As I made my way from Vietnam to Cambodia, I really wasn’t sure what to expect. Over my months of travel, I’ve met a lot of people who’d been places I was going and the reviews of Cambodia were sharply mixed. Some people said it was their favorite place, others absolutely hated it, so I had no idea what I was in for.
I started out in the capital city of Phnom Penh and checked in to the Lovely Jubbly Villa (I had a recommendation from Rozie, but the name alone is what sold me on the place). It turned out to be a good choice, it was a really nice hostel with a pool and the on-site restaurant served great food at cheap prices. I met a lot of really fun people there as well, some of whom I hope to meet up with again in the future.
My primary reason for visiting was to go to the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum. These are, needless to say, not very cheery activities, but I still think it is important to go to these kind of places, if for no other reason than to gain a greater understanding of a country and it’s people. I hadn’t known much about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime, but essentially, it was a dictatorship that nearly wiped out an entire generation of Cambodian people for no discernible reason. The bulk of the genocide took place during the 1970s, but I was startled to learn that Pol Pot was still recognized as the legitimate leader of the country by the world until the mid 90s — long after he had fled into exile. The ticket to the Killing Fields includes an audio tour, much of which consists of first-hand accounts of people who managed to survive. I chose not to take any pictures there, but simply to listen and reflect. From there, I went to S-21, a former high school that became a prison, and is now the Genocide Museum. The exhibits are minimal, the most striking being the walls and walls of photos of the prisoners, all of whom were tagged and photographed before being placed in cells that the vast majority wouldn’t leave alive. It’s a haunting (and likely haunted) place. I’m glad that I visited and recommend it to anyone going to Phnom Penh, but it obviously wasn’t a very enjoyable experience.
One of the awesome people I met at Lovely Jubbly was Marike, who has a travel story remarkably similar to my own. We are the same age, and she was also trapped in professional misery in New York. She ended up quitting her job to go traveling and it turns out, we set out at exactly the same time. We hit it off right away and though traveling separately, both traveled on to Sihanoukville on the same day. I stayed my first night at Everythang, a very dirty-hippie bungalow on Otres Beach, but the next day moved further down the way to join Marike at SeaGarden, which may just be the most wonderful place on earth. When I thought of Cambodia, I never really pictured beautiful beaches, but Otres is a little slice of heaven. We spent a few days just sitting in loungers, drinking in the stillness and listening to the waves. There are women and girls who walk up and down the beach all day offering massages and beauty treatments and I managed to get suckered in to having my legs threaded, an intensely painful experience that I will never repeat, but which left my legs, in the words of my threading lady, “smooth as baby ass.”
Soon thereafter, I met up again with Kelsey, who was now traveling with Emily and Daria, two of her friends from California. We had heard nothing but good things about Koh Rong island and so the four of us packed up and headed out there by ferry (Marike was going to join us the following day). On arriving at the pier, we ran into Megan and MJ, who were just leaving after having spent 5 nights on the island. They said they’d loved their stay and recommended Coco Bungalows to us as good lodging. Koh Rong has no roads, you step off the pier and right into sand, so I was glad to head straight to Coco and check in so as to avoid lugging my suitcase down the beach looking for accommodation. (This is one of the times that I really regret choosing to go with a suitcase rather than a backpack, but alas, that choice was made long ago).
