Cambodia – 25th April to 23rd May 2015
After a very slow and local introduction to life in Siem Reap, it was time to get back into backpack mode and see what the rest of Cambodia had to offer.
One thing I particularly wanted from the second leg of my adventure, was an education on the Khmer Rogue and the terrible actions they plagued upon Cambodia during the mid seventies.
Battambang, Cambodia – 9th to 10th May
We made it to Battambang with ease and with only one full day we decided to opt for a tut tut tour of the surrounding area.
The driver that took us from the inconvenient out of town bus stop to the center seemed as genuine as possible, so we booked up a days exploring with him after explaining what we wanted to see.
Our first stop was to the Bamboo Train. Set among the beautiful Battambang countryside, these wooden railways have sprung up on disused tracks. Rustic and basic platforms are powered off a simple cam belt driven engine and hurtled down a rickety, bumpy track, for around an hour or so.
With only one track, the issue often arises where two bamboo trains heading in opposite directions meet each other. The solution is simple, the train drivers hop off the back and lifts the entirety of the train off of the track to let the other pass.
With the wind rushing through our hair…and my beard, we cut through the surrounding countryside. Luscious green farmland engrossed the landscape as far as the eye could see. Hand built, wooden houses were dotted everywhere, some looking as though they were about to collapse. Deep, black smoke burned from various places as family’s cook their afternoon meals upon coal fires.
Various birds flew above us as we glided forward with the monotonous ‘click, clack!’ sound of the wooden railway sleepers beneath us. Some of the birds keeping a watching eye out for their prey, maybe a tasty mouse or a not so tasty rat. Mind you, even the locals have a barbecued rat to eat every once in a while round here. Our driver also told us that ants are a delicacy as well as cobra or bats blood to evoke great energy, what’s wrong with just red bull I thought. Oh and sad to say it, he did admit to eating dog, at which point I tried to move the conversation off topic.
We made it to the end of the track and we were greeted by our own very mouse trap. They’d caught us! Tourists traps are everywhere and some are less pleasant than others. This one wasn’t too bad. There were a few shops selling tacky t-shirts, wooden bangles and cold drinks on either side of the track. The owners and their children were trying to get us to buy something or at least make a “pinky promise” that we would buy from them if we wanted anything. Who can blame them, I’m sure I would do the same in their position.
Luckily I had learned a few Khmer (Cambodian) words during my time at Hannah’s Hope children’s home and I was able to say a few lines to them including “No Thank You” and “How Are You”. It seems to work better when you use the local language and they scuttled off to devour the next Farang (white person). He wasn’t so lucky. I think he made it out alive though… But not without a hand made bangle for every wrist and ankle on his body.
Our next step was to a nearby temple. Situated on top of a small hill this ‘Wat’ shared similarities with some of the temples we visited during our time in Siem Reap. We were followed all the way to the top by some young children that were trying to sell brightly colored hand fans. Even though it felt as hot as hell that day, we refrained from buying one, as the money earned encourages parents not to send their kids to school.
Jumping back into our faithful tut tut we headed to another temple set aside a picturesque hill top. We were dropped at the very bottom and made our way up to an old Khmer Rogue killing cave. The words are pretty much self explanatory of what sort of scenes had taken place here once upon a time.
As we started our ascent, dark, black clouds breezed their way in from the horizon until their were enough to cover the previous, near perfect, blue sky.
We finally found the cave and peered towards the blackened entrance. It seemed like an entrance to another dimension.
Suddenly the overhead clouds crashed and emitted an onslaught of rain. Thunder roared and lightening sparked across the sky letting off a cracking noise when it was particularly close to us.
With no option we made our way down to the killing cave to find shelter. Step by step we walked down the stone carved path, being extra careful not to slide in the poorly lit and slippery conditions. Halfway down the stairs we stopped to look up. With no exaggeration it felt like a descent to hell, where in a few seconds I would be greeted with a handshake and grin from the greek God of the underworld, Hades himself.
