The bus from Sihanoukville leaves as arranged and five hours later we’re in the town of Koh Kong, 10km from the border crossing into Thailand. In Koh Kong we exchange all of our prize winning beer ring pulls and eat one of the best pizzas so far in Asia. The next morning we head to the border at Had Lek for our exit stamp and Thailand visa, a chaotic affair we’re glad is over and done with after two full hours.
Travel stats Cambodia. By land: 1,450 km. By water: 65 km. Stops: 7. Duration: 22 days.
Travel stats total. By land: 12,660 km. By water: 600 km. By air: 30,192 km. Duration: 179 days.
So with the paperwork completed we’ve officially left Cambodia and it’s time to crunch the numbers, starting with the price of a pint.
In Cambodia we tried Angkor, Cambodia and Ganzberg, which go for about 2,000-4,000 Riel (or £0.37-0.75) per small can. Most restaurants and pubs have Angkor on draft, a pint of which is as cheap as a can. The cans are better though, because they allow you to win cash prizes, a car, a scooter, or, more commonly, a free beer!
After 3 weeks we can now say the return rate on Cambodia beer has been dreadful, Angkor scores okay, but with Ganzberg we have found our golden goose, returning a winner in over 60% of the time! Most of smaller convenience stores exchange your winning ring pull for a full can at a nominal fee of 500 Riel. Evidently we drank a lot of Ganzberg, which wasn’t actually that bad. As they say, a free beer always tastes best!
Even for connoisseurs there is good news: a thriving craft beer scene exists in Cambodia and prices are a reasonable £1.50-£4 for a wide choice of micro brews.
Ring pulls returned, let’s look at how Cambodia has fared against the judgement of our equital referee Lauren!
First of all, the people score 8/10. A high score here is absolutely deserved. Dislikes include that, similar to most of Asia, Cambodians like to stay up late and make noise, which really doesn’t sit well when you have to catch a bus at 6am, but more importantly, Cambodians have been genuinely interested in talking with us and they smile a lot. I’ve got a lot of time for them.
Secondly, the food scores 7/10. There isn’t much variety in Khmer cooking, however the curry dishes are (slightly) better than those in the Philippines, and overall the food situation is a bit more manageable than in Sri Lanka with plenty of international restaurants. I’ve tried a beef and ant salad which wasn’t bad, but the best dish has got to be lok lak.
Lastly, the transport scores 7/10. Perhaps a little on the high side, given that it has caused us plenty hassle, but the redeeming quality of transport in Cambodia is that you always get to your destination, either by public transport or by local delivery van, plus the Khmer tuk-tuk is an extremely comfortable, stylish and cheap mode of transport.
So there you have it! It is my pleasure to hereby award our brothers and sisters in Cambodia Lauren’s Official Certificate of Excellence!
Our original plan was to get from Koh Rong Sanloem in Cambodia to Koh Chang in Thailand in one day, but although it’s technically possible, we rather play it safe and divide the travel up into bitesized chunks. This does however mean we’re spending the night in Sihanoukville, which is erm… an experience??
This coastal city, which was named after former king Norodom Sihanouk, was founded only after the dissolution of French Indochina in 1954 with the construction of the country’s first and only deep water port. As the entry point to the islands, and the most developed settlement on the coast, Sihanoukville was known for years as a relaxed beach area frequented by backpackers. These days it’s more known for crime, casinos and failing infrastructure.
Since 2011 Chinese investments have rapidly started changing Sihanoukville into what is supposed to become some sort of a new Las Vegas. Largely unchecked development has come at a cost of freezing out locals and completely altering the city’s character, not too mention some serious building collapses. Native Cambodians are paying the price for a government which has sold out to the Chinese.
Got to hand it to them though, the locals that haven’t left are pretty vocal about their distaste for some of their new neighbours. When we’re organizing the next part of our journey, the woman at the travel agency does little to hide her feelings about tomorrow’s Chinese New Year celebrations. The next morning she explains how she is one of the few people who have managed to hold on to property in Sihanoukville, the value of which has increased tenfold(!) over the past few years. For the average Cambodian person however, who earns about $200 a month, buying or even renting in town is no longer possible.
