I was kind of sad to leave Laos behind. With great lakes, mountain ranges and rural farmlands, Laos’ landscape had really grabbed me in a way I hadn’t expected. I wanted to know if Cambodia would be the same or wholly different. Same same but different. As it turns out that phrase is pretty apt. Cambodia felt a little noisier, a little busier but still mostly chilled. It also had something I had been missing from Laos; beaches. But the beaches would come later; first stop, Siem Reap.
Day 108 – We arrived in Siem Reap and were immediatly confronted by the wonderful chaos of pub street, which reminded me a lot of Kohsan Road. We had dinner and enjoyed a traditional dance show while we ate. We also said goodbye to Pao, who had put up with us all the way from Bangkok, through Laos and would now say goodbye to us in Cambodia.
Day 109 – As all the guidebooks suggest, we roused ourselves at 4:30 am to go to the famous Angkor Wat. I had been looking forward to this for a while, expecting to be blown away by the magnificent size and structure of this temple. Caitlin, Rachel and I got up only to find ourselves locked into the hostel for the night. No matter, just as we were wondering what to do, a figure rose from the bar like Dracula out of his coffin. Luckily the night guard was much less terrifying though and when he found out our plans for the day he became our tuk tuk driver instead.
After collecting our tickets (and looking very shell shocked for the photo they take and print on them) we were dropped off at the most famous complex. Here we shuffled through the dark to a spot on the right where we could just see the vague outline of the temple. We settled down and waited for the sun to rise. Actually I think it looked best when the sky was just beginning to lighten but the moon was still hanging clearly above the rising roofs of Angkor Wat, the horizon no more than a dusky yellow glow. As the hour passed, the glow blossomed into subtle pink hues, slowly illuminating the stunning temple before us. Unfortunately it wasn’t as impressive a sunrise as we hoped for and certainly didn’t match the postcard pictures you see of bright oranges and pinks but it was pretty all the same and nice to arrive in the dark and have Angkor Wat revealed to us.
Once the sun was up we began to explore. I think the main impressive thing about Angkor is the sheer size of it. Hallways stretch out endlessly and it is easy to get turned around in the open courtyards that all look the same. Monks knelt near these, offering blessings for a price. The carvings were what captured my imagination the most though. Even diminished and eroded as they were you could see the detail in them and I could look around and almost see the temple as it once was, covered in these intricate carvings. They brought it to life.
This main temple is just one of many though and we set off on the short circuit to see more temples. And more temples. And even more temples. I enjoyed the Temple of a Thousand Faces (it made me think of sets from an Indiana Jones movie even though it was actually a Tah Promh that The Temple of Doom was filled at, but this one still looked fitting) where the walls were covered in stone faces. Looking down on it all were even more stone faces, looking across at each other on the towers they are carved into. I wonder if they whisper to each other at night. My favourite temple had to be Ta Promh though. This one has been left almost exactly in the condition it was discovered in; rather than restore it, it was decided they would instead pause time, showing what the effects of the jungle had on these temples. Here trees sit on top of the walls, their roots sneaking between the crevices and pushing apart the stone as it grows. It is strange that such a destructive thing can have such beauty. As I wandered along the narrow walkways past crumbling stone and collapsed walkways the only downside to this temple was the crowds. Everyone wanted their photo with the most famous spot and in the muddle of tourists I got separated from everyone. Eventually I found the family (who we had already bumped into a couple of times over the course of the day) and we went to the exit together only for me to find a very tired and fed up Rachel and Caitlin in the tuk tuk. By then I was beginning to sympathise with them and despite having two more minor temples left I said, “Let’s slack them off and just go home”. Caitlin couldn’t tell the tuk tuk driver fast enough.
That evening a friend arrived at the same hostel as me and I got the really cool experience of meeting up with someone I only knew from travelling. It felt like a year ago that I had seen Kate (although technically it was last year!) and yet as we chatted non-stop over Mexican food it suddenly felt like I had only said goodbye yesterday. We even skyped Cat and Olivia from the trip as well who, as luck would have it, had also managed to meet up since Cat’s next travel stop was in Olivia’s hometown of Perth. It was only a short stop though as we were both passing by in opposite directions but still so good to see her again and speak to Cat and Olivia too.
