Angkor Wuuut?

Mava and I parted ways with Felix in Sihanoukville and made our way to Siem Reap. Unbeknownst to us this would be the best bus ride. Ever. We had WiFi, our own (working) outlets, (clean) pillows and blankets, and a curtain for privacy. Pure luxury! We checked into our hostel (with a pool!) and explored the city and its markets.

While most people come to Siem Reap as a gateway to Angkor, Mava and I had one week to explore the quiet and laid-back town. Our days were spent lounging by the pool and visiting markets, and our nights were spent between the night market and Pub Street. We visited Artisans d’Angkor and the Angkor Silk Farm, where we learned how incredible the silk making process is through all the different stages, as well as understanding the traditional Cambodian weaving techniques.

We also got to visit the floating village of Kompong Phluk, mounted above the banks of the Tonle-Sap-Great Lake. Since the past season had been very dry, parts of the floating village were in fact not floating. It was interesting to see how the entire village depends entirely on the ebb and flow of the lake.

Finally, we made it to la pièce de résistance, the Angkor Archaeological Park. The entire 400 square kilometer park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, filled with historic temples, hydraulic reservoirs, ancient highways and forests. We rented bikes for the day and visited Angkor Wat, the iconic temple with lotus-like towers at the heart of the park, and Angkor Thom, the ancient walled city, within which many more temples are found. Needless to say, this was one of the most spectacular things I had ever laid eyes on. Here are four fun facts about Angkor Wat:

  • Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century as the earthly representation of Mt Meru, the home of ancient Hindu gods. With passing time, each Cambodian god-king strove to better his ancestors’ structures in size, scale and symmetry, leading to what is believed to be the world’s largest religious building.
  • Angkor Wat is famous for having more than 3000 beguiling apsaras (heavenly nymphs) carved into its walls. Each of them is unique, and there are 37 different hairstyles for budding stylists to check out.
  • Visitors to Angkor Wat are struck by its imposing grandeur and, at close quarters, its fascinating decorative flourishes. Stretching around the outside of the central temple complex is an 800m-long series of intricate and astonishing bas-reliefs – carvings depicting historical events and stories from mythology.
  • Eleanor Mannikka explains in her book Angkor Wat: Time, Space and Kingship that the spatial dimensions of Angkor Wat parallel the lengths of the four ages (Yuga) of classical Hindu thought. Thus the visitor to Angkor Wat who walks the causeway to the main entrance and through the courtyards to the final main tower, which once contained a statue of Vishnu, is metaphorically travelling back to the first age of the creation of the universe.

 

 

Next stop: Bangkok!

Mellow Yellow rating: 💛💛💛💛💛

Traveler’s tips: we stayed at Garden Village for one night and then moved to a cheaper hostel since they were renovating the dorms (but continued to use their pool). Artisans d’Angkor is free and worth the visit if you have time. The Floating Village tour is a bit of a ripoff in retrospect. Visiting Angkor by bicycle is the cheapest option ($1 for the whole day) but can be very tiring since it’s super hot and there’s not much shade, taking a tuk tuk is more expensive (~$20) but can be worthwhile if you’re many people.

Island living in Koh Rong Samloem

Koh Rong was one of those places that I kept hearing about whenever travelers would talk about Cambodia. I was assured several times, by several different people, that I would absolutely love it. So once it came time to decide “where to next?”, we did our research and found out about Koh Rong Samloem, an island 30 minutes away from Koh Rong by boat (I’m not gonna lie, Mava and Felix did most of the research). Although developing quickly, this island is way under-developed compared to its “big sister” party island, Koh Rong. This was shaping up to be the blissfully idyllic getaway we all needed, and our Google searches assured us that we would be greeted with eye-blinding white sandy beaches, turquoise water surrounded by lush greenery, and best of all: very few people. We got to the pier in Saracen Bay in the afternoon and walked until we found the cheapest bungalow available. The beauty of travelling in low season is that we paid a third of what we would have paid in high season for a 4-person bungalow right on the beach with a five star view (we paid $20 per night instead of $60). We played odds to determine who would get the king size bed and I won! (I slept like a starfish for the 4 nights we stayed there.) Upon checking in we were told that electricity is only available from 6 PM to midnight and that there is no WiFi on the island. Perfect.

