Day Trip to Battambang

As I mentioned Monday, we took a day trip to Battambang last weekend. Battambang is a city of 250,000 people just under two hours southeast of Poipet. Andrew and I drive through it every time we go to Phnom Penh but normally only stop for a meal. But Saturday, we decided to get out of Poipet and see the sights.

And honestly, it was so refreshing. It was the first time since our Christmas trip to Krabi that we had traveled purely for pleasure. Every other trip is for work or medical care. Just because we travel a lot doesn't mean it's just for fun, folks!

We left town a bit late and arrived at our friend's house around noon for lunch. Bithrith has worked with Andrew for the past three years at Samaritan's Purse. We've never met his family and wanted to spend time with his wife and children before we go home to America.

As is typical here, three generations shared a home together, from the nine-month-old daughter to the eighty-year-old grandma. His wife made a delicious meal of home-cooked Cambodian food for us, and the babies played together in the grandmother's lap.

After that, we decided to drive around town a bit so Declan could take a nap. Battambang is full of original French colonial-era buildings from the 1800's and early 1900's. We found a walking tour map with the different architectural sights and slowly drove around, taking photos. Cambodia has been through so much change and upheaval, it's amazing these buildings have survived years of war and development.

Another thing I love about Battambang are the trees and open green spaces. Poipet doesn't have a lot of trees or grass, and I forget how peaceful it is to be in nature. A large river also crosses through town, with a paved walkway that makes a lovely evening stroll.

Battambang is also home to the provincial museum, which houses dozens of statues, lintels, and other sandstone carvings - most over 1,000 years old. The labels are quite old and are in Khmer, French and some English; a lot of pieces don't have any provenance listed and are not in great shape. It's a reminder of how old Khmer culture is - I can't think of anything man-made found in the United States that is 1,000 years old.

The museum costs $1 per person for entry; you can find more information on Lonely Planet.

We stopped in the local market to buy some pants for Declan (he keeps growing!), and we ended the day at Jaan Bai, a relatively new restaurant on Street 2 near Psaa (Market) Neth.  Plates of green papaya salad, Pailin corn fritters with chili-ginger sauce, and pork belly buns with papaya relish were so satisfying after our little sightseeing tour.

Kinyei is another great coffee shop tucked away on Street 1.5 (yes, that's right - 1.5)

It's amazing how easy it is to become numb to the beauty of Cambodia, especially when you just pass through and don't stop to really enjoy the people and the environment. This weekend was a great reminder to slow down and see Cambodia with fresh eyes. And I think the same can be true for you, too, wherever you're living.

Get out this weekend and do something that's been on your wish list for a while. Explore your city like a tourist. I promise, you won't regret it!

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Travel Tips: How to Travel Between Poipet and Bangkok

We travel between Poipet and Thailand frequently, and how we get there is a common question from travelers. Today, I want to give you a rundown on how to travel between Poipet and Bangkok.

The best way to travel depends on what you have more of - money or time. On the Thai side of the border, across from Poipet, all the transportation is inside Rong Kluea Market. Touts will immediately flock to you as soon as you get past immigration. But the tips below will help you know what kind of transportation is best for your situation.

Note: These are all ways we've tried before with pretty good success. But we can't guarantee that you'll have an awesome experience too. We've had our share of sour ones! Just use common sense, and never do something that makes you feel you are in danger.

Also, I try to keep this information updated, but I can't guarantee its accuracy 100%. If you find anything that's different, leave a comment and let me know!

Map of the Rong Kluea border area

1. Private taxi
Registered taxi stand in Rong Kluea

Private taxis are easy to find at the Thai border, after you've cross over from Cambodia. However, for safety purposes, only take licensed taxis.

As soon as you exit immigration, touts will ask if you need a taxi and offer their services. But many of the taxis they use are private cars. They aren't registered with the government agency that regulates taxis and provide assistance to tourists. If you are in an accident or have a conflict with your driver, you won't have any protection.

Registered taxis will have clear markings on the outside of the car, a meter, and placards inside identifying the driver and the taxi number.

 The driver ID card is in the front of the taxi on the passenger's side.
The taxi ID is on the back seat door, driver's side.

If you want to remember the taxi information, you can take a photo of both these items.

The registered taxi stand in Rong Kluea Market is just past the drug check point. Walk straight, and you'll see the sign. A taxi to Bangkok for up to four passengers costs 1,900 baht.

In Bangkok, you can normally ask your guesthouse or hotel to arrange a taxi for you. The price should be the same.

Depending on traffic, you can get to/from Bangkok in 3-4 hours.

2. Van

In Rong Kluea Market, there are two types of vans: local vans and tourist vans.

