Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Cambodian Border Crossings

Koh Kong - Hat Lek - Aranyaprathet - Poi Pet - Prum - Pong Nam Ron

Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville by Bus - 4 Hours and $4.00

G.S.T Express Bus Station in Phnom PenhThe G.S.T. Express Bus Station window near the central market in Phnom Penh.

Having a few days off, I once again decided to head back to Pattaya, Thailand via the overland and water route whose first leg takes me from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. Although it is possible to make it to the Thai border via this route in one day from Phnom Penh, I had opted to sleep in and instead caught the 12:30 GST Express bus from their station behind the Shell Gas Station near the central market in Phnom Penh.

The ticket costs the normal $4.00 and after fending off the newspaper and sunglass vendors, I boarded the bus. We left 10 minutes late at 12:40 (instead of 12:30) and twenty minutes later we were still fighting our way out of the city when the air conditioning went off. Hatches and windows got opened but fortunately for me I had selected a seat next to a window that opened.

We hit the first toll booth at 13:05 and from there on, the road was decent and the traffic reasonably light. The landscape through this first leg can only be described as bleak and colorless but cruising along at 70 mph or so, we were managing to put some kilometers on fairly quickly.

At 14:00 we hit a light rain shower which is highly unusual for this time of the year but I interpret this as a good omen for the rest of the trip. Shortly after this we had the mandatory lunch stop and being a bit hungry, opted to set down and have some rice and vegetables for 2,500 Riel. Not bad considering that is just a tad over 50 cents. At 14:30 we pull out of the Cambodian version of a rest stop/restaurant and are once again making our way south to Sihanoukville.

The trip remained uneventful, the road smooth and at 16:30, only 4 hours after leaving Phnom Penh, we pulled into the bus station in Sihanoukville. This event however now requires one to undergo the mandatory barrage of moto drivers soliciting the bus patrons business. As usual, I blow these guys off and head out on my own.

Although the bus drops you off in Sihanoukville in a 'bus station' type area, in reality the true bus station for this company is located a few blocks away across the street from the Freedom Hotel and Dance Club, a great local watering hole for ex-pats and weary travelers. I mention this as this is also where you can rent a motorbike by the day from G.S.T. across the street instead of being hit every time with a $1 moto charge (which is highway robbery!). Although the $5 a day charge from G.S.T. is more than one would pay in Thailand, I find it reasonable considering the alternative.

If you opt to head straight for your hotel or guesthouse, expect at least a $1 charge. Some of these guys will try to hot you hard so make sure the fee is worked out before you leave.

If you aren't quite sure where you want to stay and want to explore a bit first, I would recommend heading to the north end of Occheaceal Beach which is commonly known as Serendipity Beach. Here at the end of a dusty and rutted road you will find a couple of places to have a cold drink, a beach chair to set on and shade trees to hide you from the sun. It is a good place to start.....

You can also find a decent description of the hotels and guesthouses on this beach on the Sihanoukville home page.

See my latest story about Serendipity Beach.

Sihanoukville to Koh Kong by Boat - 3 Hours 45 Minutes and $15.00

Please note: Reports in late May and early June 2004 indicated very rough seas using this method of travel. Although very pleasant normally, during the monsoon season these hydrofoils which are designed for inland waters can make this a very unpleasant journey.

Mr. Pok in SihanoukvilleMy adopted moto driver, Mr. Pok meets me at Uncle Bob's 4 room guest house on the far end of Serendipity Beach at 11:00, an hour before the supposed departure time of the ferry.

It surprises me how far it actually is to the ferry dock but after a short sidetrip to the railway station, we pass into the newly constructed Hun Sen Port. A long wooden pier leads out to our first stop, an immigration shack where an official looks at my passport and writes my name into a ledger with the others traveling that day. Our next stop is of course the restaurant on the pier where I once again have a bit of rice and some vegetables along with a beer for myself and Mr. Pok. He has already bought my ticket for me ($15.00) and I go ahead and pay him for this here. He of course is getting a commission for buying the ticket for me so I say nothing and let him make the couple of bucks off me.

At noon I head down the dock and board what are obviously Russian designed hydrofoils (but most probably built in Malaysia) that I have ridden all over the world. At 12:15 we push back out of the dock and are shortly up to speed with the bow riding out of the water on its skies.

