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!
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.
After the metropolitan Bangkok we are ready to fill our lungs with some fresh air at the countryside. Kanchanaburi near the Myanmar border seems a good place for it, as this will give us the opportunity to ride a train to the river Kwai.
The Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway, was a 415-km railway between Ban Pong, Thailand, and Thanbyuzayat, Burma, built by the Empire of Japan in 1943 to support its forces in the Burma campaign of World War II. This railway completed the rail link between Bangkok, Thailand, and Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar). Source: Wikipedia
During its construction, around 90,000 civilian labourers and over 12,000 Allied prisoners died of the effects of forced labour under harsh conditions and tropical diseases. The line was closed in 1947, but the section between Nong Pla Duk and Nam Tok was reopened ten years later and is still in use today.
Our journey from Bangkok is quite easily put together. At one of the piers we get a ferry to drop us off at the other side of the river where we take the train to Kanchanaburi. The thing with Bangkok ferries is you have to get on and off them quickly because they don’t like to wait around. Even though we are aware of this, when we get to the pier only one passenger manages to jump off in time before the boat takes off again in a hurry, leaving him on the pier, baffled, and taking us and his friend who’s still on the boat with us, by surprise.
Luckily the next stop isn’t far away and we soon make it to the train station where we find the two friends, reunited.
At first it’s a bit of a strange idea to be riding on the tracks of the Death Railway, but the feeling soon fades. After all, it’s just a normal train we’re on. Or rather, normal for Asia, since the side doors are dangerously open and you can smoke there. Before long the scenery changes to a pleasant rural setting, with a few mountains in the background.
Kanchanaburi, a small city of around 32.000 people, lies 123 km west of Bangkok, where the Khwae Noi and Khwae Yai Rivers converge into the Mae Klong River. Though its location at the edge of a mountain range keeps it much cooler than the other provinces of central Thailand, winters here are dry, and very warm. Source: Wikipedia
In 1942 Kanchanaburi was under Japanese control. It was here that Asian forced labourers and Allied POW’s constructed a railway bridge, an event most famously portrayed in 1957’s film The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Once a year a carnival is set up in the area next to the bridge. At night a small pyrotechnics display is held to re-enacts the wartime bombing of the bridge. Throughout the rest of the year we find, there is a rather bizarre POW prison camp-themed food court located here instead..
The downtown area has part of a city wall, a governor’s mansion, and, surprisingly, a tiny heritage walk with a few buildings dating back to the 20’s and 30’s. One of these buildings is now a gun shop. In Ko Chang we learned that Muay Thai is taught in every school, so what on earth they need guns for? It’s a relief to know the Thai in truth are very friendly!
The riverfront area is mostly dedicated to tourism with restaurants, hotels, travel agents, scooter rental places. During the day it has a wealth of riverfront hangouts to choose from, while at night the place comes alive with an unbelievable amount of bars offering happy hour until midnight, that’s Thailand!
Following the Kwai Noi river upstream, we visit the Tha Krasae Bridge train station, one of the more scenic spots on the line towards Hellfire Pass, where tourists gather to catch one of six trains passing here daily.
While waiting for the train to arrive we hide from the blazing sun at Krasae Cave, which is carved into the rock right next to the track and has an interesting Buddhist shrine built inside it.
After a short while a guy shouts: “Train coming!”. People begin to clear the tracks and then comes the moment we have been waiting for: The train over Tha Krasae Bridge next to River Kwai, something to savour.
While this is the history Kanchanaburi is most famous for, we are delighted to find traces of the Khmer empire on our visit as well. Siem Reap was our favourite stop in Cambodia, and here, 600 km from Angkor Wat, we find an ancient outpost of the empire that ruled over most of mainland Southeast Asia from 802 to 1431.
When we try to get our next journey organised, two Australian guys from the local tourist police division (Slogan: “Your first friend”) advise us to allow ourselves enough time to get across Bangkok to the airport, so I guess we’ll be waking up early. Tomorrow we catch a flight down south where the plan is to cool off in the Andaman Sea.
So it’s one last sunset on the river Kwai for us, next stop Phuket.
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.
From the Thai border at Hat Lek a minivan takes us north to Trat, where we get the ferry to the island Ko Chang. The name means ‘Elephant Island’, deriving from its elephant-shaped headland. There are actual elephants on the island too, but these are not indigenous. Historically, Ko Chang is most known for the 1941 Battle of Ko Chang between the Thai and French Navy.
