Cambodia Travel Guide

Oct 30, 2008

Koh Dach - Phnom Penh's Silk Island

Koh Dach is an island in the Mekong River about 15 kilometers northeast of Phnom Penh. It is renowned for the thousands of silk weavers and the quality of the silk they produce.

It makes for an enjoyable day trip from Phnom Penh. First, you'll have a pleasant boat trip to the island. The island itself is a rural paradise, an oasis of tranquility very close to the city. You can buy silk there right from the producer.

Yesterday, the Phnom Penh Post reported the islanders are complaining about the lack of trade lately. They blame it on the troubles between Thailand and Cambodia at the Preah Vihear temple, but I think it probably has more to do with the global economic crisis and the effects it may have on the tourism market in Cambodia. I personally do not see much effect yet, but that may come in the next few months.

Anyway, if you are visiting Phnom Penh, make a day trip to that wonderful 'Silk Island'. In the dry season there's even a quite pleasant 'beach' on the north side of the island (and yes, the water there is clean). Negotiate your trip with one of the boat owners on Phnom Penh's river boulevard, Sisowath Quay.


Oct 24, 2008

Water Festival Phnom Penh

Right after last year's Water Festival the river front in Phnom Penh changed dramatically. A Japanese firm is working on the capital's draining system and therefor large parts of the riverfront were sealed off with a green fence. When the works started, it was promised these fences would be removed for the next Water Festival.

Not so. Instead of taking the fences down, the municipality has decided to replace them with small-holed netting fences. So, spectators will not be able to see the boat races on the Tonle Sap from up close. And just this year the Ministry of Tourism has spend 350,000 dollars on CNN spots to promote the 'Water and Moon Festival'. Great planning guys!

I think these small-holed netting fences are dangerous. The Cambodian authorities apparently have never heard of the Hillsborough stadium disaster in Liverpool where in 1989 football fans died when they were pressed up against the fence. Mind you, the annual Water Festival in Phnom Penh attracts about 1 million visitors per day (it lasts for 3 days). Yes, that's right: 1 million. Now imagine these people want to see the boat races from up close and they can't because of this fence. What will happen?

While the Water Festival normally is a colourful event, I would for this year not advice anyone to come. And next year, because the drainage works will last for at least three years.

Wait untill 2010 when Phnom Penh's river front will be restored to its former beauty.

Or so they promise...


Press Freedom in Cambodia

This year Cambodia scores much lower on the yearly Press Freedom list by Reporters sans Frontieres. The country has gone down to 126th place.

According to the website this is mainly a result of a journalist’s murder that was probably instigated by a police officer, and the fact that control of the media was stepped up for the parliamentary elections. Also, in Cambodia (as in many other countries) it is strictly forbidden to report anything that reflects badly on the president or monarch, or their family and close associates.

Would you expect press freedom to be much better in Thailand? No way: that country ranks 124th. That's higher than last year, when Thailand ranked 135 due to the restrictions after a military coup in September.

Back to Cambodia: last year this country ranked 85th, so the plunge to 126th is quite steep. And I'm afraid it won't get any better after populair news host Cheng Chivoan resigned from CTN-television. He was famous for his reports about sensitive issues like land grabbing and illegal logging.


Oct 23, 2008

Phnom Penh Projects delayed...

Following up on the previous post on the construction boom in Phnom Penh and the risk of the city losing its charm, there were some interesting articles in the local press.

One described the French colonial houses in Phnom Penh as important cultural heritage that should be preserved. Now, many people agree with that but probably new is that authorities now do too. With the most important one Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema who said the city is stepping up efforts to preserve these buildings.

Remember, I was suggesting some of the mega construction projects in the city would probably be put on hold, or even suspended completely? Well, that's already happening: Camko City (on the northwest of Phnom Penh) will not undertake any new construction. In other words: only Phase 1 will be finished, leaving an incomplete planned city. What will the effect of that be on the value of buildings in Phase 1? Will the buyers complain that they don't get what was promised?