After arriving at the ferry port of Koh Kong at 16:00, throngs of moto drivers were waiting on the dock and immediately leaped onto the boat as we came along side. A couple of guys grabbed me and I told them to get their hands off me. After scanning the group closest to me, I selected a young moto driver with a bright green t-shirt after his offer to take me to the border for half the price of the others. This would have been a $1 instead of $2 but after the 10 kilometer ride to the border's immigration post across the channel and long, low bridge, he demanded $2 instead of the agreed upon $1. As I was tired and hot and had already been on the road for most of the day, I let him have the $2 after changing money with a female money changer who showed the moment he indicated he had no change. Of course, she gave me my change in Thai Baht and shortchanged me 20 baht but was gone in a flash before I could even say anything. Seems everyone was working some angle or another.

Thai immigration post at Hat Lek. Posts are now open until 8PM instead of the former 5PM.

Getting stamped out and stamped into Thailand went uneventful and actually was rather civilized on the Thai side for the first time in a long time. I wonder if a 30% drop in tourism due to the Muslim terrorism in the southern provinces have anything to do with this? hmmmmm.....

Anyway. Went right across the road and found some guys lounging around several mini-buses who seemed quite uninterested in me the lone traveler and a single, small rucksack. I did notice a sign indicating these were buses to Trat and they left quite frequently. Since I was the first there, I chose the front seat next to the driver and handed over the required 100 baht for the 1 hour trip to Trat. After boarding a few more backpackers from the ferry trip, we headed out at 16:45, actually a few minutes earlier than the time indicated on the sign of 16:55.

I caught a sign along the road that said it was 75 kilometers to Trat but this was after we had already come 10 kilometers or so. At a small town called Khlong Yai, we got off the main road and entered the town to pick up someone who was obviously a female friend of the driver. After that, we soon hit the first of what turned into three military and police checkpoints, all within 15 minutes of the border point. Why they were so close to each other and why they needed three is beyond me....

For the first time, they actually stopped the vehicle and opened the doors to look inside. At the checkpoint near the border at Poi Pet they are actually entering the larger buses now and asking to see IDs and passports, although I wasn't asked for mine at any time.

At 6PM we enter Trat and I immediately try to find transportation to the Pattaya area. The only thing that was even getting remotely close to Pattaya or Rayong at this time in the evening was a bus leaving a small bus station across the street from where the mini-bus had stopped. Although it departed at 7PM, it was heading direct to Bangkok (300 kilometers away) and the closest I could get to Pattaya would be their stop in Chonburi. As I had had enough for one day, I opted to share a taxi/pickup truck with a young Japanese traveler from Yokahami. There was no flexibility in the price so we agreed to split the 1,500 Baht fee.

The trip the rest of the way went pretty much uneventful except for the driver trying to take a shortcut to Pattaya and not dropping me off on the way in Ban Chang, about 30 minutes south of Pattaya. I had to finally tell him he was not getting paid unless he took me there and after a 20 minute detour, at 21:30 I finally arrived at my destination; nearly 3 hours after leaving Trat.

On the Road to Aranyaprathet/Poi Pet and Siem Reap

I got up early and checked out of the Diana Resort which is directly across the street (Pattaya Nua/North Road) from the express bus station to Mor Chit and Ekkami in Bangkok. Diana is a decent place to stay if you are traveling and using the buses as the rooms are clean and large with both air-conditioning and hot water for only 450 Baht. Additionally, they also have a very nice pool and a driving range but the food leaves a lot ot be desired but overall not a bad place to cool down from days on the road around southeast Asia

Anyway, as I am heading east to Aranyaprathet (what a mouth full that word is), I am headed this time to Mor Chit (or as some ex-pats say, 'more shit') as that is where the 'express buses' leave for eastern Thailand. This trip however had no express in any meaning of the word!

After paying the 90 Baht for the ticket to Mor Chit, we leave Pattaya at 07:40 and arrive at the bus terminal at Mor Chit at 10:00 AM...pretty much on time.

After a bit of fumbling around trying to find the ticket window for the bus trip eastward (I seldom use this terminal), I finally found the right window which was labeled number 31. After paying the required 180 Baht, I was given both my ticket, a plastic cup of water and a small cake...how nice I thought!

The bus left at 10:35 for what was suppose to me a four and a half hour 'EXPRESS' bus trip to the border town of Aranyaprathet, but in reality turned into the bus trip from hell and was probably the second worse bus trip I had ever taken (except for the 24 hour trip I took on a bus from eastern Turkey to Istanbul while setting on the back row with a seat that would not lean back).

