Bus trip to Battambang

Wat Damrey Sar

Wat Damrey Sar

Battambang is pronounced Battambong. The way the locals say it, it’s more like “butterball”, in fact. Amazingly, it’s the second-largest city in Cambodia. I say “amazing” as you can walk from end to end in around twenty minutes.

The bus trip was fairly uneventful – around five hours with one toilet break in a layby and a lunch stop roughly three hours into the journey. The aircon was on “chill” but at least that was keeping the mosquitoes in check.

I’d pre-booked a $4 room at the Chaaya Hotel and they’d even offered to send me a motorbike to take me there when I arrived. However, the bike wasn’t there. I waited a while then walked to the hotel… where I was told the cheapest room was $8. Then $6. Then $5. Sorry, I don’t “do” being screwed around by hotels so I walked out and tried one of the others recommended in Lonely Planet.

Royal Hotel could only go as low as $7, but their sister hotel around the corner – Hotel Asia – had one for $5. Yes, I know I could have got this from the first place but they’d promised and failed to deliver once, then tried to diddle me. Their loss.

Wat Kampheng

Wat Kampheng

After settling in, I decided to take a walk around the town. Which wouldn’t take long. I did a circuit taking in the five Wats (Damrey Sar, Kampheng, Sangker, Kandal and Phiphetaram), the Governor’s Residence and the riverside. I also passed an outdoor sports area that was teaming with volleyball players and spectators; and a bar filled to the rafters with screaming Cambodians gambling on the boxing real time or at https://uk.mansionbet.com/.

The temples are in varous states, two of them definitely having some work done. They’re all similar in appearance with different decor – close to the Thai style which isn’t surprising given the proximity to the border.

For lunch I checked out the White Rose, as recommended by LP. he fruit shake I tried – banana and orange – certainly lived up to the press, but is 1000 riel more expensive now. Mind, the book is about 2-3 years out of date. No real faulting the rice, chicken and peppercorn either. Pretty tasty for $2.50.

Lion guarding the Stung Sangker

Lion guarding the Stung Sangker

While wandering, I checked one of the bus companies that Lonely Planet reckons does a direct bus to Bangkok for $10. They don’t any more. In fact, the chap there says that nobody does. The closest is one bus to Poipet and from there to the regular buses in Aranyaprathet. I was hoping to exit the country by the border near Pailin just so I could use a different chackpoint, but it’s looking more and more inconvenient.

I’ll check tomorrow on the time of the Poipet bus. Given the 4-hour journey from the border to Bangkok, I want to be setting off very early on Monday morning. I’ve been told by the hotel staff that there is indeed a direct bus to Bangkok, but it doesn’t leave until midday which would get me to the capital far too late to be of any use.

The third alternative is to head in one direction or the other using share taxis. And the issue there is cost and lack of regular services, plus the argie-bargie of haggling. Then there’s the fact that I have no Thai baht so I’m going to have to buy some – obviously at a bad rate – to ensure I can pay the bus fare.

All fun and games!

So I’m currently in my room with cold shower, western loo, two double beds and cable telly. Not bad for less than £4. Which is far less than Manchester City paid for Shay Given, who I am now watching debut for his new team.

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Visa’d up

Monument from a distance

Monument from a distance

No problems with my Myanmar visa at all. I popped over to get it this afternoon and coughed up the very reasonable $20. I believe the government will just try to screw me for cash in other ways when I’m there, but $20 for a visa isn’t bad in Southeast Asia.

For my cash, I’ve got a 28-day visitation period beginning any time from yesterday until the 4th of May – in other words a 28-day window within a 3-month period, single entry. The only thing mentioned when I went in to collect my passport was that fact that I was clean-shaven (other than my chin) on Wednesday and I haven’t shaved since so I pretty much have a full beard – which threw the guy slightly!

The plan currently is to get to Battambang tomorrow, stay a full day over Sunday, bus to Bangkok on Monday and fly out on Tuesday. Flight prices still haven’t changed. Unusually for Air Asia, it looks like the prices are fixed with Saturdays costing a few Baht more than other days of the week.

