Cambodia: the verdict

Koh Kong, 25 January 2020

The bus from Sihanoukville leaves as arranged and five hours later we’re in the town of Koh Kong, 10km from the border crossing into Thailand. In Koh Kong we exchange all of our prize winning beer ring pulls and eat one of the best pizzas so far in Asia. The next morning we head to the border at Had Lek for our exit stamp and Thailand visa, a chaotic affair we’re glad is over and done with after two full hours.

Travel stats Cambodia. By land: 1,450 km. By water: 65 km. Stops: 7. Duration: 22 days.

Travel stats total. By land: 12,660 km. By water: 600 km. By air: 30,192 km. Duration: 179 days.

So with the paperwork completed we’ve officially left Cambodia and it’s time to crunch the numbers, starting with the price of a pint.

In Cambodia we tried Angkor, Cambodia and Ganzberg, which go for about 2,000-4,000 Riel (or £0.37-0.75) per small can. Most restaurants and pubs have Angkor on draft, a pint of which is as cheap as a can. The cans are better though, because they allow you to win cash prizes, a car, a scooter, or, more commonly, a free beer!

After 3 weeks we can now say the return rate on Cambodia beer has been dreadful, Angkor scores okay, but with Ganzberg we have found our golden goose, returning a winner in over 60% of the time! Most of smaller convenience stores exchange your winning ring pull for a full can at a nominal fee of 500 Riel. Evidently we drank a lot of Ganzberg, which wasn’t actually that bad. As they say, a free beer always tastes best!

Even for connoisseurs there is good news: a thriving craft beer scene exists in Cambodia and prices are a reasonable £1.50-£4 for a wide choice of micro brews.

Ring pulls returned, let’s look at how Cambodia has fared against the judgement of our equital referee Lauren!

First of all, the people score 8/10. A high score here is absolutely deserved. Dislikes include that, similar to most of Asia, Cambodians like to stay up late and make noise, which really doesn’t sit well when you have to catch a bus at 6am, but more importantly, Cambodians have been genuinely interested in talking with us and they smile a lot. I’ve got a lot of time for them.

Secondly, the food scores 7/10. There isn’t much variety in Khmer cooking, however the curry dishes are (slightly) better than those in the Philippines, and overall the food situation is a bit more manageable than in Sri Lanka with plenty of international restaurants. I’ve tried a beef and ant salad which wasn’t bad, but the best dish has got to be lok lak.

Lastly, the transport scores 7/10. Perhaps a little on the high side, given that it has caused us plenty hassle, but the redeeming quality of transport in Cambodia is that you always get to your destination, either by public transport or by local delivery van, plus the Khmer tuk-tuk is an extremely comfortable, stylish and cheap mode of transport.

So there you have it! It is my pleasure to hereby award our brothers and sisters in Cambodia Lauren’s Official Certificate of Excellence!

Sihanoukville in the Year of the Rat 2020

Sihanoukville, 24 January 2020

Our original plan was to get from Koh Rong Sanloem in Cambodia to Koh Chang in Thailand in one day, but although it’s technically possible, we rather play it safe and divide the travel up into bitesized chunks. This does however mean we’re spending the night in Sihanoukville, which is erm… an experience??

This coastal city, which was named after former king Norodom Sihanouk, was founded only after the dissolution of French Indochina in 1954 with the construction of the country’s first and only deep water port. As the entry point to the islands, and the most developed settlement on the coast, Sihanoukville was known for years as a relaxed beach area frequented by backpackers. These days it’s more known for crime, casinos and failing infrastructure.

Since 2011 Chinese investments have rapidly started changing Sihanoukville into what is supposed to become some sort of a new Las Vegas. Largely unchecked development has come at a cost of freezing out locals and completely altering the city’s character, not too mention some serious building collapses. Native Cambodians are paying the price for a government which has sold out to the Chinese.

Got to hand it to them though, the locals that haven’t left are pretty vocal about their distaste for some of their new neighbours. When we’re organizing the next part of our journey, the woman at the travel agency does little to hide her feelings about tomorrow’s Chinese New Year celebrations. The next morning she explains how she is one of the few people who have managed to hold on to property in Sihanoukville, the value of which has increased tenfold(!) over the past few years. For the average Cambodian person however, who earns about $200 a month, buying or even renting in town is no longer possible.

