Siem Reap: Angkor Temples by Motorbike & The Journey to Khao Sok (Thailand)

Days 70-74 in Southeast Asia (April 4-8, 2016)

Historical Siem Reap: Some Facts

Monday began our first day in beautiful Siem Reap, the city most famously known, of course, because of Angkor Wat. The ancient capital of Cambodia, (before Phnom Penh, today’s capital) was ruled by 26 different kings who developed different temples and capitals in the area between the years 790-1327, the most famous one of course being Angkor Wat because of its official status as the largest religious monument in the world. Today, the entire area has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site, and thousands upon thousands of tourists visit Cambodia each year to visit the incredible temples.

The religious influences in Cambodia came from India in the form of Hinduism and Buddhism. The central figures of worship throughout Angkor are Shiva (the Hindu god of destruction, though also the god of creation because of reincarnation through destruction), Vishnu (the Hindu god of protection, who preserves order and harmony in the universe), and Buddha (of course the central figure of Buddhism). Brahma (the third Hindu god, the creator) is less frequently worshipped, because he has less to do with life on earth, and is worshipped only as the original creator of life, without much involvement in life on earth, which is for the most part cyclical and ruled by Shiva.

Over the Khmer Empire, Hinduism dominated until the end of the 12th Century when Mahayana Buddhism became the primary focus (today, Mahayana Buddhism is more important in what is today’s Thailand than in Cambodia). Both Hinduism and Buddhism in Cambodia were adopted but not changed much or broken into sects like in other areas of Asia, so the temples here are all fairly similar in both form and function. The temples are built of brick, laterite and sandstone for the most part. Brick was used as the main building material early on, and laterite was used as a foundation material for its hardness. Sandstone was usually the most expensive material to build with, unless a temple was built near a good local source, and it was regarded as the highest of the materials for its fine quality, resulting in all of the best and most impressive carvings throughout the temples.

The temples were built as palaces for gods, not as a meeting place for the faithful, and the prasats (towers) of each temple, made to resemble Mount Meru (the ancient centre of the universe, with the central prasat being the highest and often most decorated), were intended solely to house small statues of the gods (many of these statues and other relics from the temples now sit inside Phnom Penh National Museum to be kept safe and preserved).

The moat that surrounded many of the temples was also a religious symbol, meant to represent the primordial ocean. Within the structures, Shiva is often represented by a lingha (phallus), a cylindrical structure, the top 1/3 being visible most often, sitting on top of an octagonal mid section (a representation of Vishnu), and a square base (representing Brahma). The bottom two sections are most often hidden within a pedestal or slab that surrounds the lingha (representing a womb), together representing fertility and prosperity. Because of the structures’ important religious significance, they were the only buildings during the time to be made using the various stones/bricks. All other domestic structures and even palaces were made of wood and less durable materials, and therefore did not survive the test of time. Today, only the layout of the ancient city/streets is evident.

Our First Day Exploring the Temples: Banteay Srei

To begin our first day of exploring these incredible temples, Maddie and I walked down the road to find somewhere to rent a motorbike. We had heard that it was illegal/not permitted for tourists to rent motorbikes in Siem Reap, which is why most people tour the temples by tuk tuk, though we knew several people who had done it all by motorbike and said that it was a much more enjoyable experience and provided a nice little break from the heat of the day, zipping through the streets and feeling the breeze. We also heard that the rule wasn’t really enforced much, and even so, if you’re caught it was more of a “hey you shouldn’t be on a motorbike” warning, to which most tourists just say “oh okay sorry I didn’t know,” and they just let you go and tell you to return the bike.

We rented our bike for the next 3 days for $10USD/day, so $5 each, and it was actually one of the nicest bikes we’ve rented so far, with a pretty comfortable seat, nice mirrors and good brakes (yes, really…actual good brakes). After renting our bike, we went to the ticketing office up to road to buy our all access ticket to the temples of Angkor, which is $20USD for a 1 day pass, or $40USD for a 3 day pass. We opted for the 3 day pass since we had the time, and also had heard that the temples were much better enjoyed at a slightly slower pace than by trying to rush through the entirety of the area in one day.

After we had our tickets sorted out, we headed to our first stop, Banteay Srei, which is about a 20km/40 minute drive North of the city, and by far the most out of the way from the temple area near Angkor Wat. We had heard that it was worth a visit, and since we had the motorbike we didn’t mind a bit of a drive. In fact, we both found that it had the most beautiful sandstone carvings out of all the temples we would see over the next couple of days. Made entirely of sandstone, the “Citadel of the Women”, as it is often called, impressed us with delicate pink relief carvings, certainly some of the finest in all of Khmer art. Also unique to this temple is its size, almost miniature, with doorways much smaller than other temples, and walls that barely reached above eye level. It was very unique in both scale and decoration, and well worth the drive.

Cambodia Land mine Museum

On our way back from the temple, we decided to visit the Cambodia Land mine Museum that was recommended to us by Andrew and Nils, who had just come from Siem Reap when they met us in Phnom Penh. The museum was $5USD to get in, but $3 of that goes to the children who live at and are supported by the museum, as well as the staff who earn a fair salary. $1 then goes to help clear mines, and the other $1 to support other programs in rural villages, so it’s hard to feel bad about paying for entry when you’re helping a cause just by visiting. The museum is set up similar to S-21 and the Killing Fields in that it is full of rooms with numbered signs, and you are free to rent an audiobook (included with admission) that explains each of the areas and displays in the museum.

The layout and order of the rooms was slightly confusing, and certainly smaller and less well-organized than the exhibits in Phnom Penh, but still very much worth the time and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who has time for more than just temples in Siem Reap.

The museum holds thousands of disarmed mines, almost entirely found by one man named Aki Ra, who has received various awards worldwide now for his efforts in making Cambodia a safer place. As a child, Aki Ra’s parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge, and he was made a soldier at age 10 when he was given his first gun, an AK47. Over the next several years, he fought for the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese army, and the Cambodian Army, through which he and his friends were ordered to lay thousands of land mines throughout the country. He did as he was told, without any say in the matter, and at one point almost accidentally killed his own uncle, who was fighting for the other side at the time.

He pretended to miss once he saw who it was, and they both survived the war. When the war ended, and Aki Ra was a free man, he began retracing his steps and uncovering land mines he had laid under orders. He uncovered mines from all over the world, and dedicated his life to defusing them with little more than a stick and a pair of pliers. Before his efforts, the land mine-related injury count of Cambodia was in the thousands per year. As of 2014, there were 157. The mines are now most dominant in remote areas in NorthWestern Cambodia, but the rest of the country has been cleared almost entirely.

In 1997, Canada created the Mine Ban Treaty, which was signed in Ottawa by 122 countries, to prevent the unnecessary use of mines in warfare in the future, which have proven to do little more than cause problems for civilians even after a war has ended. When the US bombed Cambodia in excess in 1965 trying to clear the Ho Chi Minh Trail, an estimated 600,000 civilians were killed, and it only helped the Khmer Rouge gain power. In 1973 the bombing finally stopped, though many of these bombs never exploded. In 1998, after Pol Pot’s death, Cambodia found some peace.

Today, 6 groups are working to clear Cambodia of the remaining mines, funded by several other countries as well as worldwide organizations. The Cambodian Self Help De-mining, founded by Aki Ra in 2008, is the newest addition to these groups, and is made up of entirely Cambodians who were affected by and involved in the war. In 2006, Aki Ra’s old way of doing things was declared unsafe by international standards, and a new way with proper tools and protection has been adopted by the group. Today, the centre (this museum) supports children who were victims of land mines exploding, as well as orphans whose parents were victims, or children who just needed a home and a better life.

It is hard to realize the impact that the land mines have had on this country. 1 in every 300 Cambodians today are land mine victims, and while Aki Ra and his team continue to work tirelessly to make Cambodia mine-free, it takes a lot of money and time to do so, and many people in remote areas still live in fear of UXOs where they live and sleep. Aki Ra has single handedly defused an estimated 50,000 land mines of various makes and models, mostly before the modern way of doing things, using a stick and pliers. As far as real life superheroes go, I think he makes the cut.

If you’ve got the time, definitely check out the museum in Siem Reap, I guarantee you will learn something, and like I said before, just showing up is supporting the cause. There is also art made by the children, and other souvenirs for sale at the museum that help support the cause, and I bought a few bars of “Clean Up Soap”, that gives 50% of its profits straight to the centre to care for the children living here. It was an afternoon well spent.

East Mebon & Night Market

After the museum, we figured we had a bit of time to zip over to one more temple before the end of the day. We drove to East Mebon, a larger temple, and enjoyed the beautiful view as the sun began to go down. When we got back to our room, Maddie went for a swim on the rooftop and I ran out to the nightmarket for some sunglasses (and of course ended up with a new Angkor Wat tank top to add to my collection of Asia tops). We went to bed fairly early, exhausted from the long day, but ready for an early start the following morning for sunrise at Angkor Wat.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

At 4:30am, we were up and ready for action. We left at about 5:15, and got to Angkor at around 5:40ish, where we joined the masses to watch the sunrise from the left side of the bridge, by the lotus water (because it is the tourist thing to do, of course). It was very pretty, as sunrises are, and Angkor Wat was incredible to finally see in real life, it’s colossal size simply incomparable to any other temple or church I’ve seen, even the Taj Mahal.

Honestly though, I didn’t feel the “magic”… it was beautiful, and I certainly appreciated it, but it’s one of those things that looks better on a postcard than in real life, and the colours are never as bright and beautiful as you’ve seen in photos and online, and your photos are sure to be from too far away or with other peoples’ heads in them as you peer through the crowd. Even the pressure of getting a good photo of it was reason enough to feel stressed out. I ended up far off to the side, crouching down in a squat over a rock to get a good photo, and then just sat in the dirt so that I’d be out of the way and could just enjoy the view, despite the crazy crowds. It was nice, and of course I don’t regret doing it, because you HAVE to do it… but I find that sometimes things like this are just so famous and hyped up that you end up just going into it with crazy high expectations, and a lot of pressure to take a perfect photo, and it kinda just feels forced.