Other projects:
- Construction of a 45-storey condominium tower overlooking the Tonle Sap has been delayed;
- Construction of five 25-storey residential towers on the Chruoy Changvar peninsula have not started as planned;
- The developer behind Gold Tower 42 says the project will go on as scheduled, although they still have to sell units. In this market and at this time? Housing sales in Cambodia have fallen about 50 percent over the last year. And, interestingly enough, the website of the construction company, Yon Woo Inc., is unavailable... By the way, the ONLY information you'll find about this Yon Woo Inc. is related to building the Gold Tower 42, nothing else...

It's just waiting for the housing bubble in Cambodia to collapse. And what will happen then, especially to those people who took loans to finance their purchase (esp. in CamKo city but probably also in Gold Tower 42).


Phnom Penh the Worst Historic Site?

According to the National Geographic the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh is one of the "worst historic sites" to visit:
Once displaying "the best of French urban planning," the city has now been "lost to uncontrolled urban growth and the outright greed of land speculation," one expert said, adding it is a "very sad story."

Well, in my previous post I was already referring to the risk of Phnom Penh losing its charm, but I don't think it is already as bad as National Geographic wants you to believe. Yes, there are some projects underway that will change the landscape dramatically, like the Canadia Bank tower near Central Market and the "Gold24" tower on Sihanouk Blvd (although I doubt whether this last one and some other planned projects will go on given the current worldwide credit crisis).

But does that mean Phnom Penh has lost it all already? No, definitely not. There are a few encouraging signs: the art deco Central Market (Psah Thmei) is currently under renovation, the FCC plans to renovate a beautiful colonial building on Sothearos, UNESCO is housed in another building from French times next door. A few houses along Norodom Blvd. have been restored to their former beauty (although, yes, a few others along that street have been demolished). The post office and the building of Van's restaurant nearby are beautiful examples of colonial architecture (although in the same area some buildings urgently need repairs).

Not all is lost, yet. There is a risk Phnom Penh will, but it's definitely NOT the worst historic site to visit!

Here you see Phnom Penh's Post Office. Read more on colonial architecture in the city in the Phnom Penh Travel Guide.


Oct 22, 2008

Fast food in Cambodia

For years Cambodia has had it's own version of Western fast food chains: Lucky Burger (part of the Lucky supermarket group) and BB World. Late last year America's KFC has entered the market, with two outlets in Phnom Penh and planning to open another two.

Some people (especially expats and tourists) regret this development as they don't want Phnom Penh to 'loosing its charm and become just another Asian capital'. While indeed there is a danger Phnom Penh will loose much of its appeal in the next ten years, I don't think the threat comes from international fast food chains, but rather unregulated development of the city.

And, wait a minute, the Khmers love KFC! They go there in droves. Why? Because it is something they never had here before. It's American, so it must be good (I disagree with that, but that's what most Cambodians think). It tastes different from Khmer food, but still with chicken in it (or beef in hamburgers) Cambodians like it, especially the younger generation.

So, is it a bad thing international chains enter the Cambodian market? No, I don't think so. Overall Cambodians still prefer the Khmer cuisine with every once in a while a burger or a drumstick.

The only question now is: when will McDonald's open up here and what will be the effect of that on the Cambodian burger chains?


Oct 20, 2008

How to cross the Thai-Cambodian border

When arriving overland from Thailand, most people opt for the border crossing at Aranyapathet (Thai side) and Poipet (Cambodian side) to get to Siem Reap. To be honest, it's not the easiest of things, so let me give you a few words of advice:

First of all, beware of Thais trying to con you telling that the bus ride on the other side of Cambodia to Siem Reap will cost 600 baht and that it is impossible to get a ride once you have crossed the border. Just ignore them as well as people who want to 'help' you with the formalities and might try you to believe a visa will cost US$ 40.

