This trip was planned to be our second visit to Cambodia, the last being 5
years ago - we were very keen to see how much things had changed. Our plan
was to travel overland - with air travel reserved for near-fatal accidents
(hopefully none). So, on Thursday March 12, we made our way to Ekamai bus
station in Bangkok and bought tickets to Trat, where we planned to cross
into Cambodia. A luxury bus, a 4 hour journey with bottles of drinking
water, packets of cookies and iced drinks; all for 241 baht. A good start.
Independence Monument in downtown Phnom Penh is one of the Cambodian
capital’s landmark features. (Photo Public Domain)
Trat was disappointing, with very poor quality and expensive accommodation -
but let’s remember this is a border town, and that’s what its like at border
towns! So, with this in mind, we were not hopeful for a successful evening
meal. We ended up at a little place in the backpacker area called Chill
Corner. I ordered Pad Thai Goong - my companion settled for Penang chicken
curry. Surprise, surprise, one of the best Pad Thai Goongs I’ve ever had!
Chill corner is a well run, clean little place that serves cheap but very
good quality Thai food. I think we paid about 120 baht for the two dishes.
The next day, we took a tuk-tuk to the Cambodian border, having already
purchased our visas in Chiang Mai. Surprise, surprise- two guys grabbed our
passports and furiously filled in forms. However, the formalities were all
over in about 5 minutes - we were then asked to pay the scribes. Then we
walked with our bags (the option is to pay numerous minions to carry said
bags!) 50 metres across into Cambodia. Once there, we were asked 380 baht
for a taxi to take us to the new border town of Koh Kong. We settled for 200
baht, later discovering that about one third of the asking price is the
Koh Kong has a new tourist area with a few nice hotels and manicured lawns
by the river. We paid $20 at the Koh Kong Hotel for a very pleasant room
with AC, fridge and river views. Exploring the rest of Koh Kong, we were
introduced to the ‘real Cambodia’. The food looked dreadful; cold, oily and
Just as we realized we were lost, it began to rain! We were wet, dirty and
getting hungry, but in all the confusion, the Cambodians we met were
friendly, cheerful and always tried to help - with no-one asking for money.
Eventually, we found our way back to the manicured lawn area and made for a
cheapish-looking guest house for something to eat.
In the interests of being boring, I ordered a Pad Thai Goong (yes, all the
food here is Thai and you pay in Thai baht). For 60 baht, it was the
second-best I’ve had in my life! Nine large prawns (I counted the tails!),
plus lots of young leeks, al-dente carrots and lightly cooked bean sprouts.
The next morning, we were off on the bus to Phnom Penh. Founded, so it says
in my guide book, by Lady Penh in 1392. Phnom means hill so we now have Lady
Penh’s hill. Occupied for 30-odd years by the Thais from 1834, then taken
over by the French and finally invaded in 1979 by the Vietnamese, who ousted
Pol Pot, much to everyone’s relief.
We were charged $15 for our 5 hour bus journey - but later found we could
have paid $7 if we had shopped around. This was the first of several, very
good, very organized bus journeys in Cambodia. We are used to nightmare
journeys in India with drug crazed homicidal maniac drivers - Cambodia,
thank goodness, is totally different. Good buses, excellent drivers and the
roads are so much improved in the last 5 years. Our only complaint is the
inboard toilet, helpfully labeled in English and Khmer, PISS ONLY PLEASE! It
does, nevertheless, start to pong after a couple of hours …at that point we
made a mental note to take the bus without the toilet next time.
About 5 hours later we entered the suburbs of Phnom Penh. Mile after mile of
huge, new Chinese factories, mostly producing garments and farm machinery.
What would Lady Penh think about this lot? Eventually we arrived at the
central bus station and took a moto to the area near the river. We spent an
hour plodding around rubbish hotels. Nylon sheets, no windows, dark and
dingy, noisy, overpowering smell of damp and mothballs ...and all for 15 to
25 dollars a night.
We eventually stayed at a Chinese-looking place with a massive ornate
moulded ceiling and the brightest fluorescent centre light you’ve ever seen.
The room was gloomy with a single sheet on a double bed. No bedside lights,
nowhere to put your stuff. Lady Penh …I’m holding you responsible! My
companion scoured the area and was promised a nice room for the next day,
which turned out to be very nice - on the top floor of the Bright Lotus
Guesthouse number 1 (22 St 178 Songkat Chey Chomnas, Sammy_lotus
Now, here’s the low-down. Each floor has a room on the corner, with its own
balcony furnished with potted plants and a table and chairs. I would say our
room (412), was the best in the hotel.
The building is separated from the huge red traditional National Museum by a
very French-looking open plaza. Looking down from our balcony we had an
aerial view of Cambodian traffic and driving. I cannot understand why there
isn’t a major accident about once every 5 minutes and then it dawns on me
…of course, each motorbike, truck and car has multi directional transponders
linked by satellite to a central super-computer. Although it looks as if
human drivers are in charge, each vehicle is actually being controlled by an
onboard state of the art computer. I wish!
The Bright Lotus Guesthouse number 1 turns out to be well run, with friendly
and efficient staff, but the restaurant on the ground floor is even more
amazing. I have become aware that the worst place on earth to buy fish and
chips is England. They are terrible; thick fatty brown batter and fish from
which you could wring out the brown rancid frying oil. At the Bright Lotus
Guesthouse number 1, the fish is covered with an ultra-light, rice flour
batter and freshly cooked. The chips are chunky, cooked in olive oil and
dry. Cost - about $3.
Sitting around in the comfy wicker chairs, I read in the Phnom Penh Post
that garment orders are down by 40% this year, 70 factories have closed and
51,000 workers are out of a job. I begin to wonder about the future of the
miles of factories being built on the outskirts.
Unfortunately we have timed our trip to coincide with a major construction
project along the river. This flood prevention and drainage scheme (paid for
by the Japanese government), is due to last until March 2010. It doesn’t
help….to be continued…