Taking the train in Cambodia: Phnom Penh-Kampot-Sihanoukville

This dispatch is from our Cambodia railway correspondent, Abigail Gilbert.

After a wait of 14 years, passenger trains are once again running in Cambodia. Train buffs will need no other excuse to get on board, but there are good reasons why any traveler might like to let the train take the strain.

Cambodia trains

Taking the train in Cambodia. Yes, they’re back!

Although plans are in the works for a country-wide network, the train service is currently limited to four destinations, running from Phnom Penh via Takeo and Kampot, terminating in Sihanoukville. This first foray into passenger trains runs only on weekends and public holidays, matching domestic demand for the two popular Khmer holiday destinations. Continue reading

The 10 best things to do on Otres

Located on the sunny shores of Southern Cambodia, the coastal community of Otres is so much more than just a beach destination. Although it is the perfect place to while away a few days enjoying sun, sand, and sea, you only have to scratch the surface and you’ll discover a fascinating community and an amazing array of activities to keep you entertained. As part of our guide to this beautiful beach, here’s our definitive list of the top things to do on Otres. We like the place so much that there are actually 11 activities on our top 10 list!

Things to do in Otres

Hit the high seas with a boat trip from Otres.

Boat trip

The classic. Become a castaway for a day exploring the spectacular beaches and colorful coral reefs of the numerous remote tropical islands off the coast of Southern Cambodia. Most boat trips from Otres take in up to three different islands, include snorkeling gear, lunch and beer and cost about $15. You can also hire a private boat for a group of you to go out deep sea fishing or go exploring in any direction you like!

Maximize your time in tropical paradise with a night or 2 at one of the beautiful rustic resorts on the picture-perfect island of Koh ta Kiev.

Picnic and bonfire on Long Beach

For those who don’t want to go that far to get away from it all, the empty stretch of white sand and palm trees between Otres 1 and Otres 2 is the perfect place to set up camp for an afternoon. Grab some take-away food and a few beers and go for a wander. Choose your favorite spot and soak up the peace and quiet. Those who fancy settling in for the long haul can even give their guesthouse a few dollars for a bundle of wood and have a little campfire under the stars, with drinks, music and no one around to disturb you.

*We advise leaving your valuables at home, making sure you don’t leave your belongings unattended and locking up your motorbikes (especially rentals!) as thefts are not unheard of.

Secret Beach Otres

Shh…don’t tell anyone! Take a walk from Otres to Secret Beach.

Walk to Secret Beach

The beautiful coastal walk to Secret Beach is a great way to pass a day. Just head out to the ocean, turn right and keep on walking. Turning left will take you all the way to Serendipity, so if you have a few hours to kill and want to stroll into town then this a great alternative to taking a tuk-tuk.

Secret Beach is about an hour’s walk from Otres 1, all the way past Otres 2, across the estuary (bear in mind you may have to swim at high tide!) and along the pristine beach. Climb across the rocks and reach a clear sandy stretch lined with jungle and a beach dotted with spectacular shells and coral. These days Secret Beach is not always quite so secret, but if you feel like going a little bit further, the next bay over is still peaceful and secluded.

There is also now road access to Secret Beach via the newly built Ream Road, just past the Pagoda in Otres Village. It’s a long and bumpy drive, but if you don’t fancy the trek then it’s still a great day out.

Kayaking

Escape the beach and spend a sunny day exploring the waterways and mangroves of Otres Village. Head up the tranquil river and check out the breathtaking Cambodian wildlife, or paddle out to sea and enjoy riding the waves as they crest onto the beach. Feeling strong? You can even head out to one of the islands! Just make sure you’re back to take in another spectacular Otres sunset. Kayaks can be rented at Pachamama or Mama Clare’s.

Fishing Otres

Gone fishing. You could be sitting in this seat fishing right now.

Fishing

If a day spent relaxing on the waterfront, sinking beers and throwing lines sounds like your kinda fun, then make your way to Lakeside bar in Otres Village. Pay $30 for equipment, bait, and a beer, and sit and fish to your heart’s content! The guys have a strict catch and release policy, but don’t let that spoil your fun. Enjoy the local Kampot Cider and grab some takeaway fish and chips from The Frying Yorkshireman up the street instead. Advance booking advised. Otres Marina also offer fishing day trips (book at least a day in advance) as well as the chance to hang out, drink beers, and fish at their premises.