Touts will offer you tourist vans for 250-300 baht. They typically go to Khao San Road, but can also drop you off near the airport if needed. The vans wait until they are full before departing, which means you won't know exactly when you'll leave Rong Kluea. If you're on a time crunch, these are not the most reliable way to get to Bangkok.

Local vans also travel between Bangkok and Poipet frequently. The fifteen-passenger vans normally leave at a scheduled time (every one to two hours). The seats are small; if you have a lot of luggage or even one large bag, you may need to buy an extra seat.

In Rong Kluea, local vans leave directly across from the 7-11, going either to Lumpini Park via Bang Na, or to northern Bangkok to Mo Chit Bus Station. Tickets cost 230 baht.Vans usually stop once or twice along the way for petrol refill. But they also stop frequently to let off/pick up passengers. It takes about 4-4.5 hours to get to Bangkok.

In Bangkok, vans that we have taken leave from Victory Monument. You can see the map below - the line shows where to walk from BTS Victory Monument station to get to the vans. They leave every one to two hours, and a seat costs 230 baht.

Walk all the way around Victory Monument to the northwest corner, using the elevated walkway. Go down the stairs on the northwest side of the monument, cross the highway onramp, and walk into the van stand. There are multiple stands selling van tickets. Walk down to the last one in the row, and tell them you're going to Rong Kluea Market (or Cambodia, if they don't understand you).They don't speak English, so go prepared.

We've also taken a casino van (marked "Star Vegas") from Central Mall Bang Na to Poipet for 200 baht. The seats were much larger and more comfortable, and it left from the front of the mall around 8:00am and took about 3.5 hours to get to Poipet.

3. Buses
A couple of casino buses waiting in the Rong Kluea Parking lot

Casino buses - so name because they normally serve people traveling to the Poipet casinos - are the most comfortable way of getting to Bangkok. In Rong Kluea, casino buses leave in the morning and the afternoon. Seats cost 200 baht and are very comfortable. They stop halfway to Bangkok and go to either Mo Chit station in the north or Lumpini Park via Bang Na, taking about four hours. The early buses leave at 7:30am exactly. If you're late, you'll miss them! There are also buses that depart in early afternoon.

Local buses that leave Aranyaprathet from the local bus station take much longer - 5-6 hours - but cost around 180 baht.

In Bangkok, you can get buses to the border either from Mo Chit bus station or Ekkamai bus station. I'm not sure of the cost or departure times, so check the station schedules for more information.

If you're traveling to/from Siem Reap: In the past few years, a new bus service has started between Siem Reap and Bangkok. Instead of finding new transportation after crossing the border, the same bus takes you the whole way. We haven't taken that personally, but you can find more information here.

4. Train
At the end of the road is the Aranyaprathet train station

We've never taken the train, but we've hosted several Couchsurfers who really enjoyed it. Trains leave twice a day - early morning and early afternoon - from both Bangkok and Aranyaprathet. Third class tickets are only 48 baht - definitely the cheapest route! You can find more details here and also by checking the Hualamphong Railway Station in Bangkok, where trains depart.

In Aranyaprathet, the train station is about 4 km from the border and about 1 km from the local bus station. You can jump on a songtaw truck to get there for 15 baht, or take a tuk tuk for 80 baht to get to/from the border.

Any questions about traveling between Bangkok and Poipet, leave a comment and let me know! Also, don't forget to read my guides to crossing the border from Thailand to Cambodia, and from Cambodia to Thailand!

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Travel Tips: How to Cross the Border From Thailand to Cambodia

Last week, I shared tips on how to cross the border from Cambodia to Thailand at the Poipet-Aranyaprathet crossing (check it out here!).

Today, we're doing it the other way: from Thailand to Cambodia.

Note - there are a lot of touts, tuk tuk drivers, and scammers who claim you need to buy your Cambodian visa before you exit Thailand. It's not true!!! You need to purchase this after you exit Thailand. And remember - immigration is open 7:00am - 8:00 pm every day.

Map of the border area

1. Go through Thai exit immigration to officially leave Thailand.

The van, bus, taxi, etc. that you took to the border should drop you off in Dtalat (Market) Rong Kluea. They will direct you to immigration. If you get lost, look for the 7-11 inside the market and look for this sign.

When going into Thai immigration, watch your belongings! At night time, the walkway is completely unlit, and throngs of people are crossing back into Cambodia after working in the market. This walkway is where Andrew's phone was stolen right out of his pocket (see the story here).

Inside Thai immigration

Once inside, you'll fill out the departure card that was stapled into your passport when you first entered Thailand. And as long as you haven't overstayed your visa, they'll let you through.