I had a look around for some mefloquine / Larian but the cost here is pretty high. $75 for 8 tablets, which is how many I’d need. Ouch. I’ll check in Bangkok instead as I’m sure they were far cheaper there.

The monument close up

The monument close up

I walked for an age to find an ATM that didn’t charge (see following post) to withdraw as many dollars commission-free as possible. No point in withdrawing Baht and exchanging it or paying credit card fees at the airport when I can get the cash from a hole in the wall in Cambodia. Myanmar has no ATMs, at least none that take foreign cards, and cash advances on cards are usually at prohibitive rates – I’ve seen 16% to 37% quoted. Ow.

KFC for dinner again (hey, it’s $3) and back to the hostel to type this lot up, watch some Drawn Together and drink the 50c beers I bought from Pencil – the 6% abv awesomely-named “Klang” seems good value. Early bus tomorrow and don’t know the state of the internet access in Battambong so it may be a couple of days, or even weeks, till my next post if I don’t get online before I get to Myanmar.

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No moto

As I suspected, I’m definitely going to be doing nothing until I depart on Saturday. I was hoping that either today or tomorrow I could hire a moto of my own and zip off out of the city for a trip around some temples and a wildlife sanctuary. Unfortunately, this requires leaving your passport as a deposit… and mine’s at the Myanmar embassy awaiting a visa.

So my only mission was a quick trip to the post office to send those paintings home. At $13 I’d have been as well holding onto them and bringing them home in June, but there’s always the possibility that Australian immigration might have kicked off about them as they were painted on a wooden backboard.

Last night I got talking to a nice Israeli guy, Michael. He’s old for an Israeli backpacker – 32 – but enjoying himself a lot. Like me, he’s generally got no plan for anywhere until he arrives. I bumped into him again today, but I at first ignored his cries of “Hello! Hello!” as I thought he was one of the million moto drivers trying to get my attention!

Until this morning there was also a woman from the UK who’d cycled most of the way here, but was bussing out to Thailand as her visa was almost expired. In the past she’s cycled around most of India and has been put of Bhutan because of the price. I told her about the company that Hans and I went through and now she’s pencilling in a trip for next year.

The only other person in the dorm I’ve seen is an older gent, but I’m not sure where he’s from other than that English isn’t his first language and that he really, really, pretty please with sugar on top, shouldn’t sleep naked in the dorm. For the love of whatever deity you choose to worship. Unless you’re gorgeous and female (and don’t mind me taking photos), sleeping on top of the covers in a (shared, especially) dormitory is not really cool.

So I’m whiling the time away trying not to spend cash. This means buying grub (and insect repellant) from the supermarket and sitting around watching the final season of The Shield. Thankfully I’ve a load of films and TV shows on my laptop so I won’t run out.

A reminder to travellers to also shop around for stuff. In the supermarket alone, I found seven or eight different “manufacturers” of bottled water in the fridge. Prices varied from around $2 to 45c for 1.5l. Don’t pick up the first thing, especially in a new country when you don’t know what stuff should cost.

At least the weather’s good.

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Bleeding (in) Phnom Penh

One of the three children's hospitals in Phonm Penh

One of the three children's hospitals in Phonm Penh

Not a real lot to write about today, the first of three days’ forced residence here. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a bad place. There’s just little for me to see and do having been here twice before. The city is changing, though. At the end of Ph 258, where my guest house is, a cinema is being built. I’ve not seen or heard of one in Phnom Penh before.

Supermarkets also seem to be more common, and there’s the KFC I mentioned yesterday – where I confess I headed for dinner again tonight. It’s one of the cheapest options around here that doesn’t include rice!

I am currently passportless as I handed said document in to the Myanmar embassy. The form-filling was easy enough (first time I’ve been asked for my hair colour, eye colour, height and “complexion” though), and not an eyebrow was raised when I left the “Address in Myanmar” field empty. They even told me to pay the $20 on Friday at 4pm when I go to collect it than immediately.

