Sunday, July 31, 2011

Phnom Penh International Airport Part 1

Cambodia has two international airports, both relatively small compared to the airport of some of its Asian neighbors. That's not to say that the service they render is inferior. In fact, these airports are among my favorites. They operate much like KL's LCCT - a "no-frills" operation that allows a very relaxed atmosphere. Here's an airport that doesn't meander on the premise that, at anytime, a terrorist will bomb the place. Nevertheless, security maneuvers in these airports are strict (their x-ray machines and security posts are rather explicit with their instruction - you have to really remove your watch and belts before you're allowed to get through). This atmosphere is probably attributable to the comparably less busy traffic. But that may not be the case in the next several years.

I like Siem Reap's airport because getting inside it feels like traipsing into a hotel lobby more than the frenetic, paranoid goings on of other airports. This is my 3rd visit at the Phnom Penh International Airport (PPIA), but my first at the Departure Hall, allowing me to see more of its structure, services and premises. Like Siem Reap, PPIA (previously called Pochentong International) exudes a laidback atmosphere.

The airport has a separate vehicle entrance for those with cars (those who will fetch arriving passengers) shown above. If you're leaving PP, drop-in tourists on tuktuks are to enter at the left entrance of the grounds. Enter through the corner to get inside the check-in hall, which has 21 counters. A limited number of seats are to be found just opposite these counters which open 2-3 hours prior to a scheduled flight.

Some airlines like Air Asia already includes the airport's hefty Passenger Service Charge - $25! - upon purchase of your ticket. This explains why plane fares to and from Cambodia are rather pricey. If your plane doesn't include this airport service charge during purchase, then you would have to pay at the Passenger Service Charge Counter located at the far end of the hallway, just beside Check-in Counter no. 1 (before reaching the WC).

These charges are as follows (depending on whether it's a local or an international departure) :

International Departure

Foreigner, adult - $25
Foreigner, children (under 12 years old) - $13

Cambodian, adult - $18
Cambodian, children (under 12) - $10
All infants (under 2 years old) - free

Domestic Departure

All Foreigners - $10
All Cambodians - $5
Infants under 2 - free

It was actually Seng, proprietor of Europe Guest House, who reminded me this since many backpackers seem to have encountered this problem before, i.e. forgetting that there indeed is an airport fee. The good news is, they accept credit cards just in case you're low on your dollars. When do you pay this? After checking-in, proceed to the counter, hand in your boarding pass, then pay your $25.

From here, head to the escalator nearby for your pre-departure, immigration formalities and boarding.

A lawn just across the entrance of the departure hall.

The facade of the Departure Hall.

The Khmer government signed a 20-year concession with a French-Malaysian company, Société Concessionaire d’Aéroport or SCA, to build-and-operate PPIA through a $110 million improvement program that includes construction of a new runway, terminal and cargo buildings, hangars, installation of a Cat III level Instrument Landing System (ILS) and associated approach lighting. A new $22 million terminal building is also in the works to accommodate growing tourist traffic. This covers 18,000-square-metre (190,000 sq ft).


Visitors to the Kingdom’s two international airports have increased 13 percent in the first six months compared to the same period last year. More and more backpackers are coming in by plane instead of the harrowing overland border crossing from the treacherous Thai border. Ministry of Tourism Director of Statistics and Tourism Information Department Kong Sophearak welcomes this development. He said in an interview with Phnom Penh Post, "Cambodia has an open sky policy where we welcome visitors from every country.”

We further quote PP Post: The statistics show Phnom Penh International Airports received 445,225 arrivals from January to June this year, a 9.9 percent increase on the same period in 2010.

Siem Reap International Airport recorded a 15.6 percent increase in the period to 444,602 visitors during the six-month period, the statistics show.

Some 30,726 and 36,987 people arrived on domestic flights in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh respectively in the first half of 2011, with the rest international arrivals.

The Tourism Ministry has previously forecasted 2.73 million visitors for 2011, and expects revenue from the sector to total $1.91 billion.

