The talesofasia guide to Sihanoukville and the south coast
by Jack Stephens
Updated October 12, 2006
GETTING THERE AND GETTING AROUND
See the Sihanoukville ‘Getting There’ section for an overview of transport choices.
There are three roads out of Kampot: west along Route #3 towards Sihanoukville; east along #33 to Kep; and roughly north to Phnom Penh, again on Route #3.
Kampot - Phnom Penh
Route #3 (heading north) – 148km – bumpy, narrow tarred road, pretty scenic
Easy from Kampot as there’s only one taxi stand. A ‘place’ in a car taxi is currently 13,000 riel ($3.25). I recommend taking the whole front seat, meaning you pay for two places. This way you’ll have space and comfort to enjoy the pleasant trip, and not arrive needing a hip replacement or an osteopath.
Journey time is around 2½ hours. Leaving earlier means more passengers so shorter waiting times. Fewer departures over lunch and difficult after 1pm. Bicycles can be transported – sometimes free, sometimes a couple of thousand riel.
Terminate at the decidedly grotty P’sar Dum Kor market in southwest Phnom Penh, kind of far out. 2 or 3000 riel on a moto into town; a little more for lakeside.
Minivans take a lot longer – 4hrs is not exceptional. They’re cramped, take ages to leave and carry all kinds of livestock and cargo. No aircon or fans, windows don’t shut during rainstorms. Not advisable, but it’s usually the last transport to leave town at around 3pm. Same taxi stand in the capital as car taxis – see above.
Buses run the ‘back way’ and take twice as long as a car taxi. At least you get one seat per ticket, the scenery is stunning and air-con keeps you from swooning during the hot season whilst you enjoy the mandatory violent video selection, Khmer comedy and karaoke. They operate a tired pricing scheme – ‘because foreigners have lots of money’ is their bullshit rationale. I once got local rate (from Kep to Kampot), but wasn’t issued with a ticket; it was the lad’s Khmer New Year bonus.
Two departures: 7:15a.m. …or there about, and 1:30pm. $4 for foreigners.
The Hour Lin company (white buses) has its depot at the Olympic Stadium (southwest side). Soriya Company buses (red n white) go to the main bus terminus just to the southwest of the Central Market (P’sar Thmey). The bus is fine if you’re in no hurry – but 5+ hours is too long for me; also they limit baggage to normal luggage, so leave cattle, bicycles, wardrobes etc at home.
From Phnom Penh: taxis and minivans leave from the often hot and grubby P’sar Dum Kor stand, which is near the Intercontinental Hotel in southwest Phnom Penh on Mao Tse Tong Boulevard. The touts can overwhelm some travellers: be firm with them, don’t put up with being man-handled, and stick to your guns on pricing, then enjoy the wait for fellow passengers.
Car taxis leave from sunrise, but fewer departures as afternoon shadows lengthen – but I always leave the city at this time. Taking the whole back seat (for around 50,000 riel or $12.50) will speed things up no end; a whole car will of course leave at the drop of a hat any time of day – aim to pay $18-$20.
A late minivan departure is the last vehicle to leave for Kampot – don’t take this. The driver is insane, the passengers are oversized merchants, and all know each other and have bellowing conversations non-stop. This van stops to load and unload and takes forever to arrive – you will not make it for happy hour.
Buses from Phnom Penh as outlined above.
Train services are strictly cargo only these days. See ‘Things to do’ section for riding bamboo trains though – great fun and they really whizz along.
Kampot – Sihanoukville
Despite both being ports and the fact that Kampot was Cambodia’s main seaport before Sihanoukville’s deep-water harbour was put on the map in the mid 1950’s there is no passenger service between the two towns. Time to hit the road then, and a nice road trip it is too.
National Routes #4 and #3 – 95km, two thirds of which are paved.
Biking this route is sweet. In a nutshell, it’s: leave Sihanoukville, turn right at the only real town after 40-odd km and when you cross an arched bridge over a wide river some 54km later you are in Kampot. Route 4 is sealed and in mostly fine condition (odd rough patches or potholes to keep you on your toes). The junction town of Veal Renh (say it like the meat and ‘ring’) is where you make a right-angled turn to the east – that’s a right turn if you’re going Sihanoukville - Kampot and vice versa. This section of Route #3 is much wider, thankfully quieter and instantly scenic with the Elephant Mountain range coming to an abrupt end in front of you, an imposing cliff wall rising towards the 1000-metre mark. This will be on your shoulder all the way to Kampot, with Bokor Mountain being one of the nearer peaks to Kampot – you can easily make out the rectangular former casino building on the cliff top during clearer moments.
At the time of writing (mid 2006) the road is tarmac within the land area of the greater Sihanoukville municipality, with the final 30-odd km into Kampot still being worked on by a Korean-led crew. It’s dusty when dry, splattering when wet, but passable year-round (barring the major flooding of 2006).