As ever, I carry photos around and it’s a good job as I needed three for this application. I’m running low so that may be one of my jobs tomorrow. Another contact sheet would be useful.

To give a better idea of how to find the embassy – locate the Independence Monument on its roundabout along Norodom Boulevard. Head south from there until you reach the Pre-School Teacher Training Center on the right. You can’t miss this – it’s very big and had playground equipment visible through the bars. The Myanmar Embassy is the very unassuming and almost anonymous building just past it, set about 15m back from the street.

It was really quiet. A couple of guards, one clerk and a cleaner. A far cry from the Vietnamese Embassy in Bangkok with its constant flow of tourists.

I’m working on the assumption that I will get the visa, but I’m not booking anything for definite until I have it in my hands. Checking AirAsia‘s flights from Bangkok, prices don’t seem to fluctuate as you get closer to the chosen date so there’s no harm in leaving it. At the current rates, I can get there and back for around £130 depending on when I fly in and out. This is by far the cheapest route in other than perhaps the southern land border. However, that entry requires a boat and/or air trip to get north to the main part of the country as the road is closed to foreigners.

Once back in Bangkok, I’ll get the train to Kuala Lumpur. I was part-planning on stopping to go to Koh Tao as I hear the diving there is both top class and very cheap… but it looks like I won’t have time. Depending on when I return to Asia (and what route I use) from Australia, I may look at it then.

I have booked my bus to Battambang ($4) on Saturday morning. From there I can get a bus direct to Bangkok for around $10 which I will do on the Monday. This gives me a day to get a tour around the area which I hear is worth a look.

My only other major task was donate a pint of the red fluid at the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital nearby. This is my third donation (the last two in Siem Reap) and as ever the staff were very grateful. The nurse spotted my ratehr sore feet from re-breaking in my sandals and insisted on putting iodine on the wounds. I’d already put eucalyptus oil on them but you can’t be too careful.

I’m donor number 132 this year according to the counter on the wall. So I’m urging anyone visiting Cambodia… please, if you’re able to give blood then do so! You get a can of Coke and a t-shirt afterwards! Also a goodie-bag of other stuff. I was gifted with a can of condensed milk, some crackers, a bag of sugar and a bottle of water. I need to find someone for whom the milk and sugar will be of use…

Apart from that, the KFC for dinner and some more munchies purchased from Pencil (what a strange name for a department store). I’ve sat and chilled, chatted to a couple of the residents of the dorm and read my Conan Doyle book. The Lost World is certainly a cracking read!

It’s 21:10 as I type this up and no sign of the flying ants as yet. The lizards (eight of them that I can see) are gathering by the ceiling light so I think it’s only a matter of time…

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Packing up for Pnomh Penh

Just off Serendipity Beach, Sihanoukville

Just off Serendipity Beach, Sihanoukville

I did opt for the Pnomh Penh bus, and booked it for 12:30. I had a few things to do around town before I headed off for the capital. First up was to walk to the Rainbow Foundation’s bookshop opposite Monkey Republic. This is one wing of a children’s charity and the small shop sells and part-exchanges second hand books amongst other things. It’s also “guarded” by one of the softest dogs I’ve ever met.

Catcher in the Rye and King of Torts gave way to Around the World in Eighty Days and a random crime novel. It’s a dollar to exchange a book, so I handed over 10,000 riel ($2.50). 50c makes no odds to me, but every little helps the charities around here – of which there are a substantial number.

Down nearer the beach I met up with Claire again for breakfast. We returned to the Sea View where I’d had a delicious – if tiny – crumble on our first night. This time I opted for the $3 muesli with fruit and yoghurt which was delicious and filling. The muesli was more like broken up cereal bars – very sticky in its own right. Definitely a good way to start the day.

Claire checked out their rooms for her sister arriving and wished she could book them as they were among the best we’d seen. However, it’s the only place in the area we know of that takes pre-bookings by internet so it’s pretty much filled up for a week in advance.

Next, and last errand, was a quick visit to the Cambodian Children’s Painting Project (www.artcambodia.org). First of all I dropped off all our empty plastic bottles. The charity, I assume, takes them for recycling which is a source of income.

