Travel Info

PREPARING FOR CAMBODIA TRIP


Area: 181,035 sq km (69,898 sq miles)
Population: 13,995,000 (2007 US/CIA records)
Capital City: Phnom Penh
People: Khmer (90 to 95%), with the remainder being Chinese, Vietnamese, Cham or about one dozen other smaller ethnic groups.
Languages: Khmer
Religion(s): The population is largely Buddhist, with a small Muslim minority (around 5%).  There is a small but growing Christian community.

Currency: Riel (the economy remains highly dollarized and the US dollar is the working currency in Cambodia)
Major political parties: Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC) (acronym from French initials), Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), Norodom Ranariddh Party (NRP), Human Rights Party (HRP)
Government: Constitutional Monarchy
Head of State: King Norodom Sihamoni
Prime Minister: Hun Sen
Foreign Minister: Hor Namhong
Membership of international groupings/organisations: United Nations (UN), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Group of 77 at the United Nations (G77), Non Aligned Movement (NAM), Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), ASEF (Asia-Europe Foundation).

GEOGRAPHY

Cambodia, with an area of 69,898 square miles, is bordered by Thailand, Laos and Vietnam and has a coastline on the Gulf of Thailand. Apart from the Cardamom Mountains in the south-west and uplands in the north-east, the country is predominantly flat. The scarp slope of the Dangrek Mountains marks much of the northern border with Thailand. In the centre of the country is the largest lake in South East Asia, the Tonle Sap. The capital, Phnom Penh, is located at the confluence of the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers. Beyond the river valleys the land is frequently infertile, because rainfall is scant and there is little irrigation. Most Cambodians live in rural areas, cultivating rice as their staple crop.

Weather

November to February is the “cool season”, which is dry and not too hot (up to about 30C or 85F). In April it gets really hot (40/100 daily, 30/85 at night), but not rainy. Starting around June it gets rainy–and still hot. It rains off and on all the time, so roads are muddy and some areas are impassable, and it stays like that until November, when cool & dry comes–gloriously–back. Here’s today’s forecast for Phnom Penh.

Customs

Keep in mind that shorts are frowned on in temples (such as at Angkor Wat). In fact, few men in Cambodia wear shorts unless they have particular sweaty jobs, so there is a class element to this. But since foreigners are seen as completely strange anyway, they can get away with odd behavior and dress to an extent. Certainly lighter dress is fine during exercise (you can go running or biking in the morning along the river in Phnom Penh). Good walking/hiking shoes are a plus for a visit to the temples. Sandals (not leather) are good for rainy season in the city–the mud and fecal matter just rinses right off! Smile: You’ll do this anyway, but always act respectful, don’t raise your voice or your eyebrows, and smile at everybody. Works wonders.
A Nice Place to Visit, BUT…

In 1997, Phnom Penh was ranked as one of the worst cities to live in by the Corporate Resources Group. Of 192 cities Vancouver, Toronto, and Auckland were rated tops in quality of life. Out of 40 cities in Asia, Cambodia’s capital ranked 31st. (Source: Access Cambodia Bi-Monthly NEWS, Dec. 1 – 15, 1997, Vol 1)
And it hasn’t moved up since then, at least for expats. In 2002, the Economist Intelligence Unit assessed the hardship level for expatriates in 130 cities around the world. Melbourne and Vancouver tied for best, while Phnom Penh came in a No. 126, beating only Dhaka, Lagos, Karachi and Port Moresby. Ouch. (Reuters, October 4, 2002

Money in Cambodia

ATM: 

There are ATMs in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and many other provinces.
Banking hours: 

Mon-Fri 0800-1500. Some banks are open on Saturdays 0800-1130.
Credit cards: 

Credit cards are now more widely accepted in upmarket hotels, shops and restaurants catering to visitors. There are ATMs in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. It is always best to carry cash (US Dollars if necessary) in small denominations.
 

Currency information:

Riel (KHR; symbol CR). Notes are in denominations of CR100,000, 50,000, 20,000, 10,000, 5,000, 2,000, 1,000, 500, 200 and 100.
Currency restrictions: 

The import and export of local currency is prohibited. Foreign currency may be exported up to the limit declared at customs on arrival.
 

