Happy Khmer New Year!

Look around and you’ll see Cambodian New Year, Bon Chol Chhnam Thmei, being celebrated around the country. The holiday, also called Khmer New Year, is Cambodia’s most important, bringing the country to a near standstill as city residents head home to the provinces to spend time with their families, have parties and visit their local pagoda.

Khmer New Year decorations in Cambodia

At last! The time has come to bust out the Khmer New Year decorations!

The holiday celebrates the end of the harvest season and marks the start of a new year (and also the start of the truly hot hot season). Although the holiday is officially only three or four days long—this year it’s April 14, 15, 16—it can extend onto one or both adjoining weekends, and often even a few days before that. In the days leading up to Khmer New Year, prices, especially for transportation, can go much higher than usual.

It’s true that Cambodians get to have an awful lot of new years celebrations, and it was pretty recently that we celebrated international new year and then Lunar New Year (also called Chinese New Year). But Khmer New Year is different — it’s Cambodia’s most important holiday and one of the only times during the year that Cambodians get substantial time off from work. Houses are decorated with stars, fairy lights, plants, and various food and drink (usually Fanta) offerings, and everyone wears new clothes. There are always several pop songs released every year in celebration of Khmer New Year—this is what 2018 has to offer.

Traditionally, Khmer New Year was when everyone who was born in that year would count themselves a year older. So in a sense, it was every Cambodian’s birthday. This goes a long way to explaining why you’ll hear booming music out of most houses in the countryside this week, and why you’ll hear endless amounts of karaoke until the wee hours. It’s a birthday party for the entire country! These days, though, more and more Cambodians are keeping track of their actual date of birth, but that hasn’t stopped everyone from partying  at Khmer New Year.

During Khmer New Year, Phnom Penh is eerily quiet, with most restaurants and businesses closed to allow their employees to head home. In Siem Reap, it’s just the opposite. The city is festooned with New Year’s stars, and the road to the temples have holiday decorations all over them. It’s a holiday tradition to head to Pub Street, and for once, tourists were barely visible among the thousands of Cambodians that were out, enjoying the live music and performances.

World's biggest rice cake Cambodia

The world’s biggest rice cake heading to Angkor Thom for the 2015 celebration.

In Siem Reap, a three-day New Year’s event at the Angkor temples called Angkor Sankranta takes place that is very popular with Cambodians who go to play traditional games. For the last two years running, there was a world record set for the largest sticky rice cake in the world made from sticky rice, mung bean, and pork, and then later a rice cake-eating contest. It’s likely that there will be an even bigger num ansom chrouk this year. Foreigners and locals can attend the event for free, but if any non-Cambodian wants to enter the temples, they will still need to pay the usual $37 entrance fee.

In Phnom Penh, there are usually fireworks and you’ll see impromptu parties set up with a boombox playing Khmer tunes in the street. Cambodians who haven’t been granted enough time off from work to head to the provinces wander past, stopping to have a cheerful dance in the streets. Wat Botum Park is also a good place to visit to see traditional games being played.

Khmer New Year is a good time to get out of the city and check out the countryside, where you’ll find lots of parties, friendly neighbors and happy children. Don’t be surprised if you’re invited to join in the celebrations. Susaday Chhnam Thmei!

Review: Giant Ibis night bus, Phnom Penh-Siem Reap

Giant Ibis night bus at a glance…

  • Price: $15
  • Schedule: 11 p.m. and 11:30 p.m.
  • Time: 6 to 7 hours
  • Buy tickets online
  • Over the years, I’ve taken more Giant Ibis night bus journeys than I care to admit. When I first moved to Cambodia, I vowed I would never take a night bus in Cambodia.  Since then, I’ve made an exception for Giant Ibis because of their safety record and precautions. I’m now a regular on the Giant Ibis night bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. In this post, I’ll share some details about the company and the trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap (and vice-versa).

    Giant Ibis night bus Cambodia

    The Giant Ibis night bus looks great in the morning, too.

