The talesofasia guide to Sihanoukville and the south coast
by Jack Stephens
Updated September 8, 2006
Sihanoukville/Kampot Guide index page
GETTING TO AND FROM SIHANOUKVILLE
Trains, boats and planes. All are possible (though for now you’ll have to bring your own two wings), but road transport is king these days. Share taxis, private cars and grotty minivans ply the main arteries, and add big buses to the list on the route to Phnom Penh. Quite a few people rent (or buy) a motorbike for their adventures in Cambodia, while some hardy souls pedal bicycles. You can even your own rental car or 4WD. Details for all transport options follow.
Note that crude oil prices naturally reflect upon travel costs. Fares are in a state of flux these days, generally creeping upwards of course.
Tip : if you know the going rate, stick to your guns and you can get the normal price. Politeness may be stretched a little, and a bit of the lingo does help.
Bus is the most common way to travel the route from beach to capital. Air-conditioned vehicles with fairly comfortable seats and usually enough legroom leave throughout the day, though as yet there are no night buses. Leaving at or just after set times, with given prices and one person-per-seat, this is the most organised way to go. Sometimes the air-con doesn’t quite hit the spot though, and the endless videos get rather grating – mustachio’d slapstick, violent Hong Kong movies, cheesy zombie movies and Chinese period dramas are complemented by Khmer karaoke vids. Bus travel is not my favourite.
Taxis leave when they’re full, or more precisely when all places have been paid for. If you want the whole front seat, or decide to share the back seat with a friend, then money will secure that comfort. Standard practice dictates the back seat is room enough for four places; the passenger seat is two places (and sometimes the driver will squeeze in another passenger half on his lap, arms around the punter and the gear stick being between someone’s legs – friendly folk Khmers).
Following this pricing scheme, you can have the whole car by buying up all the places (work on paying 6 x standard fare). That way you really will leave now (distinctly different from the Khmer ‘leave now’ of the touts), plus you can make a couple of short stops along the way and be in sole control of the air-con and the stereo.
The bulk of share taxis leave early in the day, following the travel habits of Khmers (early starts rule); far fewer passengers will show up after midday and travel numbers are lower in the rainy months. Take a whole one if you’re in a hurry or feeling flush.
Prices rise around the major festivals.
Touts can seem aggressive and manhandle passengers (because so many locals let them get away with this) – you can show them this is not acceptable if it gets to you.
Paying on arrival is the norm in Cambodia – that way your driver has to get you to Point B before he can expect payment.
Minivans are the poor man’s choice in Cambodia. They’re recommended for cheapskates, those who enjoy competition standards for fitting humans in one vehicle, fans of hairy rides with bald tires, suspect brakes and non-stop honking (all coming as standard). Also great for transmitting colds from spluttering passengers, bird flu from the onboard poultry; add trussed up and squealing pigs, kids and grannies with diarrhea, ripe cargos of durian, no air-con, windows that don’t shut properly in the rain, battered seats with prominent springs and you have a very atmospheric ride.
I only take these hillbilly stopping services if there are no other options leaving and I’ve got to hit the road that day. Best avoided, but for ascetics and masochists they are cheap and eventful; expect longer journey times as stops can be frequent. They even take ages to finally leave the taxi stand, often making repeated loops hawking for yet more fares.
Note that kids (even young teens) don’t count in pricing, so they aren’t allocated seating place, but they do still of course take up space. The big festivals blow away the normal count of 20-something passengers; prices go up too. (See the tips above about pricing and touts)
There is one major plus however: minivans are a great option for transporting larger items from town to town – I’m not making a ‘your mother’ gag – fridges, motorbikes, livestock or baby grand pianos can be carried for very reasonable sums. Make sure it’s a well-packaged didgeridoo that you try to smuggle aboard – many passengers find them offensive and you could be asked to disembark.
Train travel used to be a popular choice on this line with more adventurous (often younger) foreigners. Taking over a dozen hours, with bench seats and open wagons, no toilets, no fans and so on, it was a bare bones transport option – and it was even free for non-Khmers for a couple of years (and who was complaining of two-tier pricing then?). See the past tense cropping up here? That’s because the official word is that there are no longer passenger services. It’s a shame since the marathon train-surfing trip passed through stunning scenery, and as ever with trains you have a feeling of cutting right through the countryside that road travel just doesn’t give you.
I suppose it might be possible to ‘encourage’ a railway worker to allow you to sit aboard a goods carriage – money may provide the necessary motivation for this, and I dare say that a relationship with the stationmaster would improve your chances markedly.
