- A baby on the porch looks at her smiling dad
2. A village grocer
3. Cheeky children in a truck
4. Beachside paradise
5. A local family says hello
6. Curious and playful children pose for a shot
7. Sunset on the fishing harbour
2. A village grocer
3. Cheeky children in a truck
4. Beachside paradise
5. A local family says hello
6. Curious and playful children pose for a shot
7. Sunset on the fishing harbour
That’s what I was told. Phnom Penh was a city that I could only spell after I left and I’m still only just learning how to say it right. I planned to only visit “Pnomh Phen” as a means of leaving Cambodia, but it appealed more as I gained interest in Cambodian history. I scheduled time visiting S21 prison, as well as the Royal Palaces.
The first time I arrived in Phnom Penh was during a brief stopover on the Siem Reap to Sihanoukville journey. We walked along the riverside, contemplated a Happy Pizza and walked inside another beautiful temple called Wat Ounalom. The Cambodian temples were my favourite.
The time I spent in Phnom Penh that day didn’t inspire me a lot. I came expecting to write a Defend Phnom Penh post, and left knowing I couldn’t. I spent time in Koh Rong and returned, ready to see the sites.
We took the bus from Sihanoukville when Alessio began feeling weak. He was shivering cold but felt too hot. We arrived to our hotel, where we were offered a “bait and switch” upgrade – they offered us a great price for a better room, which we turned down. Then they replied they actually don’t have the room we booked, and upgraded us for free.
Alessio began to worsen. He lay in bed and the next morning, severe stomach problems began. There was no chance of him moving or becoming well enough to leave the room. He was pale and shivering, with no water to rehydrate himself.
I decided to go out alone on a mission for food and water.
Phnom Penh was loud, chaotic, unforgiving and I began to see the appeal. You had to move at Phnom Penh’s pace or be crushed.
Incidentally, on my way I found a friend I met in Vang Vieng, and we walked together, discussing the direction our travels had taken. Late afternoon began to fall and the riverside promenade came to life. Children came home from school and kicked balls, adults chatted, hawkers were lively and music was playing.
The vibrance made me wonder how anyone could only see the miserable history of a city that had so much life. It was then I knew I had to Defend Phnom Penh.
One, Three or Seven Day Pass?
When I was itinerary planning, I was repeatedly reminded not to spend any less than three days in Angkor Wat. Being short on time and eager to see other places in Cambodia, I opted for one day in Angkor Wat. I am so glad I did this, as by the time we arrived the price for a one day pass had risen out of our budget, to $37! In one day, we happily saw a selection of sites – and if you start earlier than we did, you can see even more and go at your own pace. Seven days would be far too much to squeeze into most itineraries – especially as by 2pm we heard some people complaining they were “temple’d out”. Unless you really really love architecture, one or three days is enough. Three days is ideal to see a one or more sunsets, take it easy and see more sites at a leisurely pace. Also remember that if you buy the ticket before 5pm, that evening you can visit the site and it doesn’t count as one of your days!
Tour, Tuk Tuk or Bicycle?
For us, a tour wasn’t an option we looked into. Since we could do it ourselves, we did but there were some nice tour options advertised in the hotel which can take the stress out of planning.
Bicycle and even walking was an option as we were already pushing our budget by going. I am not a confident cyclist however, and the heat of the day and the distances between sites, as well as getting there made us glad we hadn’t cycled. Even for us, with our “even if it’s far to walk, we’ll get there eventually” attitude, this would have been too much.
We opted for a tuk tuk over an air conditioned taxi, just because they’re easier to find.
Which tuk tuk and where?
You hear a lot of horror stories about the tuk tuk drivers. “They’ll take you to buy the ticket, then charge you six times the original quoted price!” “You’ll come out of the temple and find he’s found other customers who’ll pay more!”
Naturally, we were nervous. We had heard it was better to book through the guesthouse than chance it on the street but we took the risk. We avoided persistent ones and found a driver who was chilling in his tuk tuk. He quoted us $18 which is a fair price to get the tickets and go around the whole day. He had a map of the two circuits, small and grand circuit, and usually for a few dollars more you can throw in more distant ones. Have a look at pictures of the sites to see what you want to see, and what’s realistic to see on the day.
As he was so good to us we threw him a few extra dollars in tip, but by finding drivers in the street you run more of a risk.
How Can You Avoid Crowds?
Timing. The sunrises will be busy, and the coach trips start around 8/9AM. We accidentally avoided most of the crowds by arriving at our first site, Angkor Wat, for 11AM. We caught up with them by the time we were in Ta Phrom, which was very busy. By sunset, the crowds pick up again
What Should I Bring?
