Month: January 2018

Backpackers island

There were we. Sihanoukville, a Chinese gambling and beach city at the gulf of Thailand. The sun was about to set and the streets around the pier were buzzing with people. Women selling grilled squids from a bucket BBQ or slicing fresh fruits for vitamins to go, kids were running around, and men were trying to sell you tuktuk rides or ferry tickets. And somewhere in the distance music was blasting. So just the usual southeast Asian atmosphere.

We checked in at our guesthouse, just 10 meters from the pier above a Japanese restaurant, and with direct view aross the sea from the terrace. We sat down to watch the sun set and have our well earned arrival beer, as one of our neighbors left his room. A man in his 80s from England. He sat down next to us and started talking with us. He is a doctor who worked in the US and Hong Kong, retired for a couple of years already, and currently in Cambodia for some dental procedures which are supposedly cheaper yet of equal quality in Phnom Penh than in Hong Kong. He has been backpacking his hole life, going through eastern Europe in the 60s and 70s, and just recently upgraded to double rooms instead of dorms, as his 70-year old wife is not as fit as she used to be. A quite interesting talk and a nice reminder that, given you stay healthy, traveling as backpacker is something you can do all your life. you just have to like it ;-).

After dinner we took a walk along the beach to find a nice bar for a few drinks. The beach seamed endless, as far as we could see there were lighs of hotels, bars and resorts along the coast, so we walked with our feet in the breakers which calmly rolled in from the sea. Surprisingly for the first minutes we did not see any bars. All the lights were from private parties on the beach, all equipped with big speakers at what looked like pre-installed cocktail tables. Pretty neat idea. The downside, however, was right in front of us. Trash. A lot of trash. Everywhere on the beach. And the reason: people just seem to not give a fuck. Very often I saw people carelessly dropping plastic wrappers or tossing away cans. So sad to see such a beautiful nature spoiled like that.
The next morning we took the ferry at 11.00 to Koh Rong. We explicitly bought the direct ferry to avoid the detour to Koh Rong Sanloem, however, the lady at the ticket counter intentionally sold us the wrong tickets. Instead with the recommended direct fast ferry we took a smaller and less renown company which almost doubled the time on the boat and, as we would find out later, did not have an office on Koh Rong island, so you don’t know when or if a boat is going from Koh Rong to the main land. Just another proof that there is not one honest soul in Cambodian transport industry. In retrospect I can say that not one tuktuk, taxi, bus, or ferry person did not (try to) lie to or overcharge us.

Little Khmer girl fascinated by my beard.

We boarded the ferry around 11.00, it was a rather modern speed ferry with maybe 60-70 seats, and is quickly filled up with a mix of tourists and few locals. In front of Melli and me was a Khmer family of 5. Father, mother, two very young kids, maybe 6 monts and 2 years, and a lively 3 or 4 year old. The older girl was watching music videos on her parents tablet for the first part of the trip, until she got bored and discovered us behind her seat. She started to play peek-a-boo with Melli and me, always hiding behind her seat and then popping up and laughing. Our lighter hair and my reddish beard were especially tempting to her. When she was popping up she tried to touch our hair or my beard, laughing and hiding again. We joined the game and started to hide as well, or peeking through the slits between the seats when she was hiding. Up and down the seats she climbed, grabbing beard and hair and having a lot of fun. Her parents, on the other hand, did not care at all what she was doing, or that we were playing with her. Imagine in Germany some strangers would start playing with your kid, it would grab their beard or hair, and climb on chairs. I don’t know who would get more yelled at, the kid or the stranger. Not only here but also in other situations, where for example 5 year olds were watching over 2 year olds when the parents weren’t around, it seemed to me that in Cambodia parents are more trusting in their kids and strangers.

After 1.5 hours we arrived at Koh Rong. From the boat you could see long white beaches, a beach front with small houses, and behind the houses the jungle rising across the island. I stepped off the boat, with my backpack on the back and my daypack on the front, and let the scenery sink in for a moment. Turquoise waters, wooden pier, small restaurants and guest houses on the beach front, backpacker and locals walking along the footpaths in front of the houses, and the smell of fresh food in the air. From all the pictures of Cambodia I had in my head, this was not it. This were the pictures you knew from glossy Thailand travel brochures or Caribbean islands. Then we went up behind the beachfront where we would stay the first two nights.

Arrived on Koh Rong, little paradise island.

