Songkran Escape: Phnom Penh, Part 1

If you’ve ever experienced Songkran in Pattaya, you’ll know why I can’t stay there during the Thai New Year any longer. I did parts of all of three Songkrans and that was enough.

For the past two years, I spent Songkran in The Philippines, splitting time between scuba diving on various islands and drinking myself into oblivion in Angeles City. But spending that week in Angeles is like being in Pattaya: The bottom of Fun Town’s sexpat barrel seeps into A.C. like a sewer backing up. I don’t want to spend time with them here, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to hang with them there.

So this year I thought I’d try something new, and less expensive: Cambodia. I’d never been anywhere except the border so, inspired by Bangkok Bad Boy’s three-part opus on Phnom Penh, I decided to spend a few days in the Khmer capital and then relax for a week in Sihanoukville, a place few have been but many say is good. This is a multi-part tale of my 2009 Songkran Escape.

About three weeks betforehand, I booked a round-trip Air Asia flight for 4,150 baht (US$178). I’m not alone in feeling that Cebu Pacific may be the world’s worst airline and that Air Asia isn’t far behind.Β In four years of intermittant flying with them, I’ve never been on a flight that left less than an hour late. Their “on time” guarantee doesn’t even kick in until their two hours late. But, even though dependable Bangkok Airways was offering a special price, Air Asia was still cheaper, so I took the gamble.

Being Songkran or, across the border, Khmer New Year, I was advised to book a hotel in Sihanoukville early, as many Phnom Penh residents flee the city for the beach that week. My first choice was Reef Resort, recommended by a friend who’d visited many times. Rooms started at $35, which is on the high end, but it was said to be worth it. Unfortunately, they had no rooms until the 15th. Another acquaintance recommended Coasters, where I got an air-conditioned room for $35 a night.

Finally, although I was told I probably didn’t need to, I reserved a room in Phnom Penh at the Paragon Hotel, where BBB tried to obtain a room with a view and failed. I got a high-floor river-view room for three nights at $28.

On My Way

My escape was set for April 10, a day before the U.K.’s Tattooed Love Boys started throwing water on sos 7 and 8. Despite warnings that the Friday would be getaway day and Red Shirt Taxi Madness had mucked up Bangkok, traffic was a breeze and I was at the airport in normal time. Check-in lines were slow and Immigration queues were the longest I’ve experienced at the new BKK, but I was through with 90 minutes to spare.

After dumping off my 13.7 kg bag (Air Asia allows 15 kg), I had a strange sensation: I was traveling without a computer for the first time in memory and had no carry-on luggage of any sort. Strolling down to Burger King with just my phone and iPod was oddly liberating. That feeling quickly died, though, when I reached the fast food area to find a Chinese Fire Drill in progress. Apparently a tour got delayed and all the mainland peasants got handed Whopper coupons. What a zoo.

Post-Whopper, boarding remarkably began on time at 2:20 and I nearly fell out of my seat when the plane pulled back from the gate just one minute late. At just over an hour, there was barely enough time to finish my 40 baht half-bottle of water before we touched down. (As it turned out, my return trip also left on time and, get this, arrived early! Air Asia has moved up a notch in my book.)

On board the plane you’re given three forms to complete to get your visa, arrival card and customs paperwork sorted. Once you arrive, you first stand in a quick line to hand in your passport, one photo and forms and are pointed to the spot to pick it up and pay. About 15 agents were working to process the visas and the wait was less than 5 minutes. A quick hop through immigration and you get to baggage claim.

TIP: Cambodia offers an online “e-Visa” which you pay by credit card in advance. You print out the form, it’s stapled, not pasted, into your passport and, when you leave, it’s simply thrown away, saving you both time in line and a page in your passport. Combined with Air Asia’s “Priority Boarding” you are first off the plane, first through Immigration and first to get your bag.

To say baggage handling is less efficient than immigration would be an understatement. One wonders why they have the conveyor belts at all.

After unearthing my bag, I exited the airport to a pack of Khmer wolves, better known as tuk-tuk drivers. Again taking some BBB advice, I plowed through the licence-wielding throngs to find the official taxi stand. (Head right out the doors.) The Bad Boy told me the ride would be just $7-$8, but I got charged $9, so I was not in the mood to leave the change when the driver couldn’t give me money back from a $10 bill. I made him go inside the hotel lobby and get it. (Yeah, I’m cheap.)

Home Base

The word “paragon” literally means the “perfect embodiment of a concept.” I’m not sure if that applies in the case of my hotel choice, but the Paragon is a decent room at the Thai equivalent of 985 baht. The room was basic, but there was a lift, the view of the muddy river was OK, the shower was hot and the staff friendly. There’s no extra fees for guests and they call your room once your rent-a-girlfriend departs, to make sure she hasn’t drugged and robbed you.