Day 110 – Goodbye Siem Reap and hello Battambang. This is where we would stay the night at our second homestay of the trip. First though we had some fun stop offs. Firstly we were told about a local snack sold off the side of the road in this one spot. Rats. Yes that’s right, huge, marinated, barbecued, rats. Most of the guys tried it and said it tasted fine (like chicken) but something in me just said no and as much as I wanted to be daring and try something new, I couldn’t do it.
Our next stop was a little bit easier to stomach. We got to ride on a bamboo train! Now if like me you are picturing a kind of thomas the tank engine made of long bamboo poles you will be slightly disapointed. Bamboo trains are actually flat carts on wheels that used to be pushed along the tracks with a bamboo pole but is now whizzed along by a motor. We flew down those tracks much faster than I would have expected! There are also certain rules, such as if two trains meet then the one with the most people on has right of way. Same applies if there are more trains coming in one direction than the other. When this happens the one giving right of way has to dismantle their train until the other one has passed. Luckily our big Stray group always had right of way!
After an afternoon of adventures we arrived at Battambang and got to visit the local school. We brought presents for the kids, including balloons, and this soon turned into pandemonium! Luckily we got to burn off some energy playing football afterwards. This had its own problems though. We were now a crowd of sweaty smelly people and I was betting the homestay didn’t have more than one shower. Turns out they have a better solution. We simply donned some sarongs to cover our modesty and showered together at the huge pots of water standing outside, chucking water over each other’s heads like some massive water fight! Clean and refreshed we got to learn how to make spring rolls and then ate our creations as a side to the delicious home cooked curry – probably one of the best meals I had in Cambodia.
Day 111 – We said goodbye to our host family and began the long journey to Sihonoukeville. As if a straight twelve hour bus ride wasn’t bad enough we arrived to find out every room in every hostel was booked up. We had been assured that although the hostel we wanted to stay at didn’t take bookings we would be find to go on arrival, what our guide overlooked though was that we were arriving on Chinese New Year. After trying everything to find us a place our guide ended up giving up his twin room that four of us girls squeezed into. Cosy! With such a stressful day some much needed drinks were in order so we headed to the beach to do some drinking, dancing and even sending some lanterns floating off into the night sky. Once we had come back and collapsed into our shared beds though, there was a loud knocking on the door. I stumbled out of bed and found one of the guys on our trip standing outside, “My roommates fallen asleep and locked me out and I’ve managed to wake up the whole floor except him, do you have a chair or something I can sleep on?” Five minutes later he was snoring on some sofa cushions on our floor making our cosy twin room for two now a twin room for five.
Day 112 – Still feeling a little fragile from the night before, we eventually made it back to the beach, this time a different one and with less drinking, more sleeping on the sand. We slept off the rest of our hangover and just as we were getting ready to make a move we ran into the Family. They were heading down the beach to wher there was an inflatable obstacle course. Enough said. I was in the water and sliding all over the place in no time. Now that is a real cure for a hangover!
Day 113 – A sad day. For the first time on this trip I had decided to hop off the Stray bus for some much needed beach and recuperation time. The only problem was, my new Stray family would be continuing on without me. It was strange to be on my own again after travelling with people for so long but I didn’t have too long to think about it as I had a ferry to catch. Another reason for staying was so I would get the chance to explore Koh Rong island. The boat ride over was hot and sweaty and crowded but when I stepped off the boat and onto a little pier that led to white sands and clear blue waters, I knew I was in paradise.
I had opted to stay on the less touristy side of the island near Coconut Beach at a place called Inn the Village, a hostel situated in the middle of a traditional Khmer village. Sarah and her husband started it to offer a place to stay for the volunteers that come to build artificial reefs and projects that help the local community but is open to backpackers who also want to support the villagers. So me and my massive backpack were loaded onto a moto (botorbike) and taken on the most terrifying ride of my life up the most uneven winding dirt path you’ve ever seen but arrived safely five minutes down the road at Inn the Village. Sarah gave me a warm welcome and told me all about the place and what there was to do nearby. Once I had settled in (and checked out the bucket shower situation) I headed straight back to Coconut beach to while away what was left of the afternoon with a good book and a sunset massage.
