With Surat Thani we reach our final destination in Thailand and indeed our final destination of our big Asia roundtrip – and the heavens are weeping for us.
Surat Thani, the City of Good People, on the Gulf of Thailand is mainly known as the jumping-off point to Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao. Tourists don’t usually stay here for more than a day, which is a shame because the city is perfectly placed to visit quiet beaches, waterfalls and ancient ruins, not to mention it has some fantastic southern thai food for low, low prices. With limited time left before flying back home we decide to save Ko Tao for future travels and get a taste of this authentic southern thai city instead. Or so we thought..
When we arrive in the city after a long day of travelling from Tonsai beach it’s still warm and sunny, like it has been for the entire time we’ve been in Thailand. Our hotel is located in the city center, near the pier and the food stalls of the night market, and surrounded by dozens of temples. From our window we can see the only local landmark mentioned by Lonely Planet: the statue of Guan Yin, which is the bodhisattva associated with compassion.
The river Tapi runs through the heart of the city into the Gulf of Thailand, and several canals have been dug out of old, connecting the various parts of the city.
Characteristic old stilt houses can be found all along the river. Ko Lamphu, an island in the middle of the river, has been turned into a pleasant public park.
While checking out a few temples, by chance we stumble upon a 100-year old wooden pavillion which was used during WW2 for opening negotiations between the Thai government and the Japanese army. A laminated piece of paper on the table reads that this is the original furniture that was used in 1941. And they say Surat Thani has no real sightseeing..
Our self guided walking tour ends at the City Pillar Shrine, a religious landmark we learn is made of wood from the Golden Shower tree. Indeed, at this point we realize our sightseeing options in the city have likely been exhausted, but luckily we are able make up some big plans for visiting the area around Surat Thani.
Khanom beach is located roughly 65km east of the city and may be considered to be one of Thailand’s best beaches, not in the least because it has little to no tourism.
To the west, the small fisherman’s village of Chaiya houses remains of an ancient kingdom. Srivijaya was a seafaring empire from Sumatra, which influenced much of Southeast Asia from the 8th until the 12th century AD. Landmark temples such as Wat Kaew and Wat Phra Borommathat are beautiful examples of Srivijaya architecture.
And finally there’s the Monkey Training College just outside the city limits where you can ride a bicycle with a friendly monkey on your back.
It all sounds pretty great, but then the rain starts and never stops for the entire time we have left in Surat Thani. I suppose it’s a pretty good sign the universe is telling us it’s time to head home for a little while.
Even though the weather was against us, we’ve enjoyed great hospitality in the City of Good People. Tomorrow we’ll be flying to Bangkok, where it’s time to deliver the verdict on our time in Thailand from the hotel pool!
Our next travel brings us back to the mainland to Krabi, home of rock climbers. Here we touch base on Tonsai beach, a quiet, idyllic bay surrounded by jungle and gigantic karst rock formations, which is accessible by long tail boat only. For our final three days on the Andaman Sea we look forward to mainly relaxing on the beach.
Krabi is a small city on the west coast of southern Thailand facing the Andaman. Just outside the city is the resort town of Ao Nang, which is an access points to the beaches of Railay and Tonsai. The limestone rock faces in this area attract climbers from all over the world and most of the climbs start from the beach itself.
When our ferry from Ko Lanta reaches the bay the whole boat empties into long boats heading for Railay beach, and we’re the only two passengers getting dropped off at Tonsai beach. There’s only a 500m jungle path separating the two beaches, but they are worlds apart. Railay is fully developed with hotels, bars, restaurants, swimming pools and shops and you can’t see the beach for the sun bathers, while Tonsai has just one beach bar, a handful of largely empty hotels, a yoga studio, a convenience store and the perfect empty stretch of golden sand lined by palm trees. Yup, we’re feeling pretty smug right now!
Tonsai has a bit of an alternative feel to it, some good vibes. Accommodation consists of mainly bamboo huts, with spacious seating areas inspired by opium dens and drenched in reggae flavourings. A concrete wall running alongside the only road in town is covered in some sweet and quirky graffiti.
The few visitors it gets are mostly rock climbers and others like us that have come looking for the good life. Daredevils scaling the huge cliffs around the beach are joined by the local climbers: crab-eating macaques and dusky leaf monkeys.
The jungle path to Railay beach offers some great views over the bay.