Walking along dusty streets through the building site that is Sihanoukville is a surreal experience. The maps I have been using are almost entirely useless here, since scores of restaurants and hotels have disappeared, and roads changed. I have to say I’m not displeased for one when at the end of the day we have bus tickets, a hotel for the night and dinner.
By the time the fire-crackers go off the next morning to mark the dawn of the Year of the Rat (traditionally a sign of wealth and surplus, and the beginnings of a new day) we are already on our way to Koh Kong, wondering what Sihanoukville will become for Cambodia.
No better way to end our travels in Cambodia than by laying low for a few days on the unspoilt, exotic Koh Rong Sanloem. Over the past few weeks we’ve gained a better understanding of the do’s and don’ts of local transport. Instead of involving the hotel, this time we book directly with a travel agent, a change in tactics that pays off in dividents: around mid-day a ferry lands us in the clear blue waters of M’pai Bai. Time to finally wash off all the dirt from the road!
Koh Rong Sanloem is the smaller of two inhabitated Cambodian islands in the Gulf of Thailand, the larger being Koh Rong. The place we stay is called M’pai Bai (meaning 23 in Khmer), a little village of about 150 people on the northern tip of the island. There’s no banks here, no ATM’s, no broadband, no electricity, we’re literally off-grid.
After evading the traffic of carts loaded with island supplies running up and down the pier, once the initial excitement of landing in a little slice of heaven has worn off, it’s quite impossible not to notice a certain hard-hitting prevalence of VCSO boys and girls on the island. Gap year douchebaggery is strong in this place serviced mainly by western volunteers, but once you look past all the duck faces, ‘loner’ tattoos and man-buns bragging about how wasted they got on red wine the night before, what remains is an utter and complete paradise.
The interior of the island is almost entirely covered in dense jungle. Though there used to be a basic road system linking up the two villages, this now completely overgrown with vegetation. Taxi boats and ferries connect the island’s seven beaches, along with the occasional rocky footpath. We follow the so-called driftwood path along the sandstone rock coastline to Clearwater Bay on the east coast. It lives up to its name.
One possible translation of Sanloem is far out. Some of the island’s inhabitants, such as Lookout‘s owner Benny, take this catchphrase from The Dude to the extreme by takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners. It doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to procure a good smoke here, at all. M’pai Bai appears to have just the one policeman, whom we see returning a grinder to the bartender at one of the beach bars..
Once you’re feeling totally relaxed, there are boats available to take you to marvel at the glowing plankton the two Koh Rongs are famous for. At nights, near the shores of the uninhabited island of Koh Koun just to north of Sanloem, when you stir the water the plankton flashes gold. Far out, man!
Another three beaches are accessible by taxi-boat. In the morning we’re brought to Saracen Bay, which got its name from a British survey brig, HMS Saracen, that charted the area in the late 19th century. This stretch of soft, white sand is the main tourist area on the island. From here we choose one of the paths that leads through the jungle to the other side of the island. A sign explains the wildlife we may encounter on the walk: Great hornbills, kingfishers, ospreys, macaques and various (poisonous) snakes. Sadly (or perhaps luckily) we encounter nothing of the sort, and soon arrive at stunning Sunset Beach.
We may not have seen any land animals on the way here, when we snorkel around in the clear water of Sunset Beach the marine life we find around the scattered rocks and corals makes more than up for it. We spot angel fish, parrot fish, leopard fish, and even a few we haven’t seen before: a puffer fish, sea cucumbers and a cuttlefish!
Originally we were thinking of heading to the bigger Koh Rong for a few days, but somehow never made it there.. The nice thing about a small village such as M’pai bai is that in just a few days you begin to get to know everyone. Inside the actual village behind the beachfront there are a few local food stalls. Niamh, one of the chefs there, was on Cambodian Masterchef and her food is delicious, best lok lak we’ve had so far.
