Holiday in Cambodia

Hat Lek / Krong Koh Kong

Hat Lek / Krong Koh Kong

I don’t know what it is, but still whenever I think about Cambodia a certain Dead Kennedys song goes through my head. Weird. Today would be my third visit to the country and my first to the south-west.

Although I’d planned to get up early, that didn’t quite work as I decided I just had to watch the last two episodes of last season’s Spooks before I packed up. Woah, what an ending! I won’t spoil it for you… This meant I headed out to get breakfast at around 10:30. I picked up chicken and rice from the same place as yesterday and also checked on the transportation to Hat Lek (or Had Lek). This is obtainable from the “bus station” around the back of the market, on the other side from Sukhumvit Road.

Buses are frequent and I managed to get the times from a very helpful lady. Between her broken English and my broken Thai, I deciphered the times and that for 60 baht I would be taken to Hat Lek, then for a further 50 baht another sawngthaew would carry me to the border checkpoint. The name “sawngthaew” literally means “two rows” and refers to the benches bolted into the back of a regular truck. There’s usually a roof (hand made, of course) over the top as well.

I thanked Mama Jame who recommended a place to stay in Krong Koh Kong, and walked back round to the bus station. Bang on time, I was ushered onto my awaiting steed, crammed in with 7 non-English speaking Thais and we set off.

After around twenty minutes, the truck pulled over and two little old ladies got on. We made room for one and I volunteered to stand so that the other could sit – I was nearest the entrance/exit/step so it made sense. After maybe 15 minutes of being a passenger in a fashion that would have the Health and Safety munchkins in the UK’s heads exploding (oh, what a joyous thought), both ladies departed and I regained my seat.

A few more passengers got on and off, including one woman with a small child (who got a smack off his dad for running across the road) and a basket full of puppies. Just what you see every day. Well, here anyway. Roughly ninety minutes after we left town, we pulled into Hat Lek and I was shuffled onto another sawngthaew along with the puppy lady and her son. Half an hour later we were at the border. I could have told you this by the sudden gaggle of madmen asking me if I needed visa, ticket, hotel and so on. Here we go again.

I dodged them all, confusing many by saying I wasn’t going to Sihanoukville, Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. Which was true – not until the next day anyway. Checking out of Thailand took two minutes in an orderly queue (where I spotted that if you enter the country by land, you only get a 15-day visa, not 30 as from the airports) while I joined a veritable melée outside the immigration office on the Cambodian side.

My eVisa didn’t really speed things up, but it did save me some cash going by the complaints from the surrounding tourists. If you arrive with one of these, you still have to fill in an immigration form and ensure you keep one of the copies of your visa tucked into your passport as it’s the only thing you’ll have with your visa number on. You’ll need this to check into hotels and so on. The only real downside is that you don’t get one of the nice, big, green stickers in your passport as a souvenir – just a regular stamp.

In the queue I got talking to a Danish family (mum, dad, 3 kids) a girl from Sweden and Claire from London. There was another chap, but we lost track of him so I can only tell you he was British. As we all had separate plans, Claire, Swedish Girl and English Guy and I all ended up in one taxi. English Guy had “agreed” to a 300 baht fare without haggling so we were stuck. But on we went.

As an aside, yes – baht. Around the border area and in the town, baht is readily accepted along with US dollars and the native riel. Handy if you need to cash up as there is only one ATM at the border and none in Krong Koh Kong, although the banks there will accept Visa for cash advances.



As we drove, our first hint that our cab driver was trying it on was when we arrived at a toll gate. He demanded 11 baht from each of us for the toll despite a large sign next to the booth clarly stating that cars were 4000 riel ($1, 38 baht). Despite English Guy being ready to cough up, we stopped him and stood our ground. Or sat in or seats. We were already paying too much for the ride and he was trying to screw us for an extra 44 baht.

Eventually he caved, insisting we would pay him when we reached town. Then he started to sulk. We’d asked to be taken to the guest house, although English Guy and Swedish Girl wanted to check out the chance of a taxi to Phnom Penh. After the diversion resulted in them refusing the 4000 baht asking price we ended up at a bus ticket sales office.

We argued and demanded he take is to the guest house which he’d earlier said he knew, but he suddenly declared he didn’t know where it was. So we got out. Claire and I decided he could make do with 200 baht for the fare instead of the 300 he’d asked for as he’d not taken us to the correct destination. Swedish Girl, I think, gave him too much so he probably got close to his 300 anyway.

