The “hero rats” of Siem Reap

Looking for something to do in Siem Reap that’s just a little bit different? Consider going to visit the APOPO hero rats of Temple Town and see how these giant rats are trained to sniff out landmines in Cambodia.

hero rats Siem Reap
This bad boy hero rat is capable of sniffing out landmines across Cambodia.

The idea of a “hero rat” may sound strange, since rats are traditionally thought of as carriers of disease, laboratory subjects, or class pets fostered out to students on the weekend until being accidentally flushed down the toilet by a particularly hyperactive child. Yes, the humble rat is rarely given credit for being the intelligent mammal it really is, capable of both learning and altruistic behavior.

Those talents are being nurtured by APOPO, a nonprofit organization started in Antwerp in 1997 by Bart Weetjens and Christophe Cox, who had the idea of using rats’ ability as scent detectors to find landmines and other unexploded ordnance that remain buried in places recovering from war. APOPO’s first training facility for mine-detecting rats opened in 2000 in Tanzania.

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Spelunking in Kampot with Climbodia

While Kampot is generally known as a pleasantly sleepy town, popular for its happy pizza-seeking backpacker scene, it offers much more for those who are a bit more adventurous. You can drive a scooter on the long and winding road up Bokor Mountain, kayak around the Green Cathedral loop in the Preak Teuk Chhu river, or venture out to the salt flats or visit the famous pepper farms and salt flats. Or, you can climb and spelunk over, around, and through the caves of Phnom Kbal Romeas.

Climbing Kampot…for when sitting by the river just isn’t enough.

While it’s possible to visit the site on your own, we signed up with Kampot-based adventure company Climbodia, which offers half-day tours for everyone from novices to experienced climbers. We opted for their best-selling Discovery Tour, which includes a variety of activities, including via ferrata, abseiling, caving, and top rope climbing. It turned out to be a great choice for beginners who want to explore the mountain while getting to sample a variety of climbing activities.

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Phnom Penh’s water taxi (isn’t it wonderful?)

Phnom Penh’s greatest tourist attraction may be its least expected — the new commuter-focused water taxi linking Takhmao in the city’s south to the main riverside area and further north along the Tonle Sap River.

Phnom Penh water taxi
“Pete bloody loves the water taxi, and so will you”

The water taxi is a very different experience from Phnom Penh’s tourist staples — the Royal Palace, the National Museum, and the Khmer Rouge sites, S-21 and the Choeung Ek killing field. Adding a trip along the water to their itinerary will give visitors to the Cambodian capital a whole new view of the city.

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How to get from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville (and vice-versa) in 2019

The trip between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville is relatively painless. Here’s a round-up of the best options for 2019 (hint: we prefer private taxis) to get from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville and vice-versa. The journey take between 4 and 7 hours. The later in the day you leave, the longer the trip will be due to traffic; around dusk it can take an hour or two just to get out of Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville at a glance…

*Taxi: $60 4 hours, reserve online in advance
Giant Ibus bus: $15, 6 hours, buy ticket online
Mekong Express van: $12, ~5 hours, buy ticket online
Post Office van: $8, ~5 hours, buy tickets online

Compare all buses between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville

Sihanoukville taxi

One of our favorite Sihanoukville taxi drivers.


Private taxis are the fastest way to get from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, and usually cost between $50 and $60. In high season the prices can climb even higher. Taxis can seat four people, but be warned that they don’t usually have enough room for a ton of luggage. Most of the taxis that go between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville are Camrys, and the drivers aren’t afraid to hit the gas. Expect to get there in around 4 hours or less, although we’d advise you to keep your eyes closed. Later departures will take longer due to traffic.

You can book a taxi online in advance, and the prices are surprisingly reasonable. In fact, if you book online you can get an SUV taxi that seats five for the same price around $60. There is also the option to book a 7- or 10-seat minivan.
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Kampot sunset boat cruises

As the sun slowly sinks in the horizon, Kampotheads and tourists alike find themselves drawn to the riverfront. Luckily, there is no shortage of sunset vantage points thanks to the sunset tours offered by a plethora of boats docked south of the Fish Market down to the Old Bridge. But how do you pick the sunset cruise that’s right for you? In this post I’ll give some suggestions on picking the right Kampot sunset boat cruise, plus some tips for getting the most out of it.

Kampot sunset cruise

So you want to take a sunset boat cruise in Kampot?

Each boat is staffed with friendly ticket sellers ready to point out the benefits waiting aboard. In the event you don’t see smiling faces seated next to the gangplank that piques your interest, there is sure to be a large board listing all the important information.

Not every boat on Kampot’s riverfront offers tours so keep a sharp eye out so you don’t miss out on a trip. Some boats stay docked and serve as a restaurant and bar for those of us who haven’t quite gotten comfortable in our sea legs. The Floating Garden is one such boat and their menu is displayed proudly on the sidewalk. If you don’t have time to go for a ride, Floating Garden is a great spot to watch the sunset and enjoy dinner or drinks.

