Cambodia, ten years later


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February 20th 2017
Published: February 20th 2017
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It is easy to get from Bangkok to Cambodia. Most tourists take a mini-van from Khao San Road (in the backpacker district) but these are renowned for their scams, and because they do the trip in one day you are at the border at midday along with hundreds of other people. My preferred option is to go to the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet and stay the night there. Then you can go through early the next morning when it is quiet. No fuss, no crowds.

Of course my "preferred option" is based on one visit in 2006, but it is still valid. This time I took a train from Bangkok instead of a bus. The buses take about three or four hours to get to Aranyaprathet and cost around 200 Baht. The train is slower, around five hours, but only costs 48 Baht and you have lots of room and can even get up and walk around when you tired of sitting.

There are two trains, one at 5am and one at 1pm, and both leave from the main train station which is quite near the backpacker district. You just take the river boat down to Pier 4 for about 10 Baht and then it's a fifteen minute walk to the station.

I made a big error when arriving in Aranyaprathet though. There are a couple of cheap accommodations in town, the best option probably being the Aran Garden One Hotel which is 230 Baht, so that's where I would be going to. I jumped into a songthaew (a truck taxi) which I thought was going into town, but was actually going straight to the border which is 6km away. By the time I realised this it was "too late" - as in, I would have had to pay for a ride back, and so I figured I'd be able to find a hotel near the border. My following problem was that I had forgotten I only had 300 Baht left in cash and I didn't want to use an ATM to get out more Baht (I didn't want to get out a small amount because my bank charges a NZ$6 withdrawal fee on foreign ATMs; and if I got a larger amount and then changed it when across the border I'd be losing more money on the exchange).

The songthaew dropped me outside the Hitz Hotel which was 690 Baht. I went for a wander and found the Border Hotel which was 680 Baht. I wandered some more and found a cheaper hotel but that was still slightly too high at 400 Baht. I went back to the Hitz to see if they had EFTPOS; they did not. There was a cheap hotel across the street but that was 350 Baht and they wouldn't come down to 300. I ended up walking around in the dark for over an hour, hotel after hotel, all 350 Baht at the cheapest and nobody could take cards as payment and nobody would come down to 300. And I got attacked by a dog which I barely prevented from biting me.

For some reason there were now no songthaews or taxis or anything to get back to town. I was kind of sick of walking by this point. I passed a truck driver parked by the side of road and he asked where I was going, and then his "friend" - or perhaps brother - pulled up in another truck, and I got a ride with the second one back to town and found my way to the Aran Garden One.

The next morning I left for Cambodia.

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There is a lot written about how the Cambodian officials at the Poipet border point are "the most corrupt in Asia" and so on. I have never experienced this at all. They have always been very friendly and helpful. In 2006 I had got my visa in advance in Bangkok for the sake of simplicity and was through the Poipet checkpoint into Cambodia within minutes. This time I got my visa at the border (like most people do) and it was just as fast. Once you come across the Thai border there's a short walk across a bridge which is covered in Cambodians all vying for the right to scam you out of money for a motorbike ride to the border which is all of two minutes walk away. But I ignored them and walked straight into the visa office. It is US$30 for the visa. If you don't have an additional passport photo on you they charge an extra US$1 but I had some which were taken in 2015 and they accepted one without comment. I was expecting a long wait, but it was done in less than five minutes. Then I walked a bit further to the checkpoint where the passport is stamped. No lines because it was morning, and I was through there in less than a minute.

A quick note on money before I go any further. Cambodia, for some reason unknown to me, uses the US dollar as their currency of choice. They do have their own currency as well, called the riel, but this is pretty useless with 4000 riel to one American dollar. And at least in western Cambodia they also accept Thai Baht. So you have three different currencies all in use at the same time. The riel is used for small purchases, but you also get it as change. So if something costs US$7 and you give them a $10, you'll usually get 12,000 riel in return. They take US$1 bills but I haven't had any coming back to me when getting change - it is always riel. It is also very easy to get the 2000 riel note (50 US cents) and the 20,000 riel note (US$5) mixed up and thus either give or accept the wrong one as change (in both cases to your own detriment).

The use of the US dollar means everything is more expensive in Cambodia than in Thailand because prices are basically rounded up to the dollar. So a bottle of water will be twice the cost it would be in Thailand, for example. Really everything is very expensive here, and I think it is a direct consequence of having the US dollar as the currency. The ATMs give out US$100 bills as well, which is annoying when you have to then break them down in order to be able to spend them! Even more annoying is that Cambodian ATMs charge a US$5 or more fee for withdrawing money! I got out US$500 and hoped that would last me for the next two weeks until I get to Vietnam so that I wouldn't need to use an ATM again - although I am somewhat doubtful of that with the costs of things here!