It is exceedingly hot and sticky so prepare accordingly. Water is essential, but charged at inflated prices – most things are double price. Bring at least one 1.5 litre bottle per person, two if you’re doing a full day. For a shorter day, you may not need snacks, but there are plenty of supermarkets in Siem Reap
What Should I Wear?
Remember that it’s a sacred site. Cover your shoulders and knees as you would a temple. It’s very hot though, so choose light clothes and a hat to protect you from the strong sun. I wore flip flops and struggled no more than I usually would, but comfortable, sturdy shoes that have both a grip and breathability would be better.
“I guess we paid 25,000 kyats for Bagan.” I reasoned.
“That’s just £20. This is a lot more.”
“But everyone says it’s better. We can’t come all the way to Siem Reap and not go.”
“For me, I won’t die if we don’t.”
“There is also the cost of transport.”
At this point, with Angkor Wat consuming almost $100 of our mutual Cambodia budget, we went to sleep deciding not to go. We set no sunrise alarms, and woke at 9AM ready to explore Siem Reap. We took breakfast slowly, but knowing the thirteen hours between now and our onwards bus would pass very slowly, we approached a resting tuk tuk driver.
The three key ways to see the Angkor Wat are by tour bus, tuk tuk and bike. Taking a tour was not an option for us, and the heat and distance ruled cycling out. Like many, we decided on a tuk tuk. Booking through the guesthouse is advised as there are a few known tuk tuk scammers but we chanced it. We hoped that since he wasn’t aggressively chasing our custom, he would be fine. We were right, he was great. We agreed on $17 for the small circuit.
He took us to buy our tickets at the official ticket office. Luckily, we carried our passports for the official photograph ticket. Not only are the tickets extortionate but water here is $1 a small bottle. In the park, big bottles are $1 and 50 cents in the city so bring supplies.
Our first stop was the enormous site of Angkor Wat, the most well-known site. As soon as we arrived in the car park, hawkers approached trying to sell scarves and long trousers. We hadn’t come prepared – I had uncovered shoulders and Alessio had shorts above the knee but we didn’t want to buy yet. You will also be persistently approached by tour guides, some kindly accept a refusal but others become unfriendly and reply rudely if you say you don’t need one.
Once you cross the bridge, it calms a little and you can begin to enjoy the grandeur of this site. There are plenty of little corridors to explore, and an interior vantage point. You can only take advantage of this if you are covered, however. Alessio’s knee length shorts were fine but I later purchased a scarf.
The next stop is Bayon, which was one of my two favourites. Bayon is adorned with magnificent faces imprinted in the stone.
The towers and intricacy, the carvings and engraving all made Bayon really quite special.
The next temple, I forgot to take down the name! Write down the name and order of the temples you visit!
This was the temple, anyway. We enjoyed exploring the corridors and peeking through the windows!
Ta Keo really gets your legs working. The stairs are not only plentiful but extremely steep. Climbing up gives you a slight sense of terror for the impending descent. The views are quite wonderful, however.
Ta Phrom is the famous Tomb Raider sight, colloquially known as “the one with all the trees. It’s a large site and will take you a while to get around and explore.
For us, this was the busiest site, made busier by the fact there’s a ‘direction of visit’ to be followed so everyone is heading the same way. It’s business didn’t detract from how beautiful and amazing it is.
Banteay Kdei was the last temple. The day was exceptionally hot and sticky, and we were beginning to feel the heat. Understandably perhaps, at this temple we got a bit lazy! It’s very lovely and opposite there’s a viewpoint over the water, but with a bit more energy we could have enjoyed it more.
What worked in our favour was that we went in the late morning. We had heard about all the crowds, but it wasn’t so much of an issue for us as they were further ahead on their itineraries by this point.
For the time we spent and the service of our tuk tuk driver as well as the beauty and immense history of Angkor Wat, I definitely think it’s worth it. For me, a highlight of my time in Cambodia.
House of Mirth, Edith Wharton.
Truthfully, I started House of Mirth in June 2016 but it remained half read until I stuffed it in my South East Asia hand luggage in January 2017.
Lead character Lily Bart is broke. Her rich friends and love of expensive things means she lives way beyond her means, and I can relate. She’s hot, and a bunch of men like her but since she’s broke and it’s the early 1900s she has to marry for money. That’s a task, considering at 29, she’s knocking on in age a bit (remember this is early 20th Century literature) and there’s an absolute bitch intent on ruining her life because she’s jealous and petty. Lily does a pretty good job of ruining her choices herself, but the question is if she redeems herself.
