Rare Places: Journeys in Cambodia

Nearly 4 years ago now, I decided to leave my job and amazing colleagues in London, and spend 5 months travelling the world on a trip that I had been dreaming of since the end of high school. It was a trip that proved to be even more life-changing than I had hoped, and created memories that I will truly treasure for the rest of my life.

On 16th January 2017, I boarded a 22 hour flight to Melbourne, Australia by myself, to spend a couple of weeks with my extended family before venturing off into the unknown entirely alone. I had a loose itinerary planned out, going from Australia to Bali, to Malaysia, to Cambodia and finally to Vietnam, but little did my family know, that was pretty much the extent of my planning, and much of the trip unfolded on a day-by-day basis depending on what I fancied doing that day and on who I met. Each country I visited was wonderful in different ways, but Cambodia stood out for its sheer beauty and rich history. It was also the place that I would probably say felt most different to everything I was used to, both in terms of language, culture and attitude.

I’ve been reminiscing about some of the highlights of those two weeks travelling around Cambodia below:

Week 1 - Kratie & Siem Reap

After a 9-hour coach journey from Phnom Penh, an experience in itself, I arrived in Kratie in time for sunset, a blazing orange sky reflected in the water of the Mekong river below. A quiet and peaceful riverside town in the east of the country, Kratie has a slow way of life, populated by floating villages and accompanied by the gentle ‘putt putt’ noise of fishing boats in the background. Having met up with my friend from home who had been doing a similar trip at the same time, from Kathmandu to Vietnam, we spent the next few days exploring the town and nearby Kaoh Trong island by bike, pottering through rice paddies and farmland, and enjoying the lovely houses sitting high up on stilts along the single path that runs the length of the island. We also stumbled across the beautiful Rajabori Villas Resort hidden away right at the northern tip of the island, set in lush gardens and surrounded by buddhist sculptures. With the resort seemingly to ourselves, we indulged in some delicious food and enjoyed a rare treat of cocktails, before cooling off with a dip in their pool. Apparently chilled to prevent the scorching sun from heating it too much, this was a welcome respite from the brutal Cambodian humidity, before we embarked on our journey back to the mainland.

The following morning, we explored the sights of the local market, a buzzing hub in the center of the town, filled with hundreds of stalls, selling everything from fabric to raw fish to other exotic fruit and vegetables – some definitely more appetising than others! We had arranged to spend our last afternoon in Kratie kayaking through the inland waterways of the town alongside a guide, and enjoyed spending a few hours getting a different perspective on this beautiful country and its people from the water. Passing by floating villages, their residents waving and smiling as we paddled by, and clusters of fishermen foraging for their families, we gained a whole new perspective on a simpler, slower way of life. Delicious authentic Cambodian food at a local restaurant provided the perfect end to the day, watching the last of the sun disappear into the Mekong from our perch on the terrace.

An early start saw us climbing aboard another somewhat dubious coach that would take us to Siem Reap, home to the famous Angkor Wat among many other less well-known but equally beautiful temples and monuments. In true Cambodian style, we ended up sharing our 9-hour journey with a few chickens in addition to our fellow passengers, before being dropped off at the outskirts of the city, and met by a cacophony of tuk tuk drivers touting for our business.

Having finally made it to our hostel, and cooled down with an ice-cold smoothie, we set about planning our itinerary for the next four days in the city, from visiting Angkor Wat to all the other incredible temples that are dotted around the area. The following morning, we rented a couple of rickety bicycles from the stall further down our street, and set off to Angkor Wat, narrowly dodging traffic, pedestrians, horses and various other animals that call the city home. Despite the tidal wave of tourists that had decided to do the exact same thing, Angkor Wat was as resplendent as we had hoped, its iconic silhouette emerging from the lake that surrounds it. We spent the entire day wandering through its labyrinthine passageways, admiring not only the architecture but also the spectacular sculptures and carvings that adorn its walls, and the craftsmanship bestowed upon it when it was built 900 years ago. I could happily have spent days wandering Angkor Wat, but we wanted to get a more authentic feeling of the area’s historic sites, away from the tourists, and that meant going off the beaten track a little.

Managing to combine our sightseeing with an inadvertent workout, we cycled past Angkor Wat the following morning, heading north-east to see Ta Prohm, in some ways arguably more spectacular than it’s famous counterpart. Tomb Raider fans might recognise it for its appearance in the original film, but it was a blessing to find that it was almost deserted. Strangled by powerful vines and undergrowth, it rose before us, a behemoth of dramatic stone, with every visible surface covered in carvings and invading tree trunks. We couldn’t help but feel that we’d landed on another planet, or at least another time, totally disconnected from real life.

Continuing our journey, we then cycled north-west, to another huge area in the jungle, again surrounded by its own moat, and home to more stunning ancient temples. Sadly these ones were not being maintained as much and had largely fallen into disrepair, but to wander through dense, unpopulated jungle and stumble upon countless ancient ruins was an experience like no other I’ve ever had. Feeling like a combination of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, we explored the vast area for hours, marvelling at the sculptures and ornate carvings, and at how they could have been achieved using the primitive tools available centuries ago.

