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Steve and Emma's Travel Tales

Phnom Penh and Southern Cambodia

CAMBODIA | Monday, 22 February 2010 | Views [886]

We first visited Cambodia almost 10 years ago and we were curious to see what developments and changes had taken place in that decade.  The primary reason for this holiday was to celebrate Steve’s 40th Birthday in style and then travel south, an area we didn’t venture into all those years ago.  Although we’d only be travelling for a week, and had a fairly fixed idea of our route, we decided not to book things in advance.  We miss the pre-internet days of just turning up and ferreting out the best sleeping and eating options.  I had researched and pre-booked the hotel in Phnom Penh for the first weekend as I wanted to make sure the birthday boy got a treat.

Phnom Penh

The first thing we noticed was how much bigger the city was and the amount of traffic zipping around the place.  When we arrived in Phnom Penh 10 years ago we’d travelled overland from Vietnam and in those days there was no such thing as tarmac or buses!  After Ho Chi Minh City we felt like we’d arrived in a small country town not a capital city.  Oh how things had changed.  We were disappointed to discover that the river front was still in its development stage or maybe that should read it was now getting redeveloped.  We were amazed at the sheer volume of bikes and tuc tucs puttering around – very few and none respectively in years gone by.  The strip of restaurants and bars back then only took up one block on the river front and now it extends over a kilometre.  There were so many places that looked good to try that we couldn’t work out how we were going to fit them all in!  The shabby guesthouse that we stayed in has long since gone and now there is no end of choice to suit all budgets.  I think you’ve got the picture – tourists have flocked to Cambodia with their much needed dollars and the city has ballooned.

We’d initially thought about staying along the river front but knew we’d want to spend time down there anyway so decided to go for somewhere a little set back.  We were very pleased we had as it meant we were; away from the noise and able to sit outside without being in a plume of exhaust fumes.  We knew we’d want to be able to sit outside, preferably somewhere more private, we really fancied a pool but we didn’t want to be in a big place.  We finally plumped for The Pavilion that advertised; a pool set in a garden, the original building was a French colonial house, and they had a no children policy.  The piece-de-resistance was being able to book a room with a private Jacuzzi pool.  At $80 a night B&B we were a little worried that it had been grand but now sold itself on its old world charm – in other words a bit rough around the edges.

On walking through the main gate we knew we’d made the right choice.  The garden was beautiful and with so many trees it was easy to find a quiet private spot.  They’d provided fantastic double loungers with mattresses, individual fans and more pillows than you could shake a stick at.  The pool looked inviting and the restaurant was set along one side of it.  The old colonial house had been well restored and this was where we found the relaxed but very well run reception desk.  Now we’ve been lucky to have stayed in some fantastic rooms over the years but this is up there in our top 10.  The room was enormous with beautiful fixtures and fittings, the biggest TV I’ve seen and most importantly a fridge where I could chill Steve’s bottle of bubbly.  Then we stepped out to inspect our private Jacuzzi – to get to it we had to walk through our private balcony and garden area.  Again size was on the grand scale as 6 people could have fit in there very comfortably.  Taking the garden and inside area into account it has to be by far and away the biggest room we’ve ever stayed in.  It far, far surpassed all hopes and expectations and we felt it was a steal at the price.

We were still marvelling at how lucky we were and inspecting all the facilities when our welcome drinks and refreshing face towels arrived.  I’d said in the e-mails that we were looking forward to staying as we would be celebrating a birthday; so they also sent along a little cake with a lit candle for Steve and a bunch of flowers for me.  I feel that touches like that go a long way to making you feel valued and welcome and we just knew we were going to enjoy staying there.  It was time to drag ourselves away from all the luxury and pampering to explore the ‘new’ Phnom Penh.

Our more recent holidays have found us in places either out of season or not frequented by vast numbers of foreign tourists.  Now we know why – we found them all languishing in Cambodia!  Almost every place we walked past, if not busy, had a handful of customers and they were all in a happy hour price war!  There were umpteen places to choose from so, to narrow it down, we used our usual best offer and best people watching spot criteria.  We had intended to revisit a few of the main tourist attractions but we missed their strange and limited opening times.  We were more than happy to wander and try to work out what had gone and what was still there.  Our plan was to have sunset beer in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club over looking Tonle Sap River but, unfortunately for us, the place is so famous that lots of others had beaten us to it.  There were no ring side seats available and we knew it wasn’t going to be anything other than an ordinary sunset.  We decided to have a drink anyway as it’s one of those ‘must dos’ but the service was terrible.  We beat a hasty retreat to Touk that was only over the road and still had some seats available that afforded a river view.  From there we could watch people battling for a drink at the FFC while we sipped substantially cheaper beers!!