The aim of this little place is simple – to get children off the beach selling things and instead sat down and learning, devloping useful skills. In this case their artistic talents. The resulting paintings are put up for sale at $4 each. When sold, half of the money goes to the child’s family and the other half to the charity.

I picked two paintings – one of the Cambodian flag and the other a beautiful little piece of a sunset by an obviously talented 14 year old. These will be in the post homeward-bound in the morning.

We both finished packing and checked out of Thida’s. My tuk-tuk was waiting, as was a French chap going the same way I was. I said my goodbyes to Claire. It was a real pleasure to spend time with her – and saved us both some cash to boot! I hope her sister and her fiancé enjoy Sihanoukville, and have better luck sorting accommodation!

The bus trip was fairly uneventful. Four hours almost on the nose and dropped off in Phnom Penh somewhere along the Russian Confederation Boulevard. Some walking and a lot of ignoring of tuk-tuk and moto drivers later I finally made it to the Okay Guest House.

Which was full.

Well, it was when I got there and two Dutch (I think) girls stepped out of a tuk-tuk. The guy on the desk offered to let us share a room with 4 beds between us for $5 each which was fine with me but, understandably perhaps, the girls weren’t too keen. Once they walked off I asked if there was anywhere else to stay nearby and was told “no”.

I was all ready to hoik my stuff all the way to the lakeside area when he then asked if a dorm was OK. A dorm was what I had been looking for in the first place. He sent someone with me to show me up and I took it. It’s very basic, but at $2 a night I don’t mind. I can last 3-4 nights in that if I have to.

Douglas Adams strikes again

Douglas Adams strikes again

The bed’s passably comfortable but doesn’t have any covers, just a slip and a pillow. There’s a stand-up fan at the foot which works, but no lights over the bed – I have my headlamp, though. Both power points work, so I can power the fan and my other stuff. My only quibble about the room itself is the lack of secure storage. I’ll just bury my laptop in the corner under my bed or carry it around all day.

Most inconvenient, though, is the location of the toilet. Downstairs, outside, round the back through a corridor where the staff sleep, into a courtyard and along to the end. Definitely not convenient at 3am when you’ve had a few beers too many. Which means I’ll save some dosh by not drinking too much. It’s also home to the cold shower and is shared by quite a few people which could get awkward.

I dropped my stuff and set off to find the Myanmar embassy so I’d know what time it opened in the morning. For those looking for it, it’s on Norodom Boulevard, but far to the south. It’s locaton is roughly correct in the 14th edition Lonely Planet Southeast Asia on a Shoestring – but on the other side of the road from that indicated. You need to look at the full city map, not the central area one.

Annoyinglyu it is at number 181 as I’d discovered online. However, the numbers down the Boulevard are not sequential! On the way down I passed numbers 269, 161 and 189 – in that order – before reaching 181. It’s also set back about 10m from the roadside so at night you can’t read the small sign to know what it is.

Either way, it opens at 8am Monday to Friday so I’ll aim to get there early in the morning and see how quickly they can turn a visa around in.

Dinner. Astoundingly despite this being my third visit to Cambodia it’s the first time I’ve seen a KFC! So – according to tradition – I strolled right in and picked a meal from the menu. This must rate as the cheapest KFC I’ve yet found at $3 for a burger meal (no large size available). I opted for the Special Meal – a lump of chicken, one of the bite-size burgers, chips and a drink – for $2.30. Chickeny bargain.

For those with a hankering, it’s also on Norodom Boulevard, somewhere near the junction with Ph 214. It’s built onto a “Pencil” supermarket which I visited. Groceries are also very cheap in Phnom Penh…

Back to the hostel for an internet check. I was going to have a beer in the bar but it was jammed with people watching The Killing Fields. Instead, I walked to a nearby sports bar and had a quick beer and a read of my book. Then back to my dorm to type this lot up on the balcony while beginning to feel very homocidal towards flying ants. I’ve not seen to many since I was in Laos. Stupid creatures.

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