Finding the right hostel on Koh Rong is actually not that easy. In the main settlement, Koh Touch, are many guesthouses and hostels, but also the main bars and clubs. You have almost endless options for eating and drinking, but also hear the people partying until late at night every day. The bungalows and resorts further away or even on the other sides of the island are quiet and relaxed, but you have to walk a bit to other hotels, if any, to try a different restaurant. Melli found a great location just at the end of white beach, the beach right at Koh Touch. It offered treehouses as bungalows, built in the palm tree tops right at the beach. Sleeping with a view across the sea up high in a tree was tempting, but the only availability was 9 to 11 January and for 70 USD/night. Quite steep for a backpacking budget, but we decided that we need to treat ourselves every now and then, so we booked two nights in the tree house and the 2 preceding nights in a cheaper guesthouse for 20 USD/night. Still not dead cheap, bu you don’t want to be on the other end of the island or in-between the party bars, so you have to take what you get if you book last minute.

We started to explore the town and it’s long, white beach. The beach front with restaurants and guesthouses stretches along 200-300 meters along the southern part of the beach. On it’s southern end was the Khmer village, where the locals live, and at the northern end where the beach continues the side-by-side houses are replaced by sparse bungalows and forest. This island was a place for backpackers largely run by backpackers. All menus at restaurants were in English, every bar was offering the best pizza in town, burgers with fries, and of course the best pub crawl in Cambodia. Western staff was working as waiters, and all wanted signs were asking for western staff. This place is heaven for those who want to live away from home but still feel like home. At night a mini night marked popped up along the restaurants, selling vegan samosas, hand-knit accessories, or jewelry made from scrap metal. All the things to bring some money into the travel fund and allow to stay a bit longer on the beautiful island. I talked to a few people about how long they were on Koh Rong. Some stayed only a few weeks, other a couple of months, but some already stayed for years and were not planning on leaving any time soon.

Shrimp with Kampot pepper and fried noodles. Tasty Khmer dinner!

With all the western-oriented menus it was actually harder to find good, non-standard Khmer food than spaghetti or burger. Luckily we found a small, family-run restaurant on the pier with the name “Khmer family restaurant”, or at least it was the only part I could read. On the 8 tables many locals were sitting and having beer, with 0.75 to 1 USD per glass or can in Cambodia a big bargain, so we gave it a shot. The food was really good, smooth barracuda amok, juicy fried noodles, and spicy shrimp with green Kampot pepper. But spicy in Cambodia means edible-spicy. Not the chili madness of Thailand, where a “little spicy” papaya salad brings tears in your eyes and and burns at least twice. And the prices for main dishes were between 2 and 4 USD, also en par if not cheaper than Thailand given the quality you get.

The first two days we mainly explored the beaches north of Koh Touch: long set beach, also known as 4k beach, and Vietnamese beach. Long set beach is an almost 4 km long fine white sand beach with shallow waters. The sand is so fine it really squeaks when you walk on it. A good half hour from the town there are small bungalow resorts and tent resorts the only buildings in sight. It’s easy to see why people loose track of time here. After another 20 minutes through the forest at the end of long set beach lies Vietnamese beach. Not as white, not as sandy, but spotted with rocks along the coast, it is a nice place for a little bit of snorkeling.

Long set or 4k beach, endless white sand and shallow waters.

For the last two days we moved into our trehouse. A quite spacious bungalow up in the trees, less than 5 meters from the waterfront, which was luxurious yet the same time basic with power only in the morning and evening, and only cold water. From the balcony we had an unobstructed view across the sea, and as we learned the next morning, direct view of the sun rising from the sea. A nice way to wake up at 6 am, when the bright and warm reddish light shines through the mosquito net onto your face. The second morning we even had a few visitors. Two monkeys jumped on our balcony, rather young ones I would guess, and one even tried to come through the open balcony door. But a loud “shhhh” was enought to convince the little guy that there is nothing of interest in our room.

Sunrise in the treehouse.

After 5 days and 4 nights we decided to leave Koh Rong and head towards Kampot, a small town on a river a few hours away from Sikhanoukville. If you had asked me before if a small paradisiac island like Koh Rong belongs to Cambodia, I would not have believed it. A few days there are totally worth the border hassle.

Crossing the border

What did I know about Cambodia before coming here? I knew it’s location between Thailand and Vietnam, I knew Angkor Wat is there, I knew it had a violent past with the Khmer Rouge (though I knew nothing more than that), and I knew it was or is one of the poorer countries. Then I started reading up on the border crossing from Thailand to Cambodia. “Watch out for visa scams!” “Keep an eye on your valuables, lots of pickpockets!” “Beware of bag snatching!” And so on. But I was in for a big surprise!

