|Email #1, Jan 15, 2000|
CURRENCY US $1 = about 4000 riel
This is a guide to getting into
and around Cambodia. Guaranteed to get you into and out of all
sorts of trouble.
The wonders of Cambodia are calling louder than ever in 1999. With PM Hun Sen firmly in control, a measure of stability has finally arrived in a country which has essentially been at war since 1968.
But now the Khmer Rouge are little more than a bad memory. So far have they come from the Maoist agrarian madness of the 70s that those leaders who remain at large -- in the gem-mining town of Pailin near the Thai border -- live off the profits of a CASINO. And there are about 70 Vietnamese prostitutes to see to their very human weaknesses. Oh for the revolution. Pol would be turning in his grave.
But this is not a history so I'll get down to the business at hand -- getting into and around the country.
To visit Cambodia you need a visa. Where you get your visa depends upon how you plan to get there. If you are flying into Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, you can fork over your US $20 on arrival and they'll stamp you in for 30 days with a standard tourist visa.
If you are coming in via land or sea, you need to get your visa before you get to the border. About the only places to do this are Bangkok and Saigon. There are a few other Cambodian embassies around -- in convenient locales like Pyongyang, Sophia and Beijing -- but the Royal Government isn't quite flush enough to open missions in the likes of London, Canberra or sunny downtown Wellington. Not that it really matters. Most people coming overland start in either Bangkok or Saigon, as will be explained below.
In Bangkok, you can either go to the embassy yourself (just near Lumpini Park) with two passport pics and your crisp $20 bill, or you can get a Khao San Rd travel agent to do it for a small fee. If you're in a hurry, the agent is the way to go because they generally get it done same day. Otherwise it's 24 hours. Rumour has it that people dropping in the passport and paperwork before 9am can collect it at 4pm the same day, though my experience disproved this theory. Bastards.
So you have your visa and can't wait to get over to Siem Reap and check out Angkor Wat, the largest monument to religion ever built, or Phnom Penh, the greatest living, thriving monument to bizarre nightlife anywhere on earth. This is where you have to make your first real decision - HOW DO I GET THERE?
As mentioned above, most visitors
to Cambodia fly into Phnom Penh or Siem Reap (the feeder town
to the Angkor complex). Flights from Bangkok are frequent
but neither cheap nor easily available. A recent surge in tourist
numbers has meant seats are often booked out a week in advance,
and dodgy old Kampuchea Airlines has died, leaving only Thai
Airways and trusty Royal Air Cambodge to fly to Phnom Penh. Tickets
can be as cheap as about 5000 baht (about US $150) return
if you buy them in a Khoa San bucket shop, but expect to pay
as much as US $300 if you want a seat at short notice.
If you do fly in you'll be met at the airport by a bunch of friendly taxi and moto drivers trying to rip off you "barang loblobs" (crazy foreigners) for all they can get. Don't believe their protestations that six of their nine children are starving. No, in Phnom Penh it costs $1 to get into town on the back of a moto (small motorbike) or $3-4 in a taxi. The trip takes about 15-20 minutes. Oh, and while you're at Pochentong Airport, keep an eye out for the old Chinese war planes which have been rusting there since the 70s.
But all this info is going to be acedemic to most of you. Planes shmanes, the best way to get into Cambodia, and the way to really set the scene and get in touch with Khmer life, is to do it the way they do. If that traveller talk doesn't mean anything to you, then think with your wallet. Look closely at the savings to be had...
Like any burgeoning tourist route, the road less travelled between Bangkok and Siem Reap is rapidly becoming the road most travelled. The road itself is a shocker. Probably one of the worst, and most inappropriately named, National Highway's anywhere on earth. But it's great fun. I digress.
If you're starting in Khoa San Rd you can pay about US $40 to be shepherded all the way from door to broken door with some dodgy "shuttle service". Otherwise, for less than $10 you can go EXACTLY the same way under your own steam.
This is how it works. You take a taxi (meter taxis are best) to the NORTHERN BUS STATION early in the morning. The earlier the better, because Bangkok traffic can bring a whole new meaning to nightmare, and the mornings are particularly bad. (Important, don't end up at the Eastern or Southern bus stations) You buy a ticket to Aranyaprathet, the town 6km from the border, for about 120 baht. The trip should take about 4-5 hours, depending on traffic, and the buses are fairly comfortable.
Once at Aranyaprathet, take a tuk tuk to Poipet, the border post. This should cost no more than 50 or 60 baht, and take 5 minutes or so. The tuk tuk will drop you right at the border post and the formalites take about 20 minutes.
So you're through the border without difficulty, now it starts getting interesting. Grab some food at one of the stalls and prepare to start haggling.
