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Biking in the Cardamom Mountains

Community-Based Eco Tourism in Cambodia

sunny 84 °F


For a small, somewhat isolated village in the southern Cardamom Mountain Range, getting to Chi Phat was suprisingly easy. From Phnom Phen we bought a bus ticket to Koh Kong but made sure to tell the driver we needed to be let off in Andong Tuk. We were dropped off at a small shelter where a sign advertised longtail boat rides or motorbike taxis to Chi Phat. It was 45 minutes and $6 each by motorbike or 2 hours and $22 total by longtail. We'd heard the boat ride was nice and figured we could take the motorbike on our way out of Chi Phat so we could experience both ways and it worked out well that way.

As we weighed our options, a woman took notice of us and said, "I am boat." We got the point. With a few nods and gestures we confirmed we wanted the boat ride. She disappeared for a few minutes and came back with our masked boat driver in tow. He didn't say more than a few words the entire trip but he got us there just fine. The boat ride really was nice and I'd say it's worth going that route on the way in to Chi Phat. Earplugs are a must. Two hours listening to the droning song of the longtail engine is guaranteed hearing loss Once we got our plugs in the ride was very peaceful. The scenery was classic cambodian countryside with a few clusters of homes jutting into the river along the way, probably nothing unique for the area but beautiful nonetheless.

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We didn't exactly know where to go from the pier in Chi Phat, but it turns out there's really only one main road that tourists need to know. A few steps from the boat, a Community Based Eco Tourism (CBET) sign points the way to their office. CBET essentially runs tourism industry in this village. They've been around since 2004 if I remember right, giving the locals a way of making a living aside from poaching and logging in the jungle. It seemed like a stand-up organization and they made everything really easy. At the office we were greeted by a young woman who spoke pretty good English. She explained how they appoint tourists to the different guesthouses/ homestays based on a rotation so that all of the locals get in on some of the action. She also gave us a thick binder filled with possible itineraries for tours in the area. We chose a two-day mountain biking trip with an overnight in the jungle near O'malu Waterfall. Matt and Chris, a couple of guys from Portland, showed up just after us and wanted to do the same trip so we had a good group of four plus two guides for the next day.

The next morning we woke up early. Later than we should have due to an alarm clock failure, but still pretty early. We ate a quick breakfast of noodles, bananas and sticky rice and were given our backpacks for the trip. The packs were ridiculously huge, bigger than the 48L Osprey I brought for our entire 3 1/2 month trip in SEA. Each of them contained our supply of water, a hammock and a blanket. When we were ready to go we were introduced to our guide, Paeng. He gave each of us a mountain bike. They weren't anything special but they did the trick. The going was easy at first since we stuck to the main road but I was sweating anyway in the early morning sun. After about 10 minutes we turned off on a small trail. It was rough from there on out. Initially I was doing my best to power through the ruts and mud and sand and rock and brush expecting the hard part to end and an easy trail to open up, but it never happened. The next 1.5 - 2 hours were a steady incline on consistently rough terrain. It was hard work. So hard that I had to question whether I was really enjoying it. Looking back on it, of course I did have a good time, but in the moment it would have been hard for me to say why. Most of the time I was too busy biking to think of looking up, let alone snap a picture, but here are a few:


The ride was way more intense than we expected. It was listed in the itinerary as medium difficulty but Paeng kept describing the way ahead as "very difficult." Which we definitely thought was more accurate. After two hours or so of pedaling through hills, fields and prairie with the Cambodian sun bearing down on us relentlessly, Sam decided to turn back. I can't say I blame her. At that point in the ride the idea had probably crossed everyone's mind at least once. Sam turned around and headed back with one of the guides leaving Me, Paeng, and the two cousins from Portland to tear on.

Shortly after Sam left us, the trail and the trail got a little more interesting, although it didn't get any easier. We biked on, sometimes pedaling hard up-hill and sometimes cautiously descending on trails of loose rock, tree roots, sand and mud. The open hills and prairie gave way to dense jungle and bamboo groves. It was so thick at some parts the only way to get through was to crouch low over the handlebars to avoid hanging vines and shuffle through while trying not to get your foot snagged under a tree root.