    Night buses in Cambodia are notoriously unsafe. Giant Ibis, on the other hand, makes safety a priority. Their  buses go slowly, with a maximum speed of 60km (37 miles) per hour. They enforce this by transmitting the speed via GPS to the Giant Ibis office so that management knows if a driver breaks the rules and go faster. Going slowly is not only safer, but allows for a better night’s sleep, because even at at these speeds the bus usually arrives in six or seven hours. Another safety precaution Giant Ibis takes is to always have two drivers on each bus, and they switch half-way through the journey. If one driver feels fatigued he can switch out and take a nap. Continue reading

What’s going on with work permits in Cambodia?

Update Apr 5, 2018:

They’ve extended the deadline for work permit applications until April 30th. This is handy because they never officially announced the previous deadline. Unfortunately, the extension does not include an amnesty for previous years’ fines as it did in 2017. They have also announced that employers will be fined $630 for employees who do not have a work permit and employees will be fined $10 per day for overdue work permit extensions.

So if you haven’t gotten a work permit, now is probably the time to do it. The cost is $100 per calendar year that you have had an EB visa (formerly the “ordinary” or “business” visa) and $100 for the current year. If you work for an employer, they need to have applied for a quota for foreign workers. If your employer neglected to do this, you will need to apply as a self-employed worker.

Those who are self-employed report that their applications are being rejected multiple times for not having a business license. Those who persevere have reported that on the fifth or tenth attempt, they have gotten approved. So keep trying. If you are self-employed, do not list a business name or they will (understandably) request a business license. Those who have been approved report entering “freelance/freelance/salary 0/category X (other) 100 (other)” on their application.

I can’t keep up with the changing work permit information or with emails I get from readers asking for advice on their situation, so if you have questions or need updates, please visit the Cambodia Visa and Work Permit Group on Facebook.

Update Mar 8, 2018:

The deadline to apply for a 2018 work permit is either the end of March or the start of Khmer New Year (April 14th). Both have been reported, so take your pick. If you applied last year using the online system, you can login using the same username/password and click “renew.” You’ll need to provide a new “physical aptitude certificate” and a copy of your current visa, but other than that, everything will be saved in your application from last year.

If you’re in Phnom Penh, you’ll need to get your health certificate from the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training. Go early in the day and do it soon; it can take up to two weeks to get your certificate. The cost is $25. If you’re in Siem Reap you can get one at Neak Tep clinic in less than an hour for the same price.

Update Oct 11, 2017:

New, unofficial and often contradictory memos about immigration and work permits are being released by the various ministries on a near-daily basis. Today, it’s being said that you cannot get a 6- or 12-month EB visa extension even if you have a work permit, and will need a letter from an employer. For those who are self-employed, they need a residency letter from immigration, letter from police, and three months of bank statements to show they can support themselves.

Unless your visa needs to be renewed this week, I would suggest waiting for the dust to settle. It’s clear that they haven’t decided what the “rules” are or how they will be enforced, so there’s no point in getting into a panic today, because the information may be entirely different by tomorrow. I’ll update this post once something more substantial is released.

Update Oct 5, 2017:

As reported in the Phnom Penh Post, from the start of the month work permits are now needed to renew most 6- and 12-month EB visa extensions. (EB visa extensions are the ones that most expats are on, also called the ‘ordinary’ or ‘business’ visa.) Although there has not been a government announcement, the new rules are already being enforced. Wondering if there are any exceptions? Keep reading.

Cambodia work permits

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re going to need a work permit.

Those who want to to extend their 6- or 12-month EB visa need to bring a copy of their work permit with them, which will then be submitted with their passport to the Ministry of Immigration. If you do not yet have a work permit you can bring a formal letter from your employer, which should include your full name, passport number, job title, and dates of employment. Letters must be signed and stamped. Continue reading

The best bars in Siem Reap

Temple Town, as Siem Reap is fondly known, has no shortage of watering holes no matter the season. And while Pub Street is the center of the alcohol-fueled action, our favorite bars in Siem Reap are off the main drag. Read on to find out which are the most famous (and infamous) bars, and where the hidden speakeasies, best craft cocktails, and cheap margaritas are in Siem Reap.

