“Can’t stay for long, just turn around and I’m gone again” – Cambodia Part 1

Walking across a border is an unusual experience. These days most of the time when you enter a new country, its through an airport. So your first view is often the arrivals area at an airport. This is a sharp contract from the land border between Laos and Cambodia, which is seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The security is surprisingly casual, no one seems to care very much about your presence so long as you pay what they ask. Some travelers we met managed to actually negotiate the border fee and passport stamping fee. They have more patience then us, as that meant out-waiting the guards by a mere couple of hours.

Looking back at the Laotian border, while walking into Cambodia. This is the no-man’s land where you aren’t approved to be in either country.  We had to lift the gate ourselves, since no one was around.

Our bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, was supposed to get in at 6ish at night, but of course this was not to be. The coach bus we had paid for was oversold, and had already left without us. We got crammed into mini bus after mini bus, each one getting more crowded, rundown and ridiculous. One had a kitchen table strapped to the back of it. Another, the longest drive in fact, fit 13 people into seats for 6. Needless to say, it was an unpleasant drive. So much for our trust in the local travel agent, with his big promises. But this is one of the risks of traveling cheaply. When you buy a ticket that’s a little cheaper than other tickets around, you know that there must be a reason, but you don’t quite figure it out until it’s too late. But our buses were bad all throughout Laos, so maybe it’s fitting that our first one in Cambodia was bad too. So we stumbled into Phnom Penh late at night and of course our hotel had its metal security gate closed. Thankfully, there was a buzzer and a sleepy night guard let us into our room.

This is a random town somewhere between the Laos border and Phnom Phen.  Just to give an idea what a non-touristy Cambodian town looks like.  
This may seem ingenious, but it meant that the back door couldn’t be opened to load luggage. So everything was passed through the rear window instead.

Most travelers seem to go to Phnom Penh to see the Killing Fields, a historic site just outside of the city that relates to Cambodia’s genocide from the Khmer Rouge rule from 1975-1979. We have debated at some length about whether to post pictures of The Killing Fields and S-21 Prison. These sites should not be treated like Disneyland, though judging from the number of selfies and posed photos being taken, not all of the other tourists would agree. Ultimately these places are of deep national significant and hugely important to understanding why Cambodia is the way it is today. So we think it’s important to broach the subject.

To give you the Coles notes version, in the early 70s there was a civil war in Cambodia and in 1975 the Khmer Rouge rebel/communist group gained control of the country with the now infamous dictator Pol Pot in command. Over the next nearly 4 years, the Khmer Rouge proceeded to purge the country of anyone intellectual, educated, foreigners, anyone who lived in a city, and minorities. They killed around 2 million people in 4 years, wihch equates to about 25% of the population. If you want more information, check out the Wikipedia articles. It’s very sombre reading.

S-21 Prison was originally a high school.  After their takeover, the Khmer Rouge turned it into a prison and torturing facility.  The old classrooms were turned into prison cells, and barbed wire was strung up everywhere.  It has been left in largely the same condition as it was in 1979, when the Vietnamese Army overthrew the Khmer Rouge.  Barbed wire still hangs, and prison cells still have bullet holes and other awful indications of the building’s past.
The Killing Fields at Choeng Ek, just outside Phnom Phen. This is the site of mass graves of over 18,000 people.  Once people had confessions tortured out of them in S-21 Prison, they were transported here, murdered, and throw in mass graves.
Mass graves at the killing fields.  When it rains they still find bones coming up out of the soil.  Its horrific, but its important to learn about.

It’s astounding to think about how the country was torn apart, 2000 years of culture wiped out in very short order. It wasn’t that long ago, but it’s truly striking how far the country has come since then. Yes, there is a reputation for purse snatching and we have met a few less than honest Tuk Tuk drivers. And we have been given back the wrong change a few times, probably not by accident.

