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Trip report: December 2003 - Pattaya/Koh Kong/Sihanoukville/Phnom Penh

This was my first ever trip to Cambodia and my only previous travel experience in SE Asia at all was one week spent entirely in Pattaya so I am as amateur as anyone could get. I had nothing to go on other than what I read on Tales of Asia and several other web sites. All in all it went great. Any mistakes I made were so minor as to be almost inconsequential. I had the time of my life.

To get from Pattaya to Hat Lek seemed a hassle on the air conditioned bus. It could be done but looked like it takes 3 different busses and probably would take half the day, so I opted for a minibus instead. This was 670 baht ~$17 from a travel agent in Pattaya. Some days they go all the way to the Cambodian border but the day I needed all she could do for me was minibus to Trat and then switch to the scheduled minibus to the Cambodian border which was fine with me. I also bought my airline tickets for my return to Bangkok from Phnom Phen with a stopover in Siem Riep to see Angkor Wat, 6,700 baht (~$170) which was expensive but still cheaper than I expected. My tight schedule ruled out traveling overland on the return route.

I checked out of my hotel in Pattaya and at 7:30am was waiting in the lobby with my luggage ready to go. The travel agent had given me a ticket for the driver complete with instructions written in Thai so he knew where I was supposed to wind up. My minibus arrived about 15 minutes late. It was a BMW van and there were about 5 people inside. The seats were quite comfortable, but a little cramped on leg room, as is almost any kind of public transportation in Asia. Thai sized, not 6' American sized. Still, it wasn't too uncomfortable. While the driver loaded my backpack in the back a German lady told me the driver had been driving up and down various streets for the last 20 minutes looking for my hotel. The driver got in. Headed to a gas station filled up with gas and we hit the road.

I was a little surprised at how GOOD the roads were in Thailand. I had expected them to get worse the further I got from Bangkok but that was not the case. 4 lane divided highways in excellent condition most of the way. As good as many American highways. Thailand has obviously spent a lot of money on the roads along that route. After about an hour and 45 minutes we stopped at a very modern rest area where there was a 7-11 convenience store, a very good open air coffee stand, Thai restaurant and decent restrooms. We stopped for about 15 minutes to stretch our legs then back in the van and on to Trat. In Trat the driver pulled up to the minibus stop across from the bus station. He paid my fare from his pocket, 100 baht, to the operator there. This was included in the 670 baht I had paid to the travel agent in Pattaya and the driver paid it no problems. He explained to the minibus operator in Thai where I was headed and then reminded me in English I was all paid up in full and owed the operator there nothing more. I just had a seat and waited. I was quite pleased with the minibus service I got from Pattaya to Trat.

After about 20 minutes we started loading in the minibus to Hat Lek. It was a full load. All Thai locals. I was the only farang on board. The people who were on the original minibus from Pattaya all had different destinations and did not get off with me. We headed out of Trat on a two lane paved highway. Not as nice as the road to Trat bus still very good. Heading towards Hat Lek we passed through several Thai army checkpoints. Nothing more than a cursory look-over by the sentry. Along the way the local Thai passengers got off one by one at their destinations. By the time we reached Hat Lek we were down to me and four Thais. The driver drove around town dropping them one by one until finally one Thai lady and me were all who were left. The end of the line.

The Thai lady grabbed her stuff and wandered away. I loaded up my backpack and asked the driver which way to the border and he pointed down the street. I couldn't see it but set out that way all alone and after a hundred feet or so it was pretty obvious. There was a Thai immigration shack with a walk up window, barriers, a couple of bored looking solders and bunch of touts, children running about, and other nuisance type people. I will admit it seemed a little more intimidating than it really is and my heart was beating a little hard at that point. I was on foot, walking alone into Cambodia at a somewhat remote border crossing for the first time. Not another westerner to be seen anywhere. I proceeded to the Thai immigration window and handed my passport through to a real a#%hole looking bureaucrat in a uniform. No land of smiles here. He more or less ignored me for a while as he slowly shuffled papers and then without even looking up or acknowledging me he picked up my passport, very slowly looked at the exit form. Methodically stamped me out of Thailand and handed it back to me without so much as a single word or a friendly look. I walked from there towards the border.