Siem Reap Pub Street bars

Pub Street is home to what are arguably Siem Reap’s worst bars, unless you’re down to party, that is.

Pub Street

Angkor What?

Known for its supersized “bucket” cocktails, thumping beats and patron-contributed wall decorations, Angkor What? is allegedly the first bar to have opened on Pub Street in 1998. Come for the cheap drinks and friendly backpacker crowd at this dive bar, stay for the people watching and battle-of-the-bass with the bar across the street, Temple Club. Shoes do not seem to be required for service here, although they are recommended.

Temple Club

Like the other members of the Temple Group, the Temple Club is loud, over the top, catchy and obsessed with freebies. This neon landmark is opposite Angkor What? On Pub Street, and boasts similarly priced beers, cocktails and buckets, but thanks to its stately Angkorian-inspired decor, is missing the divey charm of its neighbor until you hit the upstairs dance floor. It’s a bit of a trip to follow up your visit to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world with a theme park-esque drinking session, but it’s certainly not dull.

Long's Bar Siem Reap

Long’s Bar features wonderful cocktails and air-conditioning. What more could you ask for?

Outer Pub Street / Old Market

Long’s Bar

Located on a small alley between Belmiro’s and Miss Wong’s, Long Bar is a stylish, comfortable bar with great drinks that has attracted a dedicated expat clientele who sing the praises of their friendly staff and powerful air conditioning (which is less common in Siem Reap than you might think). There are always drink specials on the board, and happy hour from 5 to 7 p.m. featuring $0.50 draft beers to compete with its neighbor and $2.50 cocktails. Our favorites are the Kampot Pepper Martini and Earl Grey G&T, with plenty of free refills of roasted peanuts with garlic and basil.

Belmiro’s

Belmiro’s is more of a restaurant-with-cheap-drinks than a bar, but the pizza, wings and other eats are delicious and make this an even more attractive place to hang out. It’s only a block away from Pub Street, but has something for everyone. Happy hour from 5 to 7 p.m. offers $0.50 draft beer and $1.50 mixed drinks.

Laundry Bar

Laundry Bar is one of those places that is tough to nail down—leather couches and gold accents with wooden pallet coffee tables, cheap cocktails and a French “pub food” menu featuring sausages and fries, breezy outdoor seating and a pool table. It’s accessible and not pretentious, but not quite welcoming enough to settle into all night. We recommend the strong “ti punch” or a G&T.

Miss Wong's Siem Reap

Experience old tymey Shanghai glamour in Siem Reap at Miss Wong’s.

Miss Wong

The original Siem Reap classy cocktail bar, Miss Wong revives noir Shanghai silver screen glamour on an alley parallel to Pub Street for a food and drink experience intended to transport you. Now, of course Siem Reap is no Shanghai, but the infused gin and tonics, SE Asian twists on classic cocktails, and steamers full of dumplings are delicious.

Menaka

Siem Reap’s first speakeasy, Menaka, is a bright, clean-cut cafe in the front, moody library-esque cocktail bar in the back. With a sophisticated drink menu by CLA Beverage Consulting (operators of Le Boutier in Phnom Penh) which rates drinks on sweet, sour, strength and refreshing, and takes inspiration from three major Cambodian time periods, you will have plenty to keep you occupied here. Extra points if you can find your way through the double-mirrored door entrance without the staff pointing you in the right direction!

Viva!

Viva!’s towering $1.50 frozen margaritas are absolutely the best cure for sore feet after a hot day visiting temples. They also serve decent Mexican and Khmer food, if you’ve been traveling in the region for a bit and craving a taco or quesadilla.

YOLO Bar Siem Reap

You only live once, so you might as well waste your life at Siem Reap’s YOLO Bar.

