Cambodia the complex -1

In lieu of attempting various small posts that I fail to properly keep the trend going after a few days, I’m going to write a longer one shot page on my experiences in this country. Cambodia is complex. It has some deep history and some dark history, and right next to the blooms of tourist towns and happy pizza, one still sees the patches and scars of the massive suffering known as the Khmer Rouge. Yet, let not that deter you from this place, where the people are down to earth and the temples heavenly and the past, not far from the present.

In the early lights of dawn, we got off the bus in Ha Tien and met two vietnamese men who drove us on the their bike to a little ‘travel service’ office in the city. The proprietors of the establishment had to wake up and in another hour or so, we were headed to the border on a van. Exit stamps on the Vietnamese side. Entry on the Cambodian side. We weren’t too sure about the visa fees that we were told, and low on US dollars as well, but after much debating, arrived at a middle point, coughed up some more dollars for the “health test” (which is just a temperature scan and a piece of paper handed to you), and finally got into the country of Cambodia. Yay!

Another van picked us on the cambodian side and started driving us towards Kampot. The change, was immediately apparent. This van had trouble getting started and coughed a lot along the way, but was otherwise not much trouble. The roads were also mostly paved. Yet the landscape had a different look. It was much sparsely developed compared to what we’d been seeing in Vietnam. Fewer modern buildings, fewer stores and gas stops. Fewer vehicles as well. More cattle grazing on fields next to the road. More kids walking or bicycling towards school. A more ‘rural’ feel.

Soon enough, Kampot. A nice city, modern houses, not too large, not too dense. A big river on one end. We walked along it, felt a little confused about where we should go. Ended up walking to the ‘downtown’, where a variety of stores, most of them catering to foreigners, wrapped a little promenade. Sat by a bar and spoke to the bartender, who turned out to be Canadian, who tells us a little about what’s where. Turns out this is also a hostel. It was raining outside now, so we decide to stay there for the day. In some time, the rain slows a bit, so we rent a scooter from the bar and head off. About 4 hours in the country, and already exploring!

We headed east on the same road that got us there and about 20-30 K from town, started going down a small, unpaved dirt road through the villages and the farm, not sure where exactly, based on the rough ‘map’ we got at the hostel. Next to a school, we saw some steps leading up to a temple and as we slowed down, a young man, possibly in his early 20s, called out to us: ‘ you come to see cave? here!’. Well then. We parked and followed him, and his friend, as they walked us up the temple stairs, past some trees, up a few boulders, into an opening on the side of the hill, through the cave, about 30-40 meters of darkness, under bats perched on the ceilings, out one opening, in through another, and so on for quite a while. There were many dark sections and some places where one had to squeeze about or hold on to the ledge, but it wasn’t too dangerous. The actual concern was the abstract nature in which we were following two villagers, that spoke little, leading us through dark caves, in the middle of nowhere in the cambodian countryside. With little contact with many cambodians so far, and almost no friends or family that knew where we were at this point actually, I did not know how comfortable I should feel. Yet, in the end they led us on a pretty cool tour, and delivered us back to the temple with no demands but for a few dollars “to give offer to temple monks”, which was mostly fair.

Kampot peppers are apparently a specialty of their own, and to quote wikipedia: “As the first Cambodian product, Kampot pepper obtained the World Trade Organization’s Geographical Indication (GI) status in 2010, tying the quality of the product to its origin.” So we drove through more muddy backroads, often teetering on the edge of a flooded field or a culvert, sometimes under rain, till we managed to reach a farm and saw some plantations. The modern plantations were first setup under the french, but had a restart in the past two decades and there is a lot of export, as well as foreign investment in the industry. The fruits were too young when we got there, but we saw them growing and a few samples we got tasted good.

More bad roads back to the highway, a few minutes of letting Anna drive the scooter, getting scared that she might lose control in the mud but enjoying being in the backseat for a change, her getting bored and getting me to drive again, kids getting off school, them waving at us, us waving at them. The highway was recently paved and I got some brief runs of fast driving. Soon enough, we reached the coastal town of Kep.