Sailing and watersports

Take to the seas in style with sailing catamarans, windsurfing, kitesurfing, stand-up paddle boarding, skim boarding, sea kayaking and more. Head down to QueenCo Palm Beach on Otres 1 or Otres Marina on Otres 2 and take your pick of exciting watersports. Lessons are also available. Booking in advance is preferable but not essential!

Horse-riding

Enjoy cantering through the jungle and swimming in the ocean on an unforgettable horse-riding adventure in Otres with Liberty Ranch in Otres Village. Slow things down and get in touch with nature as we explore the beautiful countryside on horseback, before taking in a stunning sunset on the ocean and taking the saddles off for a late afternoon swim with the horses. Suitable for beginners and all age levels.

Things to do Otres

Take a moto trip to Kbal Chhay Waterfall.

Visit Kbal Chhay Waterfall

The beautiful Kbal Chhay Waterfall is about a 30-minute drive from Otres. Rent a motorbike or a scooter and enjoy the scenic journey out to the highway and along dirt roads. Although it can be quite the mission, especially in the rain, you’ll be rewarded with cascading water, swimming holes, friendly locals and plenty of hammocks. Spend a lazy afternoon drinking beer with the locals and go exploring in the nearby jungle. Bear in mind that weekends are normally packed with picnicking families, who will encourage yo a beer, or three!

Relaxing on the beach

Although there are plenty of ways to occupy your mind if you do get bored, the main draw of Otres will always be the beautiful beach and laid back atmosphere. There is no better way to spend a few days reading and relaxing in a hammock by the sea, sipping on a coconut and enjoying the simple pleasures of life. The chilled out community will make you feel right at home and soon you’ll find you never want to leave!

What to do on Otres Beach

Hit the beach in Ream National Park.

Ream National Park: Monkey Maya

If you think Kompong Som is pretty, just wait until you see Ream National Park! This breathtaking province lies between Sihanoukville and Kampot and is home to beautiful mangroves, lush jungle, and endless unspoiled beaches. Local fishing villages and tiny little islands like the spectacular Koh Sampouch are all within exploring distance, but there is also a Khmer Naval base and a large military presence in the area, so be wary of entering restricted areas. Rent a moto and spend a fun-filled day tooling the backroads, or take the boat to Monkey Maya and enjoy a few days of laid-back luxury on a relaxing tropical beach.

Swim with bioluminescent plankton

A highlight of everyone’s trip to Otres is a late night swim in an ocean sparkling with the seasonal electric-blue bioluminescent plankton. Watch the sea come to life as you plunge into the darkness and swim through the phosphorescent waves. This incredible bioluminescent phytoplankton is a true natural phenomenon and is well worth the effort, especially on dark nights.

Pachamama
Otres Village, opposite Lake Side [map]
T: 097 826 1402
facebook.com/pachamamacambodia

Mama Clare’s
Otres Village, past Otres Market and opposite Soksabay [map]
T: 097 690 2914
facebook.com/mamaclaresotresbeach

Lakeside Bar
Otres Village, second left by The Living Room [map]
T: 096 733 4025
facebook.com/lakesidefishingandbar

Hurricane Watersports @ QueenCo Palm Beach
Otres 1, first business on Otres [map]
T: 097 732 4236
facebook.com/queenco-palm-beach

Otres Marina
Otres 2, near Secret Garden [map]
T: 092230065

Liberty Ranch
Otres Village, on the main road before pagoda [map]
T: 097 257 0187
libertyranch-sihanoukville.com

Monkey Maya

Ream Beach [map]
T: 078 760 853
facebook.com/ream.national.park

How to get to Kep

Wondering how to get to Kep? Check our handy guide to getting to Kep from Phnom Penh, Kampot, Sihanoukville, and Siem Reap. We’ll cover all of your options for how to get to Kep, including taxis, tuk tuks, mini-buses, and even a riverboat.

How to get to Kep

Kep is within reach. Here’s how to get there.