Travelers cheques:

Limited acceptance. Traveler’s cheques are generally not recommended. Traveler’s cheques in US Dollars can be changed at banks and some hotels, but can be difficult to change outside major cities.
Cash is best (aaah, cash!). Bring dollars if you already have them, or baht if you don’t. Dollars (and to a lesser extent Thai baht) are accepted almost everywhere in Cambodia, intermingled freely with riel. You will get some riel as change when you spend dollars; just mix ‘n’ match. One dollar equals 4050 riel (as of January 2006); the riel has lost less than half its value since 1995 (those IMF policies keep inflation down, if nothing else). Coins have not been used for many, many years.
There are a few places that will change travelers checks. Credit cards are useful only at a few ritzy places in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, although you can get a cash advance from a Visa or JCB card at the Cambodian Commercial Bank, among others, in Phnom Penh and a few banks in other main towns.
UPDATE: Residents used to hand off their (foreign) cash cards to friends visiting Bangkok so the friends can pull out money for them, but as of late 2005 there are a few cash machines in Cambodia at branches of the ANZ bank and at the Canadia Bank in Phnom Penh. These ATMs may or may not be compatible with your card.

Visa

As of 2003, Visas are available on arrival at the Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports (see below), so if you are entering Cambodia at the airport, there’s no need to get one beforehand. If you enter by land, you must get a your visa before you get there in most cases, and it must be marked for entry at that entry point. If it isn’t, you are nearly certain to be sent back (Download visa application.)
Find more and better visa info at Tales of Asia.
There is no other preparation needed that I can think of, except for a couple of shots, and for a short visit even those are probably not necessary. Havrix costs $60-100, but is thought to provide lifetime protection from hepatitis A, which is not a bad thing.

Language

The vast majority of Cambodians speak Khmer, a language of the Mon-Khmer group. Its only close relative is the language of the Mon, a Burmese minority. Khmer is only distantly related to Thai and to some Indonesian languages, with some borrowed words from Vietnamese, Chinese, Pali, French and English. The script is related to Devanagari and looks a bit like Thai script at first glance. An increasing number of urban Cambodians speak English, especially young people, and some (mostly older) Cambodians can speak French. Though its grammar is quite straightforward, Khmer is a fairly difficult language for most English speakers to learn because of its pronunciation. For a comparison to other languages, click here. If you want to go beyond the tourist phrasebooks, you can study online at Northern Illinois University’s introduction to Khmer site. For home study, I especially like Frank Smith’s Khmer Language Learning Materials.

Arriving at Pochentong airport

Bring two small photos and $25 US. You will get two forms to fill out on the airplane. On the form you must identify your visit as a tourist visit or a business visit. It’s $20 for a one-month tourist visa, or $25 for a one-month working visa. The only difference is that the working visa can be renewed without leaving the country, so if you might stay more than a month, choose that one. There has been no requirement to prove you are working for anyone. Tell the truth about your job, especially if you are not a human rights worker or similar troublemaker. Actually they don’t seem to care. (More on visas at Tales of Asia)
After you land you will walk into the terminal, if you are prudent, and join a crowd of people at the visa counter. They will ask you for your passport and your forms. They will ask you for the photos as well, though I have never heard of anyone being turned away for not having them. Don’t worry, just hand your passport over, and move down to the other end of the counter to pick it up and pay the fee. (It used to be that if you wanted to accelerate your progress, you could hand over a fiver to the guy who takes your passport and forms, motion meaningfully down the counter, and then move smartly along while honest people wait. But I heard one report in early 2002 that this no longer works.)
Keep in mind that if you overstay your visa, you will be charged $30 plus $5 for each day you overstayed. You pay when you leave; it’s hassle-free.
If you get a job with an organization, they normally have a person who takes care of your visa extensions by paying (off) the appropriate somebodies. Once again, these rules can change at any time.