From Railay it’s a ten minute walk to get to Phra Nang beach. With its easy access, silky white sand, shallow blue water and limestone caves it is another place popular with tourists. On the edge of the beach, one of the caves has been dedicated to a myhtical sea princess named Phra Nang.
According to legend, Phra Nang was either killed in a shipwreck or the wife of a fisherman who was lost at sea who lived out the rest of her days in the cave, awaiting her husband’s return.
Today, local fisherman and boatmen leave offerings in Phra Nang cave to ensure safe travel on the sea. These offers take the form of male genitalia – the cave is covered in many “linga”, or phallic-shaped statues meant to represent the Hindu god Shiva. The offerings in Phra Nang cave are especially realistic – the penises have discernible ridges and heads and some are decorated with colorful cloth. Anyone can leave an offering to the goddess, but beware there is a rule that strictly prohibits statues with testicles. After all, there’s no need to be vulgar about it.. Source: Atlas Obscura
Other caves around Phra Nang beach contain different surprises, such as giant water monitor lizards, one of which comes suddenly popping out onto the beach beside us!
Three days at Tonsai beach have come and gone in a flash and just like that we’re preparing to travel from the west coast across to the east coast of Thailand where we’ll be stopping in the working class city Surat Thani, in search of more beaches, ancient ruins, bike-riding monkeys and some proper southern Thai food. For now it’s goodbye from Tonsai!
From Phi Phi we travel further south towards Malaysia and stop off at Ko Lanta. The district was established in 1901 and consists of four main island groups: Mu Ko Lanta, Mu Ko Klang, Mu Ko Rok and Mu Ko Ngai. Lanta is believed to be one of the oldest communities in Thailand, dating back to prehistoric times. Interesting about the area is its diversity. Buddhists, Thai-Chinese, Muslims and sea gypsies are all found together on the islands.
Mu Ko Lanta consists of 52 island, most of which are uninhabited. We stay on the largest, most populated island Ko Lanta Yai (commonly known as Ko Lanta), which has nine beaches running down the entire west coast, as well as forests and tropical jungle.
Since the Lanta district is known for its scuba diving we look into this first, but it turns out to be quite pricey at £125 per person for only two dives. Even besides the pricetag, or the fact the divemaster (a fellow Scot!) mistakes Lauren for being Irish, recent visibility hasn’t been good either, so we decide to forget about diving here and opt for snorkeling instead.
A speedboat brings us to Ko Rok Noi (part of Mu Ko Rok), roughly 60km from Ko Lanta. As we’ve come to expect in this part of the world, it’s paradise.
Ko Rok is an area supposedly frequented by Hawksbill turtles, but there doesn’t appear to be any seagrass for the turtles to feed on and at any rate we don’t find any. What we do find however is hands-down the best coral we have seen over the past 7 months!
With all the bright colours around it’s clear the coral is pretty healthy and that attracts a lot of fish and other sea creatures. The corals are littered with brightly coloured christmas tree worms.
Hiding on the bottom of the sea bed, we spot the biggest puffer fish we’ve ever seen, and observe a giant sea cucumber eating its lunch.
Our next stop Ko Haa is one of the tiniest island groups within Lanta, but probably the most photogenic with its jaggy rocks sticking out of the water.
There are a few baby reef sharks in amongst the coral, plus an enormous triggerfish I’m following at my own risk (they can pack a mean bite), and loads of angel fish and star fish. I was almost ready to give up on ever taking a good underwater photo, but Ko Lanta saves the day!
Out of Phuket, Ko Phi Phi, and Ko Lanta, the latter has been our clear favourite. It’s been laid-back, easy to cross by scooter, not overly touristic and has the best coral. There is one last stop to go for us in the Andaman when we visit Krabi next.
The six islands that make up Phi Phi became world-famous when Maya Bay was chosen the setting of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach. Although the original story was actually inspired by Palawan Island in the Philippines, Maya Bay has drawn in more than 3,700 visitors on a daily ever since, decimating the marine life in the area. As of June 2018 the bay has been closed to the public while a coral rehabilitation project is ongoing.
Between this and nearby James Bond Island, which appeared in 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun, The Andaman attracts a lot of visitors chasing a Hollywood experience. While the scenery of clear blue waters, white sandy beaches and dramatic karst formations is beautiful, it’s no different to what we’ve seen before on Palawan, Coron, Langkawi and Ko Chang, just a bit more crowded. However, there’s another reason we are both excited to visit Ko Phi Phi: Sharks!
