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 : 💛 💛 💛 💛 💛

Enchanted in Laos

It was with a very heavy heart that I left Vietnam. I somehow felt that I was leaving a part of myself behind. It also didn’t help that I was embarking on a 36 hour journey. So off I went, back to Hanoi and then on the road to Luang Prabang in Laos. My long journey was spent between sleep and thought. When I was awake I couldn’t listen to music since my phone had no more battery, and I couldn’t seem to focus on reading. And so, looking out the window at the beautiful mountains in the background and the lush greenery zooming past, I reflected on my last 3 months of travels. I thought of the places I had been, the people I met along the way, and all that I experienced in between. I felt sad about leaving Vietnam but I was looking forward to my adventures to come. I thought about how sad I had been to leave Bali, but how awesome the Philippines had turned out to be, and likewise how sad I was to leave the Philippines when the time came to head to Vietnam. It dawned on me that no matter how long you’ve been travelling for, there are some feelings you can never really shake off: the bittersweet feeling of leaving a place you love as you continue your journey, and the feeling of dread when packing up the few belongings you have into your little home that is your backpack.

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I was immediately enchanted by the stunning natural beauty of Laos. The misty mountain peaks edging around the jungle-clad valleys are sure to impress even the most jaded traveler. Eventually we made it to Luang Prabang 27 hours after leaving Hanoi. After so much time spent together on the bus, a couple of us formed a pack to search for a hostel. The next day, Marina (from Germany), Sabine (from the Netherlands) and I rented scooters and made our way to the popular Kuang Si Waterfalls. After a breathtakingly scenic ride along the countryside we made it to the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, (inside Kuang Si Waterfall park). Run by Free the Bears, an organization that rescues endangered Asiatic Black Bears from poachers and bear bile farms, the sanctuary does not receive any money from the waterfall park admission and relies on donations only.

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Eventually we made it to the waterfalls, which were even more grand and beautiful than I thought they would be. The large multi-stage waterfall consists of multiple pools at different levels that you can swim in, and are swarming with the little fish that pick at your dead skin that you tend to see at fish spas all over South East Asia.

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After a day of swinging off the Tarzan rope and jumping from one pool to the next, we made our way up the 190 steps to Phou Si/Chomsy Hill to get a beautiful panoramic view of the city and watch the sunset. This was truly an amazing place to get a bird’s-eye view of incredibly romantic Luang Prabang, with its glittering temples, brightly colored robed monks and sleepy riverine lifestyle.

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That night we went to the night market for dinner where for 15,000 kip (roughly $1.50) you can fill your bowl with as much food as you want/can. Challenge accepted. After stuffing our faces, we made our way to Utopia bar where we met up with our bus buddies. Once the bar closed at 1am we made our way to the only place that stays open late – the bowling alley. Full of backpackers looking to keep the party going, I felt like I was at a kid’s birthday party. But as the game started and the beer kept flowing, I started to get the hang of it. I even coined the “Melissa Style” bowling method to try to up my game, which was essentially the same method I used when I was a kid and too weak to throw the ball with one hand, using both arms to launch the ball through my legs. While this initially garnered attention due to the fact that I looked like an idiot, after I started striking out more and more people followed my lead in hopes of improving their game. The cherry on top was when the tuk-tuk driver dropped us off at our hostel and pointed at me, then proceeded to imitate the “Melissa Style” bowling method. Priceless.

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The next day, Marina and I had a long breakfast (delicious baguette and coffee, what else?) and enjoyed the town’s picturesque charm, watching local life pass by. At night we headed to the night market, which seemed to stretch on for miles and miles, showcasing the best Laotian wares – intricate weavings, elaborate silver trinkets (sometimes made out of unexploded mines leftover from the previous decades of seemingly endless wars), and tasty specialty foods. We went to Gary’s Irish Bar for some good live music (and a free beer between 8-10pm) and ended the night at the infamous Sakura Bar (famous for its “drink triple, see double, act single” tank tops worn by backpackers across Southeast Asia, which you can get for free for every purchase of two vodka drinks).

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Our next stop was the thriving tourist center of Vang Vieng, commonly known for being the backpacker mecca for partying. Although things have seemed to calm down quite a bit since the government has cracked down on the number of bars in the area, Vang Vieng seems to have established itself as the exception to the rule that Laos doesn’t have a nightlife. Besides that though, the limestone cliffs and riverside scenery remain gorgeous and offer a lot of potential as a base for adventure tourism if that’s your thing. While the main attraction for many visitors remains the tubing (read: 20-something year old backpackers), it’s quite easy to avoid the party scene and use the town as a base to explore the surrounding countryside. After a night of indulging the party scene, Marina and I decided to skip the traditional tubing experience and instead went on a day trip outside the city. We swam through a cave on tubes and went kayaking down the Nam Song river (that covers the same part of the river as tubing and a more untouched part further upstream).

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The next day was raining so we took advantage of the situation and spent the day eating pancakes and watching Friends at a restaurant near our hostel and ended the day with an amazing traditional Lao massage. Unfortunately I only had one week in Laos, since I stayed a bit longer than expected in Vietnam, so I didn’t get to see as much of Laos as I had planned. Having said that, I heard amazing things about trekking in the far northern provinces, the mysterious Plaine des Jarres, the lazy island life in the far south, exploring the ‘in between’ in Pakse and the 4000 Islands at the border of Cambodia.

Destinations aside, Lao food is sure to entice the inner foodie in you. Spicy buffalo salad (that I hadn’t tried personally, being a boring vegetarian and all), sticky rice, noodles, curries and the culinary remnants of French colonial occupation in the form of delicious crunchy baguettes and sweet ice coffee. Add to that an ice-cold Beerlao (obviously) and take in all that Laos has to offer.

Next stop: Phnom Penh, Cambodia!

Mellow Yellow rating : 💛 💛 💛 💛 💛