English Guy gave in and got back into the cab – fool – and us three got another one which looked at the card Mama Jame had given me and agreed to take us there for 50 baht each. It was five minutes’ drive away and, on arriving, was obviously not the place on the card. Similar name, different telephone numbers. Still, the rooms looked OK and were 100 baht each so we took them. Amusingly, English Guy had arrived at the same place ahead of us (with the taxi driver who “didn’t know where this place was”) and was on his way elsewhere as he wanted somewhere more upmarket.

The Danish family had also beaten us there and booked into one room with two beds for 150 baht. Bargain for five people! The staff were pleasant and the obligatory cute infant was running around so we felt fine there.

Thing is, I’d by now run out of cash as I had thought there was an ATM in town. There isn’t. Claire, however, had plenty and kindly offered to spot me until we got to Sihanoukville. At the time of writing I owe her for my bus ticket (500 baht or $15), dinner (95 baht) a beer (80 baht) and half a banana pancake (no idea). In case she reads this – a huge public “thank you” for helping me out and you should have the cash by now!

After dinner, we took a quick walk onto the river to snap some sunset pics then down the road for internet (60 baht an hour in each place we found and very slow indeedy). We also located the Koh Konh Guest House which is where we’d wanted to go in the first place. The staff there were also lovely, the rooms nicer (but pricier) and the food much better, bigger portions and cheaper! We told them about the taxi drivers and they got a little annoyed. I hope they sort it out.

We settled down and had the aforementioned beer and pancake while we talked to a few lads who were watching the footie on telly. All too soon, Claire decided to call it a night and I decided to head back as well. It’s pretty dark around here at night so I couldn’t let her walk back by herself.

Back at the guest house I had a quick, cold, shower. Despite having an electric shower on the wall, it didn’t work. Strong jet of water, luke warm. Still, I had that for over three weeks in Bali. It’s just annoying as we’d taken the rooms partly as we’d expected warm water. Well, I had.

I took a quick walk over the road, too, where I got a bottle of water for 25 baht. It was meant to be 25, but I was all out. The little old lady there very kindly said I could have a 1 baht discount. If I remember in the morning, I’ll try to scrounge a coin from Claire and run over with it. 1 baht to me is nothing. To them it’s actually worth something.

And now I’m finished typing, I’m going to start on the final season of The Shield. I will try to get some sleep tonight…

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Day trip to Koh Chang

Couldn't have been pinker...

Couldn't have been pinker...

It seems most people who visit Koh Chang these days do it for a whole holiday, or at the very least a few days on a resort. Me being me, though, decided to just troll around the place for a say and see what the fuss is about.

I woke up early-ish to say goodbye to Gunther who was off to another island. Breakfast was chicken and rice from the market and then Mama Jame (I have no idea what she’s called, but I like “Mama Jame”) walked me to a barber shop from where I could hire a motorbike. Before we’d left, a chap I’d not met before gave me a map of the island and some instructions which basically narrowed down to “be careful on the roads”.

The bike rental was 200 baht for the day with a full tank, to be returned in the same condition. It was an automatic, which made it much easier to get going than the evil manuals we’d had in Hoi An last year. I had more chance of starting up and going without the bike getting away from me and giving someone a faceful of Dunlop.

For those planning this trip, you want to head for the Centre Point ferry pier. The one directly south of Trat is for foot passengers only. I actually missed the turning for Centre Point in the first instance, but it was worth it. Head out of Trat and keep going in a straight line. If you reach a beautiful lighthouse and a jetty, you’ve gone too far. Circle the lighthouse, double back and take a left at the traffic lights about 200m back up the road. As I said, worth overshooting for the photo op.

Along the road I should have gone along, you want to keep going for around 8km. There’s a fairly noticeable left turn for the ferry, and the terminal itself is maybe 1km or so down that road. If you’re low on fuel, there’s a little petrol station on the left before the junction which charges reasonable prices. It’s currently 30 baht a litre from the small vendors on Koh Chang, and almost 10 baht less on the mainland.

The ferry was very cheap – 60 baht for me and 20 baht for the bike, each way. It’s easier to just buy your return tickets when you get there. They’re “open” so even if you’re staying a couple of days you can use them to get back. I arrives in good time to just drive onto a waiting vessel, though during the busy season you’ll generally not wait more than half an hour to board a boat for the 25-minute journey.

Thai light house

Thai light house

As I clambered up the stairs to get a seat, several young Thai men in red t-shirts flashed cameras in my face. Like a rollercoaster, you can opt to buy these photos later as a souvenir. I can’t help but think they should be doing this for people *leaving* rather than arriving. That’s the time for souvenirs like that – once you’ve had a good time and want a nice momento. Of course, you may be all spent up by then.