Taxis charge 10,000 riel ($2.50) if you’re leaving Kampot for Sihanoukville, but there’s a fixed scam at the Sihanoukville taxi stand, with an adapted sign declaring an artificially raised fare of 14,000 riel ($3.50) for foreigners – thanks guys. You can try pressing for the local fare. An hour and a half should complete the trip – once wheels finally start rolling of course.
Minivans charge 8,000 riel ($2) in either direction. As usual they’re slower, smellier and less comfortable.
Both car and van taxis leave from the stand downtown in Sihanoukville opposite the main market (P’sar Leu – pronounced as in ‘fur’). This is a different departure point to Phnom Penh-bound taxis, which leave a large city block away along with the buses.
In Kampot all transport leaves from the same stand one block from the main traffic circle, or a pleasant enough stroll of 5 blocks from the riverfront.
Boats and trains are not currently operating passenger services. There are however homemade micro trains that run short sections of track (where there are folk around), resembling a bed frame with train wheels on simple axles and an engine to power the thing. They’re a fun way to scoot a few miles up the track. Large wooden cargo vessels moor in Kampot, laden almost exclusively with instant noodles, white sugar and canned Red Bull. It’s all shipped in from the last town in Thailand before the border (Khlong Son), so in theory you could try to charm and pay your way into letting them give you a ride as far as the mouth of the river in Koh Kong, where they stop for a routine customs once-over. If anyone does make this trip, don’t forget to write!
Kampot – Kep
Route #33 - 25km – sealed, good condition – jolly scenery
Moto taxis charge $2 to $4 one-way for this 25km run. I know they won’t have a return fare, but $4 goes a long way in Cambodia. Better value to agree in advance upon a round trip fee, that way you’ll have the services of the driver for short trips in Kep too.
The bus is the cheapest option, but only two departures daily at 7:15-ish in the morning and 1:30pm. The fare should be 3000 riel, but they may try to overcharge “because foreigners have more money”.
From Kep, your beachside food lady can flag down the bus a few yards from the beach; towel done, slip on your flip-flops and shuffle onto the cool aircon bus in your Speedos – or dress more modestly to avoiding looking a fool. Buses come thru Kep on their way from Phnom Penh at around noon and 5pm.
It’s pancake flat from Kampot to Kep and do-able on a pushbike for those with reasonable fitness (might not feel like riding the next day if your cycling legs are rusty). Turn right at the White Horse monument three-quarters of the way from Kep – can’t miss it.
Kampot to Vietnam Border (Phnom Den – Chau Doc)
Few locals have the necessity to make this trip, but a whole car can be shared between a group of you. Aim to pay $18-20 to commandeer the vehicle right to the border crossing.
Head out towards Kep but bear left at the White Horse, head through Kompong Trach (the next town of any size), where limestone outcrops emerge from the flat green countryside. A few kilometres out of town, the tarmac road bends left at 90°. It’s now marked Route#31. The next town of any size is Tuk Meas (with a cool arched white concrete bridge over a small river below).
Leave the wide blacktop main road down the shady turn-off to the right (east). This road is bumpy laterite at first (but they are working on it), then rollered and wide with nice vistas; going straight and sticking to the main track will after an hour or so (longer if you’re pedalling) will end up on a brand new tarmac surface.
This is Route #2; turn left (north) for Takeo and Phnom Penh, going right a half dozen km takes you to the border checkpoint, a rudimentary affair last time I was there.
The town you pass thru (at the junction) is called D’lor-up (on signs, ‘Tonlaup’); there’s one nasty guesthouse (signed) with stupidly arranged rooms for the standard $5 fee. Poor dining options here too. A new Poipet it is not.
Those with motorbikes who arrive late or want to stay the night are advised to zoom up the fine highway to Takeo (less than 50km away). Find the Phnom Da guesthouse in the old part of town, right on the waterfront where you get boats to Angkor Borei. This place has the nicest $5 rooms I’ve ever come across in Cambodia; there’s a great breezy balcony area with really nice views. Takeo has the best street eats in Cambodia that have ever lined my stomach too.
This is not the main Chau Doc border crossing. From the other side, there are few transport options to the nearest town. Brace yourself for the hustle of touts Viet Nam style.
As usual, Vietnamese visas are NOT available on arrival – get one on super-fast turnaround at the consulate in Sihanoukville.
But Cambodian visas ARE available at the border - $20 for tourist visa (extendable only once and only for one month - $40 fee), and $25 for a business visa (anyone can ask for one, no documents needed, just cash. Business visas can basically be extended forever – how convenient is that?)
Kampot – Vietnam Border (Ha Tien)
The Ha Tien border is still not a fully functional international crossing point. When it eventually is, it will at last open the route to travel the coastal route from Pattaya or Koh Chang, through into Cambodia at Koh Kong, on to Sihanoukville, Kampot, Kep, then across into southern Vietnam’s Mekong Delta area and perhaps to the enigmatic Phu Quoc island, that the Khmers still call Koh Trol and claim as their own (the looping maritime border certainly looks as if there’s been some funny business at work).