Week 2 - Koh Rong & Koh Rong Samloem

From Siem Reap, we spent a day and night in Battambang, exploring some of the local historic sights, including the incredible Battambang bat caves. Around dusk, every evening, millions of bats leave the cave in a continual stream, carried on the wind in oscillating patterns, to begin their nighttime foraging, a spectacle that typically lasts for a couple of hours. We also continued our temple-hopping, climbing hundreds of steps to reach the spectacular Wat Banan Temple, an exhausting but throughly worthwhile endurance test. Upon returning to the city, and collecting our things, we then ventured to the coach station, not entirely prepared for what turned out to be a particularly hairy overnight coach ride to Phnom Penh, our mid-way stop en route to Sihanoukville and the islands. We were somewhat alarmed to see countless boxes being loaded into both the cargo hold and the seated area, and began wondering where the passengers were supposed to sit… More boxes arrived, and more amusingly, more livestock arrived, and it was all loaded on, somehow, while the passengers watched on in confusion. An hour later, after it was clear the cargo hold was full and that everyone would have to have their luggage (at that time including a small tank of live fish, and some more chickens) on their laps, we were finally allowed to board, although it soon became apparent that this meant having our feet on boxes, and hoping the overloaded luggage racks wouldn’t fall on our heads. Once everyone was seated, we were then sealed into our seats by more boxes and finally set off. We arrived into Phnom Penh at about 5am, somewhat worse for wear, having endured perilous driving and much complaining from chickens, children et al.

After recovering at our hostel for a few hours, we set off to explore Phnom Penh before our onward journey, and spent a difficult day visiting the killing fields and Tuol Sleng prison, a horrifying but ultimately very important history lesson that honestly left us both reeling at the horrors that humans are capable of inflicting on each other. Having not really touched upon the awful genocidal history of Cambodia and Pol Pot during the 70s, while at school, this proved to be a traumatic and emotional lesson, but filled a very important void in our education. The following morning, we set off early for Phnom Penh train station, which we hadn’t even realised was in use until I found a tiny passage in my guidebook that announced the line from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville had reopened with restored trains, and we thought we would give it a go. The train turned out to be a lovely experience, with the original carriages that had been used over 50 years previously, beautifully restored and retrofitted with air conditioning, much to our immense joy. It trundled through the countryside, giving us amazing views of the Cambodian landscape and proved to be very comfortable, allowing us to meet and have lengthy conversations with some of our fellow passengers.

Arriving in Sihanoukville late at night, I can’t say that we saw much of Sihanoukville itself, but only having 2 weeks in Cambodia, we were keen to press on and experience the Islands, Koh Rong & Koh Rong Samloem. Getting the ferry the following day, we felt like we were heading to a caribbean island, with beautiful, clear blue water and perfectly white sandy beaches. The main town area of Koh Rong was populated with brightly coloured, buildings, and equally colourful fishing boats moored at the dock, and having checked into our ‘tent on stilts’ we spent many hours wandering around the island and recharging our batteries on the beach. The sea water was the temperature of a bath, a bizarre experience when you’re expecting it to be cool and refreshing, but it was lovely to be able to spend hours swimming without feeling remotely cold. Unfortunately, little did we realise, that while much of the main beaches are perfectly safe for swimming in, we happened to have picked an area where some of the islands waste was pumped, and while we felt fine for a couple of days, this did end up catching up with us later on. Note to my future self, pay attention to where other people are swimming!!

After a couple of days on Koh Rong, we moved to Koh Rong Samloem, which was slightly more rustic, but equally as charming and blessed with some incredible food served out of restaurants on stilts near the dock. We also learned that the island is home to glowing plankton, which is honestly the closest I’ve come to actual magic. Desperate to witness it, we waded into the sea that first night, and were instantly captivated as the slightest movement left trails of sparks as the plankton glowed, like some kind of ancient spell. We spent the remainder of our time on the island learning to fish, admittedly not very successfully on my part, before cooking our fresh catches on the barbeque back at the hostel. Unluckily for me, our swimming exploits of a few days previously finally caught up with me and I ended up spending the last day on the island, followed by a day in Sihanoukville, in bed, feeling very worse for wear, which was a shame, but thankfully didn’t affect our arrival into Vietnam a couple of days later.

In hindsight, our time in Cambodia was cut short too soon and there are still so many wonderful areas that I haven’t had a chance to see yet. However, it is absolutely one of the most beautiful and culturally significant countries I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. Everywhere we went, the people were so friendly and inviting, the food was delicious, and the scenery and architecture breathtaking. It also provided us with an insight into Cambodian history, both good and bad, a topic that really wasn’t touched on much at school but which really should be essential education for everyone. I can’t wait to return one day, with Kampot in the south of the country and the various wildlife sanctuaries in the north featuring at the top of the list! In the meantime though, watch this space for some more posts on Vietnam, Kuala Lumpur and our imminent move to Australia which will be up on the blog over the coming weeks!

 Vicky

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