrard at Scuba Nation. The friendly Dutch owner offers overnight trips to some of the nicer dive areas, and what better way to wile away an evening after a days diving than staring up at the stars shining over the sea.
Scuba Nation is a very professional PADI outfit, and while Gerrards prices may be slightly more than his competitor the quality of service, and equipment certainly outweighs this cost.
So, onto the next leg of my journey which led me through to Vietnam. From Shainoukville I had to head back to Phnom Penh as the only way to the Vietnamese border from Sianoukville is by taxi which ultimately costs a lot more.
Head to a reputable travel agency in Phnom Penh, and your visa shouldn’t cost more than thirty dollars, and take only a couple of days to come through. The coach journey should be roughly fifteen dollars, however expect to pay more if you want to be taken straight through to the border crossing. If you do go for the cheaper option however, it is very straight forward finding your way through, and there are plenty of people on route if you take a wrong turn or find yourself feeling confused.
Be sure to change most of your remaining Cambodian Riel, and Dollars to Vietnamese Dong before you leave, but do hold some back as there are some small fees you will need to pay at the border crossing. About five Dollars should be sufficient.
Most people tend to go straight through to the old capital of the south of Vietnam, Saigon which is now called Ho Chi Minh City. This is what I opted to do. The coach I was on had a tour representative who gave us plenty of information on what to do, and where to go upon arrival.
We were able to leave our rucksacks at the tour shop while we headed off to find accommodation. If you’re not lucky enough to have such a tour representative then find the nearest tour shop, and ask for a map of the area. Also ask if you can leave your belongings while you search for somewhere to stay. I met plenty of people that did this, and experienced no problems in doing so.
There are plenty of quaint little guesthouses to choose from. If you’re on a budget stay clear of the larger establishments, and head to one of the side alleys. They are perfectly safe, and house many little guesthouses which are usually family run. You can haggle on the price particularly in low season with a larger discount for the longer you stay.
Ho Chi Minh is a bustling place with a real down town Vietnam feel. It is a must visit if you pass through with its French, and Chinese influence it pays for a harmonious feel. It’s true to say that life in Vietnam lives on the streets. Everything happens there from cooking, gossiping to business meetings. It’s fast pace to catch up with modern day life intertwined with the Pagodas of the past make it a bewitching, and hypnotic city.
During my Stay I visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, the War Remnants museum and, spent a day about the town. The Cu Chi Tunnels are great place to go, and see. Steeped in the history of the Vietnamese war it really opens your eyes to the Vietnamese peoples struggle for freedom of occupation against the one of the world’s super powers. With their limited weapons at the time it really is quite amazing how they utilized the land, and surroundings to fight a battle that would go on for ten long years.
The War Remnants museum can be quite stressful especially if you have never experienced anything like it before so why not head to the Reunification Palace or Ben Thanh Market in the afternoon. With the French design of the city, and the clearly signposted streets it’s very easy to navigate your way around, and can make for a very pleasant stroll.
The Mekong Delta trips are defiantly worthwhile doing also, as you really get a lot more than your moneys worth. If nothing else it’s worth going just for the short detour to the sweetie factory. Try the handmade coconut, and chocolate ones! Delicious!
Sonja’s Travels – A Lone Western Female Traveling the Far East Part 2
So, after the hustle, and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City I was very glad to once again be heading down to the coast. I had heard very good reports about Vietnams’ beaches, but nothing prepared me for the shock of just how wonderful they really are.
Nha Trang is a different world compared to Ho Chi Minh City, and the beach there just seems to go on forever. Once again accommodation can be found very easily, and very cheaply. I stayed in a really great place called the Huu Nghi hotel. Bedecked in dark oak wood with cable TV, air con, and a fridge/freezer for a mere five Dollars a night I was very happy with my stay there.
There’s plenty to keep you occupied in Nha Trang. If you fancy doing some diving there then head down to Jeremy Stein’s Rainbow Divers. If you let either Grant or Martin know you’re with Mermaids then they will look after you to ensure a pleasurable stay. If you would rather stay top side of the ocean then why not take a boat tour around all the Islands, or if you would rather not get your feet wet at all then make your way to the Oceanographic Institute.
In my time in Nha Trang, I must admit that I mostly had drinks with the locals, and lazed on the beach. There are some cracking bars around the town, a lot of which do really good work for the community. Head down to Crazy Kims bar where a percentage of every drink you buy is donated to the Hands off the Kids campaign. From there you can also find out more information about Rainbow Divers.
I did spend a long afternoon visiting the local attractions on the back of a moped. If you can find a good taxi driver he will take you to the out of reach places with many good photo opportunities which is great for the folks back home, especially if you are travelling alone. Among some the places I went to that day were the Po Nagar Cham Towers, the Giant Buddha, and the Hon Chong Promontory. So, you can see just how easy it is to get around visiting different sights in one day.
With my schedule now beginning to get tighter I headed up to Hoi An. In my time I have done some pretty crippling road journeys, but let me tell you that absolutely nothing prepared me for the Vietnamese public bus service.
After my coach not turning up at five thirty in the morning due to the lack of customers that had booked onto it I decided to give the public service a go rather than wait around all day for the night coach. Do bear this in mind when booking onto early morning coaches, if you’re on a tight schedule then you’re probably better off planning the night buses into your trip.
