Eat: Best breakfast ever at Epic Arts Cafe, Kampot

I know what you're thinking. "Those are some good-looking eggs"  It's what I thought too.  

Not too long ago we were in Kampot.  I'd wanted to try Cafe Espresso. But they were shut.  So we headed round the corner to Epic Arts Cafe.  I'm so glad we did. This is a social enterprise and many of the staff are deaf. But they've done a great job of setting up the place so communication isn't a problem at all.

We've be on the hunt for good eggs benedict for quite some time. And let me tell you, they're not easy to find. And if we're being pedantic, these aren't really eggs benedict, but actually eggs florentine (spinach rather than ham). But I'm willing to overlook the misleading name because these were by far the best attempt at either eggs benedict or floretine we've had in Cambodia, and would rival many I've had at home. The bread is homemade Kampot Pepper bread, even if you don't have eggs, you have to try this bread - it's so good!

My companion had an omelette and we washed it all down with their house-blend coffee, which as it happens is from Cafe Espresso.

There's also a little boutique to have a look while you're waiting for your order. I loved this place so much I was back the next morning for exactly the same breakfast. If you're in Kampot, check it out.

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Shop: Survival Tips for Bargaining

I love going to the market, and wandering through the lanes crammed full of little stores bulging with their wares. I love perusing the assortment of products; seeing what hidden gems I can find.

There's just one small problem. I hate bargaining. I love price tags. I miss being able to look at a product and find the price, all without the assistance of someone else, and then, having identified the price, not constantly wondering if it really is the price. On my first visit to Asia my travel buddy and I had a great time trying to haggle and get the best price. But now that its part of my daily life, its not so much fun any more.

But in my time in Cambodia I've figured out how to make bargaining as painless as possible and (mostly) avoid the horrible feeling of being ripped off.  These tips should help even the shyest bargain hunter.

  1. Always ask
    If buying something at the market (except for fresh food), I always ask if they can discount. You'll soon get a feel for how much movement there is in the price, and 9 times out of 10 you will get a discount of some sort. Another great question is 'Is that the right price?' - sounds strange but it works. Only last week I was buying ice-cube trays (at Central Market, of course) the seller quoted me $1.75, when I asked “Is that the right price?”, she answered “Oh, the right price is $1.25”. Easy.

  2. Be friendly and smile
    When you ask, always, always smile. You'd be more likely to give a discount to someone who was friendly and smiling, wouldn't you?

  3. If its not right, don't get annoyed, just walk away
    If you don't think the seller is giving you the right price, then walk away. The same item will usually be available at dozens of other stalls, so you've got nothing to loose. You'll soon see whether or not they are willing to negotiate, and its a lot more effective than getting mad.

  4. If you're not sure you want it don't show too much interest
    If just want to know the price, ask quickly and without showing too much interest in the product. The longer you look and the more time the seller spends with you, the more insistent they'll be that you buy something.
While most sellers will bargain on the price, you will find that the discounts are modest compared to other countries where bargaining is common, so don't expect to pay half the quoted price. Also, not all sellers will bargain, and some do quote the correct price from the outset, particularly if they know you.

A final word, even if you enjoy bargaining don't make a sport of it. The sellers are working long days to make what is often a modest living, and get, understandably, frustrated if they feel that you've been wasting their time.

Happy shopping!

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Do: Bamboo Train in Battambang

I love Battambang.  It's pretty; it's peaceful.  Life just seems to move at a slower pace there.  It's a nice change from Phnom Penh.

And my favourite thing to do in Battambang is the Bamboo Train, or Norry, as it's referred to locally.  If you haven't experienced the Bamboo Train, it's kind of like a antiquated roller-coaster, without any dips.

You'll find it about 5km from the centre of Battambang, at a disused railway station.

The tourist police will be waiting to charge you an exorbitant (by Cambodian prices) amount to take a ride (last time we went we were asked for $5 per head). You can try bargaining, if you like. If you succeed, give yourself a pat on the back, because they're usually pretty adamant about the price.

They'll then call your driver, who will set up your norry (i.e., bamboo platform on wheels) and away you go.

The train heads in pretty much a straight line.  Most of the way, the tracks are lined with bushes, where cows graze, seemingly unperturbed by the clattering trains. Every so often you'll get a glimpse of the surrounding rice paddies, which are quite picturesque. I'm not sure how fast the train actually goes, but as it clatters along, it feels pretty fast.  A word from the wise, if you decide to take off your shoes, keep tight hold of them.  I lost one, which was very kindly retrieved by the next carriage.  

But the real experience happens when you meet a carriage coming the opposite way.  As there is only one track, someone must dismantle their norry to allow the other to pass.  Generally the side with the least norries/passengers is the side that must dismantle, with some help from the other drivers.

Eventually the train stops at a small village that has a brick factory, that I haven't yet explored.  A number of small stalls are set up selling drinks and snacks.  You're free to roam for as long as you like as your driver waits for you. Although the drivers will often call their passengers at the same time in an attempt to travel in a convoy and thus avoiding having to dismantle their norries.

On the way back, you may find yourself with extra company as some locals hitch a ride back.

At the end of the day, the train is a bit of tourist trap, and it's also overpriced.  But it's also, in my opinion, a lot of fun. And should be experienced once, if not more often.

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Info: Mobile Telephone Providers in Cambodia

© Krzysiek_z_poczty | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

I see questions about Cambodian mobile networks come up all the time.  So I thought I'd put together some info for travellers and expats on the mobile phone options in Cambodia.

Choosing a Cambodian Mobile Telco

Local cross-network calls - All carriers charge pretty much the same rate, 7-8 cents per minute.