As I soon found out this was going to be a bus trip for students heading back to their towns and villages for the coming Thai Songkra holiday. It seemed we made endless stops along the way with the bus full way beyond capacity with the aisle literally so full that people were standing side by side in the aisle all the way from the front of the bus to the rear.

As I had a lady and her son next to my seat (he was setting on her lap), they were crowding me to the left. The people in the aisle were crowding from the right and I literally had to set sideways for hours as a lady and her son were setting on the arm rest that was on the aisle. It was incredibly hot as well as the air conditioning couldn't keep up with the number of humans inside the enclosed bus,

To make matters even worse, a couple of Irish 'gentlemen' were setting in the two seats across the aisle from me and were getting pickeled on large bottles of Singha as the journey progressed. The older of the two was cutting large farts that to put it mildly was embarrassing as a foreigner.

To top this even further, after a short break at a bus station near our destination after most everyone had gotten off the bus to stretch their legs (we had lost many of the aisle passengers by now), we re-boarded the bus and once again I reached for my small black notebook (my journal and weeks worth of notes) that had been sticking out of a pocket in my rucksack to make a few notes.....only to notice it was missing.

hmmmmm...I thought. Where did it go? I didn't think to much about it at first as I was pretty tired and hot and felt it had maybe slid out under the seat or maybe I had absentmindly put it back in the rucksack. Either way it was on the bus and I would find it...or so I thought.

I did however begin to search a bit harder after a half hour or so and when it became obvious I did not have it and it wasn't under the seat, I started to ask the Thais in front and behind me. The girl setting in front of me pointed to the farting and drunken Irishmen and after asking him several times in the most polite way possible (he pretended to ignore me which indicated he knew where it was), he suddenly remembered he had 'found it' and placed it into his small bag from which he started to remove it.

hmmmmmmm......once again. I thanked him profusely for 'finding it' for me and than had to listen to his diatribe about living in Thailand and the Thais. As I just didn't want to engage this individual in any form of conversation or any overt act of friendship, I let him talk and I just listened. Rule number 1 for me however had once again been proven, "you don't have to worry about the locals, it is the foreigners you got to watch like a hawk!!!"

We finally reached the bus terminal at Aranyaprathet and I immediately grabbed a motorcycle to the border after declining an invitation to to share a Tuk Tuk with the Irish 'gentlemen' as I didn't feel like having anything else ripped off from me. The price of 40 Baht seemed pretty reasonable for what I knew was about an 8-10 kilometer ride to the border and the immigration station.

June 2004 Update: The road from Poipet to Siem Reap is still a rough and wild ride although the road between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh is now pavement for 4 of the approximately 6 hours. Unfortunately coming in from Poipet has, is and will most probably be for some time to come a very trying experience.....sorry!

The Thai/Cambodian Border and the Road to Siem Reap

The walk across the border back into Cambodia was the easiest it has ever been with Thai immigration (departure) not having a single person in line, with this time me not receiving the third degree as I had the previous time before. Arriving at 16:00 might have had something to do with it as well I guess, or maybe things are just mellowing out a bit with tourism being off so radically (presently down 30% according to the Bangkok Post in March 2004).

Anyway, as I had already obtained a one year, multiple-entry visa in Phnom Penh for Cambodia from Lucky's Motorcycle Shop on Monivong, I didn't need to get into the visa line for a Cambodian Visa and instead strolled on into the shack that had a single immigration officer stamping visitors into the Kingdom of Cambodia.

Although there was no-one in line except for two monks, the guy was busily stamping hundreds of Thai passports with Cambodian entry stamps. During this 20 minute wait (while he finished this Herculean task), I struck up a conversation with one of the monks who was just returning from a 3-year stay in Burma while studying for his degree in Buddhism and English.

His English was excellent and his story was fascinating as he went on to tell me about the school there, his multi-national classmates and about his return to his Wat in Phnom Penh. What was so interesting was he had a business card to give me showing his Wat and a phone number where he could be reached in Phnom Penh!

After parting ways as he was going to stay overnight in Poi Pet until he was able to catch the early morning (06:30 AM) bus to Phnom Penh, I got my 'indefinite' entry stamp and charged out into the masses of humanity, insanity and moto drivers of Poi Pet.

Although not as bad in some ways as it has been in past years (see this article from 2001), you are still confronted and most newcomers overwhelmed with the touts and humanity coming at you from all directions. As a tired and weary traveler, it can be daunting enough to make you want to run back across the Thai border and forget your plans to see Siem Reap and the Temples of Angkor....but please don't!