A little under four hours in we arrived at O'malu Waterfall. Matt, Chris and I took to the water to cool off while the guides set to work on lunch and making our camp for the night. Camp consisted of a tarp with our hammocks slung below it. The food, some noodles with egg and veggies, was equally simple but satisfying after that ride. There wasn't much to do the rest of the afternoon but I was grateful for the opportunity to sit and take in the scene. Paeng joined me for awhile. His English wasn't the best and I don't speak any Khmer but we're both patient guys so we had some broken conversation between long stretches of staring at the water. We told each other about our countries and each learned a few new words in the other's language. It was a good way to spend an afternoon.


That evening we went for a leisurely walk in the jungle, had some more food and then just relaxed and chatted away the daylight. Cambodians tend to get up early so the guides were ready for bed by about 8pm. The rest of us (Me, Chris, Matt and a couple German girls who'd hiked to O'Malu for the night) played cards for a few hours by flashlight before calling it a day.

The next morning we had another noodle breakfast followed by one last swim under the waterfall before taking off back to Chi Phat. The ride was a lot easier this time. We took a different route from the way we'd come in so it was only 15 mins to the main road that took us all the way back to CBET. Sam and I spent one more night in Chi Phat and then got on our way to the coast for a little more island time.

Posted by Sam.and.Avery 05:02 Archived in Cambodia Tagged rainforest mountain cambodia jungle rural waterfall biking overnight chi_phat cbet community_based_eco_tourism cardamom cardamoms cardamom_mountains Comments (2)

Exploring Ancient Angkor

sunny 83 °F

Like many visitors to Cambodia, exploring Angkor was at the top of our list of things to do upon arrival. At 5am on our very first morning in Siem Reap we got to it. Our guesthouse provided a couple of baguettes and bananas for a quick breakfast and then we hopped in the tuk-tuk that would to cart us around for the day. The city of Angkor is inside a park of sorts that you need to pay to enter. They offer one-day, two-day or week-long passes. We had heard there was too much to see in only one day and opted for the two day pass. It turns out we had heard correctly, there is way to much to explore in a single day especially considering the number of steps you inevitably have to climb. We lasted a solid 6-7 hours that first day and we were beat.

Tickets in hand we proceeded to Angkor Wat, the first stop for all of the MANY early temple tourists on a given day. The best itinerary for exploring some of the lesser temples in the area is debatable, but it seems like everybody agrees it's best to head to Angkor Wat for sunrise.

As evidenced by the crowds:

It was still fairly dark as we crossed the moat and entered into the massive courtyard that sprawls from the feet of the temple. Obviously I'd only seen pictures of Angkor Wat up to this point and the sheer size of the entire structure surprised me. It was impressive even in just the earliest hint of light. We found a decent spot to stand and watch as the silhouette of the temple came more and more into focus until the first red-orange rays of sunlight crowned the uppermost towers. It's a sight well worth the early wake-up call, to say the least.

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As the sun went about it's business of rising the crowds began to thin and spread in every direction across the grounds. We headed for the temple itself where we made the walk through the lower portion of the temple, the inner walls of which are covered from floor to ceiling with bas-reliefs depicting the epic Hindu poetry of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Those walls drew a majority of my attention as we made our walk but if you looked close enough at anything in Angkor Wat there would be something to see. Every inch of the place is covered with incredibly ornate decoration.


When we'd had our fill of Angkor Wat we headed to some of the less talked about structures in the city of Angkor Thom. Neither Sam or I knew much about Angkor Thom. It was beautiful to look at but at that point we were pretty jealous of the groups of people enjoying the breadth of knowledge their tour guides had to offer. If I could do things over I would make a point to find a good guide, at least for the first day there. But since we couldn't go back in time we just listened in whenever we came upon a group with an english-speaking guide! It worked well enough and after seeing the Bayon, the Baphuon, the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King, we called it a day.


We took one day off to recharge a bit and on our third day in Siem Reap we headed out on what is referred to as the "small tour" which includes Preah Khan, Ta Som, Tha Prohm, Neak Poan. Each of the structures we visited were incredibly detailed, each beautiful in it's own way. Even without much knowledge of Hinduism or Buddhism, the temples are a lot of fun to just explore and marvel at while trying to picture how amazing they must have been in their time. Two days of temples, ruins, bas-reliefs, statues, moats and countless steps was two days well spent, and should remain a must-see for any visitor to Cambodia.