The bungalow was definitely rustic, but at $15 night split 4 ways, the price couldn’t be beat. The mosquito nets over the beds appeared to be in relatively good repair and there was a fan to cool the room. We had to teach Daria and Emily how to use a bucket-flush toilet, which was amusing, but all in all, the place was adequate to our needs. We set out to explore and made a snap decision to jump on a boat tour that was leaving right away. The first stop was snorkeling out in the bay, but the selection of moldy masks and snorkels were not very appealing. We snorkeled around for a bit, but despite the clear water, there really wasn’t much to see. The big excitement came when we tried to leave. The driver gunned the engine and the boat gave a huge lurch, nearly capsizing and dumping us all back in the sea. The two Cambodian boys running the tour jumped in the water without explanation, but we soon figured out that the anchor was wedged into some coral and they couldn’t get it free. After quite a while (and several more terrifying lurches), we were all begging the crew to simply cut the line, but they did eventually manage to get the line free and we were away. The next activity was fishing, which was done off the side of the boat with spools of fishing line. I elected not to participate, and after an eternity (and a few location changes) the other members of the trip had managed to catch a few small fish. From there, we went to a beautiful secluded beach where we’d been promised a bbq. We hung out on the beach for a while, but then were called back to the boat where we were served our meager meal of one chicken/veggie skewer, a bit of rice, and a portion of the fish that were caught earlier. I was lucky and got a whole little fish to myself (poor Kelsey just got one of the heads). Once the sun set, we motored out to a spot where we were supposed to go swimming with the fluorescent phytoplankton, but due to the nearly full moon, we couldn’t really see anything and it was kind of a bust.
We were all pretty exhausted after this and headed up to our room to sleep. There were loads of stray(?) dogs on the property and one of them followed us up to the bungalow and stationed himself on our porch standing guard, which we all thought was adorable. We showered as quickly as possible, as there was a sign on the wall decreeing that, due to a water shortage on the island, we should restrict our showers to one minute (!). Marginally cleaner, we all climbed into bed. At some point, we started to hear the most horrible noises coming from outside: growling and barking and hissing that sounded like the dogs were murdering each other. Needless to say, this made it pretty difficult to sleep. Then, some time later, the fan suddenly stopped blowing and we discovered that the power had gone out. It was already incredibly hot in the room and now without the fan, it became unbearable. We thought about opening the door, but the horrible and terrifying sounds coming from the dogs made us decide against it. At one point, I mustered the courage to peek out through a hole in the wall and saw that the dogs, in between fighting, were…ahem…having relations, which was the source of some of the horrible noises. And so we lay there, exhausted, sweaty, and drifting in and out of thin sleep that was shattered every time the dogs started up again. We finally gave up and got out of bed around 6:30, nobody feeling like they’d rested at all. The power was still out and then, the final straw, we discovered that we no longer had water either. The man at the reception desk seemed wholly uninterested in investigating the situation and so we went to see if there was another place to stay. We found a decent bungalow (at nearly twice the price) but it was way far down the beach, so we’d have to pack up and carry our stuff down there in the blazing heat, already nearly unbearable at 7 am. A brief conference and consensus was reached: we were bailing on Koh Rong and going back to SeaGarden in Otres. I managed to find WiFi for a second and text Marike that we were coming back, but it was too late. We ran into her on the pier and she decided to stay.
Back in Otres, SeaGarden was full, but we found a room across the way for $20, which had a private bathroom, complete with flush toilet AND hot water. Further bonus: air conditioning!! Simple luxuries had never felt so good. We still ended up spending all our time at SeaGarden, hanging out on the beach, napping in the shade and enjoying their excellent restaurant. I also reconnected with Hanna and Tasha, two English girls who’d been there before we left for our ill-fated 24 hour Koh Rong adventure, so we all hung out together, playing cards and having a grand old time.
Kelsey and the girls moved on to Phnom Penh, but Hanna and Tasha were also headed to Siem Reap, so I joined up with them for the next part of the journey. We splurged on a private car to Phnom Penh, and then transferred to the nicest sleeper bus I’ve taken in Asia: the Giant Ibis. We got a decent night’s rest and arrived bright and early in Siem Reap, ready for some extreme templing! We all agreed to save Angkor Wat for the last day, so after buying the 3-day temple pass, we set out with our hired tuktuk to explore the Grand Circuit. We visited 5 temples on that first day: Preah Kahn, Neak Poan, Ta Som, East Mebon and Pre Rup. Each of the temples has a distinct style and feeling. We spontaneously hired a local guide at Preah Kahn, who told us that the stewardship of the various temples changed hands back and forth over the years, back and forth between the Buddhists and Hindus, thus explaining the hodgepodge of iconography. Luckily, we were visiting during the low season, so the crowds were minimal and most places we had almost all to ourselves.
