Monday, August 15, 2011

Where to stay in Phnom Penh

The capital is full of hotels and guest houses--there are many more than you would expect. For $15-30/night, try the Cathay Hotel on Street 19 or the Sunshine right on the riverfront. Taxi drivers should know where they are. Rooms are TV/AC/hot water/phone and decent. For a cheap guesthouse ($5-7), try the centrally located Last Home on St 108. It has a good enough reputation despite its rather terrifying name. Down the side streets behind the Capitol Guesthouse (on St 182 just west of Monivong) you'll find many more, including the popular Narin's. Guest houses on the eastern shore of Boeung Kak lake are lovely during sunset, which is made even deeper by the thick clouds of marijuana smoke drifting off the zoned-out masses, but they're more remote from the city center. I have never stayed in any of these, so I only speak from what I've heard. The Last Home sells guidebooks, maps etc, as do the FCC (Foreign Correspondents Club) and the Wagon Wheel restaurant, both on the riverside (Sisowath Quay near the corner of Street 178).

Internet access

As of 2003 there are walk-in cybercafes everywhere in Phnom Penh and in the main tourist towns. The low-budget champions, such as Riverweb,are on the riverfront, at only $0.50/hour. Similar deals can be found at Khmerweb on Sihanouk and scores more based on the same model. Walk in, sit at a terminal and someone will come over and start the counter for you. Other places of interest for more than simple surfing: In late 1998 at new service called K.I.D.S., owned and operated by young Cambodian students, opened. They also do training and web design. 210-108. See also my Camera Obscura, where there are links to lists of Internet access points in Southeast Asia and the world.

Getting around in Phnom Penh

Cambodians avoid walking as if they lived in Los Angeles. But a walking pace is the best way to soak up the details that make Phnom Penh so fascinating. Some of those details are right underfoot: Watch where you are stepping at all times. Not only are there are uncovered drainage holes that you are well advised not to fall into, but there is an impressive variety of substances you may not want to engage with too directly. To cross busy streets, you must stride determinedly into the traffic, looking directly at oncoming vehicles but without actually catching anyone's eye. If they see that you saw them, they will assume right of way. Remember oncoming vehicles can come on from any direction. Do not slow down or speed up more a little, or you will be hit. Just keep walking and show no fear. Sounds scary, right? Try getting up next to some locals and crossing in their shadow.

Wheelchair Access

Although there are plenty of people who use wheelchairs here, there are very few ramps per se. As far as I know there is no accessibility law; there certainly is no evidence of one. Many sidewalks have curb cuts for car parking, or the curb is missing anyway. Sidewalks themselves are not very good, divided up with ridges etc, but there is usually some way to get around the obstacle, thanks to Cambodians' dependence on motorbikes, which they also roll everywhere. People using wheelchairs usually travel in the roadway. Many buildings in towns have level access to the ground floor, except for newer ones. Elevators are rare. However, there are lots of people around who are happy to carry a person and the chair up and down if necessary. They may or may not ask for a small donation, of course. The main problem may be in-town transit. The best option is probably a car and driver. The other ways to get around are motorbike taxi and cyclo.
You can spot moto-taxis by the baseball caps and sunglasses on the guys who drive them. Pay around 1000-2500 riel for a ride, depending if it's one or two people riding, how far, and if it's day or night. Just ride, then pay at the end; you don't have to set a price first. A whole day's riding around will cost $5-7. Remember that random moto drivers will not know where they are going, and do not know how to read a map. You have to point the way--if you don't, you may notice that the moto is circling aimlessly around town. The word for "stop" is between "chowp" and "chope". Moto drivers who hang out at the foreigner hangouts will know the foreigner places. They will also soon learn where you live, who your friends are and who you are going out with. Some of this information is rumored to find its way to the Ministry of the Interior.
Similar advice applies to the cyclos, but these quiet and non-polluting pedal-powered vehicles are much slower. If you are touring, they are great for a leisurely look around. They can also carry amazing loads: three of them moved my entire household including several large pieces of furniture. Many cyclo drivers are rice farmers who come into the cities during the dry season, and rent their cyclos to make money in the day and to sleep in at night. You will see them clustered in cyclo villages here and there throughout Phnom Penh, especially at night when the pedalers, who have rented them, use them for lodging. A cyclo ride costs about half of what a moto ride costs, though visitors are expected to be more generous.
Bicycles are for sale in stores all around the Capitol Guesthouse on Street 182. The "mountain bikes" are cheap--about $100 for the best of them--but of poor quality. Mine fell to pieces in about a year, thanks in part to Phnom Penh roads, which vary from smoothly paved major roads to unpaved, rutted, rocky, swampy, side roads. A more solid choice is the Pee-Wee Herman style Pheasant bicycle favored by Cambodian women, or the somewhat sleeker single-speed Vietnamese or Chinese road bike ($50-70 new). And then there are the trusty antique touring bikes, usually made of a variety of pieces knocked together. These are available for $20-30. I haven't noticed any bike rental places, but any guesthouse should be able to arrange it. For information on cycling in the Cambodian countryside, see Biking Southeast Asia with Mr. Pumpy.
Near the Capitol, but on Monivong, is the Hong Kong Hotel, next to which are two similar motorcycle rental shops. Foreigners must leave their passports as a deposit, and pay $5-7 per day for a motor scooter or a 250cc dirt bike. Two things to keep in mind: Cambodian traffic has rules that take time to get used to; and if the motorbike is stolen, you will have to pay for it, in effect buying it for the nice people who robbed you.
Buying a moto: prices start around $250 for an old one. A license plate, registration and driver's license are required by law but not by reality. Many motos and cars have no plate, or sport a vanity plate made at home or on the street corner.

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