Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Backpacking Cambodia - Tips

Planning - 

Book flight tickets at least two months in advance at a reasonable price. Air Asia is the cheapest airline and has good deals. I found it perfectly comfortable for a flight of 3 Hours. Your transit point could be Kuala Lampur or Bangkok. I flew into Siem Reap and flew out of Phnom Penh. I would suggest the same if you want to explore the country. Coming back to the same location is not difficult but is a waste of time. 

Cambodian Government offers visa on arrival service for many countries. For Indians as well. It might be about 5-6$ cheaper if you directly apply for it there. But I would recommend obtaining an e-visa which takes just 5-10 minutes to revive your permit on the Government website. 

Carry US Dollars with you, from your respective country. All transactions in Cambodia are done in Dollars or Riel. People often prefer US dollars over Riel. Carrying small changes like 1$ would come handy as most goods and services are priced around a few dollars. 

I often carry a Lonely Planet guide to plan my travels within a country. I must say that I did not really use it much. You can just arrive at a hostel and then discuss with co-travellers to get an idea of what to see or where to go next. If you like to have something handy, then Lonely planet or any guide book would do. 

First thing to do when you land - 

If you have not brought US dollars with you, then you could use one of the ATMs to withdraw some money. Exchange rates are better in town. In 2019 it was 4000 Riel for every dollar. So, I would recommend you exchange money in local shops to get better deals. As it is, you can survive just with US Dollars. 

Also important is to buy a sim card. I bought that of Smart network and it had excellent connectivity everywhere. I bought the sim at the hostel. I would recommend the same. I paid $4 for the sim and then charged it one more time after a week for $2. It had good data plan. 

Accommodation - 

You can find hostels almost everywhere in Cambodia. There are guest houses in both cities and remote places. I find Hostels cheaper ($5-10) for solo travellers. You could use Hostelworld to make your bookings. I would recommend hostels like Onederz at Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, Lucky Hostel at Battambang and Mad Monkey in Koh Rong Sanloem. You can check the posts on particular city for the hostel details. Almost all hostels are neat. The toilets in Cambodia are wet toilets so they would have faucets (Which the travellers refer to as Bum gun) so western travellers should carry toilet papers. 

Transport - 

There is no Government public transport in Cambodia. Cities don’t even have buses. So, all rely on tuk-tuk and motor bike Taxi (Remork). To travel within the city, I prefer walking. If you want, you can try two of the earlier mentioned mode of transport. For exploring around a city, you can hire scooters for $8-10 per day. It is cheaper to rent them outside than to rent them at the hostel. 

For long distance travel, there are several private bus services. It is easy to book any of them by walking to their offices in the city. Usually the bus stations are outside of town but there would be a shuttle service running between the office in the city and the station. Again, buy the tickets directly from the operators rather than from the hostel who charge $3 more. I would highly recommend Capitol bus service as they are professional. I did try others, but they were not as consistent and punctual as Capitol. You can also find shared taxi for long distance travels. 

Food - 

Food in Cambodia is delicious. As a vegetarian, my options were limited but whatever I ate were just amazing. Amok is a traditional dish of Cambodia. It’s a curry made of coconut milk gravy steamed in a plantain leaf. Fried noodles is tasty as well, depending on how it is prepared. In most cities, you will find pizza, pasta or burgers in almost every restaurant. There are a few all veg restaurants like my favourite Monorom Garden in Battambang. Everything I had in this restaurant was simply delicious. 

While on road, you must try the bamboo sticky rice, a traditional rice variety cooked with coconut milk and some beans in a bamboo cup. Also, rice cakes and spring rolls are tasty. There are a lot of rice or banana based snacks that you find to munch on while riding. 

For desserts do not miss the tasty Mango sticky rice. Fresh fruit juices are common here and also cold coconut water. Coconut water is a life saver in that weather. Rice wine is something you should taste if you are into alcohol. 

But one big disappointment for me here was that this is the only country I have traveled to where water is not free. I could refill my bottle (That too from a water can) only in some places but mostly they prefer selling water bottles. Almost everybody drinks bottled water. 

Communication - 

As mentioned above, Smart network worked great for me. I had network even in remote areas like Cardamom mountains region and the islands. Recharging can be done at any shop in the town. 