The next morning it was time to celebrate Steve’s birthday and we’d already decided that we were going to make the best of the wonderful room, garden and private pool.  Following a very good breakfast by their pool we decided to lounge around in one of those wonderful double bed style things I told you about earlier.  The only slight complaint we had about the hotel is that they allow local residents to become members so they can use the pool.  With it being a holiday it meant that the pool was much busier than it should have been for the size of the hotel.  Not that we really cared since we had our own private pool anyway!  Luckily for us no one was around so early in the morning so we decided to take advantage of the peace and quiet.  Instead of going out for lunch we popped to the shop and picked up some private garden picnic supplies.  Our grand plans of sightseeing were soon knocked on the head as we were far too happy and relaxed in our pool.  To be fair to us we’d seen all the sights year ago when we hadn’t had to share them with hundreds of tourists.

We did actually manage to drag ourselves away and grabbed a tuc tuc to Hotel Le Royal which is another old colonial gem.  Well we’ve been to Raffles in Singapore, The E & O in Penang and The Oriental in Bangkok so it seemed unfair to leave this one out.  Their Elephant Bar beats the others by a country mile as there is a very peaceful balcony and garden area.  It did help that their cocktail happy hour was a bargain at buy one get one!  Cocktail hour, in a fine old colonial hotel, celebrating a 40th birthday – it just had to be done.

Phnom Penh to Kampot

To prolong the spoilt, luxury feel to the holiday we’d booked a taxi to take us down to Kampot.  We wanted to visit a couple of small places of interest on the way and we didn’t have time to break up the journey using public transport. 

We knew that Tonle Bati was only a small temple sight and that it wouldn’t hold a flame to Angkor Wat but we wanted to add in a bit of ancient culture to our trip.  Besides which we’re starved of such things here in Malaysia – ancient ruins as such don’t feature over here.  Around the temple the place was ruined by rubbish strewn everywhere.  In fact that is one complaint we would make about Cambodia – they just don’t keep the place clean.  Important, ancient sites like this should be much better cared for and respected.

A gaggle of children following you around trying to get you to buy things doesn’t help to enhance a visit either.  I know there are many needy people in Cambodia but buying from children in this way simply doesn’t help to solve the problem.  I won’t get on my soapbox as you all know why we’ve started raising funds for UNICEF every year.  As an infant school teacher I find it so distressing to see children living in such conditions – we’ll keep trying to do our bit to help.  However, Tonle Bati itself was an interesting little temple and it’s amazing that so much of it is still standing.  Certain sections looked like they could collapse at any moment and in fact we dashed through a couple of doorways!

We carried on and before long found ourselves at Phnom Chisor – this temple has more to it but most of the buildings are modern.  The oldest part looked like it had virtually collapsed so we didn’t investigate further.  The best part of this site was you had to walk up a long flight of steps and the views from the top were quiet good.  It was very hazy but we could see just how flat that area of Cambodia is.

The road down to Kampot isn’t surfaced for vast sections but they are clearly working hard on rectifying that situation.  We’re not sure how quickly things move in that part of the world but I would suggest it’ll be some time before it’s a smooth ride between Phnom Penh and Kampot.  Once in Kampot it became abundantly clear that our taxi driver had only been there once before and only knew one guesthouse.  Steve tried to direct him but in the end we had to ask the locals to point the driver in the right direction!


We’d not booked any accommodation and knew that Kampot was a sleepy place by the river.  So we thought we’d stay a few nights and fancied a room with a balcony overlooking said water.  There were plenty of places to choose from but unfortunately all the ones we liked the look of were full.  After looking at every conceivable place in town we ended up back where we started but without a balcony.  Not to worry there were plenty of cafes along the front.

Obviously we’d seen most of the town during our room hunt but we set off to explore the few back streets we’d not been down.  In many ways Kampot reminded us of Phnom Penh all those years ago and we instantly felt at ease there.  We found a tour operator to get more information about the activities on offer and ended up booking just about everything!  That evening we took in the sunset boat cruise up the river.  It was very pleasant but we wished we’d taken something to sit on – 2 ½ hours on a wooden deck was slightly too long!  Choose your boat carefully as other people assured us they had seats and they’d had the forethought to take along sunset beer.

The following morning we set off for Bokor National Park and we thought we’d booked a trip where we would walk up and down the hill not drive the bulk of the way.  Bokor Hill Station, within the park, is being developed into a huge hotel and casino complex so a road is being put in all the way up.  Usually you have to walk up but because it was Chinese New Year the workers were on holiday leading to the road being open.  Most people would think, yippee we came at the right time of year, but we were hoping for some exercise and wildlife.  It soon became apparent that we were the only fools in town that had voted for the walking option so we’d been lumped in with the driving tour.  Then it transpired that part of the day trip included the river cruise that we’d paid extra for the day before - Steve was livid.