We’re staying on Long beach, the biggest beach on the island, which is 2-km walk away from the main town.
You can snorkel right off the beach here and it’s remarkable how many different types of fish are swimming super close to the shore.
Just 200 meters further out a big rock sticks out from the water: Shark Point. Here’s where you can find blacktip reef shark at all hours of the day. Careful not to collide with the heavy traffic of long tail boats passing along the beach we swim out in search of these giant fish.
First, nothing, but then a big shark appears out of nowhere right in front of us. Thankfully it’s pretty skittish. Reef sharks grow up to about 1.6 meters in length but pose no threat to humans. In total we spot about seven of them around the rocks. At the moment it’s birthing season and right enough one of the sharks looks like she could be pregnant.
The next day we’re heading out to dive. Now that we have our open water we want to build up some experience. The sites we visit are Bida Nok and Palong. Unfortunately, because of the recent full moon, visibility levels again are low, and, by some weird occurrence, the area is infested by tiny purple jelly fish stinging us in the arms, legs and face. Once we’re safely in the deep we spot some puffer fish, trigger fish, a moray eel, clown fish and a giant barracuda. Hopefully on our next dive we’ll finally be able to see further than 7 meters and swim with something big..
So that’s all for Ko Phi Phi. We swam with sharks, saw Maya Bay (from a distance) and got another two dives under our belt, can’t ask for more. While back home it’s snowing, storming and minus 4 degrees, we’re still baking in the sun. Only two more weeks to go before heading home to the cold..
Phuket. Everyone has heard of it. For some it’s paradise, for others their worst nightmare. For us it’s something we had to see to believe it; never seen so many white people on scooters in one place..
Tin mining was a major source of income for the island from the 16th century until petering out in the 20th century. In modern times, Phuket’s economy has rested on two pillars: rubber tree plantations and tourism. Since the 1980s, the sandy beaches on the west coast of the island have been developed as tourist destinations, with Patong, Karon, and Kata being the most popular. The island receives about 10 million (!) visitors every year. Source: Wikipedia
It takes three buses, a plane and a minivan, plus roughly ten hours to get from Kanchaburi to our hotel in Patong. Patong is the main tourist area on the island, and the centre of Phuket’s nightlife. Bangla Road and Paradise Complex are the two biggest places to party.
We’re staying just off Bangla Road near the famous Banzaan Fresh Market, which has a giant food court selling all the Thai food your tastebuds desire. Our room’s balcony is perfectly placed to watch men in the bars below behave like fools in the company of attractive Thai waitresses. From time to time a giant rat scurries between the bikes parked out in front.
Patong Beach is very busy, but at the northern tip of the beach there is still some shade and peace and quiet to be found. Just a 5km walk out of town you can find a few nicer beaches such as Paradise Beach and Freedom Beach. The water is clear-blue, pleasantly warm and full of tropical fish.
On Saturday night we plan to watch the Six Nations at the Aussie bar, but it turns out it’s Makha Bucha Day, an important Buddhist festival celebrated on the full moon day of the third lunar month. Since no-one is allowed alcohol, all the pubs are shut, turning Phuket into a bit of a ghost town. Lucky for us, the staff at our hotel are christian, and they don’t mind serving us beer in a mug. We can do with it after a watching a pure dire Scotland v England..
So this concludes our time in Phuket, undoubtedly the most touristic place in Thailand, and indeed, the most touristic place we’ve visited on all our travels. It was a pretty good laugh while it lasted, but even so we’re happy to escape by boat to our next destination: Ko Phi Phi.
With a population of over 8 million, the capital city of Bangkok is the largest city in Thailand. Though (in)famous for its abundant nightlife and sex tourism, in Bangkok we experience a forward-thinking and entirely pleasant mega city.
After arriving at the Centrepoint pier from Ko Chang, a big bus is waiting to take us straight to Bangkok’s Khaosan Road, the touristic heart of the city. The first thing I notice when we reach the outskirts of town is the public transport. The Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTS), also known as the Skytrain, began its operation at the turn of the millennium and soars over the traffic-congested streets below.
Then there is also a convenient subway system, an extensive network of public buses, and last but not least, public ferries, connecting all the different piers on both river and canals. It’s easy to get around in Bangkok.
There are currently 1,682 canals (khlongs) in Bangkok, totalling 2,604 km in length. Khlongs were used for transportation, floating markets and sewage and helped gain Bangkok the nickname “Venice of the East”. (The list keeps growing..)