Kep was more for local and Vietnamese tourists (less than an hour from the border) than for westerners it seemed. There were some nice, large hotels, not far from the beach, and a scenic seaside driveway. We stopped at a fish market, much of which was right on a pier/ramp above the water and walked to the edge to get some pictures. A man walks up to us and asks: “you like crabs?”. Anna is down of course, and the man simply jumps down into the water, wades out a bit, swims a little further, goes down and re-emerges with a cage full of crabs. They’re not very large, but as fresh as fresh gets really. We negotiate some price / amount and a lady in the market agrees to cook them for a dollar and brings them around with some rice. This was the first time I tried a crab.

The rest of the day was spent roaming around, some tasty green papaya salad, more rain, more riding, explored Kampot a little more, dinner, then sleeping on hammocks back at the hostel. Unfortunately, it rained all night, the tin roof was loud and leaky and the hammocks terrible at keeping tight, so it wasn’t the best sleep. Also, discovered that we had lost our P&S camera at some point that day, possibly before crossing the border even, which was annoying.

The next day we explored the other side of the river a little (more hostels and ‘bungalows’, many of which have riverside bar/ramps, but may require a tuk-tuk ride from the town to get to) and chose one to stay in. Then, we drove to the Bokor Hill Station, a semi-abandoned french colonial era resort that sits on top of the Bokor Mountain. It’s a long drive from the gates, not too far from the seaside, to reach the top, some 1000 m above. You enter through a massive set of gates, there’s a ticket to pay, a few dollars I believe, then drive up and up, around the southern slope, switchbacks after switchbacks, past the fog and clouds, glancing over the ocean vista and countryside, and even Phu Quoc, the vietnamese vacation island on the gulf of thailand. There’s almost nothing along the way, until an hour or more later (32 km), you’re at the top and there’s suddenly some signs and establishments. We spent a while around the Povokvil Waterfalls, which were swelled by the monsoon rains that had recently started. Then we drove through the almost alien high mountain treeless misty scene, reaching Wat Sampove Pram, a temple perched at the edge of the rocky cliff, from where, the view below, should you chance to see it through the clouds, is grand enough to remind you why everyone, from the kings to the masters have wanted an abode up there.

Unfortunately it started raining soon and was so foggy, and our knowledge of the place so little that we left not too long after, missing some of the other main sites there, the grand Bokor Palace Hotel, the “Résident Supérieur”, the casino, the ruins of the black palace, and the modern reconstructions that are trying to capitalise on the exclusive specialty of this place. Plans to construct a modern resort with various luxuries and amenities and other lucrative decadence catering to the well off tourists have already been set in motion. We were glad to have seen what we could, the temple that sat silent in its misty throne and the ‘100 Rice Fields’ meditation area, empty fields strawn with boulders on a large plateau, landscape made trance. Then we rolled our way through a crazy rain down the hillside again, sometimes simply turning the engine off and letting gravity do the pulling.

More on Bokor National Park – http://wikitravel.org/en/Bokor_National_Park

The next day, we got into a van and headed to Krong Preah Sihanouk aka Shihanoukville, a touristy little beach town some 2 hours west. There’s much that can be said about this town, and your mileage may vary, but the a-day-and-some-more we spent there was rather fun. There’s a few different beaches, not all close enough to connect on foot, that each cater to a slightly different crowd. We were dropped in and stayed around the Serendipity beach, more for the younger, cheaper, backpackers. After leaving our bags at a hostel, we walked around and since nothing else was on the agenda for the day, it was the right time to partake in some happy pizza.

🙂

It was a good pizza, and the herbs were not mixed as one expects of edibles elsewhere, but literally sprinkled in heaps on the pizza, a skunkier oregano, a fun pizza topping. The pizza itself wasn’t too bad and cheap ($3 for the small that was enough lunch for 2 people?). Then we chilled on the beach. Decided to jump in the water and float, which was all fun except I did not realise that my sunglasses enjoyed it too much to stay stuck to my head. Chill on the beach some more. Have a beer. Swim, repeat.