Posted by Sam.and.Avery 22:01 Archived in Cambodia Tagged temple cambodia angkor_wat sunrise angkor_thom angkor bayon sightseeing entertainment exploring must_see baphoun Comments (1)

Crossing Into Cambodia

Adventures with fake officials, scamming tuk tuks and taxi mafias on the Thai-Cambodian border


"Do you want to go to Cambodia?" I asked Avery as we sped down a highway in Krabi Province, Thailand in a van full of foreigners. "It makes sense." Outside, the limestone karsts rose above the jungle, like sand castles made by giants.

We had planned to head north from the islands to Chiang Mai, looking forward to the cooler temperatures and rugged terrain of the north. Then the girl next to me asked to see our Lonely Planet guide. We exchanged travel routes. "Oh, we're doing that too -- just backwards," she explained. They were heading to Cambodia once they reached Bangkok. By heading to Cambodia first, they'd be missing the sickening March/April heat of the hot season. By then, they'd be in the cooler northern reaches of SE Asia.

Avery and I had a little chat, and it was decided. We'd reverse our travel route, hoping to save me from some massive heat rash and the perpetual 95 degree days of Cambodia in the hot season.

Buses, Trains and Scams

The bus ride from (somewhere around) Krabi to Bangkok wasn't too bad. Except for the overweight French couple (I thought French people didn't get fat?), who kept waking me up with their butts every time they got up from their bus seat. We arrived in Bangkok around 4:30 a.m. and headed for Khao San Road, fabled backpacker ghetto. At this time, we thought everything would be closed up. But, oh right, this is Bangkok. Fueled by booze and Asian strength drugs, the partiers of KSR were going strong into the night. The 24-hour bar was blasting their American Top 40s, and the beer was flowing. We walked over to the 24-hour bar. "I need to stay awake," I said to Avery. There would be no sleeping at this establishment.

We chatted with a French guy who had accompanied us all the way from Railay Beach. He talked about his travels, including his time in northern Vietnam. After having his camera stolen on a bus there, he is a permanent hater. "They treat you like a dog," he said and made the poo-poo motion that only the French can make. (Say that quote in a THICK French accent, much better.)

The server never came over to us, so we never got a drink. Then at 5:20 a.m. we said good bye to ze Frenchman and headed to Samsen Road for a cab. But first we stopped at McDonald's so I could satiate my grease craving. Ah, Micky D hashbrowns.

We went through three cabs before we found one that would turn on the meter. First guy wanted 200 Baht, next one 100 Baht, the last one turned on the meter and we paid 53 Baht. Scammers. I'm sure they were waiting for the drunks, not sober backpackers.

We bought two tickets at the train station to the border, 48 Baht each. That's like $1.60. On the train, we met a couple from Canada who were living in Bangkok and going on an visa run to Cambodia. The guy (didn't get his name) had been in the Philippines doing research for his grad paper about the media there. The Philippines has the second highest rate of murdered journalists. One of my favorite parts about traveling this way is talking to people you meet along the way. It's really opened my mind to the myriad of opportunities that are present in the world. There are so many more ways to live, work and learn than I had imagined.

Our First Border Crossing

We arrived to the Arapaythet/Poipet border after five hours on the train. As soon as we disembarked, there was a bevy of annoying tuk tuk drivers waiting to take weary travelers to the border. "Tuk tuk to the border, miss?" an incredibly persistent driver asked as he followed me around. Annoyed, I shot back, "Okay, how much?" "Eighty baht." "Okay, let's go," I replied.

Off we went, passing buses, scooters and tuk tuks as we cruised down the red, dusty road. He stopped at a unofficial looking building. "Border. You get off here," he said.

Now, this was not the border. It didn't look anything like the border. I've been to Canada. I know what a border crossing was. For anyone attempting this border crossing, listen up. The drivers will take you to this building, where someone in a uniform will ask you to come inside and receive your Cambodian visa. DON'T GO IN THERE. That is not the crossing, and they may give you a visa. But you will pay way too much for it. I think they charge 1,000 Baht. It should only be $20.

"This is not the border crossing," I said. "Please take us to the border."
"Yes, this is the border."
"No, no it is not."
"This does not look like a border," Avery added.