But the country feels energetic, and the amount of development underway is springing up with intense momentum. Phnom Penh feels like a good place to be, despite the soul crushing heat. Craft brew pubs, great public spaces, a great river front promenade combining French colonial architecture with the lazy ex-pat lifestyle. Given its very recently troubled past, it’s a testament to the Cambodian people that the country has turned around so substantially. They have a ways to go, especially on the corruption side of things, but all things considered its truly impressive that people now think of Cambodia as a desirable tourist destination. It wasn’t that long ago that this was a place travelers simply did not go.

The riverfront promenade in Phnom Phen.
Streets lined with tuk tuks, restaurants, and bars.
In Cambodia most prices are listed in US Dollars, not the local currency the Riel.  So get USD from ATMs, pay in USD, and get Riels as change. Its very confusing.  This place is cheaper than Starbucks though.
It seems to be a trend here for girls and women to wear full pajamas as their normal everyday outfits, even on the beach.  We have no idea why.

The rapid change in Cambodia is perhaps no where more apparent the Sihanoukville, the gateway to the country’s endless white beaches found on the coast of the Gulf of Thailand. Towering hotels and under construction all over, and there are already way too many rooms for how many people are here. But the adage about building a baseball diamond in a corn field will apply here too. Many people looking to escape the insane commercialism of Southern Thailand will head this way for a cheaper, more laid back beach experience. As of yet, the laid-back feel is not completely erased.

The village of Otres is just 15 minutes drive from Sihanoukville. We stayed here for 5 nights, returned for 3 more later on, and could have stayed for many more. It would be easy to get lost in a place like Otres. The beach is endless white sand with water that is like a hot tub. And it’s empty. Just walk down, find a tree for some shade, and your day is set. Or walk a little further and find a beach front bar, with comfy lounge chairs and cheap beer.

Otres Beach, miles of soft white sand and hot tub warm water.
These modified cars are used as taxis in Otres and Sihanoukville. You start with pretty much the smallest car available, like a Geo Metro, then cut the back off and install a carriage of sorts.  

For years Otres has been a hippie enclave and now with the money coming in that has translated into a hipster/ecotourism vibe in the new developments. How to explain this best? Traditionally in Otres Village the typical accommodation was groups of bungalows, which are basically 2 person bamboo huts with very minimal services. No power during the day, no air con, maybe no running water. This sort of place still exists, but more and more places have been upgraded and now sell craft beer and have menus filled with gourmet burgers, pulled pork sandwiches and buffalo chicken mac and cheese – all at prices more familiar from home than from Southeast Asia. At least one of the bars runs a quiz night, of which we are currently the reigning champions.

One of many funky places to stay in Otres Village.

From Otres we went to Koh Rong, and island about 25km offshore from Sihanoukville. Koh Rong and the adjacent Koh Rong Sanloem attract huge numbers of travelers, and with good reason. The white sand beaches and clear warm water are incredible.

The first view of Koh Rong after leaving the boat.
Boats waiting to take tourists snorkeling, fishing, or to one of any number of smaller beaches nearby.
It must be one of the nicest beaches we have ever been on.

We found Koh Rong a little too party oriented for our liking so we only stayed a few nights before moving on to the village of M’pai Bai on Koh Rong Sanloem. We could tell immediately it was more of what we were looking for – laid back, casual, and none of the terrible techno and EDM music that plagues Koh Rong. And the food is so cheap! Nearly every night we were treated to huge lightning shows out over the sea, with only the occasional downpour over our island.

M’Pai Bai on Koh Rong Sanloem.
Even a cloudy day can’t take away from this beach.  You can walk way out into the water and still be at waist height.

M’Pai is still fairly new, and there are loads of foreigners and locals setting up business. Plenty of new guesthouses and bars are under construction. It doesn’t take much to open a business here – apparently you just need to buy a business license and you’re basically good to go – very few hassles given its a foreign country. So there are loads of small guesthouses and hostels run by travelers who just never ended up leaving. And lots of “help wanted” signs. If you want to come work on a beach for a while, you could have a job in either Koh Rong or Koh Rong Sanloem in about 5 minutes. We keep joking that we wish we had found this place 10 months into the trip, not 3. It would be easy to stay in this part of Cambodia.

– March 31, 2017 / Otres Village, Cambodia / Jin Guesthouse, 12:54pm


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