There's no doubt that in the coming years, visitor arrivals would further escalate. Who could resist the allure of the Angkor Temples? In my book, the Angkor Temples are the best ancient conglomeration of proofs of civilization in Southeast Asia. I have seen the temples of Bagan, Ayutthaya and Sukhothai in Thailand, and Borobodur and Prambanan in Indonesia. Nothing beats the grandeur, scale and beauty of the Angkor temples. These 11th century temples top my list of 50 places to visit visit you die.

Do not die before a visit. I kid you not.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

The airport is located 7 kilometers south west from Phnom Penh's city center. Taxis may charge $7-15, tuktuks $6-7 to anywhere within the center.

Up next: Some shops at the Phnom Penh International Airport's Departure Hall!

Laidback atmosphere. WC is at the extreme end and to the right, after the Passenger Service Charge counter. To its left is the escalator leading towards the Immigration counters and Boarding area.

Check-in counters 1-10 (above) and 11-21 (below).

Passenger Service Charge Counter: hand in your boarding pass and pay your $25 airport fee.

The escalator for your immigration formalities and boarding.

The waiting area just across the check-in counters: Very few seats!

Foreign exchange counter in the Departure Hall just beside the escalator.

Some of the counters located outside and to the right of the Departure Hall - Air Asia counter and a Post Office.

More counters, and some ATM machines line this hallway outside. If you walk further on, its the Arrival Hall.

A little history, and the Arrival Hall and Immigration Counter of PPIA -

For more information on Cambodian airports - visit

Entry into Phnom Penh International Airport's parking area, opposite the arrival hall.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Europe Guest House - A Home Away From Home in Phnom Penh

Finding accommodations during a trip is always a tricky thing. I lose sleep over it, and I take days checking out reviews: Lonely Planet, wikitravel, tripadvisor, even guest comments from Agoda. But you see, even the best laid plans can turn a bit dodgy. I once followed a Lonely Planet recommended budget guest house and ended up staying in a hostel that subs as a girlie bar and brothel. I was well taken cared of, but it was a bit unnerving finding my entrance where heavily made up girls were dressed in skimpy dresses. This was Phnom Penh before its face lift. The hostel still stands there, and though I had fond memories of my stay, I should have researched better.

Fast forward to 2011: I carefully read through review sites. I've narrowed down my list to 6 places, two of them have since been demolished in the Boeung Kak lake area (the capital's former backpacker joint). For this leg of travel, I've booked a room at the Green House in Beung Tra Bek, at the southern part of the capital, upon arrival from Bangkok. For my return from Siem Reap, I've finally decided on "Europe Guest House" - one of my most satisfying decisions.

Nope, Europe Guest House is not your run-of-the-mill, fly-by-night accommodation. It's classier than that, but neither is it a seat of boundless opulence. It's a family-run guest house located in a relatively quiet street just a block from the riverside. In my qualitative criteria, this little gem makes a lot of checks.

The guest house is situated at Street no. 136. If that doesn't mean anything to the unfamiliar, it's a block away from the beautiful promenade along Sisowath Quay (Phnom Penh's Roxas Boulevard or Queen's Walk), right in the heart of the city. It is a very central location, but far removed from the noise of the busy riverside promenade. In fact, it's just 2 blocks away from Sokha Komar Tep's bus terminal and Mekong Express' terminal (these terminals aren't really bus garages, but side streets near their bus company's main offices where these buses depart and arrive). It's a measly $2 tuktuk ride from the bus stop. There's a 24-hour convenience store right in front of it - named Smile Shop; the Central Market (think Saigon's Ben Thanh Market) is 4 blocks away and easily reached on foot. There are local eateries surrounding the area, including the delectable and cheap Restaurant 126, right at the corner of Street 13.

If you're the curious type who wants to check out local produce, the Kandal Market is even nearer. Turn left from Europe Guest House until you reach Sisowath Quay to find the beautiful (newly developed riverside) promenade directly facing the Tonle Sap, the great river running here all the way to Siem Reap up north. The Tonle Sap is a direct tributary of the great Mekong River, in fact the Tonle Sap merges into the Mekong less than a kilometer from here (at the promenade fronting the Royal Palace).