Biking (with or without an engine) varies with choice of highways, the busy Route #4 to PP getting interesting with buses, 18-wheelers and racing Camrys not really caring that your two wheels are also on the road, whereas the road from Sihanoukville to Kampot is wider, quieter and more leisurely, and the road to Koh Kong is more of a remote adventure highway.
Overtaking is less thought out than in ‘civilised’ nations; and right-hand drive cars often take blind pot shots at passing the vehicle in front of them. Bigger vehicles are more powerful, but all are out-trumped by big egos with red and blue military plates, and the Land Cruiser/Lexus set are kings of the road.
On most routes you’ll never be far from a stall selling gasoline (from drinks bottles) or rudimentary mechanics and puncture repair facilities. Drinks and cheap snacks are very widely available along the way too.
Self-drive rentals are still rare and the above guidelines mostly apply. In the words of a friend, whichever mode of transport you choose to pilot, “drive defensively in Cambodia.”
Boats are rare these days despite their charm and that Sihanoukville, Koh Kong, Kampot and Kep all touch salty water. See individual sections where floating transport is an option.
SIHANOUKVILLE - PHNOM PENH
230km – National Route #4 – good, smooth surface, broken in a few places – narrow tarmac strip, fast moving cars and container trucks.
Bus is the most common way. The journey takes just over 4 hours, sometimes a little longer if getting through the outskirts of Phnom Penh is busy. These air-con buses seem to thunder down the road, but there average speed is under 60km/h, that’s under 40mph and that’s not at all fast. Maybe it’s the narrowness of the black top surface that adds to the impression of speed. Animal cargo limited to pet dogs and prize cocks.
Bus from Phnom Penh : from the bus stand near Soriya shopping mall (the one with the blue glass dome), two companies offer similar services. Take whichever is leaving next. Price is 15,000 riel ($3.75) – but subject to change with crude oil costs. First bus leaves around 7:15a.m. Latest departure is 1:30pm.
Capitol Tours do the run too – and by no means is this a backpacker express; Capitol guesthouse restaurant in the O Reussey district is nowadays a churning bus terminal. Price, speed, times similar, though less frequent.
Bus from Sihanoukville : the bus and main taxi stand is downtown. Last bus leaves at 2pm.
Taxis leave from a frequently frantic zone to the northwest of the Central Market (P’sar Thmey) in Phnom Penh, almost on the corner with Monivong Boulevard (that’s one of the big, wide arteries in the capital). Due to the success of bus services, share taxis are less common on the Sihanoukville route. Turning up any time after dawn but before 9a.m. and you should find the ride fills up pretty quickly – after that fewer passengers show up and waiting time lengthens.
The going rate was 15,000 riel ($3.75) per place (two ‘places’ in the front passenger seat; four across the back seat). Fuel costs could force these rates a little. Faster than the bus, you’ll arrive in 2½-3 hours, but be warned that taking only one place leaves you a bit bent up and stiff. Animals must travel in the boot (trunk).
Minivans leave from the northwest of the Central Market (P’sar Thmey) in PP, nearby the car taxis. Price is around 10,000 riel ($2.50); expect longer journey times as stops can be frequent. It ain’t pleasant but does offer a cross section of Cambodia’s rural poor. All species permitted.
Train – not for human cargo these days. See the section on trains above.
Biking on Route #4 is often not all that fun. Many car drivers treat this as a time trial race track, truckers addled on amphetamine likewise; plus with minivan drivers mainlining Red Bull and motorbike trailers pulling out blindly you’ll regularly be forced (or choose) to drop from the tarmac onto the laterite shoulder, which can be soft and sandy or rather sloppy in sections – dangerous at high speeds. Transporting live cargo can be hazardous on two wheels.
In all, Route 4 is not a good choice for your first motorbike trip. It’s narrow, heavily trafficked and offers few areas of attractive scenery.
SIHANOUKVILLE - KAMPOT
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 to Kampot and left if 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!
SIHANOUKVILLE - KOH KONG and THAILAND
For years the sea was the only route to Koh Kong. The same Malaysian riverboats still operate (though at a lower capacity) since an ambitious road was cut (‘recut’ is more accurate) through the hilly rainforest in 2001. National Route #48 was never sealed though and the particularly heavy monsoon rains in 2006 have given it a real beating.
