Sunday, 23 June 2013

Sihanoukville, Koh Ru and Koh Rong - Cambodia

Before leaving Phnom Penh I had phoned a hostel in Sihanoukville to book a room and was told it would be no problem. When I finally arrived at the bus station I took a tuk tuk into the main town with two people I had met on the bus. They had not booked anywhere to stay and I suggested they come with me to see if there was any space at the place I had booked.
When we arrived, however, I was told that not only was there no space for my new friends, but they had no record of my booking and they had no space for me either! Feeling rather annoyed, I went back and joined them in the tuk tuk.
The driver was quite friendly and agreed to drive us around to different hostels until we found a place, although he was adamant we wouldn't find anywhere on our budget. It seemed that a lot of people had left Phnom Penh during the funeral for the much more exciting atmosphere of Sihanoukville and everywhere was full. True to his word, the driver took us to every hostel and guesthouse in the main Serendipity Beach area and even went in to ask each of them for us.
Eventually, we were forced to give up and try the downtown area, which was pretty far away from the main backpacker area. However, as the tuk tuk started to climb the hill away from the beach, a man on a motorbike came up next to us and started talking in Khmer to our driver as they both continued up the road. The way they were talking made us a bit more hopeful as it seemed that this man may know of somewhere for us to stay. Sure enough, we were turned around and the driver told us we would try one more place. He followed the man on the motorbike and soon pulled up outside a building that read "Sihanoukville Polyclinic". We looked at each other in confusion and then at our driver. We squinted through the doors to see a row of hospital beds. Was he serious? We were pretty desperate at this point to find somewhere to stay, but not that desperate!
Our driver then tried to explain to us that they also had rooms on the upper floor which weren't part of the clinic for $30; we could have one room between us for $10 each.
Finally, we agreed to have a look and were taken up to a grubby room with two double beds inside and a dingy bathroom. After a quick discussion we decided we weren't going to find anything better, and at least we were still within walking distance of Serendipity, so we agreed to take it. Were two girls and one guy, so Alisha and I agreed to share a bed. We soon discovered that the bathroom door didn't shut, the tap on the sink didn't work and the shower was a dribble at the most, not that any of us wanted to use it due to the dodgy door especially as we had all only met a few hours earlier!
As soon as we had deposited our bags, paid the friendly driver and the not-so-friendly owner, we made a quick exit in search of some food.
I eventually managed to find some wifi and got in touch with Mark, so after dinner we headed to the Big Easy bar, where the lads were watching the rugby game. They found our troubles at finding somewhere to stay absolutely hilarious, and soon we were laughing along with cheap beers in hand.
Eventually, I grew bored of the rugby and decided to head to the bars on the beach. I had heard that Baz was working in JJ's Bar and went in search of it, hoping to find him there.
It didn't take long - everyone there knew him - and soon I saw him stumbling in from the beach. The look of surprise on his face when he saw me was priceless, as he wasn't expecting me to turn up until the next week. Even though he was working (which just seemed to involve getting drunk on the free alcohol he received in payment and getting others to buy drinks and get drunk with him), we went and sat on the beach and talked all night about travelling life, the beauty of the beach we were on, what had happened since we last saw each other on Koh Phangan, the owner of the kebab stall next to us who we proceeded to buy four kebabs from, etc etc.
At some point during the night we decided to get a tattoo and went in search of a tattoo studio, which of course by that time were all shut (probably for the best), although we promised each other we would get it done together the next day.
True to our word, and extremely hungover, we turned up at a place recommended by the locals Baz worked with and got tattooed with the words "No Regrets" in Khmer.

Corey, Jack and Mark had told me they were moving to Otres Beach that day and had booked me a bed in the hostel with them. I persuaded Baz to take his first day off in 2 months and relax at this much quieter beach with us and we arrived there in the early afternoon. As this was his first sober day in a very long time, he was feeling a bit worse for wear and decided to stay the night in the hostel with us instead of making the journey back to JJ's.
Otres Beach is beautiful, we joined Jack and Mark at one of the beach bars and were introduced to some of their friends: Sam, John, Terry, Anne and Sally. It turned out that I had already met John and Sam at Angkor What? Bar in Siem Reap, along with Flo, who would join us the next day. I remembered having a long chat with John, who had written as many digits of Pi on my arm as he could, from my shoulder to the tip of my middle finger, for reasons neither of us could remember when we were reunited that day. I also already knew Anne, who had been one of the members of the group from the hostel in Phnom Penh I had gone out drinking with! We had a lovely relaxing evening watching the sunset and made plans to head to Koh Ru the next day.
In the morning we all made our way back to Serendipity Pier to catch a longboat over to Koh Ru, while Baz went back to JJ's. While we were waiting for the boat, Flo turned up to join us and we met an Israeli guy called Billy.
The boat ride was pretty enjoyable as we all listened to music and drank beers, and eventually Koh Ru came into sight. It was absolutely amazing! There was a line of small wooden bungalows along the beach, a communal area with a bar and a small block of toilets and showers. That was it. The sea water was clear, the sand was hot, and a group of people came down to the boat to help unload our belongings as well as supplies for the island which had been brought over with us from the mainland. The first thing that caught our attention was part of a tree in an arch shape which was completely covered in shoes.
We filed into the bar area and gradually registered ourselves for bungalows. All the guys stayed in one of the bigger bungalows while Anne, Sally, Flo and I took a smaller green one further down the beach. There were two double beds inside with some very old mosquito nets and a light. Billy was booked into the dorm, which was a simple long bamboo hut.