I like Wharton, 20th Century American lit and New York high society dramatics, so this was always going to be a hit. None of the characters are remotely likeable, which again is just American lit in general, but the stories are so compelling – even if the ending is unsurprising for the genre. It wasn’t too heavy to carry in a daybag and was an easy, enjoyable read.
Beloved, Toni Morrison
If there’s any book I’ve been recommended most, it’s this. It was on all literature reading lists I have received over the past decade, lecturers recommended it, friends recommended it, probably even my friends’ pets. I dragged my heels, though. Any vaguely supernatural theme repels me immediately, and this was no exception. Then I got Beloved as a birthday gift. It too was packed for my travels.
Beloved is set in the late 1800s. Slavery is newly over, and the characters are still recovering from the scars of enduring such an atrocity. Many had escaped enslavement, including the lead character, Sethe. We learn early on that Sethe, based on a real woman, murdered one of her children. The toddler’s apparition haunts the family, its presence initially malicious but morphing into something quite indescribable as the years pass.
Despite finding supernatural fiction unreadably dire on the whole, I found this book so rich, complex and raw. It depicted with honesty the weight carried by slaves even after emancipation. The ghost of the toddler seemed to represent the trauma of surviving slavery, and as the horrors are retold, the spectre’s presence grows more gruesome.
Ghost babies are really not my thing, but Morrison writes so beautifully and with such lyricism. The topic is heavy and the book is often dark, but I read it as a beach read and the poetry in the words complimented the scenery. 4/5
Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray
I had never read this as I always found it too expensive to buy, but it was 75 baht in a Soi Rambuttri bookshop. I picked it over a history book, Grapes of Wrath and The Beautiful and The Damned. I’ll say it now, how stupid I was.
I like books that talk about how dreadful high society is and women the in 19th
and 20th Century. I had hopes. The set up is two girls, Amelia “Emmy” Sedley (dry, cries and blushes a lot, literally don’t care about her) and Rebecca “Becky” Sharp, who has a fiery, scheming personality. Her parents are dead so she has to find a rich man to marry of her own volition. Lots in there for me to identify with and like. The tale is 500ish pages of the trials of these women, Emmy never getting a personality and Becky scamming everyone and being wonderfully dreadful.
Becky’s awful excellence was not enough to keep me compelled. I left the book abandoned in Inle Lake after a frustrating ten hour bus journey where I tried, really tried to plough on with the book and found it all so unnecessary and irritating. I got to page 300 or so, then read the last few pages when everyone’s dying.
The book could be about 449 pages shorter if WMT didn’t go on random rambles – “reader, we all know what happened to Geraldine Smithwank! And Mrs if you’re reading this, do not take offense!” Unnecessary. 19th Century writers do it a lot, long unnecessary rambles (the Les Mis Paris sewers chapter for one dry example) but I have never found it so annoying. I’m on holiday, I don’t need my books pissing me off.
2/5 because it occasionally was readable and I managed to read most of it.
An Outline of American History
Another Khao San bookshop find. It was cheap and I’m interested in US History.
I think there’s no deception in the naming of this one. When they say ‘an outline’ they literally mean the briefest trace. Massive aspects of history were skimmed over, especially the darkest elements. Internment got a paragraph. It’s the kind of book you read in order to find out which aspects of history you want to learn about more. If I knew nothing of a subject, I learned a lot more, but if I had even slight prior knowledge I learned nothing – or even disagreed with its overly positive (deceptive) perspective.
It was alright. Better than Vanity Fair.
How The World Really Works, Noam Chomsky
This was on my reading list for some time, then I came across it in a very good bookshop in Phnom Penh. The title and cover say it all – it almost functions as an exposé on how America works.
Chomsky was interviewed by David Barsamian on a range of topics, and the book was then compiled by Arthur Naiman. Topics covered range from American foreign policy to media, with a critical approach towards the American political system and corporate control.
I was glad to have read the US history book before this, as my background knowledge was more solid, but Chomsky’s book was both far more informative and transformative. The content will shock, anger and make you want to organise. Importantly, despite the last interviews taking place in 1998, Chomsky seems farsighted and in some places accurately describes future developments.
It’s a very good and informative book. Not an easy read, but very worthwhile.
UNFINISHED: Dr. Zhivago! Boris Pasternak
I bought Zhivago before a seventeen hour sleeper train in Vietnam because the idea of seventeen hours sitting still filled me with dread. I bought a fat book to see me through the very end of the trip, and I had been craving some Russian lit since December.
