Dates: 1-17 December 2013
DAYS 29-30: “Culture in Cambodia” (2nd-3rd Dec)
Following on from our authentic backpackers bus ride from HCMC to Phnom Penh we booked a 12 bed mixed dorm at Mad Monkey (there were no private rooms available…) This wasn’t as traumatic as we anticipated, however we made a mental note to try book things a bit more in advance to avoid this happening again. We’re not sure if many of you are aware of the Genocide in Cambodia but in the late 70s a Communist regime tried to take over the country and caused great pain and suffering for its people. Two things that any traveller to Phnom Penh should see is S21 (Tuol Sleng Genocide museum) and the Killing Fields. These are authentic remnants of the terror the Pol Pot regime inflicted on Cambodia. Not great things to see and hear about but going to these places definitely gives you an understanding and respect for this country and its people. S21 was a former High School which the Communist regime (Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot) converted into one of the 150 prisons in the country at that time and as many as 20,000 prisoners were held there. You can see the awful conditions that prisoners were subjected to: their living quarters, implements used to torture prisoners for information and photographs of all its wardens and prisoners. We had a guide who explained everything to us and although it was hard to hear and believe how awful one human being can be to another, it was heartwarming to meet one of the 7 surviving S21 former prisoners at the end of our tour, Chum Mey; a man of great dignity who has forgiven the wrongs of the past and lives life now for the present and the future. We next went to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, 15km outside of Phnom Penh. This is a tranquil, lush area surrounded by a river and filled with life, which is hard to comprehend when you hear about its history. Before the Communist regime put it to its own use it was a Chinese cemetery where people were buried with dignity and respect. In the time of the Khmer Rouge this place was basically a mass gravesite where prisoners from all over, although mainly from S21, were brought to be killed and disposed of. Up to 20,000 mass grave sites were found here and analysis of these indicate that they held the bodies of at least 1,386,734 victims. Walking around the Killing Fields, hearing about what happened here not so long ago, late 70s remember, is a bittersweet experience. There is life all around you in the vegetation and animals which now call it home, making it beautiful and serene even though so much pain and suffering was inflicted upon the Cambodian people (men, women and children) here. From the years 1975-1979 nearly 2 million Cambodians lost their lives, just under a third of the population at that time. For those of you who would like to learn more about the reign of Pol Pot we recommend a book called “First they Killed my Father” by Loung Ung. This is the story of a young girl who survived these terrible years.
DAY 31-34: “Siem Riep: Home of Angkor Wat temples” (4th-7th Dec)
The following morning we took another bus…can you believe it…up to Siem Riep (SR). We booked through Giant Ibis and were pleasantly surprised at the WIFI that was available onboard, who would have thought?! We arrived in SR that afternoon and had booked the sister hostel of Phnom Penh, Mad Monkey. This time upgrading to a private room, that’s more like it! We were pooped from sitting on a bus all day so we had dinner in the hostel, got involved in the pub quiz (we came 2nd although we did have 10 years on most of the participants) and met some lovely girls from the UK (Karin, Lucy and Sarah). We took ourselves off to bed quite early as we were getting up at 4:30am to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat.
Getting out of bed was not easy but the promise of a stunning sunrise over what has to be one of the worlds most breathtaking temples, was enough for us and we knew our tuk tuk driver, Kim, would be there with a smile on his face. Let us tell you a bit about Kim…we met him the day before when he picked us up from the bus station and took us to our hostel…he has to be one of the kindest, most gentle people we’ve come across on our travels thus far. We spent the next two days wandering around the temples of Angkor Wat…A picture is worth a thousand words so here are some snaps from our time here…A truly spectacular experience…
As can only happen in the life of Tam…whilst wandering around the “Tomb Raider” temple (bummed that we’d left our Lara Croft outfits back in London) we heard someone calling “Tam Tam” in an Australian accent…lo and behold we have bumped into one of Tam’s friends from London at a random temple in Siem Riep. Courtney, who is travelling with Christella, is part of Tam’s Wine Club and although they knew about each other’s travels they had no intention of meeting up. But as fate would have it, our paths crossed and our 2 became 4. We met up the following night, had some dinner and then hit the night market for some retail therapy. Sarah bought what was to become her staple item of clothing…a pair of denim shorts trimmed with lace. These will feature in many pics from here :) We then rewarded ourselves a glass of wine…fitting seeing as Tam and Courts met at Wine Club :)
Courtney and Christella headed to Phnom Penh the next day whilst we visited the Floating Village and the Crocodile Farm, a terrifying experience for Sarah!! We got back to the hostel in the afternoon and then the full reality of Madiba’s passing hit us. We both felt quite homesick and down so what is the obvious thing to do?!…hit the bar of course. Donned with a South African (stick on – don’t worry Mom’s) tattoo we headed out to Angkor What Bar on Pub Street for a couple drinks/jäger bombs…and that’s all we’ll say about that :)
With all the culture of Cambodia behind us we were really looking forward to getting down to the beach for some R&R. With slightly sore heads we flew (are you shocked?) the following day to Sihanoukville, on the south coast of Cambodia, our last stop before getting to our much anticipated destination…Koh Rong Island.