We watched the amazing sunset that evening and then we all went to the boys' bungalow to drink the vodka they had brought over from the mainland.

Our days in Koh Ru were spent doing very little, and we absolutely loved it! There was no wifi, no phone signal and there was only electricity between 6pm and midnight.
On our second day we went on a sunset fishing trip on a longtail boat and were taken out around to the other side of the island, where we were each handed a plastic bottle with a line and a hook attached. We had a great time catching lots of fish, and considering it was my first time fishing I did pretty well and caught nine, beaten only by Jack's 15!
After the sun had set, we were dropped back on the island. However, we weren't told that we would be taken to the wrong side and would have to walk across through the jungle! None of us were wearing shoes, it was pitch black and Jack turned on the light on his phone just in time to avoid treading on a black snake! We were all scared for the rest of the walk, with only two lights between us and some members of our group deliberately trying to frighten the rest of us. It wasn't a very long walk as the island is so small and we made it back to the right side, where the kitchen staff cooked the fish for our dinner.
Unfortunately, after this I became sick for the rest of our time on the island, although I couldn't think of anywhere nicer to relax and recover. To this day it is my favourite place I've visited.
Most nights, when the electricity went off at midnight, we would build a bonfire on the beach and look up at the stars or swim in the sea. Because there was no light pollution at all, we could literally see millions of stars, and when we went in the water we were surrounded by bioluminescent plankton.
One of the most amazing experiences I've had has been swimming in warm water looking up at every single star with the water glowing around me.
This was the kind of place that was very hard to leave, everyone would make plans to leave the next day but would end up staying another night. There were people there who had been there for months, or who had managed to leave but were inevitably drawn back again. We had left Sihanoukville intending to stay for a couple of days and we ended up staying a week. It took a group decision for us to finally leave and we caught the boat together, except for Corey, Flo and Mark who had actually left earlier in the week due to other commitments, and Billy, who was staying a few more days. We had spent a lot of time together since we met on the way over and were sad to say goodbye.
Once the rest of us were back in Sihanoukville, we began to go our separate ways. Anne, Sally and Terry were heading to Siem Reap. While Sam went straight to Otres Beach, Jack and I decided to go and get our Vietnamese visas sorted at the embassy and booked our onward tickets for the next day before also headed back to Otres.
We met a good group of people that night and enjoyed the few bars that were on this beach. I somehow managed to win 7 games of pool in a row!
The next morning I headed back to Serendipity fairly early as I had booked a boat over to Koh Rong, while Jack was heading east. I was feeling a little worse for wear so didn't really join in with the atmosphere on the "Party Boat" on the way over but just sunbathed on the roof while the music blared out around me. We stopped near an island on the way where lots of people jumped from the roof of the boat into the water.
I was trying to avoid a Cambodian guy who had been bothering me for a while and went downstairs to get some food. We finally got to the island, which was stunning, and I checked into the dorm I had booked. It was a long, two storey building with only 3 walls, the front opening onto the beach, and the bed was a double!

The guy from the boat had not booked at the one resort on this beach and it was full so he followed me to my bed and asked if he could share it with me! I gave him a firm "No!" and then ignored him until he eventually wandered away and left the island on the same boat we had come in on.
I made friends with Kadi, who was also staying in the dorm and we went for a wander down the beach together. It was all perfect white sand, crystal clear blue sea and palm trees.
I soon realised that I was not on the main island of Koh Rong as I had intended to be, but on the smaller and quieter Koh Rong Samloem. I was half annoyed that the travel agency had not informed me of this when I booked my ticket, as I had specifically asked to go to Koh Rong, and half delighted at the paradise I had ended up on.
Kadi and I went back to the main hut for some food and met three swiss guys. I had only booked two nights on the island as my Vietnam visa started after 3 nights and I knew I would need to spend a night in Sihanoukville before an early start for the bus journey to Vietnam. I spent my whole time on Koh Rong with these four new friends. The first night was pretty subdued, we played some pool and, after boasting about my recent winning streak, I then proceeded to play terribly and lose multiple times.
The next day the four of us went for a walk across the island to Lazy Beach and watched the sunset, it was a very pleasant day.