Boats leave from the dock just down the road from the main port area. If riverboats seem an odd choice for the Gulf of Thailand, then the moniker ‘floating coffins’ might strike a chord. As far as I know none has ever sunk, though most repeat passengers have tales to tell of serious listing, impressive bow waves and moments when you weren’t totally convinced all was well.
Inside feels more like a plane but the non-stop violent movies or karaoke at high volumes, vomiting locals and bone chilling air-con often drive foreigners onto the deck where they can burn their skin effectively on the 4-5 hour trip – or enjoy some fabulous rainstorms depending on the season.
Two-tier pricing is standard on long distance boat transport in Cambodia with very few exceptions (short hops across rivers on any kind of ferry charge all God’s children the same).
Foreigner price is $15 from the jetty ticket office, usually cheaper through a guesthouse, driver, agent or even tout whichever your departure point is. Khmers pay a little under half that rate. Pay up or go find a taxi, as they won’t budge on these ticketing ‘regulations’.
Some islands and nice looking beaches come into view and it’s a pleasant enough trip when the sea isn’t too rough. The very brief stop at Koh S’dack (‘King’s Island’ – though I aint never seen the royal flag flying so I guess he doesn’t stay there often) makes the mind imagine ‘what if I stopped off for the night’. It’s a tiny island, but there is a guesthouse (of sorts) and you won’t starve – give it a go if you are prepared to sacrifice half your travel fare, or plan in advance and buy a ticket for half-price only as far as this island.
Road - Paved on the Route 4 section and from the turn off until the small, not uninteresting port town of Sre Ambel (83 km from Sihanoukville).
Unpaved and deteriorating gravel and laterite surface between Sre Ambel and Koh Kong town – a further 150km.
Taxis of three varieties make the overland route. When the road’s in fair shape a car taxi (almost all white Camrys) is quickest. Pick-ups should get you through better when things get slippery and muddy, but they’re often so heavily loaded that they can easily get bogged down. Minivans bring up the rear in terms of speed, comfort and roadworthiness. Backpackers are often herded into foreigners-only vans and are charged a premium rate for this service.
This route is probably my favourite taxi ride in the whole country. It passes through real rainforest and over rolling foothills, and the crossings of four rivers offer scenic breaks to stretch your legs as ferries fill up and push you on your way.
Travel times vary greatly. 5 hours would be a very good effort, but it could end up being double that, especially in a minivan.
Prices may rise in the muddiest periods of the rainy season and with fuel cost hikes.
Car taxis and pick-ups are around 400 baht per place (see notes above on pricing. It’s rather cramped in the back of the cab of a pick-up; use those long legs and/or fat ass as a reason to get the front seat – this trick has a high success rate.
Minivans are a little cheaper (but the financial saving is minimal) for regular local travel. However, guesthouse cartels have touts scouting for scalps as soon as or before you cross the border. Backpackers pay extra for this, but then they do have enormous bags to stow aboard, are larger than your average Khmer, and the touts do a good job of segregating foreign tourists.
Motorbiking this journey is a great trip. Dirtbikes are first choice as the surface and gradients would really strain a 100cc step-through bike, not to mention the distance involved – there’s a 150-km stretch with no stop-off towns between Sre Ambel and Koh Kong town.
Fuel is available at all the ferry crossings and at occasional points along the way – best not to get caught short though. The same goes for fuel for your body. There isn’t much traffic on Route #48 so experienced riders can get some speed up and take the sweeping bends on the racing line – but keep your wits about you; many other road users don’t so your actions and reactions are needed to get you there in one piece.
You are unlikely to get lost as there’s one road only. In early 2001 while living in Koh Kong I met a few gnarly dirtbikers who had made the trip before a proper road was cut through and over the forested hills. Pretty hardcore all round with many dead ends and false trails plus a night in the forest with a symphony of vampire mosquitos with jaws like bolt cutters trying to get through the netting on your hammock (picture malaria-ridden ‘squiddies’ in The Matrix) - extra kudos go to one chap who did this journey solo.
A cycling trip would be pretty ambitious due to the terrain, distance and remoteness. No real guesthouses crop up between Sre Ambel and Koh Kong town but at a pinch you would likely be offered some dry place to stay in someone’s house – Khmers are highly unlikely to leave you homeless if you rock up in town when the sun is dropping low in the sky. I’m tackling this section by mountain bike as part of a longer tour in the upcoming dry season so expect a report after Christmas.