We went inside Angkor afterwards, though we weren’t allowed up to the very top since all we had were scarves around our shoulders (and you have to wear an ACTUAL T shirt to get in), so we explored around the temple for a bit, appreciating its beautiful decorations and sheer size, and then we left.

Ta Prohm (The Tomb Raider Temple), Bayon & Preah Khan

Ta Prohm (the Tomb Raider temple) was our next stop, most famous for the trees growing wildly inside, on top of, and straight through the temple walls. This may have been my favourite of all the temples, only because of how truly jaw dropping it was to see the roots of trees making their way down into the walls and through the rubble of the temple.

Next was Bayon, known for its many faces visible in the bricks of the pillars, facing in each direction in every spot you look from both inside and out. Aside from the trees at Ta Prohm, these faces were definitely my favourite temple feature of all.

When we finished up at Bayon, we checked out the Terrace of the Elephants, the Terrance of the Leper King, and Baphuon (though we were turned down at Baphuon because again, it was one of the few temples that required an ACTUAL T shirt and our scarves were not enough).

Our final stop was Preah Khan, with more beautiful trees as well as impressive relief carvings, before we decided to call it a day at around 3pm (after 9.5 hours of temple-ing).

Pub Street, Night Market & Fish Pedicures

We dragged our sweaty butts upstairs to the rooftop pool, and I think I could have cried with relief at how good it felt to get in that water. I think we counted that between the two of us we had bought 4 large water bottles that day (1.5L), totalling 6L (3L each), and still felt insanely dehydrated. We hung out in the pool for a couple hours and chatted with some Swedish girls before changing and heading to the market for some food.

We walked along Pub Street and through the giant Night Market, and got our feet nibbled on by some fish for $2USD, which was a really fun and cheap way to end the day. The workers laughed as we screamed, not realizing just how ticklish we were until we had a hundred little mouthes nibbling at our toes. Eventually we got used to it a bit more, and while I’m still not sure how much they actually DID in terms of improving my feet, it was a fun activity and I’m glad we did it.

Third Day Temple-ing: Pre Rup Sunrise

On our third and final day of temple-ing, we decided to get up early (yes, again), for another sunrise. This time, we went to Pre Rup, which has 3 peaks visible over the outside wall much like at Angkor Wat, but it is obviously far quieter since everyone else is watching the sunrise that makes it on the postcards. We bought some raisin bread and peanut butter the night before and sat behind Pre Rup making ourselves some sandwiches (dipping the bread in the jar), and watched as the sun began to rise.

We were the only people outside of the temple, and I decided to go up top to watch the sunrise, while Maddie stayed behind the temple. There were only 3 other people up top, and I sat off to one side and watched as the beautiful bright red and orange Cambodian sun lit up the ruins below. It was the best sunrise I’ve seen, and the magic that I missed out on at Angkor Wat the morning before was bubbling up inside me. Trees stretched out as far as I could see past the temple area, and it was all just perfect. Best of all… it was quiet.

Ta Keo & Neak Pean

After sunrise, we visited Ta Keo and Neak Pean, which is a smaller monument surrounded by a large shallow lake area with bare trees and bushes coming up out of the water… it had a very swampy Lord of the Rings feel to it, and it was really a really cool setting, though the monument itself wasn’t much to look at.

Neak Pean was also where we met Preston and Brian, two guys travelling together since they met a couple weeks ago in Vietnam. Brian is from New York, and is only away for a few weeks before starting a new job, and Preston is from Texas, travelling for a couple of months in similar areas to us after finishing his Master’s. We chatted a bit by the temple and they invited us out for dinner and drinks at the market that night. We happily agreed and wrote down their names so we’d find them on Facebook once we got WiFi again.

Baphuon & Angkor Wat

After making our new friends, we went back to Baphuon (where we were rejected for not having T-shirts the day before, we brought some in our bag today). I couldn’t tell you how many stairs there were, but it was a lot, and I was very sweaty by the time we left, but it was a pretty cool temple so I cant complain.

Afterwards, we went BACK to Angkor Wat, with our T shirts ready, so that we could get up top… but they’re apparently only open in the morning. We decided it clearly wasn’t meant to be, enjoyed a quick view of the area in the mid day light, and left. We went out for lunch at a restaurant with air conditioning where I tried some fish lok lak, a coconut curry-type dish with fish and veggies served with rice (delicious), and had some ice cream to top it off. It was a well deserved meal after what was already a very long day of temple-ing, soon to be longer.

Bakong & Lolei

We continued on past our hostel area and on the highway heading East for about half an hour to get to Bakong and Lolei temples. Bakong was quite beautiful, and seemed very old, and Lolei was really nothing much to look at, but had a small school behind/inside the temple where we met a teacher there, who showed us around and introduced us to the children, most of whom were monks who were learning English and taking computer classes. We saw their library and classroom, and spoke with several students eager to practice their English with us. It wasn’t at all what I expected when we got to the temple, and I think that might be why I enjoyed it so much.

Night Market & Dinner With New Friends

After conquering our final stop on our list of temples to see here in Siem Reap, we went back to our hostel area to buy our bus tickets to get us to Bangkok the following morning. We booked them through Hang Tep Travel, and it cost us $10USD each for the “8 hour” trip that would leave at 8am the next morning. We then returned our beloved motorbike, and after showering and cleaning ourselves up, we dragged our exhausted selves out to the market area where we met up with Preston and Brian (who we met at Neak Pean).

They were both really nice, and very interesting gentlemen. Preston lived and worked in the Congo for 2 years, and had some really awesome stories from his travels. We all talked about life and travel, and how much easier it is to make friends out here than back home, where everyone already has groups of friends and isn’t really looking to make new ones so much, a big reason we had all fallen in love with backpacking. We grabbed some beers, got the guys to try the fish foot bath, which they forced us to join in on, and went to “Angkor What?” bar for some drinks and a bit of dancing (Preston is from Texas and has got some great moves, that basically require his partner to just trust him and relax while he twirls and spins you around… Maddie and I were both laughing and impressed as he danced with us so incredibly well, especially given our own lack of abilities).

He also told us that he was going to meet up with us for the Full Moon Party this month in Koh Phangan, which I can’t wait for. After Maddie and Preston tried to jump rope at the bar (it was a crazy long rope with huge crowds gathered around), and Maddie took a decently hard fall, we decided to call it a night and head back, knowing that we had to be up in time for our bus to Bangkok, and would then be finding a way South from there to Khao Sok.

The Journey to Khao Sok via Bangkok

Our tuk tuk picked us up at 7:30am on Thursday morning to bring us to the bus station, where we left at 8am to get to Bangkok. We stopped a few times along the way, once at a place where we were forced to BUY something from a food store if we wanted to use the squat toilet… which is really cruel to do to a bus full of tourists who all have to pee. The ladies running the shop were so rude to everyone I was in shock, and it definitely left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth as we left… but other than that the bus ride was pretty standard.

At Poipet we stopped for about an hour where we exited Cambodia and entered Thailand (we got a free 30 day Visa on Arrival at the border). At the crossing we met Zoe and Caitlyn, two other young travellers from England, and Maddie saw a sticker on Caitlyn’s bag for diabetes. We bonded briefly over our diabetes sisterhood, but she was on injections rather than the pump, so we definitely have very different routines and struggles. Still, it is always nice to see other travellers with diseases like mine who don’t let it get in the way of doing fun things.

Our bus arrived in Bangkok 3 hours late, at 7pm, where we grabbed some McDonald’s quickly before going to a booking office nearby to try to get ourselves to Khao Sok, hoping to grab an overnight train. The office told us they couldn’t book anything this late, but to head straight to the train station. We haggled for a 100THB ($4) taxi to take us to the station, about 30 minutes away, only to find out that the overnight train to Surat Thani was fully booked not only for tonight, but for tomorrow night as well. Not ready to waste 2 days in Bangkok, we grabbed another taxi and headed to the bus station (a less comfortable option, but still an option), that took another 40 minutes to get to and cost us 200THB ($8). The bus was fully booked as well, and it was 9:30pm… we were running out of options, and not at all wanting to book a flight.

Maddie ran in and found out that there was a minibus that would be leaving at 10:30pm to get to Surat Thani for 800THB ($30), arriving around 7:30am, where we’d grab another bus to get us to Khao Sok. Sold. We waited for an hour and after running around the bus station, completely sweaty and exhausted from an already long day of travel, we got on our minibus. It was actually really nice, with air conditioning, WiFi and comfortable seats, and Maddie and I laid across the 3 seats in the back with our legs in each others’ faces, in what ended up being not the worst sleeping position in the world. Mostly we were just happy to be moving in the right direction, and not stuck in Bangkok for 2 days… 9 hours later, we arrived in Surrat Thani, booked our 250THB ($10) bus to take us to Khao Sok, waited another hour for the bus, and 2.5 hours later, after approximately 27.5 hours in transit, we arrived in Khao Sok.

Khao Sok At Last

A gentleman who works at one of the hostels here drove us for free to his sister’s bungalow first, and then to his. We decided to stay at his place, Jungle Huts, for 300B ($12) for the night for both of us ($6 each) for a small bungalow with a fan and cold showers (which in this heat was more of a selling point than a compromise). After putting our things in our room, we walked around the small street that makes up the entire tourist area here in the middle of the jungle, sat by the river for a bit, and relaxed for the rest of the day, happy to be away from a bus.

Final Thoughts on Cambodia

I’m very excited to be back in Thailand and headed for the islands, though I honestly feel like I could have spent so much longer in Cambodia. We had 16 days there, and I didn’t expect to love it nearly as much as I did leading up to it from what other people had told me. I had met several travellers before getting there who spoke fairly lowly of Cambodia… “It’s filthy,” “I can’t believe you’re going for over 2 weeks,” “I would not want to spend a long time there,” and “Cambodia is a S*** hole,” are all things I’ve heard on several occasions now, and tried very hard to ignore.

It broke my heart to hear it because I try so hard to accept a country for what it is, and to prepare myself going into it so that I’m not overly shocked or horrified, and won’t come across as ignorant or rude towards another culture especially as a guest in that country. Now, after learning about Cambodia’s history in Phnom Penh and now Siem Reap, it actually makes me mad about what I’ve heard from other people. No, it’s not particularly clean… and yes, there are a lot of beggars and poor people, and the businesspeople here are desperate and frustrating to deal with, but what people seem to forget is that this is a country that has been through so much so recently, and is actually doing really well considering the circumstances. Still, most of these people make less in a month than many of us make in a day back home.

