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November 21, 2005

by Jim CA2

Looking for a travel story well…I don’t have one, but I am getting out in October…really. I must admit I got stuck in Phnom Penh for the last couple of months. Slow season came late and I believe it will be short lived so I have been enjoying it while I can. The tourists will be roaring back and by printing time they will already have begun arriving or be pulling up the site on the net making travel plans. One nice thing about the quiet time is you get the opportunity actually to converse with many of the acquaintances you have around town, because during this period it is all too common that you are the only one in a particular bar and welcome the company. This was the case one late night in the Walkabout where Sam a big Maori Kiwi friend of mine actually got to converse. I have known Sam for some time and have crossed paths with him as far as Sukhumvit Soi 7, but usually just small talk. Sam said he has read my previous travel articles in the Pearnik and whether he was truthful or not, he supports the Oakland Raiders wearing their colors and that’s alright in my book. Sam sez…I need to take some of my previous travel stories to a more personal level but I’d rather keep to the boring facts as to what, where and how far, and let my readers fill in the blanks with their own experiences as they venture to some of the places I am able to share. Staying around town I have been able to keep my ear to the ground a little and Sam if you’re actually reading, the personal touch that makes me feel good is cutting out some of the legwork that my readers will have to go through, to make the most of their Cambodia experience. Where applicable, I’ll throw in my two cents this time. This piece is more geared to the tourist who will be arriving, or stuck at their computers wishing they were here.

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Travelers Info The guide books are out. Adventure Cambodia, Matt Jacobson’s account of out of the way places with the motorcyclist and bicyclist in mind has been out for a year now and though road conditions are getting better (and in some cases worse) it still offers a lot of great out of the way adventures. The new Lonely Planet, by Nick Ray is finally out just in time for the next season as well. It shouldn’t be long until the Rough Guide makes an appearance as well. As the travel landscape of Cambodia ’ rapidly changes its nice that they have come out on staggered years. Keeping up with the changes will keep these authors employed for years to come. I wish them all luck in keeping the originals away from the photocopiers who employ the street kids to hawk books on the riverfront.

The Gecko Map has finally come out with a revision. This is the definitive travel map for Cambodia . They too are having trouble keeping up with the rapid changes. Included in this revision is the road along the Thai border between Pailin and Poipet and Christian from the Rusty Keyhole Kampot reports good fun in the mud on that route, and that there is a new concrete vehicle bridge adjacent to the old suspension bridge just out of Pailin. The route out of Snoul on the way to Sen Monorom, and many others are also included. For the real adventurer, you will be happy to know they still missed a few. Road conditions rapidly change and so far if it’s a route in from Thailand, chances are the road won’t be good. Rainy season once again has stalled progress between Koh Kong and Route 4, as well as Route 7 between Stung Treng and Kracheh, and as of this writing one of the best motorcycle dirt tracks in the country still remains the heaviest overland travel route from Thailand (Poipet) to Siem Reap!

Techno Geeks will be happy to know that Garmin has also updated their world map software for their GPS units and it is backward compliant, so previous edition waypoints haven’t become obsolete!

Money Carry only what you can afford to lose. One guy came through my joint and complained how Cambodia was so expensive. “How do you figure?” I asked. Well this idiot was factoring in that he was spending his riel at less than 75 cents on the dollar. Victim of the 2500 to 3000 riel for one dollar exchange rate offered by tour operators when coming overland from Thailand. Currently the dollar is worth between 4000 and 4200 riel and dollars are spent here so don’t change your money.

Though Canadia Bank actually beat them to the punch, they along with ANZ Bank, have ATMs in Cambodia now. Some locals have opened accounts at ANZ and are pretty satisfied. Average daily wages in Cambodia are from 1-2 dollars a day, don’t give beggars a buck as it sends the wrong message to the working class, and especially be weary of the short haired American guy with tattoos asking for 2-4 dollars. His mom sends him cash Western Union and he has been seen waving around as many as 3 C notes at a time.

Upon arrival to the Kingdom tourist as well as locals can get all the up to date info from The Bayon Pearnik as well as The Canby and Cambodia Pocket Guides available at a number of bars, restaurants and hotels in all the larger tourist spots through out the country. Links to these and others can be found at www.bayonpearnik.com.

Airplanes, Boats, Trains, Busses, Taxis, Motos, Cyclos….Ox Carts

No doubt about it, the best way to Phnom Penh from Thailand is by air. Remember leaving Bangkok there is a 500 Baht airport departure tax and out of Phnom Penh the tax is 25 dollars. Budget accordingly.