Creaking my neck upwards and over to the left, I noticed a ledge overhanging a sudden vertical drop. It must have been about 25 meters from the very top to the bottom, maybe more, don’t quote me though. This is where countless victims were thrown or forced forwards by the Khmer Rogue to mercilessly fall to a painful death. These types of caves were quite common during their reign and were completely unfathomable to me. Sometimes I am despised by what some humans can actually do.
As the outside storm grew stronger and the sky’s light completely diminished, we made our way to the bottom of the cave. Greeted by a candle light, a glass capsule of spine tingling skulls and bones, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and goosebumps rise from my skin. It was one of the strangest situations and feelings I have ever had.
This unworldly environment and accompanying weather was a combination scary enough to fuel the mind of any self confessed atheist that evil or trapped spirits were lurking among the darkest depths of this cave… So I left!
As you will notice, I have no images of this part of the cave as I personally believe it is disrespectful to take a photo of this sort of scenery. Hopefully I’ve been descriptive enough so that you can imagine the setting I am trying to describe to you.
Clambering back out into the bellowing thunder storm we explored the rest of the area and the various temple structures, even the statues had umbrellas!
The storm slowly resided and calmness was restored. It was as if the whole theatrical demonstration was purposely constructed for our visit to the cave.
On the journey back we were showed some spooky looking fruit bats and an interesting little rope bridge and that was it for Battambang, short and sweet but fairly action packed for just one day.
Sihanoukville, Cambodia – 11th to 13th May
The less I say about Sihanoukville the better. We stayed on Otres Beach, which was fairly clean, inviting and quiet. However the food was pretty expensive as well as awful and the weather was terrible.
Every restaurant seemed to be staffed or owned by a westerner and the local dishes I had grown to love in Siem Reap were just not the same quality. One of the waiters even tried to sell me Marijuana during one of my lunch time meals. The beard seems to be a universal sign for ‘I smoke weed’ in most countries we visit.
All these factors didn’t make a great combination for a beach town. I’m sure some would disagree though. I know many people visit Sihanoukville and have a great time. Travel is subjective and personal to individuals at that particular moment in time, that is the beauty of it.
Kampot 13th to 18th May
We were only supposed to stay in Kampot for a night or two and we ended up staying five. It was a quiet, dainty, old French colonial town with a picturesque river running through it and an inviting expat and local community.
There wasn’t heaps of things to do but the overall feeling of the town just made you feel so at ease that day’s seemed to slip away. We rented bikes, cycled around the town and ventured further afield into the surround countryside, where we stumbled across temples, smiling people and scenic views.
One thing to mention, is that the food on offer in Kampot was awesome. There was a great mix of Asian and Western dishes to choose from. Just to name a few of our favourites; we ate succulent hand made noodles at Ecron, the best rack of ribs I’ve had in my life at Rusty Keyhole and some excellent crepes with proper cheese (which is hard to find in Asia) at The Honeymoon creperie. If you’re after a decent coffee and breakfast then be sure to stop by Espresso Café as well. By the way, they didn’t pay me for the mentions.
The town even had a local gym I could use for just fifty cence. I didn’t even smash my face up this time. A great result, I’m sure you’ll agree.
We even partied at Magic Monkey hostel during their one year anniversary. I’m not too old yet! We were actually treated to some real house, trance and techno music from a British DJ as we were still recovering from the EDM onslaught of Khao San Road in Bangkok.
Our first excursion in Kampot was to Bokor Mountains. A strange, spooky, old, French, ghost town. It was abandoned and left to die amongst the clouds. It felt as though we were entering a new realm as the mist descended and obstructed our view of real life in the town below.
We stopped off at one of the old churches which was rather creepy.
We headed to a hotel where the construction was never finished. I was half expecting to run into an oncoming ghoul around one of the eerie corners.
