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My Overland Trip To Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Friday, 15 December 2006

Several months ago I went on a short holiday for a week to visit some of the other sites in the region, predominantly I wanted to visit Phnom Penh, Cambodia and have a look at the place in terms of a future base (home).

People who travel to one other country then espouse how great it is and how they want to live there the rest of their life, in my opinion, are making a mistake. What are they basing their judgement on? Experience with 2 countries out of hundreds? Get out and have a good look around before you make your decision on where in the world you want to live. Also note that a 2 day package tour does not show you what a country is like at all - it shows you 5 star hotels and a group of tourists taking photos.

So off I went - overland - to get a good look at Cambodia, Phnom Penh and the people....

I booked a bus ride down the Eastern side of Thailand, passing through Trat, down south to Cambodia. The road and the trip in Thailand was quiet plain, the infrastructure in Thailand is first class with excellent roads.

After several hours on the bus we came to some military checkpoints, operated by the Thai army. It was at this point that I remembered that Thailand (Siam) and Cambodia have been warring across South East Asia for over a thousand years. Both have controlled large portions of each others territories at one point or another. Only as recently as within the last 10 years there have still been border clashes and threats by both sides to mount full scale invasions.

Luckily things are a lot cooler these days.

We arrive at the Cambodian border, cross, then travel a reasonable road to Koh Kong, where I stayed the night in a hotel (hostel) built out over the water with magnificent views and a English/Cambodian couple owning the place.

Here the owner introduces me to an old friend of his, he has been here 20 years. Huh? The country has not been open to foreigners for 20 years, how did he get in here? He was with the Russian embassy. Oh, sometimes I forget that the stuff we are taught is what suits our governement and is not necessarily true. The communists were here, Kampuchea / Cambodia was only blocked to the West.

I was also informed that the biggest tourist ship (cruise ship) in the world has just pulled into Sihanoukville, the beach town that had a reputation of being very nice. My new friend updates me on the situation there as everything I have read was several years old. 

The place is a tourist trap with inflated prices and annoying locals trying to scam stupid tourists everywhere, all the typical tourist crap that caused me to hate Thailand the first 3 times I came here.

Cross Sihanoukville off the list off places to visit in Cambodia.


Sunset Water Views Koh Kong, Cambodia

Unfortunately the view inside the rooms was not as nice, but at us$2.50 a room per night I did not expect much. In fact there were better rooms available around the area, some very nice, but for me I consider a place with character a far better choice than an antiseptic hospital green hotel. I have been on the bus all day, I am tired, I go out for dinner then I hit the local entertainment venues for a look and a few drinks, I come back at midnight and all I need is a clean place to sleep until 7am when I get the next ride out.

Cheap, Clean Hotel Room In Koh Kong, Cambodia 

Next day I arise and wait for the Van that takes us to the road that joins Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, at the junction there we are to get a different Van to Phnom Penh.
I arrive at the appointed time at the appointed place only to find out the fellow I bought my ticket from had made the ticket for tomorrow, anyway, the bus having left I was able to manage to get one of the lads to drive me out on his motorbike to catch up with the bus.
The road here was fairly good, a Thai company was building new toll roads into Cambodia, apparently the old road was very bad - this I was to find out shortly.
On the way out we got to see some of the traditional local 'houses' such as the one below that the poorer locals live in. 

Farmers Hut - Koh Kong, Cambodia

Once we caught up with the bus the road changed. It was dirt. It really was dirt, a dirt road. One of the 4 main 'arterial' roads in Cambodia was predominantly a red dirt (and sticky red mud in the wet season). Here is one of the 4 river crossings we had to go over. In future the road will be extended and bridges built. 

Koh Kong To Phnom Penh River Crossing 

The river crossings had small food and beverage stands at each one so while we waited each time I was able to get a chance to talk with the locals and to sample the local foods.
At one crossing a couple of kids were playing, one was wearing a WWE wrestling T-shirt. I started talking with them, they asked if I was a wrestler. I pulled out my Nokia N70 phone and played a wrestling demo video reel from my wrestling days, on the phone for them. They were amazed.
Imagine for them, a real life wrestler here in some remote Cambodian village, they were very excited. Many of the other locals crowded around to try to watch on the tiny screen. So I passed the phone around - I am sure this was the first time many of them had seen a smart phone and probably the first time many of them had actually held a mobile phone.
Here is a photo of the inside of our van making the journey, as you can see, as usual for the way I like to travel I am the only white face present. Why the heck would anyone travel on a tour with a pack of tourists? If I want to see and meet westerners I will go to a their country. I am in Asia, I want to see, meet and experience Asia so I travel by myself with the locals. It is more of an adventure. 