But first things first. One evening we were sitting over dinner and discussing when we’ll go to Cambodia. We decided to stay for two more nights on Koh Chang but move to Lonely Beach and will then go to Cambodia. We checked up on immigration regulations as the Thai-Cambodia border is infamous for visa scams, where tourists end up paying way more than the official 30$. We found out that Cambodia offers e-visa which can be obtained online and take up to 3 days. I decided to give the e-visa a try, as we didn’t have passport photos and I’m always preferring digital over analog solutions for things like this. The process was surprisingly easy. Enter your passport data, upload a picture, a selfie works fine, and send. Then you pay by credit card the 30$ visa fee plus a 6$ processing fee. Little preview: even though we payed more than the base visa price we were the two people on the bus who payed the least in the end. After the payment we got the confirmation that our application is complete and we have to wait for our request to be processed. It was 23:00 and about 2 1/2 days before we planned to enter Cambodia. I was curious if the up to 3 day processing time would deliver the visa in time.

The next morning around 10 I received an e-mail. “We are happy to inform you that your visa application was successful. Please find attached your e-visa.” That was real quick. Processing starts at 8, and 2 hours later they already completed my visa. The colorful pdf showed the usual shape and information on a visa, plus my selfie from last night. The following day we booked our bus ticket to Sihanoukville, Cambodia at a travel agency around the corner from our guesthouse. As it was already pretty late and one company was already sold out for the next day we did not ask around too much and went with a lady who had a good but not too cheap price. When we came back to our guesthouse we told the owner where we bought out ticket. Her reaction was just a sigh. “If you had asked me before, I would have told you to buy anywhere but there. Their service is bad and they overcharged us last time at the border with additional fees.” Well, what is done is done, so we went to bed and I was excited how the next day will be.

The next morning we got up early to be picked up by a minivan which would bring us to the border where we are supposed to continue with a big bus to Sihanoukville. We stowed our bags and the driver took our tickets. He didn’t even let me take a picture of the ticket, just pulled it out of my hand and told us to get into the van. So we drove on to the pier, set over to mainland Thailand, and continued towards the border. After around 3 hours we arrived at the border, where eager tuktuk drivers were already orbiting the van to offer us to transport the bags to the border checkpoint. We left the bus, received another slip of paper from the bus driver, and grabbed our bags before the vultures could lay their hands on them. As it was only a few hundred meters and to disengage this vulture culture, we walked straight to Thai Immigration. The line was rather short and we quickly were processed and left Thailand.

In the no-mans land between the checkpoints, another couple of hundred meters, loads of beggars and service men approached us to get some no longer needed Baht. We ignored them and marched straight to the Cambodian checkpoint. There the next flock of vultures was waiting already. “Can I see your ticket?” “Can I see your passport?” “You need vis, this way please!” I ignored all the visa requests and showed but never handed my ticket to people who looked like representatives of a bus company. One guy told us he is the driver of our bus and he will wait for us after immigration. So far so good.

Next we fought our way through the people to get to the immigration window, which was strategically clever locates between the window where you apply for your visa and the window where zou pay for your visa. So all people had to get back and forth before they could line up. After 15 min I reached the window, the officer looked at my passport and handed me wordlessly an immigration form to fill out. Another clever move not to put them out where everybody can just grab one and fill it out. This way they make sure that the visa vultures still stay in business if more people get e-visa, because they have these forms of course and for a fee will give it to you and help you to fill it out. So we filled out the forms and lined up again, as we were not allowed to cut in line. More people had arrived, and this time it took about 30 min to get to the window where the officer then processed my passport and after a few minutes the passport was handed back to me.

Our group from the bus had by then been scattered over the whole checkpoint. Some still applying for visa, some about to pay, some waiting at the immigration window and some had disappeared. A guy, who we were not sure if it was the same as before, approached us and told us he would bring us to the tuktuk that would then take us to the bus station at the border town. We followed him to a tent nearby where a family was living and selling drinks and cigarettes. We got some plastic chairs and were told to wait for the rest of the group. After 15 minutes a man came, set down behind a desk, and started processing our tickets. “So you are going to Sihanoukville. The bus leaves at 14:00 from the bus station in town, we will bring you there shortly. There you will get a big bus towards Phnom Penh and then change at the highway intersection to another bus to Sihanoukville. You will arrive there after 20:00.” Dramatical pause. “But we can offer you to upgrade to a minivan which leaves in 15 min, at 13:00, from here and takes you in 5 hours directly t Sihanoukville. This will save you at least 2 hours.” I looked at Melli and back to the salesman. “How much?” – “150 Baht per Person.” So about 4 EUR extra for the upgrade to a minivan, if you can call this upgrade, but including 2 or more hours saved and 2 bus changes avoided. I briefly discussed it with Melli and we agreed to the upgrade. Shortly after another tourist came. He only had a ticket to the border and wanted to buy a ticket to Sihanoukville. For him the price was almost 20 EUR. So I did not feel too bad for our upgrade, as we payed 17,50 EUR from Koh Chang to Sihanoukville plus the 4 EUR upgrade. Then we promptly got led to the minivan.