It turned out that we’d booked our tours through a good operator but unbeknown to us some joker had decided to sit in the office and pretend he worked there.  To cut a long story short the genuine staff were mortified to hear what had happened, apologised profusely that we didn’t get the tour we’d hoped for and refunded our boat cruise money.  Let’s get back to the trip.

It was shocking to see how much of the forest had been ripped out to make way for the road – more corruption and baksheesh.  We’d been bumping and bouncing along for quite a way when the van stopped and we were given the option to walk the rest of the way.  Not the day’s walking we’d hoped for but at least we were going to get into the forest.  There are reported to be many kinds of animals living in there and indeed our guide had seen plenty over the years.  However the road works mean they have moved away to quieter parts – don’t blame them.  The forest was very dry and we stopped by a ‘stream’ – not a drop of water in sight and by all accounts it’s completely dry for the first time in years.

At the top we reached Bokor Hill Station – an abandoned, French hill station.  It must have been pretty special in its time as even the royal family had a place built up there.  There was a hotel / casino (hmm! That’s where they got the idea from!), post office, family homes and even a church.  Over the years the place has been occupied by various fighting groups / guerrillas and the French finally gave up once and for all 1972.

The following morning we flagged down a tuc tuc, the driver quoted what we believed was a good price and off we set to Kep.  It only took about 45mins to get there and the route took us through lovely rural villages.  This was another French colonial get away place but this time it was on the coast.  The ruins of the old colonial mansions have all but crumbled away but a few are gradually being turned into hotels and resorts.  Most of them are so far beyond repair that whoever buys the land has to demolish what was there and start again.  With it being a holiday weekend the place was packed but these days the town attracts crowds of locals.  They flock to Kep eager to see the famed sunsets and taste the local seafood specialities.  We wouldn’t be able to hang around to watch the sun go down but Steve was keen to tuck into the local speciality of pepper crab.

Kep itself is very small and spread out along the coast for a few kilometres but the beach is nothing special.  However, I’m sure off season and mid week it’s a very pleasant place to spend a night or two.  The day we went the coastal path was lined with family after family who had hired picnic mats under the shade of tarpaulins.  They seemed to empty everything they would need out of their car boots which seemed unfair on local businesses.  However, judging from the number of vendors enough visitors must need more supplies throughout the day.  We literally couldn’t find anywhere quiet to sit so headed back down to the Crab Market for lunch.

Crab Market is basically a row of shops / restaurants selling the local catch in various guises and in the middle is the real wholesale market area.  We plonked ourselves in the end unit as there were seats on the water front and we could see along the coast.  Steve didn’t even have to look at the menu(!) and luckily for me I could taste the local pepper sauce but have chicken instead.  It was a grand meal though rather more food than we’re used to for lunch.  The crab is as fresh as fresh can be – they are kept in baskets in the sea just meters from where we were sitting.  At regular intervals we watched the staff wade in to get another customer their lunch.  We waddled off to find our tuc tuc but he wasn’t where we’d arranged to meet him.  He wasn’t anywhere to be seen and believe me we searched the length of the coast.  By this point the drivers at the tuc tuc stand could smell a fare.  We explained what had happened and they knew where he was.  We were soon reunited and put puttered our way back to Kep having had a thoroughly enjoyable little side trip.

We enjoyed Kampot a lot and it would have been easy to potter around the area some more but we decided it was time to explore a Cambodian beach.


We knew Sihanoukville itself was pretty much just a functional town but that there were a few different beach areas to choose from.  We fancied a bit of life and choice of bars so plumped for Serendipity Beach.  On hindsight we probably should have ventured further out of town and stayed on Outres Beach but we were concerned that there wouldn’t be enough choice there.  Anyway the far end of Serendipity Beach is much quieter as there is no beach and the guesthouses are built up the hillside.  Once again we struggled to find somewhere to stay and all the places we liked the look of were full or way over-priced.  In the end we stayed at Cove Beach Bungalows, very basic for the price, but we were on the top, back row and had a magnificent view of the ocean.  There are some things you just can’t put a price on!

Unfortunately the room turned out to be a mossie pit at night and we got eaten alive.  While we’re having a moan- why oh why do places not pick their rubbish up off the beach?  There was no way we were going to be sunbathing even if we could find a spot in between the rows and rows of loungers and brolleys.  Yep, the bottom end of the beach really was Costa-del-Cambodia and we wished we’d visited years ago.  Still we’d finally made it and make the most of it we would.

There were plenty of trips on offer but we really only had time for one – would we go island hopping and snorkelling or visit a mangrove national park?  Since there were hundreds of tourists (this time all foreign) we thought the national park would be the least popular option.  It probably was but it was still very popular – we’re just not used to seeing crowds of white / sunburnt tourists!

