TRAVEL & TOURISM
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Cambodia revisited…

 

Cambodia revisited…

David Bennett
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.

The 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 local rate!
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 dirty.
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. Yummy.
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 @hotmail.com.
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…