Getting into town

After you get the visa, make like a baby…and head out. You will pass a desk with a sign that says it’s $7 for a taxi into town. If you’re stretched for cash, say “five dollars” and keep walking. You might be able to get it for $4, but come on. Go with the first person who agrees, which might not be until you reach the sidewalk outside. Don’t worry, you will not be stranded!
After you get your luggage, you’ll pass confidently by the guys who could demand to search your bags, but won’t because they are charmed by your pleasant and friendly demeanor. You’ll go through a small foyer. Take a look at the rate, but don’t bother changing money there (see above).
You will emerge from the airport in a crowd of taxi-drivers vying for your patronage. The only difference between these and the ones who approached you inside is that the ones inside have paid someone off for the better position. If you don’t have too much luggage, opt for a longer and less comfortable, but much more exciting moto-taxi ride ($2-3).
Try to buy a Phnom Penh Post as soon as you can, even at the airport sidewalk. It has a city map in the middle, with many useful locations marked. (The most comprehensive map and listings are in the 2003 Cambodia Yellow Pages on sale at various bookstores and Western-style markets. The Phnom Penh Visitors Guide is a very good free resource full of how-to information and listings. It’s available all over town. There’s an essential version for Sihanoukville too. Both are now on line.
If you to need to make any phone calls when you arrive, ask your taxi driver if you can use his phone. Offer him some money afterwards: at least 20-30 cents/minute. Local pay phones work on phone cards only; look for store signs advertising Telstra or Camintel cards.

Where to stay in Phnom Penh

The capital is full of hotels and guest houses–there are many more than you would expect. For $15-30/night, try the Cathay Hotel on Street 19 or the Sunshine right on the riverfront. Taxi drivers should know where they are. Rooms are TV/AC/hot water/phone and decent.
For a cheap guesthouse ($5-7), try the centrally located Last Home on St 108. It has a good enough reputation despite its rather terrifying name. Down the side streets behind the Capitol Guesthouse (on St 182 just west of Monivong) you’ll find many more, including the popular Narin’s. Guest houses on the eastern shore of Boeung Kak lake are lovely during sunset, which is made even deeper by the thick clouds of marijuana smoke drifting off the zoned-out masses, but they’re more remote from the city center. I have never stayed in any of these, so I only speak from what I’ve heard. The Last Home sells guidebooks, maps etc, as do the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) and the Wagon Wheel restaurant, both on the riverside (Sisowath Quay near the corner of Street 178).

Internet Access

As of 2003 there are walk-in cybercafes everywhere in Phnom Penh and in the main tourist towns. The low-budget champions, such as Riverweb,are on the riverfront, at only $0.50/hour. Similar deals can be found at Khmerweb on Sihanouk and scores more based on the same model. Walk in, sit at a terminal and someone will come over and start the counter for you. Other places of interest for more than simple surfing: In late 1998 at new service called K.I.D.S., owned and operated by young Cambodian students, opened. They also do training and web design. 210-108.
See also my Camera Obscura, where there are links to lists of Internet access points in Southeast Asia and the world.

Traffic

Getting around in Phnom Penh

Cambodians avoid walking as if they lived in Los Angeles. But a walking pace is the best way to soak up the details that make Phnom Penh so fascinating. Some of those details are right underfoot: Watch where you are stepping at all times. Not only are there are uncovered drainage holes that you are well advised not to fall into, but there is an impressive variety of substances you may not want to engage with too directly.
To cross busy streets, you must stride determinedly into the traffic, looking directly at oncoming vehicles but without actually catching anyone’s eye. If they see that you saw them, they will assume right of way. Remember oncoming vehicles can come on from any direction. Do not slow down or speed up more a little, or you will be hit. Just keep walking and show no fear. Sounds scary, right? Try getting up next to some locals and crossing in their shadow.
Wheelchair Access