At the border there is a free shuttle bus which goes to the bus station itself. I found the shuttle bus easily enough, but the people staffing the area said there were only buses going to Siem Reap at 8am and 1.30pm, so the shuttle wasn't running until the afternoon (it was now 8.30am). This seemed very unlikely - apparently it was because at this time of year there are too few tourists, which also seemed unlikely - but they weren't budging from their story and the shuttle bus certainly wasn't moving either. I took a motorbike to the bus station for ten Baht and the people at the ticket desks said the same thing. So I guess it is true. The motorbike driver took me to a shared-taxi heading for Siem Reap.

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I had some plans for places to look for birds in western Cambodia, none of which were going to happen. There is a conservation body in Siem Reap called the Sam Veasna Centre (SVC) which controls access to many of the reserves. Some of these cost several thousand US dollars to visit, and that isn't an exaggeration. .

You may have picked up that I travel in a budgety kind of way. That's why I can travel, because I try to do it as cheaply as possible. So you might think that I would have a big issue with the SVC's prices, but I mostly don't. I mean, I can't afford to visit any of the reserves and that sucks, but the bulk of that money actually goes to the local communities in and around the reserves and they therefore protect the areas from logging and poaching. So while I can't go and see giant ibis, for example, I know that the cash from rich birders is keeping them safer than they would otherwise be. And very few birders try to go round Cambodia independently - they almost all do tours via the SVC, so there is no reason for the SVC to not charge ridiculously-high prices. None of the SVC's reserves are National Parks luckily - the Cambodian government has a habit of selling off the National Parks to Chinese companies for development, as you'll read a bit later.

The four main reserves I would have wanted to visit in western Cambodia were Prek Toal, Ang Trapaeng Thmor, Tmatboey, and Prey Vang. The last two were both completely out of the question, cost-wise. The first one, Prek Toal, is a waterbird sanctuary on a huge lake called Tonle Sap. This one I knew I could visit by myself, because I had done so in 2006. I checked the prices online - mostly through what people had written on Tripadvisor because it is difficult finding costs out through other means - and found that it had gone up considerably in the last ten years and I couldn't afford it. Lots of tourists do boat trips on the lake, but unfortunately the sanctuary is on the other side where tourists don't go, so I'd have to be paying for a special boat-trip by myself which from memory would have been something like US$90 (and I think the total cost for boats, entry to the reserve, etc, would have been around US$150). I potentially could stretch to making the trip, but it would be a lot of money to go to a place I'd already been to see birds I have seen in multiple places all over Asia. I had a google to see if it would be cheaper joining onto a SVC trip and found the opposite, that it would cost me at least twice as much.

So that left only Ang Trapaeng Thmor, a huge artificial reservoir near to which is a reserve for sarus cranes and Eld's deer, situated about halfway between Poipet and Siem Reap. The highway actually passes right by the access road (I had seen the sign saying "sarus crane reserve" from the bus in 2006). Some of the Cambodian reserves are completely controlled by the SVC (like Tmatboey and Prey Vang) while others are just included at inflated prices on their tours (like Prek Toal). I couldn't find out which scenario the ATT fell into but I knew there was accommodation at the ranger station there and so figured it was at least worth trying it by myself. The only account I could find online of someone visiting alone was a guy driving round Cambodia in a hire car, but his blog was vague on logistics so he could easily have had it arranged through the Sam Veasna Centre and just not bothered to include that detail. I sent a tentative email to the SVC asking how much to stay there for one night if I arrived and departed by bus - I figured there was no point asking them if I could visit without going through them because they would just say no. They came back with a figure of US$495! That wasn't an option for me, so I decided I would try just turning up. The worst that would happen is that I couldn't (or couldn't afford to) get in and then I'd just go back to the highway and get on the next bus to Siem Reap.

Ang Trapaeng Thmor (the reservoir itself) is a well-known tourist site, and it was no problem getting dropped off at the junction for it on the highway. This is approximately halfway between Poipet and Siem Reap (about 1.5 hours in either direction) and cost me US$10 in the shared-taxi. The whole way between Poipet and Siem Reap costs US$15, but I ended up paying US$20 in total (i.e. US$10 from Poipet to the junction and then US$10 from the junction to Siem Reap afterwards). From the junction to the reservoir is 35km; this took about forty minutes on the back of a motorbike and cost another US$10 return.