A soldier at the barrier looked at my passport to verify I had been stamped out properly and passed me through into a no-man's land between the Thai and Cambodian border posts. I was immediately set upon by several very aggressive touts offering to sell cigarettes, carry my bag, sell me weed, get me a taxi, help me with immigration forms, find me a hotel........... They were quite annoying and quite aggressive but harmless otherwise. Probably wise to lookout for hands in your pockets or in your backpack though. There was no sentry or border guard on the Cambodian side. I just walked right in. The first stop is in an office to visit the health quarantine officer. Inside there was a guy in a dirty white coat seated behind a wooden table and another guy standing around for no apparent reason. He had a simple health questionnaire about SARS symptoms and have I traveled in countries where there is yellow fever and such. Then he asks if I had an "international vaccination certificate" which of course I did not since I know I don't need such a certificate to travel in Cambodia. He said since I do not have it I must pay him 50 baht. I politely said I had contacted the Cambodian embassy in Washington DC before my trip and ask about them about that and they told me I did not need the certificate (OK, I read it on the Internet, I never talked to any embassy but it sounded good). He thought about it for a minute and then signed my paperwork. I did not have to pay him the 50 baht bribe.

Next, on to the visa office. A couple of doors down you walk into a dirty, barren office, and there are several a$%hole looking bureaucrats in uniforms sitting behind a scarred up old wooden table with a single chair in front for you to sit in. The back door of the office was partially open and you could see into a dimly lit room where there were several men in military uniform along with women and children all sitting around a big dinner table eating and loudly talking. The visa application is simple and after I filled it out I handed it to the a$&hole bureaucrat with my passport and the required passport sized photo. He didn't even look at it and said the visa was 1,100 baht. I figured if I forced the issue they have to accept the $20 payment but they could keep me there half the day while my paperwork is sent to Phnom Phen by carrier pigeon for verification so I was prepared to pay in baht but not the 1,100 he ask for. I put a 1,000 baht bill on the table, gave him a friendly smile, told him I know it is 20 dollars and that 1,000 baht is a very good deal for him. He didn't pick up my money again stated it was 1,100 and I again smiled and said 1,000 baht is a very good price for him. He said he would have to ask the commander and then after a word or two in Khmer shouted to the back room and an answer from a disembodied voice that sounded like it had a mouthful of rice, he waited for several minutes and said the commander had agreed 1,000 baht was OK. Damn corrupt Cambodian border officials. He placed the visa sticker in my passport and directed me to the window next door to have my passport stamped. There was a typical entry/exit form to fill out. I did this, handed it through the window, the agent stamped my passport and handed it back. No money was asked for at this point.

The touts had to wait outside the offices but at the window I had about four touts hanging over my shoulder the whole time. I needed a ride to town and one of the touts spoke good English and was soft spoken and less annoying than the rest so I asked him if he had a moto. He of course did. I offered one dollar for a ride into town. Once I hired a motodop the rest of the touts left me alone. It was worth the dollar just to get rid of all those touts. I let him carry my bag to his moto. He loaded it on the moto, started it up, and I hopped on the back.

The road was a brand new narrow two lane concrete road. Very smooth and with almost no traffic. Along the way there was yet another checkpoint. I handed my passport through a window and they verified I have a visa and am properly stamped. No hassles or demands for money there. We pulled up to the toll bridge. I paid the toll to the lady in the booth.

Summery.... I left Pattaya around 7:50 am and was in Koh Kong in about 4 hours of fairly easy travel. The total cost was 670 baht ~$17 for the minibus ticket from Pattaya to the Cambodian border. 1000 Baht ~$25 for my Cambodian visa. $1.00 for the Motodop to Koh Kong.