New Street A “Little Pub Street”

Yolo Bar

Behind U-Care on New Street A are a half-dozen backpacker bars of which Yolo Bar is first and foremost. The thumping tunes and cheap drinks attract a young crowd who stay until the wee hours drinking buckets, playing beer pong, and taking advantage of free shots that are passed around at regular intervals all night.

Soul Train

Officially called Soul Train Reggae bar and sporting a reggae-themed interior, Soul Train offers a laid back, if loud night out. Attracting a backpacker crowd, the drinks here are big, cheap, and strong. There’s also outdoor seating available, plus a food menu if you’ve got the munchies.

Barcode gay bar Siem Reap

The cabaret show at Barcode is one of Cambodia’s best.

Barcode

We’re not sure if Barcode is the only gay bar left standing in Siem Reap (they seem to come and go) but even if it’s not, it’s probably still the best. This French-owned bar and lounge has highly entertaining cabaret performances from 9:30 until 11:30 p.m., followed by a DJ spinning dance tunes until 2 a.m. (and sometimes later).

Further afield

One Eleven Gallery

This chic contemporary art gallery and bar offers a place for those craving that slightly more cosmopolitan feel that is often lacking in Temple Town. One Eleven Gallery have regular exhibitions of international artists, whose work can best be appreciated from the bar, with gin and tonic in hand.

Balthazar Wine Bar

One of the few places in Siem Reap catering to the non-backpacker crowd, Balthazar has an extensive international wine list (many available by the glass) and simple wood, leather, and wrought-iron furnishings that recall a suburban backyard party on a summer evening, down to the cheese and charcuterie boards. Seating is limited, so not recommended for large groups, but its location between Wat Bo Road and the river means it is a convenient spot to kick off an evening.

Siem Reap Brewpub beer

Sample Cambodia’s finest suds at Siem Reap Brewpub.

Siem Reap Brewpub

With a brewer from Singapore, malt from Germany, and hops from Australia, Siem Reap Brewpub is an international operation that’s great for large groups. They make six types of beer on site, including an IPA, a honey weiss, dark ale, and saison. If you want to try a few they’ve got a sampler of the four most popular beers. They’ve also got a full food menu, with Cambodian and Western dishes designed to be eaten with beer, of course.

Village Cafe

Just outside of the Kandal Village enclave, Village Cafe is a put-together bistro with great French food, a beautiful bar and al fresco sidewalk seating. Formerly the home of Armand’s Restaurant, the Village Cafe has turned this beautiful space and peak-through kitchen to its advantage. It also has an art gallery and regular exhibitions upstairs, DJ nights, and a two-for-one happy hour. A great place to have a quiet dinner, attended by very well trained staff. C’est parfait, no?

Angkor What?

Open 2 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Pub Street, Siem Reap
facebook.com/theangkorwhatbar

Temple Club

Open 8 a.m. to 3 a.m.
Pub Street, Siem Reap
T: 015 999 922
facebook.com/TempleClubPubStreet

Long’s Bar

Open 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Doung Hem St, Old Market, Siem Reap
T: 012 447 363
facebook.com/longsbarsiemreap

Belmiro’s

Open Monday through Saturday, 12 p.m. to 2 a.m.
7 Street 7, Old Market, Siem Reap
T: 095 779 930
facebook.com/belmiros.pizza

Laundry Bar

Open daily, 4 p.m. until late
T: 017 843 428
Street 9, Old Market, Siem Reap
facebook.com/laundry.bar.3

Menaka

Open daily, 7:30 a.m. to 2 a.m.
2 Thnou Street, Old Market, Siem Reap
T: 089 696 789
facebook.com/menakalounge

Miss Wong

Open daily, 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.
The Lane, Old Market, Siem Reap
T: 092 428 332
misswong.net

Viva!

