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. 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.)
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.