Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Cambodia general observations Jun 2017

Cambodia general observations Jun 2017

Various observations in alphabetical order of my visit 5 to 9 jun 2017 Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Koh Kong town. “We” refers to Farang friend FF (with car and drone) and I. I had no plans to go to Cambodia, but FF persuaded me to join him and it fitted into my visa run schedule and I know several boys in Cambodia.

Angkor Wat
Price for 1 day ticket has risen from 25 USD (my first visit in Aug 2014) to 37 USD (Jun 2017). That’s an inflation rate of 14% per year! (In comparison, Eiffel tower is 17 EUR, I remember 18 EUR from 2012.) None of that money is invested in infrastructure. Even around Siem Reap, roads are poor, electricity network has outages (most hotels have generators), mobile network is spotty, garbage is dumped on the road, land mine victims are left to beg and orphans left to collect garbage for recycling.

For more rants about corruption and infrastructure in Cambodia and Siem Reap in particular read here:

On a rainy day near closing time, you can have Ta Prohm for yourself for some minutes:

At the Bayon / Angkor Thom, locals show tourists how to pose (probably expecting a tip) to give the impression of touching, even kissing, the stone heads. 

This is blasphemy! Shows once more that all religious teachings are quickly dropped when they come into the way of fun or earning money (and I have to say glad this is so, as those who follow religious teachings to the letter bring problems on us).

Overall, it’s overpriced, the infrastructure is poor, too many tourists, too hot, I wouldn’t recommend Angkor Wat. (I came to the same conclusion after my first visit, only to accompany FF I went again.) There are only few things that can destroy the beauty of a place like masses of tourists: earthquakes, tornadoes and nuclear bombs.

I don’t drink coffee, but FF does and praised several of the coffees he had.

Drone flying
Drone flying is prohibited in Angkor Wat and internet says they are serious about it (arrest, fine). So we went to office and asked for permission: usually not granted to tourists, and anyway it takes 5 working days normal or 3 working days express (but can be done by email) and costs 1000 USD per day. Drone flying is prohibited in Phnom Penh, in addition it was raining whenever we had a chance to do so, so no flying there as well.

There are no 7-Eleven in Cambodia, and similar shops are not widespread. I marked those I came across near my hotel on google maps so I can find them. But there are some imitators:

First there is the language problem. In average local restaurant, people speak no English and we speak no Khmer, and often no menu at all, we had to skip many places for lack of communication. When you get someone who speaks English or a menu in English or with pictures, food costs about 2-3 time of comparable in Thailand and takes twice as long to prepare for no obvious reason. Most meals I had there were so-so, some were awful. This is the lowest point:

Chicken fried with vegetables. The chicken was mainly bones and bone splinters. I wouldn’t feed that crap to my dog! (Figure of speech, I don’t have a dog.) Even the vegetables were contaminated with chicken bone splinters! When I had pork bone splinters in a pork meal, I decided to switch to vegetarian or Western food (similar prices as in Thailand).

There is one good thing about the dire food situation: I skipped several meals and I lost 0.8 kg over the trip to Cambodia.

Mobile data
Most trips abroad I weasel through without local SIM, but here travelling with FF and staying in different hotels, we needed reliable communication. So I followed advice of another FF and got sim2fly (http://www.ais.co.th/roaming/sim2fly/en/, Asia 399 THB, 3 GB to be used within 8 days of activation) which worked well (after some discomforting messages “Your balance is insufficient…” and with poor coverage – but that might just be the poor network in Cambodia). Now let’s see if I can top up that SIM and use it for upcoming trips.

At time of writing, 1 USD = 4070 Cambodian Riel. In general, everything above 1 USD is paid in USD, fractions are paid in Riel. The bigger the USD notes, the better they have to be to be accepted. On the internet, I read “You can starve in Cambodia with a 100 USD note because nobody has change”. And indeed, when I wanted to pay a 1 USD item in a shop similar to 7-Eleven with a 100 USD note, the cashier didn’t have change. Then in a restaurant, paying for a 7 USD meal, the owner reluctantly accepted the 100 USD, after asking for smaller notes (I did have smaller notes, but I have to fob off the 100 USD onto someone). In another place, our meals were 6 USD combined and the cashier didn’t have change for 10 USD! Even more than in Thailand, you have to manage your banknotes! The one good think is, US-Americans don't have to change money!