Contrary to the headlines in a recent Phnom Penh Post of water rising to Year 2000 levels, it hasn’t unless you consider being with in three meters is near 2000 levels in which case every year is near 2000 levels. Being on the riverfront one of my past times is counting steps on the embankment. For you record keepers, here are recent year breakdowns. 2005 10th step from the top, 2004 8th step from the top, 2003 13th step from the top, 2002 4th step from the top. In 2000 people were sitting on the wall doing commerce with the small boats that were able to pull right up as the water was at the top step, but never broke the banks. Not to take anything away from the Post however, you only have to ask a New Orleans resident how much it really matters if your house is one meter or five meters underwater and the poor people of Prey Veng know yearly what its like to have two seasons…drought and flood. Kandal Market/Street 13, Street 178, the Royal Palace, and various other spots around town didn’t experience flood levels from heavy showers until September late in the rainy season and unlike New Orleans, many vendors stay open despite the high waters. Is there a Khmer word for looter control? This being said, hopefully for the farmers throughout the country, the rains will linger and they can get the most out of their crops. I know a few farmers in Kampot Province from a ride last year who suffered from a short rainy season and a miniscule rice harvest.

The level of the Tonle Sap has seemed to peak mid-September and should be reversing direction soon, but there is still plenty of water for a boat trip between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. The levels should support an uninterrupted (sand bar) trip at least through December. This is still a rip off for 25 dollars one way, with the possibility either being crammed below or baking on the roof.

The picturesque boat trip between Battambang and Siem Reap is as good as it gets right now. As the season progresses, the boat operators will continue to operate large boats trial and error to determine that the water level won’t support them. Eventually they will use an outboard dingy to make the trip until such time that you won’t be able to make the trip. If you are going overland to Siem Reap, budget some time to make the trip to Battambang on the bus (5 hours) then take the boat to Siem Reap from there. Well worth the detour.

Boat service from Phnom Penh to Kracheh is non-existent despite what the back issue guide books tell you. Good (but deteriorating) road from Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham has replaced boat service with frequently operating buses. Even out of Kampong Cham, boat service is iffy. Buses run from Phnom Penh all the way to Kracheh, but Kampong Cham offers a few nice temples and day trips through rubber plantations, and waterfalls to warrant a stop over.

There are daily boats down the Mekong to Chau Doc, Vietnam. Contrary to what the boat operators tell you, the trip will take about five hours from Phnom Penh (visa processing/border crossing included). While you are planning your trip, take out your encyclopedia and look at the map. Many prior travelers haven’t been aware that Ho Chi Minh is still another six hours away from Chau Doc by bus. Visa is required to get into Vietnam and can be obtained in Phnom Penh and the consulate in Sihanoukville, not at the border.

Trains…you have to be real foamer. Trains still run between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville and Battambang. The trips are long, bring your own hammock.

Bus service throughout the Kingdom has expanded in recent years opening up the country for visitors and locals alike. Mekong Express Bus service has been getting high marks and in my opinion the six dollar ticket, ac, restroom on board and one lunch stop makes it the preferred service between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. The road is good and the trip takes 5 hours.

Phnom Penh-Ho Chi Minh also is served by the Mekong Express company but I haven’t had any reports. Phnom Penh Public Bus Company however has been reported to have a no BS six-hour run on a nice bus, but take the same bus company to Poipet and the condition of the bus and the service is quite contrary. On a positive note, the travel companies have been moving away from the operating hours that the Khmer Rouge established for the country, and are beginning to offer departures later than the rooster crows. Best to buy tickets a day in advance to ensure proper departure times.

There are still plenty of scams and delayed arrivals at obscure guesthouses. Don’t leave belongings on the bus un-attended or let the buses take off for service with your luggage underneath. Again don’t get caught in their money changing scam either.

Gas prices have gone up around the world and it’s a dollar a liter here. The price of a private taxi is not what it used to be, but can be negotiated to a reasonable level. Just make sure when you bargain you factor in the gas price and the fact that the driver needs to return and still make a buck. Shared taxis are very reasonable as a friend of mine reported a 6000 riel trip from Kampong Chhnang. He had the cab to himself as there weren’t any travelers to be picked up that day. Feeling sorry for the driver he threw him some additional cash. Motos are feeling the pinch as well so expect to pay a little more for farther distances.

