- Accommodation: Angkor International Hotel ($21/night for a triple with A/C and private bathroom) – Clean, inexpensive, centrally located budget hotel. We booked it online ahead of time on Agoda.com.
- Friends – A nonprofit whose proceeds benefit projects for street children. It serves mostly western food, but it has a good selection of tapas, which were excellent. Even though it was expensive ($50 for 3 people) we were happy to pay more since it was going towards a good cause. And most of the waiters are former street children who are training in the hospitality field.
- Happy Herb’s – Serves regular and “happy” pizzas – both are average.
The 9:45am bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh was relatively easy compared to other bus trips, although it did stop every 90 minutes and probably should have taken half the time if there were better roads, but that’s pretty typical for all bus rides in Asia! We got to Phnom Penh around 4:00pm and then took a $3 tuk-tuk to our hotel, the Angkor International Hotel. The tuk-tuk driver was very eager for our business the next day, so much so that he told us he’d be waiting for us at 8am, 9am, 10am, 11am and noon, even though we told him we weren’t sure of our plans yet. The hotel was fine for 2 nights, and most importantly it was clean and inexpensive ($7 each for a triple/per night) plus it was centrally located near the river front.
To be honest I found Phnom Penh to be very depressing. Granted we were only there for a couple of days and I’m sure there is so much that we didn’t see, but the child prostitution problem is out of control. I always heard that it was rampant in many countries in Asia, particularly Thailand and Cambodia, but I had no idea that it would be so blatant in broad daylight. We saw disgusting, creepy, old white men walking around with young Cambodian girls, even eating meals together at restaurants. Everytime we saw one we wanted to shout at them, “So what brings you to Phnom Penh?” And you could always tell the sketchy men based on their look, or as we liked to refer to it as the “predator uniform.” Usually the guy was middle aged, balding, wearing a Hawaiian shirt or something equally as tacky, shorts and sneakers. They looked like they should be at Disney World – not tourists in Cambodia.
The worst part is that we felt so powerless. What were we supposed to do, call the police? The police are probably working with the pimps to make money off the girls. We thought that Cambodia should change its visa requirements to make it more difficult for single, white males to enter the country, but that’s unrealistic, and besides I’m sure its not a priority for the government. Sex tourism is such a big business and brings in a lot of money for the country, so I don’t see how it’s going to change anytime soon. After everything this country has been though, it’s absolutely devastating to see this happening and it makes you hate these disgusting men for taking advantage of these vulnerable people – especially children.
There are several NGOs working to combat this problem, but one of the most impressive is the Somaly Mam Foundation. While there’s still so much to be done, it’s encouraging to see that Somaly Mam has had so much support in the international community for her efforts to end child sex trafficking in Cambodia, and elsewhere throughout the world.
The next day was probably the saddest day of the trip as we visited the S-21 prison and the killing fields. I’m embarrassed to admit that I knew very little about the genocide by the Khmer Rouge during the 70s, and it was hard to fathom that 1 in 4 Cambodians were killed during this time. That’s a staggering statistic for such a small country. And the Khmer Rouge was brutal – on par with the Nazi’s. Pol Pot’s motto was “Better to kill an innocent than let an enemy go free” – talk about paranoid psychopath. After learning more about the genocide and then seeing the current state of the country – how it’s still so poor and has become a destination for sex tourism – it left us all feeling very depressed.
We hired a tuk-tuk driver for the day who took us around for $20. He was so nice and spoke perfect English. And when we gave him a small tip at the end he said, “That you so much for giving me a job. I am so lucky.” Our hearts broke upon hearing this. It’s so easy to forget how unbelievably blessed we are.
The next morning we headed for Thailand! I had been looking forward to Thailand for the for entire trip after all the wonderful things I kept hearing about it. The Phnom Penh to Bangkok route isn’t very popular among the backpacker crowd; most go from Siem Reap which is much closer to the border. So we did some research online and found that Capitol Tours organized buses to the border and then mini-vans from the border to Bangkok. Since I had yet to have a good mini-van experience I thought I’d outsmart them and book a coach bus to the border and then find another coach bus on the other side separately. Well it turns out there are no coach buses on the other side, at least none that are close by, so we ended up having to take a mini-van anyways.
We went to the Capitol Tours office the day before and bought 3 bus tickets to Poipet (the Cambodian border town). The woman charged us $10/each. The trip from PP to Poipet took about 8 hours – we left at 6:30am and arrived around 2:30pm. As usual the bus stopped every 90 minutes and blasted music for most of the way. The drive at home would probably have taken 3 hours, but at least the A/C worked and the seats were relatively comfortable.
Poipet was a very sketchy border town. I’m sure there’s tons of smuggling going on because it seems pretty easy to walk across the border without anybody stopping you. Nobody even looked at our bags. The customs process took about an hour and we got a 15 day entry stamp for Thailand.
When we got on the Thai side and realized that finding a coach bus was going to be very difficult, we began looking for mini-vans going to Bangkok. We were hounded by some touts who tried to get us to take their mini-van. After I explained to the guy how much I hated mini-vans he assured me that this one had A/C that worked, that it was leaving very soon and that there would only be 1 person per seat (as opposed to cramming multiple people into one seat). After we paid him $10/each of course he disappeared. So we ended up waiting around until they could fill the van to the brim with people and we realized we were totally ripped off when we saw other girls paying 100 baht each ($3). Then they tried to get 2 of us to squeeze into the backseat with this fat, drunk French guy, at which point we just refused. We had been traveling since 6am that morning and just wanted to get on the road to Bangkok, so I was pretty cranky at that point. I tried to explain to the guy that there was no more room but he didn’t want to leave until the van was literally filled to the brim with people and luggage. Then I started to ask everybody how much they paid, and obviously we got duped and paid more than everybody else. They finally threw the French guy off for being too fat and taking up too many seats. I just remember the Thai driver saying to him, “You’re just too fat! You’re too fat!” The best part is that in the US he probably wouldn’t even be considered that overweight. Then they shoved a couple of small Thai girls in the back and finally we were on our way to Bangkok. That day I learned that I could no longer try to control these frustrating situations; you just have to go with the flow and hope for the best!
Luckily this mini-van was actually on the newer side and had proper A/C, plus the roads in Thailand are really good compared to other places we had been. It took about 4 hours to get to central Bangkok from the border. The driver let us know we had arrived by abruptly pulled over and shouting, “Get out! Get out now!” I guess he just really wanted us to get out of his van. He dropped us off near Khao San Road and then we hailed a taxi and took it to the Shangri-La to meet up with my mom and Jul. We got to the hotel around 9:30pm. It was a long day of travelling but there were actually some pretty funny moments at times. We were just happy to finally be in Thailand!