It was around 2005 when I first saw a photo of Angkor Wat and immediately knew I had to go there one day and see it for myself. I had no idea it was just one temple in a vast complex, but a friend later photographed the site and inspired me to get up and go myself.
Today was the day I hired a bicycle and cycled to this mysterious UNESCO world heritage site in Siem Reap to see it with my own eyes.
There’s something about being on a bike that I love – the freedom I think, so it seemed only right to pedal around and lose myself in the places hidden from the tourist trail.
Many of the temples show their age by how well the trees have grown in and around them. The twisted roots are absolutely fascinating and add to the eerie feeling of some of these jungle temples.
Avoiding the hoards of people was difficult, especially in Ta Phrom (above), also known as the ‘tombraider temple’. In an attempt to avoid the crowds I took an alternative route around the outside, climbing up and into the temple, but then ended up in amongst the tour groups anyway and fought my way out via the entrance instead of the exit.. oops.
At one temple I took a wrong turn and discovered a giant pond being used as a swimming pool by a bunch of kids who were completely oblivious to me as I tried to snap a photo.
Shortly afterwards the heavens opened and I made my escape, pedaling back to Siem Reap town as fast as I could and getting soaked to the bone in the process. That’s rainy season for you. The rain stopped as soon as I arrived at my hostel.
The lazy days theme that Kate and I set in Kampot on that beery day at the guesthouse would continue for the next few days as we travelled together onto Sihanoukville further West. We’d heard that Otres Beach was the place to be so we took a tuk tuk away from Sihanoukville town and along the coast.
As soon as we arrived at Mushroom Point we knew it was the hostel for us – big mushroom shaped buildings made from wood and straw by the beach. It even had round beds which was a strange novelty! We spent our two days there relaxing on the beach by the hostel’s bar, the only pain in the arse being the constant hassle from women wanting to paint your nails or kids selling bracelets. It was relentless but we were able to have a laugh with them and they were never aggressive in their tactics. We’d been warned that thieves operate on the beach so we were told not to take any valuables onto the beach at all.
You can’t go to Sihanoukville without catching the ferry to Koh Rong so that’s exactly what we did, buying our tickets from a charming seller on the beach who thanked us profusely because he’ll get $1 commission for the sale. When we arrived on Koh Rong we were once again warned about thieves who operate on the island. We’d heard that if you dare report a robbery to the police they’ll charge you for the report and then do nothing about finding the culprit (one local told us it makes him sad and he’s ashamed to be Cambodian because of the corruption).
As we walked along the beach we felt as though we were in paradise – the sand was pure and white and the sea crystal clear with streaks of turquoise.
But later that night Kate’s bungalow was broken into while we were out having dinner. Luckily she’d put all her valuables in the safe at reception so nothing was taken, but as we were both single ladies in our own bungalows neither of us slept well that night worried about intruders. The windows could be pulled open from the outside (that’s how the intruder got in) and the doors could easily be kicked in – we think the flimsy bungalows were built when crime didn’t exist a few years ago. I barricaded one window with a spare mattress and wedged a table in front of the door, then lay with the light on until the generator cut out at 2am and I tried to forget about who could be lurking outside. The next morning we asked to be moved to a more secure room and the owner went out of his way to find space for us, but we just wanted to leave after that – I’d originally planned to stay for 4 nights but just wasn’t comfortable there.
When we returned to the mainland we ended up staying near Ochheuteal Beach closer to town. We asked the tuk tuk driver to take us to a place recommended in Lonely Planet and he took us there knowing it’s now a building site and no longer a hostel. Of course he then took us to a place where he’ll get commission, which wasn’t bad but the hotel rules were a bit of a worry.