I know I felt the pinch as well when I took a trip around the lake in July. It wasn’t as cheap to fill my tank. Factor this in if you are renting a motorbike for personal touring. Guesthouses, food, beer, gas prices put me around 40 dollars a day and I wasn’t extravagant. If you are a tourist and planning on renting a bike, be advised that Phnom Penh is currently running a major campaign to weed out the weak gene pool. With most of the roads in the city paved now, morons race through the city with little regard to road courtesy, or traffic signals and signs. There are many cases at night where the only two vehicles in a quiet neighborhood will meet each other abruptly at an intersection. Infrastructure dealing with such an occurrence is still at a level in which guys in one vehicle will pull out guns and shoot at the other vehicle as it tries to flee. The other day three guys on a Daelim were being pursued at a high rate of speed north along Sisowath by another three guys on a Daelim with the last guy waving a machete. Suffice to say I could see them go past death intersection then hit the ground in front of the Jungle Bar. I don’t know the outcome but a typical crowd sans proper authorities gathered until the situation somehow resolved itself. Quite a nice display for tourists in a capital city. I guess what I am saying is, no matter how careful you drive don’t get caught in the middle of the campaign. As for the authorities, September is the slow season, the tourist pretty much have left the scene, but a tourist police mini van has now made an appearance cruising Sisowath along the riverfront. It would have been nicer to see them when there was a rash of purse and backpack snatching in the height of the tourist season. Carry only what you can afford to lose and don’t carry your belongings loosely over your shoulder. Putting salt on the wound, in most cases a police report will cost you money.

Even with the rains I got some good reports from guys who did make it out of town. There was fun in the mud around T’beng Meanchey. One guy made a trip all the way to Koh Ker and missed the pyramid all together (his photos of the surrounding temple grounds revealed he only had about 100 meters left to walk in to see it!). A couple of other guys had an overniter at Bokor Mountain Station. Five dollars will get you a night on top of the mountain (they got a good feed as well for free) and construction is in place for more accommodation. BYOB.

Despite rains, Sharky and Ginger Monkey were able to pull of some good cyclo pub crawls in recent months. Turnout small due to the rains but good fun for the participants. At one point it looked like you would have needed a boat to get to the cyclos in front of the Ginger Monkey. Cyclos scare me to death. It may be just me but some how I am not comfortable sitting in a cyclo barreling through cross traffic on Norodom Blvd. on a Saturday night. Safety in numbers?

Route 66, Siem Reap-Prasat Bakan is still the best ox cart tour in the country. Mud or sand, and slow going even on a 250cc. My last trip by the entrance of the route at Beng Mealea showed some road progress in that direction but it’s anyone’s guess as to how far in. I wasn’t too pleased to see a friend’s photographs of his last trip there and all the Danger Land Mine signs about. I have recanted many of travel stories with plenty of motorcyclist who have made the trip and there were no land mine signs present when we all went. I imagine they want to scare the looters from taking the last two percent of artifacts left that haven’t been shipped off to Thailand .

I still haven’t heard of any fees for this temple but it shouldn’t be too long in the distant future. Beng Mealea and Koh Ker now command a 10 dollar entrance fee. Remember when paying entrance fees to any of the wonders around the country to make sure you get a ticket/receipt; otherwise negotiate half fare to keep the vendor from pocketing the whole amount.

Bars, Bars, and more Bars have opened this rainy season. Phnom Penh hasn’t matched Sihanoukville’s more bars than customers yet, but the rainy season gives that impression. News coming out of Sihanoukville is most of the current bar activity is where the land title disputes are. Stay tuned to the Snippets as reports come in. On the PNH front, The Gym (sports) Bar has satellite TV and this American was pretty much out of place among Brits and Aussies for Phnom Penh’s only coverage of the Cricket match between the two countries. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust the murder in the Heart of Darkness has closed their doors for a while but The Butterfly Bar is making a go at rejuvenating Street 51 dance scene, and Howie’s is now open until 6am. George Bar around Wat Phnom is picking up the slack for bar staff getting off work looking for late night dancing. Freebird on 240 has been beautifully remodeled and along with the Jungle Bar on Sisowath offer internet connection. Sharky’s BBQ the first Sunday of every month can’t be beat nor can their new Nine Ball pool table. Barbados has joined Dingo, Kit Kat, and Pancho Villa on 108. Street 102 welcomes Slippery Sams next door to the Ratamon Café, while OneZeroFour and Chez Ton Ton opened on adjacent Street 104. Talking to A Stranger celebrated its re-opening as well on Street 294, and Cantina on the riverfront is experiencing a remodel. The list goes on and I am sure will be expanded by the time the tourists begin arriving so hang in there. Remember the Liver is Evil and must be punished. As for me, I will have savored the tranquility in Phnom Penh for the remainder of September. And Sam, I’ll talk to you again next slow season. JimCA2



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