We’re staying at a guesthouse on White Sand beach, one of the more touristic places on the island. At high tide the water comes right up to the porch, can’t get better than that. The area attracts a somewhat older crowd and the restaurants seem to be a bit better down south, but even the most basic Thai food is already pretty good.
Over the last few months we have been doing a lot of snorkeling and while this was great and allowed us to see turtles, a dugong, whale sharks, and a whole lot of fish, we decide it’s time to take our skills to the next level and get our PADI Open Water Diver certificate. This course combines theory with practical diving experience and takes three days, so we have just enough time to complete it before moving on to Bangkok. It’s a bit costly, but we have been saving up for it while travelling, nice to see our efforts finally paying off.
On day 1 we meet our dive master Tam, who sits us down for a four hour long instruction video explaining the basics of diving, how to use the equipment, and colourful descriptions of every possible calamity; there are a lot! Then it’s into the pool to learn and practice different exercises, such as buoyancy, sign language, changing air supply, etc. It’s a ton of information to take in, and a lot of it is training for eventualities that don’t usually occur, but since we’ll be 18 meters under water it’s important to know the essentials that keep us alive.
For day 2 of the course we’re already on the open water. It’s a clear sunny day when we get on the boat, and the water temperature is a very pleasant 29 degrees Celcius, so, out of all possible hazards, at least there’s probably not much chance of hypothermia today. Before diving in, first we have our written exam (we both pass, phew!), then a swimming and floating test, and finally it’s time to suit up. After some last-minute equipment checks we jump in, nervous but excited!
The dive location is Hin Raab (meaning flat rock), where we descend to 12 meters. The sea is choppy, with poor visibility of a maximum 5 meters, which makes it a bit claustrophobic, but then again it’s probably good to learn how to dive in slightly difficult conditions. First there’s more exercises to be completed, and then we finish with a fun dive around the coral, where we catch a quick glimpse of a baby stingray!
It takes practice to stay buoyant, and after 45 minutes I see Lauren a bit above me, then a few seconds later she’s completely disappeared from sight. Tam turns around and gestures at me: “Where’s your buddy??” We look around us while he’s flashing his light, but Lauren is nowhere to be found! I’m starting to panic and want to go look for her, but we have to follow the plan. After staying put for one minute we head back to the surface. Thankfully Lauren is already there, alive and floating! When we check our oxygen levels it shows I’ve been flying through mine, clearly I’m a heavy breather.. I guess there’s a few things left to improve.
The second dive of the day is not far from Hin Raab, called Blueberry Hill. I’m breathing more steadily, Lauren’s not floating up as much and we enjoy ourselves a lot more this time.
So we’ve made it to day 3, the day of (w)reckoning. In the early morning we head out to the HTMS Chang, a 100 meters long former US warship, which was gifted to Thailand. After the ship was decommissioned the Thai sank it in 2012 to make it into the biggest shipwreck in the country, which has since become a paradise for underwater life.
First we descend to 20 meters about halfway down the ship before slowly making our way forward to salute the (imaginary) captain in the cabin on the front and circle our way up around the mast. Thankfully Tam has got a sharp eye for the dangerous scorpion fish around here and we find a large puffer fish looking at us angrily from its hiding place.
At the crows nest we make a safety stop to get rid of some of the nitrogen that’s been building up inside us and with that our third dive is completed, only one to go. We relax a bit on the boat while we’re heading back to Hin Raab. Visibility levels are just as bad as yesterday, but that’s alright because we’re mostly going through our exercises. We already know how to use the dive computer, now we’re navigating with a compass too. Then it’s back to the coral and one final test for me when my air supply gets knocked right out of my mouth by another diver. No panic as I calmly reinsert it; our drill sergeant has trained us well.
So that’s it, we’ve got our OWD, meaning we’re allowed to dive up to 18 meters! We’ve got log books to keep track of our progress and hopefully we’ll be adding to our experience later on in the Andaman Sea.
The next morning it’s already time to leave. We haven’t seen much of Ko Chang’s surface, but it seems a very nice place, lots of jungle and karst rock formations. Maybe some day we’ll come back here a bit more experienced and dive with whale sharks!
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.
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!