We also meet ‘the Mexican on a horse’, who is a bit of an enigma around these parts. No one knows why or when exactly, but he just appeared here one day with his hat and his horse, offering horseback rides to tourists.
But then, there was a lot about it that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. But then again, maybe that’s why I found the place so durned interestin’.
Following the example of the French elites in the 1900’s, to escape the heat of the Phnom Penh plains, it’s off to the countryside we go. On paper today’s an easy 150km ride to Cambodia’s west coast, but no matter how long or short the distance, travel in this country always seems to end up being a full day’s affair. When we drive past a giant durian statue in the late afternoon we know we’ve ultimately arrived in Kampot.
Famed for its pepper plantations and the trade of durian fruit, Kampot used to hold Cambodia’s main seaport, attracting an international crowd. The town itself used to be half Cambodian, half Chinese, and the surrounding area had both a Vietnamese and a Malay village. With the arrival of the French in the 19th century Kampot’ melting pot became an administrative centre for the coastal region as well as a resort area, which it still is today.
For our first night we stay at one of the resorts along the Prek Tuek Chhou river, which flows through Kampot into the Gulf of Thailand. We rent a kayak and explore the backwaters, which are completely quiet except for birds and gibbons.
From across the river at the resort you can just about see the outlines of nearby Bokor mountain.
After visiting the genocide museum and the killing fields, it looks like we’ve found ourselves the ideal place to unwind in Kampot. And then there’s a mosque..
Though Cambodia is almost entirely Buddhist, there are roughly 600.000 Muslim Chams also living in the country. Right now in the cooler, dry season it’s the most popular time to get married, and nothing screams “party!” more than having your local holy man rage against the microphone non-stop from 7pm until midnight. Very interesting how little sound a bamboo hut blocks. When the call to prayer wakes us up at 5 the next day we’ve heard enough. Time to pack our bags and head to the village for some peace and quiet.
Kampot proper is a provincial town of roughly 50.000 people. It has some of the best kept French indochina architecture in Cambodia. Even though the Khmer Rouge dominated (and wrecked) the area during (and after) the civil war, a lot of the old buildings have been left standing. Some of the architecture has been beautifully restored, while yellow paint is flaking off on others, giving it a different kind of charm.
After the ultimate defeat of Khmer Rouge, since the mid-90’s, expats from Western countries have settled in Kampot and become part of the community. Given its chilled-out vibe, it’s not hard to see why this town attracts a lot of backpackers too. It’s the kind of place where you end up staying.
One cool customer in town is Joe, a white-maned, Australian hippy with an impressive moustache, who is in the middle of skinning up a fat joint when we meet him in front of his hotel. Joe’s happy to help out a couple sleep-deprived travellers, and while we’re waiting to check-in he entertains us with a couple crazy stories. When Lauren jokingly asks if the old stoner might be her dad, the panicky look on his face is just priceless! So we found ourself a new hotel, but ironically a big tent is being set up right in front of it for yet another wedding. ‘Tis the season after all..
Luckily this one’s a Buddhist ceremony, which means singing and dancing rather than a four hour single player shouting match, a big mercy. Having an actual room this time also helps a lot, so after a pretty decent rest we’re ready to explore some of the area surrounding Kampot.
Bokor National Park
It’s a hot day, so to cool off a bit we drive up 40km to the old French hill station on Bokor mountain, which is part of Bokor National Park, a 1581-sq-km area of rainforest home to the Malayan sun bear, Asiatic black bear, clouded leopard and pig tailed macaque. Sadly the park is currently being threatened by poaching, illegal logging and development, so much so that in fact we’re probably lucky to see a lone macaque by the side of the freshly paved road leading up to the summit.