Although there are plenty of people who use wheelchairs here, there are very few ramps per se. As far as I know there is no accessibility law; there certainly is no evidence of one. Many sidewalks have curb cuts for car parking, or the curb is missing anyway. Sidewalks themselves are not very good, divided up with ridges etc, but there is usually some way to get around the obstacle, thanks to Cambodians’ dependence on motorbikes, which they also roll everywhere. People using wheelchairs usually travel in the roadway. Many buildings in towns have level access to the ground floor, except for newer ones. Elevators are rare. However, there are lots of people around who are happy to carry a person and the chair up and down if necessary. They may or may not ask for a small donation, of course. The main problem may be in-town transit. The best option is probably a car and driver. The other ways to get around are motorbike taxi and cyclo.
You can spot moto-taxis by the baseball caps and sunglasses on the guys who drive them. Pay around 1000-2500 riel for a ride, depending if it’s one or two people riding, how far, and if it’s day or night. Just ride, then pay at the end; you don’t have to set a price first. A whole day’s riding around will cost $5-7. Remember that random moto drivers will not know where they are going, and do not know how to read a map. You have to point the way–if you don’t, you may notice that the moto is circling aimlessly around town. The word for “stop” is between “chowp” and “chope”. Moto drivers who hang out at the foreigner hangouts will know the foreigner places. They will also soon learn where you live, who your friends are and who you are going out with. Some of this information is rumored to find its way to the Ministry of the Interior.
Similar advice applies to the cyclos, but these quiet and non-polluting pedal-powered vehicles are much slower. If you are touring, they are great for a leisurely look around. They can also carry amazing loads: three of them moved my entire household including several large pieces of furniture. Many cyclo drivers are rice farmers who come into the cities during the dry season, and rent their cyclos to make money in the day and to sleep in at night. You will see them clustered in cyclo villages here and there throughout Phnom Penh, especially at night when the pedalers, who have rented them, use them for lodging. A cyclo ride costs about half of what a moto ride costs, though visitors are expected to be more generous.
Bicycles are for sale in stores all around the Capitol Guesthouse on Street 182. The “mountain bikes” are cheap–about $100 for the best of them–but of poor quality. Mine fell to pieces in about a year, thanks in part to Phnom Penh roads, which vary from smoothly paved major roads to unpaved, rutted, rocky, swampy, side roads. A more solid choice is the Pee-Wee Herman style Pheasant bicycle favored by Cambodian women, or the somewhat sleeker single-speed Vietnamese or Chinese road bike ($50-70 new). And then there are the trusty antique touring bikes, usually made of a variety of pieces knocked together. These are available for $20-30. I haven’t noticed any bike rental places, but any guesthouse should be able to arrange it. For information on cycling in the Cambodian countryside, see Biking Southeast Asia with Mr. Pumpy.
Near the Capitol, but on Monivong, is the Hong Kong Hotel, next to which are two similar motorcycle rental shops. Foreigners must leave their passports as a deposit, and pay $5-7 per day for a motor scooter or a 250cc dirt bike. Two things to keep in mind: Cambodian traffic has rules that take time to get used to; and if the motorbike is stolen, you will have to pay for it, in effect buying it for the nice people who robbed you.

Buying a moto: prices start around $250 for an old one. A license plate, registration and driver’s license are required by law but not by reality. Many motos and cars have no plate, or sport a vanity plate made at home or on the street corner.

Readers ask…

Q: Is there any significant anti-American sentiment?
Cambodians are generally quite warm and friendly, though reserved on a personal level. The culture is so different from Western culture that it can be quite difficult to form real friendships in the sense you’re probably accustomed to.

riverside bugs

Q: How’s the local food?
Cambodian food is for the most part an unremarkable hybrid of Thai and Vietnamese, both of which I consider remarkable cuisines. However there is a great range of food available in Phnom Penh: Chinese, Japanese, Indian, French, German, continental, American, Italian, even Mexican and West African…if there were Ethiopian food here I might have never left. (If you want specific recommendations, Ian Taylor has some good ones.) You can get marijuana pizza delivered to your house if you want. Or you can have some delicious dog or some fried spiders, grubs or locusts. Yum!