The beach turned out to be a lovely place to spend the day and evening, despite more hassle from the pedicure ladies and kids with bracelets. I ended up having a laugh with the kids and we made them happy by relenting and buying some of their wares. Their English was excellent, especially the nasty one who called me Motherfucker because I said I didn’t want to buy anything else. The rest were adorable though, telling me about their love for One Direction, and a cute little gay teenager who offered threading as part of his repertoire told Kate, in a very camp and over the top way, that she’d never get a boyfriend with hair on her legs. Absolutely hilarious.
Overall I had a really great time – the sea was warm and clear, the stargazing was spectacular on Koh Rong, and we enjoyed relaxing and bantering with the locals, but the break-in put a bit of a dampener on the few days on the island and hinted at some deeper problems in the relationship between locals and tourists. In most places we’ve felt very welcome but on Koh Rong there seemed to be an attitude towards visitors – “they’re rich so they deserve to be ripped off or robbed” kind of attitude. I guess it’s the price you pay for being in paradise.
I constantly hear different opinions about Koh Rong. I’m sure, as with everywhere, you can have the best or worst time depending on so many factors. I’d love to hear more on what the island is like now. Has it changed? What about the Sihanoukville coastline?
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When I arrived in Kampot I marched straight to The Magic Sponge, a guesthouse whose name cropped up a few times during my Trip Advisor research. I believe it was the first time I’d turned up somewhere without a booking (I’m learning to be more flexible, slowly) and was 5 minutes too late to get a $3 dorm bed so I opted for a huge room and bathroom to myself at $9 and was happy I’d get a few nights of uninterrupted sleep.
I was due to go on a countryside tour the next day but it was cancelled – I found out when they didn’t bother turning up for me, so I had a spare day. A Scottish lass, Kate, who I’d met the day before, came down for breakfast and we got chatting about what we could do to spend the day wisely.
That is until William, the hostel owner, announced at midday that it was happy hour. 50cent beers for the next 4 hours, followed by 2 for 1 shots and spirit mixers til 8pm. We started on the beers immediately, it would’ve been silly not to.
8 hours later we’d sunk a fair amount of beers and G&Ts, played a round of mini golf (yes, the guesthouse had a mini golf course!) and spent no less than 3 hours playing pool. When normal pool got boring we found some big Vietnamese style farmer hats that covered our eyes and invented a new rule – if the hat falls off it’s a 2 shot penalty. All very silly. I think I was in bed by 9 that night. Rock ‘n’ roll.
The next day we were up bright and early for the rescheduled countryside tour which I’d persuaded Kate to come on with me. The first tour highlight (in the promotional material anyway) was the local salt fields. What they didn’t mention, until we actually pulled up, is that it’s the wrong season for salt making, so we mostly looked at some dry brown fields, and peeked into a big shed.
After that we stopped at a pepper plantation. Kampot pepper is famous the world over apparently (I’d never heard of it) and we learnt how the peppercorns are grown and got to nibble on some black, red and white peppercorns. The different coloured peppercorns all come from the same plant, some are just soaked and dried for longer, but each had a unique taste.
After that we went to a cave with an ancient Hindu temple carved into the rocks inside. I blessed myself with the holy water (some murky drips from a rock) as instructed by the guide and tripped over a few rocks in the dark but the view from the top of the hill over the rice paddies was nice.
After that I found myself back in Kep at the Crab Market enjoying a delicious crab caught in front of our eyes before being cooked.
The boat ride to Rabbit Island was fun, mainly because the people at the front got soaked as we hit the choppy water head on in the wind. I got wet too but it soon dried when we arrived on the island. A short walk through jungle led us to a lovely sandy beach with hammocks to relax in on the water’s edge.
On the drive back to Kampot we picked up a gaggle of ladies who were hitchhiking from Kep – it certainly livened up the ride. I don’t know what they were saying but they were in absolute hysterics for the whole journey, giggling and squawking and joking with our guide. Their laughter was infectious! Then on the dusty road between the two towns the clutch went and our guide had to swap with the driver because he knew how to drive without one. We did the rest of the journey in first gear and jolted to a stop at the guesthouse giving us an extra laugh at the end of the day.
