Cambodia – My Thoughts
As a frequent reader to your site I thought I'd give my 2 cents on the recent Cambodia article which IMO is at least 50% not true.
First of all the picture this guy paints about security in Cambodia is not true, since the late 90's its pretty much safe to travel most of the country, the north east and Thai border area were a bit tricky but even there it is relatively safe now if you use the normal third world travel precautions. I understand people getting robbed who show up looking like a freaking millionaire with huge camera bags hanging from their belts and fancy watches etc but those people would get robbed in most tourist destinations, first or third world. If you have the right attitude and don't overdress its just as safe to walk the streets of PP than BKK I'd say. If you can't keep your cool you're going to look like a target, body language is 75% of communication. I have spent 4 months there over the last 4 years myself and only got robbed once outside Manhattan disco at 5am when I was so wasted I couldn't even remember my own name. (I was on the piss for 36 hours straight so I might as well have a neon sign with target pointed at my head, I just put my hands in the air and let them have the 6$ I had left in my pockets, no biggie as the Khmer don't beat you up or worse becouse you don't have enough money like they do in the west.)
As far as safety on the road is concerned: I travelled by 250 CC dirt bike from PP to Sisophon near the Thai border and back and also rode down the south coast numerous times, even travelling alone I never got anything but smiles and warm welcomes from the rural Khmer who rival the Lao in that respect. Even a lot of rural communities have some sort of English teacher nowadays and the Khmer are eager to practice their English with you. The good thing about this way of travel compared to taking the pick-up truck is that you don't stop in the usual place where the brother/cousin/etc of the driver has a stall but you can stop wherever you want. If you do decide to take the pickup make sure you bargain hard and when taking the front seat make sure you agree on renting the WHOLE front seat in advance or he will try and get a second person next to you on the same seat somewhere along the way. (This might seem ridiculous to many but is quite the norm in Cambodia, there is a local expat joke that goes 'how many can you fit on a motorbike?… well how many are in your family?)
The roads in Cambodia are slowly being upgraded but still best on a dirt bike, the road from PP to Sihanoukville (Kompong som to locals) is a good two lane plaster road and can be done by bus. Most of the other roads are either dirt tracks or 'highways in progress' witch can mean anything from a track to a good road, better take a bike or pickup for these. Road conditions mostly depends on what season you travel as roads in Cambodia seem to disintegrate if it rains. Partly this is due to bad construction but partly becouse people dig small canals at the base of the road or becouse the road was build in the wrong place. (The road from Siem Riep to the Thai border was build on a flood plane, half the people in the area were flooded, the other half had droughts….)
One warning to people travelling by bike in rural Cambodia is that there is only main traffic rule: He who has the bigger vehicle has the right of way unless the other car has army (red) plates. This is particular fun when you are cruising at 90 K/hour on a dirt road and the truck coming from the other side has a car behind who decides to overtake him just as you meet….Budha was on my side that day. Oh and don't put your lights on during the day, while it doesn't seem to be illegal to drive around at night without a headlight during the day you might get stopped by one of the underpaid policemen trying to put you down for 5$. (Not surprising the Khmer police is so corrupt, they earn about 20$ a month while it costs 500$ in bribes to get the job in the first place….)
The one must do thing when visiting Cambodia is to see Angkor Wat (even when only visiting Thailand take a detour, its worth it.) You can of course fly in or use one of the following options: From PP you can take the boat, drive around the north side of the Tonle Sap lake (Dry season only) or take a pickup or the train to Batambang and take a short boat trip from there. Batambang itself is actually a nice place to hang around for a couple of days as its not yet over touristed, the main bulk of people doing the Siem Riep – Phom Penh route and then either going to Vietnam or out through Sihanoukville and the boat to Koh Kong on the Thai border in the south. Reaching Siem Riep from the Thai border is a bit of a bumpy ride in a pickup, don't take the minibusses if they even go there as it is far better to absorb the shocks on the back of a pickup then in a small seat in an overcrowded minibus, just sit on your luggage and you'll be ok.
The north-east has now become safe to travel and although riding bikes alone at night is dangerous as in most country's you'll generally have no problem, you also have the option to take speedboats (or slow boats if you have the time, much more enjoyable) up north as far as the Lao border witch has been open for a couple of years now. From Kratie or Stung Treng you can also make trips inland into Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri, some of the most beautifull and (still) empty countryside and wilderness I ever saw. The speedboats have a duel pricing system and you are only excepted on board when you have paid for your barang ticket so don't try letting a Khmer buy your ticket unless its your Hotel/GH owner who will get you the right ticket at a discount of 2-3$
Beach lovers and gamblers can head down to Sihanoukville which in a couple of years will be the preferred gambling tourism destination for rich asians, for now it mainly caters to backpackers (mostly located on victory hill) and some more upscale hotels/GH near Otchetel beach witch is the only beach that can rival Thailand's beaches. As Koh Pan Ngan is getting more and more mainstream and the boys in brown are doing their raids, more and more people head over to Sihanoukville as both Marijuana and Yaba are still relatively easy to obtain along with some imported XTC. The Sihanoukville moto drivers are some of the most annoying people you'll ever meet. If you arrive from PP by bus try and get off 1-2 streets before the main square where the buses stop as its sometimes hard to even leave the bus with all these guys fighting for customers, if you're planning on staying in the center of town just walk away as the hotels are on the next street. (I would recommend the Marlin, a friendly hotel witch attracts a mixed following of western couples and guys who come over for sanuk, there are a couple of Khmer hotels on main road with similar prices but without the atmosphere.)
At night time try and wonder over to Biba disco in Phontamai (chickenville) once, its in the middle of a village just outside of town near the port where most houses have red lights on at night. This disco mainly attracts Khmer working in/on the harbour and locals and it has more of an authentic atmosphere then say Nana disco (both just meat markets though). Another option for sanuk is an ally on the road north of the market, these are more upscale venues where they actually have stone walls and shit. As the girls in chickenville are mostly Khmer you'll find a lot more Vietnamese on the hill, prices are about double but you don't get to see a girl pointing to herself and then holding 15 fingers up indicating she's of legal age. Some things you just can't get out of your head even after 3 years, underage prostitution is rampant in Cambodia and while most men who use those children are Asians there are a fair share of western pricks coming in. My advise is if you meet one, try and get his full name and/or passport number and see if you can take some pictures while he's negotiating or leaving the house, most European countries have laws nowadays where its also illegal to rape children in foreign countries. Another and faster option is to just kick his head in but make sure he doesn't have more money / connections then you or you'll be fucked. It is Cambodia after all.
I wonder if you overestimate the safety aspect in Pnom Penh. 4 months spent there and you've been robbed? Hmmm….. I have yet to meet a foreigner who was mugged on the street in Bangkok…