Back at our hotel (the girls had found an amazing deal on Agoda for the Mekong Angkor Palace, scoring rooms for $20/night that usually go for $80+), we jumped straight into the pool to wash of the dirt and dust of the day. That night, we headed into Siem Reap to explore Pub Street and eat some delicious local food. I really liked the vibe and feeling of the town, there is a lot to see and do (and eat!), and it feels pretty safe.
The next day, we all agreed we needed a bit of a sleep-in and after a leisurely breakfast, we spent the morning poolside and I managed to get up another blog post. (I hope you all appreciate all the hard work I’m putting in here!). In the afternoon, we ventured further afield to the Pink Temple of Banteay Srei. The name means “Citadel of the Women” and it is said to have been built by women, as the carvings appear too delicate to have been done by men. It is set far out from the city and there is a lot of exploring to do on the grounds. There are several spots where signs indicate a lake, but arriving at the tail end of the dry season, all the lakes have dried up, leaving just vast fields of grass. On the way back to the hotel, we passed what looked like a big carnival or fair. Our driver, Samna, pointed it out to us and, visibly excited about it, asked if we wanted to stop and check it out. Of course we did! Turns out it was the Thai carnival, an annual event where vendors and entertainers come over from Thailand, and apparently it’s a really big deal for the Cambodians. Samna was as delighted as a little kid and was happy to show us around the tents. It was clearly a local event (we were the only white faces anywhere), which made it even cooler. We ended up grabbing a bunch of things from the various food stalls for dinner and treated Samna to dinner as well. It was such an unexpected treat to get a glimpse into local life, luck was on our side that day!
For our third and final day, we were up in the wee hours to get our first glimpses of Angkor Wat at sunrise. Sad as it is, this was not nearly as impressive as we had hoped. The sunrise was not particularly spectacular: it was dark, then gradually it wasn’t dark anymore. Not much in the way of pretty colors, no sudden rays of light. Boo. There were also by far the largest crowds we’d encountered so far, which shouldn’t have come as a surprise, I guess. The temple itself is very impressive though, mostly for the sheer size of it. It was built in the mid-1100s and is one of the only temples in the region that was never left alone for the elements to reclaim, and is thus in pretty good repair.
After a few hours climbing and wandering through the vastness of Angkor Wat, we moved on to Bayon, which was one of my favorite temples of the entire trip. Each of the towering spires has faces carved on all four sides, which are both beautiful and terrifying. Ta Prohm, our next stop, was also one of the best. In contrast to the others, this temple has been largely reclaimed by the jungle and has massive trees growing out of and through it. There are sections now under repair, but we were still able to clamber around the ruins.
We made one final stop at the rather unimpressive Prasat Kravan and finished out the day. It was still quite early, given our early start, so we got more quality pool time before Hanna had to leave for the airport. (She’s still a real grown-up and had a job in London to get back to, poor thing). After she left, Tasha and I went for one more night on the town and ended up back at Charlie’s, our favorite place in Siem Reap and home of the $1 gin & tonic.
And so concludes my cruise through Cambodia, a beautiful and interesting country with a tragic history. I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record here, but I really did not have enough time in Cambodia. Thinking back to the highly divergent opinions I’d heard from other travelers, I’m firmly in the camp of “loved it” and am adding it to the (long, endlessly long) list of places I need to return to visit again. After I visit everywhere else in the world, of course.
(Don’t forget to check out — and Like! — my Facebook page for full photo albums from every destination and follow me on Instagram @itskimonawhim for the most up to date info on where I am at any given moment)