There are times when travelling solo that you relish time alone, times when you have spent days or weeks in others company and long for the freedom to do what you want when you want. And yet there are equally times when the complete opposite is true. After a break from the non-stop, fast paced bus travel of the last few weeks I was looking forward to some downtime but as my stay on Koh Rong drew to a close I found myself looking forward to hopping back on the Stray bus. I was ready to move on, to see what more Cambodia had to offer.
Day 115 – For my last day on Koh Rong I decided to explore the Khmer village I had been staying in at my Inn The Village hostel. The hostel was set up as a place to stay for volunteers helping out in the village and building articulate reefs in the local waters. I meandered through the streets, that were little more than dirt paths, that led from one house to another, small shops or food stalls set up inside their homes. Rural Cambodian houses tend to be on stilts with the bedrooms upstairs and the main living area downstairs between the pillars, usually with a few hammocks hung between them. This village was no different. As I went down towards the water I spotted some children playing with something in a pile of blankets, half buried, behind the back of the house. When they noticed my interest they turned towards me brandishing their find. Three tiny puppies held in their small outstretched hands. They were more than happy for me to hold them as they were more interested in my camera. Being a little rough with it I was reluctant to let it go entirely and I don’t think they paid much attention to what they were taking a picture of but they liked the clicking of the shutter. I had some interesting snaps to say the least!
Eventually though it was time to get the ferry back and check in to Big Easy hostel, which did the best western food around. I spent the rest of the evening devouring both sweet and sour chicken dish with mango and the rest of my book.
Day 116 – I had planned another day on the beach but when I woke up the weather had other ideas. An overcast day didn’t give me much hope for topping up my tan so instead I shopped and bought souvenirs, stopping for lunch at a great Mexican place called Stay Later, which tempted me in with their sign that proclaimed “Mexican food so good Trump wants to build a wall around it!” They weren’t lying!
Day 117 – I had enjoyed my time to myself on Koh Rong and felt refreshed after a break from the constant travel but I was also ready to be moving on and exploring new places again. Danielle, a fun loving girl with ambitions to run her own animal sanctuary one day, and Annika, the ever elegant German girl with an unexpected giggle that bursts out of her, had hopped back on too after their own adventures on Koh Rong. There were also four new guys, only two of which were travelling together but they all seemed to have been on Stray together for a while.
From Sihanoukeville we travelled to Kampot, which is famous for its salt fields and pepper farms. We took a tuk tuk tour around the rural back roads, stopping at the salt fields first to see how they flattened the land and filled it with salt water. The water would eventually evaporate leaving the salt behind to be raked up and collected. The pepper is apparently the best in the world. I was surprised to learn that green peppercorns are dried to become black and the red peppercorns simply have their skins taken off to become white peppercorns.
In the evening we relaxed on a river boat cruise to see tiny fireflies flickering on the nearby trees. I also got to see the phosphorescent plankton again when we realised their was some in the bucket of water in the toilet! We took turns queueing not to use the facilities but to shut the door, making the room really dark so as better to see them, then swirling our finger and sending them sparkling in the water.
Day 118 – Leaving Kampot we headed to the island of Koh Tunsay, also known as Rabbit Island. I was disapointed to discover the name did not indicate an abundance of fluffy creatures on the island. There was nothing to do here but relax, read and watch the sunset from my hammock and that was fine by me.
Day 119 – Today was a less fun day seeing as we were heading to the killing fields and S21 prison in Pnom Penh. Couldn’t be described as fun but it was definitely an interesting day and worth seeing. There is not much left to see at the Killing Fields. The grass has grown over the mass graves and the few buildings there were are gone. The audio guide described what used to be there and we heard the voices of those who had survived this traumatic place. People were corralled and kept under horrendous conditions before having their throats cut or being bludgeoned to death with various tools. More disgusting than that was the killing tree where they took babies by the legs and whacked them against the tree before throwing their broken bodies down to lie with the corpses of their mothers, already in the pits below. They believed in stopping future generations from coming back for revenge. It was probably the most harrowing part of this tour.
Sleng Prison, S21, was almost as bad. Standing in the rooms where people were chained to their beds, starved, tortured and left to die, was chilling. Sleng Prison used to be a school but was converted to a prison to hold people, everyday people, people who were intelligent and educated and didn’t conform to Pol Pots ideals for a nation of farmers. Sitting near the exit were two survivors of these atrocities, selling books and art inspired by their experiences, but I couldn’t understand how they could bare to watch tourist mill around a place that held such nightmares for them.
