Chapter 2: Unfamiliarity is a two-part series of Life in Transit containing snippets of my personal travel journal – from the baby steps we’ve taken into planning this trip, places we’ve been, experiences we’ve had and memories we’ve made over the course of 30 days across Southeast Asia.
Settling into unfamiliarity is not easy.
While I’ve been on my comfort zone my whole life, there was always that curiosity and push that triggered me to embark on an adventure such as this.
As I’m writing this, it feels surreal to know how months have passed by since we first rode the plane, settled into temporary homes in different parts of Southeast Asia and mustered the courage to explore all that is there to witness out there in the world.
In this post I talk about the countries we’ve visited during Life in Transit, some highlights, favorite experiences, and a bit of musings in between. I’m warning you – it’s pretty long. But I hope you take time to read through everything, especially if you’re considering an adventure similar to this.
I’m no tour guide but with the help of my travel journal, I was able to retrace all the events and tie them together with words and photos. I hope I do these countries justice!
For starters and your reference, here is our travel calendar & topline itinerary for Life in Transit.
Complete info, tips and stories of our adventure (part 1) under the cut! Click read more.
Knowing Which Countries To Go
Our trip wasn’t “budget-friendly” (but it wasn’t over-the-top as well, maybe somewhere in the middle) because despite the fact that Indochina countries are pretty inexpensive (Vietnam, Cambodia & Thailand), we decided to head to Singapore and Malaysia as well (which covered most of the extra expenses) since we were traveling across the region anyway.
Main factors we took into consideration:
1. Do we need visas for these countries? (I didn’t for all 5, but Tricie had to apply for Vietnam & Cambodia since she’s a US citizen) Always be ready and do all possible research before heading out. I’ll admit I was an extra paranoid while planning for this trip!
2. Would it be worth the visit? We narrowed down our top choices and decided to leave out the others first (because honestly, you can’t just choose everything, lol). That, and since we were aiming to do more café hopping, art and culture-inclined activities, we knew which ones wouldn’t make it into our list.
3. Will the budget fit? Well, something we did take into account – except for Singapore. I insisted we go book shopping (ha, we both ended up getting at least 5 books – imagine how heavy our backpack was!) during the trip and at least make it more meaningful. Anyhow, we did estimates on budgeting and gladly, all countries didn’t cost that much. It would all depend on what types of activities we wanted to do.
Booking Hotels & Flights
We pre-booked all our Cebu Pacific flights (Manila to Vietnam and Malaysia to Manila) months before our trip (around February) and since we were still figuring out the days we would be spending on each country back then, we booked Air Asia flights (Siem Reap to Chiang Mai and Chiang Mai to Singapore) a month before the trip (not bad, prices weren’t too high). We didn’t wait for a piso fare anymore (lol) but we got a pretty good price for all our flights (total was around PHP20k).
For bus rides, we arranged it through the hostel staff as they were kind enough to make reservations for us. Other than that, Tricie booked bus trips online (there are a lot of instructions you can find, swear) at least 2 days before the bus trip day.
For hotel flights, I did the booking all in one night. Ha! Well, maybe two. But I spent almost a week checking reviews on Agoda from travelers and canvassing which hostels were near the central part of the city (or at least an MRT station). After reading through a multitude of blogs, reviews and doing heaps of research, we finally got into terms with the hostels and guesthouses we chose to stay in.
By the way, it would be extra convenient if you have a credit card, ‘cause all of these transactions required credit card payment.
Google is your best friend. I am not kidding. Second in line would be Agoda and TripAdvisor. I also downloaded a copy
of We Are Sole Sisters’ travel guide which I found pretty useful. I also consulted some of my traveler friends (Hi Mikka, Aleyn, Kat, Lois and Jayme!) for advice thanks to their travel blog posts and articles.
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Travel Diaries: Part 1
And so the adventure begins. Here goes an extremely filtered version of our trip – from Ho Chi Minh to Siem Reap for the first leg. Hope you read through and let me know your thoughts and places you suggest visiting!
Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
Mode of transportation: Walk, mostly | Currency: VND (Vietnamese Dong) – you can have your USDs changed at the local bank
Honestly, we weren’t sure if we wanted to go add Vietnam to our itinerary (just ‘cause we didn’t find it that interesting). However, the destination offered the cheapest flight so we gave it a go.