 

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We walked around to discover our new home, which took maybe 20 minutes. We checked out the 3-4 restaurants on the island dispersed between the beachside bungalows and found our favorite. Sweet Dreams is owned by a Ukrainian couple that run everything themselves, including the cooking and serving, so it takes some time but it’s totally worth it. The chocolate cake is exquisite. Also it didn’t hurt that it was the cheapest restaurant on the island.

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Visiting during low season also has its downside though – we didn’t have the best beach weather. But we did have the best chilling weather, where you don’t feel bad about doing nothing all day because you can’t do any activities in the rain, right? Either way, there’s not much to do on the island, but that’s pretty much the whole point of going to a remote tropical paradise island in my opinion.

 

Eventually we made it to the western side of the island to see what else the island had to offer. I think our laziness had been putting us off from exploring sooner, since we were told we would have to trek for about a half hour to get there. In reality it was more like a 20 minute leisurely stroll through the jungle on a flat sandy path. We were rewarded with the amazing Lazy Beach, that was ironically less lazy than the beach we were staying at. While our beach was perfectly serene and waveless, Lazy Beach had huge waves that we played in until the stunning pink sunset. We inquired about the bungalow prices on this beach, and discovered they were way out of our price range (cheapest one was $60), so we had dinner there and went back to our side of the island.

 

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The highlight of my time here (and to be honest one of the highlights of my entire trip to date) was swimming with the luminescent plankton in the ocean at night. The effect is really magnified on the island since there is no electricity after midnight, so with no lights around, the plankton glows so bright I thought I was in a scene straight out of the movie Avatar. Even your footsteps glow when you walk towards the ocean! Crazy.

We all had a bit more time before we needed to be at our next destinations so we (actually Felix) found a backpacker bar in Sihanoukville that was looking for Western staff to work in exchange for free accommodation, food, and most importantly, alcohol. As soon as we got to Sihanoukville we binged on cheap food and beer (this is due to what I describe as the island effect – more remote places are always double or triple the prices on the mainland because they have to bring everything in on boats) and caught up with the world after a couple of wifi-less days. The next afternoon we started our new “work” at JJ’s Bar. This mostly consisted of waking up for breakfast at 1:30pm, handing out flyers on the beach for a half hour, then free time until the evening, when we hand out some more flyers. Then my favorite time was around 10pm when the party starts and our job was to talk to people, hand out free shots, and generally make sure everyone is having a good time. In fact, we had so much fun that we only worked there for 4 nights instead of the initially planned 7 nights (also because I like my liver and wasn’t being very nice to it).

 

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Next stop: Siem Reap!

Mellow Yellow rating : 💛 💛 💛 💛 💛

A warm welcome to Cambodia

I was off to a rocky start in Cambodia. After (yet another) long busride – 34 hours this time – I made it to the capital city of Phnom Penh. To our surprise (but not really) we got dropped off in the middle of nowhere near midnight, where several tuk-tuk drivers were eagerly waiting to take us to a hostel (and rip us off). I met Mava (from France) and we grudgingly got into a tuk-tuk.  After checking in and dropping off our bags we went to go find a place to eat. On the way, two guys on a motorbike stole my purse as they drove by. Luckily, I didn’t have my passport on me, but my phone and wallet were gone for good. Shit happens. The next day, after taking care of cancelling all my cards and buying a new phone, Mava and I took it easy and spent the afternoon drinking $0.50 cent draught beers. We met up with Felix (from Germany), whom Mava had travelled with in Thailand, and thus the crew was formed.

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Mellow Yellow Disclaimer: There will be very few pictures in this post due to my reluctance to bring my phone anywhere after my robbery, so I’ll try to paint as vivid a picture as I can with my words.

Despite my rocky start in Cambodia, I was determined not to let this tarnish my perception of the country. Although pretty rough around the edges, Phnom Penh is a charming modern city and very unlike any other. Not as big and bustelling as Bangkok or even Saigon, it is a mish-mash of the few remaining French colonial buildings interspersed between newer concrete 70s era buildings. The riverside is beautiful, hosting several cafes, restaurants and street food stalls perfect for relaxing, watching street life and absorbing the local color. I was starting to realize that Cambodia’s real treasure is its people – the Khmers have been to hell and back, struggling through centuries of continued bloodshed, poverty and political instability. But with their seemingly unbreakable spirit and continued optimism, they have prevailed with their smiles intact. I have yet to meet someone who has visited the country without some form of admiration and affection for the inhabitants of this kingdom.