Walking along dusty streets through the building site that is Sihanoukville is a surreal experience. The maps I have been using are almost entirely useless here, since scores of restaurants and hotels have disappeared, and roads changed. I have to say I’m not displeased for one when at the end of the day we have bus tickets, a hotel for the night and dinner.

By the time the fire-crackers go off the next morning to mark the dawn of the Year of the Rat (traditionally a sign of wealth and surplus, and the beginnings of a new day) we are already on our way to Koh Kong, wondering what Sihanoukville will become for Cambodia.

The Irrawaddys of Mekong River

Kratié, 9-11 January 2020

The travelling distance from Siem Reap in the northwest to Kratié in the east of Cambodia is 400km. We have purchased direct bus tickets the day before and begin our journey at 7AM. Around 1PM we reach Kampong Cham, a small town on the Mekong River about 100km from Kratie. It is here that the bus driver (who suddenly stops understanding English) decides to stop, eject us and our luggage, and turn back the way.

Not to worry though, because if there’s one thing we’ve learned from travelling is that things always seem to work out just fine in the end (though often with the help of a good Samaritan).

Today’s good Samaritan is a sweet lady at a nearby drinks stand. After waiting an hour she manages to find us a vehicle heading to Kratié. This van service, operated by a husband and wife, makes stops at most villages along the way to either drop off or pick up packages/passengers. One of the tyres gets punctured along the way, but they’re not stopping. Around 4PM we’re their only remaining passengers, but luckily there are still deliveries to be made all the way to Kratié, where we finally arrive at 5PM.

When we pay the driver, his wife snatches the money out of his hand with a triumphant smile. Although we don’t speak the language, we did notice they’ve been playfully making fun of eachother the entire way, nice couple. The little bit of Khmer we learned in Siem Reap comes in handy to thank them for saving the day: Arkoun, Po! Arkoun, Ming!

Kratié is a medium sized town of 40.000 people on the banks of the Mekong river, the 7th longest river in Asia flowing from the Tibetan Plateau, through China, Myanmar, Laos and then Cambodia into Vietnam. The town sees a bit of tourism for one main reason: a local population of freshwater dolphins called Irrawaddy dolphins.

The Irrawaddy is an oceanic dolphin found near sea coasts and in rivers in parts of the Bay of Bengal and Southeast Asia. Their appearance is similar to that of a Beluga whale. As they are known to herd fish into a specific area for hunting, in some places fishermen work with the Irrawaddys to drive fish into their nets.

Cambodians believe the Irrawaddys are reincarnations of their ancestors, which has led them to live peacefully alongside one another. All the same, fishing practices involving gill nets and even explosives have led to a steady decline in the dolphin population worldwide. Though Kratié has seen a slight increase in numbers in recent years, the Irrawaddys are sadly still critically endangered.

Tourism in the dolphin habitat about 15km north of Kratié appears to be pretty ethical. There’s only a few boats and kayaks out in the water and engines aren’t being used near the deep pools in the middle of the river where the dolphins congregate. The Irrawaddys are quite shy by nature, so at first it’s hard to spot them, but after a while we see them come up to the surface constantly. When the sun sets on the Mekong, we’re lucky to see a small group of them hunting and one of them make a jump out of the water.

Although unfortunately we don’t spot any dolphins up close, it’s pretty nice to see so many of them swim around. We hope the population will keep growing, because it would be a shame to see these creatures disappear.

Just in front of Kratié, accessible by ferry, lays Koh Trong. We rent bicycles to explore this 6km long island in the middle of the Mekong. It’s a nice place with traditional houses, rice fields and sleepy scenes of cattle grazing quietly underneath the trees. Surprisingly, Koh Trong has no less than 3 temples, and on the far side of the island we find a little floating village just off the sand bank.

Driving around Kratié can be a bit of a challenge; it seems the further away you get from the town the worse the road becomes, but it’s worth the effort. Local children get super excited to see us and we find a small village on the water just north of the dolphin spot where everyone comes to swim.

Our hotel in Kratié is not the best, what with the chorus of roosters outside our window and being locked inside our room for two hours on our last day, so after exhausting all our sightseeing options here we’re happy to move on to the capital Phnom Penh.