What I didn’t consider is how much I love being asleep. For a good 14 of the seventeen hours that’s exactly how I passed the time. The rest of the time I was writing my blog and enjoying the beautiful views from the train window. I didn’t get a lot of reading time in the last week, so Zhivago will have to be finished in London!
Krabi Town in Thailand broke me. It was the first and one of the only times I cried on the trip. I was tired, far too hot, weak and I had a long bus journey to Bangkok ahead of me. I was ready to cry.
Then we entered an air conditioned department store. The noise and busyness was overwhelming. As we strolled through the departments, I noticed a pattern. One girl would spot me, her jaw would drop, she’d turn to her colleagues and then after a second they’d all turn around and point and scream with laughter. It kept happening, again and again and so blatantly. Others would see me, look away and laugh to themselves.
“Do I have a sanitary towel stuck on my forehead? Is my ass on show? Have I shat myself? Honestly what the fuck is so funny?” I asked myself. I begged Alessio to leave the shop immediately. On the steps of the store and I sat and cried.
“I’d just, for once, like to travel and be Black in peace. Is that too much to ask?”
I began to get used to it. In Myanmar, staring and giggling became the norm. The first was a lady who discreetly slapped her husbands arm when she saw me and he looked at me with a dropped jaw. The practice of one person seeing me, telling their friends, then all of them turning around and laughing happened over and over again, in each new country. I was pointed at and stared at and glared at. Some women would frown if I smiled at them. Women and men pointed at me, and didn’t think to be discreet when I stared back – they just kept pointing and laughing. Once, I felt a tug on my hair as I walked because someone had grabbed a few braids to feel. On two occasions at tourist sites, older Asian male visitors took artistic photos of me with DSLR cameras without asking – once in Angkor Wat as I posed for my own pictures, and another in Hanoi by the lake. They looked at me very sheepishly, and I asked to at least see the pictures. “Thanks… I guess.” Unsolicited pictures were regular, and I often ranted “Are these people here to see the bloody temple or here to see me? Shall I stand here and start charging them?”
A young hiphop-loving Vietnamese new friend was bemused as two men took a photo.
“This happens all the time? It’s because don’t see people like you a lot. Crazy.”
It wasn’t all bad. Youngsters in caps and sportswear always said hey and smiled. Tables of people would call to me and cheer when I said hello back. People called me beautiful. When I waved, or smiled at people who were staring, some would wave back and give a friendly smile. People asked me to meet their family. I took so many selfies with people who asked kindly, and they thanked me later. Often one girl would take a picture of me and her friend, then hesitantly look at me like a sad puppy as they walked off.
“Do you want a picture too?” I’d ask
“Yes! Oh, yes please! Thank you!”
“What is your name? Are you Vietnamese?”
Is this how it feels to be Beyoncé? Am I as nice to my fans as Lady Gaga?
My favourite was a young Burmese Muslim woman in Mandalay. She saw me and began giggling. When I waved back, she jumped up and down happily and buried her face in her friend’s shoulder.
The nice treatment balanced out the bad and the upsetting. I knew the reactions were because they probably had never seen a black person before. Some maybe only knew of a few Western black people and pictured most to be tribal Africans. I don’t know, but I was certainly seen differently to the white European travellers who passed by without a second glance. I knew their behaviour was not coming from a place of hate, malevolence or racism. I knew it was curiosity, confusion, maybe excitement. But even the good and funny experiences were as tiring as the bad. I sometimes had a little sense of dread when leaving the hotel because of the weight of being so conspicuous. No matter how big or touristic the city, I was conspicuous. I was pointed at, stared at, glared at, laughed at, waved at and photographed.
I understand in Asia, white people are also “other”. I know white people also get stared at and pointed at. Overwhelmingly however, the majority of other Western travellers were white. It’s not rare. If I travelled to around 25 cities and saw a maximum of six other Black people in two months, you can imagine how regularly they see black people. I was the “other” other. If people were curious about Alessio, I was a damn exhibition.
In Inle Lake, Myanmar I was walking towards the pier. Alessio tapped me.
“You’ve made a friend.”
A black girl in a café was waving at me with a huge grin. By now Alessio was used to the Black solidarity smiles that happen every time we’re away.
Five minutes later, the girl caught up with us, out of breath.
“Hey! I just ran to catch up with you guys! I am SO happy to see you! I ran as soon as I saw you! Wait, do you speak English?”
Her name was Simone, and she was a solo female traveller. She had been travelling for only a week, and had cried every night. The staring, pointing and laughing had worn her down too. We agreed it was exhausting, and it felt so good to meet someone who understood. Then she said the keynote.
“It feels like you have to always be so nice and so polite because their entire opinion of black people rests on you, and it’s so tiring.”