The tuk tuk driver knew we weren't going to be fooled. Again, I demanded, "Where is the border?" He shrugged and pointed down the road. We paid, even though he did not take us the border. Then as we walked by, we were verbally assaulted by several uniformed people telling us to get inside for our visas. Ha, not today suckers! It's a good thing we read up on this crossing.

Then, we spent forever looking for a bank to exchange our Thai Baht into US Dollars (main currency used in Cambodia). All of the banks refused. UGH. We had read the Cambodian side was notorious for ripping people off during exchange. But no one in Thailand would do it.

We then set out for the crossing. My new rule is when in doubt, follow the locals. They all headed for a very poorly marked outdoor hallway that led to the border. We got in the foreigner line, which was long and filled with backpackers. And then, fast forward: stamp out of Thailand, welcome to Cambodia where we don't use signs to tell you which way to go, Cambodian visa ($20 plus 100 Baht that the custom officials pocket), take your picture, stamp your passport, okay now Welcome to Cambodia.

It was a long long process, but we did it without getting (relatively) scammed.

Illegal Taxi or Legal Taxi?

Next step was to find a way to Siem Reap. In Poipet, the taxis are run by the mafia. Once we passed through Immigration, we were accosted by a pushy, albeit friendly, representative of said mafia. With sparkling English, he told us to please take this free (woopdeedoo!) shuttle to the bus station. The tourist bus station, mind you.

I was pretending that I didn't hear him and kept walking. Then a guy came up to me and said, "Here, you can take a legal taxi or you can take an illegal taxi." I'm guessing he was the illegal taxi. I was never able to find out my options because the mafia rep ran up to me and pretty much verbally hauled us on the "free" shuttle.

At the station, we were presented with an overpriced taxi. Okay, it was only $12 each for a two hour ride. But that's a lot of dollas for this area of the world. And there are no negotiations. So we paid our fare and waited for the next taxi.

We waited in the cab for the two other occupants, who turned out to be two very disgruntled Canadians. "We paid for a private taxi," said the wife, obviously annoyed. Avery and I shrugged.

Turns out, the Canadians were actually very nice people. They had been to Cambodia in 2001 and were back again for more exploring. They pointed out all the things that had changed since their visit. Hospitals had been built, roads had been paved. "It looks like they're doing very well," she kept saying.

We talked about the US and the financial crisis. A lot of the older people meet always ask us about our political views and how we feel about Obama and the way the country is moving. It's interesting to hear foreigners' opinions. But they definitely love to hear what Americans think. The conversation is never a happy one.

Then, the car suddenly stopped at a food stall on the side of the road. A Khmer woman opened my door, "Hello, the car driver alway stop here to wash car. Please come in and buy something."

We watched a guy briefly spray off the hood with a pressure hose, while the shopkeeper kept trying to sell her overpriced wares. Here, drivers get commission for bringing unwilling travelers to their shops. I think this is the fourth time this has happened to us.

Two hours after Poipet, we reached Siem Reap. The taxi was supposed to drive us to our hotels. But instead, he delivered us to the hands of some ravenous tuk tuk drivers. We said good bye to the Canadians, who were whisked off in a tuk tuk to their posh Siem Reap resort.

Our tuk tuk driver said he did not know where our hotel was, despite us having the address. Siem Reap is not that big of a town. Another told us the address was too far out. He wouldn't take us. We did not have a phone or internet access. It was so incredibly frustrating. Stuck outside Siem Reap with a bunch of uncooperative tuk tuk drivers.

It was so frustrating because they did know where it was. They just refused to take us there, hoping we'd cave and be driven to one of their "suggested guesthouses," where they would then collect a nice commission. If a driver says he knows a nice place, don't listen. Usually it will be crap and not like it is in the photos.

Eventually we got to Hak's House, which is a very lovely guesthouse. I'd definitely recommend the place if you're ever visiting Siem Reap.

Then, we had some dinner and fell asleep. After all, we had just traveled from the south of Thailand to Siem Reap, Cambodia in 26 straight hours. Plus, we were getting up at 4:30 a.m. to visit Angkor Wat!

Posted by Sam.and.Avery 02:03 Archived in Cambodia Tagged taxi cambodia thailand border_crossing border tuk_tuk poipet scams paks_house Comments (1)

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