Corner of Street 9 and Street 11, Old Market, Siem Reap
T: 092 209 154
ivivasiemreap.com

Yolo Bar

Open daily, 5 p.m. to 3 a.m.
New Street A, Siem Reap
facebook.com/yolobarsiemreap

Soul Train Reggae Bar Open daily, 5 p.m. to 3 a.m.
New Street A, Siem Reap
T: 086 430 740
facebook.com/soultrainreggaebar

Barcode

Open daily, 8 p.m. til late
New Street A near Pokambor Ave, Siem Reap
T: 092 800 702
barcodesiemreap.com

One Eleven Gallery

Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Wat Damnak Roundabout, Siem Reap
T: 095 930 090
oneelevengallery.com

Balthazar Wine Bar

Open daily, 5 p.m. to midnight
Achar Sva Street (riverside, near corner of Street 25), Siem Reap
T: 010 270 645
facebook.com/fred.siemreap

Siem Reap Brewpub

Open daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Street 5 at Street 14, Siem Reap
T: 080 888 555
siemreapbrewpub.asia

Village Cafe

Open daily 8 a.m. to midnight
Tep Vong Street (near Street 14), Siem Reap
T: 092 305 401
facebook.com/villagecafecambodia

Review: The InterContinental Gym, Phnom Penh

You’ve requested more Phnom Penh gym reviews, and I’m here to deliver. When I first moved to Phnom Penh I joined the gym at the Great Duke (formerly the Intercontinental Hotel). The Great Duke gym is seriously underrated and probably Phnom Penh’s best value, high-end gym.

Fredrik Carlsward

Fredrik is happy to show you how to get muscles as big as his.

The gym was set up by Fredrik Carlswärd and Maria Ahlberg, married Swedish bodybuilders and fitness freaks. They are no longer there, but are the reason that the Great Duke gym is so great–it’s was put together by people that actually work out! So while the gym is small, it has everything you need to get fit.

The staff at the Great Duke gym are all actually into fitness; they’ve hired Cambodian bodybuilders to help out which means they actually know how to use the gym equipment and can help out newbies (something that most of the other gyms in town can’t boast). There are also yoga and core classes in their attached studio.

The locker room is one of the perks, featuring a sauna and a not-crowded locker experience. You can also rent yearly lockers for $30, which is handy if you don’t want to carry around your gym shoes and shampoo all the time.

InterContinental Hotel Pool in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Gym membership includes the perk of getting to lounge by the InterCon’s lovely pool.

Gym membership also includes access to the Great Duke’s pool, which is undeniably lovely, and they also lend nice beach towels for the pool instead of gym towels, which is a nice touch.

Prices are good, relative to other options in town. With The Place Gym, if you don’t sign up for a full year you end up paying out the nose, but the Great Duke offers many reasonably priced short term offers. One year is $850, although if you’re willing to go during off-peak hours it’s only $510. Six months is $500 for peak time or $300 for off-peak and three months is $290 or $175 off-peak. They also offer discounts for corporate groups and couples. One-year memberships also include 10 one-day passes for family and friends, and 10% off when it’s time to renew.

The InterContinental Gym

Small but perfectly formed.

The positives outweigh the negatives, but as always there are negatives. For one, the location; the Intercontinental isn’t particularly central, but if you’re living in that part of town it’s not a problem. I only stopped using this gym when I moved. And while there are a fair number of cardio machines, four each for treadmill, elliptical, and stationary bicycles, there’s a 30 minute limit during peak hours because it can get crowded. And finally, the day pass cost is ridiculously expensive, $40 to use the gym and the pool (and I thought The Place was bad at $15 a day!).

But overall, the gym at the Great Duke is still one of the best options for people living in southwest Phnom Penh and it offers very good value for money. If you’re looking for a high-end gym and can go during the day, this is the best rate you are going to find in town.

The gym is open 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday and 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

InterContinental Hotel Gym

296 Mao Tse Tung Blvd, Phnom Penh
T: 023 424 888 ext. 5000
thegreatdukehotels.com.kh/leisure-services/fitness-centre

How to get from Phnom Penh to Kampot (and vice-versa)

Not too long ago, getting from Phnom Penh to Kampot by bus was a complete headache. Buses detoured to stop in Kep on their way to Kampot, making the trip closer to five hours long. Now, though, there are direct mini-buses from Phnom Penh to Kampot that make the trip in around three hours, and taxis are even faster.