Beyond Phnom Penh

Only one out of ten Cambodians lives in the Phnom Penh, with its frantic traffic, glitzy discotheques, restaurants, extravagant corruption-fed luxury and urban slum squalor. The rest are scattered across two dozen other provinces, some in small provincial capitals and most in tiny villages and settlements pinpricked among the rice paddies and forests of rural Cambodia. The countryside produces the great bulk of Cambodia’s wealth, in the form of illegally felled and smuggled timber, gems scratched from the earth by massive Thai sifting machines and mud-covered workers alike, rice planted and harvested by lines of peasants doubled over at their task, and fish netted from the ever-dwindling Tonle Sap and its tributaries.
One of the many explanations for the triumph of the Khmer Rouge in 1975 is that the peasants in the countryside were easy converts to an agrarian movement that promised to take away the ill-gotten gains of the urban exploiters. When the city folk were forced to the rice fields by the Khmer Rouge, these “new people” fell in droves under the backbreaking labor that the peasants were accustomed to.
Twenty-four years later, little has changed. The provincial towns have some of the signs of Phnom Penh’s relative prosperity, but the countryside shows little sign that daily life has changed at all. In some ways it has progressed, if a few motorbikes and the ubiquitous karaoke video shops count as progress. In other ways, the countryside appears to have been left derelict; irrigation systems are broken or silted up, bridges are collapsed and replaced by single planks, and roads are reduced to bumpy, broken paths. In the video shops the peasants watch soap operas depicting wealthy urban Khmers at play, and in the off-harvest season some of them travel to Phnom Penh to work as moto-taxi or cyclo drivers, seeing first-hand the bright lights, the Mercedes-Benzes, and the excesses of a severely unbalanced society.
These ninety percent of Cambodians suffer yearly droughts and floods, and live under the thumbs of the ruling party’s local chiefs, with little by way of health care or education to show for the international community’s $2 billion in donations during the past six years. It is not hard to imagine that they might one day let their anger explode.
The traveler, however, will generally find people friendly and curious, proud of what little they have, and generous with it. One of my most prized experiences in Cambodia was a motorcycle trip I made with my friend Chris in August 1997. We planned to ride from Kompong Cham east along the Mekong in hope of reaching Kratie. On crossing to the left bank, the road marked on the map seemed not to exist. Perhaps it was under water (it was the wet season), or perhaps, like many roads marked on maps of Cambodia, it simply didn’t exist. We were forced to endure a grueling eastward journey on the wreck of Highway 7, which a pouring rain quickly converted into a slippery mess of mud and edge-to-edge potholes. After numerous roadside fixes of our aging dirt bikes, using the usual strands of vine and bits of cardboard found in the road, we turned left toward the town of Dambae (which reached perhaps its greatest fame when it was prominently shown on the map on the cover of Newsweek magazine’s Generation Global issue in September 1998) and the Mekong, thinking that if we reached the riverside town of Chhlong we might find a guesthouse.
But we reached Dambae at 5:30pm, when the skies were darkening. A friendly crowd gathered and between them informed us that the road ahead featured water crossings so deep that our motorcycles would be completely submerged. This was normal, you just push it through, drain the water out and wait for it to dry enough to start again. We ruled it out, realizing that this tiny crossroads town would be our stop for the night. Almost immediately, a diminutive, perky fellow offered up his home, and in fact his sleeping platform, to us. The evening began with fresh duck soup and ended in a Khmenglish conversation generously lubricated by Johnny Walker scotch fortified with the same duck’s blood. Let nothing go to waste.
A different view

For another side of life in Phnom Penh, at least as some expats live it, see Ladies Who Lunch, by Victoria Stagg Elliott of The Cambodia Daily.
The foremost proponent of what he calls “the other Cambodia” as a destination is Ray Zepp, an instructor at Phnom Penh’s business school. Any newcomer who plans to travel around Cambodia’s provinces should pick up a copy of his book, The Cambodia Less Traveled, and the annexes to it that have come out later. The book is widely available in Phnom Penh’s markets and stores serving foreigners. I have seen a good selection of the annexes for sale at the Last Home Guest House (qv).

The Angkor temples

There are two ways to go to Angkor Wat. I suggest going up the river to the town of Siem Reap, near Angkor, by boat. It takes four to six hours, but you get to see the countryside and the riverine villages, many of which are populated by ethnic Vietnamese. Then fly back to Phnom Penh. There is usually no shortage of tickets for the boat or the plane, but you take your chances if you don’t reserve.
Is the boat safe? You be the judge. I have seen fishers firing warning shots (they’re angry over boats cutting their lines and nets). Also, boats have run out of fuel in the middle of the Tonle Sap lake, leaving the passengers stranded for hours in the blazing sun. One of them swamped at the dock in Siem Reap because of overloading, and yet another burst into flames in Kompong Chhnang because a guy was smoking while he sat on top of the drums that served as extra fuel tanks. Also, the smaller speedboats are grossly overpowered, go too fast, and if one was to hit something or go out of control on the lake there would be many casualties.