Sure, it gets hard to say no politely after 5000 “no thank you’s” and being chased down the street being offered books or bracelets, and it’s not fun to have to drive 15-20 minutes if you want to find a restaurant that looks nice enough that it might have toilet paper AND soap, let alone a western toilet… but I guarantee you it’s a lot harder for them than it is for us.

Personally, I have loved my time in Cambodia, and actually wish I had more of it. The people have been so kind in nearly every place we’ve been (other than that final bus stop), and the cities are actually far more developed in a lot of areas than I expected, almost even to standards back home, which is really impressive all things considered. I guess all I’m trying to say is that before you go travelling to another country, please leave your privileged life and opinions at the door, and humble yourself a little. If you can do that, I promise you that the not-so-lovely toilets, pushy drivers/businesspeople and dirty streets are a small price to pay for the beauty you will certainly appreciate more once you overlook the rest, and accept a country for what it is.

Cambodia, I’ll miss you, and you can be sure that I’ve left a piece of my heart here… If you look hard enough, you’ll probably find it (sweating) somewhere between Koh Rong and Kampot.

Kampot: Mountains, Motorbikes and Goodbyes

Days 66-69 in Southeast Asia (March 31-April 3, 2016)

Leaving Koh Rong to Sihanoukville & Kampot

Thursday morning was rough for me… I was still having really bad stomach cramps and nausea, and while I was grateful that I wasn’t puking or running to the toilet, the last thing I wanted to do was pack up all of my stuff and carry it down the beach to get on a boat… Luckily, Nils had already run to the pier to get our tickets stamped for the speed ferry at 12pm to Sihanoukville, and bought our bus tickets to get us from there to our next stop in Kampot (which were $6USD each). After accepting the fact that we were simply never going to wear our diva hats that we had bought in Hoi An, Maddie left hers in the room, where one of the hostel workers picked it up and wore it out to the bar area where we were sitting and saw his friend laughing. I gave him mine as well and said that they now had a set of them to wear together. They laughed and said thank you, and we left.

Once we got to the pier, we were told that the ferry would be late, and wouldn’t be arriving until about 2pm. We sat and read (and I tried no to puke) as we waited for the next 2 hours at the restaurant on the pier, until finally our speed ferry arrived. Not only was it late, but it also dropped off/picked up passengers on the other Island on the way to Sihanoukville after picking us up… The 3:30pm bus to Kampot was definitely not happening. Nils said that the lady who sold him the bus ticket said that if we missed the 3:30pm one, there would be another at 5:30 that we could take no problem.

We arrived at Sihanoukville at around 4:30, and the second I left the comfort of the cool breeze on the boat, I was overwhelmed with nausea. I couldn’t understand how I had continued to feel more and more sick, and yet NOTHING was happening… I was praying to puke only so that I could feel some sort of relief, but instead I sat by the pier holding a cold can of pop on my face while Nils ran off to figure out the bus situation. He came running back and said that we could go right now, so we all grabbed our things and hopped on the bus to Kampot.

It was a small minivan, and there were about 8 passengers in total, each of whom I quickly warned about the fact that I very well may puke on the bus. I opened the side window, and for the next hour and a half I hung my head out, feeling the cool breeze and enjoying the beautiful view the whole way, both of which helped distract me from how I was feeling.

Kampot & Mad Monkey Hostel

When we arrived in Kampot, we shared a $2USD tuk tuk to get to Mad Monkey Hostel, which was more of a hotel/resort than a hostel, with beautiful rooms and bathrooms, a full bar/restaurant, a rooftop bar, a gorgeous swimming pool and balconies overlooking the pool and river. Not too shabby for $8USD/night. We grabbed some food at the hostel, though I didn’t eat much of it since I was still feeling sick, and after a nice shower I basically crashed in bed for the night while the others hung out a bit later.

I was pretty sick throughout the night, but was so grateful that I was in a nice room with a clean bathroom and air conditioning rather than our tiny sand-and-mosquito-filled, bucket-flushing, dark bathroom at Koh Rong, and honestly by the morning I was feeling a lot better. I think I had in fact gotten mild food poisoning, or maybe it was just from swallowing some sea water like I originally thought. I can’t be sure. It certainly wasn’t as bad as my Laos episode, but it definitely wasn’t something I enjoyed. I guess despite my best efforts, Koh Rong’s infamous illness still got to me.

Motorbiking to Bokor Mountain

After managing to actually consume an entire meal at breakfast (a big step in the right direction for me), Maddie and I grabbed our helmets that we bought in Vietnam and finally put them to use as we hopped on the backs of the motorbikes that Andrew and Nils had rented for the day. We spent most of our day at Bokor Mountain, an abandoned/half-constructed/not-fully-deserted resort/hotel/casino MEGA tourism zone at the top of the mountain, that had been built and apparently never completed. It covers a massive amount of the land, and it isn’t fully clear whether or not there is still a plan to complete the project.

In several areas we did see some construction, though it is rumoured that it was just too big of a project and that development was stopped once they realized they’d never make back their investment. After driving close to an hour up the mountain on the beautifully smooth paved roads (built with the intention of having many tourists driving on them), We visited the top of the mountain, some abandoned church/temple areas, the resort area, and the main hotel/casino, which was probably the strangest of all the attractions. It had a very Chernobyl-esque abandoned feel to it from the outside, but once we got in there were staff standing in the lobby, sitting inside the casino at empty tables ready to deal cards, waiting at the front of the empty seating area at the restaraunt, standing in the kichen ready to cook…but with nothing to do, and no one to serve.

The strangest part was that none of it was just for show! The place was fully functional, I think you can even stay there… but nobody was there, and it just felt creepy. We walked around but didn’t stay long, and let me just say that it is not the kind of place I’d like to get caught wandering through at night. We also visited the partially-constructed palace, which is basically just concrete, but it was equally eirie and hollow, though with a much prettier view from the top and lots of open windows which made it more fun.

After enjoying the spectacular scenery (it really was one of my favourite spots so far), Andrew let me drive back and test out the roads down the mountain. I think I only genuinely terrified him once or twice making the big turns, but I did pretty well, and I’m continuing to get better the more I practice. Even Andrew said so (since the last time I drove him was in Laos… my first actual drive, when I almost ran us into a road divider… sorry).

Feeling hot, sweaty and extremely sunburned (I had the most crisp red line ever below the bottom of my shorts), the 4 of us sat down near the river for a few beers and some pizza. We then went back to the beautiful pool at our hostel, played some cards outside, and hung out at the rooftop bar for a bit (though I didn’t drink much since I was still not feeling the best). I even met a guy from Maine, who said he had a friend who lived near Toronto who he went to school with in Halifax.. and when I said I lived in Aurora he told me his friend’s name, who actually went to school with my cousin and high school boyfriend, and who I hung out in the same circles with for quite a while… It really is a small world.

Maddie and I had planned on leaving the following morning to Siem Reap, but Andrew and Nils looked SO SAD to see us go that we just didn’t have the heart to book our bus ticket yet (actually we just waited too long and it was fully booked, but that doesn’t make the rest any less true). We decided to spend one more day exploring what was now one of my favourite stops in Cambodia so far, Kampot.

Kampot Salt Fields, Caves & Dirt Roads

Saturday morning we began our second day of Kampot motorbike exploring. We started off at the salt fields near our hostel. I had seen photos of salt fields before and understood the general idea, but I didn’t expect to see them on this trip, and I was very pleasantly surprised. As we drove down the orange dirt road, we could see salt fields for miles all around us. They are laid out similarly to rice fields, with small narrow manmade barriers surrounding each square that act as a walkway while holding the water within that square. The salt water here is pumped in from the river, and is then left to settle and dry. As the water evaporates, the salt settles into the soil, and eventually is raked, scooped, iodized, and packaged. The salt water was very reflective, and made for some beautiful photos that I was pretty excited about.

After the fields, we set off to find the Phnom Ch’nork Caves, which were supposed to be worth a visit. We got lost along the way on the dusty Cambodian roads, but I think I actually enjoyed getting lost and riding around on the motorbike more than the caves. Once we got there, we paid the $1USD entry fee, decided NOT to pay another $1 for a guide, and went into the caves. About 3 seconds in, I was ready for a guide as Andrew and Nils climbed down the most awkward narrow entryway ever to get into the cave, but then they saw another way in, so we climbed back out and went in the other way.

I was fairly confident that we were going to get lost in the cave, but let the boys convince me that it’d be just fine… of course it was… and about 10 minutes later (if that), we could see daylight peeking out from the other end. It was a cool cave, but it wasn’t anything spectacular, and basically we just ended up sweaty and covered in dirt (which is orange, so we all looked like we had horrible spray tans in streaks and splotches all over our bodies and clothes). Nevertheless, it was a lot of fun, and I think had I not been feeling so dehydrated (which I attribute to being sick the past couple days) I probably wouldn’t have minded it at all…but I was pretty exhausted and feeling a bit dizzy afterwards.

I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated motorbiking so much as I have here in this heat… Standing in the sun is unbearable, and it has been a sticky 37-38 degrees almost every day we’ve been in Cambodia. Sightseeing with enthusiasm feels impossible, and I am quite sure that I sweat at a faster rate than I could possibly consume water if I tried. My days here can be split up into two parts: sweating, and showering. There is no middle ground. Either I am clean, in the shower, or I am sweating the second I get out. It has become a topic of recent discussion that Andrew (who has previously been the sweatiest of us everywhere we’ve been, and is notorious for taking his shirt off and finding somewhere he can swim), has become contagious, and that I am now becoming as sweaty of a person as he is… At this point I’d believe anything. I’m gross. Anyways, my point is that it’s hot here, and feeling the (slightly cooler) wind in my hair and shirt as we zip through the dusty roads here is absolute heaven.