DAYS 35-40: “Koh Rong…Living the Island Life” (8th-13th Dec)
From Sihanoukville we took the 2 hour ferry across to Koh Rong island. Listed as one of the New York Times most beautiful places, made up of numerous stunning unspoiled beaches, we were very excited to set foot on this little piece of paradise. We had pre-booked accommodation at Island Boys having been recommended it by many travellers we’d met along the way. When we arrived we were shown to our private room expecting an en-suite bathroom (you know us!) unfortunately the en-suite was AWOL?! Upon querying this we were told by an amused English chap, Josh, that there were no en-suites on the entire island…oh the disappointment! But hey we were in paradise, we can handle this – or so we thought…We soon discovered that paradise is extremely rustic and it takes a hardened individual to cope with the living conditions here. Now we don’t mean to sound prissy but we had a few gripes which we must share with you (don’t judge us!)…let’s get through these now so that the rest of this update can focus on the beauty and the good times we had here.
Gripe 1: Toilets
The communal ablutions block consisted of three toilets, with only 1 sporting a toilet seat, that do not flush. There was a large trough of water next to each toilet with a bucket. After a little confusion…trying to locate the flusher, we worked out that one has to wash away the remnants of their business with the bucket using water from the trough. Not too bad, except when you have to do this at 3am, in the dark (gripe 2, we’ll come to this) under the threat of a rat attack (gripe 3, read on for this exciting tale!).
Gripe 2: Electricity
Little did we know that electricity on “paradise” is quite sporadic. It comes on at 5pm, goes off at 11pm (which was a blessing in disguise given that the generator was right outside our window – gripe 4). This makes charging our essential devices overnight/during the day impossible. It also makes getting back to ones room at night after a couple drinks quite treacherous. But being the prepared backpackers that we are, we did have our headlamps so no real issues there for us real-life McGuyvers, besides looking ridiculous!
Gripe 3: Rats
We had heard vicious rumours that there were rats everywhere on the island, including in all rooms and toilets. We refused to believe these and carried on as normal until Tam needed a 3am wee-wee, ventured downstairs (with headlamp) to the rustic toilets only to find a rat the size of a cat waiting for her. Luckily she managed not to pee her pants, went to the next cubicle and made a hell of a racket to ward off any potential rat attackers whilst conducting her potty business. Sarah, blissfully unaware, was tucked up in bed fast asleep, and no help at all. Obviously we could no longer ignore the rumours surrounding the rats with Tam having seen one in the flesh and the disturbing news our neighbours had evidence of a chewed rucksack…hungry rodent looking for food. Needless to say there were no more midnight toilet trips!
Gripe 4: Noise Pollution
We have already mentioned the generator outside of our window…however this turned out to be the least of our insomnia issues. In paradise one expects to wake up when one feels like it. This is unfortunately impossible when from the hours of 11pm-8am there is a chorus of sounds invading ones slumber; crowing cockerels, whining puppies, thumping tunes from the rave next door, the banging of building works…and our personal favourite, couples “pomping”…awkward, we know! You might be asking yourselves a question…”How come these sounds are so invasive?” I mean, we were in a room with walls etc…Lets just say that a few pieces of wood nailed together with gaps everywhere, a thatch roof sitting 1 metre above the top of the wall does not allow for much sound proofing. It does however allow for rats, bats, other scary things and noise to enter the room at free-will.
Now that we’ve got the cons of island life out of the way, lets focus on what truly makes this place paradise.
The island is made up of various beautiful beaches…palm tree lined kilometres of untouched white sand meet crystal clear turquoise water creating the perfect setting to find a hammock or a patch of sand and spend the day relaxing, swimming, sleeping, reading, catching some rays…literally paradise!
Koh Rong ended up being the venue of a mini-reunion for us: Karin, Lucy and Sarah from Siem Riep were there when we arrived. Courtney and Christella followed the day after so us gals spent our days and nights together…not getting up to any mischief ;)
One of the things that everybody does in KR is to go swimming with the phosphorescent (glow in the dark) plankton so of course we had to too. After a delicious BBQ dinner and a couple bottles of local Mekong whisky us girls headed down the beach to see us some plankton. Unfortunately none of us had our bikinis…we’ll leave the rest up to your imagination. This was an utterly amazing experience, floating in the water with millions of little green lights surrounding our every movement under the backdrop of a clear black sky blanketed with countless stars…quite romantic, perhaps we should have got some guys involved.
Another thing to do on the island is a boat trip where you go snorkelling, swimming, fishing and then watch the sunset from Long Beach (this is a beach on the other side of the island to which we were staying). 10 of us boarded our boat, several bottles of Mekong whisky in tow, and set sail for a day of fun. Our first activity was snorkelling…let’s just say that getting out of the boat is MUCH easier than getting back in. We then dropped anchor just off Long Beach to catch ourselves some dinner. Some had more success than others. Tam and Lucy rocked the party by catching 5 healthy-sized fish between them. Christella on the other hand, caught what can only be described as a guppie…she still cooked and ate it though ;) With dinner sorted, we made our way to Long Beach to spend the rest of the afternoon soaking up the rays, frolicking in the water and taking in a spectacular sunset over the ocean.
We spent 5 days in total in Koh Rong and although it sounds like we did a lot of complaining we actually had a wonderful time and can appreciate it for what it is. We were lucky enough to get the recently implemented speed boat back to Sihanoukville which took only 45 mins as opposed to the 2 hours on the ferry.
DAYS 40-44: “Beach Bums” (13-17 Dec 2013)
The rest of our time in Cambodia was spent enjoying the spoils of Serendipity Beach in Sihanoukville with the crazy duo, Courtney and Christella. The four of us enjoyed a few seafood braai’s (BBQ’s for you English folk), Mekong parties, worked on our tans and laughed a hellavah lot. We sadly parted ways after 3 days of fun, with the girls heading to Vietnam whilst we packed up to make our way to Kuala Lumpur (we had no option but to fly…excuses, excuses!!)