KOH KONG - TRAT - BANGKOK, border crossing
Koh Kong town is across a wide river and 6km of road from the international border crossing. A moto taxi is about 40 baht; a place in a taxi is very similar but you may have to wait around. These fares include the bridge toll.
Immigration is a straightforward, DIY process for most western nationalities. Thailand still offers a free ‘non-visa’ for most western nations. Others will need to have a visa in advance. Cambodia charges for a one-month visa.
SCAM ALERT : for years, Cambodian border officials have tried to enforce a ‘Thai Baht only’ policy for your visa…and they jack up the price. A tourist visa is $20 US. A business visa costs $5 extra – anyone can get a business visa on arrival, no paperwork, introductory letters, job contracts etc needed. However, they will insist you pay 1000 baht for the tourist visa and 1200 or even 1500 baht for the business visa. It is possible to get them to accept dollars, and at the correct rate – may the force be with you. It’s also the law, but kicking up a stink on this point too soon may backfire – all about ‘face’.
SCAM ALERT #2 : ignore requests for payments in lieu of health certificates, yellow fever vaccination cards or other such nonsense. I’ve even seen a couple of people pay for the application form for their visa – this really goes to show that these guys use their uniform to try any old stunt. Learn how to dodge these rip-offs and the officials back off.
Extensions are really simple for business visas: as many times as you like, no need to leave the country, just a question of money – prices vary a little, but look at $145 for 6 months; $275 for a year.
Tourist visas can be extended one time only and only for one month ($40).
Overstay is $5 per day (that’s over $1500 a year, as some folk have realised when the fun wore off and they checked their passport). There’s no note of this in your passport and no ‘black mark’ against your name – quite the contrary perhaps – it’s only money after all.
In Thailand things are less frenetic and to many a little mundane. From Had Lek (Hat Lek), minivans (with aircon, and much more roomy and hygienic than the ones in Cambodia) leave regularly for Trat and a few also to Pattaya. They try to stick to timetables but will skip a trip if there’s no one around – lunch time can be quiet. The fare was 100 baht (about $2.50) to Trat and takes a little over an hour. The journey hugs the coastline, and the ridge of hills on the other side forms the frontier with Cambodia.
Trat is a nice enough town – my favourite provincial capital in Thailand – and often snags people for a couple of nights. It’s a good spot to take a breather between Cambodia, Koh Chang and Bangkok.
Trat to Bangkok is a 4-5 hour bus trip (around 180 baht – about $4.50). Loads of departures – but there used to be a huge gap between 6pm and 11pm; those in a hurry should check the current situation. Most buses go to the Eastern Bus Terminal (Ekamai) at the far end of Sukhmvit. A few buses go to the Northern Terminal (Mor Chit), which can be a bummer at night as local buses are far from convenient here.
A fan-only 3rd class bus runs Trat to Ekamai for a few baht less, but doubles the journey time and is not conducive for snoozing.
Koh Kong is actually a nice place to stay a few nights, even months, there’s loads of exploring to be done in boat trips deep into the mountains, cool dirtbiking and mountain biking, estuary trips, islands, plus the obligatory couple of ok rapids (‘waterfalls’ might be misleading).
These attractions are masked, suppressed even, by the laudable efforts to keep tourist dollars and footprints out of Koh Kong by the bands of touts who latch on like leeches from the border (even crossing into the Thai side to seek a host to bleed). Then there are the official scams perpetrated by immigration officers, taxi drivers and cigarette sellers. At least the speedboat militiamen of old have disbanded with the construction of the bridge across the wide river.
Tourism is stifled by the bad impression these folk give to newly arrived travellers, and then the touts finish the ‘processing’ by getting you booked into taxi (usually in fact a battered minivan on its last legs), a shed to stay in and on your way out of town ASAP, with the tourist dollars being efficiently shipped on to Sihanoukville, Kampot and Phnom Penh. Bear in mind that many of these touts who may boast guiding skills don’t like going into the forest and most are not Koh Kong locals, so their familiarity can be really poor – in all, they choose the quick commission from guesthouses and transport tickets rather than ‘losing’ you to some other leech or encouraging you to see a bit of this fabulous province.
Then again, that frees you up to explore unhindered by the ineffective services of ‘guides’ – go it alone, the locals are friendly and helpful (but may point you in the wrong direction from misunderstanding, or turn you back with the fear that “you don’t really want to be heading in there, do you?”) and whatever happens, it’ll be something new at every turn. Fill the fuel tank, take water, maybe a rain jacket, sunnies and a hat and see what you find.
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