We stopped at “Secret Lake”, which was actually really beautiful, but more of just a quick stop for some photos of the long, shallow lake/field and surrounding mountains. Afterwards, we continued down the road to Starling Resort Kampot Peppers, where we thought about looking around at the pepper fields, but ended up spending 20 minutes in the bathroom rinsing off our faces from all the dust, and then gasping at the outrageous prices of Kampot Pepper in the gift shop (it is a dry peppercorn grown here, for those of you who didn’t know), that cost between $10 and $70USD for a package. We decided we were too hungry and hot to hang around and actually see the fields, and got back on our bikes to find some dinner.

Evening Boat Cruise

We got back to the restaurant area near our hostel and grabbed some burgers and beer, and booked a boat cruise for that evening. We wanted to see the sunset from the boat, but missed the departure time, so we booked a “firefly” cruise instead from 6-8pm for $5USD each. After freshening up at the hostel, we went for our cruise down the river just after sunset. It was honestly a really beautiful ride, and I quite enjoyed the view, but we were 4 of maybe 7-8 tourists on the boat in total and the rest of the people were locals. Normally, this would be a good thing and I’d be grateful to not be a part of the tourist crowd, but unfortunately I’ve begun to find that when you take a tour with locals around here, a lot of them will be on their phones or making noise the whole time, and not really seeming to enjoy the tour much.

I wish it wasn’t the case, because I love the people here and don’t want to talk smack in any way, but between the 2 kids playing with balloons (making fart noises as they let air out), their mother not caring and talking loudly to her friend, a guy beside us chainsmoking and horking into the water while answering several long phone calls, and 3 or 4 other guys who had the biggest brightest phone screens I’ve ever seen that they kept their eyes glued to for the entire ride, I was pretty annoyed. At one point a guy was shining his phone light ON the trees, as we were looking for fireflies in them (there actually were lots), and was drowning their limited visibility out with the light. I think that all of us had a hard time biting our tongues.

Nevertheless, we did get to see some beautiful stars and view of the river, as well as fireflies as we cruised along, and we got a couple of free beers out of it too which wasn’t bad.

That night (our last night together), Maddie was feeling pretty sick (maybe still from Koh Rong, we’re not totally sure), so we played some card games together for as long as she could, and then her and Nils called it a night. Andrew and I decided to stay up a bit, and we went to the rooftop bar after they shut down the restaraunt bar, and then the lobby after they shut down the rooftop bar (we’re not as crazy as that makes us sound, everything was closed before midnight). It was our last night travelling together, and today marked the 30th day (between the two separate times we met up with them) that we had spent with the guys since we first met in Chiang Mai (and yes… I know this because I make notes of things like that, I’m a sentimental loser don’t judge me).

We talked about how in a really crazy way we had become best friends, and how I never imagined that I’d spend 30 days of my 102 day trip with the same people, but I’m so glad I did. I was dreading our final farewell in the morning, but Andrew reminded me that it was a good thing we were so sad to leave each other, because it meant we had found something worth missing. We were all smiles that night, just appreciating how lucky we were to have found such great friendship so far from home, in what realistically was still a very limited amount of time.

Goodbyes & Heading to Siem Reap

The next morning, Maddie and I said our goodbyes to Andrew and Nils, not knowing when the next time we’d see our favourite Alaskans would be, and hopped on our minibus at 7:45am to take us to Phnom Penh, and then Siem Reap. We booked the Kim Seng Express through our hostel for $16USD, and it was a 3 hour ride to Phnom Penh, a 2h 45m break, and a 5.5 hour ride to Siem Reap, arriving finally at 7pm, where we took a quick tuk tuk ride to Hi Siem Reap Deluxe Hostel where we would be staying for the next 4 nights for $7USD/night including breakfast.

Arrival in Siem Reap

It was a long day, and we were exhausted and sweaty by the time we got to our room, so we stayed in for the night. I was honestly feeling pretty bummed about having left the guys in the morning. Of course, we knew it’d happen, and I was so grateful that we had as much time with them as we did, but the heartbreak of saying goodbye to people you’ve grown to love so much is definitely not something I’m great at. Of course I do it, I survive, and life goes on. Nothing lasts forever… but travelling with those two has resulted in some of my favourite memories of the trip. They make me laugh nonstop, and they bring out a side in me that is bolder and braver, and also more comfortable in who I am. I feel more myself. We’ve been together for the fun stuff, the crappy stuff and even the boring stuff, and I wouldn’t change any of it. They’re both just great people, and I really can’t say much else about it that I probably haven’t already. The point is that I love them, and I sincerely hope that this isn’t the last I’ll see of those two.

Otres Beach & Koh Rong Island

Days 61-65 in Southeast Asia (March 26-30, 2016)

Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville & Otres Beach

Saturday morning, the 4 of us (Maddie, Andrew, Nils and I) packed up our bags and got on a bus to Sihanoukville. We booked through our hostel with Sorya Bus since it was the cheapest option ($8USD), and it was scheduled to take 4 hours (arriving at 1pm)… But we’re in Cambodia, and booking a big bus means you’re not exactly ripping down the highway… so 6 and a half hours later at around 3:30pm, we arrived in Sihanoukville. We only wanted to spend one night in the area mainly because the last ferry leaves at 3pm to head to Koh Rong Island and since we knew the chances of us making it there in time were slim, we planned a night in Sihanoukville.

After talking to Callum the other night though, we changed our plans to head to Otres Beach, about 8km or so from Sihanoukville. We had heard that it was one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and Callum had just come from the area and said that Sihanoukville was very dirty and cheap and basically good for cheap partying and not much more, whereas Otres Beach was far less crazy, but still an awesome place to party if you wanted, and much more beautiful. We were sold.

When we arrived in Sihanoukville, we hopped on a tuk tuk and paid $1USD each to get to Otres Beach. The driver dropped us off in a spot close to a lot of hotels and restaurants, so we wandered around for a bit before choosing a place to stay. We knew we’d only be there for one night, so we really weren’t feeling too picky and mostly just wanted somewhere close to the beach where we could stay for a decent price. We finally settled on Relax Bungalows, where the 4 of us shared 1 large room with a fan for $12USD ($3USD each). The hotel was under construction and the staff weren’t exactly inviting, but the room was clean and had 2 big beds and a functioning bathroom so for one night we weren’t going to make a fuss.

As soon as we chose the room, we changed into our bathing suits and went straight to the beach. We hung out at a restaurant on the beach, swam out into the beautiful blue water, and walked along the soft white sanded beach while we watched the sunset. There aren’t many things quite like watching the sun set in a place you could’ve only dreamed about travelling, surrounded by people you love with all your heart. This is paradise.

Otres Saturday Night Market

After the sunset, we went back to the room to shower off and change, and we took a tuk tuk to Otres Saturday Night Market, which is basically a big bar with a stage and live music, and a bunch of little food and handmade craft stands throughout the area. The music was amazing, and we sat and listened for a couple hours while enjoying some cheap beers and delicious treats from the food stalls. It had a very hippie-esque feel to it, which sometimes feels a bit overdone and more like a costume party than a travelling experience, but it was still really cool.

Throughout the night there were a few power outages, which are really common here, but it just added to the fun hippie vibe when everyone cheered and the live music continued with nothing but drums and singing. At  the end of the night Andrew decided to hang out with some new friends by the beach, and the rest of us went back to our steaming hot room with a fan.

Sihanoukville to Koh Rong Island

The following morning we were woken up by construction on the bungalow property… and a tree falling on the roof of our room. Good morning to you too, Cambodia. After finding Andrew right about where we left him on the beach, we had some breakfast and went swimming again, naturally.

At 2pm, we were picked up by a tuk tuk outside of our bungalow to take us to the pier in Sihanoukville. We had purchased boat tickets to Koh Rong Island from a stand by our bungalow that cost us $20USD each for a round trip ticket (that expires in 30 days and otherwise is completely open) and it included the tuk tuk ride to get us to Sihanoukville pier.

The speed ferry left at around 3pm and took just about an hour to get us to the island. In the meantime, Andrew and I decided to climb up to the upper level of the boat, where the captain and a small group of passengers were sitting. As we looked out on the water and took photos, trying to find a spot for a good view among the people leaning over the railing, the captain waved me over and told me to climb down to the first level, and climb around the side to sit on the front of the boat, right over the water with nothing but a railing, away from all the other passengers. We joined two crew members and another passenger and sat with our legs hanging over the front of the boat, getting our feet wet as the boat cut through giant swells and waves like it was nothing. I could’ve stayed on that boat and watched that view all day long.

Welcome to Koh Rong!

When we arrived at Port Koh Rong, we all piled off the boat onto the narrow dock, as the bags of every passenger were thrown beside us into one big heap… it was chaos, but eventually the 4 of us found our bags and squeezed our way through the crowd and to the end of the dock, where a guy named Niels who works at Skybar (a bar/restaurant/hotel by the pier) met us and gave us a quick safety briefing for the island. He told us that there was no hospital, but that if we had any emergencies to head to Coco’s, another bar/restaurant/hostel that had a small medical stand.

He told us that if we were bitten by snakes at all, to make sure we got a good look at it so we could describe it to the medics, and to watch out for sand flies, and buy coconut oil to prevent bites if we were going to spend a lot of time on the beach. He also talked to us a bit about food poisoning, something that just about every traveller experiences on Koh Rong Island, and that I was planning on avoiding at all costs after my incident in Laos.

He said that it could be the water, the meat, the veggies being washed in the water, basically anything… especially since power outages here are a regular occurrence. While a lot of restaurants have ice boxes to put meats etc. into so that they don’t go bad during power outs, it is equally common that they’d just sit in a fridge that slowly warmed up, causing some of the food to go bad, and it doesn’t always get thrown out here. He recommended that we eat from the more Westernized sit down places if we wanted to be safe only because they’re more likely to stay on top of proper food care.

My plan was to eat vegetarian for the next 4 days, and avoid any and all meats that might not have been kept properly. I also tried to only eat things that were cooked (even veggies, so that any bacteria from the water would be killed before I ate it) and I brushed my teeth with bottled water and kept my mouth shut in the shower… There’s no guarantees, and even I ended up with stomach cramps and not-so-pleasant bathroom trips after leaving the island that I’m fairly sure were from swallowing about a litre of water from the ocean on one of the days (huge wave got me), but it very well may have been food poisoning…it’s just everywhere.