So after twelve hours or so being the only Westerner (And, the biggest person!) on an extremely overcrowded wreck of a mini bus I arrived in Hoi An. I have to say that although it really was a complete nightmare of a journey I wouldn’t change it for the world as not only was the scenery out of this world (That is when my eyes weren’t closed tight thinking that me, and my fellow passengers were about to go for a very long dive straight over the edge of the road to the waters edge!) but, the experience on a whole is certainly one I will never forget.
Hoi An is also on the coast of Vietnam, and again the beaches are stunning. It’s so easy to lose a day or two there. Instead of just heading straight to the beach though it’s defiantly worthwhile spending a day about the town. The French influence there is amazing. I really enjoyed the walks around Hoi An, the town really is a beautiful place with every building very Châteaux like, and pretty. It really is like stepping back in time.
For those girls who will be staying in Thailand, and South East Asia for a while (And, are slightly larger than the average Asian lady!) then Hoi An is a must as you can get practically any item of clothing tailor made to measure at very high quality for next to nothing. There are girls here that are size eights and, are a triple XL in Thai sizes! So, if you pass throughVietnam and, plan to travel South East Asia for a while then stock up.
From Hoi An I went onto the last leg of my journey to the now capital of Vietnam, Hanoi. The capital is even more bustling than Ho Chi Minh City, and navigating your way around calls for a little more patience as too does crossing the roads. The trick here is to step out very slowly and, in plain sight so the motor-cyclists can clearly see you, and (hopefully!) pass around you. If you still feel a little anxious about crossing then get behind a local and, wait for them to go.
Accommodation in Hanoi can be very cheap dependant on the level of luxury you’re looking for. For budget prices expect to pay roughly similar prices as to the rest of Vietnam, but do look around as there are some very luxurious places at cheap rates also. I spent one night in a hotel called the Sunny which was very posh indeed! However, be prepared to be kicked out if they find someone willing to pay more for the room. You can haggle down the cost if you opt out of the free breakfast and, internet deals. Aim to stay around the Hoam Kiem lake area as this is where you will find the best restaurants, and bars. Head to the Little Hanoi for food, and then onto the Funky Monkey for great cocktails, and tunes! For those who crave a little more culture then you certainly won’t be disappointed by the Water Puppet Theatre. With two shows per evening at six, and eight why not role a night of culture and, debauchery into one.
As Hanoi is so busy I used motor-cycles to get around the city. Expect to pay roughly two to four thousand Vietnamese Dong for a short hop, haggle the price for journeys farther a field, and be very clear on the price as accents can confuse.
Hanoi has lots to offer for those that can stomach city life. If you start to feel slightly suffocated then book onto one of the excursions to Halong Bay to explore one of Vietnam’s natural wonders. The cost of these excursions can add up dependant on how many nights you stay for. For those who fancy their hand at some jungle trekking there are beginner, intermediate and, advanced trips available. Again, you chose how many nights away you would like to spend which makes it easy to plan into a budget.
If you would rather stay closer to home then check out the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology which features beautiful art collections from over the ages, and, houses everyday items gathered from Vietnam, and its tribal people. Alternatively, head to the Women’s Museum which as its name suggests pays tribute to the female soldiers of Vietnam and also exhibits different everyday clothing worn by the women of different tribal groups. Both museums exhibits are clearly labeled in English, and French.
From Hanoi I flew back to Bangkok where my mini adventure came to a close (For the time being!). I managed to get my flight very cheap at forty pounds plus tax. Make sure you look around on the internet for the best deal, and be sure to book in advance to secure the best price.
So, where ever you decide to roam in South East Asia, or anywhere else in the world for that matter, I hope that my traveling tales have given you an insight into just how easily it can be done whether you do travel alone or not.
Many of you will find that you will have to have proof of an onward journey when entering Thailand so what better way than to begin your adventure than planning your next one! Happy traveling to all!
Sonja’s Top Ten Travel Tips
1/ Have a rough plan in mind of the route you want to take, time frame, and budget. Be sure to let several people know your itinerary, and when you move on from one place to the next.
2/ Buy your travel guides from book exchange shops outside of Thailand, and UK. It’s a lot cheaper this way.
3/ Travel light, clothes, and necessities are cheaper to buy as you go.
4/ Don’t carry your passport or credit/bank card unless absolutely necessary.
5/ Keep your bag/wallet secure at all time especially when on the back of motor-cycles or in tuk-tuks.
6/ Don’t carry valuables on you during coach journeys. Store them safely in your rucksack in the holds. If you fall asleep they have a tendency to go missing.
7/ Carry a basic first aid kit with you at all times, you never know when you may fall into a sewer, and need it.
8/ Check that you can use your credit/debit cards before you leave for your next destination as many places in South East Asia still don’t have ATMs”.
9/ In the words of the wise Douglas Adams in Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy……”DON’T PANIC!” If something happens un-according to plan you are much more likely to get help if you remain calm.
10/ Smile! It goes a long way in this part of the world.
Like scuba diving where safety is paramount so too is safety when you are guest in someone else’s country. Where the peoples ways are unknown, and new to us be curious, but be safe. If you would like more information about a lone female travelers perspective of Cambodia, Vietnam or Thailand please feel free to email me on firstname.lastname@example.org