The reservation was not really necessary I came to learn and throughout my first three days I was nagged by the thought I could get similar digs for less. But the Paragaon is very conveniently located on the corner of Street 136, the newest of the happening bar streets. Plus all the moto drivers know it by name, so there were no late-night navigational nightmares. (When I returned to PP a week later, I decided the view wasn’t worth the extra $9 and went with an inside room for $17 a night.)

An hour after arrival, however, I knew none of this and, due to a BBB sms that told me the Paragaon was, in fact, at Street 154, my whole compass was off by about three blocks. There’s no numbers on the streets intersecting Sisowath Quay and they don’t follow consecutive numbers, so you need to memorize the map. (For reference, the intersections are streets 154, 148, 144, 136, 130 and after that I forget…)

So I simply started walking and instantly discovered the scourge of Phnom Penh: The transport drivers. You cannot walk half a block without being solitcited for a tuk-tuk or moto. And many take three “no”s to get the point across. Walking seems to be unheard of in The Penh.

I walked until I saw nothing left to look at, then noticed a bar I’d heard of somewhere called The Green Vespa. It’s easy to find, as it’s the only bar with a green Vespa sitting outside the door. Inside you’ll find a very quaint and friendly British-pub run by an Irishman named Alan. The place is very low-key, but has a crowd just as open to helping out newbies. And the food is some of the best you’ll find in town. After four or five Tigers, I indulged in the Irish Lamb Stew for $6. Very tasty indeed.

Turns out the Vespa is the local for a friend that works in PP and, without knowing I was there, he stumbled through the door about 7 p.m. Finally, around 8 and quite tipsy, I declared I didn’t come to Phnom Penh to sit with a bunch of guys and decided to head out on the prowl.

Following Bad Boy’s Lead

During his last trip, Bangkok Bad Boy stuck to the circuit of Sharky’s Bar (Street 130 four blocks from the river) and Martini’s Pub (way the hell out somewhere you cannot find without a moto). Sharky’s is an American-style pool bar with rock music, good food and lots of pictures of sharks. What it did not have this time was women. There was a very hardcore group of girls playing pool on one table, a half-dozen or so at the bar and just a few others scattered about. Nearly all were Khmer, which leads to New Cambodia Rumor #1: All the Vietnamese girls have shipped out.

According to a recent message board post, there was a recent change in immigration rules and nearly all the Vietnamese girls have left. I couldn’t get anyone to verify that in person, but from what I saw during 10 days in-country, it could very well be true. The entire trip, I encountered only four Viet girls. Four. And one I met in Sihanoukville.

The problem with that, other than the obvious one of having fewer girls, is that the majority of Khmer girls leave the capital and the beach resort to go home to the village; which explained whiy my first two visits to Sharky’s were very uninspiring. About midnight I left for Martini’s.

My first reaction upon reaching Martini’s, other than “wow, that was a long ride,” was “where the hell are the lights?” (No, I wasn’t put off by the mutant at the door, thanks to BBB’s forewarning.) Martini’s is very dark, with an outside courtyard showing movies on a 12-foot screen and a back bar area with some pool tables and better lighting. Inside there’s an air-conditioned disco, but the music was dreadful.

The pickings here weren’t any better than Sharky’s. The bar was occupied by three loud Americans (I know, that’s redundant) and a couple was playing pool. The movie watchers had a few tables of girls, but none I’d be interested in joining. So I drank, watched and sent BBB frustrated text messages. His reply?

“Ha! Stick to the outside pool talbes near the bar: Best lightping/booze/girls ratio. And don’t be shy!”

So what did I do? Go inside. Air conditioning does have its advantages.

The music inside was horrible traditional Khmer dance stuff, but the women were not bad. I reconnected with one of two Viet sisters I met at Sharky’s. They claimed to have the same parents, but the older one (22) was 5-foot-5 and shapely, but the one-year-younger sibling was 4-foot-10 and about 35 kilos. Weird. Mini Me wasn’t to be seen and by this point I figured I’d take the taller girl back. But she only wanted short-time and I demurred.

I left the disco to find the movie ended and the place nearly deserted. Tired and drunk, I decided to pack it in when, literally walking out the door, a lovely, fair-skinned girl about 38 kilos, yet perfectly proportioned, came in. I think I actually said “wow” aloud.

Quick about-face, two drinks each for us and it was back to the hotel. I managed to get a tuk-tuk for a total $3.