On this particular passage across the border however, I had already determined there were no more buses heading in any direction so it was either an evening in the filth of Poi Pet, a taxi to Siem Reap or one to Phnom Penh....so what was it going to be?

I opted for a taxi solution and entered the fray of finding one and settling on the price. What is normally suppose to happen is the price will be settled on at $20 as this was the going rate for a taxi to these destinations in the past. I however kept getting confronted with the price of 1,500 Baht which I strongly indicated was not acceptable and said I would only pay 1,000 Baht.... tops! One driver eventually agreed to this price and after telling him to wait, I went back to the immigration line looking for individuals to share the taxi with me to Siem Reap.

I immediately came upon three Brits who were weary and overwhelmed with the situation. Both the girls and the guy looked terrified from what was happening around them but I quickly tried to explain what was happening and offered my taxi to them. They agreed somewhat hesitantly at first but as he kept asking others about a taxi, he soon found out that my 1,000 Baht was far better than the other offers of 1,500 Baht.

It was during this long, slow push through the crowd that a 'police officer' intercepted me and pointing to the patch on his shoulder that said 'tourist police' (...with me thinking "when the hell did Cambodia get tourist police?"), he asked me what I was paying for my taxi.

As incredulous as I could sound (which I actually was), I indicated to him I wasn't aware the 'tourist police' were in the taxi cab business and it was none of his business....and kept pushing myself and those following me through the mass of humanity to the taxi I had waiting.

We got to the car and I hurriedly tried to get their backpacks into the trunk and everyone into the car but this 'cop' was playing junk yard dog with me. He insisted one of the girls roll down her window in the back and tried to intimidate her. When I told her to roll her window back up, he went around to the driver's side and was obviously asking who the driver was and than wrote down his odometer mileage. It was only after this the 'police officer' gave up and we were able to head out of the filth of humanity and buildings that is known as Poi Pet....which is a horrible first impression for travelers going to the amazing beauty of Siem Reap and Angkor. Sad, so very sad.....

It seems the Thai mafia has most probably taken control of the border taxis in Poi Pet as it is exactly 1,500 Baht that Thais charge between cities. Examples include Bangkok Airport to Pattaya (2 hours) or my recent trip from Trat to Pattaya (3 hours). Rumors indicate that the situation with the moto drivers in Sihaounkville are getting as bad as well, demanding $1 instead of a more reasonable sum of 1,000-2,000 Riel (.24-.50 cents-Cambodian's only have to pay 500 Riel for the same trip-$1 is 8 times higher than the local rate).

Anyway, we were finally able to blow out of Poi Pet and with a couple of hours of light left, headed east to Sisophon, and further east to the sanity and beauty of Siem Reap and Angkor.

See a story about crossing this border during Christmas 2003 for the journey to Siem Reap.

The Palin Border Crossing or more officially known as 'Pong Nam Ron' (Thai) and 'Prum' (Cmabodian).

A couple of British friends of mine in Phnom Penh told me about their recent (April 2004) trip across the border at Pong Nam Ron/Prum into Cambodia from Thailand.

It seems this is a new option but very rudimentary. Like the other border points, it is also now open to 8PM as well and is being used by some who are heading for casinos in Cambodia here and the precious stones found in the area. It also seems to be an alternative crossing point for visitors going between Koh Chang/Trat and Siem Reap.

you can get there from Chonburi for only 500 Baht and than journey takes a little over an hour. The Thai name of the border is 'Pong Nam Run' according to the stamp in the passports and on the Cambodian side it is called 'Prum'. Although the two points are walkable they are a bit of a distance apart and motos can take you from one to the other for only 5 Baht. They indicated to me you can get a Cambodian entry visa here but a Thai visa is not possible. This is unconfirmed at this point.

You can catch a taxi from the Cambodian side to Battambang for $20 but there are also lots of moto drivers waiting there as well. The road as of April 2004 is still in very bad condition but from Battambang to Sisophon is entirely paved and in good condition. There is an 8AM bus from Battambang to Sisophon as well and with water levels being so incredibly low at the moment (April 2004), proabably a better option than the boat if you are heading to Siem Reap and the temples at Angkor. The Smoking Pot in Battambang was also mentioned as a decent restaurant at a reasonable price as well as the Balcony Bar as a place to cool down with a beer or cocktail.

