The talesofasia guide to Sihanoukville and the south coast
by Jack Stephens
Updated September 8, 2006
Sihanoukville/Kampot Guide index page
Banks and money matters; to date there are NO ATMs in Sihanoukville, though this should soon change with the opening of the shiny blue plastic ANZ bank downtown. Cash advances are available on cards with Visa or MasterCard symbols – these may be debit/payment cards or credit cards. You can get $500 a day this way, and while most banks charge a minimum $5 commission, UCB and Canadia Banks both do it for nothing. Real cheapskates can time their financial dealings for when they are particularly thirsty – free chilled water on tap, so fuel up your camels now.
Local currency is riel. Banks do not like changing dollars into riel. Clearly visible glass cabinets outside markets and many gold shops are the main currency changers. As ever, count and check for dodgy bills. Rates are usually posted and/or they’ll show you the sum on a calculator. Moneychangers don’t like splitting $100 bills if you want $80 US and the rest in Cambodian riel – best get crisp $20’s from the bank beforehand.
Police are a funny bunch in Cambodia, and they’re every bloody where! They don’t take it too seriously, are not at all imposing, generally do nothing and are friendly enough – State Troopers or Guardia Civil they are not. Law enforcement kicks in only when there’s a buck to made, whether there appear to have been laws broken or not.
The ones in sky blue shirts are lowly traffic cops, hated by Khmers, and following local custom you don’t ‘have to’ stop for them – they are only on the take. They are resigned to getting blown out, so although it’s something you probably wouldn’t too often actually try to swing back home in the West, throw them whatever dummies necessary to keep your hard-earned in your own pockets. A U-turn is fine, and the slow down then zoom off strategy is effective too – but easier on motorbikes than cars – trying not to cause an accident of course, or then they’ll pounce on you with the coordination of a pack of lionesses and go straight for your cash jugular.
Internet isn’t great in Cambodia, but at least it’s a lot cheaper than the recent past. Get connected across Sihanoukville for about a buck an hour. Some places are nominally 3000 riel per hour, but may have a half hour minimum charge, or staggered pricing. I never found a quick connection no matter what time of day I tried – come test your patience online in Sihanoukville. As bad and slow as most places in Phnom Penh. Kampot is generally a lot quicker.
Internet phone calls are super-cheap from Cambodia to the US (including Canada), Europe (including the UK) and Australia (including New Zealand). Connections, delays and echo effect are far less frequent these days – if it’s bad, hang up and try again.
Visas for a few nearby countries can be arranged at travel/tour agents, some guesthouses and even at the Shell gas station. Cambodian visa extensions can also be sorted through these guys. Remember: tourist visas can only be extended ONCE, and for one month only; business visas (marked ‘E’ on the visa page) can be extended indefinitely, and even transfer into a new passport if you end up staying that long. Overstay fines are $5 per day – and that can soon mount up.
Vietnam visas are processed very speedily at the consulate up on the hill on Ekareach Street (it’s near a large mosque). They issued a friend with a tourist visa while he waited out a short storm – a far cry from the bad old days, when the fee was directly related to the delay they caused you, costing $5 extra for each day you saved waiting. Nowadays you don’t have to state specific entrance and exit points either. The fee is $35, it’s quick and slick, and Vietnam do not issue visas at their border points – unlike Cambodian immigration, who’ll take cash from all and sundry on arrival for a visa; they may even substitute the necessary photo for a small fee. Good stuff; keep it as simple as possible for tourist dollars to get into the country.
Medical matters are best avoided, but that advice won’t help at all after the event. Most Cambodian doctors are totally hopeless, overpriced and uncaring. I’d much rather go directly to a pharmacy in instances of diarrhea, bruising, pain relief, fever. The better places will have someone on hand that speaks a little English (or French) and may even be able to understand the instructions included with medications. It’s wise to get clued up about what actually works, and though not ideal, self-diagnosis is what most expats rely on.
In cases of major emergencies, I doubt you’d be getting online for help, but for those with proper medical insurance, here’s the number for SOS International Clinic in Phnom Penh: 023 216 911. Not at all cheap if paying from your own purse, they can advise and arrange evacuation to Bangkok or Singapore, where there are fabulous hospitals (try Bumrungrad in BKK) and some decent doctors. The nurses are wonderful too.
Markets in the local sense are outnumbered by air-conditioned convenience stores loaded with western comfort snacks and booze and other supplies. This says something about the economic orientation of Sihanoukville.
P’sar Leu (like the sound ‘fur’) is downtown, up the slope from the main drag, Ekareach Street. Pretty much standard fare inside, nothing spectacular to see or buy; more for the housewife than the tourist – still, that makes it a normal, authentic, grotty, sometimes smelly experience. Klang Leu market is on the edge of town just before the Cambrew/Angkor beer factory.
Supermarkets and minimarts attached to multinational gas stations downtown have a great selection of goodies, lots of booze, bathroom products, ‘temporary love supplies’, even change travellers cheques and some arrange visas too – and petrol. There are a couple of minimarts near the Golden Lions traffic circle and by Ochheuteal/Serendipity. Some are open 24 hours for insomniacs and the buzzed up amongst us.
Books, magazines and newspapers are hawked by kids (mainly travel guides). Convenience stores and minimarts have the best selections of magazines. Also try a couple of bookshops on Ekareach Street, which also have a fair range of second hand titles. Some guesthouses and eateries have bookshelves too. You can ask if they’ll swap or buy or trade – books for baked goods, War and Peace and Tolkein set for a Vegan Full Breakfast?
Robert Philpotts wrote The Coast of Cambodia in 2000; it’s got a nice travelogue feel to it, mixes in lots of tidbits from history, and the author’s own line drawings combine to make this a nice, thoughtful package.
Adventure Cambodia (by Matt Jacobson) covers the country well, being especially useful for those piloting their own vehicles; the section on Sihanoukville is not the book’s most comprehensive though.
Sihanoukville/Kampot Guide index page
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