The official fee is US$ 20 for a tourist visa (US$ 25 for a business visa). The Cambodian immigration officials will try to get more money e.g. by saying you can only pay in Thai baht, or that the price has gone up, or you have to pay extra for a 'health certificate'. It's all not true, but sometimes very difficult to get the official rate. A smile (and keep smiling!) will maybe help, as will just a few words of Khmer, like the polite way of saying "Hello": joom-riup-sooa. The price will probably go down, although maybe not to the official fee.

Once at the Cambodian side: do NOT change a lot of dollars into Cambodian currency, the riel. First, you don't need a lot of riel, as almost all prices are in dollars except for small purchases like a bottle of water. Second, the rate you get at the border is very bad: sometimes as low as 3000 riel to a dollar where the normal rate is around 4000 riel. If you want to change into riel, wait till you are in Siem Reap. The best rates and fastest service are usually offered by the money changers at markets.

Oh, and one more thing: Poipet is a very depressing place. You might think: is this Cambodia? Let's go back! Well, Poipet is about the worst place in Cambodia. Believe me, the rest of the country is much nicer and friendlier.

More tips on travelling in the Cambodia Travel Guide.

Oct 19, 2008

Khmer-Thai border dispute

You have probably heard about the border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand over the Preah Vihear temple. Should this dispute affect your travel plans to Cambodia? Hm, I'm not a political analyst, but I would say: no. The chances this dispute will escalate in a large scale conflict are quite limited in my opinion.

True, the situation is quite tense and may easily get out of hand. Still, even in the event of more clashes at the Cambodian-Thai border, I think it will be limited to that area which is far from any tourist destinations.

The main danger is not at the border, but in Bangkok. The shaky political situation in Thailand could be more dangerous for Cambodia. If the situation there gets out of hand the Thai government may easily decide to be more firm on the Preah Vihear temple, simply to divert the attention from their own political upheaval and - at least temporarily - unite the Thai.

In the meantime and on a lighter note, a restaurant in Phnom Penh, which was called 'Khmer-Thai' has changed its name by adding a 'l': Khmer-Thlai. A bit of a strange move, because 'thlai' in Khmer means 'expensive'...

Anyway, as long as Cambodian and Thai soldiers happily are shaking hands, I'm optimistic the situation at the border will defuse:


Oct 18, 2008

Fresh Seafood in Kep: how much longer?

One of the things not to miss in Cambodia is eating fresh fruits of the sea along the beach in Kep.The beach itself is nothing special (but taking a boat out to Rabbit Island is!), but wait till you have tasted what's on offer at the many food stalls! The ladies here do a terrific job in serving tasty seafood, especially when they also use the locally grown Kampot Pepper.

But is this wonderful tradition to go? According to the Phnom Post, it might be: "The Kep Municipality has put up a sign indicating that the stretch of land will be developed into a public garden. But vendors allege the land has been sold to an unidentified company that they say is planning to build a hotel on the land."

Sigh, same old story over and over again in Cambodia. Anyway, there is some hope you can still enjoy seafood in Kep. The governor says: "We will find a solution for the vendors."

Although, you should not always believe the authorities here...


Wi-Fi available at frizz

Cambodia's leading Internet Service Provider OnLine has installed wireless internet at frizz restaurant in Phnom Penh.

Now you can tap into the internet and update your blog while waiting for your dinner or enjoying a drink.

You'll need to buy a HotSpot card though. Available at frizz in denominations of 2, 5, 10 and 20 US dollars.


Oct 17, 2008

Wat Phnom price increase

The entry fee for Wat Phnom will double for foreign visitors from January 1st 2009, going up to US$2.

The extra money is supposed to be used for further 'beatification' of the area. Recently around Wat Phnom some renovations have taken place: the Naga Bridge, the Grandmother Penh statue, and a kids' playground.

The additional money will also help to support cleaners and security guards working around the monument.

Cambodians will, as before, be able to enter the pagoda for free.