2. Walk across the bridge and apply for your visa at the Cambodian immigration office.

Once you cross the bridge, look for the archway. Below that and on the right side of the street is the Cambodian immigration office. Tourist visas cost US$20 (as of April 2014). Bring American dollars with you if possible to avoid getting ripped off by a bad exchange rate if you only have Thai baht. You also officially need two passport photos. I will say that we have bought tourist visas without giving photos before. Sometimes they ask for a 100 baht "fee" (i.e. bribe). To play it safe, bring your photos with you. 

Visa office under the archway

Obviously, check with your country's embassy website to see what requirements your nationality might have for a Cambodian tourist visa.

Bad photo, I know...but you're really not supposed to take photos inside!

Fill out the paperwork and wait for the officials to put the tourist visa inside your passport. Tourist visas are typically good for 30 days (as of April 2014).

3. Walk through the casinos ("no man's land") to Cambodian entry immigration.

4. Enter Cambodian entry immigration. Fill out the immigration form, using the number on the visa that was just put into your passport.

Wait in line. It's hot. It's crowded. But eventually, you will get through.

5. Celebrate arriving in Cambodia and find a way out of Poipet!

Not many tourists stay in Poipet, and I don't blame them. It's a great place to see what a classic border town is like. Otherwise, catch a ride to Battambang, Siem Reap, or anywhere else you'd like.

There is a monopoly on transportation out of Poipet. You have either two choices: take the "free shuttle bus" to the "Poipet International Passenger Terminal" about 10 km outside of town. Or you can walk down the main road and see if any taxi drivers or vans are headed out of town. We normally pay $30 for a private taxi (meaning, we don't share it with anyone else) to Siem Reap. Bus tickets normally cost around US$3.50-5.00. As a foreigner, you'll probably pay a bit more than a local. But that's just how the system works.

If you do take the shuttle bus, you are stuck once you get there. Prices are higher there than they are in town. And if you decide you want to go back into Poipet, good luck. They'll charge you 200 baht (around $6) to take you there.

Don't worry about finding transportation. You'll be swarmed by eager drivers as soon as you get through immigration.

The shuttle bus to the passenger terminal, directly outside of immigration

Be careful about the taxis you take! Car and motorcycle accidents are a leading cause of death here. There is no official taxi registration, and you are literally taking your life into your hands. Many taxi drivers will pack out a four-passenger car with six, eight, or more people. Some cars are Thai style; the drivers sits in what should be the passenger seat. And I've seen rearview mirrors turned into karaoke TV. Don't expect seat belts (do I really need to say that after everything else?).

Buses are a safer way to travel, but they still get into accidents. If you don't feel comfortable about a taxi, get out and find a different one. It's better to do that than to be stuck twenty minutes out of town in a taxi driven by a drunk guy (it's happened to me before). 

So now you know how to cross the border from Thailand to Cambodia. I hope it helps you have a less stressful entry into the kingdom of wonder - Cambodia! 

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Travel Tips: How to Cross the Border from Cambodia to Thailand

Today, I'm sharing travel tips on how to cross the border from Cambodia to Thailand at Poipet/Aranyaprathet. Poipet is the Cambodian border town (where we live); Aranyaprathet is on the Thai side. You might also hear about "Dtalat Rong Kluea". That is the large market on the Thai side of the border where you will first land on entering Thailand.

I know a lot of you back home won't ever get to use this information - which is sad, because it's truly the experience of a lifetime. One that I've had 38 times in the past 3 years. I think that just might qualify me as an expert. But you might be interested to see photos of what I mean when I say "crossing the border."

We've often emailed people tips about getting through immigration without getting scammed. And it's much easier to put it all in a post with photos to share with anyone who might be getting ready to cross and feeling a bit nervous about it.

Note: There is a LOT of construction going on at the border. These photos are recent, as of April 2014. But in the future, much of the border could change. So if you've recently passed through and it's different, let me know in the comments! Also, if we notice things changing next time we go to Thailand, I'll update this post.

Coming into Cambodia from Thailand is a little bit different, and that will be in another post in the coming weeks. Also, I'll be posting tips on how to get to/from Bangkok and Poipet, as that is another common question we get from travelers.

Map of the border area

Good to know: The border at Poipet-Aranyaprathet is open 7:00am-8:00pm daily. Some of the signs on both sides of the border have different times (i.e. Cambodian exit immigration has a sign stating they are open 6:00am-10:00pm; but Thai entry immigration is only open 7:00am-9:00pm. Confused? Go with the 7am-8pm times!)