Neils walked us to Skybar, where we checked out the rooms but weren’t overly impressed. We did, however, love the view from the top, and promised him that we’d be back for drinks later that night. We grabbed our bags and continued along the beach in the blazing heat looking for a place to stay. I had heard great reviews on Monkey Island, so we settled on a bungalow with 3 beds, a bathroom and two wall fans for the 4 of us. The total cost was $30USD/night, so $7.50USD per person. It was right on the beach, close enough to the pier but far enough to be a bit away from the busy area, and also very close to 4k beach which was even less busy (and where we ended up swimming most of the time, since the beach near our bungalow and by the pier was sadly very polluted with garbage.

Late Night Swim At The Pier

After unpacking our things and having some dinner, the 4 of us walked down to the pier after dark for a late night swim. We jumped in and swam around a bit, but Maddie and I were pretty freaked out every time a bit of seaweed touched us, and we climbed onto the pier screaming and squirming after freaking ourselves out. In the rush of getting out, I banged up my knee and shin a bit, adding to my injury list.

When we finished swimming, we walked along the beach and sat in the sand for a while before going back to the room where we rinsed off and headed out to skybar for some pool and drinks. On our walk, we noticed what looked like a fire on the other side of the island, bright red glowing and smoke, but we thought it was some kind of jungle party on the top of the hill… it wasn’t until later that night that we found out it actually WAS a fire, and that tons of locals and visitors were carrying buckets of water up the hill to help put it out. Had we known we probably would have joined their efforts. Luckily, the fire was extinguished eventually and as far as we know everyone was okay.

Happy Easter From Koh Rong Island

The next morning, I was up at around 6 so that I could skype my family back home at 7am (8pm for them) during their Easter family get together. I was so sad that I was missing it, and would have loved to be home for Easter, but at the same time it felt really awesome to skype them and see their faces, knowing that they were my family and would always be there for me, even when I’m on the other side of the globe. It was made even more special by Alex, who decided to take my mom up on her invite to join them. He baked two pies and drove about 2 hours to go to my house and join my family for dinner. It was so sweet, and if I didn’t miss home before skyping everyone, I sure did after.

Sand Flies…

After my skype session from the restaurant of my bungalow overlooking the beach (the only place I have wifi here), I noticed how bad the “mosquito bites” on my legs were from the night before… and realized pretty quickly that there were far too many bites for them to be from mosquitoes. I asked the bartender here, and he told me that it was probably sandflies, and to head to the pharmacy to get some cream for the itching, but not to worry because they’re not really dangerous, just annoying and itchy. Maddie unfortunately had them even worse than me, and somehow the boys seemed to avoid getting bitten altogether (we theorized that their leg hair had protected them somehow).

4k Beach

Before heading to the pharmacy though, Maddie went back to bed for a bit (after also skyping her family for easter), and Andrew and I decided to go for a walk to 4k beach. We walked for probably close to 45 minutes to get to the far end of the beach, which was beautifully quiet and clean. The wind was so strong that morning and the waves were huge. We even saw several small boats that had been anchored near the shore and had sunk overnight. We swam in the waves and at one point I even lost my balance and got spun around in the undertow, swallowing several gulps of saltwater. I was amazed at the strength of the waves, but luckily I’m a strong swimmer and was able to enjoy the swim without being too worried.

Police Beach & Lunch

After walking back to our bungalow, we met up with Maddie and Nils and went for a walk past the pier and over to Police Beach, where we saw a small Cambodian man trying to pull his boat off of the beach and out onto the water. The first thought that came to mind was “Andrew is definitely about to go try to help him”, and sure enough before I could even finish my thought, without even saying a word, Andrew was headed over to the boat, followed by Nils, to help get the boat on the water. Not long after, 4 other guys from the beach joined in.

Eventually, the group was able to haul the boat out onto the water, and push it through the waves until the man could climb on board and start paddling. It was crazy to us that he had been trying to do it alone, and even crazier as we watched him wrestle through the waves, paddling like crazy for the next half hour that we were there, and seeming to get nowhere farther onto the water, but slightly farther down the beach. It was impressive and painful to watch him work so hard. After our walk along Police Beach, we headed to the pier for lunch, where we shared some veggie pizza.

While we sat, a little girl climbed up across the chairs and onto my back without me even noticing until I felt her tap me on the shoulder. I turned around surprised and said “Oh Hello!”, to which she smiled, climbed on my lap, and handed me a hair pin. I saw that it must have fallen out of her hair by her face, and fixed it as she played with my phone, and took some pictures with my GoPro. She was adorable, and when she asked me for some ice cream I naturally caved and went with her to find some. She insisted that I carry her, and pointed out of the restaurant across the sand to a store.

I carried her out and over to the stand, where she picked out a frozen milk carton of all things, and asked for one for her sister to. I happily grabbed the two frozen milks, and brought her back to the restaurant. I’m sure her mother was somewhere around, she wasn’t homeless or anything, and anywhere else in the world it would have been seen as a crime to do what I just did, but seeing her face light up holding the frozen milk sure didn’t feel like a crime, and she ran off excitedly to her sister when we got back to the restaurant. It was a dollar well spent.

Sand Flies & Food Poisoning

After lunch, the 4 of us went back out into the water and swam for quite a while in the waves, watching the sun set over the hill from the water. This place is paradise, and I don’t think I could ever get sick of these sunsets.

Because of the fact that Maddie blamed Nils for making her stay outside and talk late the night before (when we got sandflies), she decided that the only fair thing to do was to make him shave his legs and sit in the sand tonight… Nils being the incredibly good sport that he is, took her up on it and shaved his legs all the way to the top. We laughed as Maddie sent him to sit in the sand, knowing that there was no way she’d actually leave him there. She’s not THAT cruel, and after a few minutes in the sand she brought him back in and we proceeded to make fun of him for his beautiful shaved legs.

We grabbed a late dinner at Coco’s, and some drinks back at Skybar, before walking along the beach (only for a little while this time, fearing the sandflies would attack us again).

That night was rough for all of us… Andrew got hit by food poisoning, and spent most of the early hours of the morning running to the bathroom and puking… while Maddie and I were up scratching our sand fly bites furiously (literally, to the point of drawing blood), and applying cream under flashlight to try to make it stop. Nils was complaining about razor burn… but we had a hard time feeling too bad for him about that one.

Back To 4K Beach & Finding Steph and Sean AGAIN

In the morning, we left Andrew with some medicine and a bucket by his bed, and headed to 4k beach where Nils, Maddie and I watched as huge waves once again crashed out in the water. As we walked along the beach, I head he familiar sound of Steph’s voice, shouting “KRISTAAA!” and I went running up to her and Sean, ecstatic to see them again. I had no doubt that I would, and we had made a promise back in Da Lat to make it happen, but of course when you’re travelling (especially in areas with terrible WiFi like Koh Rong), it is easier said than done… regardless, I had a feeling I’d run into them again. Sometimes you just know these things, the way you know about a good melon.

They walked farther down the beach with us to an area with more chairs, where we all hung out in the sun and went swimming. Steph and Sean had brought materials for making bracelets/necklaces, cause they’re cute like that, and they made Maddie and I a couple of new bracelets to add to our collection while we sat on the beach. We hung out by the water for hours before deciding to head back for dinner.

The Koh Rong Pub Crawl

After checking on Andrew, who had managed to survive the day and was starting to feel a bit better, we grabbed some dinner at the Bungalow restaurant, and heard that the Koh Rong Island Pub Crawl would be starting here at 8:30 tonight. It cost $8USD to join, and came with drinks at all 4 of the bars along the way as well as a tank top. Plus, a portion of the proceeds go to the local school on the Island, so I mean, how could I say no? Maddie and I paid, while the others just decided to join the party without the shirts or free drinks. Andrew stayed in, but Nils, Steph and Sean all joined us as we had more than our fair share of free drinks at the bars, and played drinking games with some new friends we made along the way. At the end of the night, we said our goodbyes to Steph and Sean and headed back to the bungalow.

Hiking Across the Island to Long Beach

The following morning, we decided to brave he heat and head up the hill to the other side of the island to visit the famous Long Beach, which is supposed to be very quiet, and very beautiful. The only catch is that it’s about an hour hike through the jungle, and not exactly a perfect walking trail. We stocked up on water bottles, and headed up the hill (which starts at Skybar). It wouldn’t have been SO treacherous of a walk were it not for the heat, but within about 20 minutes Maddie was dizzy and nearly fainted and we had to stop for a bit.

I was dripping more sweat than ever in my life, and felt like I might faint as well at a few points, but we kept on drinking water, and eventually made it down the other side to the beach. Oddly enough, our first view of the “beach” was a dock area under construction… followed by a bunch of other newly started buildings being built along the water. Aside from the construction though, the beach was BEAUTIFUL, and once we walked a bit farther down, we were in a secluded beautiful strip of paradise.

The beach stretched on for miles and had the whitest sand and clearest blue water I’ve ever seen in my life. We swam, laid on the beach, read a bit, and finally headed back so that we’d be done the hike before dark.

Maddie and I both started getting stomach cramps at the beginning of the walk back, and by the time we climbed to the top of the hill I was nearly vomiting, and absolutely dripping sweat. We chugged water, pushed through, and eventually made it back to the room. I couldn’t even eat my dinner because my stomach was so upset, and we were all so exhausted that we ended up calling it a night very early. I knew we’d be leaving tomorrow, and took comfort in the fact that if I WAS getting really sick, we’d be back on mainland soon, but it was hard to sleep much without having flashbacks of my food poisoning incident in Laos that nearly killed me. The only thing that I took comfort in was knowing that I had Maddie, Nils and Andrew to take care of me, and I knew that no matter what Cambodia had in store for me, I’d be alright as long as I had them by my side.