Culture - 

The people of Cambodia are extremely kind and friendly to the tourists. They are never short of a warm smile. But what I really like is that they don’t bother the tourists. In fact they don’t even stare at foreign travellers. The country relies heavily on tourism so one is sure to have a great experience here. While visiting a temple or a monastery ensure to be dressed decently - Your shoulders must be covered, wear something that covers your legs up to knee. 

Places to See - 

Of course the Angkor wat is a must. For backpackers, I would highly recommend Koh Rong Sanloem island, its the quieter one of the two island. For trekkers, tropical forest of Cardamom mountains is a good place. Please refer to my posts for details. All Cambodia Related Posts  Here 

What to buy - 

Buy silver jewellery in Siem Reap (At Night market) or Phnom Penh (At Central Market), tropical fruits from local market (Mangosteen and Longans are my favourites), palm sugar, real cheap clothes and cashew nut.

I would highly recommend making your purchases at local and Night markets of Siem Reap. They are the best. Night market in Phnom Penh is also good but not as vast as the former. 

My Route - 

Siem Reap -> Battambang -> Sihanoukville -> Koh Rong Sanloem -> Koh Rong -> Koh Kong -> Osoam (Cardamom Mountains) -> Kampot -> Kep -> Phnom Penh

My Expenses -  

I spent around Rs 40,ooo on this trip of 14 days. This amount does not include flight and visa charges that depends on your booking. However, for me, I did spend a bit more on souvenirs and food. I could have easily reduced my expense to Rs 30,000. So I think you can estimate a budget travel cost of Rs 2500 per day. 

Good Bye Cambodia

I Continue From Here 

Backpacking Cambodia: Day 014 (25-Feb-2019) 

Au Revoir Cambodge!

My flight to Kuala Lumpur was to leave only at 2:35 PM. Hence, I had half a day for myself. I chose to walk to Wat Phnom. Its a nice place with a beautiful park and a monastery. When I went there, I saw an old couple walk in with a cage full babblers. A mother with her little girl walked towards them and paid for one of the birds. The little girl held it in her hands, made a wish and set it free. 

On my way back, I saw a woman roast the rice cakes. I had tasted these when i was in Battambang and they are delicious. 

At the market behind my hostel, I bought some fruits that I wanted to carry back. Back in the hostel, I had some delicious pancakes for breakfast. I packed my bags, bid farewell to the Taiwanese man and left to airport at around 12 PM. Due to some construction work, there was horrundous traffic near the airport. It was frustrating as it was already late. Anyway, I reached on time. I shopped at the airport before boarding the flight. 

My co-passenger was an Indian from UP who sells clothes in Cambodia. So finally I had met one of those mystery men that all Cambodians had been talking about. He told me that there is a lot of opportunity here as there aren’t many shops. He was returning back home after few years. He was extremely happy to sit next to an Indian, which he said was a 'first'. But as we spoke further, we realised that he had been cheated by the agent who booked his ticket. He had apparently charged him for a transit visa at Malaysia  When I informed him that, a visa was not required for a transit, he was upset and began cursing the agent. At Kulala Lampur, I directed him to his gate and walked towards mine. I found some Kaya toast at a café. I also bought some Kaya bottles for home. I had developed a taste for it when I was travelling in Singapore. 

My flight to Bangalore was uneventful. I must say that this trip had been really interesting because of the wonderful people I had met and remote places that I got to visit. The beaches of Koh Rong Sanloem, Dense tropical forests of Cardamom mountains, The kind villagers who offered me food, Manith who invited me over for a drink with his friends, Conversations with Mr Lim, Servers at Battambang restaurant, Nick and other travellers I had met at the island made this journey an incredible experience to cherish for years to come. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Phnom Penh

I Continue From Here 

Backpacking Cambodia: Day 013 (24-Feb-2019) 

To The Capital

At 6:15AM, when the reception had not opened yet and the guards were still sleeping, I walked out my hostel and marched towards the Captiol bus office. My bus left at 7 AM, as scheduled. The entire stretch of road from Kampot to Phnom Penh is under construction. They are constructing a four lane. Hence, it was mud road for several kilometres. A few hours gone, we had dust enter the bus and in no time the entire bus was filled with dust. Apparently, the driver had not shut the doors properly. Anyways, except for that one incident, rest of the trip was pleasant. 

At Phnom Penh, I walked a long distance from the bus station to Onederz hostel. It is located by the river. Hostel offered good food, so I decided to have my lunch there. The fried noodles and mango smoothie I ordered was delicious. 