KFC is nearby if you don't want gastronomic experiments and would rather have a "sure thing" - a 2 piece chicken with rice, fried egg (yup, a Khmer variation of the combo meal) and rice will only cost you $2, the cheapest meal to be had along the touristy Sisowath Quay where I've had dinners at $6, and where my first tuktuk driver took me to a supposedly inexpensive restaurant that had $8 courses (are they friggin' crazy?)

Europe Guest House's amazing location is even bolstered by very comfortable beds, spotless rooms, fragrant smelling bed sheets, new pillows, clean towels; cable TV on LCD screens; rooms that boast of both electric fans and new split-type AC's; dry bathrooms with non-dripping faucets and hot water; and (for my room) a window-balcony. I loved just looking down from my 3rd floor room (well, it's actually the 4th floor), observing the bustle of activity from down below. From where I stood, I could see Street 136 terminate into the Sisowath Quay. In the gradually dimming afternoon light, I marveled at the changing hues illuminating the river. Just beautiful!


The guest house is owned and managed by Mr. Seng and his wife, a Vietnamese-French couple who, some 5 years ago, decided to move to the Khmer capital from Paris. They have been blessed with a lovely daughter named Isabel and another one's coming in the next several months. It was even such a pleasure to meet Seng's parents who's vacationing from Paris. C'est magnifique, indeed!


Though the guest house can offer coffee or tea and some short orders, there's no provision for meals which is fine since restaurants abound in the area, some open as early as 6AM and close in the wee hours. They will arrange airport and bus pick-ups for you - at the lowest possible cost ($2 for bus pick ups, $7 for airport transfers). My airport pick up from Green House cost me $12; my bus transfer cost me $6. Spot the discrepancy? LOL. Europe will also arrange visa requirements for Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.


The best part about picking Europe GH (I presume is a homage to their former domicile - France) is Seng, the owner. If you email him tonight, you will get a prompt reply the next day. No anxious waits for confirmations. He will offer you services they can arrange for you (on email), leave you to read them, then you won't ever hear him pitch these packages until you seek his opinion or help! My tuktuk pick-up at the bus terminal (from Siem Reap) for example was a very kind guy named Banh. When my first tuktuk driver didn't show up on time for the city tour I earlier arranged, Seng dealt with the non-English speaking Banh, negotiating for us a ridiculously inexpensive (half-day city tour and airport transfer) rate that saved me some $7-10. I explained my intended itinerary while Seng dictated this to Banh. If that isn't a red carpet service, I don't know what is.


The clear thing is, I've found my "permanent" home away from home in Phnom Penh. It's actually one reason why I am already making plans for a future revisit (en route to other places like Battambang, Sihanoukville, etc.)

For those who are interested, this Khmer area also has 2 video shops nearby (your European titles and hard-to-find documentary DVDs can be found there). Best of all, the Phnom Penh Night Market is within the same block, along Sisowath Quay. This night market features a party-like atmosphere, a "tiangge" a la Divisoria; ambulant vendors selling weird fruits, corn on cobs, very sweet lanzones and pungent Durians. At the center of the Night Market sprawl, that happens only on Sunday nights, is a stage where local performers dance the hip hop (if a tad under rehearsed, but a compelling watch nevertheless) of "Back Seat" or Bruno Mars' "The Lazy Song".

A room with a magnificent view!

The guest house foyer where you can have your bittersweet coffee.

Mr. Seng and family

Down below are images from my window overlooking Street No. 136 at different times of the day. Phnom Penh names most of their streets in numbers: even numbers for horizontal streets on the map, and odd numbers for vertical. The big streets are named accordingly, i.e. Sisowath Quay, Norodom Avenue, etc.


What's wanting in the area are internet cafes. There are a couple of internet shops along Sisowath Quay, but they close early - at 10PM. One night, I had to scour the area at past 10. I found one at the Khmer Royal Hotel along the main strip. Though expensive for non-guests, I had to check my mails - to the tune of $2 per hour when the going rate should be $0.75 an hour even in Siem Reap. This is a curiosity. Internet cafes have mushroomed in most places that I've visited in Asia - even in laidback Vang Vieng or Jaisalmer, but in Cambodia, the cafes close down early. And there's not a lot of them around. If you're carrying your laptop around (something I never do), then Europe GH has unlimited wi-fi connection!