Rumours of the imminent inauguration of the Ha Tien crossing have still not brought its reality any nearer. Sort it out guys.
Kampot – Koh Kong (and on to Thailand)
One morning minivan departure daily. Takes a very long time (happy hour will be over); lots of walking in muddy sections, and a team effort is often required to free the vehicle from the mud. Isn’t there a better way to get there? you may well ask yourself. Guesthouses and tour agents can arrange pick-up from your abode.
Motorbiking this trip will take most of the day. See the Sihanoukville section for route directions.
Thailand issues many (but not all) western nationalities a free stamp in your passport, permitting 30 days in the country. This is not a full visa though – they must be applied for at Thai consulates; try Phnom Penh, Saigon, or the services of a good travel agent.
Cambodia gladly dishes out visas in exchange for cash. But beware of ‘official scams’.
Kampot town is compact enough to cover easily on foot or with a pushbike; and it’s flat too. The old town has ample charm suiting a gentle amble, plus the pleasant climate and breeziness allows a relaxed pace to meander the quiet back streets, muse on the ramshackle Chinese-influenced colonial architecture and check the fine views.
Kampot still has a fleet of bicycle-powered trailers – different from the stylish cyclos of Phnom Penh. Drivers rarely speak any English, and though most are used for cargo, they will gladly take you for a spin. Gestures and grunts will help direct your driver. They never charge much either – and that’s something you can’t say of the cyclo drivers in the capital.
But there’s much more to a stay in Kampot than the immediate town vicinity. Unless you enjoy being herded around with a crowd, you’re going to need some transport.
There are far fewer moto taxis than other towns, even drivers for locals are thin on the ground. At night, the only likely place to find one is the traffic circle. Some drivers (“I’ll be your tour guide”) aim at the foreign market; language skills, local knowledge, adventurousness and fees vary. Some folk hire a driver to pilot the dirtbike they’ve hired, pay the Bokor entrance fee, all fuel bills and buy him lunch too.
Bicycles are ideal: freedom, quiet, cheap, healthy. Simple, single-speed shopper bikes can be rented for a dollar from a few guesthouses. These will do for short jaunts on tarmac, but for longer, bumpier, hilly explorations a mountain bike is far more practical. Bokor is possible but requires decent equipment, good base fitness and determination.
Motorbikes are available in two species: the 100cc Honda Dream and a fleet of 250cc dirtbikes. Dreams are amazing bikes, are simple to ride and can get you through some pretty extreme terrain – the locals do trails with a huge pig on the back of these workhorse machines. Some foreigners still try to ascend Bokor three-up on one of these – a tricky, long, hard day in the saddle. One each makes more sense. Check tyre pressure, brakes, lights (or you won’t find out till you need ’em) and so forth.
A dirtbike is not essential for most trips; sure, it’ll be a bit quicker 'n' smoother, but they’re heavier, cost more to hire and to fuel, and require greater skill to learn. Rental dirtbikes in Kampot take a real beating, with a mandatory 80km round-trip to Bokor (often piloted by less experienced riders) wearing tires, engines and gears quicker than usual. Try to get the grippiest back tyre going. A short test drive is advisable.
Bokor may not be ideal for absolute beginners.
Rental shops (two of them) are one block south of the traffic circle. Sean Ly is the better mechanic, has more bikes and always wears a smile. They require a passport and charge $3 for a Dream and $7-10 for a dirtbike – and that’s a 24-hr rental period. Newer Suzuki Djebels and Honda Bajas aren’t in bad condition as of September 2006.
Tip: using quality gasoline is more economical in the long run. The Total garage (opposite the taxi stand) is probably the best of the bunch, and they’re all right there despite being French-owned (couldn’t resist it - no apologies, Zidane style). ‘Jungle petrol’ (dispensed from drinks bottles) may be 10% cheaper, but it doesn’t get you nearly as far.
Cars with drivers can be found at the taxi stand (there’s only one and it’s east of the traffic circle). Fees vary with your proposed itinerary. Taxi drivers are highly unlikely to want to drive up Bokor Mountain – it ruins vehicles. Self-drive is an unlikely option as in most towns in Cambodia.
4x4 driving up the Bokor trail can be great fun. You can rent decent vehicles (Pajeros, Land Cruisers) at a few locations in Phnom Penh and you can self-drive. Some operations can pick up the car from a designated point so you don’t necessarily have to backtrack.
Sihanoukville/Kampot Guide index page
Getting There and Getting Around
Things to See and Do
restaurants, tours and more
The text appearing on this page is © 2006 Jack Stephens. For the rest of the website, unless otherwise noted, all text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder(s) is prohibited.