Phnom Penh: The City By Foot, Crazy Heat, S-21 & The Killing Fields

Days 58-60 in Southeast Asia (March 23-25, 2016)

Please Remove Your Card…

So I forgot to mention in my last post, but on our way to our hostel here in Phnom Penh we stopped at an ATM to take out some money (which by the way is all USD in Cambodia, and KHR (Riel) is only given for change under a dollar mostly). In the fluster of moving to a new place combined with the heat of the day, I grabbed my money and my receipt… and left my bank card in the machine. After I realized that I didn’t have my card (about an hour or so later, at the hostel) I paid for a tuk tuk to take me back to that ATM, which luckily I had the receipt for.

One of the Cambodian workers at the hostel told the driver the address on the receipt, and I went back. Once I was there I went to the bank behind the ATM, but they were a different branch, and not in charge of that ATM… so they told me to go to the Canadia Bank Tower around the corner, the actual Bank building in the city. I got back in the tuk tuk and told him where we needed to go. Once I got there, I told 6 or 7 different workers my problem, but none of them really understood me fully, other than one lady who nodded and pointed me over to another lady sitting at a row of desks.

I sat down and told her what happened and asked if there was ANY chance of me getting my card back from them. She told me that if the machine had my card, that the bank would take it out at the end of the day and bring it back to this tower, so I was to come back the following morning at 10am with my passport, plus the card information and my receipt to see if it was here and hopefully pick it up. I was cautiously optimistic, though I wasn’t TOO upset about the situation either way, because I do have another debit card and credit card as back ups, but they are for completely different bank accounts that charge me an arm and a leg to withdraw cash ($5 each withdrawal, plus 2.5% foreign transaction fee, and then of course whatever the ATM fee is at that particular machine). The card that I lost I ONLY have to pay the ATM fee at that machine, and it has likely already saved me at least $150-$200 this trip, so it would be really nice if I got it back and could continue to save that money.

After getting my mom to e-mail me the photocopied image of the front and back of my card (which I did before left because yes, I’m crazy organized thankyouverymuch), the rest of the group joined me and I brought the photo on my phone, the receipt from the debit machine and my passport to the bank in the hopes of getting my card back. Sure enough, against all odds, in the middle of Cambodia when I had basically just accepted that I messed up… I got my card back. I was so impressed and I thanked the lady at the counter so much that she probably thought I was insane.

Exploring Phnom Penh By Foot

After my mess was sorted out, Callum, Andrew, Nils, Maddie and myself headed out into the city to check out some sights and walk around despite the blazing heat that makes you want to lay naked under a fan and rub ice cream on your face… Our first stop was Wat Ounalom, a temple that I read was worth checking out, but it wasn’t all that exciting and after a quick peek around the area we left and headed over to the National Museum of Cambodia, a beautiful red building that almost looked like a temple from the outside. It was $5USD to get in, but definitely worth it to see some statues and relics from Angkor Wat, and learn a little bit about the history of Cambodia.

After spending some time at the museum, we walked to the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, even though we were told by about 50 tuk tuk drivers that it was closed. In fact it was not closed, but the drivers here are so hungry for business that you can’t walk anywhere without being offered a tuk tuk, or without them trying to con you into changing your plans for the day so that they can drive you somewhere else, and it’s usually somewhere that would be farther and more expensive to take you.

Unfortunately, even though the Royal Palace was open, we weren’t allowed in because all of us were in tank tops, and Maddie and I were in shorts, so we decided we’d come back the next day with some longer clothes to throw over ours when we got there (usually there are shawls/skirts for rental at these types of places, but there was nothing around here at all so we didn’t have much choice other than to leave).

We then walked along the Tonle Sap River (part of the Mekong I believe), and grabbed some ice cream along the way. When we got to Wat Phnom, a temple on top of a mound in the centre of the largest roundabout in the city, we quickly realized that once again we were improperly dressed, and I was kicking myself a bit for not having thought of that sooner. Still, it was a great day and we got a ton of exercise, and when we got back to the hostel we got to appreciate the pool more than I’ve ever appreciated a pool in my entire life.

That night, the group of us met up with Marie again at her hostel (11 Happy Backpackers Hostel), and had some drinks before heading out to Love Bar, and another club/bar afterwards nearby. We danced and drank and made complete fools of ourselves at the bar and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Wat Phnom & The Royal Palace

After a late start the following morning, we grabbed appropriate clothing and threw it in a bag, and Maddie, Nils and I headed back out to the places we couldn’t get into the previous day (Andrew and Callum hung back at the hostel). We saw Wat Phnom ($1USD entry) at the top of the roundabout which was actually incredibly big, and takes probably close to 10 minutes to walk around from the outside.

We then checked out the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda ($6.50USD), which was very reminiscent of the Grand Palace in Bangkok in terms of layout and property size, but slightly less bedazzled, and explored the area for as long as we could bare in the heat (and in our extra layers of clothing that we were now wearing so that we’d be dressed appropriately).

Enjoying a Night at Eighty8 Backpackers Hostel

When we got back to the hostel we swam in the pool, and afterwards I decided to sit in the lounge area for the evening while the others headed out for dinner, partly because I was feeling so tired and a bit sick, and also so that I could get some blogging done. As I sat and blogged, the owner of the hostel, Antony, joined me and bought me a beer as we talked about Cambodia, Canada and travels which was nice.

I sat for the next few hours alone and enjoyed the down time, got some blogging done, and then sat by as the others played some pool once they got back from dinner, and we all headed to bed fairly early, preparing ourselves for the next day, when we would be visiting S-21 and The Killing Fields.

S-21 & The Killing Fields

In the morning, we grabbed a tuk tuk for $20USD for the whole day, for the 4 of us to go to both S-21, and the Killing Fields. We decided to go to S-21 first, since we heard it took much longer than the Killing Fields to walk through. Entry was $3USD, plus an additional $3USD for the audio guide, which I’d highly recommend for anyone who wants to actually understand what happened rather than walking through and getting the VERY general idea without the audio guide. They are available in just about any language and definitely worthwhile.

For those of you who don’t know about Cambodia’s dark (and very recent) history, here’s my (very brief) summary of what happened:

In the late 1970s, the Democratic Kampuchea Regime (known today as Cambodia) was headed by a leader named Pol Pot, who decided to radically “cleanse” Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge (military at the time) forced people out of their homes and emptied the cities. They destroyed banks, schools and hospitals and forced each individual into hard labour, and then systematically began killing the populous through various means of torture and at several death camps. In the 4 years that the Khmer Rouge were in power, over 3,000,000 Cambodians were killed, over a quarter of the country’s population at the time.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21) was the secret centre of a network of nearly 200 prisons where people were tortured by the Khmer Rouge, and of the 12-20 thousand people imprisoned at this particular site, there are only 12 confirmed survivors. Many of the prisoners here were taken to the killing fields at Choeung Ek (one of over 300 killing fields in Cambodia at that time), where they were executed and buried in mass graves. Today, both sites are open to the public as museums and memorials, so that the tragedy will not be forgotten, and history will not repeat itself.

At S-21, there are several main buildings with different photos, torture rooms, cells and exhibitions. I suggest that if you go to give yourself enough time to really go through and read as much as you can. We took over 3 hours to get through it all, and did so separately as it is not really an experience you tend to do as a group for fun. Remember, this is not just a museum, it is a memorial. I won’t even begin to talk about the different exhibitions and some of the other things that went on during the time that the Khmer Rouge was in power, because there is just so much information I’d hardly be scratching the surface. There are, however, several books written about what happened here, including the famous “First They Killed my Father”, which I have yet to read but have heard is an incredible and horrifying true account of one woman’s story.

After we finished at the museum, we headed to the Choueng Ek Killing Fields (about 40 minutes away by tuk tuk, which also cost $3USD entry plus $3USD for the audio guide), where we continued our learning experience, and saw the mass graves which today are surrounded by beautiful orchards. It is impossible to imagine what happened here and just how many people were killed until you visit the Memorial Stupa at the end, where thousands of skulls that were recovered at this site alone, have been preserved and examined, and stacked in glass casings several layers high… It really put things into perspective.

Also within the grave site is a tree known as the Killing Tree, where babies of prisoners were smashed and thrown into the grave beside the tree, next to their mothers who were also beaten to death. The tree and grave fenceposts are now beautifully covered in small bracelets from travellers who have visited the site and left a small piece of themselves as a way to offer their condolences. I left my bracelet from Sa Pa, and watched as others did the same. Thousands of bracelets covered the posts and the tree, and while the bracelets are those of visitors, not victims, it somehow still makes you realize just how many people a thousand is… and looking at several thousand bracelets while knowing 3 MILLION people were killed during this time throughout Cambodia gave me a sick feeling that I still can’t shake.

Family Dinner

About an hour and a half later, we finished our tour of the Killing Fields and headed back to the hostel where we relaxed and recovered for a bit before heading out for dinner. We met up with Callum and went to a Japanese-inspired restaraunt for some hot pot. We paid about $3USD each for more than enough food and a beer, and we laughed the whole time as we asked the staff for help putting together our dish since we had no idea what to do. They all stood around and laughed at us struggling and we had the best time just eating dinner, which felt really nice after such an emotionally trying day.

I honestly love our group, and how Andrew, Nils, Maddie and myself can have the best time together hanging out all day and drinking and eating and doing activities and then at the same time we can all go to a museum and have a serious and emotional day together without it feeling awkward or anything. We’re so close and I love that. Though Callum wasn’t with us all day (he had already gone to the sites the day before), he fit in with all of us really well and I wish we could’ve travelled with him longer, at the very least so that we could make fun of him for eating his toast with a fork and knife… A true English Gentleman.

After dinner we had a few beers at the hostel, said goodbye to Callum and packed our bags, ready to leave in the morning to Sihanoukville for some long awaited beach time.

I will never forget my experience today at S-21 and the Killing Fields, and honestly I am so happy that I did it because I feel that I now have a much better understanding of this country and what its people have been through… And the fact that it was less than 50 years ago and that some survivors or people who lived here during the time and escaped are still alive today is truly unfathomable. It really puts things into perspective and makes you realize just how lucky you are to have never had to worry about things like that where you’re from… I only pray that someday genocides like this will be a far distant memory for countries around world, never to be repeated.