As I am writing this, Europe GH is ranked number 2 (out of 93 guest houses and B&B's in PP) in TripAdvisor's ranking. Moreover, in the French Travel Site,, Europe GH is ranked no. 1 -

Here is Europe GH's address and contact number:

Europe Guesthouse
Nº. 51Eo, Oknha Inn (St. 136) Across Street 13 just one block from the riverside (Sisowath Quay)
12204 Phnom Penh

* Tel 023 6918 883
* HP 092 763 078


Check their website for updates and rates:

Before I left Khmer Royal, the concierge asked me why I didn't stay with them. "We have 24-hour internet, free for our guests", he said. I just smiled. I was quite pleased with my guesthouse. I was in my perfect place. I wouldn't have it any other way.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

From my window, you already see the Tonle Sap ("Great River") and the Sisowath Quay!

Smile Shop, a 24-hour convenience store just across the corner.

Sisowath Quay at dusk. Tranquil river.

Sisowath Quay bathed by the warmth of street lamps.

A favorite place of mine. A small temple facing the river where locals offer tulips, incense, etc.

My tuktuk driver Banh, he with the kindest of faces. Ask Seng to contact Banh for you if you're in the capital. His number is 0975119660. To show me more of the city on my way to the airport, Banh took the elegant streets of PP where tuktuks weren't allowed. Saw pretty parks and majestic buildings. At one point, a policemn tried to stop him, but he just kept on driving. LOL

My tuktuk

Sugarcane juices: quite a popular drink in the country, from PP to Kampong Thom to Siem Reap.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Palace, A Museum, an Independence Monument & a Lady Named Penh

"Meet me at 8:30 AM," that was my instruction to Sem, my tuktuk driver, but it seems he had plans of his own. At close to 9, I finally decided to get another. And like clockwork, Banh, the other tuktuk driver drove in front of Europe Guesthouse. "There are 5,000 tuktuks all over the city," remarked Seng, the amiable owner of our guesthouse, "Why should you wait for him. You don't have all day." So true. I requested Seng to just inform Sem to meet me at 2PM for his payment. I was going to give him half of the $20 sight seeing tour we agreed upon, but for now, I had to go.


I liked Banh. He has this really kind face which is quite rare. And you just know he wasn't going to "take you for a ride", so to speak. Unfortunately, he hardly spoke a word of English. I asked what his name was, but he didn't understand me at all. I once again asked my hotel owner if he could enumerate my planned itinerary - National Museum, Royal Palace, Independence Monument and Wat Phnom. I'm actually going back to all these places I once saw - and I was very excited.


The Cambodian National Museum sits right in front of a park - a lawn - overlooking Sisowath Quay where a couple of well visited lakeside temples are frequented by locals offering incense and tulips. It is such a beholding presence, with its reddish roof and graceful curves. Unlike most sites in the capital, the museum is exactly as I remember it.

I readily paid my $3 entrance fee. What used to be camera fees has now been incorporated into the $3 ticket.

The rubbles found all over the Angkor temples have mostly been preserved here, thus the artifacts found within the museum have familiar names of where a specimen has been found or retrieved. This is a favorite place for me despite the fact that photography inside is disallowed. However, you can do that at the garden right outside the four corners of the exhibition hall. If I had the luxury of time, I could spend my whole day going through each relic and inscriptions.


Before leaving the museum, I inquired about "stone rubbings". These are paintings done on a special piece of paper employing stones from the Angkor Temples, rubbing their color on this canvas. The good news is, they're just $1 for medium sized painting; $2 for bigger ones. The bad news: most people in Siem Reap, where they should rightfully be found, don't have any idea what a "stone rubbing" is. So it's a little ironic that I have to find the painting 314 kilometers south of Siem Reap. I also found some peddlers selling the same at the foot of Phnom Bakheng in Angkor, but they were a bit crumpled and I wasn't sure of their quality.