Ream National Park is only about 20km from Sihanouville so we didn’t have to sit crushed up in the van for too long.  The strange thing with all the tours down there was they pride themselves on providing breakfast.  Basically you all book through various agents, then people are dispatched to round you up and you’re plonked in a restaurant.   Then while you’re waiting they bring you a baguette and coffee – all very civilised.  On getting to the park’s jetty we were given a little talk on what we might see if we were lucky with the biggest draw being the Irrawaddy dolphins.  It was the right season but we know how rare these creatures are and you’d have to be very, very lucky to see one.

By the time they were satisfied all the vans had arrived it was quite a squeeze on the boat.  Not particularly uncomfortable but we felt there were a few too many on board.  The trip up the estuary was pleasant but the mangrove was so far away that we stood no chance of seeing any animals.  There were plenty of raptors around and it was great watching them swooping down to try to catch their breakfast.  On the way we saw plenty of people activity with the bulk of them being oyster farmers.  I really don’t think I’d be suited to the job – standing in neck deep water most of the day – no thank you!

There is a small fishing village within the park and we landed there to go jungle trekking.  Well a stroll through some trees to a beautiful squeaky, white sand beach.  I did venture into the sea but the waves were far too powerful near the shore and I was too nervous to venture beyond the breakers.  Luckily the bay was extensive so we could find a nice quiet spot to relax.  Warning!  If you ever do this trip take some strong insect repellent – the local sand fleas laughed at our namby pamby citronella and feasted away at will.  The second half of the trip involved doing the whole lot in reverse except they threw in a lunch of freshly barbequed fish.  Luckily for me it came with salad and the ubiquitous baguette.  Not far from the jetty we made a detour to a small jetty and followed duck boards through the mangrove to a lookout tower.  It was lovely to finally feel we were in the mangrove but still no animals showed themselves.  For most people the lookout tower will be there lasting memory as it was a bit rickety!  All in all, it was a pleasant day but nothing to get excited about.

The next morning it was time to head back to Phnom Penh and we’d booked our seats the day before.  Buying bus tickets was a novelty in itself and we were curious to see if it really was only 5 hours back to the capital.

Phnom Penh – again!

The roads might be paved these days but they are only one lane in each direction and if you get stuck behind something you can get stuck for a while.  Many of the drivers of course have no regard for safety and over-take whenever they feel like.  However the bus companies pride themselves on having drivers that will not drive recklessly.  Therefore, we reached our destination safe and sound but it took an hour or so longer than advertised.  Once back in the city we didn’t bother messing around going from hotel to hotel as we knew we weren’t going to be able to relive The Pavilion experience.  We wandered along the front and stumbled into Waterview Guesthouse who had one room left.  It was smallish but spotlessly clean and at a reasonable price.

That left us with very little time to do any sightseeing so we decided to go to the weekend night market on Sisowath Quay and pick up some souvenirs.  Thinking of checking it out – don’t bother!  There was only one thing for it – find a good people watching spot and partake in a few more Angkor beers.  It was at this point it finally dawned on us that throughout the trip we’d been drinking either Angkor or Anchor with the latter usually more readily available and cheaper.  Strange because Angkor is Cambodian (brewed in Sihanoukville) and Anchor is Malaysian (brewed down the road from KL).  I can’t believe we went all the way to Cambodia to sup our local brew at a fraction of the cost we can get it here!  Must remember to stick to Angkor next time.

Will there be a next time?  Not sure to be honest – we had a good trip with the obvious highlight being the weekend in The Pavilion.  Having lived in this part of the world for so long the activities and trips seemed tame and didn’t really excite us.  That’s not Cambodia’s fault and if you’ve never been anywhere like that before – what are you waiting for?!  It sounds like the area around the Cardamom Mountains is beginning to open up to tourism with the possibility of good trekking and wildlife encounters there.  Neither of us are in a hurry to go back to Phnom Penh even though it does have a lot going for it.  There are so many new places in the world we’d like to visit that we may not have time to fit Cambodia in for a third trip!!

Travel Information

Phenom Pehn – If you have the chance you must spend a night or 2 in The Pavillion, excellent old colonial hotel.


Kampot – for tours around Kampot try http://www.soklimtours.com/index.html

 We stayed at Little Garden http://www.littlegardenbar.com/guesthouse.html which was ok but if you have the cash, Rikitikitavi looked very nice and indeed at least pop in to try their food and cocktails which were very good. http://www.rikitikitavi-kampot.com/

Other good places for food – Rusty Key Hole ( excellent pork ribs) and Bokor Mountain Lodge. http://www.bokorlodge.com/

Visas – get your visa online to save time at the airport and a page in your passport. http://www.mfaic.gov.kh/e-visa/vindex.aspx











































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