They also mentioned that Palin is still a "Khmer Rouge' stronghold and that brother 'number 3' still lives there. Caesar's Casino is also on the border and one little known fact is that a mini-bus runs between it and the 1,000 Baht a night PK Hotel in downtown Chonburi. Even if you are not headed to the casino, you can catch this bus for only a 100 Baht.

Cambodia's beach resort gambles on international tourism boom

SIHANOUKVILLE, Cambodia : With pristine beaches rivaling Asia's best holiday destinations, a five-star hotel, a reopened airport and a planned golf course, Cambodia's Sihanoukville is poised to jump into the global tourism arena.

Thousands of tourists are already lured to Cambodia by the ancient Angkor Wat temple complex but few other sights attract their attention or their desperately sought-after dollars.

Sniffing opportunity, the government and private investors are lining up to position the southwestern port town of Sihanoukville as a tropical getaway, competing with the likes of Thailand's Phuket and Indonesia's Bali.

"If we compare, the potential is better than Phuket because of the quality of sand -- it's white -- and the water is clean. The offshore islands have coral reefs, there's fishing," enthuses city tourism director Teng Huy.

A port town established in the 1950s -- it remains Cambodia's youngest city -- Sihanoukville became a popular resort among the elite until the rise of the Khmer Rouge, which embarked on a genocide that decimated the country.

It was re-discovered by backpackers in the 1990s and today retains a sleepy, faded charm, with the occasional cow wandering through the streets and ramshackle restaurants on many of its beaches.

The locally-owned Sokha Hotel has extended Sihanoukville's appeal beyond backpackers to well-heeled travellers by opening its 15-hectare, 180-room hotel in April, the first five-star operation here.

"The beach product is excellent, it's top class. Great sand, great sea, that's a great start, we're out of the gate and running well," says general manager Anthony O'Neill, a 12-year veteran of the Asian tourism industry.

More government help however is needed to rebuild the infrastructure shattered from conflict that only ended in 1998, as well as better attractions, to secure Sihanoukville's place on the international circuit, O'Neill says.

A nine-hole golf course being developed by Malaysia's Ariston Holdings along nearby Occheuteal beach is one such crucial drawcard, he says.

"The golf course concept has to be raced along... because if you can't get core features you simply can't contain people in a holiday resort and even think you're going to challenge your competitors in Asia," he says.

"I'm competing with Bali, Phuket, even Pattaya. It's these markets we keep an eye on -- can we do it here?"

Sokha is just one of several hotels positioned to enter the market.

The quirky art deco Independence Hotel, which drew fashionable crowds in the 1960s prior to the 1975 rise of the Khmer Rouge, is due to open by September, while a 120-room hotel is packaged with the golf course project.

Scheduled flights -- also seen as vital to Sihanoukville's rejuvenation -- are on the horizon with the reopening of its airport in April to chartered flights. A runway extension is slated to be completed before year end, making it a potential destination for regional airlines.

Martin Standbury, the project manager for the golf course due to open within the coming year, says Sihanoukville may be sleepy for now, but its potential is enormous.

"For now tourists get a bit bored. There's the beach, cheap beer, seafood -- they probably need a few more attractions," he says.

"I reckon there is huge potential here over the next three to five years, not just for foreigners but the locals," he says, noting that Cambodia's emerging middle class has begun holidaying here again.

Business owners -- many of them foreigners who were travelling through but decided to stay, captivated by the landscape and laidback lifestyle -- say they have noticed a steady increase in numbers.

"Despite the anti-Thai riots (in Phnom Penh in January 2003), SARS, (the terror attacks in) America and the elections, my trade has increased in the last year as has everybody elses," says hotel and bar owner Richard Blackley.

Teng Huy's office puts the number of tourists who visited last year at just over 114,000, six percent less than 2002 due to the regional SARS outbreak, but for the first three months this year the figure jumped by 29 percent on 2003.

Blackley, who moved here four years ago, says the town was once awash with small arms -- like the rest of the country -- but has normalised and authorities are making an effort to renovate the town.

"Infrastructure is being repaired, government buildings are being repaired, you can see improvements with parks and gardens... And the race for land on the beaches is phenomenal," he says.

"I'm extremely optimistic. Every day something new is being done."

Li Li, a Chinese technical worker on a hydropower plant in a nearby province, comes here every few months with a half dozen colleagues who are drawn by the seafood and scenery.

"Sihanoukville is very, very beautiful -- the water, the sky," he told AFP after a beachside seafood feast.

"I think more and more people will come to Cambodia and here."

- AFP