This lady comes up to us and asks if we want ‘manicure for lady’. We joke with her a bit, try to get her to manicure me instead, and find out she’s Vietnamese, from the outskirts of Saigon itself. Eventually, she cajoles us into paying her for a manicure, and starts working on Anna’s feets. Or it could have been ‘threading’, not entirely sure. Her friend comes in and starts helping too. Soon another guy comes up with his trayfull of sunglasses. He tries to get us interested, but when we’re not buying it, comes up with an idea. “We play tic-tac-toe, you win, sunglasses free, I win, you buy.” It was an interesting proposition and I was just floating enough to get enticed by it. But guess what? He’s good, a pro even. He’s got all the tricks under his belt. And he beats us. Twice. Both Anna and I. I’m sure many others have fallen for it. Yet he was also lucky enough that I had lost my sunglasses not more than 20 minutes before he showed up. So we ended up with a cheap pair of sunglasses. My second pair for the second month of travel.

Swimming, eating, lounging, ice-cream. Some dumplings. The hostel pool. Dinner on the beach on this large relaxed chairs, under the full moonlight, with beers and the breeze on you. If it it sounds too classy, note that the food was msg-doped thai curries and there were so many restaurants that just popped up (where there was nothing in the day) that you couldn’t tell where this one ended and the other one began. T’was a good day.

We had heard about diving off this coast and while we weren’t too bent on that, we wanted to do some snorkeling. [In retrospect, we should have totally gone diving there. It would have been a good experience, and not as expensive as elsewhere.] There were also these islands a little off the coast here, like those in south thailand, which sounded fun and we wanted to get there. Asking around, the dive shops had a slightly more expensive package for the snorkeling trip than the local travel company’s “‘island tour” which includes boat ride to the island, snorkeling and lunch, it advertised. For some reason, and BIG mistake here, we went with the local service and so, the next morning, were carried by a tuk-tuk to a large boat, with about 200 vietnamese tourists, and possibly a handful of tourists, headed towards Koh Rong Sanloem.

 

That boat ride was shit. We weren’t too far gone when it started getting stormy. It never really rained too bad, just brief showers, but the seas were choppy and people started throwing up on all sides. I had to pill myself, the first of many Gravols of the summer, to keep from getting too sick. There was lunch, which was pretty sketch. Chowmein and fried rice and some weird meat curry that I couldn’t make myself eat. And when we were not too far from the island, the boat stopped and they told us we were free to jump off the boat into the water and could rent snorkeling goggles with some deposit. Thing is, this is pretty deep water, so there’s nothing really to see, especially given that you are swimming not too far from this noisy boat. That was their idea of snorkeling. Again, this was a mistake on our part, and I’d suggest that if you’re wanting to go snorkeling, go with the more organised foreign crowd catering dive shops, and not just any off market travel desk, who just resell the cruise tickets and don’t actually know what it’s about.

Nevertheless, the boat reached sunset beach on the island of Koh Rong Sanloem, and we ensured with the boat people that we could stay over for the night and take the boat back the next day. It was a pretty beach. The prettiest beach I have ever seen for sure, and Anna, who has seen more beaches than me, felt the same. Very light golden sand, running through a long bay, crystal clear water, the sun shining down. Thing is, based off some conversation with a diving school representative, I wanted to go to M’Pai bay, on the other side. I’d heard that it was possible to walk through the forest on some sections, and I tried to convince Anna to try to get there, by wading along the shore where need be and hiking the parts where there was a trail. Needless to say, it was not a great idea, and Anna wouldn’t go for it, which in retrospect, I’m thankful for (thanks Anna 🙂 also, sorry I was being so dumb). I was stupidly stubborn though, and so we got into the supply boat ($10 each I think) that came at the end of the day and rode it to M’Pai bay.