It was everything I knew but hadn’t yet put into words. I could see in her whole element she was sick of it – even moreso than I was. I could see how I also had it easier. She was alone. I was travelling with a white man. As regressively 1950s as it sounds, travelling with him made the weight so much lighter. The asking and answering of questions fell mostly to him. I walked closely by him. When people pointed, I held my head high and his hand tighter. It all said “I’m not that different – I’m with him”.
In Phnom Penh I took a stroll alone. I felt the difference. Without the protection of distant whiteness I was sneered at in a way I wasn’t the day before in the same city, and without distant maleness I was fair game. Curiosity, for that brief time, morphed into a meat market. When coincidence meant I ran into a friend from another city, a white girl, I let out my breath and laughed. I’m with her.
There was another, stranger aspect to my experience. I was sure some people, including Westerners, thought Alessio was paying for my company. It was confirmed when a local asked Alessio why, if yesterday he paid for a Cambodian girl, did he “choose” a different girl today? The fact he had seen Ale before was gas since we’d only just arrived in the city – but it reiterated what I had suspected and what other women of colour in relationships with white men had told me. Brown women and white men together meant money was involved, not love.
A drunk white man stumbled down Khao San Road, fondling and groping at the three Nigerian sex workers he had hired for the night. Some were older, but one girl looked my age. Her braided hair was tied up, just like mine. By chance, we had to wait in the lobby of the guesthouse-brothel-travel agency where they worked as cleaners by day. On the way to the toilet, I saw the same girl cleaning some plates and I smiled. She studied me for a few seconds and looked away. She later seductively winked at Alessio, and I understood everything.
We were not the same. Not to her. I had an expensive DSLR round my neck, writing in my travel journey about an experience costing an incomprehensible amount of money. I was Western, walking around with a white Western man who held my hand not my ass. She was an immigrant sex worker on one of Thailand’s most notorious, sleazy roads at night and cleaned toilets in a brothel for Thai sex workers by day. If I had any audacity to assume mutual solidarity, she soon taught me I had no right, and no idea. If other people didn’t see the difference, she certainly did and if I was having a hard time, she was having it harder.
In Sapa, Vietnam I explained the process of hair braiding to my tour guide. “Wowwwww! I saw one other girl like you before, last year! Wow… that’s so amazing. In Vietnam we have such thin hair, we never have curly hair like this. We can’t do hair like this. Can I put your hair by my face to see how it looks? I love it.” I heard her telling other Vietnamese women how they braid afro hair. When she held up nine fingers and pointed at me, to tell them it took nine hours to braid my hair, they all gasped “wow” in chorus. I smiled. That’s my favourite part of the story too, I thought.
The staring, the pointing, the tiresome weight. It makes it seem all bad.
Travelling in South East Asia whilst Black can be beautiful. I cannot overstate that enough. I can’t overstate how much you can take the curiosity in your stride. You start to shrug it off, wave, say hello back and by the end of the day you barely notice anything at all. You can have fun with it. Pull faces, blow kisses, wave as soon as the whole group turns around so they think you understand the language when really they’re just so obvious. Do whatever you need to do, until it’s part of the background and you can focus on being in a really beautiful part of the world.
And that’s exactly it. It’s a really beautiful part of the world. Remember that no one at all means any harm. Unlike some parts of the world where Blackness is unwelcome because it connotes badness and criminality, your skin here mostly is a fascinating novelty. As tiring as that can become, it’s not worth the days, hours, and minutes of incredible wonder you could miss out on if you only stuck to places where people were used to you.
Or, how I managed to pay $30 and nothing more at the Thailand Aranyaprathet/Cambodia Poipet land border in 2017.
My initial plan was to fly down to Siem Reap from Luang Prabang, but the cost of flying rerouted my itinerary and I ended up crossing the border by land. Only by chance did I discover how tricky and scamtastic this border was, otherwise I would have found myself also paying 900 baht in addition to the visa fees to express process my visa.
At around 6PM before the day of travel, I turned up at Mo Chit/Northeastern Bus Station in Bangkok near the Chatuchak market. Motorcycle taxis in this are a bit pushy, but you can ignore them/pretend you don’t speak English. Once you enter the large bus station past the local bus carpark, you can either ask for the counter for buses to Cambodia or walk around until you find the one which says Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Tickets are 750 baht a person for a direct bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap, and they leave at 8AM or 9AM but you most often don’t get a choice – we didn’t. Your ticket will tell you the bay your coach departs from and your seat number. This bus is the government licensed through bus, no bus changes needed at the border.
