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Chiang Mai to O'Smach and through to Koh Kong Sept 1- 18 2005

by Chris Simons

We didn’t want to go through Poipet, so we decided to try O’smach from Surin in Issan, Northeast Thailand. We took a direct night bus from Chiang Mai (Nakhonchai Air, rear of Arcade station in CM, 725 Baht) to Ubon Ratchachani. which is due east but near the Thai entrance to Preah Vihear, a Khmer temple we wanted to see. There wasn’t a bus to Preah Vihear so went to Kantharalak (40B) then paid a guy 500B to take us in his pickup. It was 200B to eneter the national park on the Thai side, then 200B for a day pass into Cambodia. We were the only ones there besides locals selling photocopied money and postcards. The ruins are quite nice and the view into NE Cambodia from the cliffside was magnificent. Highly recommended. We were able to catch an afternoon bus from Kantharalak to Prasat which is a little further south from Surin and spent the night in a filthy roadside room for 100B.

The next day we caught an early bus to the border (40B). We got there around 10am, and the trip through Cambodian immigration was uneventful. No hassles, no con games. The Thai immigration man told us a taxi to Siem Reap was 2500B which seemed high. A tout found us searching for a taxi or pickup and offered his services. There probably was an early truck going to Siem Reap but we were too late. The tout said the road was muddy and took seven hours (no lie) and cost 3000B. We offered 2500B and the driver accepted (we later met another couple who paid the same so maybe this is the going rate now). Anyway, not a bad investment because the car was good and the road pretty bad, not even a road in some spots. We drove south on a muddy track through dense jungle, then south on a sandy trail that entered Siem Reap province. No asphalt till Puok, near Siem Reap. Cool experience, the road went through numerous tiny villages. Ox carts and pony carts were the usual vehicles we passed. A nice way to enter Cambodia.

Siem Reap was larger and more congested than we imagined. Huge block hotels and souvenir shops everywhere. Stayed at the Two Dragons, which was clean and had good food. They arranged a tuk tuk to Angkor which is a good way to see it we thought. We went to the temples at sunrise. A helluva lot of other tourists joined us there at Angkor Wat at 6am, but they all mysteriously disappeared after the sun came up, leaving us to explore it alone. We went to Bayon next, which was insanely crowded with Japanese and Korean tours. But they left en masse after a half hour and it was like a ghost temple. Lesson learned go wherever the tours aren’t. Most of the time, very few people were around but I’m sure in the High Season, it’s hell. Favorite temple: Preah Khan, which was huge and vegetated with beautiful hidden apsaras and long mysterious passageways. Also, nobody else in there but us.

Not much to do in Siem Reap except see temples or drink heavily (or both at the same time if you’re into that). The kids in the park were ever-present with cold drinks and postcards but they were fun to talk to actually. At sunset, from the guesthouse veranda, huge fruitbats fly over, which was an awesome sight. Onward to Phnom Penh…

The bus was easy (Mekong Express, $6). A minibus picked us up at the guesthouse at 6:30 and we were on the road by 7:30am. Good road, easy trip. Stayed at the California 2 which was pretty close to where the bus stopped. Everybody suggested a riverfront room but they were full. Stayed in a normal double for $13, free breakfast. A little worn but a good deal, right in the middle of things, and secure. The river view rooms had a public veranda in front of them anyway with barred windows so I didn’t see the big attraction anyway. It rained heavily. Pretty cool to see it whip in from the river. Phnom Penh has some interesting derelict architecture and chaotic street scenes. A lot of greedy gouging too. Didn’t get the idea that it was too safe or friendly after dark either. The Russian Market was interesting. Toul Sleng was incredible. With some excellent exhibits (especially the photos/insights on the 3rd Floor) it managed to personalize that horrendous tragedy. Read “The Gate” doesn’t deal with Tuol Sleng but offers easy to understand personal view of Khmer Rouge doctrine and the massive suffering caused…

Wanted to get out into the countryside so on to Kampot. Regardless of what your motodriver tells you, there is a real bus that leaves from Mao Tse Tung Blvd past the Olympic Stadium from a market there (forgot the name) - ($4) and also goes through Kep. Good road mostly. Nice karst mountain scenery in the south. Stayed at Blissful in Kampot. Checked out some other places down there. Definitely stay at Blissful. It was cheap, excellent music at the bar, great food. Also very nice resident dog (Fatboy) and cat (Tiger). Rained a lot but it cleared up once for an amazing trip up the torturous road to Bokor with its creepy abandoned buidings and waterfall (gorgeous, and you can easily play in it too). Saw a hornbill too for a full five seconds as it flapped down from one tree to the next, so if you’re in the back of the truck on the descent, keep your eyes up to the trees.

There isn’t a bus from Kampot to Sihanoukville. Must take share taxi. They try to cram in as many as possible. Even the driver shared his seat. So we paid $8 for the full back seat. Pretty comfortable that way and allows the opportunity to take pics out the window. Look for the ghost casino on the top of Bokor as you pass by.

Wasn’t expecting much from Sihanoukville but was pleasantly surprised. Even though it rained half the time, the beaches were quite inviting. Watching the storms roll in from the cliff next to Otres Beach was amazing. Stayed in town at Gekozy, which I highly recommend. $4 for a nice room. Great food. Nice couple who run the place. It’s easy enough to take a moto to the beach for the day and you can be back in cheap comfort near nice restaurants at night. Liked Holy Cow a lot. They played Tom Waits and served these really awesome baked potatoes while outside the gates, the dogs fought and copulated and moto drivers waited, ready to pounce. Spent a lazy week in S-ville…

Then we got on the boat to hell… Really, I wasn’t prepared to die on this trip but the boat to Koh Kong was a four hour reminder of how tenuous our mortal existences really are. We’d waited for a not-so-rainy day but it didn’t matter. Once out there, the swells were ten feet and the long steel boat rode them like a faltering jet ski, riding them then crashing flat-bellied between waves. The captain knew what he was doing (after all, we lived) but when he stalled out the engines between the rocky islands and we were tossed around with spray flying through the leaky doors, I thought there was a possibility of going down. Almost everybody puked, even the old French guy who’d traveled the other way the day before and claimed mid-way that it was worse (because of heavy cargo), but try to keep your head up and look out the window. Terrifying. Worth the $15 ride admission.

Up until this, I hadn’t had a real negative motodop experience, but Koh Kong warf was different. There were fifty guys waiting for the maybe ten foreigners on board. They tried to grab you or your bags after you got off, know full well you were delirious and disoriented by the ride. They were shouting either “Thai border!” or “Hotel!” and were totally obnoxious. I knew that Otto’s was near the pier so my girlfriend and I tried to charge through. It was like being fed to the lions. But we made it.

Otto’s was okay for a night. An incredible amount of barking dogs live in and around it (they’re all laying around depleted the next morning after a long night of fighting). Took a moto to the border for 70B. The guy actually tried to pull the “give us more money or we’ll stop scam” but I pretended to not understand his English so he kept going.

It was an easy out through Trat and Ekimai and back to Chiang Mai…

On the whole, going from Issan south and out through Koh Kong was a good route. You miss a lot of the negative Cambodian border experiences (visa scams, Poipet) and the boat out isn’t as dangerous (supposedly) as the boat in.

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