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Trip report, Cambodia, Nov - Dec 2003

by Ciaran Tierney

1. Koh Kong

After getting the ordinary bus from Bangkok to Trat, we decided to get a taxi on to the border and stay the night in the 'wild west' town instead of getting up at something like 4 a.m. to make the boat to Sihanoukville. The immigration guys on the Cambodian side were as surly and unfriendly as your website made out, and they insisted on charging the six or seven westerners there 1,100 baht for the privilege of entering their country. I flashed a US20 note at them, insisting I knew they were ripping us off, but decided not to make too big a scene, seeing as how we don't speak Khmer and it was already 4.20 p.m. (The border closes at 5 p.m.). I did call out 'sombat', as you suggest, but then just shrugged and handed over the money.

Got a very basic, but adequate room in Otto's guest house, which is just a minute's walk from the pier, after taking a taxi into town. To the surprise of many people in Sihanoukville, we didn't hear any gunfire or people going crazy, although the lack of street lighting is a bit of a culture shock after crossing over from Thailand. Slept well in Otto's, where the family were friendly, and had a good breakfast before taking the boat to Sihanoukville.

2. Sihanoukville

Enjoyed the boat trip immensely and met quite a few other foreigners sitting on the roof. Inside, the Khmers were getting a good laugh out of a comedy video and didn't seem to pay much heed to the lovely scenery. After getting into Sihanoukville, we were met by dozens of aggressive motodop drivers, but just picked two and told them to bring us to Bungalow Village up on Victory Hill. Of course, the two boys on the bikes tried to bring us to another place, where the commission was obviously better, but we just held firm and insisted on the Village.

It's currently being run by a 25 year old French man, Olivier, and his Khmer girlfriend. They gave us a lovely bungalow up on the hill for US10 per night. The whole area was very quiet and, of course, the motodop drivers kept hovering around. Instead of having to deal with them we hired our own motorbikes for US3 per day from a small shop up on the hill (the Royal?) which is connected with the GST place in town. This gave us the freedom to explore the whole area without the annoying motodop drivers, who were curious as to how much we spent on hiring our own bikes. Quite a few of them were aggrieved to hear we only spent US3 per day, because the rate was double that in 2002!

Occheutal Beach was the only busy beach of the five around Sihanoukville and we found the traders quite tiring and aggressive at times. By way of contrast, there was no-one on Independence Beach, and the families with the food stalls near the road were a pleasure to deal with! Night life was quite dead at the end of November and early December, but Sihanoukville is a great place to relax for a few days.

Incidentally, I didn't get to dive from there, which was a bit of a pity as I'm an accomplished diver. But the timing of Scuba Nation's two day trips didn't suit me and my non-diving companion, while the dive centre in town (next to the Angkor Inn) were very professional, they gave me a full refund on the morning of the booked dives, because they said that the visibility would be poor. Other places would have been happy to make a quick buck, knowing that I was keen to dive but not staying around for long.

3. Phnom Penh

What an amazing city! It was not half as much trouble as we expected, and the Khmers were really friendly, even if the begging along the riverfront takes a bit of getting used to - it's certainly different to Thailand. Mind you, give them 1000 riel or a biro and they were happy enough, and the Khmers clearly find favour with those who give money to the less fortunate.

I was blown away and moved to tears by both the S21 museum and the Killing Fields, both well worth a visit and very sad. Hard to believe that some of the perpetrators from the Khmer Rouge days are still at large, living the good life, after such heinous crimes. While the world watches Iraq or Afghanistan, it's sad that few seem to care about rebuilding such a beautiful country.

Enjoyed the Russian Market, Central Market, Wat Phnom, and downing the beers in the Heart of Darkness. Didn't dare try the 'happy pizzas' - negotiating P.P. traffic is trippy enough for me, although my friend did fire off a round on an AK47 at the firing range. Surprisingly, given all the hype, we didn't see anyone brandinshing any guns or hear too much gunfire. Mind you, some of the searches in the pubs reminded us that there still are problems relating to violence at nights. Found the motodop drivers in the capital reasonably reliable, although they do try to overcharge late at night.

4. Siem Reap

Another glorious journey, up the Tonle Sap, and this was the only place in Cambodia where we came across a considerable number of tourists. The amount of touts as we disembarked the boat was a bit of a turn-off, but we eventually got to a good place.

Why is it that Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, etc., always seem to favour the same places? We got lovely aircon, double rooms for US 13 a head in the Green Town Guest House, which is a fine place about five to seven mins walk from the town centre. Siem Reap was lovely and felt very safe and, needless to say, the temples took our breath away! Didn't want to go back to Bangkok and I'll definitely be back in Cambodia again.

Given the friendliness of the people, the scenery, and the sheer magic of the temples, the country has fabulous potential, if only they could get a decent government in charge!

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