Day 114 – Having only one full day on the island I decided to do some exploring and head over to the tourist side. There were two routes but the more scenic one sounded like I was likely to get lost and would take longer so I opted to go by road. Go straight until the t-junction then go right, then when you see five huge cement rings go left and from there just go straight, Sarah told me. Seemed full proof even for a notoriously directionally challenged person as me. I underestimated myself…
I managed the first part just fine but by the time I had been going straight for about an hour I started to wonder why I hadn’t hit the town yet. It was supposed to be around 1 hour and a half walk total and I had been going about that long. Suddenly the road became more sandy and I was convinced I was heading towards the main beach. Only the path continued on and away from where I could see a beach down below. After back and frothing or about half an hour, trying to decide whether it was safer to stick to directions and carry on straight or try one of the tiny pathways that might lead to the beach I could see below, I opted for the second. Big mistake. But I was out of water and the sun was searing hot so I decided I had to try. I followed a little track through the forest and came out near a little house all on its own. I asked the residents, who spoke no English, which way to the beach and they waved me off in a vague direction. The ground had been cleared here so there was no path and I couldnt find an easy way down, all I could see was an impassible lake/river and the beach tantalisingly just out of reach on the other side. Feeling close to tears by this point I trudged back to the house and held my hands up to the residents. “I can’t find the way!” I cried in despair. I’m pretty sure they both thought I was crazy. This white girl with her heavy backpack appearing out of the jungle and on the verge of having a meltdown because she couldnt follow directions. They humoured me though and husband and wife walked back down to the water with me, gestured for me to get into a rickety little boat and the husband paddled me across. I couldn’t have been more grateful!
Reaching the sand on the other side though hit new problems. First thing I did was ask where I was. Another tourist (who had possibly seen me being carted over in the boat by a local) looked at me like I was mad and told me I was on 4K beach. I was wrong, I was still far from the main pier. I revived myself with food and drink then set about asking how to get where I wanted to be. Apparently I was only twenty minutes away but “your on the best beach on the island” one of the bar workers addded. So before I set off again I decided to make the most of this postcard perfect beach and relax a bit. I’m glad I did since by the time I actually found the touristy side of the island I realised it wasn’t worth getting to at all. The beach was no where near as pretty, it was overcrowded and there was nothing really unique about it. I was still glad I could say I had seen more of Koh Rong, but was it worth a two hour trek? No way. I was so glad I had made the most of 4K beach now.
My next problem though, was how to get back. I was exhausted and didn’t think I could make it back so far, let alone the act that it would be dark in a couple of hours. I asked around but boats to the remote side of the island cost around $20. One guy told me to come back and if there were more people going that way it would be cheaper. So I grabbed some food and waited but managed to just miss the rush off the boat from the mainland and therefore the people wanting to get to other parts of the island. As if my luck couldn’t get any worse I had apparenty just missed two guys wanting to go exactly the same way who had waited or fifteen minutes for someone to come along and share the boat with them. I was past caring by that point though. I paid the money and sailed back to Inn the Village.
The day did have one other perk though. One of the main reasons I had wanted to go to Koh Rong was to see the phosphorescent plankton that live there and this was one thing that did live up to expectations. I had to wait until it was really dark (the darker it is the easier to see them glowing) and then I went down to the pier and jumped in the water. As I swirled my hands throug the water they begin to spark and zip with little lights. Movements stirs them up and sets them glowing and the more I moved the more I created a snow storm of glowing specks around me. I floated on my back and looked up at the stars, then turned over and through my mask watched the galaxy below water too. It was even more beautiful than I imagined it being. Unfortunatly, also impossible to take pictures of.
I could have let getting lost really get me down, and for a moment it did, but it also made for a funny and memorable day, something that often happens while travelling. What can be the most miserable time in the moment makes for a great story afterwards. It can remind us not to take ourselves too seriously sometimes. Koh Rong hadn’t exactly been as relaxing as I had hoped but overall I still loved it. Even though there was much more of the country to see it was already my favourite place in Cambodia.