That night Kadi and Sev went to bed early, leaving just the three of us to go to the bar. We befriended one of the barmen, who had only started working there recently and was keen to make us his favourite cocktail and chatted to some others at the bar. The barman ended up being more drunk than any of us and we were enjoying making fun of him as he stumbled around in his sunglasses, gradually making our drinks stronger and stronger.

The next day I reluctantly said goodbye and got back on the party boat, which turned out not to be so much fun on the way back to Sihanoukville, although we did get a nice view of another gorgeous sunset.
Once again, I had not booked a hostel in Sihanoukville as I had intended to go back to the same hostel in Otres, which I knew would have space for me. However, when I booked my bus to Vietnam for the next day and was told I needed to be there at 7am, I realised it would make more sense for me to stay in the town as it would be unlikely I would be able to get a tuk tuk back that early in the morning.
I started searching and bumped into Baz again, he had told me he would be going to Phnom Penh while I was in Koh Ru to try and get a teaching job, but of course he was still stuck in "Sinville". As far as I know he's still there!
After being turned away by about 6 hostels, I realised this could be a repeat of the polyclinic incident, but I couldn't afford to stay there on my own so I continued searching. What I hadn't realised before was that it was Chinese New Year. I noticed I was taking the same route as another backpacker, and as we both got turned away from another hostel, we agreed to continue looking together. His name was Clem, he was French and I've never seen him since, but I don't know what I would have done without his help that night. After literally trailing round the whole of beachside Sihanoukville, we were eventually convinced by a tuk tuk driver that we would have to go downtown, there were lots of cheap hostels there, and that he would help us find a place to stay. He then dropped us outside a hostel that was charging extortionate prices and when we refused to pay that much for a room, he drove off after telling us he'd tried. That was the first place he had taken us.
We wandered around trying to find another place, completely lost, and eventually made it back to the main road, wondering what we were supposed to do now.
As we were walking, finding no other hostels or guesthouses, another tuk tuk drew up beside us. We were obviously suspicious, we didn't want to pay again to be taken to another remote location. However, the guy seemed genuine and he somehow seemed to know we had been abandoned there with no place to stay, and he guaranteed us a place with someone he knew, otherwise he would not charge us anything. After exchanging a look and realising without saying anything that we didn't really have another choice, we agreed and got in the tuk tuk. The driver was very friendly and sympathetic towards us, and he took us to a few places that belonged to people he knew, but which were also full.
After a while, we could tell he was running out of options and were seriously considering asking him to take us back to Serendipity so we could just sleep on the beach, when he pulled up outside what looked like an ordinary house. A family with a baby were sitting outside. He spoke to them in Khmer and they nodded and gestured for us to come inside.
Then the driver turned around to us and said "This place is not normally rented for an entire night - they only rent it for half hour slots but are willing to make an exception for you. If I had a girlfriend, I would bring her here for half an hour. You know what I mean?" as he winked and nudged Clem. We just stared at him; Clem and I had only just met and this was an incredibly awkward situation. After a few seconds he looked at me with an expression that told me he completely understood if I wasn't happy with it, but he wasn't sure what else we could do. I agreed to at least have a look at the rooms.
I think that if the driver had not told us about the purpose of these rooms, I may have agreed to staying there; they were dirty but I'd seen hostel rooms in worse states, but it would have felt weird just imposing ourselves on a room in a seemingly normal family's house, and knowing what usually went on in there, I just couldn't agree to it. I'd rather sleep on the beach.
Clem agreed wholeheartedly and we thanked the family politely and climbed back into the tuk tuk. On the way out the driver stopped at one last place, making it pretty obvious that he had now given up and wasn't expecting them to accept us.
Down to some crazy good fortune, the owners of this guesthouse were French, and initially they turned our driver away but as soon as Clem started speaking to them in their native language they brightened up considerably and agreed to let us have a room. He returned to me in the tuk tuk with a smile on his face and a thumbs up, and I almost fell out of the vehicle in relief. He introduced me to the owners, after I reminded him of my name, but when they realised I didn't speak French they lost interest in me. They showed us the room, which was relatively nice compared to the last place we'd seen, and we went across the road for some dinner as it was now pretty late. Coincidentally, the restaurant was owned by a French-Canadian and I once again became a little bored of being left out of the conversation, so I told Clem I would be going back to the room as I had arranged with our tuk tuk driver to be picked up just after 6am to be in Serendipity in time for my bus. He decided to come back with me and stayed outside chatting to the owners while I went straight to sleep. I left quietly in the morning without waking him up and I still regret not thanking him for his help that night.
True to his word, the tuk tuk driver was there waiting for me with a smile in the morning and I arrived at the travel agency in plenty of time. It was closed, and the bus was late so I began to panic a little but eventually a minibus pulled up and after checking my ticket the driver waved me inside. We must have driven around Serendipity at least 3 times picking people up before we headed off to the bus station. To get to Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon, in Vietnam, we had to go up to Phnom Penh and change to another bus. The first leg of this journey, which was 6 hours long, was very unpleasant. The seat next to me was taken by a young local mum with two children, one who looked about 2 years old and the other a newborn baby. She cradled the baby against her chest and sat the toddler between us so he was taking up part of both seats. I didn't mind this at all and was smiling fondly at the toddler when he suddenly started vomiting everywhere. The poor mum didn't know what to do as she had her arms full with the baby, and she managed to take his shirt off and use it to mop most of it up, while I provided two packs of tissues I had in my bag. Eventually, she had to pass the baby to the woman across from her so she could clean and comfort the child, who was still not feeling well at all. Finally, he fell asleep and she took the baby back. I was very aware that I had some of his mess on my leg, shoe and bag, but didn't want to move in case I woke him up.
That was a very long six hours, especially as the child woke up every now and then to be ill again, but eventually we got to Phnom Penh and I breathed in the fresh air with relief. As soon as he got off the bus the child started running around and laughing again. After about 20 minutes the next bus arrived and I got on it, relieved to find it was much nicer than the previous one and, even better, it was almost empty and I could have two seats to myself. The rest of the journey was fairly relaxing and soon I had crossed the border into Vietnam.