1. Arrive at Cambodian immigration - exit Cambodia.

Why yes, that is a reflection of my pregnant belly...

If you are coming on a tourist bus from Siem Reap or elsewhere, you will get dropped off at the border.

Be prepared - the immigration "office" at Poipet is crowded, dirty, and open-air (read: hot!). Typically Cambodians stand on the right side, and foreigners line up on the left. Don't let a gap open up between you and the person in front of you in line. Trust me, it will be filled by a line-hopper who will not understand your anger at being cut in line.

Inside your passport, you should have a piece of paper stapled into your passport. This is your departure paper for Cambodia that was stapled into your passport on your arrival. You need to fill this out before you reach the immigration counter.

Walking between the casinos through no man's land to Thai immigration

2. Walk through "no man's land", cross the road to the left, and into Thai immigration.

When you see this, cross to the left to enter immigration.

You can see some of the construction here - follow the signs for "passport".

Poipet is a bit strange, because there's a strip of land we locals refer to as "no-man's land." You've already exited Cambodia, but it's still technically Cambodia. Yet it's full of casinos frequented by Thais, and they only accept Thai baht. Once you cross into this area, you won't be able to use dollars or Cambodian riel, except at a ridiculous exchange rate. For best exchange rates, exchange money at shops in Poipet before you exit Cambodian immigration. For more tips on using money overseas, see my blog post about that here!

You also need to cross the road to the left before you walk on the bridge to get to Thai immigration.

One of our Couchsurfers was happy to be here!

3. Enter Thai immigration and fill out paperwork.

This is where the construction really stinks. Immigration used to be at ground level; now, it is up a long flight of stairs on the second floor. Which means if you have lots of heavy bags, you have a lot of work ahead of you.

As of April 2014, Americans do not need a visa to enter Thailand, and entry is free (see the embassy website here for details). The immigration officer will put a tourist immigration stamp in your passport that allows you to stay 30 days in the country (in November 2013, they changed the stay period from 14 days to 30 days for stamps obtained at land border crossing - yay!). This is free for Americans. Like every country, your passport must be valid 6 months beyond your entry date.

Inside Thai immigration

Obviously, if you are not American, check with your country's embassy to determine what Thailand requires for a tourist visa.

4. Find transportation.

Walk out of the office, down the stairs, through the "drug check point" (where you might need to open your bag for the guards), and out to fresh air. You will immediately be assaulted by touts offering you rides to Bangkok, Pattaya, Koh Chang, etc. There are many ways to choose from - taxi, train, bus, van... Need advice on transportation? It's coming soon!

5. Celebrate with a Coke from the 7-11 and enjoy Thailand.

If you're desperate for a 7-11 (the iconic, ubiquitous convenience store covering every square meter of the country), turn right after passing through the drug check point and down the street. The 7-11 will be on the first corner on your right (see the map above). You can also buy sim cards and top-ups for your mobile. You can also take time to check out the sprawling Rong Kluea Market, which had hundreds of stalls selling Thai food, household items, cheap clothes, and everything else under the sun.

If you need to know how to get to Bangkok from the border, check out those options here.

Need tips on using your mobile phone in Thailand? See my post all about phones overseas!

So that's it! It sounds easy - it really is - but it can be overwhelming. The border is a crazy, chaotic place that can easily confuse visitors if you don't know where you're going.

If you are coming from Thailand to Cambodia, see directions here!

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Travel Tips: 5 Do's and Don'ts in Cambodia {Part 2}

On Monday, I shared 5 do's and don'ts for travelers to Cambodia (read part 1 here). Today, I'm sharing the rest of my list.

If you have any tips yourself or any questions about Cambodia, leave a comment below - I'd love to hear from you!

Inside Central Market in Phnom Penh

1. Do bargain with a smile.

Market shopping is one of the highlights of Cambodia - some of my favorites are the Old Market in Siem Reap, and in Phnom Penh, Central Market and Russian Market. And you have to bargain - it's just part of the experience!

Bargaining is supposed to be fun - a way to interact with the seller and find a price that makes both of you happy. What can ruin the experience? Bargaining aggressively, being rude to the sellers, and expecting to get something for nothing.

Remember what I said in the last post about losing face? I've seen a lot of foreigners do that by offering ridiculously low sums for a souvenir, then acting angry when the seller refuses. It's important to be respectful and friendly towards the seller. They'll be more inclined to help you out with a good price if you show you value the relationship. Relationships are very important in Asian culture - even if it only lasts 5 minutes between the buyer and seller in a market!