Intricate carvings on a frieze on display at the museum. This photo only courtesy of

Relics on display. This photo only courtesy of

The Royal Palace is just a stone's throw away from the National Museum. I paid my $6.25 entrance fee and got inside this amazing complex of exquisitely designed buildings where the present king, Norodom Sihamouni, resides. I was once in awe of this royal palace, and it's understandable why. It's simply a visual masterpiece of pomp and pageantry. Let's take, for example, the Silver Pagoda that bears a golden buddha (pure gold) studded with some 2,000 diamonds; a flooring made of tons of silver. This is how Imelda Marcos would have preferred to live, i.e. ostentatiously, had she been queen.

The present king is curiously single and pushing 70. Yet he still looks like a movie star, very fair, with shaved head and lean frame. A guide I overheard said that the reason why he hasn't married was because he's very religious - "like the monks". Other tourists snickered when they heard that the king used to dance ballet. And the rumor mill starts wagging.

From the palace, Banh, my tuktuk driver, stopped right beside the roundabout where the Independence Monument stood. You really can't do much here except gaze at the Vietnam-donated structure (it signifies the supposed Viet-Khmer Friendhsip, and victory over Pol Pot's regime) for a minute or two. Going closer to the monument is not allowed.

From there, it was a 15 minute ride going north - to Wat Phnom, a temple perched on a hill. Though not particularly "pretty", the hill and its buddhas have historical significance to the people. After all, that's where they got the city's name.


Long time ago, 4 buddha statues were set adrift the lake, and they eventually lodged on the hill where one of the buddhas now rests. A lady found these buddha statues. Her name was Penh. Since then, a "wat" (temple) has been erected for the buddha - Wat Phnom. And the name of "Phnom Penh" has been bestowed on the capital in honor of the lady who found the buddha up the hill - "Phnom" (hill/mountain) of "Penh" - Phnom Penh. It's a beautiful anecdote actually.

I paid a $1 entrance fee (no ticket was given) then leisurely climbed the easy stairs. The amputee who begged by the stairs, a fixture since I can remember (this has been my 4th return in the city) wasn't there anymore. In fact, the whole complex has been sanitized. You hardly find the ambulant vendors that once populated the grounds.

Temple devotees were offering food, even "lechon" (roast suckling pig), flowers and other goods all around the complex. There were 2 temples up there, small ones, mostly visited by locals. I went down the other side (where the giant sundial was) and found the elephant that's been navigating the park since forever. With wrinkly epidermis and tentative strides, he was such a gentle giant - and quite hungry too, eating on his bundle of bananas and deleafing the sugarcane sticks. He would grab the sugarcane sticks by his snout, then beat their leaves against the ground (imagine someone sweeping the floor in violent strokes) before taking them inside his mouth.

Finally, it was time to head back to my hotel for my check out (12PM). I took my bag to the counter, paid my room, then looked for somewhere to eat. Seng, the hotel proprietor, recommended Restaurant 126 which, earlier in the day, was so congested. It had customers overflowing to the sidewalk - an indication that (a) it's not expensive and (b) it's a good one too. I was glad to have gotten my BBQ Pork Rib with Rice there - at a measly 6,000 riel ($1.5).


Phnom Penh used to repel me. It was a rotting capital that made perfect poster child for urban decay - a city beleaguered by societal maggots; that which wallows in dire poverty and desperation. But these days, it has gradually transformed into a vibrant new city. Poverty still abounds, but there are conscious steps for face lifts and breathing spaces. The once dingy, hooker-infested promenade has come alive - locals enjoying the breeze from its Mekong tributaries; old people doing their terpsichorean maneuvers disguised as physical exercises; best of all, there are children running around, laughing away for what seems like a brighter tomorrow.

There is hope even to a people enveloped by a harrowing and vicious past. If all this hopefulness persists, the future can't be anything but inspiring.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Faces of Death in Phnom Penh & the Deceptive Calm at the Sisowath

Cambodia pilfered by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. This photo courtesy of Dith Pran, 1974.

There is absolutely no getting around a civil war, painful death and genocide. It is merciless, parsimonious, offensive and reeks of demented, delirious, maniacal judgement. Pol Pot's regime - from 1973-1979 - was such! And with no compulsion to airbrush it, I do hope he rots in hell until eternity!