Ho Chi Minh: The City, The Madness & The Cu Chi Tunnels

Days 54-57 in Southeast Asia (Mar 19-22, 2016)

Da Lat to Ho Chi Minh City

On Saturday morning our bus left for Ho Chi Minh City from Da Lat at 7:30am, and took about 7.5hrs (arriving at 3pm). It was becoming painfully clear within seconds of getting off of the bus that the farther South we headed, the hotter it was getting. It already felt hot in Da Lat, but this city was even hotter, and felt like absolute chaos with cars and motorbikes. The air pollution definitely added to the muggy sticky heat and the feeling that you needed a shower within 5 minutes of stepping outside. Maddie and I decided to take a taxi from the bus station to our hostel (which was only about a 15-20 minute walk, but saved us about 20L of combined sweat, and the taxis here are really cheap (as long as you insist they use the meter) so I think it was definitely worth it.

Ho Chi Minh City!

We arrived at The Hangout Hostel for our first night in Ho Chi Minh City (181,000VND/$10.55CAD for a dorm that was pretty nice and included breakfast), and settled in quickly before heading out for a walk around our area. We walked down the main street through the public park that was full of various sports and group activities, and we watched the locals do aerobic dance classes for a bit, partly debating joining in (we probably would have if it wasn’t so hot). We didn’t walk around long before we were stopped by a couple of younger Vietnamese gentlemen who asked us if we had some time to talk.

We weren’t really sure what they meant (and naturally assumed they wanted to sell us something) but we said okay anyways. They then proceeded to tell us that they were students at the university nearby and came to the park after school most days to practise their English, and just wanted to sit with us for a little while to enjoy a conversation. I sat with one of the guys and Maddie with the other, and we proceeded to talk to each other about where we were from, what we took in school, where I have travelled, work, home etc. Dit (I think was his name) spoke incredible English considering his age, and told me that he was in school to become a tour guide, taking English courses (for which he was practising) as well as studying Korean, which is pretty impressive as someone who can barely figure out how to pronounce “hello,” “thank you” and “very good” in Vietnamese after several weeks in the country.

I have a lot of respect for people who can speak more than one language, and I think its something I’d really like to pursue once I’m home. I may sign up for online courses if I can make the time for it, or at least buy an audio tape. We proceeded to talk about our lives at home, and he told me about how he had originally gone to a private fashion school for university, but that his parents didn’t like that he was there, and pulled him out of school after a few months fearing that he would “become a lady, or gay”, so he is now in school to become a tour guide. He told me that he sometimes felt that when he was around those people, he felt like a girl and sometimes that when he was around gay people he felt like he was “thinking thoughts like that too”.

The translation was a bit broken, and I didn’t want to ask too many personal questions, but I asked him a bit more about it and about openness towards gay people in Vietnam. He said that traditionally it is not very accepted, and that his parents as well as a lot of old people are not overly accepting and it is often kept secret, though in big cities like Hanoi and Saigon it is very common and open, and generally speaking very accepted. We talked a bit about how important it is to be able to be with people you love no matter where you are, and it was a really beautiful conversation even in broken English.

I loved that I had only met Dit about 25 minutes ago, and now we were sharing a moment of pure love and acceptance towards people’s sexual preferences. It reminded me of why I love travelling so much… moments like this where you connect with someone who at a glance has nothing in common with you and comes from an entirely different world, yet you are able to share feelings of love and acceptance in a way that is completely universal. The world is full of love and beautiful people who are no different in the end than myself, and I’ve never realized that more than when I share a moment like this with a complete stranger.

Ho Chi Minh Pub Crawl

After our walk in the park and grabbing a Banh My sandwich in the street, we went back to our hostel and bought some wristbands for 20,000VND ($1.50CAD) to join the pub crawl that night. We grabbed some beers and before we knew it we were playing a giant game of jenga (with rules written on each block) with a bunch of fellow backpackers. We drank, played cards and jenga, and eventually made our way to the Hideout Bar for some glow paint before we headed out for the pub crawl.

Maddie told me to grab a brush and paint her with the glow paint (everyone else was in line for the girl who worked at the hostel who was painting everyone), but I asked and she said it was fine if I wanted to use the paint too. Within a few minutes, I had a lineup of about 10 people waiting to get glow paint patterns on their arms and chests from me, and the girl who worked at the hostel was laughing and joking that she should just go home because I had a bigger lineup than she did. Over the next hour or so I painted probably about 15 people before finally retiring, after realizing I was getting more drunk (and sloppy with painting), and after people started asking me questions about the hostel and pub crawl, thinking I ACTUALLY worked there. It was pretty funny and I went with it for a bit, but after a while I just wanted to be part of the party again, so I escaped my painting chair.

Maddie and I spent most of the night hanging out with a new friend named Jamie, who was from Montreal, Quebec (A fellow backpacker from Canada!) We chatted and swapped stories about travelling, hospital trips, and life. The pub crawl was fun, though it was a bit dampened by being told every 30 seconds (especially by the guy in charge of the crawl) to watch your purse, as bag snatching and pick pocketing are so common here. We would realize over the next few days that it was common to be told every time we left the hostel, crossed the street, or pulled out our phone (literally anywhere) to look out for our belongings…

I tend to be a very trusting person, knowing that I myself wouldn’t ever steal someone else’s things, and it was hard for me to hear warnings and stories of knives/guns being pulled, and people being dragged by scooters who didn’t let go of (of were attached to) their bags when they got grabbed… It gave the city a feeling of mistrust for me, which was a feeling I’m not used to and I can’t say I particularly enjoyed. Luckily, neither Maddie nor myself had anything stolen in the city (probably because we were so careful), but I don’t think its a place I’d ever want to be long term unfortunately.

The Lunch Lady

The next morning, Maddie and I moved over to The Hideout Hostel (Hangout’s sister hostel, that was about 180,000VND/$10 night), and looked up a few places in the city on our map apps and got ourselves ready for a sweaty day of exploring by foot. As we were heading out, Jamie (the Montreal-er from the night before) invited us to join him for lunch at The Lunch Lady. I had JUST been talking to someone else about it and how I wanted to go, so we jumped on the opportunity to go with company, and the 3 of us hopped on Jamie’s scooter. Another girl from our hostel named Raluca also overheard us and joined in, meeting us there a few minutes after we arrived (she took an Uber).

The Lunch Lady is a lady who owns a soup stand in the city where every day she serves a different type of Vietnamese soup at about 60,000VND ($3.50CAD) each for soup, water and spring rolls. She has run the stand for years in the same spot, and has become such a talked about spot in the city that world famous chefs including Anthony Bourdain and Chef Gordon Ramsay have come personally to check it out. When we got there, we were seated in the typical tiny chairs and tables of Vietnam, and quickly were served our soup (it’s super fast since they only serve one kind per day).

The spring rolls had shrimp in them, and there were shrimp cakes as well to dip in the soup, so I can’t tell you how those tasted (I’m allergic), but the pork and noodle soup was DELICIOUS. I was not disappointed, and even though we were dripping sweat the whole time sitting in the heat eating soup, we loved every second of it. After our soup, Jamie headed off as he was motorbiking North that day, so we said our goodbyes and wished him luck.

Motorbike Helmets & The Jade Emperor Pagoda

Raluca, Maddie and I then walked to the Jade Emperor Pagoda and checked it out quickly, but of course got distracted on the street on our way there by a giant stand of motorbike helmets that were on sale for around 100,000VND ($6CAD). We joked about buying them, and about 20 minutes later of course the 3 of us walked away with new helmets that cost us between 120,000 and 150,000VND each ($7-$9CAD). Mine is white with a red stripe down the middle and a red star on each side, and Maddie got the same helmet but pink with white stripes and stars. We laughed at ourselves as we walked around for the rest of the day with motorbike helmets hanging off of our bags, but in all honesty if there was ever a souvenir that summed up what Vietnam was… it would be something to do with a motorbike.

Saigon Central Post Office & Notre Dame Cathedral

After our irrational and bulky purchase and checking out the temple, the 3 of us headed over to the Saigon Central Post Office, which might sound silly but is actually a highly rated tourist attraction in the city, as it was apparently designed by the same architect as the Eifel Tower in Paris. The post office was beautiful and had some of the best souvenir shops I’ve seen in all of Vietnam, full of paper cards (pop up cut outs, as well as rolled paper), and it was hard for me to limit myself to only grabbing a few.

Outside of the building, a few high school students pulled me aside and asked me to say “Xin Chao Vietnam!” (Hello Vietnam!) On video for a school project. I happily agreed, and asked them about themselves a bit. They took selfies with me and giggled as they shyly asked me about where I was from and how I liked Vietnam. I told them that it was one of my favourite places I’ve ever been, and I wasn’t lying.

Across the road from the post office was the Notre Dame Cathedral, an equally impressive building surrounded by crazy traffic and beautiful parks. We walked around the cathedral through the traffic, I took a photo of a newlywed couple, and we enjoyed the view from the park as the sun was finally setting and we could actually bare the heat more.

Chill Bar (Skybar Overlooking HCMC)

We headed back towards the hostel not long after, and Maddie went inside while Raluca and myself decided to grab a bite to eat. Afterwards, we met back up with Maddie and her friend Jess, who lives in Ho Chi Minh city as an English Teacher. She took us to Chill Bar, a famous sky bar nearby, with a live DJ and BEAUTIFUL view.

Apparently the bartender here won an award for being the best bartender in Asia a  year ago or something, though I can’t really tell you how the house mixed drinks were since I ordered a bottle of Budweiser which was the cheapest thing on the menu and cost me 160,000VND… that’s about $10CAD… almost as much as our accommodation that night.

Sky bars are notorious for having expensive drinks, since you have to buy one most of the time to stay there, but honestly if you only have one it’s not SO terrible. I just try to think of it as an admission fee for an incredible city view rather than the cost of one bottle of beer.

We went out to another bar with normal priced beers afterwards and had a couple more, but called it quits pretty early since Maddie and I had signed up for the Cu Chi Tunnel tour the following morning and didn’t particularly want to do it in this heat with a hangover.

Cu Chi Tunnel Tour!

