Should American first time travelers visit Cambodia?July 24, 2011
Last month, readers of the Khmer440.com discussion forums had the pleasure of being introduced to an enthusiastic new poster named Zasp. Zasp is a single American male of indeterminate age. He caused a bit of a stir in the forums by asking, with all sincerity, whether he needs a passport to fly from the U.S. to Phnom Penh. Zasp then reported that he was scrambling to obtain an expedited passport so that he could make his already-ticketed flight to Cambodia.
Most Americans take their first international flight to Europe or the Caribbean. Maybe Mexico. But not Zasp. If he can find his way to his local airport without getting lost, Zasp is determined to visit Cambodia as his inaugural international trip.
We don’t know much else about Zasp. He’s from Virginia. He doesn’t even have a driver’s license. He could be Amish. Wait, he also likes smoking marijuana. Do the Amish smoke marijuana? I don’t know. I picture Zasp with a beard though.
When I first saw Zasp’s blissfully naive inquiry about passport requirements, I was tempted to bait him and tell him dumb shit like “You’ll be fine entering Cambodia as long as you bring certified copies of your malaria vaccination records signed by your childhood pediatrician.” I decided not to do this though. It just wouldn’t be sporting. Do I play blind, retarded bargirls at Connect Four and loudly mock them when they lose? No, I do not.
Instead, what I have decided to do is offer Zasp some genuine advice specifically designed for the rarest of traveling neophytes: the American tourist visiting Phnom Penh as his first international trip.
PREPARING FOR YOUR TRIP
Traveling to Phnom Penh for the first time doesn’t require too much preparation. You don’t need any immunizations. You don’t need to learn a new language. You don’t have to get a visa in advance. You just need to pack some clothes, money, and few other basic essentials. Like a passport, you fucking hillbilly.
On the subject of clothes, don’t bring shorts. It will be hot, but in Cambodia only children and creepy sex tourists wear shorts. Instead, bring a few more pairs of underwear than you would expect to need. May is a hot and humid month, and you might sweat through more than one pair of underwear a day. I don’t sweat much in the U.S., but by 3 p.m. in Cambodia, my briefs are usually wetter than a Japanese attic.
Depending on what airline you are flying on and how many connections you have, there’s a good chance your checked luggage may not arrive in Phnom Penh on the same flight that you do. So bring a change of clothes and some toiletries in your carry on luggage, in case your checked luggage is delayed by a day or two.
Don’t put any valuables in your checked luggage either. Theft from luggage does occur. I once had a cheap Nokia phone stolen from my checked luggage somewhere between Bangkok and Phnom Penh. Air Asia probably had trained glue-sniffing monkey thieves in the cargo hold. I don’t know.
You’re probably excited about your upcoming trip to Phnom Penh, especially since this is your first trip overseas. You’re probably inclined to tell all of your friends, family, and co-workers that you are going to Cambodia. Don’t do it, Zasp.
Eight years ago, I told my mother that I was planning a trip to Cambodia. I still recall her exact response. “Isn’t that where they go to have sex with little boys?”
Cambodia is still known as a haven for Western pedophiles. Dateline NBC and CNN frequently air programs in the U.S. about the horrible sex trade in Cambodia. You’re a single, bearded guy who has never traveled internationally. Now you are suddenly going to Cambodia for no specific reason. Everyone will suspect that you are going to Cambodia for sex, probably sex with children, you sick bastard.
If people ask where you are going on your vacation, just mumble “overseas” or “Asia” and then quickly change the subject. If you must mention Cambodia to friends and co-workers, tell them your plans to visit the majestic temples of Angkor Wat, as seen in the film “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” Oh, they’ll still think you’re a pedophile, but at least this will make the conversation about your upcoming trip less awkward.
ON THE PLANE
Your flight to Asia will be jam packed with coughing, sniffling Chinamen. Buy an overpriced bottle of water at the airport and drink it during your flight to keep hydrated. Get up and walk around on the plane every few hours, even if you don’t feel like it. This will prevent blood clotting and also give you an opportunity to pass gas away from your own seating row. Common courtesy.
On your last flight leg to Phnom Penh, the stewardess will hand out Cambodian immigration forms for you to fill out. Keep a pen in your carry on luggage so you don’t have to borrow the one that your phlegmy seatmate just had in his mouth.
Fill in the Cambodian customs form, visa application, and the arrival side of the perforated arrival/departure card. When you exit the plane at Phnom Penh Airport, you walk down a flight of stairs and hand the visa application, your passport, and a passport photo (or a $1 bill) to the staff behind the visa processing counter. They will put the visa sticker in your passport, and you pay them $20 and get a useless receipt.
You then write the number of your new visa in the space on your arrival card, walk to one of the immigration desks, and hand over your passport and arrival card. The unsmiling immigration officer will swipe your passport and then stare at his computer screen for 45 seconds like he’s watching a video of two elephants fucking. Then he will stamp your passport and let you into the country.