Half Chinese, half Khmer, the little hardbody was just what the Cambo doctor ordered. I finally kicked her out about 10 a.m., then promptly went back to sleep until 1 p.m. It wasn’t a great start, but the next two days would take me off the Bad Boy Path to find my own way in the Phnom Penh wilderness.

But that has to wait for Part 2.

18 thoughts on “Songkran Escape: Phnom Penh, Part 1

  1. well done i love phnomn penh too.good excuse to leave pattaya thailand,when the water festival is on.i bet you went to all the same places i did too.martinis etc sophies the lot

  2. “The bottom of Fun Town’s sexpat barrel seeps into A.C. like a sewer backing up. I don’t want to spend time with them here, so I’ll be damned if I’m going to hang with them there”

    …and u live in Pattaya?…

    πŸ™‚

    And $35 for a room in Sianoukville? that’s typo right?

    i paid $10 last time (which is a LONG time ago ’cause if u can believe it that place is less inviting than Sunee Plaza)

  3. Jack — I live here cuz the work is here.

    And Snooky has changed dramatically in just the past five years. You wouldn’t recognize it now. Rooms can be had for less (more on that in part 3) but $35 for an aircon room during New Year’s was pretty much the best that could be done.

  4. I’ve had an unpleasant experience with a Mainland Chinese mob in Singapore – the Air Asia flight from BKK to SG (and then onwards I guess, to Inner Mongolia or wherever – this group was very rural) was delayed one hour because no one in the 30 person group spoke English to understand when the flight was called; ok, but the time is listed on the ticket?? Then, after landing, the group flocked to the conveyor belt kicking and pushing everyone on the way; they were a mean bunch of aunties and uncles, yelling, hollering, picking up bags to see if they’re theirs and throwing them back on the conveyor belt… it was awful. They really pushed and knocked their way around and there were no excuse me’s or sorry’s.

    Unrelated, I just had my first Khmer experience here in SG. Very nice, similar to Thai but different πŸ™‚

  5. Ah yes, the dreaded MTG (Mainland Tour Group). Like wild animals, they do vary in their ferocity. Some are relatively docile, some are…as shocking as a sudden slap in the face with a cold wet slab of raw meat. Haystack-haircuts, ill-fitting suits of indiscriminate gray/green coloration, a tendency to shout at shocking volumes whether they are one meter apart or one hundred. Don’t even get me started on the spitting and chain-smoking of ghastly cigarettes with names like “Double Happiness.” ssB, chime in if you feel the need.

    It should be noted that the worst are in fact from the hinterlands, even in Shanghai and Beijing they stick out. At battalion-strength you’re at their mercy, but one-on-one, settle not for their inane behavior. In Shanghai some goober tried to sell me a watch, i countered by offering to sell him MY watch…every time he lowered the “price” i said no no, and RAISED the price for mine. You get the idea (and you should have seen the look on his face).

    As for pushing in lines, if there’s a unique miscreant, try this: hold him back FIRMLY with your elbow in his chest. As you do so, stare him directly in the eyes and keep your face blank. This only works on a narrow opening, like the doorway of an airplane (that’s where i pulled it off). The lack of expression produces some interesting confusion, especially when the guy can’t move because you’re physically blocking him from jumping the queue.

    I can’t get too feisty about MTGs because they are helping keep air carriers and other travel infrastructure alive in the region. But a minority behave astonishingly badly, it must be said.

    Phnom Penh: a few years back it was astonishing, now it’s a place where a superb S/T is more an accident than a sure-thing (as you found out, PG!). Ironically, you can get excellent mainland-style Chinese food (NOT the Cantonese stuff) in PP at prices you’d pay at working-class Chinese eateries on the mainland. Of course, you may have part of an MTG at the table next to you…

    JtB

  6. Jack..

    When I worked in DaQing in the 80’s, I always carried a sharp-edged briefcase that was an effective weapon against the ‘goobers’.

    Swinging that badboy in a crowd would clear a path.

  7. pg, my suggestion, i know its difficult, but try to not have any check in luggage. For me, seriously, the biggest hassle is that i cant take my nail file. or other sharps, sure the immigration cunts ask why i dont have any luggage, but i prefer that than waiting for / losing all my stuff.

  8. Julian – you once mentioned a willingness to help out on some information if the Mango group would publish something on SG. I work in SG 1/2 of the year and would welcome your thoughts on where to go, and prices. Most of us know Orchard Towers, my last quote on the street was S$80 ST. But other than Orchard where is there to go and what are the prices?

    Ghost – I liked the Marlin hotel in town, Sihanoukville (don’t know if it’s still there, owner had some problems last I heard). The Fisherman’s Den was also a great place to have a few drinks. The gals are Vietnamese and Khmer. Both are great, but you’ll compete with the local expat crowd who know all the gals well. Still it’s a good value 10-15 ST/LT.