I didn't have a hotel in mind so I told the driver I wanted a hotel with a bathroom and shower in the room near the boat dock for no more than $3. He said no problem and took me to Nokor Reach Hotel. That was more or less what I expected. Upstairs, a ceiling fan but no AC. Bathroom with a shower, sink and toilet but no hot water. It was a little worn but was clean, quiet and secure. What do you expect for $3. I was satisfied by his recommendation. If the motodop got a commission I don't think it affected my price.

As I was checking in, the motodop asked if I was planning to take the speedboat ferry to Sihanoukville tomorrow. I told him yes. Then he asked if I would buy the ticket through him rather than the ticket office since the price ($15) was the same either way for me but he would get a 40 baht sales commission if I bought it through him. I wondered if it was a ploy to get my money and I would never see a ticket so I hesitated but I did appreciate his honesty in admitting he would be getting the commission. The guy was likable and I didn't really mind him getting a commission so long as it didn't affect my price. He could see I was hesitating so he said I could get the hotel to issue a receipt for the money and take responsibility for making sure I received my ticket. I finally agreed. Since the motodop driver was being honest with me about the commission and I did need transportation around town I ask him how much to hire him for the day. He just said "whatever you think" and wouldn't list a price. I ask, "is $5 OK?" he seemed a little disappointed but readily agreed. I had my hotel and transportation for the day. I locked up my stuff in my hotel room, and then asked the driver to show me around town. He did a good job as tour guide and I took the guy drinking because he was interesting to talk to. I'm sure he collected a commission or two but I liked the guy and I don't feel he was ever deceptive or giving bad advice. He earned whatever he got from me and I feel I made a good choice in who I hired.

I got so drunk and maybe smoked something or other the motodop gave me and didn't even charge me for, so I forgot to make sure I got my speedboat ferry ticket which I had already prepaid $15 for. Sloppy on my part to let the motodop get away from me the previous evening without first producing a ticket for me. If he was dishonest he could easily have no-showed that morning and took off with my $15. Fortunately he was honest and arrived on time, ticket in hand.

It was still about an hour before the speed boat ferry left so the motodop suggested I have breakfast at Otto's guesthouse while I was waiting. I think he was just in a hurry to fulfill his responsibilities to me and get back to the border early to catch another customer. I liked the guy so I gave him a $5 tip on top of the $5 I gave him for the previous day. $10 total for all day the day before and the ride in the morning. If I overpaid, it was my choice and I felt he earned it.

I had a delightful western breakfast at Otto's. The baguettes were particularly good. After breakfast it was still about 15 minutes until the speed boat ferry was scheduled to leave so I walked the remaining 1/4 of a block to the dock. The boat was there and there was a large crowd of Cambodians milling around and loading cargo onto the boat as well as a few unlikable European backpackers.

I waited around until about five minutes before departure and then boarded and went to my assigned seat. There was assigned seating but it was almost universally ignored by the Cambodians so it was more or less sit wherever you want unless someone complains. The boat was pretty good sized, it was air conditioned, the seats were quite comfortable but leg room was inadequate for a 6" American. There was a TV monitor in the front of the cabin playing music videos of blaring Khmer karaoke music. I happen to more or less like Khmer pop music, it kind of grows on you after a while and the girl singers are cute. We pulled away from the dock only about ten minutes late and headed down the river and into the open sea. As much as I was enjoying the blaring Khmer Karaoke music I moved out of the cabin and took a place outside on the front deck with the cargo so I could enjoy the awesome views.

The sea was very smooth that day. Perfect weather. The boat was quite fast and was perfectly solid cutting through the open sea. I'm sure it may drastically change in bad weather but on this day the trip was perfectly smooth and even the most delicate of stomachs would not get seasick. If you did there was an old woman who came around every two minutes trying to sell Dramamine. She also had cold beer which I found most delightful.