Once at the top it’s ten degrees cooler and we go check out the remains of the station the French built in the early 1900’s. Though most of it is no longer recognizable, the Old Palace was once re-used as a casino during the 50’s and 60’s. The old church is left mostly in one piece. While we’re there it’s being used as a backdrop in another wedding’s photoshoot.
Around the hill station there’s also a waterfall (mostly dry this time of year), some rice fields and an old temple complex on a cliff’s edge. On a clear day the views are supposed to be quite spectacular.
Between the old colonial ruins, a cliff-side temple, amazing wildlife and dramatic mist descending from the jungle on the side of the mountain, Bokor has a lot going for it, but sadly this may not last for much longer. In 2012 a 190-sq-km area within the national park was already granted to a Chinese investment group for a multi-million-dollar tourism development. Currently a gigantic casino and hotel have been completed, along with an entire ghost town of empty apartment buildings, and this is only the beginning. When you leave the park, a big sign reads: “Thank you for helping us maintain our national heritage.” Aye, right then.
During cocktail hour at RikiTikiTavi, the oldest bar in town, we meet Bjorn, an expat turned local boatman (though he prefers to call himself an immigrant), who is happy to answer a million questions we have about Cambodia, the country he fell in love with ten years ago. He has some great stories about what Kampot used to be like when he first arrived and how it’s changed over the years, and one very lively story about a former UN soldier he had on his boat, who came to Kampot to track down a former Khmer Rouge commander responsible for a massacre, gripping stuff. Together the three of us continue our way to a barbeque joint and end up at the market stalls for a few more beers afterwards.
Phnom Chhngok Cave Temple
The next day we head to Phnom Chhngok, to see a temple inside a cave complex set in limestone mountains. The ride alone is already worthwhile, when we cross rice fields, sleepy towns and a few giant temples appearing out of nowhere. Judging by how excited the local kids get when they see us my guess is not many people come out this way.
The main cave of Phnom Chhngok is home to a 7th century shrine to Shiva. Sheltered by the cave walls, the temple has been quite well-preserved. Local kids act as guides here and speak remarkably good English. They call it the elephant cave, because the rock formation next to the shrine resembles both an adult and baby elephant. Pretty dead on, isn’t it?
At the end of our time in Kampot we can say it turned out to be one of our favourite places in Cambodia. We found a welcoming community here, some good food, good vibes, nice people. Bye-bye Kampot, don’t ever change!
The 250km drive from Kratié to Cambodia’s busy capital city Phnom Penh is mostly uneventful and only slightly delayed (the equivalent of excellent when it comes to public transport in Cambodia). After finding our hotel at the city’s riverside, and scaling 6 levels to get up to our room, we’re greeted by a monkey peeping inside our window. Once again on our travels we’re being terrorized by macaques, who have taken over our balcony!
Phnom Penh first became the national capital in 1434 when Ponhea Yat, king of the Khmer empire, moved it from Angkor Thom, which had been captured and destroyed by Siam. A stupa erected behind Phnom Penh’s major temple of Wat Phnom houses the king’s remains.
Positioned at the junction of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, by the 1920’s Phnom Penh was known as the Pearl of Asia, considered to be one of the most beautiful French-built cities in Indochina. Today it is a busy, not unpleasant, city of 2 million people. While there are a few other things of interest around here, such as the Palace and the Russian Market, as well as numerous pubs selling craft beers, our main goal in Phnom Penh is to learn more about the grim events taking place in Cambodia during the civil war.
I see myself like a broken glass. It’s so important that genocide be prevented, because it destroys the strings of humanity, it destroys the family, not just physically but emotionally. Reconciliation is about the responsibility of each of the victims to put all these broken pieces back together. – Youk Cchang (director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia and Killing Fields survivor)
The Cambodian Civil War which officially started in 1968 can only be understood within the wider frame of the Cold War, in specifically the conflict in Vietnam. In 1970 the North Vietnamese Army captured a third of Cambodia in the northeast and started empowering a then small communist guerilla movement called Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot. After five years of fighting, the pro-American Republican government was finally defeated when the victorious Khmer Rouge proclaimed the establishment of Democratic Kampuchea in 1975.