International tourists are always most vulnerable when exiting airports and train stations. That’s when they have all of their cash and valuables on their person. Thieves know this. If it’s a tourist’s first time in a new country, he or she may not know how to arrange safe transport to a hotel, or what the taxi fare should be, etc. Some foreign airports are filled with touts and criminals who prey on naive tourists.
Fortunately, Phnom Penh airport has an extremely easy process for arriving passengers. A drunk, blind first-time visitor wearing Mr. T’s gold jewelry and an “I fucked Buddha” T-shirt could probably get from Phnom Penh airport to his hotel without any real difficulty.
After claiming your luggage, turn in your customs form to the nearby customs officer and walk outside. You will see an official taxi booth right in front of you. The airport taxis currently charge a flat fare of $9 to anywhere in town. Hold out your hand and the guy at the taxi booth will hand you a piece of paper that says “Airport taxi $9.” Continue walking and show the piece of paper to one of the waiting taxi drivers. Follow him to his taxi and tell him where you want to go.
The taxi driver will ask you a series of questions in broken English during the ride to your hotel. He will ask what country you are from. He will ask if you are married. He’s probably not hitting on you. He’s just curious. He will also ask if you have a booking at your hotel. Tell him yes. If you answer “No,” he may try to steer you towards a hotel that pays him a commission.
The taxi driver will also ask if it is your first time in Cambodia. No good can come from answering truthfully. If you say “yes,” his eyes will light up and he will try to persuade you to spend the next week in his taxi visiting the Killing Fields, touring the countryside, marrying his cousin, etc. Just tell him that you have been to Phnom Penh many times and that you have no plans to leave your hotel for the duration of your stay.
U.S. dollars are widely used in Cambodia. Do not bother changing money into Cambodian riels. U.S. coins are not used in Cambodia, however, so any change from your dollar will be handed to you in Cambodian riel, at the normal rate of 4000 riel to the dollar.
There are numerous ATMs in Phnom Penh that accept foreign cards and dispense dollars. You don’t need to bring a lot of cash with you.
It’s helpful to have small bills on you at all times in Cambodia. Taxi drivers, motodops, and vendors often don’t have change. I recommend that before your trip, you go to your local bank and ask for about fifty dollars in $1 dollar bills. Will the cute teller snicker because she thinks you are on your way to a strip club? The cute teller will snicker because she thinks you are on your way to a strip club.
For a first timer, the best place to stay in Phnom Penh is probably right on the riverside. Hotel Castle is a decent choice in that area. There are a lot of tourist-oriented bars and restaurants within walking distance. You can’t possibly get lost because there’s always a big fucking river right in front of you.
Many of the tourist restaurants display a variety of free “pocket guides” which include helpful maps and listings of the city’s bars, restaurants, and shops. Pick up a few of these. Canby Publications publishes excellent guides and also has a good website with maps and other useful tourist information.
You may wonder who all those local guys are hanging around outside your hotel, alternating between sleeping, publicly urinating, and feverishly shouting when you walk by.
These are mototaxi drivers, a.k.a. motodops. They eke out a modest living ferrying tourists or other Cambodians around town on the backs of their small motorbikes. Motodops in search of a fare will often try to get your attention by holding up a finger while shouting “You! You! Moto! Where you go?” Sometimes they are drunk.
Of the same ilk but slightly higher in the local pecking order are tuk tuk drivers. Tuk tuks are motorbikes with a trailer hitched to the back, providing comfortable seating for up to four Westerners or twenty-seven Cambodians.
There are two general rules for dealing with motodops and tuk tuk drivers. First, don’t ever expect that they know where anything is. You have to know where you are going, then you lead the motodop to your destination with various verbal and physical commands. So it’s very similar to riding a horse. Except motodops smell worse.
Relying on a motodop to navigate is simply a recipe for disaster. If you ask a motodop “Do you know how to get to the Eiffel Tower?,” he will eagerly say “Yes, I know, I know, I take you.” But when you hop on the back of his bike, he will just drive to a random destination and stop there, because he took a foreigner there once before. Or, alternatively, he will drive in a straight line and keep going straight until you direct him to turn or you hit water.
Second, do not give motodops or tuk tuk drivers any personal information. If you are walking down the street and they shout “Where are you going,” don’t tell them. Just ignore them or shake your head and wave them off. If you give them any personal information, they will use that to try to insert themselves into your plans at any opportunity to make money. If you tell one motodop in front of your hotel your name, soon all of the motodops will be shouting your name to get your attention.
I actually try to avoid taking motodops sitting in front of my hotel, preferring to patronize “anonymous” motodops who are driving by and who I am less likely to ever see again after they drop me at my destination. I’m a bit of a commitment-phobe though.
Anyway, after directing your motodop to your destination, hop off his bike, hand him a dollar and walk away. For short daytime trips, you can pay 2000 riel. When you pay him, he will stare at the new money in his hand for five seconds like he’s holding a photo of two elephants fucking. Then he will drive off. If you pause or look uncertain or ask him what you owe, he may tell you that you owe $2. Unless it was a very long trip, 2000 riel – $1 should suffice.