Local cross-network SMS - All carriers charge a similar rate, normally 5 cents per message

On network calls and SMS - Most travellers won't be interested in on-network rates, but if you're living here and you can convince your friends and family to use the same network, you can get some very cheap calls.  Some carriers include free on-network SMSs, with others you can covert credit to on-network credit to receive bonuses.  Smart offers some of the most competitive on network rates and bonuses.

International SMS - All carriers charge 10 cents per message

International calls - This is where you need to do your homework.  Rates vary quite significantly.  Smart is, in general, cheapest, but if you're calling home a lot, it's worth checking which carrier offers the best rates to your country.  Also remember that most carriers require you to use a prefix to get the best international call rates.  This can be annoying, especially if you're using numbers that are saved in your phone. If you want to avoid this hassle use Smart or Metfone, as they don't use prefixes.

Data - Rates for data also vary significantly and most carriers have data packages as well.  For pay as you go data, qb is cheapest at 1c/MB.  Beeline offers the cheapest packages ($5/month for 3GB or $10/month for unlimited). Metfone seems to offer the best overall service quality at reasonable rates.

Credit validity - If, like me, you don't use your phone much, you should think about credit validity. qb offers the best validity ($1 is valid for 45 days, or $20 is valid for 365 days).  Smart also offers good credit validity, and has an option to extend your validity for 365 days.

Service coverage - As you might expect, the Big 3 (Metfone, Smart and Cellcard) provide better network coverage, however qb roams onto one of the larger networks in places where they don't have coverage.   In the cities, any of the Big 3 will provide adequate coverage, but if you're going to far-flung places, Metfone generally has the best coverage in the country and is the only carrier available in some locations (e.g., Koh Rong Samloen).

Network - While most providers have 3G+ networks in the city, generally outside of the cities they all revert to 2G. 

For more information, here's a summary of the five carriers and with links to their rates.  Please note, there are many packages, plans and promotions available, but for simplicity I've compared and provided information based on the basic prepaid plans of each provider.

Fast facts: 7 million subscribers; 3G; owned by Viettel
Quick Links: TariffsInternational Call RatesData packages,
Best for: Service coverage - Metfone has arguably the best network coverage in Cambodia

Fast facts: 5 million subscribers; 3.75G; owned by Latelz and part of the Axiata group
Quick Links: TariffsInternational Call RatesData packagesCredit validity
Best for: International calls and on-network calls, or extra long credit validity

Fast facts: 4 million subscribers; 3.5G; also known as Mobitel, owned by CamGSM
Quick Links: TariffsInternational Call Rates (prefix required), Data packagesCredit validity

Fast facts: 600,000 subscribers; 2G; owned by Sotelco
Quick Links: TariffsInternational Call Rates (prefix required), Data packagesCredit validity
Best for: Cheap data packages

Fast facts: 3.75G network in the city; owned by CADcomms
Quick Links:  TariffsInternational Call Rates (prefix required), Data packagesCredit validity
Best for: Low volume users (long credit validity), and cheap pay as you go data

Cambodia also has one CDMA carrier, with a very limited network,  Excell, which you can check out here

Disclaimer: I have personally used Cellcard, Smart and Metfone.  I do not have any personal experience with Beeline or qb.  The information above is based on information currently published and publicly available.

If you've got any more information or recommendations on Cambodian mobile networks, please leave a comment.

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Go: National Library of Cambodia

Force ties for a time. Ideas bind forever

As a die-hard lover of books and libraries, I've been wanting to visit the National Library of Cambodia for quite some time.  It's also been on my to do list as one of the Jewels of Phnom Penh (I am trying to get to all of them - very, very slowly). Unfortunately, for me, visiting the National Library is easier said than done - it's open Monday to Friday, from 8am-11am, and 2pm-5pm - not particularly convenient for those of us with jobs.

But the other day, I finally did it.  The Library is housed in a lovely, well-maintained colonial building.  Right next door to the equally beautiful Hotel Le Royal.

The outside has been carefully restored (by students of the School of Fine Arts, I believe).  And includes intricate decorations and friezes.

There's the French quote above, and it's Cambodian equivalent.​​​​​​  The Cambodian version sits above the door to the souvenir shop, which I doubt ever opens.

Another Cambodian piece, on the other side of the building, holds a much simpler message: look; learn.

Inside, the building is still grand, but somewhat less ornate.  Although there are some more friezes, and some lovely wooden furniture.

A few students from the University across the road sit at long tables and endure reprimanding stares from the staff if they get too loud.  I enjoyed flicking through some of the books in the reference library, checking out where the book had come from. Some were stamped as donations from the National Libraries of other countries or from Embassies, a couple had the mark "US Army Salvage" stamped heavily inside.  A few new volumes hid among an array of outdated encyclopaedias.

There is a small lending library, which a foreigner can join for $10 per year (if I remember right) and Cambodians can join for a much more modest sum.  The collection includes books in Khmer, English and French, and to be honest, the book-lover in me was tempted, but the problem is the Library is just too out of the way for me and the opening times too inconvenient.  But I enjoyed perusing the dusty shelves with a mix of books and disused typewriters and office furniture.

I think my favourite thing in the whole room was these beautiful old catalogue boxes (do they have a proper name?).  Oh, what I wouldn't give to take one of these babies home.

I asked whether they were still used (given the state of the rest of the library, I honestly wasn't sure).  But, no, they've been replaced by a catalogue, which is also online.  Everything in the catalogue is in the library, I'm told. When I request a couple of books, the librarian says she'll bring them if she sees them.  I'm not very hopeful, but 10 minutes later she appears with one of the two requests.

I chatted to her for a while about the woes of the library.  I'm told that the contents of a large box on counter marked "Donations" are used to fix the photocopier and the like.  "Not for books?", I ask.  No, the only books are donations, she tells me sadly, it's not like libraries in your country.  No, indeed, it's not.

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