The majority of sightseeing in Bangkok revolves around temples – almost too many to count. We check out a fair few, starting with Wat Saket: The temple of the Golden Mount. This Buddhist temple on a steep, artificial hill offers round views over the city. Phu Kao Thong (The Golden Mount) has become a symbol of Bangkok.
Now that we have seen the lay of the land, our temple tour continues at Wat Traimit, home of the Golden Buddha. Weighing in at 5.5 tonnes, this holy statue is believed to have been cast in parts in India.
Wat Chakkrawat, our next stop, is not usually included in the circuit, thpugh this temple stands out for its resident crocodiles. Legend is a canal was dug from the temple to the river, after which one of the monks found a croc in the garden and decided to keep it. With so many temples in Bangkok I guess it’ll help secure a few donations!
We follow the canals past Wat Pho, a big temple complex known also as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. This 46m long statue represents the entry of Buddha into Nirvana at the end of all incarnations. After a lot of walking we can do with a bit of rest ourselves, so we end the day watching the sunset from a pub on the river, which has a great view of a lit up Wat Arun on the opposite bank.
The next day we continue where we left off and visit a couple more godly residences. Though India officially only has one temple dedicated to lord Brahma, located in Pushkar, Thailand has many. Still no visit would be complete without paying our respect to the naughty god!
Around the corner from the Brahma temple is Wat Suthat, which you can recognize by the 30m high, giant swing in front of it. An annual swing ceremony was held here until 1935, where Brahmins would swing in an attempt to grab a bag of coins from one of the swing’s pillars. The temple itself dates back to the 18th century and is considered one of 23 first grade royal temples in Thailand.
At this point we make a sidestep to try and procure some hand sanitizer from the markets. Since recent reports on the Coronavirus, almost every Western tourist in Bangkok is wearing a £1 surgical mask (along with a customary set of elephant trousers), but keeping clean hands seems more useful to us. Turns out every shop’s sold out. When we find ourselves giving it one more go on a cramped market street in the middle of Chinatown we have got to stop and wonder; this might be defeating the purpose..
Keeping our grubby fingers well away from our mouths then we head to our final sight of the day, the Grand Palace. First stop inside the walled complex is yet another temple: Wat Phra Kaew, or, Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
This temple is regarded as the most sacred Buddhist temple in Thailand. At the very least it’s probably the most adorned, both inside and outside.
The compound walls are decorated with some fantastic murals. In 178 scenes they illustrate the complete sanskrit epic Ramayana. I’d be lying if I said I know much about the story, but any barbarian can still appreciate the beautiful craftsmanship that has gone into its creation. Beautiful stuff.
Finally it’s time to head inside and catch a glimpse of the famous emerald Buddha. According to legend, this Buddha image originated in India as well, where a sage prophesied it would bring prosperity and pre-eminence to each country in which it resides. Hence the statue is deeply revered in Thailand as the protector of the country. This means there’s no photography allowed inside, but I couldn’t keep this from you now, could I?
Delighted in having seen the coveted emerald Buddha we still have the Grand Palace to go, the icing on the cake, the home of the Thai King who’s face you find plastered on billboards all over town. The Grand Palace has been the official residence of the Kings of Siam (and later Thailand) since 1782. Several royal ceremonies and state functions are held here every year.
Bangkok has lots to discover, not least of all its food scene. Thai cuisine ranks up there with the best in the world and in Thailand’s capital it’s easy to find some mouth-watering dishes, such as Som Tam, Tom Yum Goong, Massaman Curry and Tom Kha Gai, all extremely flavourful and super cheap, sold at food stands found literally everywhere in the city. Plus you can bring your own beer, doesn’t get any better than that.
On our final day in Bangkok we check out some of its hypermalls. As part of the Japan Expo Thailand 2020 event we witness a really terrible yet extremely popular Japanese girl band performing at Central World and find a gourmet food store at Siam Paragon which sells anything needed for a little picnic in the park by the river. Wonderfull! I’ll admit I didn’t expect Bangkok to be such an easy-going place!
True we may have missed Soi Cowboy, go-go bars, ladyboys and being fall-down drunk, but in return had a pretty darn good time in Thailand’s capital. Bangkok has been a city full of pleasant little surprises.
Next up we’ll be taking the train to the Bridge on the River Kwai.
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!
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.