I had originally planned to visit the National museum but when I got there, I decided not to go in. I also returned back from the palace gates. Somehow, I did not like the place. May be it was the heat or it was the crowd. All I wanted to do was sit in a Café that had AC and sip on a cup of tea. 

I went to the central market to buy some silver. This place is filled with shops that sell nothing but silver jewellery for real cheap price. Bargaining is a must there. I go up to 50%  discount on two rings. I am not sure if these are original but for that price, it did not matter. 

While returning back to the hostel, I walked into a small store run by an old lady. I was in search of condensed milk. I began explaining to her in sign languages. She seemed to understand and handed me a Teapot condensed milk. I bought two of them. She was really happy to have made this deal even without understanding the language. I was happy too. 

Back in my hostel Dorm, I met a traveller from Taiwan. We had a good chat about our travels, work and life in general. He was about 50 years old and had recently quit his job to pursue masters in psychology and was planning to shift his career. We were thus on the same boat. 

At night, I went to the night market, that was just a few blocks away from my hostel. There were kids performing at the entrance, a live orchestra at the centre of the ground that was surrounded by shops selling all kinds of things. I found some good magnets. 

The food court looked interesting. There were carpets placed in the centre for people to sit and the food stalls surrounded them. Unfortunately there was hardly anything vegetarian for me. I decided to have some Coconut ice cream. It was delicious. Overall it was a happy atmosphere out there.

What I did not like about this city is that, prostitution is common here. You could be just walking on a street and several pimps would come over to you with offers. There are many night clubs and massage centres. The employees keeping inviting you as you walk by. However, they do not bother you beyond that request, which is a good thing. Also, a common site around here is that of an old man walking hand in hand with young Cambodian girls. Among them were a few Indians as well on their secret vacations perhaps. 

Continued Here 

Bokor Mountains & Kep

I Continue From Here 

Backpacking Cambodia: Day 012 (23-Feb-2019) 

Around Kampot

On a hired scooter, I decided to explore the locations around Kampot. Since there are no public transport here, this is the best way to get around. I had breakfast at a nice bakery/restaurant by the riverside. I first rode to Bokor mountains. It was an amazing experience to ride up the mist covered mountains. A light jacket is a must as it gets really colder as you gain height. 

I stopped near the statue of Lok Yeah Mao, an ancient mythical heroine. 

At the Black palace opposite, there were a group of officials from the archeology department. They were erecting a board with a brief description about the place. There were also a few bikers who were racing up the hill. I next headed to the old church built by the French. From the hill behind the church. you have an excellent view of the city of Kampot and the sea. I also plucked some wild plants to carry back with me. I met the Archeology department here as well. 

I next made my way to the old casino in ruins. Behind the casino is another beautiful view point. 

There is a new casino built here but hardly any travellers go there. Popokvil waterfall was all dried up but it was interesting to view the rock formations.

This sketch I found on my hostel wall depicts all the attractions in Bokor mountains. 

I headed back to Kampot for lunch. I ordered a veg pizza without mushrooms. The mushrooms were generously replaced by pineapple. It was delicious. After lunch, I rode to Kep. Keep is a beach town bout 30 kms from Kampot. It was an interesting ride. Almost everyday, I have seen weddings here almost every day. A part of the street is occupied to set up a stage and house the guests. 

The locals had gathered along the beach and had occupied the promenade. They had loud speakers on which loud music was being played and they enjoyed the afternoon by eating, drinking and chatting along with family and friends. 

I tried some roasted dosa like dish that contained grated coconut and sugar mixture inside it. It was difficult for me to memorise the name.  

Next stop, Kbal Romeas historic caves. I found the archeology department there again.  They smiled at this happy coincidence and since we could not speak each others language, we stopped at that. I met a small boy from the village here who offered to guide me through the caves for a fee. 

From here, I rode to the caves of Phnom Chhngok. Here again there were a few village kids offering to guide tourists into the cave. But I felt like it wasn’t necessary as I had already explored one. Moreover, I was extremely tired by the time I reached there. I just wanted to see the place and head back to the hostel. This cave has an impressive shrine sheltering a Shiva Linga. 

This had been a long day for me and I chose a local restaurant and had some Amok and Mango shake before heading back to the hostel and calling it a day. 

Continued Here