Pick-up trucks are the transport of choice throughout Cambodia. There are new ones, stolen ones, battered ones, slow ones, and plenty of straight out crap ones. But they will all get you from A to Z sooner or later. Plenty of touts will try to get you and your backpack into their pick-up or that of their brother/cousin/father/but not likely their mother. You will probably even be asked if you're with the "tour" -- the poor suckers who spent $40 in Khoa San Rd. Your reply of no will make you feel good as you watch them crouched in the back of that unforgiving truck.
You, having saved $30, will have the option of spending some of it on a more comfortable seat. The basic price range for the 130km trip to Siem Reap works something like this:
in the back .....$3
I've done options 1, 3 and 5,
and can recommend 5 as the most enjoyable, but 1 as the most
memorable. Take your pick.
The timing of your bumpy ride down Highway 6 is quite important. Up until recently the road was manned by dozens of "checkpoints", groups of underfunded soldiers using their AKs to lever a few riel from passing motorists. When I did the trip in March they had pretty much disappeared and we didn't actually stop for anyone. But if you're going to get any trouble it is going to come in the late afternoon or evening. The reason is quite simple, alcohol. Like bored men the world over, these guys reach for an ale (Angkor, in this case) to help pass the time. And the drunker they get the more chance there is of trouble.
The idea is to leave Poipet by 3pm. If you haven't, you could think about spending a night at Sisophon, about 30km along the road to Siem Reap. Sisophon is about an hours drive from the border but should be avoided if at all possible. It's a garrison town and full of soldiers, so it's arguable whether you're better risking the roads at night or staying there. The best solution is to make sure you get away on time.
One last point on the trip. If you're travelling in the wet season -- between May and September -- the trip will be considerably longer than it is in the dry season, when the pick-ups spend more time actually off the road in the smooth, flat, rice paddies than they do on it.
When you finally arrive in
Siem Reap, the accommodation options are many and varied.
At the bottom end is Smileys, a fun but basic guest house with
doubles and twins for $5 a night. In between there are
several 1, 2 and 3-star establishments, ranging from about
US $10 a night to about $50. If money is no object whatsoever,
there's the famous old French colonial-era Grand Hotel d'Angkor,
which has been renovated by Singapore's Raffles Group. Rooms
are a pinch, starting at about $250-a-night.
Poipet is not the only way to
get into Cambodge from Thailand. The other is a mixture of bus,
small boat, big boat and moto, known as the water route via Koh
Kong. Up until about October last year it was illegal, though
hardy travellers have been using it since about 1995.
FROM BANGKOK TO PHNOM PEHN VIA KOH KONG
As with the Poipet route, get an early start from Bangkok and it will make the end of your day much more pleasurable. Take a cab to the EASTERN BUS STATION (yes, different and much closer to the centre of town, though a fair haul from KHao San Rd). Buses to Trat leave every hour or so and the fare is about 169 baht. The trip takes about 5 hours. Once in Trat, either take an open-backed taxi or a minibus to the border at Had Lek. The minibus costs 100 baht and is airconditioned. It took me the 70km in about an hour, dropping me within 200m of the border. The open taxi is slower and only cheaper if you can share it with other travellers. When I got off the bus there wre 11 other whiteys but none was going to Cambodia. Trat is also the main jumping off point for Ko Chang, and that's where everyone else was headed.
The Thai border post is nothing more than a shack and the formalities reflect that. THe Cambodian side is a little more organised (can you believe that) and it takes about 10-15 minutes to get through. Once you have your passport back with its new Cambodian stamp, you won't get far before being accosted by a moto driver offering you a lift to Koh Kong town.
The trip takes about 20 minutes and the moto drivers are quite adept at carrying passengers AND their backpacks. Expect to pay about 20-30 baht. You won't make it all the way to town on your trusty moto. There is the small matter of a river mouth to cross, this being done in small speed boats. THe operators of these boats are renowned as cheats and con merchants, but unfortunately the use of their services is unavoidable. The 5-minute trip shouldn't cost you more than 30 baht, but negotiating will begin at about 100. Stand firm and you will knock them down, but keep an equally firm grip on your bags when you get to the other side. My friend Chris made the mistake of climbing out of the boat before picking up his bags. The sly capitan then pushed off and demanded 100 baht before he would return Chris his backpack. An intermediary boatsman was then used to facilitate the deal, leaving Chris 100 baht short and rather pissed off with local boar operators.
If you leave Bangkok at about 8am, you will probably get to Koh Kong town by about 3 or 4pm. There's not much to do but I'm reliably informed the local women of the night -- and their pimps -- are fairly aggressive in their approach to a "sale". Hotels are about $5 a night, and, as the "night porter" will inform you at about 4 in the morning, boast: "Porn, channel 4".
Late night porn is all well and good but when you have to be on a fast boat at 8am, a good night's sleep is more likely. Check the times, but the fast boat usually leaves at 8am or 8.15am, and takes 3 1/2 to 4 hours to get to Sihanoukville. It costs 500 baht or US $15, and you buy your tickets on the morning of the trip.