The direct bus I took was not new or flashy like a Myanmar bus, but clean and air conditioned with big comfortable seats and plenty leg room. It leaves well on time and hands out the arrival cards when you leave. This, if you do your research, may be when the anxiety begins.
I did a lot of research. I heard everyone and their mother tries to rip off travellers to Cambodia from Thailand. I heard the bus will try to make you pay 900 baht extra for a VIP service, or $5 extra for a batch processing service, touts and hawkers will pickpocket as soon as you leave the bus and the journey will be one long game of dodge the bullet. Not only is my budget strict, but I also am loath to be ripped off. I was just scared I wouldn’t be gutsy enough to argue. So when my arrival card arrived, I was scared this necessary form would spiral into me sinking my savings into a scam.
The arrival card is essential and what you fill out on landing by plane. Whether you pay $30 or $300, it must be completed. It’s easier if you get the bus license plate before boarding so you can complete that section straight away. Keep the arrival card in your passport and ensure you also have ready and completed your departure card that was issued when you enter Thailand. The bus will also ask for passport information on a long form of everyone on the bus. Also complete this.
Two hours in, the bus conductor asks if you have a visa and arrives ready with forms. The girls in front queried this, and they asked for money to “process and photocopy” their passport, which they paid. I sleepily and politely told them I would do it at the border, and they accepted this and walked on. You are handed a lanyard with the number of the bus and some information. This helps you be identified as a member of the bus party.
At midday, you get a small box of warm, filling shrimp fried rice. There’s no water, so be sure to bring a drink. Within half an hour, you’re at Aranyaprathet. The conductor gives you firm instructions to stamp out of Thailand, follow only the official directions, say no to anyone who approaches you in the street, collect your visa, get stamped into Cambodia, then return to the bus.
In Aranyaprathet, it is easy to stick with those on your bus, especially the more clued up and ballsy ones. People will approach you with directions as soon as you leave, ignore them and don’t look at them. There is a sign and a queue. Join it and you will eventually be stamped out of Thailand. This process is simple if you have your departure card filled out completely and ready. Otherwise you will be sent to the back of the long queue to complete it.
Enter the double doors, descend the steps and again ignore people telling you “passport visa this way!” or any other bullshit. There are signs, and fences directing you where to walk and the touts in no way look official. By this time you may have lost sight of anyone else who is on your bus and be walking alone.
If you haven’t already sorted your visa you will need to head to the visa on arrival. For those who have a visa, it’s straight on ahead following the signs and fences. For those without, it’s a vague left turn into a no mans land of taxis and touts. No one approached me, and you see the official office building quite clearly.
Enter, take a form and bring your $30 and passport picture ready. There was no queue (Sunday 5th February) when I got there. A man will tell you it’s $30 plus 100 baht. There is an official sign, saying only $30 plus a scruffy hand written note on the desk saying +100 baht. This 100 baht is a bribe which goes to the pockets of the border control staff. If you don’t want to pay it, don’t. I did not want to pay it.
The dialogue went something like this. He points to a sign
Me: I’m sorry I don’t understand?
Man: 100 baht! And thirty dollar!
Me: Sir, I have $30 for the visa and no bahts
Man: Then you will pay $33 dollars
Me: No, my embassy said I do not pay 100 baht. It’s $30
Man: and 100 baht!
Me: No, my embassy said-
Man: Go over there
I nodded and happily walked back, loudly explaining (to no one in particular) there is no fee, only pay $30. A couple of people on my bus said there’s always a fee for something, 100 baht is not a lot. I told them it’s their choice.
Time to double team with a fellow determined soul, if you can. This came in the form of Alessio. The man asked for the bribe, and he simply said no and was told to wait with me. Another couple was moaning about having to pay, and told us we must pay something. At this point I nearly conceded, but I stayed firm for a minute longer. Then I calmly asked.
“Can I have a receipt for the 100 baht, for my embassy? Do you have a receipt? I will pay the extra if you give me a receipt.”
At this point, a man took Alessio and I aside, unhappy snatched our passports and $30 dollars only. They then left with the passports, took a few minutes and we got our visas without paying the bribe. We were in there for no more than ten minutes and kept waiting for no more than five.
Once you leave, you will see a sign saying arrivals in front of you. This is where you must queue again and get your arrivals card and passport stamped. Here, there are men waiting in the doorways to tell you something is wrong with your documents and you will not be let in if you don’t listen. Ignore them. We passed the bus on the way. After being stamped in, we peed for free in the nearby casino and boarded our bus.