OK, so it’s not for everybody. But I would still go by boat. Bring earplugs and drinking water, and if you plan to ride on the roof (recommended) use plenty of sunblock and bring a scarf (krama) to tie around your head.
For one account of this boat trip, see part 5 of Patrice’s travelogue on this site.

Tickets to the Angkor temple complex run $20 for one day, $40 for three days and $80 for a week. You’re cheating yourself if you go for less than three days. Speaking of cheating, you might wonder where the money goes. See Gordon Sharpless’s Cambodia Today site for an excellent explanation of this and some of the other modern mysteries of the temples.
See Canby Publication’s Visitor’s Guide to Siem Reap for more.

Sihanoukville

Buses to Sihanoukville, Cambodia’s main beach town, run all day from early morning until early afternoon. The trip takes about 3.5 hours and costs about $5. The bus companies are near the southwest corner of Psar Tmei (the New Market in the middle of Phnom Penh). Just go there and take the next bus. If there isn’t a convenient one, go the the street off the NW corner of the market and you will find many car and van taxis going to Sihanoukville. $5/person to be stuffed in there, $20 if you want the whole car (which also means you can leave immediately instead of waiting for the car to fill. Specify “air-con” if you want it, and choose a car with the steering wheel on the left side if you are concerned about safety.
The trip to Sihanoukville is generally safe. I have only heard of one case of a bus crash, and one case of a mass robbery of the whole busload. As of a year ago, there was one checkpoint near Sihanoukville where police want to see foreigner’s passports. We didn’t bring ours, but they simply gave up and let us pass.
See Canby Publication’s Visitor’s Guide to Sihanoukville for more.

Kompong Chhnang

Kompong Chhnang is at the the southern end of the Tonle Sap lake. Boats from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap stop on demand at its port, while Route 5 to Battambang passes by the main part of town. The two parts are connected by a road along a long dike. The guesthouses in Kompong Chhnang are reputed to be unpleasant. The only real hotel is the Rithisen, facing the trash-strewn riverside. It has overpriced rooms at $10/$12 with AC (in Battambang you get satellite TV, a refrigerator, and hot water for that price). The Rithisen will face competition as soon as the Halfway House restaurant/bar (tel 026-988-621) adds guest rooms, now under construction. The owner of the Halfway House is Paul Greaves, formerly of the British Special Forces and later the project manager for the enormous, if stalled, Kompong Chhnang cargo airport project. His restaurant is about 1 km north of town on Route 5, and is amazingly well-supplied and equipped–you would not know you were in the Cambodian countryside. Whether that’s a plus or a minus is up to you.

Kampot (My Hometown)

The coastal town of Kampot is about two hours south of Phnom Penh. The fastest route there is via Takhmau on Route 2, then turn right just before the town of Takeo in order to jog over to Route 3. You will pass through the last of the Elephant Mountains near the coast, including an imposing rock massif on left, entirely owned by Teng Bunma. From outside the gate it looks as if a huge doorway has been carved into the northwest face. One can only imagine what he uses it for.
For foreigners, the easiest way to explore the points of interest near Kampot is to stop at the Marco Polo restaurant (tel 015-330-166), just east of the center of town (or by now, its newer incarnation on the waterfront). Owner Davide Cattaneo can organize day trips on a boat up the Kampot river or along the coast to the beach islands off Kep, or up to the spectacular Bokor hill station, with its ruined hotel and resort village overlooking the Cambodian coast from 1100 meters. Khmer Rouge troops held out on Bokor for weeks after Vietnamese forces swept past them to take the bulk of southeastern Cambodia and the capital. Twenty years later, in 1999, the area was still littered with relics of the battle for the hilltop redoubt: the guardhouse atop the hotel is still buttressed by sandbags in the photo here, and the rooftop was strewn with spent shells. By the time Bokor fell, the rest of the Khmer Rouge were filled more with bullets than with their former braggadocio

On George Moore’s site there’s a Phnom Penh Post article based on my visit to Bokor with friends in early 1999, along with some comments by George.