Phnom Penh - Cambodia

Warning: this blog entry contains details of the mass killings in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge and is very depressing in parts.

Before I headed from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, I booked a hostel called The Mad Monkey for six nights, as my visit was going to coincide with the funeral of the former King and I had heard that everywhere was going to busy and it would be nearly impossible to leave the city until after the holiday.
I arrived at the hostel exhausted after the long bus journey and noticed how nice the place seemed to be. I was taken through the upstairs bar on my way to my dorm where a few people were relaxing, drinking and playing pool, and after a quick shower I joined Lisa, one of the girls in my dorm, at the bar.
After a few drinks, meeting some new friends and playing a few games of pool, we all decided we would head out for some food and continue the fun at the local bars.

Phnom Penh was a bit of a shock to me - I felt like I hadn't been in a proper city for a long time, especially as I didn't make an effort to see much of Bangkok. It was strange to see actual shops and tall buildings again!
Luckily for me, I had actually arrived in the city a couple of days before the funeral, meaning I got a chance to experience some nights out in the city and to make the essential visit to the Killing Fields and S-21. I would later find out that during the funeral everything was closed, loud music was banned and there would be very little to do anywhere.
On my first full day in Phnom Penh I visited the Killing Fields with Brian, one of the guys from my dorm. As we were both feeling a little hungover from the night before, we didn't leave the hostel as early as we probably should have, and we arrived at Choeung Ek in the afternoon.
I wasn't really sure what to expect as I didn't really know anything about Cambodian history at the time, and I had only heard a few comments about how horrific it had been. It seems nobody, including me, is able to effectively put into words the awful ordeal the Cambodian people have gone through so recently at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
Choeung Ek is the site of one of the countless "killing fields" all over the country, which has been opened up as a tourist attraction to enlighten foreigners like me who had no idea of the horrors committed on Cambodians by other Cambodians in the 1970's.
When you arrive you are directed to a small office where you are handed a leaflet and an audio headset, and sent on your way through the gate. You are guided around by the voice of one of the survivors (translated into English) who was a small boy when the Khmer Rouge took power, and who lost most of his family.
The first thing you see is a large stupa in front of you as you walk up the path, but the audio guide tells you to turn to your right - the stupa is the end of the tour.

Brian and I walked around in silence, transfixed by the voice of the survivor, unable to believe that this enormous tragedy was able to happen all over the country without the outside world knowing. We were guided around mass graves and cases full of bones and clothing that are washed out of the soil every time it rains. You can see fragments of human bone emerging from the ground not just in the areas marked as mass graves, but also on the path we are walking on.
Over one million people were killed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979, and 8895 bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek after the fall of the regime.