The Khmer people have a very rich and ancient history in the region. Under the Khmer Empire (famous for their legacy of Angkor) they prospered for many years, and in the late 19th century Cambodia became a part of French Indochina. After the war ended with the French in the 50s, the newly independent country was carpet bombed by the Americans during the Vietnam War throughout the 60s. As if that wasn’t enough, the next decade brought with it a brutal civil war that engulfed the entire country as Cambodians fought Cambodians (politically the war was between the then US-backed governement and the Khmer Rouge). In 1975, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge, who completely evacuated the city and commenced what would become one of the worst genocides in history (in terms of the percentage of population killed). It is approximated that 2 million people were killed during the regime, representing one quarter of the total population. Leading the Khmer Rouge was Pol Pot, a brutal and psychopathic dictator who wanted to instate a utopian agrarian communist system. The city’s small class of skilled or educated professionals was systematically murdered by Pol Pot’s henchmen, while some managed to flee into exile. As Pol Pot became increasingly paranoid, the Khmer Rouge started to imprison, torture and kill entire families who were suspected of opposing his regime. By the time the city was liberated by the Vietnamese in 1979, Phnom Penh was reduced to a shadow of its former self.

In the morning we made our way to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. A former Chinese cemetery, this is where the Khmer Rouge killed thousands of their victims during their reign of terror. Not sure what to expect when I walked in, the site is mostly bare except for a tall buddhist stupa packed full with over 8,000 human skulls, and the sides are made of glass so you can see them up close. There are also pits in the area where mass graves were unearthed, with ominous scraps of clothing and bone fragments still to be found here and there. Since guns and ammunition were too expensive, the murders were often carried out with common objects such as shovels or sharpened bamboo sticks. More chilling than the mass graves, the piles of skulls, clothes and teeth was the Killing Tree – children and infants of adult victims were killed by having their heads bashed against the trunks of Cankiri trees, and then thrown into the pits alongside their parents. The rationale was to prevent them from taking revenge for their parents’ death once they grow up.

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Included in the entrance fee is a very good audio tour (with a choice of several languages) with first hand accounts of several survivors and descriptions of what the site was like when it was in operation. This is very useful since the site is completely bare of what little structure used to be present. Unlike the Nazi death camps in WWII that were mostly disassembled in effort to hide the evidence of the atrocities that took place in them, most of the killing fields were looted by Cambodians that were so poverty stricken afrer their liberation that they took all that they could in order to rebuild their homes. It is a serene yet somber place, not for the faint of heart but you really need to see it to believe it.

Next we went to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21 Prison), a school that was converted into Cambodia’s most important prison in 1975. More than 14,000 people were tortured here before being killed here or at the Killing Fields, and only 8 prisoners survived. You can walk through the the three buildings in the complex that are each three stories high, and the rooms contain skulls stacked in cabinets, tools used for torture and disturbing images of people dying.

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After a couple of days in Phnom Penh, we made our way to the quaint little town of Kampot. Located along the river and surrounded by hills, this is the perfect place to chill out and take it easy. Which is exactly what we did. We stayed in a bungalow at Naga House, an excellent place by the river with happy hour everyday, and we were pleasantly surprised with a party one night with live music and a DJ. On our last night we took a sunset boat trip down the river where we were supposed to see fireflies (we saw maybe one). However I’d have to say that the highlight of Kampot for me was just hanging out and walking around town. Our days were often spent waking up late and crossing the bridge to the main area and having breakfast/lunch there, heading back to the hostel and chilling/reading/playing cards, then going back to the main area for dinner, and finally back to the hostel for more chilling. We discovered an amazing place for noodle soup among the food stalls at the corner before entering the main town, and ate here at least once a day. It was in this area that we also discovered a local snack with no name that we became obsessed with. I won’t even bother trying to describe it because truthfully I don’t even know what was in it. All in all, Kampot was awesome.

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Next stop: Koh Rong Samloem!

Mellow Yellow rating : 💛 💛 💛 💛 💛