Ratanakiri

Cambodia’s northeastern wilderness is beautiful and very remote. If you’re willing to explore and don’t need creature comforts, it has a lot to offer. Transportation is bad; the province boasts a total of less than 2 km of paved road. Local swidden farmers (non-Khmer “hill tribes”) are under heavy pressure from officials and army types to stop their roving so cash crops can be planted (under de facto license by Hun Sen’s regime, normally) and logging trucks daily carry their illegal gains across to Vietnam. This is one way the regime pays off its political and military allies–by giving them franchises to log, clear, smuggle, and exterminate rare animals for export. In this case, the governor of Ratanakkiri, Kep Chuk Tema, is a CPP man who runs the province. The Ministry of Environment seems to try its best to fulfill its mandate, but when it comes down to it, they are not an armed force, and have to back down despite the good intentions that I think the Minister of Environment, Mok Mareth (also CPP), clings to.
The town of Banlung, does not have much to offer. There is one real restaurant, the Ratanakiri restaurant, at the north end of town. There are very few Westerners living up there–maybe five or ten max. There are no bars, bookstores, libraries, movie theaters, etc. There are some streetside pool tables with ripped-up felt, and several karaoke shops.
In the dry season it’s possible to take a truck taxi from Stung Treng to the grimy capital, Banlung. In the wet season, RAC with its five weekly flights to the capital’s red dirt airstrip is the only option. There are a few acceptable guesthouses in Banlung, and one hotel which appears to be a failed venture by the governor and is barely open.
You can take day trips by motorcycle (rental is available at the Ratanakiri restaurant) through the old rubber plantations to two high waterfalls. Just a few kilometers from Banlung there is a lovely little volcanic lake with good swimming, surrounded by a surprisingly well-maintained nature trail. Thankfully, the whorehouse operating in recent years on the edge of the lake in recent years has been dislodged. Now there is a nice little museum of local musical instruments and crafts instead.
Other than those who want serious hinterlands and overnights drinking local liquor with the hill-tribes (not a bad option, I’ve heard, if you have a legitimate reason to be there), most travelers will find 3 or 4 days enough.

Border Crossings and Regional Trips

Recommended travel agent

East-West Travel
182 Street 208, just east of Monivong
855-23-427-118
eastwest@bigpond.com.kh

Between Vietnam and Cambodia

Bavet/Moc Bai is open both ways, but to get into Cambodia there you absolutely must get a Cambodian visa specially marked for this border crossing. You can get a bus or taxi for around $10, transferring at the border. One option to come from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh is to take the backpacker bus to Tay Ninh (headquarters of the Cao Dai cult), then hire a moto-taxi to the Cambodian border, where you cross and get a taxi to Phnom Penh for another $6 (more if you want a whole seat). George Moore has more info for you.
The Phnom Penh Visitors Guide explains that the bus from Phnom Penh to HCMC leaves at 4:30 am from near Psah Depot, on St 182 near 211, behind an auto repair shop next to a Shell station. $5 goes all the way!

Between Thailand and Cambodia

Aranyaprathet/Poipet opened in early 1998, both ways. At least one person has traveled from Phnom Penh to Bangkok in 15 hours, for $15. His account was in a local magazine called Bayon Pearnik, in the April issue. The border between Koh Kong and Trat is also open. Here’s a travel tale about it.
In all cases you should probably get visas in advance, specifically marked for the crossing you want to use.

Laos

See a few tips for a visit to Cambodia’s peaceful northern neighbor.

Working in Cambodia

It’s still possible to show up in Cambodia and find a decent job, especially if you can survive until you’ve made some contacts and some friends, etc. Having skills certainly helps, but it’s not strictly necessary. Pay is low by Western standards (unless you get a cush NGO or diplomatic job), but Cambodia is a cheap and interesting place to live for a while. You can live on $10-15 a day if you’re careful and not seeking luxury.
There are plenty of organizations, and if you make the rounds you may well come up with something, especially if you can volunteer or work for very little money. Unfortunately there’s no central clearing house for foreigner jobs, or even for volunteers (I had one friend, a smart and qualified guy, who searched for over a month trying to find any organization that would let him work at anything for free). The closest thing is the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, which is, or used to be, at 35 Street 178, and which has, or used to have, a bulletin board out front.