Sihanoukville is an ugly town, probably most notable for a serious dose of mercury poisoning last year and the Angkor Beer brewery. Well, there are some nice beaches and very friendly guesthouses, most notably Mealey Chenda. THe ladies who run Mealey Chenda are lovely, and the food on offer is both very tasty and pretty well priced. Watch the sun go down over the Gulf of Thailand from the balcony, with a cold Angkor in hand and an Ammoc Fish on the table -- not many better ways to finish a day and kick off a night. Rooms range from $2 to $6.
Of course, if you choose not to stay in Sihanoukville you can hot foot it straight up to Phnom Penh. A moto will take you straight to the Ho Wah Genting bus terminal (well, the patch of road where it stops), and you can cruise up Highway 4 to PP for the princely sum of 12,000 riel.
CURRENCY US $1 = about 4000 riel
You'd be forgiven for being a
little confused about the money situation in Cambodia. Here is
a beginners guide to cash in Cambodge.
The US dollar is the surrogate
currency for all of Indochina, and especially in Cambodia. Dollars
go a long way, but beware of carrying large denominations. There
are a stack of counterfeits polluting the system and it can sometimes
be tough to change 50s and 100s. I was paid with a couple
of counterfeits when I was working in PP earlier this year and
couldn't get rid of them until I arrived in Burma.
Finally, the riel is Cambodia's official currency. $1 equals about 4000 riel, and the smallest note is a 200. There are no coins. It's best to pay for most of your goods in riel, as the price will almost always be cheaper that way. Forget banks and bureaux de change, the street is the best and easiest place to buy riel. You'll see vendors with mountains of money sitting in little glass wheely-boxes all over town -- use them. It's legal and easy, but count the money fairly carefully. If anyone asks for a commission, laugh at them.
PHNOM PENH (that's P'NOM PEN, not NOM PEN, ask the locals)
Risky enough to excite, but not to endanger, Phnom Penh is one of the few towns on earth where anything goes. Sitting on the back of a moto is de rigeur in PP and it only takes an hour or two to get used to the idea. They don't usually go fast enough to get into too much trouble, so don't worry about not having a helmet. Most trips cost 1000 riel tops (though the riders will look at you mournfully because they KNOW you've got a money tree in your backyard), but if you're planning on staying around a few days it's an idea to rent a bike.
I usually stay at Narin's Guesthouse, at Number 50. 125 St. Most of the streets are numbered so it's not too difficult to get around. Narin's is cheap and nasty. The people are nice but your $3 a night does not buy you much. However the food is good and the beer is cold, so it can't be too bad. For something a little more upmarket, the Indochine on the river north of the FCCC is a good place to start. Rooms cost about $15 a double, with aircon, satellite and bathroom. ANd the location is great, right on the river and near to the brand new riverside huts which seem to have become the place to be after hours.
I won't go into PP's attractions
too much, but the Toul Sleng prison and Khmer Rouge torture
centre is well worth a look. The National Museum is also
good, and the Gunbowl, the government firing range, is
a lot of fun (usually for blokes, though some women have been
known to partake. If you ever dreamt of firing a rocket launcher,
this is your chance.
River 3, an outdoor establishment on the Tonle Sap river, does jugs of beer for 12,000 riel, which works out pretty cheap in PP. Once you're done with these two venues, head for the famous (or is that infamous) Heart of Darkness bar. "The Heart", as it is affectionately known, is not a large establishment, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in atmosphere. The staff are great and will be happy to roll a splif for whomever asks, free of charge. It usually opens about 8pm and closes when the last patron leaves. If you are a late finisher, be sure to take a moto driver who knows where you are going. THat's the safest way.
PHNOM PENH TO SIEM REAP -- THE FAST BOAT
Every morning two or three "fast
boats" head off from just beyond the Japanese Bridge
in the general direction of Siem Reap. They look dodgy, but the
trip is actually a lot of fun. The boats do the 300km in about
4 hours (barring breakdowns), and the roof is the best place
to sit. Yep, pack yourself and your bags onto the roof of the
boat and enjoy the early morning cool. Whatever you do, don't
forget the sunscreen!
SAIGON TO PHNOM PENH
The only really viable other way of getting into Cambodia is from Vietnam. If you are going to do this you'll need to take a bus from Saigon to the border and a share taxi from there. The whole trip takes about 6 hours and shouldn't cost more than $20 if you are travelling with a couple of others. Make sure you have the appropriate exit point on your Vietnamese visa or you'll be in all sorts of trouble at the border. And don't forget you'll need your Cambodian visa before you leave Saigon.
That is it. Best of luck on your travels, particularly to good old Cambodge.
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