We planned for three months in Vietnam as our first stop on our vagabonding journey. The prep that went into getting there was more intense than I remember, and that caused some problems. Three months in Vietnam made us comfortable. Moving from city to city is much easier than going to a whole new country.
I had planned where we were going and how to get there from our last stop in Vietnam, Phu Quoc Island. It is in Southwest Vietnam and very close to the Cambodian border. It would take a van, a ferry, and another van to get to the border and then a bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The bus would leave us at the central market, and we would need to catch a Tuk Tuk (the local taxi) to get to the safe haven of our hotel. The entire journey would take about 12 hours. The dong is the currency of Vietnam, and it is really only used and accepted in Vietnam. We had some US currency on us, as we knew we would need it at the Cambodian border to get our visas in order to enter Cambodia. We also had some backup dollars for emergencies, and we are glad we did because we ended up needing to use it.
You cannot read about the transportation in Cambodia without hearing about scamming Tuk Tuk drivers who take advantage of newly-arrived visitors to the country. This is not just a Cambodia thing; it really happens in any big city across the globe. There are always unscrupulous people looking to make a fast buck off of a starry-eyed and confused tourist. That being said, our first challenge was how to get to the hotel from the central market. This is not a big challenge in and of itself, but it was compounded by a couple other blunders on my behalf. The first was internet.
When we arrived in Vietnam, it became apparent that internet access was easy and inexpensive. We were able to get a SIM card for our phone that provided 60gb for a mere $5 USD. At the time, we had a US T-Mobile plan that was costing us over $150. The math was simple: ditch T-Mobile! The SIM card we had, like most of them worldwide, only worked in the country of issue. Once we were in Cambodia, it was not working, and we had no data. Before we left, I was able to send a message to a Tuk Tuk driver referred to us by a Facebook group about Phnom Penh. I had no sooner sent the message from the free wifi of the bus stop than the bus showed up to whisk us away to Phnom Penh, four hours away. Four hours with no internet or way to contact a reliable driver or even the hotel where we would be staying. I also hadn’t downloaded a map of the town to use offline after we arrived. All I knew was the address of the hotel and that it was south of where we were to be dropped off. Riding on the bus, realizing that we had no way to figure out where we were going, I began to devise a plan for our arrival.
When we arrived in Phnom Penh, the first priority would be to find an ATM to get local currency. Even if we did know where we were going, we needed to be able to pay for it. The other priority would be to get a Cambodian SIM card with 4G data so we could communicate, check messages, and have a map of the city so we would know if we were being (literally and figuratively) taken for a ride by a Tuk Tuk driver.
The bus arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. We grabbed our bags, figured out which way was south, and started walking in the general direction of our hotel. We were keeping our eyes peeled for a phone shop and an ATM. Of course, it started to rain as soon as we arrived, so you could just add being wet to our pile of problems. After about 15 minutes of walking, we found an ATM! It was like a beacon of light smiling at us, cutting through the dark rainy skies. Oh yeah, it was now dark! We walked up to the cash machine feeling pretty good about life. It was an ATM that was in our network, and we smiled as we slid our card into the reader. PIN entered and a quick exchange calculation done in my head, and we confidently entered in the equivalent of $100USD. “Your transaction cannot be completed at this time” was the message on the screen. We called to our son in the next booth, and he got the same message. No worries! We had had this happen before. Sometimes the machines do not have enough cash, or we have exceeded our limit for that machine. We simply tried a smaller amount and got the same message. It hit our son first. We did not tell our bank that we were leaving Vietnam and going to Cambodia! Normally, we would just get online and make the adjustment to our security settings . . . crap! No data.
We left the ATM with another plan: find a shop with free wifi and a place to exchange US dollars for the local currency. Time to put that emergency stash to use! While we were in Vietnam, we could make out words as they use letters based on English characters. We would still butcher the pronunciation, but we could at least recognize some words. Being in country for 3 months, you are bound to pick up a little. In Cambodia however, the written language looks like what speaking under water sounds like. There is no way for a layman to even begin to try to discern the words on signs. We were forced to look for English signs among the crowded sea of signs in a major city. It was like trying to identify one voice in a crowd of screaming people.
After a few moments, we saw what looked like a money exchange, and luckily for us, they spoke very good English! We were able to exchange $100, so now we at least had money to get to the hotel. Even if we happened to get scammed, we would get there! We asked them if they knew where we could get a local SIM card, and believe it or not, there was a shop about a block away! Finally! Now we’re cooking with gas!
We entered the electronics shop and asked for a SIM card. The gentleman behind the counter called over a younger man who spoke better English to help us. $30 and 30 minutes later, we were on our way with 2 SIM cards loaded and programmed into our phones with lots of data! We opened up Google Maps and got our bearings. We now knew where we were going! It was raining, and while at a corner trying to decide the best way to go, a Tuk Tuk driver named Tha offered to help us find our hotel on the map. He helped us discover that it was within walking distance, but in the rain, it would be better to ride. We agreed on $4, and we climbed into the back of our first Tuk Tuk and headed to our hotel. About 10 minutes later, we pulled up right in front. We paid Tha and finally got checked in. We made it!
Lessons we learned (or were reminded of):
Notify your bank that you are going to another country so you can access your funds. Try to get local currency before you go or at least as soon as possible. Always have a backup. We have learned that US dollars are accepted almost everywhere. If you are going to pack some dollars, make sure they are in perfect condition: 100% complete with no rips, tears, or missing corners.
If you are not able to have data, download a map of where you are going to help you avoid being lost. Also be sure to copy down the address and contact information for your hotel.
It is always best to prearrange your transportation from your landing spot, whether it be a bus or train station or an airport. Having someone holding a sign with your name on it, waiting to take you to your destination for a predetermined amount will cut down on the gray hairs for sure.
In the end, we made it and had a bit more of an adventure than we bargained for, but it certainly could have been worse. I mean, if we would have landed at our destination at 11:00 at night instead of 6:00, it would have been monumentally more difficult and perhaps dangerous. Just a reminder to everyone that there’s no such thing as too much preparation when going to a new country.