Arriving at 2 in the morning from our delayed red-eye flight (and my mom even called up the hostel 6 times to make sure we arrived) was pretty crazy though. That, and the whole idea of being “in transit” for 30 days started to sink in during our first whole day at Vietnam. I’m very grateful for the hospitality of the folks over at Town House 50 (we arranged an airport pick-up and they were very welcoming, even if we arrived past midnight).
First impression: Damn, these motorcycles are scary. Like there are motorcycles, everywhere. It’s always a matter of life & death every time we crossed the street.
OF TOURISTY THINGS
We did our own version of a city tour after recovering from our tiring flight. The day after, we visited the War Remnants Museum (enlightening yet depressing at the same time), Notre Dame Cathedral, and Post Office (which was my favorite, by the way – the architecture is just beautiful).
There were a group of kids having their field trip. Check out the cuties!
They say Vietnam boasts of their excellent coffee – and I immediately became a convert after that. My favorite day was our café hopping day along Le Loi Street, which also houses Artbook, a pretty cool art shop and bookstore in Vietnam.
We tried out Loft and L’Usine at noon, and headed to a rather hole in the wall one called The Morning Café by late afternoon.
The Morning Café was my favorite. It was almost empty, except for a girl studying. The balcony had a beautiful view of the streets, and the ambiance was the perfect way to spend a quiet afternoon.
We took our time starting the AB3C Project here, with our struggle to take the perfect photo (I could’ve sworn the staff were eyeing us in a weird way, lol) – and I started drawing on my Southeast Asia travel diaries here.
I can’t say no, too, to their coffee. I had Vietnamese coffee every day. SO GOOD.
MEKONG RIVER CRUISE
For our last day, we booked a day trip to the Mekong river, which was located at the south of Saigon. The experience gave me a better understanding of what their culture was like.
Our boat rower was very lovely by the way.
Apart from riding boats, we tasted some native products, tried their local fare and spent the afternoon having siesta time.
Speaking of food, I wrote some Vietnamese staples over at Pepper if you’d like to know more about some of their local favorites.
We booked a Mekong Express bus to Phnom Penh, to continue on our adventure. There was a stopover for lunch and another stopover for border crossing (you simply have to go down and have your passport stamped, and fill out some sort of immigration form).
Mode of transportation: Tuktuk (very cheap and accessible) | Currency: USD or riel for small change
Traveled by bus (use Mekong Express if pwede) to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (6 hours each)
I still remember when we arrived at Phnom Penh’s Central Market – bombarded with a sea of tuktuks, lol. I e-mailed the hotel early on to reserve a tuktuk for us (better safe than sorry and get scammed) so we headed straight to kick off our shoes and rest at our hotel, at Royal Inn – which was kinda sketchy, but the staff were very kind (that made up for it).
Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, houses the Royal Palace, Killing Fields, temples and majority of the historical events that occurred within the region – especially the Khmer Rogue.
Most tuktuks in Phnom Penh will offer day tours to various attractions in the location. We opted to visit Wat Phnom, Killing Fields, National Museum and the Royal Palace, among others.
I’d like to think majority of Cambodians are Buddhists, because their rituals seemed to be the same as mine (I am half-Buddhist). There are also a lot of monks in the area – not something you can see in a Catholic-dominated country like the Philippines.
The Killing Fields was at the far end of Phnom Penh (took us around 40 minutes to get there), and we regret going at noontime with empty stomachs, because we left the place with heavy hearts. I couldn’t even take a proper photo – it just wasn’t right.
We sat down at some stations and listened to heartbreaking stories of survivors during the Khmer Rogue and narrations about the happenings happenings during those times. It was so depressing and hard to take it all in.
Tricie insisted on visiting a zoo (meanwhile, I am not an animal lover – but I tried). We managed booking a tour to Phnom Tamao Wildlife Park, which is not only a zoo – but a place where animals are sheltered and taken care of by the government.
It was a nice experience taking the tour with a few other travelers and their families. We spent the day interacting with animals, chilling at the area and bonding over good food.
Speaking of good food – we had dinner at Romdeng after the zoo tour, which was a must-try. I have fallen in love with their Fish Amok. Please, please eat here when you visit Phnom Penh! Proceeds of the restaurant are also for a good cause, so it’s definitely a win-win dining experience.