Crowded Local Bus To Phnom Penh, Cambodia 

After another full days travel and I arrive in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia - and a much larger city than I thought. Research now shows me there are over 1 million people living in Phnom Pehn. I was a little bit shocked, I was expecting something more like Vientiane in Laos (more like a country town), not a full bustling city.
I arrived just as night fell, an English ex-pat  that I met at one of the river crossings told me of a bar he and his friends drink at that I could meet them when I arrived. I ventured to find the bar.
(I also met a "Mayor" of one of the border provinces at the border crossings too, he was travelling to the capital on weekends to study and further his education)
Sharky's Bar, Phnom Pehn turned out to be relatively easy to find. I went in and looked around. It did not take long to recognise this was a popular ex-pat bar and I befriended a retired Australian airline pilot who had moved to Cambodia in his retirement. He gave me a run down of the city, prices to pay, costs on basics such as monthly rent, local wages, taxi rides, etc. He also pointed out a reasonable hotel just around the corner - just what I needed - a room and a shower. 
Cambodia Sign At Sharkies Bar

Sign at Sharky's Bar, Phnom Pehn Cambodia

The sign above - never a truer word said than in jest. A local story goes (confirmed by the fellow who's bar was attacked) that a local was kicked out of a popular bar in Phnom Penh. This fellow was connected and very angry about being removed from the club. He went away for an hour, came back and shot a rocket propelled grenade into the bar, destroying the bar and killing the owners wife.

In case you don't get the point to this story Cambodia is dangerous. It has the highest gun ownership per capita in the world. 

Here's a quick list of the conflict in Cambodia since the Vietnam War:

1970-1975    Cambodia part of the Vietnam War + Civil War
1975-1979    Khmer Rouge raids into Thailand + Killing Fields Genocide
1979            Vietnamese conquest
1979-1991    Resistance against Vietnamese occupation
1992-1998    Khmer Rouge guerilla warfare
1997            Civil War

Only 8 years since the last of the Khmer Rouge officially stopped aggression, that is 8 years since the civil war officially stopped. Cambodia has not known peace since before the Vietnam War. 

Along the highways were big billboards with advertising saying "We Don't Need Guns Anymore" and a picture of an M-16 with a red cross through it (I found it interesting to note that the rebels were assumed to have the American made and supplied M16 rifle)

Amazingly the people are not all gun toting psychos, though I believe the scars are there and the way the people act will not be 'normal' for a while yet. Aggression seems very close to the surface for Cambodians

So while in Phnom Penh, the capital, that is still rebuilding after Pol Pot (see the movie "The Killing Fields" for more info on Pol Pot)sent EVERYBODY out to the farms become rural peasants it is an interesting place to see, definitely barely touched by western culture and very few ex-pats and not too many tourists yet. Though the tourists are generally easy to avoid as they are drunk and stupid - best keep away lest they get shot for having a big mouth.

You actually get to see the country relatively untouched.

For a quiet afternoon look around the city you can get the slow (and boring) cyclo taxi driver to take you around.

I caught one cyclo once. The driver decided that I was a tourist and therfore liable to being ripped off. He took me the long way from the market to my hotel - about 45 minutes in total when I knew I was just a block or two away from the hotel. 45 minutes later I was getting sunburned and annoyed and he arrived at the hotel. 

Cambodia Cyclo Taxi

Cyclo Taxi - Slow

At the Phnom Penh markets I found the food section as I wanted to sample some of the culinary delights of the Khmer people. I ordered a bowl of spicy looking vegetable and chicken dish with several side dishes. As the Thais would say "Juet" or "Mi rot chat" - tasteless. Disappointed but willing to give it another go tomorrow, I got up to leave and pay.

I had noticed that a Khmer (Cambodian) guy had ordered the same as me and I noted how much he paid when he left. I was asked for twice the money for the same food. I pointed out the taxi drivers payment then we settled on me paying 50% more. Why? Because I am a rich foreigner who obviously deserves to be gouged. 

Cambodia Street Markets

The markets in Phnom Penh

While I was discussing the payment for my food a lady came in selling knives and chopping blades, I briefly considered the danger of pedalling weapons to this explosive tempered Cambodian people. Want to chop someone up but forgot your knife at home? No worries, buy a new one at the scene do your business and go on your day happily.
Sarcastic? Yes, but supported by later events. In truth the lady selling the knives was quiet nice.
Cambodia Knife Seller

 Forget Your Knife? Don't worry grab a new one

Sight seeing in Phnom Penh

 I hate sight seeing, and visiting tourist destinations, this was my brief attempt at it. As I rode past the main temple on a motocycle taxi I snapped this photo. Cool, sight seeing finished.

I have visited temples (Wat Pho, etc) in Thailand the first time I came, I visited about 6 major churches in Europe when I travelled there and the only thing I can say about them is how boring they were. OK, I recognise when they were buit and the common people lived in grass huts - THEN these buildings would have been very impressive, but to me organised religion is the cause of more trouble on Earth than any other cause. I am not a fan and looking at lots of gold and oppulence taken from the common people living in abject poverty does not turn me on.

Cambodia Main Temple

Buddhist Temple in Cambodia

Making ice cubes by hand - have a close look. These guys are making ice cubes from large blocks of ice with meat cleavers. Ice production in Thailand is controlled by the government due to health restrictions (I assume from when the tap water was undrinkable), the same is likely the case in Cambodia. These guys have had a large block of ice delivered and by hand saw and cleaver they are now cutting it up into ice cubes.
Cambodia Making Ice Cubes

Making Ice Cubes By Hand

I went past several times over my stay and this seems to be their full time job. Next time you complain about your job you'll have something to think about.