Pol Pot was schooled in Paris, but that doesn't make him an intellectual. After all, there are also idiots in France the same way there are at every nook and cranny in the world. But more importantly, he went to the university and flunked his course three times! If that qualifies him to lead a nation, I should be President of America (remember that George Bush became one) so you would know that the qualifications aren't as rigid.


Mr. Pot led a racial cleansing in his deranged Khmer Rouge that killed thousands on his way to insanity. But he was too ashamed of how he looked that he hardly allowed anyone to see him or take his photos. His cleansing started in Phnom Penh, a move that would eventually decimate every structure that represented civilization which, to his mind, was unpure - churches, government dwellings, temples, houses, banks, bridges, concrete roads, then people! - Painful torture and death to everyone. These photos (above and below) only courtesy of the official Tuol Sleng website. Please visit the site for more photos which are on display at S21.

The first time I visited S21, aka Tuol Sleng Prison - a former elementary school turned into a prison - it took me 2 hours to navigate around the actual prison cells. And I couldn't help getting misty eyed. It was a sobering encounter with a not too distant past.


The prison cells were tight enclosures made of bricks in one floor and wood panels in another. Every part of the capture was documented by the regime - the way the French loved documenting everything! Each prisoner was photographed upon arrival then post-mortem, after they were tortured. Some were even snapped during the whole bludgeoning process of lunacy. No one was spared. Women, even the pregnant ones, children, old people - each one was taken as prisoners. The most spine-tingling accounts came from the survivors - those who eventually made it out simply because there were just too many prisoners. The officers couldn't keep up with the killings as fast as they should.


I thought it would be easier this time around, but emotions aren't that easily tutored. I paid the entrance of $2 and noticed that the new entrance was through the compound's right side corner instead of the front gates. There were more tourists this time. But the twilight zone moment came when one lady stood beside one of a prisoner's photograph. I thought I was seeing a ghost! This breathing, living lady was the very same woman on the photo - moments before she was to be executed! It was unnerving! Turned out, a team was doing a documentary.


After Tuol Sleng, our tuktuk driver named Sem, maneuvered his way towards the Killing Fields, aka Cheung Ek Genocidal Museum. It was a 40 minute drizzly ride to the suburbs. There was new gate and ticket office. There's even a new museum at the left side of the compound. It wasn't there three years ago. A Japanese firm has acquired management privileges of the whole compound which explains the new welcome development.


The Killing Fields is really just a parcel of land where prisoners from S21 and other prisons were taken for immediate execution - then buried there. They would place loud speakers on trees so as to drown cries of pain. Babies were thrown up the air then bludgeoned with bayonets as they drop down the ground. Those who were too heavy for this were held at their feet then their head were bashed against the trunk of the trees. Such barbaric acts are, to this day, unfathomable. These trees bear witness to an era of unbridled lunacy.

A pagoda stands at the center of the compound bearing skulls of the departed, thousands of them.


From the Killing Fields, I asked Sem to take me to Boeung Kak, the old backpacker area north of Sisowath Quay. I have always wanted to see this place. Boeung Kak used to host the cheapest guesthouses in Phnom Penh, but many of them - including a number of Lonely Planet-recommended enclaves - have been dismantled. We navigated through an Edsa-like avenue, then turned left through narrow roads. I saw a gleaming mosque until we eventually reached a place I'd be so scared to visit at night. There were still a few guesthouses left, and the smattering of tourists looking as decrepit as the old settlements that now survive there.

The lakeside had this dramatic view. From across the lake, I saw nothing but sand, allegedly laid by the government developers. The whole area would eventually see the rise of tall buildings in the next 5-10 years. To be honest about it, this seems like a great idea. If Phnom Penh needed to catch up with Siem Reap, the planners seem to go about it the right way. The placed looked scary, and between Sisowath Quay and Boeung Kak, it's a no-brainer which one I'd recommend to friends.

From Boeung Kak, all that's left to do was to get back to Sisowath Quay (photo above). It would be sunset by that time. But tomorrow is another day for revisits.

I can't wait.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Monks crossing the street along Sisowath Quay. This photo only courtesy of