Money exchange
ATMs have a fee of 4 or 5 USD, in addition I don’t know until later what rate my visa card gives. For Thailand, I found bringing cash is the most efficient way. Apply this to Cambodia. Following this lead http://www.khmer440.com/chat_forum/viewtopic.php?t=30992, I searched for the place recommended and walked along street 51 (Pasteur) from south to north and checked banks and other places along the way for exchange rates to exchange EUR to USD. Tue 6jun2017 around 9 am on xe.com 1 EUR = 1.12635 USD. Most banks don’t have exchange rates displayed, but if you ask they will tell you their exchange rate (not my style, skip). A place Wing (green, street 51 diagonally opposite Heart of Darkness disco) 1.08. Lang Daro pawn shop (green, near st 144) 1.105. Somnea (gold shop, st 136 between st 51 and st 53, south-east corner of Central Market) 1.121. Or Sovann (gold and jewelry, across st 136 from Somnea) 1.121. Exchange there. (Update: recommendations for Ly Hour Exchange elsewhere on the internet, will check next time.)

Roads and driving
When going by public transport I don’t pay attention to traffic, but here in front seat I had to assist FF in driving. National highways and main roads in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are ok, everywhere else is poor, sometimes awful. Only part of the national highway network is two lane. Everywhere else, one lane, that means we were often stuck behind trucks (huge number of petrol tank trucks around) or overtaking, which considerably slowed down average speed. Add in cows crossing day and night or even lying on the road, other vehicles without light or with full/high/upper beam at night or driving on the side in the wrong direction. No thanks, I don’t want to ever subject myself to that again as front seat passenger!

Shoe theft
My hotel has a policy of removing shoes and leaving them on a shoes rack outside, and so I did. The following morning, my sandals were gone! Add the attempted mobile phone theft on my first trip in 2014, and the visa on arrival scam (see below), Cambodia is the country where I have been scammed or become victim of attempted or successful theft much more than anywhere else.

Taking a Thai car into Cambodia
FF owns and drives a car in Thailand, which we took into Cambodia. This was possible without much delay or bribes or documentation, but can only be done at two border crossings: Hat Lek (Trat province) / Cham Yeam and Kap Choeng (Surin province) / O’Smach (information from internet). Taking the car back to Thailand should be possible at any border crossing, however upon entering we learned that we have to come back to the same place (Hat Lek, our place of entry), recent regulation. If I had known that before, I would not have gone. In addition, you are only allowed to drive in the province of entry, but we kept the red number plate they gave us (to be displayed behind the windscreen?) in the glove compartment as to not draw attention, and drove all over Cambodia without being stopped.

I entered separately from FF as a pedestrian, and taking car in took about 30 min longer. Here what he told me: red number plate costs 1000 THB, an obscure fee 100 THB for stamps and documents, a tip 5 USD for a taxi driver who led FF to the various offices.

Going back into Thailand on Sat 10jun2017 we did together, and indeed from their pile of documents they (Cambodian customs?) picked out the one relating to FF’s car, for him to present elsewhere at the border.

Visa on arrival at land border scam
When we arrive at Hat Yeam Mon 5jun2017 shortly after 8 am, already busy with locals crossing (but only short queues). Opening times 6-22 are posted at the border crossing. Stamp out Thailand 8:11, stamp in Cambodia 8:30.