Sometimes when motodops drop you at a destination, they will mumble “I wait you,” or something like that. Tell him no. There’s no reason to have a motodop waiting for you outside a bar, unless you’re a hooker and he’s your boyfriend.
Tuk tuks are more comfortable than motos, cost about twice as much, and are probably safer. The motodops and tuk tuk drivers who congregate on the riverside are more likely to speak English and to know popular Westerner-oriented destinations. They are also more likely to try to overcharge you.
MEETING ENGLISH AND AUSTRALIAN DUDES IN BARS
English and Australian dudes like to drink and may try to talk to you if you encounter them in bars. Early in the conversation, one of these chaps may ask you, “Where you are from?” This is actually a trick question.
If you answer “America,” he will sneer and respond “Well that’s obvious from your accent. I meant where in America?”
However, if an Englishman or Australian asks you where you are from and you just say “Virginia,” he will quickly reply, “Ha! Americans are the only people on earth who, when you ask them where they’re from, they don’t say the country, they say the city or state. Americans just assume that everyone knows the country.”
English and Australian guys love this little fucking game. The only way for an American to properly answer their trick “Where are you from”” question is by responding, “I’m from America-Virginia.” This will flummox your English or Australian questioner momentarily. He will then tell you his opinion of Barack Obama for no apparent reason.
You may meet other travelers in Cambodia from Western European countries like France, Germany, the Netherlands, etc. When interacting with Western Europeans, especially women, it is very important to mention that the USA is the worst country ever and you are ashamed of everything it has ever done. Only then will they accept you and invite you to their kinky European sex parties.
DEALING WITH AFRICANS
When visiting Phnom Penh, you may see shifty-eyed young African men with funny accents congregating in small groups. Contrary to your tradition in Virginia, these are not slaves. They are Nigerians, and many of them are involved in criminal activity of some sort. Avoid them. If you walk into a bar and see a bunch of Nigerians in there, turn around and walk out. No political correctness required.
I don’ t take drugs. I don’t know how to get them. I don’t know where to get a happy pizza or if happy pizzas still exist.
Here’s what I do know. Western tourists sometimes overdose in Cambodia. I’ve heard that it’s because they try to buy cocaine from a local motodop/drug dealer. The drug dealer doesn’t have any cocaine so he sells them heroin and tells them it’s cocaine. The tourist snorts it, thinking it’s cocaine. The tourist dies of a heroin overdose. Don’t do this.
Also, don’t even consider trying to take any drugs out of Cambodia. Penalties for international drug smuggling are very harsh. Even harsher than the penalties in Virginia for stealing a Burberry jacket from Neiman Marcus.
This is the most important advice I can give you. While in Phnom Penh, you are going to meet attractive young women who appear to be interested in you. You may not be used to this. Do not let it blow your mind.
Do not fall in love with the first cute Cambodian girl who smiles at you and say she likes you, especially if she works in bar. She may seem quite sincere in her interest, but she is likely wearing “economic desperation goggles.” These are like “beer goggles,” except they don’t wear off until the woman drains you of most of your money or meets another guy who is younger and richer than you.
RETURNING HOME: DEALING WITH THE GOONS AT LAX AIRPORT
When you arrive back in the U.S., you will have to go through passport control, claim your checked luggage, and then pass through customs. The passport control and/or customs officer will probably ask you some questions about your trip. He may think it’s highly suspicious that a guy who has never flown internationally before recently decided to get a passport just to visit an obscure country located in area of the world known for producing narcotics.
The officer may therefore ask you what you do for a living, how much money the trip cost you, and who paid for your ticket. He’s trying to determine if you’re a drug mule, and if your trip was sponsored by a shady Colombian guy you recently met in a Miami nightclub.
If the customs officer is satisfied with your explanation that you paid for your own ticket, he may not search your luggage or anus. Instead, he might cheerily ask if he can see your laptop and camera and all the photos you took in Cambodia. Rest easy in knowing that the customs officer no longer suspects you to be a drug mule. He is just searching your electronics for kiddie porn, you sick Cambodia-visiting bastard.
Diet Coke is not called Diet Coke in Cambodia. It is called Coke Light. Or, in local pronunciation, “Coke Lie.”
If you are deaf, you might want to avoid Shanghai Bar.
Bring a photocopy of your passport cover page and keep it separate from your passport. It’s also a good idea to scan this and email it to yourself. This way, if a hooker steals your passport, you’ll have proof of identity needed to get a new passport.
You should also bring the specific credit card(s) that you used to pay for your airline tickets. Some Asian airlines require you to show that credit card when you check in for your flight.
If a Western dude approaches you on the riverside with a sob story about how he was recently robbed and just needs $20 more to buy a plane ticket home, tell him to fuck off.
Lastly, please don’t let a bargirl steal your life savings from your room.