Now to the fun part.

Once I was settled in to my hotel and showered I went back out for a look around at the city by night.

At night time you get to meet people, see what the local attitude is like, what the locals do for fun, how they act, if the place is friendly, if the place is friendly to foreigners, etc.

I went back out to the American style bar and met some new people, a fellow on a business trip with his Filipino wife. I chatted with some of the locals - almost started a fight, sample a couple of the local beers and took in as much information as I could.

I found out that rivalry between the Vietnamese and the Khmers was still very volatile.

Cambodia used to be located in Southern Vietnam, successive wars pushed the Khmers inland to around the current location. After the Vietnam War, hostilities between Cambodia and Vietnam increased until Vietnam invaded and took control in 1979, this was probably a good thing as Pol Pot was killing millions of his own people (about 1.5 million people - Cambodian but ethnic Vietnamese were high on the list) during this time. The UN did nothing. The US and China supported genocidal manic Pol Pot - good one guys .

So rivalry between the ethnic groups is still prevalent. I made the small mistake of talking to one Khmer girl for a while then talking to a stunningly beautiful Vietnamese girl with a short temper. When the Khmer girl walked back past and said something the Vietnamese girl exploded - and I was in the middle.

Mostly throughout that night and the following 5 days and nights I spent in Phnom Penh I spoke with Khmers.

The situation there is similar to Thailand with the rural workers moving to the city to find work and support thier families back home, and often to pay for schooling for their younger siblings so they can get a good job later - the self sacrifice these girls make for the good of their families is amazing. You do not get anything like this in the West.

This night I had a look around at most of the nightspots. The one that caught my eye was one of the longest standing entertainment venues in Phnom Pehn - "The Heart Of Darkness". The club was full and pumping, there were many out of control tourists being complete idiots, maybe they did not notice the gun check and full body search upon entering the club?

(UPDATE: "Heart of Darkness" was a book written by Joseph Conrad that inspired the movie "Apocalypse Now" which though set in Cambodia was filmed in The Philippines - and I've since stayed at hte same hotel the cast and crew stayed at during filming) 

About 12 times a year a tourist is shot dead at close range in Cambodia, mostly nightclub attacks I believe. Seeing how these fools act I can only say they ask for it.

The place was littered with young, drunk, guys out harrasing the local women.

Being from a wealthy country and from a physically large race of people does not give you the right to throw your weight around. It does not give the right to bully and intimidate the locals who are a lot more dangerous. It also does not give you the right to treat other people's local girlfriends and wives with this same disrespect. 

This annoys me, cowards do this at school to smaller boys, I am the biggest guy out there yet I don't need to go around being an ass.

Sorry for the rant, but you see this too often with some young drunk westerner bad mouthing and pushing the smaller locals and wondering what he did wrong when 10 guys jump him with metal poles later in the night. 

Or when an angry ex-pat stands up and belts the tourist for touching up the expats girlfriend/wife in public and treating her like a some sort of available market produce.


The only thing that really annoyed me was the locals overcharging for everything, often 10 times the price for food, etc. This becomes very tiresome very quickly, I am not stupid and I know the rough price, I do not mind as in Thailand paying a little more (10-20%) and am fine with that, but 100% or 1000% more that is just being rude. This is the one thing that drives me out of a country faster than anything else.

Also having to count change continually. As Cambodians take 3 currrencies - the Cambodian Riel, the US Dollar and the Thai Baht, you are constantly calculating costs and change with approximate exchange rates.

Food was more expensive in Cambodia than in Bangkok too, this is ridiculous. Cambodia is far poorer, the cost of living is less, yet they charge more for most things than I pay in the capital of Thailand. This is similar to an American going to rural Mexico and paying more for buritos there than in New York City. Something is wrong there.

So after 5 days in Phnom Pehn I leave. The road out to Ankor Wat and Siam Riep is tarred (sealed roads) - YAY! So time is good and we arrive at the main tourist trap of Cambodia. I did not even bother, I stayed the night and left first thing next morning. Everything seemed to be geared towards tourists - prices, trinkets, rubbish, annoyances, and nothing of the real Cambodia at all to see.

I will take the time to explore more deeply next time I visit though, I am sure there is a lot of interesting things happening if you can befriend the right taxi driver and reward him appropriately.... next time for sure.

After that we had but little distance to travel to Poi Pet, the main land border crossing into Thailand, the problem was we were back to dirt roads. 400km took us about 8 hours to traverse, I have been assured it used to be only 4x4 pickup trucks that could traverse the "highway" with you sitting in the back tray with 8 other travellers.

A Better Section Of The Main Highway

Arriving back at Poi Pet finally we transferred across the border and the welcome sight of 4 lane highways and rapid transport was a welcome sight. First thing I did was dig into cheap and tasty Thai food, then grabbed the bus back home.

Will I do it again?


Will I travel by land again?

Probably , but I will take the shorter route.

Did I enjoy Phnom Penh?


Will I make it my new home or even consider it for future?

No, like Australia there is no film industry to speak of and thus no career opportunities nor a way to move my life goals forward.

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