The boat kind of followed along the coast of Cambodia. From the front deck I could see the Captain was navigating by following a series of empty water bottles and chunks of Styrofoam anchored to the sea floor with fishing line. The coast of Cambodia is absolutely beautiful. Miles and miles of totally uninhabited white sand beaches with clear water. I wonder if those beaches are safe or not. They sure were beautiful. After a couple of hours we came up to a seaside village on an island somewhere off the coast of Cambodia. Mostly elevated bamboo huts and such. I guess we were there only connection to the mainland. I was riding up on the front deck with most of the cargo which consisted mostly of fresh vegetable and other produce. We docked at a rather rudimentary wooden dock and locals came on board and started throwing all off the bundles of produce onto the dock. The town was quite scenic and was just like something out of a movie. I thought it was kind of cool.

From there it was off again for maybe another hour through open sea until we reached the port at Sihanoukville. The whole trip maybe took 3 1/2 hours and was incredibly scenic and comfortable. We docked in Sihanoukville. I walked off the boat and was again set upon by a couple of touts. I just ignored them and headed down the dock. At the end of the dock there was an office with a uniformed Cambodian Immigration agent. He asked for my passport, checked my visa and recorded my name, nationality and passport number in a notebook. He wasn't the friendliest guy but he didn't hassle me or demand any money. That whole process was pretty quick. Leaving the office there were still two touts hassling me. I walked off the dock through a gate where I guess the other motodops and taxi drivers had to wait. I randomly chose a motodop who said he spoke English and asked him to take me to Holiday Palace Hotel and Casino which I chose from a guide book based on a good review and a location that seemed convenient for my purposes. I think I negotiated 2000 riel for the ride. I can't remember for sure.

The motodop immediately tried to hard sell me on a place on Ochheuteal beach instead and pulled out a guide book with hotels circled saying how cool it was and how Victory beach is near the port and is polluted whereas Ochheuteal beach is far from the port and is pristine with crystal clear water. Maybe true. But Ochheuteal beach hotels were more expensive and is too far from downtown for my taste. I told the motodop to forget about Ochheuteal beach and directly ordered him to take me to Holiday Palace Hotel and Casino.

I got to the hotel and went inside. I asked the motodop to wait for me in case I had a problem with the place. I asked the price for a standard room. $15 a night. The lobby was quite impressive and I said sure, I'll take a room based just on the quality of the building and the lobby. I was sure any thing in such a nice building had to at least be worth $15. I checked in and went up to my room. I was very pleased. The mini bar was empty except for the free bottled water so I did go down and make sure the front desk was aware of that so I wouldn't be charged when leaving. They said no problem, if I needed anything just call instead. Fine with me since I never use the mini bar stock anyway. While I was down there I ask the motodop who was still waiting if I could hire him for the day. He asked $10. I said $8 and he agreed.

I spent several very nice days in Sihanoukville before heading on to Phnom Penh. To get to Phnom Penh I took the bus. $3 leaving from downtown. I just asked the motodop to take me to the bus station. The ride to Phnom Phen was uneventful. I was very tired and slept about half the way. The bus was reasonably modern. The engine was a little noisy and as with every form of transportation I took on the trip, it had inadequate leg room but the road was very good and the trip was quite pleasant.

Upon arriving in Phnom Penh at the Central Market it was a madhouse. A huge mob of very aggressive motodops was practically climbing all over the bus. I had phoned ahead and already arranged for a motodop to meet me there and he was at the back of the mob holding up a sign with my name. I just pointed to him and waded through the mob who left me alone once I had made clear I already had a driver. That scene was something else though. The guy who met me turned out to be a great guy. I paid him $8 a day while I was in Phnom Penh and a nice tip when I left just because I really liked the guy and thought he gave me excellent advice and was not taking me places just to get commissions. He probably saved me a lot of money while I was there and showed me some great "non-tourist" places that were incredibly cheap and I never would have known about otherwise.

Returning to Bangkok I was very short of time so I flew first to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat and then flew straight back into Bangkok.