The war had caused a refugee crisis in Cambodia. More than 2 million people had fled the countryside to find shelter in Phnom Penh. When the Khmer Rouge took over the city they began what has been described as a death march: the forceful evacuation of the entire city.
Over the next four years the Khmer Rouge would become increasingly xenophobic and paranoid, causing what is known as the Cambodian genocide: the deaths of 2 million people, around 25% of Cambodia’s population.
The prison at S-21
The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh chronicles these dark pages of Cambodian history. The site is a former secondary school, which was used as Security Prison 21 (S-21). During the regime an estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned and tortured here, under accusations of political dissent. It is just one of roughly 200 torture and execution centres established by the Khmer Rouge.
An audio guide takes us through the complex of classrooms converted to cells and torture chambers, and rows and rows of victim’s photographs, so many of whom were just children. Recollections from survivors of this time make for a harrowing listening experience as we walk through the former school.
Following history we then visit the so-called Killing Field of Choeung Ek, about 10km away from S-21. After prisoners at the detention centres signed their forced confessions, they were brought here to be executed. Although Choeung Ek is one of the best-known locations, this is but one of many, many mass graves scattered throughout the country, some of which have yet to be discovered.
Fragments of bones and clothes still resurface from these mass graves when it rains, but even on a dry day like today some of the remains are visible in the burial pits. A monument was built in the central courtyard to remember the people that lost their lives at Choeung Ek.
I see my mother everywhere. I see my sister everywhere. I see the whole country as my family. When I meet a woman who has lost her child, I treat her like my mother. When I someone who is poor, who lost their siblings, I see my sister. They become my family. – Youk Cchang
Cambodians literally address others, even tourists such as ourselves, as family; brother, sister, aunt, uncle.
Visiting Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek has been informative, and heartbreaking and at times maddening, but I’m glad we went to see it. Seeing how much Cambodia has had to endure and still endures, not in the least because of Western countries, we’re only left with great respect for the people of Cambodia, who have began to put the broken pieces back together.
The start to our trip around Cambodia couldn’t be better; when we land in Siem Reap around mid-afternoon a tuk-tuk is easily found to drive us to our hotel. Contrary to other countries we’ve visited in Southeast Asia, tuk-tuks in Cambodia are spacious and comfortable and the driver offers us a fair price right away so there’s no need to haggle.
We’re booked in to a hotel/restaurant called The Tiney Fork, where we are greeted by Martin, one of the two owners. Martin immediately makes us feel welcome and we have time to rest up from a day of travelling and get a feel for the town.
Siem Reap has a population of about 140.000. The city has a cosy, well-balanced feel to it. It is touristic, but not to the point where this interferes too much with local life. Colonial and Chinese-style architecture in the old French Quarter and around Old Market on the river Tongle are mixed with wooden and metal shacks and tourist development. Siem Reap’s main attraction is the complex of Angkor, which was the capital city of the Khmer Empire, founded in the 9th century AD.
Our first evening we have dinner at a local eatery to try our first Khmer food: lok lak, which is a beef dish of French and Chinese influence. The local beer is cheap and cheerful at just $0.50 a pint.
The next morning we wake up early and refreshed, ready to start exploring the ancient Angkor temples. Martin and his wife Cheatta help us draw up a plan and we decide to start with the so-called small circuit by tuk-tuk.
Day 1: Small circuit
Han, our driver, first brings us to the ticket office before starting our explorations at Ta Prohm. Originally called Rajavihara, this temple was built in the late 12th century. The trees growing out of its ruins and the jungle surroundings make it one of the most popular temples.
Nearby we stop off at Ta Keo, a temple-mountain likely to be the first to be built entirely out of sandstone by the Khmers around the year 1000. The temple is believed to be dedicated to Shiva, and its central tower reaches a height of 45 meters.