Apart from the usual souvenirs and gastronomic goods available, the Central Market was full of art that we got crazy over. We also met this kind woman who willingly accommodated our buying frenzy (can you even imagine how long it took 2 art-loving people to choose which artworks to purchase among the lot? LOL, yes, a lot of time) and gave us discount.
Our days for Phnom Penh were pretty long, so we made time to start sending out postcards to our loved ones. It was my first time! Imagine how giddy & excited I was.
I guess one thing we did realize about Phnom Penh is that the place wasn’t really safe for walking. It’s also not recommended to spend most nights out, ‘cause it was pretty sketchy. Streets, temples, and (lots of) monks surround the area. It’s okay to walk it’s best to keep watch too.
The moment we arrived from the grueling 6-hour bus ride, I was internally jumping with joy. Siem Reap has always been my to-go place ever since reading about it on The Sketching Backpacker and Aleyn’s blog, and finally stepping foot there was a dream come true.
“HAPPY” PIZZA & PUB STREET
We were too excited so we had “happy” pizza for the first night (and according to Tricie, it hit me ‘cause I fell asleep the moment we arrived back at the guesthouse, lol) and some drinks at Pub Street.
I swear, Pub Street’s nightlife is amazing. Restaurants filled with people, happy hour, music, and the vibe of the place is just A+. We spent most of our dinners there.
CAFES IN CAMBODIA
More than just coffee, most cafes in Cambodia serve real food – so it’s technically their version of a restaurant slash chill place. There were lazy days during our week long stay there, so we hid at book cafes to pass the time. It’s pretty accessible too, as these establishments were all near the Old Market (which is near Pub Street as well).
I shared a photo journal of some hipster cafes we visited during the trip over at Pepper, by the way. Click here to check it out.
We visited the New Leaf Book Café, Sister Srey Café, The Blue Pumpkin, among others.
My favorite was Sister Srey Cafe because not only did we spend a whole afternoon there reading, writing and relaxing – it was also raining at the time. Imagine the feels. But other than that, I really loved the place and the fact that most cafes here were not-for-profit.
TEMPLE TRAILING (& HIKING)
The default highlight of Siem Reap (and the entire trip) would be temple trailing across the Angkor Wat complex and all the surrounding temples. Hands down, I will tell you that this 3 day experience was definitely for the books.
I’m sharing a separate photo diary soon – but here are tidbits of our experience.
We were relieved to have availed of the 3-day pass because our first day did not have a proper sunrise (and we were super tired) – we ended up retreating back to our beds and spending the remaining days visiting all the temples.
So while Tricie was busy temple running (literally), I took lots of selfies. Yup, very un-adventurous of me, to be honest.
Just look at the magnificent architecture of the temples. Each temple was owned and constructed by a different god during the ancient times.
Encountered a few monks strolling along the woods and this amazing artist doing a live sketch of Angkor Wat. So much talent.
We visited Banteay Srey and Kbal Spean on our third temple trailing day, which was a long stretch (1-2 hours from Angkor Wat) of a journey, but not necessarily worth the visit (in our opinion).
Aside from not being able to eat a proper meal yet, there wasn’t really anything interesting about Banteay Srey (except it was a bit cooler, weather-wise) and we had to HIKE to Kbal Spean falls. Nope, we weren’t informed. You could imagine my face when we were halfway going up the mountain (in a crop top and shorts and chucks, wow).
Let’s just put my channeling Katniss photo here to prove that I hiked up top that mountain, LOL. There’s also a funny story that happened right after we finished all our temple hopping endeavors – but I’ll leave the storytelling to Tricie when she does her future posts about our trip.
To sum it all up, Siem Reap spiked up the excitement so much for this trip. Apart from it being home to such the beautiful Angkor Wat complex, I really love the diverse culture and various activities that can be done in the area (side note: we had a Khmer massage on our last night – really worth a try!), despite it being small. It’s also relatively easy to navigate and the people are extra kind and friendly here, so that should be good. I’d definitely come back to unwind (soon).
Whew, that was pretty long – but I hope you were able to read through!
Part two of our trip (Chiang Mai, Singapore, Penang and Kuala Lumpur) coming soon on the blog.