The motodop I hired at the airport in Siem Reap was a total crook but he took direct orders and took me where I wanted to go. His advice was worse than worthless though and I ignored all of it and just stuck to telling him destinations. I had randomly chosen a guy at the airport who spoke English well. He had the proper vest and credentials saying he was licensed by whatever tourist authorities as well, not that I placed any credence in that fact. We agreed on a price of $8 for the day. As we were headed into town I told him I was on a very tight schedule so we would be on a rush tour. I had flown in on the first morning flight from Phnom Penh and had to catch the last evening flight to Bangkok. Unfortunately, it was all the time I had.

He started in on a speech about how he could come up with an ideal tour plan for a one day visit. Stop number one in his plan would be to see some obscure temple somewhere 40 kilometers from Siem Reap. I of course said, wouldn't an obvious first stop for a one day trip to Siem Reap be..... Angkor Wat???? He kept pushing this obscure temple 40 kilometers outside of town saying we could see Angkor Wat later. He pulled out a guide book and it did look interesting if I was there for a week but obviously had no place in a one day tour. It also said in the guide book that due to the distance involved it would be customary to pay a motodop extra to take you there. Anyway, I said let's pass on that one and go to Angkor Wat first.

I asked where was a cheap place to get breakfast. He stopped at a very expensive looking tourist restaurant. I pointed at the run down looking, open air restaurant packed with Cambodians across the street and said lets go there. He spent a few minutes telling me how good the food was at the tourist restaurant and I wouldn't like the Cambodian restaurant but he eventually gave in. I got an excellent meal of chicken and fried rice for $1. It was a good meal.

Then at my insistence we left for Angkor Wat. On the way there he pulled into a very fancy looking western souvenir shop turned off his moto and asked if I wanted to buy any souvenirs. I said, let's just go see Angkor Wat. Once at Angkor Wat I got his cell # and said I would call when I was ready to leave. He was concerned I would take too long at Angkor Wat and miss my chance to see the other temple he kept pushing. I just said I will take however long I take and call when I am ready to leave. Angkor Wat was of course indescribably awesome.

After I left, I got another spiel for whatever temple it was he was pushing. I told him forget about that once and for all and just to take me to the Bayon. I guess his ideal one day tour skipped the Bayon altogether. The Bayon was awesome. I saw much of it but also missed some due to lack of time and getting worn out walking around temples in the heat.

As I was leaving one temple, I bought a t-shirt from a nice old lady vendor in the park. The motodop had been waiting across the street for a half hour or so and when he saw that he ran over and started arguing with the lady. It got quite heated. I assume he wanted a commission and she rightfully took the position that I walked up to her from a temple of my own initiative, I wasn't brought to her stand by the motodop so she was not paying him one riel. She was quite feisty for an old lady and held her own well. In the end, she didn't pay him anything and based on the way they parted company I don't think he would be coming back for anything later either. Way to go old lady.

Anyway, I was about out of time so I just headed back to the airport. I got driven back into the parking lot of the fancy souvenir shops one more time on the way. I just tapped his shoulder and pointed him back at the road. I had a great time but dealing with that guy was a real pain, especially coming after the totally awesome motodop I hired in Phnon Penh. I think I was spoiled by the service I got from that guy.

I was generally extremely generous with motodops on my trip. Even if it's a poor country, prices are ridiculously low and tipping is not customary, I firmly believe good service deserves to be rewarded. I have no problem with a businessman profiteering by providing me good service. If he had just given me a a real honest first class tour of Siem Reap and honest advice, he probably would have got the money we agreed on, a number of small commissions, breakfast, lunch, a few beers and a very generous tip when I left. Instead he maybe got a very small commission on my one dollar breakfast and the $8 we agreed on.

I had a great trip without anything more than the most minor problems. The motodops I relied upon heavily as guides were mostly great guys. The ones in Koh Kong and Phnom Penh were outstanding. The one in Sihanoukville was trying to hard sell me places that paid commissions for the first day and I was going to hire another one the next day but he was just a businessman trying to make a buck. He wasn't dishonest. Once we reached an understanding he started giving good advice so I kept him on.

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