To make sure the day ended on a high note we went out for a few drinks and a karaoke session!
Day 120 – Most of our group were hanging in the morning but I wanted to make the most of my time there, even though I had some extra days waiting on my Vietnam visa (I could only enter the country after the 9th). I headed first to the Royal Palace. It turned out to be a very peaceful place, the royal buildings scattered amongst a simple garden, their elegant yellow roofs sparkling in the sunshine. My favourite spot was a small temple on a hill in the middle of a large courtyard. The hill was made up of a small jungle, leaves half obscuring the winding staircase to the top where you could sit amongst the plants and feel a million miles away from the dirty, busy city. My one disappointment was the Silver Pagoda. Despite being warned that it was not silver I had expected something at least to make it stand out but when I reached the end I wondered if I had missed it altogether. I used Maps.me to back track and find it only to discover I had already been inside and viewed the bronze, gold and silver Buddha statues that were housed there.
As the afternoon stretched into early evening I walked across town to an interesting temple called Wat Langka I had heard about. Here, on Monday evenings, they held a free meditation session for any who want to join in. I looked around the simple but pretty temple, unsure how this worked, and eventually followed everyone else’s lead in getting comfortable on the round cushions spread evenly accross the floor. I attempted to meditate on my own, at first trying to keep my mind clear and then letting it wander, picking up and turning each thought that came to my mind as if it were an interesting pebble on the beach. I had been doing this for 20-30 minutes when a monk softly called any beginners to meet with him outside. He spoke quietly and haltingly as if his mind was on other things, pausing for a time before he came back to explaining to us how to sit and focus on our breathing. We rutrned to the cushions and I tried again. I couldn’t keep my eyes closed without feeling like I would nod off so I focused in front of me and found I enjoyed letting the distant sounds of traffic, the twittering bird calls and the soft movement of monks and the people around me shifting. I left feeling still. I think I’d like to start meditating more often.
Day 121 – Second on my list to visit was the National Museum. It turned out to be a lot smaller than I had thought but that was good as I was still feeling weary after walking around it for an hour or so. I liked the paintings depicting stories of the Hindu Gods best, including the one I had heard in India about Diwali. I was glad that there was information describing them so I could understand the detailed artwork.
In the evening I returned to the museum to watch the Cultural Show they perform there. This is so important in Cambodia as it is a way to revive arts and skills that were almost lost during the time of the Khmer Rouge. It was beautifully done too, singers and musicians at the side of the stage and the dancers in bright, sparkling costumes. There was a dance where a man and a woman were dressed as peacocks, with big paper tails fanned out behind them, moving as they moved their arms. There was even a dance full of acrobatics as the group pretended to be a giant praying mantis. My favourite though was a dance about everyday life. It showed the importance of fishing and told s story of a shy boy teasing a fisher girl to gain her attention. To begin with she is annoyed with him always stealing her net but eventually she softens and the two end up blushing as their fisher friends notice their hesitant courting. It was very cute!
Day 122 – For my last day in Cambodia I did something quite opposite from the cultural experiences of the last couple of days: I went to the cinema. In my hostel, Happy Backpackers 11, there was a cheap and low key cinema called The Flicks 2. I had wanted to watch Dr Strang but as it clashed with the Cultural Show I decided to go to the Flicks 1 and pay $3.50 to be able to watch unlimited films all day. On the way I made a brief stop to Wat Pnom, which was not much different to any other temple I had visited but I felt I should at least try and see it. The cinema was what I really enjoyed though. I saw by the bar, receiving cuddles from the cinema’s very needy cat before finding a spot on the rattan sofas a the back. I watched Moana, Hacksaw Ridge and Dr Strange, one after the other. It was intense but one of my favourite ways to spend the day. In between I ordered popcorn and regretted not ordering one of the huge pizzas, or any other kind of food from the menu, that they bring in to you to munch on while you enjoy the film. As much as I love doing Cultural stuff, sometimes it’s good to just take a “me day” and do whatever you want, regardless of what it is.
My last task of the day was to sort out my bag, easy to cross the border into Vietnam. It seemed bizarre that after so much traveling I was about to visit my last country of the trip. I had heard a lot of good things about Vietnam though and was excited to see how it differed from Cambodia. It didn’t feel like my trip was drawing to an end yet, it felt like I still had all the time in the world.