The crossing passed quickly and all too soon I was zipping back off onto dry land to face the windy roads of Koh Chang. And windy they were. And steep. Going up is fun, coming down some of them reminds me of The Big One in Blackpool. Only I have brakes I can control. Regardless, doing 80 (k’s not m’s) on two wheels seems a lot faster than doing it on four.

Oh, and assuming you don’t drive like a trucker with one arm out of the window you tend not to get sunburnt in a car either. Oops.

The weather was lovely, hence the redness on my arms and thighs now, and the roads were fine apart from the scary bits. A lot of falang were nipping about on scooters with a few preferring air-con luxury and a driver. My original plan had been to near-circle the island (the road doesn’t connect at the bottom so it’s an incomplete ring) seeing both sides, but I ran out of time just doing the west coast.

This one’s mainly all resorts which makes it hard to get to the beach unless you’re staying in one of them. Or you bluff it like I did at Hua Hin what seems an eternity ago. I skipped it apart from a very brief stop for a Coke at tiny bar right near the bottom of the island.

I’d headed south virtually non-stop apart from the occasional photo-op. On the return leg, I paid a short visit to Bang Bao and its very long shop-laden pier. There are several dive shops here with their boats moored at the end, and another nice lighthouse. This one’s very much a Thai design and can be climbed up. I think it’s pretty much decorative rather than useful but I’ve not been there at night so I can’t say for sure.

On the way north again, I kept my eyes open for the road to the Klong Plu waterfall. I found it and turned off right. After a kilometre or so I ignored the “PARK HERE” sign asking for 10 or 20 baht for safe bike/car storage and drove right into the National Park area. Where a nice ranger told me to park up by the office. For free. Mind you, at 200 baht entry fee (foreign adult) they shouldn’t be charging for parking.

The walk to the waterfall is 500m and easily achievable wearing sandals, flip-flops or thongs. I’d recommend going barefoot once you reach the waterfall itself, though. The rocks are easier to navigate that way specially if you get your feet wet. The pools there can be swum in – it’s not too cold – and you can get right up to the bottom of the fall itself. Apparently two kings have signed their names somewhere but I couldn’t find them.

Klong Plu Waterfall

Klong Plu Waterfall

I doubled back to the visitor centre where there is a large map. It showed the route around the park as circular yet I’d not seen any way to progress after the waterfall. So instead looked for the other end of the loop, up the side of the rangers’ office. Just behind there, there’s a road leading left and off that is an obvious (ish) stairway.

I clambered up there and started trekking. This is where decent footwear would come in handy. To begin with it’s not too bad but as you go on, your feet will get sweaty and therefore start sliding on your footwear. Not ideal. You don’t need hiking boots – a half-decent pair of trainers would be fine.

On a few occassions I lost track of the trail. This section has not been very well maintained. In fairness some areas are blocked by recently-fallen trees, but others have been obscured by much older obstacles. I clambered around and over them and kept managing to pick up the path again. The simple trick is to look for anything vaguely artificial – stones making steps, an area that’s far too clear and so on.

Finally I reached an opening where there was water flowing. And nothing else. No signs, nothing. The way down to the rocks was partially barred by some yellow string, but it seemed more a warning to take one path over another than a “do not continue”. So I continued.

Eventually I found a path on the other side of the rocks (opposite where I’d appeared, opposite side of the rocks, about 10m along). The table and chairs hidden in a small clearing gave the game away that this was actually a trail. A fair bit further and I reached one of the ranger signs. This one declaring the “end of the trail”. Although someone had scored out the word “end” and replaced it with an arrow pointing to where I’d just come from. So, obviously, I needed to continue in the other direction. So I did.

Sunset from the ferry

Sunset from the ferry

Finally, again, I reached more rocks. And water. And the top of the waterfall. I didn’t go too close to the edge, but tried my best to get a couple of photos before locating another cleared path and making my way downwards. This was where the decent footwear would really have come in handy. Around fifteen minutes later – at a guess – I popped back out at ground level and figured out where the paths connected.

Right on the other side of a “Do Not Enter” sign.

Just before you reach the waterfall is a large wooden sign telling you what it is. a couple of metres before that is another sign warning you not to climb into the forest. The path is up here. I didn’t go past any warnings coming the other direction!

I headed back to my bike – a good hour later than I’d intended on being – and zipped back to the ferry. I had a few minutes to wait so I enjoyed a fresh orange shake before the ship turned up and we were herded aboard.