At 8am, our guide picked us up to take us to the bus to Cu Chi. The total tour cost us each 135,000VND ($8), plus 110,000VND entry fee ($7), and included transportation, a 2 hour guided tour and a stop at the Vietnam Association Benefit For The Enabled Disability, a handmade crafts workshop and store that employs Vietnamese who have disabilities because of Agent Orange, the chemical gas used in the war which resulted in defects for those inhaling it, as well as future generations. They work with egg shell, mother of pearl inlay and stone to make beautiful handicraft boxes, murals and paintings that were as expensive as they were breathtaking, though I wasn’t surprised after we got a peek at the production process which can take weeks to make a single piece because of the hand cut intricate patters inlaid in the stone.

After visiting the shop and talking myself out of spending all of my money on heavy and breakable artwork that was not a smart backpacker buy but that I wanted SO badly… we hopped back on the bus and headed to the tunnels where our tour guide Poe gave us a quick lesson on the  history of the tunnels and the war (The bus was about 1.5hrs each way, so we had plenty of time to hear about it all). Here’s my spark notes version:

In 1948, the VC (Vietnamese Communists) built over 150km of tunnels underground originally to defend themselves against the French, after President Ho Chi Minh’s Declaration of Independence. The Gorillas (as they were called), used very little artillery, and primarily had to rely on face to face fighting and remaining hidden from their enemy in order to have an advantage. They chose Cu Chi for building the tunnels because the soil was soft clay, which was strong when it dried but softer to dig, plus it was located in the jungle which was uninhabited and provided good cover. The gorillas built secret entrances to the tunnels that lead to other tunnels, underground bunkers, and villages outside of the tunnels.

In 1954, the Geneva Treaty was signed and Vietnam was free from French occupation, though it separated into Northern Vietnam (the communist capital) and the Southern democratic republic with the support of the USA. The separation of North and South Vietnam at the time resembled the separation between North and South Korea today, and it was during this time that the American War started in Vietnam, because Ho Chi Minh wanted to unite Vietnam as one country. 16,000 gorillas went to Southern Vietnam at that time and expanded the tunnels to over 250km in total by 1974. The tunnels were used to fight the Americans, and Northern Vietnam won, which is why to this day Vietnam remains a communist country.

One of the interesting things about the tunnels is that the Americans were actually aware of the tunnel system and even knew where some entrances were, but there was very little likelihood of them entering the tunnels because they were both physically and mentally restrained. Physically, the tunnels were dark and narrow, small even for the gorillas, and mentally, a lot of people wouldn’t dare to go in because it was impossible to know if the tunnel was a trap, or if there were gorillas waiting inside, or maybe even reptiles living in the tunnels. This was why the Americans took advantage of the gorillas having trouble getting oxygen into the tunnels. The Americans used Agent Orange to clear vegetation in the area, a chemical gas that cleared out the forest and caused genetic mutations in the VC living inside the tunnels. It didn’t kill them, but it was a tactic that would poison the lives of each individual as they would continue to pass on genetic mutations to future generations for years to come.

Throughout the tour, we got a peek at some of the entrances to the tunnels, and got to see just how tiny they really were (small enough to barely get into, and to have to crawl belly down to get through). We also got to see some of the VC boobie traps that were used throughout the jungle during the time, and were given the opportunity to shoot real guns at the shooting range, though it was fairly expensive and Maddie didn’t want to do it, so it would have cost me double what I hoped to pay  (you have to buy at least 10 rounds, and you’re allowed to share them with someone).

Finally, we went through the tourist version of the tunnel that stretched 100m, and was probably about 3 times the width of the original tunnels. Even so, it was only tall enough to walk through with your back hunched over and knees bent, which was incredibly uncomfortable. After 100m of claustrophobia (and a couple of moments of downright panic when the people in front of me stopped moving, we reached the end of the tunnel absolutely drenched in sweat, with a new appreciation for everything we had just learned about.

After our tour, we hopped back on the bus and headed back to the city. The tour was great and I’d highly recommend it to anyone visiting the area, especially if you’re interested in history. Even if you’re not, everything is explained in a very easy to understand way so you don’t need to know anything before getting there in order to appreciate the tour.

Solo Mission To Chinatown

Once we got back to the hostel, I hopped on a motorbike taxi to take me to Chinatown to see a couple of sites that I knew closed soon, and Maddie wasn’t interested in seeing. My first stop was Quan Am Pagoda, a small temple with a beautiful red and gold interior and conical incense spirals hanging from the ceiling in rows. Like most temples, it was great to see, but there’s not exactly a lot to do for visitors other than spend a few minutes appreciating the design, and then leave.

I walked a bit farther down the street and around the corner to Thien Hau Temple, a temple that is located behind another building that you have to walk through first to get to it. I couldn’t see it from the street, so I walked back and forth for about 30 minutes saying “I KNOW it’s here!” Until finally I decided to show a security guard outside of a building the name of the pagoda, to which he nodded, smiled, and pointed to the small doorway behind him… I walked through the building entrance and down a hall and suddenly was in the middle of a giant temple, also with Chinese writing on the walls in gold and red, and incense burning all around. It was really quiet there, and I spent a few minutes just people watching from the side of the room and appreciating where I was.

Going To The Movies

After another motorbike taxi across town to get back to the hostel area, I went to the Art Museum and wandered around for about an hour near the building trying to find the entrance before realizing that it was closed… for absolutely no reason… so I walked back to the hostel slightly disappointed. I got changed quickly and headed back out with Maddie to the movie theatre. We had walked past it the day before with Raluca, and decided that the 3 of us would come back tonight to see “How To Be Single”, the only movie playing in English with Vietnamese subtitles.

The theatre was as big and fancy as any of the ones you’d find back home. We got some snacks, grabbed our seats and enjoyed a couple hours of down time. The movie was really funny and also really cute actually, but my favourite thing about the experience was just having a couple of hours doing something so simple and casual that I would have done back home. It felt good to sit back and just laugh at a movie the same way I would in my living room, but across the world. The movie cost us 75,000VND/$4.50 each, and Raluca met us halfway through (her tour went late), and we actually saw Jess there when we got in, so the 4 of us relaxed and enjoyed the film, and chatted for a bit afterwards before saying our goodbyes and heading off.

New Friends & Scary Stories

Maddie and I went back to our room, packed up our things so we’d be ready to leave in the morning to Cambodia, and chatted with a new friend Nick from England, who was in our room and catching a flight the next morning to head home. We swapped stories, and he told us about how a couple of nights before, he had a gun pulled on him on the same street we were walking on for the pub crawl. A Vietnamese guy had yelled at him from the side, and when he waved his arm out saying “no, no” to whatever he thought he was selling, the guy pulled nick in my the arm and shoved a gun into his ribs. Nick said he could tell that he was much bigger and stronger than the guy, and quickly managed to grab the gun, in the guy’s hand still, and point it at the ground between them, having control over the position.

He said that they had a moment, looking at each other as if to say “okay… let’s just not…” and he let go of the gun, and walked away. It was terrifying to hear of something that scary happening so close to where we were, and we were a little relieved to be leaving the next morning, feeling a bit uneasy about the city now. We continued chatting with Nick until late that night and I honestly wished he was staying longer with us because he was a lot of fun and always seemed to have an awesome story in his back pocket. We said our goodbyes, went to bed, and in the morning he was gone back to England.

Leaving For Phnom Penh, Cambodia

That same morning, Maddie and I were up and ready for 8am to catch our bus that would take us to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We booked the bus through the hostel for 275,000VND ($16.50), and it would take us the whole way across the border (some buses only take you TO the border, and then you switch to another), and they’d help us fill out our forms etc. so that we would move quickly. At 10:30, we reached the border, exited Vietnam, entered Cambodia at Moc Bai (and paid $30USD plus a $5 fee through the bus, taking us a total of about 30mins to get through), and then stopped for lunch about 10 minutes later before continuing on the road. The whole trip was about 6.5hrs, and we arrived in Phnom Penh at 2:30pm.

Welcome to Phnom Penh!

Incase you were curious about the weather here right now, it’s HOT… 35-40 Celsius and basically instant sweat the second you leave a bus or building… welcome to Cambodia. Throw on about 30lbs or so of backpacks, and you’ve got yourself a solid workout. As we grabbed our belongings from the bus, we were approached by tuk tuk drivers from every direction, eager to take advantage of travellers new to Cambodia who didn’t know yet how much a tuk tuk costs. What THEY didn’t know though was that Maddie and I had a map, and knew exactly where we were headed… it was about 1.5km away, but we were prepared to walk after getting told it’d be 40,000KHR ($13) to take us.

After laughing in their face and walking away joking that we’d give them 2 dollars… another tuk tuk driver chased us down and said “ok ok 12,000KHR.” Sold. It seems to be a common theme here, overpriced tuk tuks that you have to really be aggressive when haggling with. Even 12,000KHR was a bit much for the distance, but we were ok with it since it was so damn hot.

Eighty8 Backpackers Hostel & Meeting Back Up With Andrew & Nils!

We arrived at Eighty8 Backpackers Hostel, which cost $25.10USD/4 nights ($8.22CAD/night), and had a pool and a pretty good location. We settled in and relaxed for a few hours as we waited for Andrew and Nils to arrive, who were coming from Siem Reap (they’re the guys who we travelled with for a few weeks in Thailand/Laos, and who were with me during my food poisoning fiasco. When we realized we’d be in Cambodia at the same time as us we made sure to plan some time together).

When the boys arrived, we were ecstatic. It felt like it had been forever (it had been about a month), and when you make friends on the road there’s always that chance that you very well may not ever see them again… which only makes you appreciate it more when you do. We met up with another friend of theirs, Callum from England, and his friend Marie, and the 6 of us went out for dinner to a place in the city where the chef encourages you to try different things on the menu and has a “no questions asked return policy”… if you don’t like it, send it back and order something else at no extra cost. The meal sent back will get packed up and fed to the homeless.

I ordered squid and pepper, and Maddie ordered some mango fish soup. It wasn’t SUPER adventurous, but it was all new to us, and we were not disappointed with our choices. After dinner, we all headed back to our hostel and had some beers, played some games and shared some laughs. I am so happy that the group of us is back together again, and it felt like meeting up with friends we had known our whole lives. I can’t wait for the next few days here in Phnom Penh and to get our first real taste of this hot and beautiful country.