How to get to Kep from Phnom Penh

Bus: Phnom Penh Sorya runs four buses a day to Kep, at 7:30 a.m., 9:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., and 2:45 p.m. Tickets cost $7 and while they claim that the trip takes 3.5 hours, Sorya buses are known for usually taking at least an hour more than their estimated time, and sometimes several hours more. Sorya is not one of our favorite bus companies in Cambodia — all of their buses are quite old — but this is the only full-size bus that goes from Phnom Penh to Kep and tickets can be purchased online.

How to get to Kep from Phnom Penh

Pick up your mail before you depart in style from the historic Phnom Penh post office.

Mini-bus: Cambodia Post runs a daily mini-bus from Phnom Penh to Kep at 7:30 a.m. that leaves from the Phnom Penh main Post Office. The cost is $8 for non-Cambodians and the trip takes just under four hours. We are fans of the Cambodia Post VIP van (read our review of it here) and would recommend this way of traveling to Kep. Tickets can be booked online in advance.

Taxi: A private taxi to Kep costs between $40 and $50 from Phnom Penh. Taxis are the standard Toyota Camry which can seat four passengers, but there’s usually limited space for luggage because they all have a propane tank in the trunk, so don’t plan to bring four massive suitcases with you. The trip takes around 3.5 hours. Taxis can be booked through your guesthouse, any travel agent, or your favorite tuk tuk driver.

Shared taxi: You can catch a shared taxi at Psar Dang kor in Phnom Penh. The cost is usually $5 per person, but the front seat counts as two. You’ll have to wait until the car is full before it will leave, and full means at least seven passengers (plus the driver). Frankly, we see no reason to take shared taxis other than the desire to have an “authentic experience.”

How to get to Kep from Kampot

We’ve got a whole guide to getting between Kep and Kampot, but here’s the executive summary.

Tuk tuk: The road is now fully paved and tuk tuks cost between $10 and $15 depending on your bargaining skills. This is the price for a one-way trip, but you are looking to make it a day trip, you can make it a round trip for only a few dollars more. The trip takes 35 to 45 minutes.

Taxi: Catching a moto taxi will cost between $3 and $6. A private car taxi will cost $20, but you will need to negotiate to get to that price.

How to get to Kep from Kampot

Rith Travel aka Kep Travel and Tours is the easiest way to get to Kep from Kampot.

Mini-bus: Rith Travel (also known as Kep Tours and Travel) runs a mini-bus twice a day, at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. It takes about 45 minutes and costs $4. Tickets can be purchased online in advance. We have also taken the Champa Mekong Express bus and would suggest you avoid it.

Boat: There’s a boat, the Crab Shuttle, that goes between Kampot and Kep for $9.50 one-way or $13.50 return.The Crab Shuttle leaves Kampot at 9:30 a.m. and arrives at the Kep Rabbit Island Pier around 11:30 a.m.

For more info, read: How to get from Kampot to Kep (and vice-versa).

How to get to Kep from Sihanoukville

To get to Kep from Sihanoukville you have a few options.

Mini-bus: Rith Travel runs mini-buses direct from Sihanoukville to Kep (with no stopping in Kampot!) three times a day. The current schedule is at 8 a.m., 12 p.m., and 2 p.m. The trip takes about four hours and costs $8. Rith Travel are a little bit disorganized but are a very nice family-run business. We’ve taken their bus from Sihanoukville to Kep and would recommend it. Tickets from Sihanoukville to Kep can be booked online in advance.

How to get to Kep from Sihanoukville

Mr. Dara is our favorite taxi driver in Sihanoukville!

Taxi: By taxi the trip from Sihanoukville takes about three hours and costs $35 to $40. Taxis are almost always Toyota Camrys that can fit four passengers but don’t have a ton of space for luggage. We can recommend Mr. Dara, a very friendly Sihanoukville-based taxi driver who has a Lexus SUV and speaks English. We’ve got more info on recommended Sihanoukville taxi drivers here.

Shared taxi: At Psar Leu in Sihanoukville you can catch a shared taxi (or hire a private one if you choose). Shared taxis cost $5-10 per person and will carry six or seven passengers — plus the driver — in a car that can comfortably fit five. If you want the front seat, you’ll pay more. This is an uncomfortable but effective way to practice your Khmer language skills.