2. Don't expect to get something for nothing.

Don't offer a ridiculously low sum in the market when you're shopping. It is expected that you bargain and offer a lower price than the initial one stated by the seller. But I've seen this happen: The seller says, "$10"; the tourist says, "$3"; seller says "$7"; buyer says, "$2".

Going backwards doesn't win you any friends! Respect the seller and the products, and offer a fair price. They're trying to make a living!

As a foreigner, you will probably pay a little bit more (or a lot) than a local would for a product or service. That is just part of being a foreigner. Is it fair? No. Do you need to get upset about it? No. We  joke that there is a surcharge on skin color here. If you are white, you will automatically pay more.

Even as a foreigner who speaks Khmer and has lived here for 3 years, it happens to me. And I've learned it's just not a big deal. Ninety percent of the time, it's a difference of a few dollars, at the most. If I know the local price, I definitely try to get it. If I don't, I figure out what seems fair to me and don't sweat over the rest.

Doing the same will decrease your anxiety and increase your enjoyment of your time in Cambodia!

3. Do hold your schedule with an open hand.

This is one of the most basic rules of international travel. Don't stick to your schedule.

Cars break down. Planes are delayed. Miscommunications happen when you are talking with people for whom English is a second language. It rains, and roads flood. Or the taxi driver takes a nap and is an hour late.

If it makes you stressed out to just read that, you probably shouldn't travel.

Cambodia can be unpredictable - and that's what makes it an adventure. Don't see your schedule interruptions as a nuisance, but as a way to jump into unexpected opportunities. Your bus breaks down on the side of the road? Go buy a soda and strike up a conversation with the shop owner. A hotel reservation gets mixed up? Smile, try to work it out, and find a new hotel if you need to. It just might be better than the first one!

Cambodians have an unshakeable belief that everything will work out in the end, no matter what goes wrong. We do well to take on the same attitude!

Jackie Chan is pretty popular around here...

4. Don't touch someone's head, point with your fingers, or touch anything with your feet.

The head is sacred in Buddhist culture, and the feet are the dirtiest part of the body. You should never touch someone else's head - no patting, rubbing, or touching the hair. The only exception is small children. If you accidentally bump someone's head, immediately apologize to show it was unintentional.

Cambodians rarely point with their index finger - it's seen as rude. Often, they will jerk their chin or point their lips in the direction of whatever they want to point out, or motion with their whole hand. Avoid pointing with your finger.

And finally, don't touch or point at anything with your feet - especially people! It's considered rude to put your feet up on chairs, wear your shoes inside, or show people the soles of your feet. Being conscious of what you're doing with your feet will help you show respect for people.

Photos of Cambodians who died in S-21 prison in Phnom Penh

5. Do read up on Cambodia's history - distant and recent.

Most people know about the genocide of 1975-1979. But Cambodia's history didn't start or end there. Khmer culture has existed for hundreds of years. And even the past twenty years have seen a lot of turmoil and development.

If you want to understand the Cambodia of today, you need to understand its past. Here are a few books I recommend that will help you understand the challenges facing the country now:

  • Cambodia's Curse: The Modern History of a Trouble Land by Joel Brinkley - Written by a journalist, this was one of the first books we read about Cambodia. It describes the recent events of Cambodia's history after the genocide - Hun Sen's rise to power, the multiple coups, and the struggle of young Khmers to make a truly democratic, free nation.
  • The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine by Somaly Mam - Somaly was a young Cambodian girl who was captured into the brothels of Cambodia. She eventually escaped and became an advocate for freeing girls caught in prostitution. She tells her story in this memoir. Although she is a controversial person, her book gives a glimpse into the terrible world that many Cambodians live in. This is a really popular book on sex trafficking in Cambodia, but in light of the recent revelations of the lies on which the book is founded, I can't recommend it. At best, read it as life-inspired fiction.
  • Temple of a Thousand Faces by John Shors - Shors has written a historical fiction centered in the time of Angkor Wat a thousand years ago. He recreates the world of ancient Khmer, set in a time of war, love, and spirituality. 
  • Culture Shock! Cambodia by Peter North - This is a fantastic guide book to the culture and customs of the Khmer people. It gives a concise, helpful overview of Cambodia's history, politics, traditions, and main tourist destinations. It helps bridge the gap between Western and Khmer culture.
  • Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare by Philip Short - Pol Pot was the mastermind behind the genocide that killed a million Cambodians in the 1970's. Short met Pol Pot in person and after the war, conducted dozens of interviews with those close to him. To understand how so many people died in pursuit of a failed utopian experiment, you need to understand the mind behind it all.

That's it for now! Which tip was most helpful or surprising for you? Is there anything I missed you'd like to learn more about to prepare for your trip to Cambodia?

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