Before actually making it to the main port (at M’Pai village) in the bay, the ferry stopped at the EcoSea Dive Resort’s pier. This resort is the only establishment at this end of the beach, which is about half an hour’s walk away from the main village and not properly connected with the beach. They had dorms, private beach bungalows and jungle bungalows (which had 4 beds each, but cost only $15 in total). We got a ‘jungle bungalow’ for the night and fell asleep not too long after dinner.

Around 1 am, we woke up. They had turned off the generators at midnight (we knew about it), and new moon, thus it was pretty dark, save the brilliant display of stars in the sky. We walked out to the beach, and on reaching the sea, walked a few meters in to experience the most amazing marine sight, of bioluminescent planktons.

No pics, cuz they wouldn’t have registered too well, but it was still pretty cool. The dinoflagelletes aren’t inherently glowing the whole time, but any sudden trigger (splash, wave, your hand moving through the water) causes them to light up. It was fun just standing around, jumping here and there, letting them settle, then running around some more. Not to forget the brilliant show that the milky way was putting up above us.

The next day, we rented some equipments (this hostel/resort is actually also a diveshop) and spent a few hours snorkeling on the bay. This was my first time snorkeling, so I loved it. There were many corals and small colorful fishies to swim past. Sometimes you’d end up in the midst of a school and they’d go scattering about. And sometimes, many times, you’d realise that you’re hovering just inches from a spiny sea urchin, aka black spiky freaks with long poison darts.

The length of this post is getting way out of hand, so I’mma quicken it a bit. Spend the rest of the day around that resort and walking to the actual village. The village was pretty nice, chill, island life, and had food and accommodation for much less than what we paid at the resort, so we decided to stay another night there. It was swell, but Anna (and later, me as well) started feeling sick, so we simply went to bed early. We blame the food from that boat ride for it. Still, Koh Rong Samloen/Samloem (spelt many ways) was really nice and I heavily recommend it to anyone making it to southern cambodia. Perhaps this is a good time to mention that there’s also the actual Koh Rong island within visible distance from KRS, which is the larger one and supposedly has more of everything – beaches, establishments, people, even roads! We did not make it there, but that could have been fun. One could even go island hopping between the two, (plan it out with the supply boat, which goes Sh.ville->KRS (sunset, then M’Pai) ->KR in the evenings and the reverse way in the morning). Island life ftw!

Honorable mention to the tiny island of Koh Koun (picture below), which is currently uninhabited and “if we find snakes here, we take it to Koh Koun and leave it. It is snake island” according to a KRS local. There’s diving around it also. As I was googling just now to ensure I got the right spelling, I stumbled upon a grand 350 villa resort construction plan for that island (similar to signs we saw along the beach at M’Pai bay) so not sure if things are going to stay as pristine as they currently are.

The next morning, we took the supply boat back to Sihanoukville. There were a couple of monks on the boat that spoke to us along the way. They were visiting some family on the island, and were now heading back to the monastery at (_). They offered us some dragon fruits and we spoke for quite a while. It was nice. They made us realise that young people all over the world share a lot of similarities. They were hopeful for more democratic reforms and less corruption, and we even discussed the coming US elections.

Back in Shihanoukville, we got tickets for a night bus to Battambong, in the northwest of the country and spent the rest of the day mostly resting (since we weren’t feeling too great at this point). The bus must’ve left around 7 / 8 pm and it was all pretty ok. It was a ‘cabin’ bus, meaning two people get a big semi-curtained chamber which is mostly flat and you can lie down. But then around 1, the bus reached Phnom Penh (the capital), and they made everyone get off. People were sorted onto other buses, based on their actual destination. During this process, a british guy suddenly realised that his bag was missing. With his passport and some money in it. After much searching and shouting, it did not turn up and the bus going east left, with us and his friends in it. That was our hour long stay in Phnom Penh and it was scary, giving justification to our decision not to visit there. Startled, we hugged our bags and oscillated all night between sleeping and frantically making sure the bag was still there, until the bus dropped us off the next morning.

So we reached Battambang, but that is for another post.

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