How to get to Kep from Siem Reap

The options from Siem Reap to Kep are slightly more complicated, but it’s still well worth the effort. Here are your options:

Fly, bus, or taxi to Phnom Penh and bus, mini-bus or taxi from there: Here’s a run-down of how to get from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. From Phnom Penh you can take the bus — Sorya runs this route and although they say it takes 3.5 hours their buses are almost always an hour (or two) over schedule.

If you’re willing to stay overnight in Phnom Penh you can catch the morning Post Office VIP van to Kep, but the bus leaves at 7:30 a.m., which is too early to arrive by plane the same day. The Post Office VIP van is one of the best mini-bus experiences in the country, and we highly recommend it. Tickets can be purchased online in advance.

How to get to Kep from Siem Reap

Sky Angkor Airlines flies Siem Reap to Sihanoukville for cheap.

Fly to Sihanoukville and taxi or bus from there: Both Cambodia Angkor Air and Sky Angkor Air fly between Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. During high season Bayon Airlines also flies this route, but Sky Angkor Air is almost always the cheapest. From Sihanoukville you can take a taxi or the Rith Travel bus, as described in the Sihanoukville section above.

Taxi all the way: A taxi from Siem Reap to Kep costs between $75 and $100 and takes seven or eight hours. If you’re taking a dog with you (they love the beach, after all) this is the best way to go.

Night bus: There is also a Virak Buntham night bus that we would strenuously encourage you to avoid. Between the accusations of sexual assaults on passengers by staff and one of the worst records of night bus crashes in Cambodia, you couldn’t pay us to go on this bus.

Bus tickets purchased through links in this post to BookMeBus generate affiliate sales for us. This does not affect our reviews for specific bus companies or routes! For more about how we deal with advertising, affiliate sales, and stuff like that, you can read more here.

Cambodia’s Water Festival

Cambodia’s famous Water Festival is one of the highlights of the calendar year, bringing together people from across the country for three unforgettable days of boat racing, fireworks and festivities. Heralding the end of the rainy season and the coming of the Harvest moon, the Water & Moon Festival, or Bon Om Touk, has been celebrated along the banks of Phnom Penh’s famed Sisowath Quay for hundreds of years.

Phnom Penh water festival

Enjoying the celebrations on the Phnom Penh riverside.

After the cancellation of the event in recent years, 2016’s festival marks just the second Water Festival since the tragic events of 2010. This year, the Water Festival falls on November 13th to 15th to coincide with the full moon of the Buddhist calendar month of Kadeuk. Also known as the Harvest Moon, the moon has long been seen as a good omen promising a bountiful rice crop. This auspicious day is celebrated in villages all across Cambodia, but none more jubilantly than in the capital, where the carnival-like atmosphere of the Water Festival is illuminated by the light of the full moon.

The timing of Bon Om Touk also marks the changing direction of the Tonle Sap River, a unique natural phenomenon not experienced anywhere else in the world. During the rainy season, the heavy monsoons force the waters of the Mekong to flow back upstream along the Tonle Sap River to the Tonle Sap Lake. As the rains slow and the water level recedes, the river’s direction once again flows towards the sea, leaving behind rich silt to nourish the lands and plenty of fish to nourish the people.

Cambodian Water Festival

Preparing for the boat races.

The History of the Water-People

A true water culture, Cambodia’s ancient relationship between the Mekong, the people and the land dates back thousands of years. The famed navies of the Angkorian Kings fought and won many a battle on the waters of the Mekong and the Tonle Sap, and these mighty rivers have given life to some of the greatest Empires in Asia. The water festival is a celebration of the rebirth of the country through the monsoon rains, and the colorful boat races a vestige of the former military might of Angkor.

Dating back to Angkorian times, today’s Water Festival is a throwback to times past. Originating as a Khmer thanksgiving ceremony to celebrate the end of the monsoon, kick off the Cambodian fishing season and appease the river divinities, the Water Festival was also seen as a showcase of military prowess, with the 12th century victories of King Jayavarman VII immortalized in the colorful boat racing traditions and adorned upon the walls of the Bayon and Banteay Chhmar Temples.

Cambodia Water Festival

Colorful boat races at the Phnom Penh Water Festival.