I was aware that there are scams running, but didn’t have details. When applying for visa on arrival at Cham Yeam (in a room with table and chair, whereas the arrival/departure card and passport was handed through a window while I was standing outside), I was asked for 1600 THB (47 USD), and without saying a word, I handed them 30 USD. Then I was presented with an officially looking document (about A4 paper laminated, with signs of wear and tear), that said something like “Ministry of …, Announcement on …, Visa is 30 USD + 7 USD processing fee, stamp, signature” which I was not prepared for. The idea to ask to take a picture came to my mind, but I dismissed it. I should have asked to take a picture! And show them my old passport with previous visas from Phnom Penh airport with 30 USD stamped in. But I was flabbergasted and handed them a 50 USD note and received 13 USD change. My visa sticker does not have the price stamp.

Even without any particular mishap (we didn’t get stopped by police, rain disturbed our plans only little), a poor trip. Overall, I can’t recommend Cambodia as a travel destination. I can understand that everyone who does not belong to upper class and has internationally marketable skills or a body to sell wants to get out.

I traded the freedom of traveling alone (can change my plans any time) for the comfort of traveling by car (FF’s car, so I had to compromise, and having to exit the same border checkpoint was just one restriction too many), and found that freedom is more important than comfort to me.

Nonetheless, I will go again to meet old and new Cambodian friends and to ride the one public bus line in Phnom Penh and the one passenger train to Sihanoukville.

Copyright 2017 ChristianPFC


  1. Great overview but I can't agree with quite a few points.

    Hope nobody will heed your advice about skipping visiting Angkor Wat , one of greatest travel destinations in the entire world and a must. Yes hordes of tourists leave their mark but it's easy to say 'don't visit" when we already visited place, perhaps more than once.

    Some of that money must be seeping into Siem Reap as last December I found city upgraded big time in comparison with my previous visit in 2001.

    Either I had good luck or you had bad one but I actually prefer Cambodian food to Thai one.

    I agree that bringing cash is the best way for Cambodia but no surprise you had problem of breaking 100 USD note in such a poor country. Many places probably will not take 100 USD in the whole day of trading. Such problem is typical to most of Thirld World countries

    1. So where, how and what did you order (street food in Cambodia) and what did you pay?

      From 2001 to now there might be an improvement in infrastructure, but still, infrastructure in Siem Reap is worse than rural Thailand.

      One would have to compare entry prices for world's most important ancient and medieveal monuments (Angkor, pyramids, Colosseum, Machu Picchu, Pisa, Tadj Mahal, Borobudur) and see how much they charge and if the money is used to improve the situation of the natives. And then decide which are worth visiting.

    2. 1-3 $, whatever was available when I was hungry / I'm not much of gourmet diner / , Thai food is over spiced for my taste.

      With exception of Pisa I visited all places you mention including pyramids inside and all a absolutely a must to visit before one dies.
      I don't think Angkor charges are outrageous considering that ticket covers so many monuments.
      In 2001 road to Anlong Veng was dirt track nobody was willing to drive on while now is asphalted all the way to Preah Vihar as an example of improvement in infrasturcture

  2. Interesting perspective, but I agree with vinapu, Angkor Wat is really something special though I visited the place in 2000 and at some sites I was completely alone. I stayed at the FCC in Siem Reap, a stylish affair.
    In Phnom Penh after a dance performance (as a audience member...) I was even introduced to the king of Cambodia, the first and only royal I ever met, except for assorted queens in the gay scene.
    I won't return, I like to keep these memories.

  3. There are now (at least) 3 buslines in PnPn, but not really citybus, more going to nearby suburban fairly big towns, along the main boulevards-on which you can thus also use. All run ev 20 mins (15 mins peak times), from 6-18 hrs. There should even be a website.
    For the rest I mostly agree with you-and yes, their food is indeed mostly a downer compared to TH. Thhe dirt and rubbish everywhere too.

  4. Agree on Cambodia as a so so tourist destination, but with the exception of Angkor. Imho the price is still ok and the old price of $20 a day often came up in discussions of overpriced destinations worldwide as a counter argument concerning price value - so was probably cheap comparatively...

    Btw, at 6 in the morning, you got Ta Prohm for yourself for about half an hour. After that mayhem ensues.


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