Finally, we were back to the Buddhist stupa, and were told it contained over 5000 human skulls. The door at the front was open and we were able to go inside and walk around the very edges. Many of the skulls had been smashed in.

As we quietly made our way back to the car park where our friendly tuk tuk driver was waiting, it dawned on us that this depressing experience wasn't over yet - we still had to visit S-21.
The tuk tuk driver called us over with a huge smile and a wave, which seemed so odd after what we had just experienced, and for the first time we realised that although this was just another day at work for him, this was also part of his history as well as every other local around us in the city. And yet the Cambodian people are the most happy, friendly people I have ever met.
As we arrived at S-21, it was getting quite late in the afternoon and we decided we would have to be relatively quick. As we made our way through the gates, we could see four large buildings, which looked almost identical except one of them was coated in barbed wire on the outside. This was to stop people jumping off the balconies.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was a former high school, which was taken over by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and used as a prison and interrogation centre named S-21.

The four buildings were named A,B,C and D, indicating which order we should visit them. The former classrooms in Building A had been converted into large cells for prisoners, and the bodies of the last victims were discovered here. There was writing on the walls in some of the rooms, and in some cases there were still blood stains on the floor. The rooms that still contained an iron bed and instruments of torture were accompanied by a photograph on the wall of that room from when the Vietnamese had found it, with the mutilated body of a prisoner chained to the bed, killed only hours earlier by the Khmer Rouge who had then fled.

Building B is filled with photographs of the victims, taken when they were first brought to the prison, and it takes a long time to look around at each one. Every room on every floor has as many photographs as it is possible to display in this space. These were what affected me the most at S-21 -  you could look into the terrified eyes of every person who was tortured and killed there and it suddenly made it so real. The atmosphere of the place made it feel like these people had only just left.
The rooms of Building C had been divided up into small cells, some made of wood, others made of brick. I went inside one to try and imagine what it must have been like to be held in such a cramped place, but found I couldn't stay in there for long, the feeling that the place had only been abandoned a few hours earlier was too much for me and I had to get out. By this point it was beginning to get dark.

Building D held weapons of torture and other things found at the prison, including the iron chair which every prisoner would have sat on when having their photograph taken. There was an iron bar attached to hold their heads steady.
We rushed through these rooms as there was no lighting in the buildings and we were both starting to get extremely freaked out as the darkness descended. As we left the last building and headed back towards the gate, we realised it was shut! We told each other that there must be another way out, there was no way we could be locked in here overnight, all the time both trying to conceal our rising panic as we simultaneously picked up the pace and followed the wall around, praying for a second gate to appear. Eventually, we found a small side gate open and, not bothering to hide our relief, we rushed through it to find our tuk tuk driver waiting patiently outside it.
After our nervous laughter in the tuk tuk subsided, we decided that we definitely needed to go out for a drink to try and shake off the thoughts from the day. Fortunately, our friends back at the hostel were up for it so we hit the town once again.
Corey, who I'd first met in Krabi, had arrived at the hostel that night and the next day he introduced me to his friends Jack and Mark. Lisa and I were planning on going out that night and the guys decided to join us. We had done very little during the day as we were recovering from our hangovers but we knew that the funeral proceedings had begun in the city; however, we didn't realise that this was going to put a stop to our plans for the evening.
Lisa and I took the guys to a bar we had really enjoyed the night before, but arriving there we found there was no music playing and everyone was regularly being told to keep the noise down. After a couple of very subdued drinks, we decided to give up and return to the hostel, stopping at a store on the way to buy a few beers. We ended up watching television in the hostel, and were even told to turn that down a couple of times.
The next day everyone seemed to be leaving except me, as I was still booked into the hostel for a few more nights. Lisa headed to Siem Reap and Corey, Jack and Mark had bought tickets to Sihanoukville. The other guys from my dorm had left before the funeral as nobody wanted to be stuck in the city when everything was shut and there was nothing to do and we couldn't even listen to music. It didn't take much persuading from Corey, Jack and Mark for me to cancel my last days at the hostel and buy a last minute bus ticket to join them in Sihanoukville. I had about 20 minutes to pack and leave the hostel to get the bus, which was fairly easily done and soon the four of us were squeezed in a small tuk tuk along with our rucksacks, on our way to the bus station. The boys had booked a minibus but the tickets were all sold out by the time I had decided to leave so I got on a regular bus on my own, promising to meet them at the other end.