So far it was all working well. It stopped working as soon as we reached the HQ building for the sarus crane reserve. The lady there didn't speak any English but she got on the phone and soon I was talking to a lady from the Sam Veasna Centre who told me that I couldn't go into the reserve because it needs to be arranged in advance and that can only be done through the SVC, and there was no way around it. For one person, for a one-day visit, it would cost US$250 (or for two people US$165 each). Even she readily admitted that it was very expensive. Note that I had been told in the prior email that an overnight stay would be US$495 - an almost US$250 difference. Let's just say that I saw the ranger station, and the accommodation is not that good!

It had been fifity-fifty as to whether I would have been able to visit or not visit - it was one of my wing-it-and-see-what-happens visits - but it was still a bit of a bummer to find I couldn't. I've seen sarus cranes in several countries but Eld's deer I've seen only in Burma, and the one in Cambodia is a different subspecies so that would have been interesting (there are three subspecies of Eld's deer, all of which are endangered).

I motorbiked back to the highway where there was a minor disagreement with the driver who claimed I hadn't paid him (I had given the taxi driver a US$20 note, and he gave the change directly to the motorbike driver in riel). Then I got another shared-taxi the rest of the way to Siem Reap, where as is often the case the taxis or buses drop the tourists a few kilometres away from where most of the accommodations are so that the tuktuk drivers can have a crack at them. One got really mad at me because I said I was going to walk. I didn't actually have any idea where I was in town, and the town itself has changed greatly from when I was here ten years ago, but I wasn't going to pay what they were trying to charge. I went into a restaurant a few steps away to get some food, and the guy in there gave me some directions to the cheap hostel area behind the Old Market. It was only about twenty minutes away and I ended up at a very nice place called the Mingalar Inn which had rooms for US$8 (there's not much cheaper in Siem Reap).

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I didn't get up to much in Siem Reap, animal-wise. Prek Toal was too expensive, and although there is forest around the Angkor temple complex it is also reasonably expensive (about US$40) and I visited there in 2006 so didn't wish to spend that money on a re-visit. Early in the morning I went southwards out of town to the rice-fields. I could have rented a bicycle for US$2 but it was only an hour's walk. I spent a while around the fields looking at mostly very common birds - mynahs, drongos, tree sparrows - although painted storks are always nice and plain-backed sparrows were not a usual bird for me. Plain-backed sparrows look sort of like someone has taken house sparrows and just dyed them yellow. Then I walked back into town, went to the movie theatre round the corner from my hotel to watch John Wick 2 for US$3.50, and finally walked across town to the Royal Gardens to see the Lyle's fruit bats which have a colony in the trees there. I saw them here back in 2006 and it is still the only place I have seen this species in the wild.

And then this morning I caught a bus to Kratie.

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13th March 2017

Seeing birds in Cambodia without expensive Sam Veasna Center tours
Hi Israel, I am a birdwatcher from Australia who loves reading your travel blogs. I visited Cambodia from late February to mid March 2016 and found most of the target species there without going on a SVC tour. Prolay grasslands near Stoung: Visited twice, Bengal Floricans seen both times, but only got untickable views of Manchurian Reed-warbler on the second visit. Directed Tuk-tuk (1st visit) or motorbike (2nd visit) to grasslands from Stoung, stayed in Stoung. Mount Aural: Cambodian Laughingthrush seen regularly near the campsite up the mountain, but didn't see Chestnut-headed Partridge (only heard a couple of times). Later got great views of Chestnut-headed Partridge at Bokor (there is a trail there which is good for the partridge but it's location is not obvious). There is a local guide for Mt Aural in the village of Srae Kan 3 near the base of the mountain. Stung Treng: I stayed at a homestay 20km from Stung Treng with a local who showed me a White-shouldered Ibis nest. Siem Pang: The people at the Birdlife International project there helped me see Giant Ibis, White shouldered Ibis (nesting) and nesting Slender billed, Red headed, and White rumped Vultures. Many other birds seen including White rumped Falcon, Brown Fish Owl, 10 species of woodpeckers (including one White bellied, and multiple sightings of Great Slaty, Yellow crowned and many Black headed). My main dip was Rufous bellied Woodpecker. Long bumpy rides on the back of a motorbike each day I was there to get to the sites. Contact me at mkearns700@outlook.com if you want more details on how to get to any of the sites I visited.
15th March 2017

hi Michael, that's some good info thanks. I'm not planning on going back through Cambodia on this trip. Unfortunately I couldn't really find anything online about birders "doing" Cambodia independently so my visit there was not exactly fantastic, bird-wise! Really, though, I had also decided to treat Cambodia as a transit country to Vietnam. Pileated Gibbon was my main target, so at least in that respect I was successful. Maybe I'll go back there one day though.

Tot: 0.517s; Tpl: 0.016s; cc: 10; qc: 29; dbt: 0.0096s; 1; m:saturn w:www (104.131.125.221); sld: 2; ; mem: 1.3mb