The Boat Racing

Still the biggest draw to the Water Festival, the colorful boat races are remarkably similar to the 800-year-old engravings on the Angkor temples. Made in the same style, the brightly-colored boats sit low on the water and are manned by anywhere from thirty to eighty people, with a captain who dances to the rhythm of the drums on the bow as encouragement to the rowers as they move swiftly through the water.

Historically, the boat races were a chance for the Angkorian people to train and prepare for battle, with the King selecting the champions to help defend the Kingdom. Today the stakes are just as high, with the honor of every man’s village to fight for. Every villager takes pride in preparing for the Water Festival, painstakingly hand carving out the boat and training for months before pulling together all their savings and making the long trek to the capital to demonstrate their strength and stamina in front of the King.

Water Festival Phnom Penh

Water Festival at night.

The Three Ceremonies

As well as the boat racing, there are three other traditional pillars of the Water Festival to celebrate and give thanks to both the land and water.

Loy Pratip: an illuminated fluvial parade. Historically a candle-lit naval procession, these days this is a spectacle in its own right, where beautifully bedecked boats drift up and down the waterways

Sampeas Preah Khe: the full moon ceremony. A good sign of the coming harvest, November’s full moon is celebrated with salutations and offerings throughout the country, with locals praying for a bountiful yield

Auk Ambok: a traditional delicacy made of flattened rice, bananas, and coconut, traditionally eaten after midnight, when revelers gather at the temples to celebrate the harvest moon

Cambodia Water Festival

The riverside area has a carnival-like atmosphere during Water Festival.

A Carnival in the Capital

This year’s festival in Phnom Penh is due to attract well over a million spectators from across the country, the region and the world, with the brightly painted boats, megaphones. and luminous T-shirts adding a distinctly modern feel to the historic festivities. The streets are lined with pop-up food stalls, funfairs, and open-air live concerts, and the city is decorated with colorful bunting and banners.

As night falls, the city comes to life. The Royal Palace is illuminated with a series of gold lights and brilliant fireworks light up the dark sky as the flotillas glide down the river. With holiday discounts, delicious food, and a jovial crowd, it’s easy to see why the Water Festival is the most popular Cambodian holiday after Khmer New Year.

For these three days, the capital is transformed. With the huge crowds on the riverbank cheering for all the teams as they sprint downstream, there is a huge sense of sportsmanship and camaraderie and for Cambodians, who love any excuse to celebrate, the Water Festival is the perfect time to let their hair down and enjoy spending quality time with family and friends, old and new.

It’s not just a temple…Banteay Srei District in Siem Reap

Most who have heard of Banteay Srei know it as one of the outlying temples of Angkor in Siem Reap. But Banteay Srei is more than just a single temple — it’s a whole district that has retained much of the charm of provincial Cambodia. These days, Siem Reap is a built-up tourist town that can feel more international than Cambodian. However, the rice paddies of Banteay Srei District are only a short ride away, and well worth stopping by for a day or two to see rural life in Cambodia before development changes the face of it.

Banteay Srei Siem Reap

Banteay Srei is still Siem Reap province but feels like it’s a world away.

Local business owners in Banteay Srei have started an awareness campaign to encourage tourism beyond the temple, and in truth the district offers a surprising number of activities for visitors. True, these offerings are not as polished as what you’ll find in the town of Siem Reap. But that’s Banteay Srei’s charm — its lack of experience with tourists means that it has retained the beauty and local flavor of the Cambodian countryside. Continue reading

The best backpacker hostels on Otres

The beautiful white sandy beaches of Otres are home to some of the best backpacker hostels in Southern Cambodia. The laid-back cousin of Sihanoukville, Otres is famous for its chilled vibes and rustic charm. While those seeking hot showers, AC, and swimming pools may still prefer the plush high-end digs of the city, if you’re looking for a home away from home on one of the most beautiful beaches in Cambodia, then you’ve come to the right place. Our helpful guide to budget accommodation on Otres will help you find the perfect place to set up shop for a few nights or even a few months!

Backpacker hostels Otres Sihanoukville beach

Guide to the best hostels of Otres (so you can stay forever).

The community of Otres is divided into three unique and varied locales, the backpacker-friendly Otres 1, the relaxed riverside haven of Otres Village and the more upscale Otres 2. Divided by an empty kilometer-long stretch of white sands and palm trees, Otres 1 and Otres 2 both have some of the best dorms and budget rooms around, with unbeatable sea views, Netflix lounges, family-style dinners and 50-cent draft beer.