A guy on the bus who did pay the bribe was further cheated out of $10. He required change, and they gave him the $10 in obviously fake notes and refused to acknowledge the note was fake. Which it clearly was. Lucky for us, we had exact change and a few spare dollars if they contested our notes. By the time they took our visa, I think they just wanted to get rid of us.
This, for me, is why you shouldn’t pay. 100 baht is not a lot in the scheme of things, but bribery, dishonesty and scheming is not okay. Even people who comply with the bribe are cheated any way they can. It gives Cambodia and Cambodians a bad reputation when the first view you get of the country is being ripped off. One bus of bribe paying tourists could pocket them 3,000 baht which IS a lot of money going to dishonest people, paid honestly by tourists who didn’t know better. That isn’t even including the money they refuse to give back in change. I don’t want to further fund con artists just because I can afford to. There are tourists who can afford to easily pay £1,000 scams, should they also be okay with this?
In the end, it’s your choice whether not paying the extra fees is worth it but it’s at least worth trying your luck. In doing so, I only waited five minutes and endured not a lot of hassle, and didn’t give extra money to people who conned nice guys out of $10. If you wish to avoid the border scams, my advice is this.
– Have everything ready. $30, documents, one passport photo all in one place. Keep any extra money separate, including 100 baht and $5 extra incase your resolve cracks.
– Find someone who is similarly minded so you have strength in numbers.
– Stick with your group as much as you can, take down your bus registration number and don’t speak to anyone else outside of the official buildings.
– When asked for the bribe, refer to your official embassy at home and ask for receipts for the bahts. When they send you away, don’t move far and badger them for a receipt. Talk loudly enough for them to worry about others overhearing, but never be rude. Remain polite and calm, but firm and loud. They will process you grumpily but within minutes on a quiet day.
– Have the exact money in dollars ONLY, crisp new notes and have a few notes for which you can exchange it. If you have to give more than $30, don’t expect change back.
– Finally, bring water. The food is filling, but they don’t provide water.
I was prepared to not like Sihanoukville, but unlike Bangkok or Mandalay, I was never proven wrong. From what I saw of my brief time on Serendipity Beach, it was just a party beach resort for Westerners. It didn’t differ much from European resorts like Magaluf, the difference only being the tuk tuks.
In fact, even after sitting in a beach bar for a few hours, the music never once became good and I didn’t see any dancing or much fun. I also didn’t like much the atmosphere and felt a lot on guard. We were insulted for ignoring a man trying to get us into his club, and the leery attitude of certain men really made me happy to be only staying one evening. Maybe I missed some real gem of Sihanoukville, but what I saw didn’t appeal.
I can’t say a lot about my stay. The intention was to treat it like a second Koh Kut, hire a bike perhaps and venture round. What we actually did was virtually nothing.
Our day would begin like this. We’d wake naturally, glad for the lack of an alarm. We’d take a leisurely breakfast in our bungalow’s restaurant. We’d stroll down to the beach, armed with our free water and coconut oil.
Or play on the large lilo floats provided. But mostly we just lazed with a book. We’d then head to one of the other bungalow restaurants for lunch – we could choose from three places to eat. The second had (very unreliable phone hotspot) wifi and the third had a bigger menu. We’d eat some local dish, drink juice, coffee or cocktails and read some more
And then as the sun began to set, which wasn’t too impressive from our position as we got the sunrise, we’d head back to our bungalow restaurant to eat, play board games and make wishes on Chinese Lanterns.
Only on the final day did we move our ass and walk the couple of kilometres to the local village. It’s a small fishing village over the hill where there’s a small seafood restaurant, some places to buy fruit and meet the people who live in the village. A few of the kids were fascinated to touch my braids, but one girl after a long inspection was not a fan. We went twice, once in the day for a coffee, and again for the sunset, which is very lovely from that side of the island.
Mostly, we were just very lazy. After six very busy and frantic weeks we had begun to rise at 8am or earlier naturally. Our agendas were packed full, and I began to feel a sense of guilt and waste if we had even a lazy afternoon. Being in Coconut Beach allowed us to really relax.
The wifi is so sparse that it’s not worth using. Only one bungalow has access via a mobile hotspot. We used it to take care of a few issues back home, then returned to our books. Coconut Beach Bungalows also provides board games for old school entertainment which was great fun and got us chatting over dinner.
Additionally, although there are the options of bungalows, we opted for a tent. We stayed in one in Koh Kut and aside from being awoken by the wind and an ant army invasion on the last day, it was enjoyable. Here, the experience was ten times better. The tents are elevated from the beach on stilts. They’re spacious, and your luggage is kept in a locked room so there’s plenty room to stretch on the large soft mattresses. My only issue was that the toilets were a little way away, meaning any night time visits were a bit of a trek on a full and desperate bladder (as all night loo visits are!) Staying in a tent near the sea and the camp fire really helped with the relaxing, basic vibe.