After we sat down in the minivan more and more people joined us. Some of them from our original group, some from other groups who where heading for Sihanoukville or the border town Koh Kong. A discussion started about the upgrade price we paid. Most of us paid 150 Baht, two paid only 100 Baht as they refused the first offer with 150 Baht and so got a discount. One guy did not pay any fee. He insisted on taking the included bus even though it takes longer for so long that they upgraded him for free. The rumor was there is no big bus, and this is part of the organized scam that they tell you in Thailand it’s a big bus so they can squeeze off a few Baht for the upgrade. Then we discussed about the visa fee. The official fee is 30 USD or around 1000 Baht. The others in our bus, even though at the border at the same time, paid 1400-1800 Baht, so 36-46 EUR. Even though all knew the official price, they were not able to get it. Even the Cambodian border officials were part of the scam, as they received the payment and, my guess, they distribute it later to their helpers. E-visa makes this less likely to happen, but there is still a way to go. The rest of the drive was fine. The van was overfilled, with people siting on stools in the isle for all 5 hours, but we arrived as planned right before sunset in Sihanoukville.

In Sihanoukville the tuktuk drivers were waiting for the people to leave the bus to start their singing: “you need hotel? where you going? You want tuktuk?” Our guesthouse was 3 km away, so we decided to get a tuktuk. The guidebook said the appropriate price would be 4 USD to the center, but drivers at the bus station go as high as 10 USD. Our driver as well checked where our guesthouse was and asked for 5 USD per person. After some haggling I brought him down to 5 USD for both of us, which was fine as I had exactly one 5 dollar bill. We started driving and he started asking where where we want to go next and if we need ferry tickets. We declined and asked him to bring us to the guesthouse. After a while he topped at a travel agency and said we should get our tickets there. I declined again and asked him to continue to the guesthouse. He replied that they had good prices, so I repeated that he should continue to the guesthouse. He started to talk again, so I rudely interrupted him with a vigorous and angry “no, please guesthouse”. He tried again and I put a more aggresive and determined tone into it. “No, guesthouse!” and I pointed down the street. He finally continued, just seconds before I would have unloaded my bags and hailed another tuktuk. He then drove us correctly to the pier where our guesthouse was located.

So, where is the big surprise? Well, that was about to come when we went to Koh Rong and Kampot the next days.

Happy New Year 2561!

When I told people I will spend New Years Eve in Bangkok I usually got the reaction “oh wow, there must be a huge party everywhere” and I thought so as well. I arrived on the 30th in Bangkok and started looking for places to celebrate. But aside from big hotels with ludicrously expensive dinner-and-party packages or purely tourist parties in the tourist area there were no NYE parties. So we decided to go to a night market and to the roof top terrace for fireworks.

The Rachada night market was packed and buzzing. Food stalls, tattoo artists, nail studios, mobile equipment, and clothes all mixed in small tents with bright neon lights, surrounded by 2-story bars with busting music from electro to rock.

The night market and party area was rather local, only a few western people here and there. And the decoration was not New Years Eve like. Some bars had “Happy New Year” written on a chalk board, but otherwise it was just like any Saturday. We grabbed a few beers and some food until 11 pm, then we went back to our rooftop terrace on the 31st floor with view over Bangkok.

The rooftop was not too crowded. The few chairs and benches were almost all occupied, but no one had to stand. It was very quiet in general, no music playing, no big party. All groups were 2-6 people just sitting together, having snacks and drinks, and enjoying the view. A few minutes before midnight the people gathered in the corner with the best view towards the center. At midnight, nothing happened. Aside from us and one other group, nobody said “Happy New Year” or started cheering. A few hotels started their fireworks, but all very basic. And 5 minutes later, the fireworks were finish. Every now and then another rocket blasted in the distance, but that was it. Very unspectacular.

So if you like nice and warm NYE party with people from every country and prices comparable or higher than in Germany, the big parties in the tourist hotels is a great option. If you want to celebrate with locals, maybe the Thai new years party in April is a better choice.

So, but why is it 2561? Well, Thailand uses in some parts the Buddhist era as timeline, which starts about 500 years before the Christian era. That’s why also Google tells me all the time that pages have last been edited in 2559 etc. So happy New Year!