Set a little way back from the beach, the up-and-coming Otres Village is home to the only free dorm in Sihanoukville*. Even with the world renowned Otres Market drawing in big crowds every Saturday, and an ever expanding array of new bars, restaurants, and activities, Otres Village still retains a relaxed riverside atmosphere. Plus, with the beach just five minutes away, you will never feel like you’re missing out.

With so much to choose from, it can be tough to make a decision, but that’s where we come in! So, without any further ado, this is our definitive guide to the best backpackers hostels on Otres. Continue reading

Cambodia scams: US dollar and currency scams

Foreigners living in large cities in Cambodia have the distinct advantage of using US dollars to pay for most goods and services (for now). Americans especially will appreciate being able to withdraw funds from their US bank accounts without having to ponder the classic currency exchange question of the ages — do you withdraw in local currency or USD?

However, the lack of currency import and export controls, and other relatively loose financial regulation, leaves several traps for the unwary, and can lead to expensive and embarrassing transactions. This is not a new problem, but one that seems to bubble up especially around major holidays and during tourist season. Here are some classic Cambodia currency traps:

Ripped bills Cambodia

Ripped, torn, or worn: These US dollars were all rejected in Cambodia.

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The best backpacker hostels in Sihanoukville

Before deciding which Sihanoukville hostel is right for you, it is important to understand the layout of town. There are three tourist hotspots: Victory Hill, Serendipity Beach, and Otres Beach. All areas have their own unique characteristics and are spaced along the coast around 7km apart from one another. In this guide to Sihanoukville’s best hostels, we’ll cover backpacker hostels in all three areas.

Monkey Republic Sihanoukville

Monkey Republic is one of the most popular hostels on Serendipity Beach Road.

Serendipity Beach is where all the action is. It is located at the center of the Sihanoukville coast line and delivers pretty much everything you could want from a coastal town: beach bars, loud music, and drinks served in buckets.

Victory Hill is the quietest of the three, and is more of an expat community than a tourist destination. It has some good restaurants for bargain prices, and it may be a place to keep in mind if you want to get away from the party scene in Sihanoukville.
Continue reading

Which Cambodian island paradise is right for you?

With azure seas lapping at white sandy beaches, palm trees, and a horizon dotted with tropical islands, southern Cambodia is reminiscent of Thailand of days gone by. Thoughts of Cambodia normally conjure up images of temples, yellow-robed monks, and children riding buffalo through rice paddies, but the country also offers island paradises with days spent lazing on lush tropical beaches and nights partying away at an all-night jungle rave. With so many options to choose from you may wonder how to choose, but this handy summary will help you find your perfect Cambodia island destination.

Where the Cambodian coast meets the Gulf of Thailand, the ocean is dotted with hundreds of islands, with over 25 off the coast of Sihanoukville and Ream National Park alone. Although some are uninhabited and others are privately owned, there is definitely a sandy island paradise somewhere that’s just waiting to tick all your boxes!

Koh Rong Koh Toch

Koh Rong is known for cheap accommodation and more fun than you can handle.

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Understanding Phnom Penh property types

Cambodia’s capital city has more and more housing built every day, but most Phnom Penh real estate fall into one of six categories: Traditional Khmer houses, Khmer-style shophouses, renovated shophouses, Western apartments, full-service apartments, and freestanding villas.

Cambodian wooden house

Expats romanticize Cambodian wooden houses, but they aren’t easy to find!

Traditional Khmer houses

As Phnom Penh grows, traditional wooden Khmer houses are harder and harder to find in the city. Cambodian wooden houses are made of wood and on stilts (this isn’t the first year Phnom Penh has flooded, after all); traditionally the breezy area under the house was used for hanging hammocks, lounging, and keeping livestock safe. Today, almost all available wooden houses in Phnom Penh have been renovated, and the downstairs will have been turned into a ground floor made from concrete, and many have been turned into restaurants. While the idea of a wooden house is charming, they can be hot and prone to mosquitoes — many expats find themselves spending most of their time in the concrete part of the house because it’s easier to keep cool with air-conditioning. Continue reading