  9. Mr. C — I’d love no check-in bags, but Air Asia has a cabin limit of 7 kg and staying 10 days, I need more than that.

    Crhis — Stay tuned for the Snookyville report next week. Will cover all the hotels and, as noted above, the Viet chickies seem to have flown the coop.

  10. What was the damage for the Martini girl? When i lived there you could get LT for $10, more recently I was paying $20 but I’ve some of the hotter girl are demanding much more now.

  11. Chris, the area you want is called Geylang. It’s a fishbowl/soapie setup, and legal. You can take the MRT to the Geylang stop and just wander the “lorongs” (side streets). The places have large house-numbers. Google-whack Geylang for more info.

    JtB

  12. Poodle — As I note in Part 2 coming up, I was almost never asked about money in advance by any girl and, in many cases, they refused to give me an amount when I asked them.

    As she was the first (and as she was very enthsiastic at night and in the morning), I gave the the $30 BBB said, in his piece, was standard.

    But I stimply stuck the money in her pcoket as I gave her a kiss goodbye. She never even looked to see how much it was until after she was gone. So I quickly realized I could have given her $20 and she’d have been fine with it.

    As I note in the next parts, that was the ONLY time I paid the same rates BBB did. The rest were $20 LT and $10 for short-time. In one case, described in Part 2, it was even less.

  13. Chris: You can try the Duxton hill in Tanjong Pagar area. Plently of thai and philipines pub in that area. Joo chiat near Katong for the Vietnamese pubs and the Geylang for the mainland chinese. Geylang would be my best bet as there are plently of sweet 20 plus there. Just watch out for the unshaven arm pits thats all! Damage is about 60 to 100.

    The geylang scene is abit weird as they are standing along the street and its has abit of a street market atmosphere. I dont think many expats patronized that area so you might just stick up like a sore thump. Can grab some after action late night supper, many great delicious food in geylang too!

  14. @chris & astreal – Geylang never worked for me. I was there a few nights ago most recently, and the scene is just too weird, with all the eateries on the street and the Chinese uncles spitting and hacking and pawing their catch for the night; besides, it seems that you have to go in one of the KTV’s to find girls, on the street you only see a few here and there. For the same reason People’s Park doesn’t work for me – you might want to give it a try though (it’s the McD behind the PP mall, go there after 10 PM and there’s fil girls waiting for, uhh, sailors and such).

    Not sure about street pickups, but $80 is a pretty good deal. In the towers $150 seems to be the lowest offer accepted (for a 8+). That being said, I was happening to hang out nearby one morning after closing time, and ended up talking to a Khmer girl, and to make a long story short she ended up at my place until the next day. She did not take any money, and even did the laundry for me. Sometimes you just get lucky like that.

    If you have some time to invest, what seems to work best for me is the maids/shop girls/nannies – Indonesians and Filipinas. Spend some time around Lucky Plaza, have something to eat, etc, and you will see groups of 2-3 girls hanging out. Engage them, take them out somewhere, and if not on the 1st night, certainly on the 2nd they will be more than willing to have some fun, usually non P4P (just take them clubbing). It’s a hit and miss, but more often than not it will work out if you look decent/seem a nice guy. Some of them are very kinky, I’ve been surprised more than once.

    Same goes for the Thai mall @ Golden Mile (and you can go to any of the Thai discos there for a quick P4P pickup, and really late at night you can try the Thai disco near Orchard Towers – the one on the 7th floor, which gets going after 3 AM).

    Duxton Hill is ok but the quality of girls varies, and not all of the girls there go P4P, so you never know.

    Insomnia at Chijmes has been fruitful in the past for me, but it’s not all P4P.

  15. Bobonzo – DaQing..talk about the hinterlands..not to mention the lovely oil fields there..you must have worked in the petroleum industry…I am sure you have more than your fair share of interesting China stories.

    Having lived in China for 15+ years…nothing is quite as shocking as a mainland tour group…from the collectively cheesy caps, to the shitacular suits to the bad manners..they are certainly a force to be reckoned with. What is worse is they are increasing exponentially in terms of travel..they used to be confined to China and are now making there ways to Asia and beyond…cant wait until these type of tour groups hit France and Germany…their behaviour should go over well.

  16. Thanks Julian and Astreal. The information you provided will be very helpful. I happened to be leaving Singapore just about the time you emailed this information, but I’ll be back in August. In the mean time prowling Sukhumvit is a whole other game that is much easier to work. Guess I’m getting lazy.

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