Other resources:

  • Aid organizations and much more in the Cambodia Yellow Pages
  • Non-governmental organizations and more in the Cambodia Online Directory
  • Job Opportunities on the Phnom Penh Post web site
  • Teaching

    There is plenty of demand for English teaching, though rates tend to be much lower than in wealthier Asian countries. Pay is fairly good at the better schools, such as ACE (Australian Centre for Education), but they like to see certifications. At the street-corner schools they just want someone to stand there and speak. If you’re interested in other teaching, you might be able to invent a course at the University. Pay is minimal at best, but it could be rewarding.

    Journalism

    Stringing in Phnom Penh should be pretty easy to do–IF you set up the strings before you arrive. FEER and Asiaweek are already fixed up with steady correspondents. So are regional papers like the Bangkok Post and Nation and the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.
    If you are good at pulling out feature stories you can sometimes work with one of the wire services in Phnom Penh–their correspondents are often caught up in hard news. There’s AFP, DPA, AP, and Reuters, in roughly descending order of opportunity. UPI is only semi-extant. The regionals paper also sometimes run features. Keep in mind that the hard political news is quite well-covered by the wires.
    Local freelancing rates (in the Phnom Penh Post and Cambodia Daily in English, and the Cambodge Soir in French) are low, though you may be able to recast the article for resale elsewhere.

    Safety

    Women travelers take note

    Here’s an article for women traveling alone in Cambodia, from Salon. The grossly generalized picture of degenerate expats prompted me to write this response.
    For foreigners, Phnom Penh is no more dangerous than a US city of similar size. I and my friends went out at night all the time. Crime against foreigners, mostly in the form of night-time robberies at gunpoint, comes and goes in waves. In November 1999 the new US ambassador and his wife were mugged as they walked near the embassy. Other crimes against foreigners are rare; I have only heard of one rape (for more on that, see the opinion piece I wrote about it), and only one friend that I can think of has been kidnapped in the city.
    It’s a mafia town–much of the crime is tacitly authorized or at least permitted by the powers that be, except for that which they actually perpetrate themselves. Minor crimes against foreigners, especially the gunpoint robberies, appear to the work of fairly well-off young thugs, perhaps the children of ranking officials, acting on their own or as part of organized youth gangs. When the government announces a crime crackdown, typically after diplomatic complaints, this type of crime stops nearly entirely. One special unit of rapid-response police, the “Flying Tigers”, quickly degenerated from an anti-crime unit into a particularly vicious goon squad that played a lead role in beating up democracy protesters after the 1998 elections, on behalf of Hun Sen.
    Stay with the crowds for a few days till you get oriented. Pickpocketing is not common, but it’s happened. Don’t carry lots of cash or your passport (carry a photocopy of it if you must). You will not step on any landmines unless you go out into the countryside and then wander off the road, so don’t go there until and unless you have good information. Also, don’t go to areas where there is fighting, travel in unfamiliar countryside at night, or wander off in the woods. Don’t yell at anybody–revenge is a popular motive here, and you don’t know who is looking for a motive. Basically if you stick to the regular traveler areas and follow advice from locals, you should have no problems, though you can never eliminate the possibility of a hold-up or a motorbike accident.
    Re-check local conditions before you come–just follow the news stories to make sure there isn’t a new outbreak of civil unrest (unless of course that’s what you like). You might also want to check the US Dept of State’s consular information report.
    As a rule, Cambodians will not try to rip you off, although foreigners are normally overcharged by a bit, which is OK considering how cheap most things are. If you could afford to get to Cambodia, you have vastly more money that the average Cambodian street vendor, so don’t be stingy. You will make the same mistakes that most people do, because Cambodia is a strange place where normal rules don’t apply. Even the laws of nature and physics are different here. But it’s OK, your losses will not be great and your gains will be plentiful. If you survive — heh, heh.
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