Moving away from the horrors of the killing fields, I continued my travels down to the coast. Who’d have thought the sleepy seaside town of Kep in Cambodia would be so good for urban exploring? It turns out that Kep has a fascinating history, and remnants of that history still lie here serving as a reminder of the past.
Until the 1960’s Kep was a getaway for the French elite; an escape from the heat of Phnom Penh. Grand French villas lined the wide roads, all with sea or mountain views.
In the 70s however, the Khmer Rouge evacuated everyone and the villas were left abandoned. Later on, they were looted and stripped of anything valuable, and many are now empty shells still standing all around town.
The best way to explore all of this is by bike or scooter – I took a bike and cycled around for hours finding these ruins everywhere I went. These sites are easily accessible so great if you’re a fan of urban exploring. It’s also fun to go further into the countryside and follow the yellow markers around the National Park for sites of interest. I found this hilltop pagoda by accident.
They seem to be big on statues in Kep – you’ll find some Vishnu roundabouts and a few seafront statues too like the ‘Welcome to Kep’ crab and a woman wrestling a dolphin. Well, probably not wrestling, but it made me laugh, I’ll leave it to your imagination.
The sunsets in Kep are really gorgeous as most of the restaurants face West. The streets turn a strange pinkish colour as the whisps of cloud start changing tones above.
I really enjoyed my short stay in Kep in a little sea view bungalow run by a kind and friendly family. I almost forgot I was in Cambodia actually, I existed in a world of my own for a while, captivated by old and new in a town slowly rebuilding itself for a new generation of visitors looking for an escape.
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Before I came to Cambodia I knew very little about its history. We don’t learn about Asia in school history lessons and Cambodia stayed largely off my radar. I was aware of the ‘killing fields’, the poverty and the orphans as a result of it, but I knew virtually nothing of the Khmer Rouge and the extent of the massacres here. Until today.
Before visiting the killing fields I stopped at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also known as S-21. It was a high school which the Khmer Rouge turned into a prison to torture innocent Cambodians. Their targets were initially educated people – teachers, engineers, academics, anyone who had the potential to overthrow the regime. Bizarre, you may think, as Pol Pot was educated well in Paris, and his seniors were former teachers. Eventually though, they killed peasants too, and nobody was excluded, not even children and babies.
Prisoners were starved and tortured here for between one month and six months. Those who didn’t die here were then taken to the killing fields and executed. Our guide was a prisoner of the Khmer regime, but was not held at the prison. At age 15 he, along with millions of others, was sent into hard labour in the countryside. Pol Pot destroyed the cities, infrastructure and banks and thought everyone should be farmers. They were allowed two bowls of rice per day to eat and many were worked to death.
Two million out of a population of seven million were killed by the Khmer Rouge during the short period between 1975 and 1979.
The Killing Fields of Choeung Ek are around 15km from the city centre and are just one of many such execution sites in Cambodia. Around 9,000 bodies were discovered here alone and some have been left in peace as they now lie under a lake. A buddhist stupa was built as a mark of respect, and it houses 5,000 skulls of the victims.
All around you as you walk there are pits from where bodies were exhumed. If you look closely underfoot you can see bone fragments and rags of clothing that regularly surface when it rains. An excellent audio guide explains what you’re seeing and provides a bit more about the history and some survivor stories.
Next to this tree lies a mass grave, discovered by a farmer who then noticed blood and marks on the tree. The Khmer Rouge, made up mostly of brainwashed boys and teenagers, held babies by their ankles and smashed them into this tree in front of the mothers. They wanted to prevent children from growing up and seeking revenge.
The whole day was truly sickening but an absolute must for any visitor. I recommend getting a guide at the prison otherwise you’ll miss out on a lot of information. I learnt a huge amount today and it’s an experience I’ll never forget.
What history have you learnt on your travels that you previously had no idea about?
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