There was a waterfall or rather a fall. It seemed like even the water had abandoned this ghost town. However, I did have a very brief chat with a monk at this dehydrated river which really did make my day. It’s not often a monk comes up to you for a chat.
That evening we were booked on a sunset boat ride along the glorious river that runs through Kampot. I’m always worried about doing these sort of things but I must admit, it was an incredible ride. The setting was perfect and the sky was mesmerising as the sun descended on another great day of travelling.
As the glorious sun said goodbye, the fire flies said hello and the line where they flickered seemed to blur with the horizon of twinkling stars. It felt as though we were in space. I had never seen the stars shine so bright in my life. It was hypnotic. I felt as though I could grab and eat each glistening ball of fire one by one as if they were chocolate. It was a boat ride I’d never forget.
Kep, Cambodia – 18th to 20th May
A short minibus ride from Kampot, Kep felt a lot more local than its predecessor. It had a pretty nice beach where monks would converse and locals would bathe.
We based ourselves out of Bacoma Guesthouse, which was great value and its combination of round house style huts and a majestic garden gave me the feeling I was living among Hobbits in Lord of the Rings.
We trekked through the scenic national park and cycled the idyllic beach side road stopping at various points and admiring the truly glorious views.
After minimal research and investigation we were quick to realise that Kep was very famous for two things. Crab and pepper.
There were lots of places offering both delicacies and after some further digging online and asking around for some recommendations we found our spot! It was a restaurant that could have been easily overlooked because of its rugged sign, basic interior and unappealing aura but non regardless it came up trumps.
But before the main event came the cocktails and the sunset next door! It’s a hard life.
Back to the restaurant and selecting none other than crab with black pepper was one of those menu choices that was thankfully rather easy. No “umming” or “ahhing” or feeling the pressure of a luring waiter awaiting your decision. For some reason, in many Asian restaurants the staff expect you to know exactly what you want before you’ve even flicked through the first page of the menu that they’ve only just handed to you. It’s rather odd.
They claim that both the pepper and the crab in Kep is some of the best in the world and as far as my palate is concerned, it certainly is. The succulent, fresh crab is literally caught just ten meters in front of you, plucked from the swaying blue sea. You can even pick which one you’d like to feast upon if you’re brave enough to point your fingers near their cages.
The tasteful pepper is grown in the natural surrounding fields with the environmental settings lending itself to create a truly distinctive taste. It was not only one of the best meals of my travels but in fact, one of the best meals of my life. I must admit though, it doesn’t look the most appetising.
Phnom Penh – 20th to 23rd May
Phnom Penh was our final destination in Cambodia. The capital of this fascinating country was sadly a place I will not return to though.
Parts of the city were littered with ‘hostess’ bars and hard drugs where being taken and offered left, right and center. Unfortunately this seems to be a general theme in a lot of places I’ve traveled and like any business, the products are only being sold because of demand created by tourists and locals alike.
From an educational point of view, Phnom Penh gave me far more information and detail on the country’s recent and tragic past than I could even handle at times. Rather than spiel of cold and distant statistics and numbers of what happened during the Khmer Rouge’s reign, I’d like to recommend an eye opening book to read which will invoke far more thought and emotion in comparison to some regurgitated ‘travel facts’.
“First they Killed my Father” is a true story written by Loung Ung. One of seven children living in middle class Cambodia, the book outlines her harrowing journey from April 1975 when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army stormed into the city of Phnom Penh to child labor camps and her brave escape to the USA.
One thing I must praise the city of Phnom Penh on, was the way they presented the infamous ‘Killing Fields’. An eerily strange and surprisingly peaceful place that was the site of some of the most horrendous crimes against humanity. The layout of the grounds and the structure of the audio guide was a great way to teach all the visitors what sadly happened on the land you could easily oversee as just a normal stretch of fields.
So that’s it for Cambodia. It’s a country I’ll never forget for various reasons and I can only recommend you guys go check it out for yourself as like anything, travel is very subjective.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow mindedness”