Kampot River Cambodia

Going from Phnom Penh to Kampot? Here’s how to get there.

Taxi

You can get a taxi from Phnom Penh to Kampot for between $35 and $50, although the prices can rise during public holidays (and that not so public holiday, Chinese New Year). Taxis are generally very clean Toyota Camrys that can seat four passengers. However, most have very little room for baggage, so if you have a lot of baggage, you may want to look into getting a van. Taxi drivers like to affirm their existence by driving as fast as possible and you’ll be able to make the trip in less than three hours. You can book a taxi online in advance, or at any travel agent or guesthouse in Phnom Penh or Kampot, although they will add a surcharge. Larger CRV or SUV taxis cost around $60. They seat four passengers more comfortably than the regular taxis.

Bus

There are several bus companies that go from Phnom Penh to Kampot, but many stop in Kep first, making the trip a long five hours.

Sorya is the major player on this route. They drive older buses that stop in Kep first. They used to be ridiculously cheap, but now at $8.50 per ticket there’s not really much reason to take them over one of the more comfortable mini-vans listed below.

Check all of the bus options between Phnom Penh and Kampot with BookMeBus.

Giant Ibis mini-bus

Travel in style with a mini-bus between Phnom Penh and Kampot.

Mini-bus

Mini-buses are a great option for the trip between Kampot and Phnom Penh. There are several companies that do this route, the primary ones being Giant Ibis and Kampot Express.

Giant Ibis are a tourist-oriented bus company that places a huge priority on safety. They run 21-seat mini-buses and tickets cost $9 for all passengers and tickets can be booked online and include advance seat reservations. Read our full review of the Giant Ibis service between Kampot and Phnom Penh, including photos and seating tips. The trip takes about two-and-a-half hours.

Giant Ibis schedule:
Phnom Penh – Kampot: 8 a.m, 2:45 p.m
Kampot – Phnom Penh: 8:30 a.m., 2:45 p.m.

Giant Ibis
3Eo Street 106, next to the night market, Phnom Penh
T: 023 987 808
37, Street 7 Makara, Behind Sokimex Gas Station, Kampot
T: 095 666 809

Kampot Express is another popular mini-bus, with tickets going for $8 for foreigners and $6 for locals. If you get your ticket directly through Kampot Express and make your booking in Khmer, it’s possible you’ll get the local price. Kampot Express uses 15-seat vans and has a ten minute stop along the way. They arrive in less than three hours. You can buy tickets and reserve a seat online with BookMeBus.

Kampot Express schedule:
Phnom Penh – Kampot: 8 a.m., 1 p.m., 16:30 p.m.
Kampot – Phnom Penh: 8 a.m., 1 p.m., 16:30 p.m.

Kampot Express
#2 Street 215, at the corner of 230 at Sokimex Station, Phnom Penh
T: 078 555 123, 0888 555 123
South of the durian roundabout next to Phnom Khev Guesthouse, Kampot.
T: 077 555 123, 081 555 123

Shared taxi

You can always travel between Kampot and Phnom Penh by shared taxi. You can get shared taxis at Psar Dang kor in Phnom Penh. The cost is approximately $5 per person, and the drivers wait until they have enough customers to fill up the taxi like a sardine can. Although the cars are 5-seater Camrys, most will wait for at least seven passengers (plus the driver) before departing. Offer to pay for two spots to take the front seat, otherwise you’ll be squeezed in with three or four others in the backseat. The journey takes 2.5 to 3.5 hours.

Train

Cambodia has resurrected some of their old train lines, and it’s now possible to travel by train from Phnom Penh to Kampot on weekends. The trip takes between four and five hours and costs $6. For more details, please see our blog post about taking the train in Cambodia.

Bus tickets purchased through links in this post may 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.