Kampot river cruise boat

There are a dozen boat options for your Kampot river cruise (but they’re pretty much the same).

Insect lovers will enjoy catching one of the firefly tours. Depending on the time of year, the firefly tours start leaving town at around 5 p.m. so be sure to hit the riverfront early if you want to have the full range of boats to choose from. Others leave around 5:30 p.m. Be sure to ask what is included in the ticket prices. As of this writing, most tours are charging $5 and offering two free beers or soft drinks per person, but in low season it often goes up to $7 with only one beer, so be sure to compare prices and see if anyone is willing to price match. The Lovely Boat seems to keep the same $5/two beer deal (which is undeniably good) all year round.

When you ask about the price, have a look and see who is already on board. While most of the companies are offering essentially the same thing, the crowd on individual boats each night varies. If you’d prefer to be around others in your same age bracket, say, have a look and keep on moving if the crowd is not to your taste.

Something to plan for on a boat tour is the chill factor. That’s right, even in tropical Cambodia you might sprout some goosebumps as you head up the river. A light jumper or wrap should do the trick in keeping you comfy. And those of you who seem to attract every mosquito within a 10 kilometer radius don’t need to worry as the mozzies are no match for your speed on the river. However, once the boat gets to the magical firefly spot, the buggers might come for you so be sure that any bug spray is applied before the tour starts! No one wants to be the person spraying DEET or citronella all over when people are trying to comfortably enjoy nature’s light show.

Kampot boat cruises

There’s an intense rivalry between Friendly Boat and Lovely Boat.

Tours list themselves as being around 2 hours from start to finish. That doesn’t mean you’re moving the whole time — ticket time frames include time docked for the sunset and the trip up river and back. One the boat arrives back in Kampot town, you are welcome to spend as much time on the boat as you’d like, enjoying the music and atmosphere (and ordering more drinks from the bar!)

Kampot Sunset Cruises
daily cruises, 5 to 5:30 p.m.
various vendors can be found along the riverfront, south of the Fish Market, Kampot riverside

Floating Garden Restaurant
Open daily, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m
Across from the happy pizzas, Kampot riverside

Cambodia scams: Poipet border scams (and how to avoid them)

The Thailand-Cambodia border is known for scams, and the border crossing between Bangkok and Siem Reap (at Aranyaprathet on the Thai side and Poipet on the Cambodia side) is especially bad! If you know what to expect before you go, it’s entirely possible to avoid the scams and have a painless border crossing. Here are the most common Cambodia border scams:

avoid Poipet border scams

The Poipet border is known for scams, but they are easy to avoid!

Visa assistance scam

Before you arrive at the border, your bus company may stop in Aranyaprathet and suggest that you allow them to handle your visa application for an added fee of between $5 and $20. They may make it seem like you must hand over your passport and let them process it for you. This is not true. They will also tell you that it will save time. This is also not true. They will usually tell you the charge in Thai baht, or half in baht, half in US dollars, to make the charges more confusing. Continue reading

How to get from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap (and vice versa)

There are a couple of easy ways to go from Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (and Siem Reap to Phnom Penh) in 2018. There are options to fit every budget, but some are nicer than others. Right now the road is in great condition and it’s a smooth ride, unlike in years past. The journey by road usually takes between 5 and 6 hours, depending on your mode of transport if you go by road.

Giant Ibis Cambodia

Check out the view on a Giant Ibis bus between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

Ways to travel from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap

  • Taxi: Costs $65-100. Most comfortable option. Best balance of price and convenience. About 5 hours.
  • Bus: Costs $6-15. Smoothest ride and best views. About 6 hours.
  • Mini-bus/van: Costs $9-12. Faster than the bus, but more cramped. About 5.5 hours.
  • Plane: Costs $30-120. Fastest method, but domestic flights are unreliable. About 1 hour.
  • Ferry: Costs $35. Best scenery, if you sit outside. About 8 hours, sometimes more.

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Cambodia bus review: Mekong Express, Siem Reap to Phnom Penh

Mekong Express is one of the most long-running and popular bus services in Cambodia, and they have routes all over the country. In this post, I’ll review the new Mekong Express buses on their Phnom Penh to Siem Reap route, and give a full rundown of what you can expect.

Mekong Express bus in Cambodia

Mekong Express have all new buses. But how do they stack up to the competition in Cambodia?

Mekong Express bus review in a nutshell

  • Time Siem Reap to Phnom Penh (and vice-versa): 5 to 6 hours
  • Cost: $12
  • Pros: New buses, commitment to safety
  • Cons: Stops to pick up additional passengers
  • Booking: Online seat reservations

When I moved to Cambodia many years ago, Mekong Express was *the* bus company that all tourists and expats preferred. But then Giant Ibis arrived, with their services aimed squarely at foreigners, and Mekong Express, with their increasingly dilapidated fleet, struggled to compete. So when I saw a brand new Mekong Express bus drive through Siem Reap the other day, I was shocked. What was this gleaming white chariot? Could this really be Mekong Express? Determined to learn more, I booked a couple of tickets and hit the road to Phnom Penh. Continue reading