The sun was setting as I reached the mainland, which was a little annoying. I’d hoped to make it back to Trat in daylight for a couple of reasons. The lighting isn’t that good along the roads and the only glasses I had to protect my eyes are my sunglasses. When you’re pelting along at 60kph, you do tend to get the occasional wayward bug heading faceward. As night approaches, you get more of them.

I lasted for half the journey with my sunglasses on then had to give up as I couldn’t see the road. Partly due to gloom, partly due to the colony of squished insects adhered to the specs. Instead I squinted and gritted my teeth under the barrage. Lowering my head helped as the helmet had a small lip, though I was often hit by insect shrapnel as they made a bee-line (ha!) for the headlamp and ricocheted up off it.

I arrived back the the hire shop/barber’s around 7pm via a petrol station to top up the tank as requested. In all, the fuel expenditure for the day was around 75 baht – less than 2 pounds. Pretty cheap all in all.

As you may have noticed if you didn’t get bored, I kind of missed lunch. This was due to my extended walk in the woods which I’d not planned on. Instead, I decided to treat myself to a KFC. But by the time I’d finished typing up the blog for the day, the place had closed! Argh! Back to the market for chicken noodle soup.

Oh, and here’s a vid of a couple of sights on the island. Apologies for crap sound – the microphone doesn’t seem as good as the one in my old camera:

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Temporarily in Trat

The prettier side of Trat

The prettier side of Trat

The journey was nowhere near as long as I was expecting. Myself and my new German companion (Gunther, I think – we never really introduced properly) arrived at around 13:30. Three hours earlier than we were told by the staff at the bus station! I slept for virtually all of it anyway, so I didn’t need the munchies and drinks I’ve bought at the shop. They won’t go to waste.

The bus station in Trat is a kilometre or two outside of the town so you’ll need to get a truck into the centre. We were charged 30 Baht each for the journey which may or may not be fair. Either way, it’s not a lot of cash. Of course, we were taken to one guesthouse (“Pop” in this case) which I scoped. It was OK, but the mattresses looked a little caved-in so I followed my German companion to “Jame’s” on the other side of the block. That’s not a mis-type, by the way. There is a “Jane’s” a couple of doors up.

This was a little nicer and run by a delightful “little old lady” who speaks halting but useful English. Typical of somewhere with the “Old Lady” touch, the shared shower and bathroom are always clean. I picked the smaller of the available rooms for 100 baht. It had all I needed – fan, electrics, light and a lockable door.

A quick walk around town was in order and we strolled and chatted. Gunther is retired – I was astounded to find he is 70, personally putting him nearer his late 50’s – and is basically happily frittering away his pension on the understanding that “you can’t take it with you”. Sensible man.

Look at all that lovely food

Look at all that lovely food

I have to say that just walking about gave me goosebumps. I love being in Asia. The people, the sights, the attitude. Just how everything is. You can walk up to anyone and just talk to them, haggle, argue and you always leave with a smile on your face.

We discussed prices for taxis and shuttles and I argued with two guys in the back of a truck I saw with Celtic shirts on their heads to keep the sun off. I wasn’t that bothered until I found out they were Liverpool supporters. As soon as they mentioned “Newcastle 1… Liverpool 5” I waved my hands and walked away. Bad men.

There is very little to see in Trat, but that’s not why I am here. The aim is to chill and relax after a long journey and this place is spot on for it. Most working people speak English and it’s just a nice little town. It is, in fact, an idea introduction to Thailand. Much as I love Bangkok, it’s just too built up to be Thai. Trat is smaller and easier to get around.

After a swift siesta while Gunther sorted some accommodation for himself on one of the nearby islands, we met back up for dinner. The night market is superb with a huge variety of food. We settled on a small stall doing chicken and noodle soup. Two servings plus a large bottle of beer between us came to 110 baht. Around £2. Can’t complain.

We walked a little longer and I indulged in a carb-fest of a pancake for 20 baht. Gunther then retired for the evening and I headed for the Sea House bar which has free wi-fi for customers. Courtesy of the collapsing Sterling, a large beer is now around £1.80 but that’s still not bad for a pint. And far cheaper than paying for 3 hours’ internet separately…

My plan tomorrow is a fairly early rise then rental of a 2-wheel deathtrap to get down to the ferry and onto Ko Chang for an explore. It’s a small-ish island roughly 30km in length with some gorgeous beaches. Diving’s not that cheap so I’ll leave that till I get to Sihanoukville.

Right now, I’m going to relax in the mild but warm temperature and cool breeze… and sup my Singah. Aaaaah.

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