It’s also a great place to try Khmer food. We saw the cooks peeling vegetables and preparing fish every morning, and every dish was delicious and tasted fresh. Even the bread was home baked, and unbelievably the fries were great too! Two dishes I tried were the Khmer Amok. This is the national dish of Cambodia: baked fish with lemongrass, coconut and chilli with steamed rice. It’s creamy and flavoursome with a little bit of heat.
I read that Khmer food is a little underdeveloped in comparison with Thai food, when you compare flavours and so on. I still found these dishes so delicious and definitely still complex. I also tried a seafood spaghetti which was also wonderful, and the fish very fresh having come from the nearby fishing village.
The food, the simplicity and the beauty of Koh Rong made me love it beyond expectation. I thought I would make comparisons to Koh Kut due to proximity, but they are both outstanding in entirely separate ways.
Although different beaches will offer different experiences, Coconut Beach is secluded simplicity. I can highly recommend Coconut Beach bungalows. The staff are friendly, eager to get to know you, they provide so many things for your stay including daily bottles of water and coconut oil for the sun and insects, and sheet changes in the tent. The atmosphere is nice and calm, with reggae played near the fire in the evening. The service is exceptional, and the food is phenomenal.
As I said of Koh Kut – Coconut Beach is not for those wanting to get wasted on a party beach. I welcomed the full moon with a lantern and a game of Jenga. If you want to relax and slow the pace of life right down, if you need to unwind after a packed South East Asia itinerary of doing something every day – this is the ideal place. Your body and your mind will thank you for it.
The fiasco of the Thailand/Cambodia border is so well-documented and notorious it’s known as Scambodia. After passing through unscathed, paying no more or less than $30, it was a welcome surprise that the tuk tuk to our guesthouse was free.
The first thing that caught our eye is the Preah Promeath pagoda. Coming from Myanmar we were a little pagoda’d out, but this one was pristine and intricately decorated. The pagodas of Cambodia seem to really be my favourite in terms of design and style.
We headed from there to the old market. I had sadly managed to lose my flip flops in our short stop in Bangkok. They were £1 from Forever 21 and the best, most solid and comfortable flip flops I had owned. I was gutted, but haggled down a pair of fake Havaianas. Not realising the hypocrisy, as I wore my fake sandals, I pointed to a $5 Gucci bag and proselytised on the pointlessness of buying fake designer. If, like me, you’re a hypocrite or you just like a suspiciously cheap and creatively designed pair of Nikes (think, the tick placed upside down) then the Old Market is great. Some of the maxi dresses and hippie pants are nicer than I’ve seen elsewhere.
We found a Costa, and relishing the chance for coffee without sweetened condensed milk, Alessio took a drink and I checked wifi in anticipation of our visit to Angkor Wat the next day. This is when we learned the price had risen from $20 to $37. We began to question whether we should visit. When we factored in the cost of getting there too, we almost entirely decided against it.
It was also in Costa that I recalled there was a “Pub Street”. I had heard how much of a crazy party city Siem Reap was. Although not much of a partier, and definitely not a key part of my travels, I was interested to check out nice bars and eats in the area.
Pub Street is lit up in neon, and it’s a strip of bars offering Happy Hour cocktail deals, familiar Western and Asian dishes and dotted with street food vendors and tuk tuks at each end. Although this could seem like a nightmare, especially for those familiar with Khao San Road – but actually it seemed quite tame, clean and pleasant at 8pm. There’s a quieter and darker road nearby with a few bars with a nice vibe, including a reggae bar. It seemed to have a nice vibe around dinner time, and there’s a quadrant around it with more bars and restaurants.
On the opposite side of the river, the Kings Road seemed to have some upscale options, echoing the road of a similar name in London. Made in Cambodia Market sells traditional goods made by locals, and there’s also a Hard Rock Cafe. Further down Street 26 is a French patisserie ideal for breakfasts but we found the Croque Monsieur a little stale.
Siem Reap also has a lot of supermarkets with an ideal amount of food for making up picnics for the day jaunt to Angkor Wat. Pharmacies are plentiful, as well as launderettes.
By the end, Siem Reap clearly felt like the relaxed city with the buzzing vibe I wanted from Luang Prabang. I felt like Siem Reap was the resort for younger backpackers who want riverside vibrance, whereas Luang Prabang existed to slow life down for those with the unlimited food budget to really enjoy the cafe culture.