Next we pass under an impressive entrance gate into Ankor Thom (lit: Great City), the last and most enduring capital of the Khmer Empire, and, similar to Ta Prohm, established in the late 12th century. It covers an area of 9 square kilometers. Highlights of Angkor Thom include the ruins of The Baphuon, Terrace of the Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King, and most importantly The Bayon temple standing at its centre.
The Bayon’s most distinct feature is the collection of smiling stone faces on the towers clustered around its central peak. As one of the more richly decorated temples of Angkor, The Bayon is sometimes described as the baroque style of Khmer architecture. In our opinion it is definitely one of the most impressive structures at Angkor!
The most famous site is saved for last when we visit Angkor Wat. A few other tourists seem to have the same idea.. Measuring 162 hectares, it’s one of the largest religious monuments in the world. Originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu, Angkor Wat was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century. In fact, these days 97% of Cambodia’s population is said to follow Theravada Buddhism.
Hitting a near sensory overload at this point we’re happy to call it a day and retreat to the hotel to indulge in local draft beers and rice wine infused with bark, sold locally at the market in small plastic bottles.
Day 2: Big circuit
Today we’re back to renting a scooter. Yesterday, Han provided us with the perfect introduction to Angkor, so we’re ready to delve a bit deeper into the action at our own pace.
We make stops at Pre Rup, East Mebon and Ta Som and Neak Pean, each of which offers something unique.
Before finishing the big circuit at Baksei Chamkrong and Phnom Bakheng, we make a stop off at Preah Khan. This structure was built in the 12th century for king Jayavarman VII to honour his father. It was the centre of organisation, with almost 100.000 officials and servants. Preah Khan has been left largely unrestored, which means numerous trees grow among the ruins.
Not to get ‘templed out’ too much, we decide to mix things up a bit at this point and end the day at APOPO, a Belgian NGO, which trains southern giant pouched rats from Tanzania to detect landmines. These trained Hero-rats can sniff out anything from tuberculosis to narcotics, but the ones here are used to smell up to a trillionth of a gram of TNT. So far they have helped clear out over 45.000 landmines in Cambodia, great stuff!
When we get back to the hotel, Cheatta surprises us with palm wine and Khmer desserts she’s picked up from the market and we spend another another great evening with her and Martin a.k.a. the loveliest hosts in the world.
Day 3: Outlying area
Still feeling the effects of the night before a bit, we drive 40km north to Banteay Srei, another one of the older, 10th century temples, built largely out of red sandstone. The elaborate decorative wall-carvings are a sight to behold.
Driving outside the confines of Siem Reap gives us the chance to see a bit more of the countryside that makes up the larger part of Cambodia. We’re in the middle of the dry season and make regular stops to take in the surroundings.
On the way back we end up taking a wrong turn while trying to find Banteay Samre. After parking our scooter next to the dirt track we stumble into someone’s backyard where we’re given directions to the temple. Not long after we find what must have been the original entrance way to the temple. Then this appears:
All obstacles cleared, we arrive at the temple, where we’re the only visitors today. Banteay Samre is said to show similarities to some northeast Thai monuments. It was restored beautifully by Maurice Glaize during WW2.
To conclude our conquest of Angkor Wat I have one last trick up my sleeve: an arduous climb in the midday heat up to Phnom Bok. If this won’t finally sweat out the last of the palm wine, nothing will. Starting the ascent, I can see Lauren’s mind calculate: “You made me cross a dangerous bridge, now you’re making me climb a mountain..”. But we make it to the top, without any kind of fall-out, and the last temple is glorious(ly ruined), with some spectacular views over the surrounding area. Worth the effort, and this officially concludes our conquest of Angkor!
At its height over a million people lived in Angkor, while London at the same time only housed 50.000. Mind blowing stuff, one of the most amazing things we have seen on our travels!
The next morning we’re sad to have to say goodbye to Martin and Cheatta when we’re leaving for Kratie. Thank you both for an amazing stay, and we hope to see you again, in Siem Reap, Scotland or wherever!