In hindsight, we probably did have too many stops scheduled during our trip through Cambodia. Two weeks and six stops, so at the last minute – and I mean the last – we woke up and decided that instead of leaving that day for Kampon Chnang, we’d head straight for Siem Reap, cut out a full day’s travel and spend an extra 24 hours exploring temples, markets and Pub Street.
We’d already travelled through Phnomh Penh, Kampot and Sihanoukville and prior to that my sister, Julie, and I had spent three weeks travelling through Uganda. In truth we were exhausted – being on the road can do that to you. It sounds so easy when you’re sitting on your comfy couch in your living room at home, you want to fit everything in, and the distances look so close.
But then reality hits, you start travelling and remember that even the simplest things like just going to the toilet or getting a bottle of water can require thought and planning akin to invading a hostile territory with nothing more than a 10-year-old map and a lighter.
We’d travelled to Kratie from Sihanoukville, sure that it would take just a few hours to get from one town to the next afterall, Cambodia is really not that big – it took 12 hours.
The first bus we boarded was ok, yes we were confused about our seating arrangements and had to move but we were pleasantly surprised that it was a large bus with passably comfortable seats. A few hours later we arrived in Phnomh Penh. We sat waiting for those that were leaving the bus here to hop off, relaxed with the knowledge we still had a distance to go to our final destination.
But then we were told to get off the bus, that this bus wasn’t actually going to Kratie. We weren’t told this through official sources, of course. The bus driver had just up and left, letting us all figure it out for ourselves. But soon the whisper went around.
We disembarked, and were pounced upon by a local more than willing to help us out. I smelled a scam, held my bags just a little closer. We were directed to a window, but our helpful local got there first and found out where we were meant to be. Next thing we were loaded, luggage and all, on to two tuk tuks and sent on our way. We never did see our helper again and he never did ask for money.
We pulled up beside two minivans and were directed onto one of them.
Confusion reigned, Ade was told to sit in the front seat, Julie, Pete and I nestled into the back. We relaxed a little – sure, the back was packed full of boxes and now our bags had been jammed in too, one of the back seats couldn’t go back fully as there was simply too much stuff in the way, but at least there was plenty of room inside for us. Or so we thought.
Four more people piled into the three remaining seats – even the back seat that didn’t go back completely was now occupied. At least one of them was very drunk, none of them spoke English, but they all wanted to engage with us.
Ade offered to move into the back, but once again the driver told him to sit in the front.
And then we were off. We crisscrossed our way across Cambodia, making various stops along the way – pick up some eggs here, drop something off there, buy some turnips here.
We finally arrived at Kratie, just in time for the last boat across to the island we were staying on.
The island – Koh Trong – is in the middle of the Mekong Delta. It is very rural, very traditional and very quiet.
We piled onto the long boat – our bags dumped with other backpacks, shopping bags, the odd bike and a motorbike – and made the short $US1 trek across the river.
Once on the island we took motorbikes to our accommodation – it really was all modes of transport in one day. The only thing missing was a flight.
Our accommodation in Kratie was basic – no wifi, no airconditioning, solar powered. It was stifling hot at night so Ade and I slept on wet towels to cool us down. But it was beautiful – traditional teak buildings set in the Cambodian jungle.
Julie was violently ill all night – we never did find out why – so her and Pete hung out at the hotel while Ade and I took the boat back across to Kratie to check out the markets. It was a short look around, there really wasn’t much to see – so much better staying on the island which was calm and peaceful instead of the chaos that ensued on the mainland.
When we got back to our accommodation, Julie was feeling a little better, that or her FOMO had kicked into gear, so the four of us hired motorbikes – and drivers – to take us on a tour around the island.
For $US5 we rode to the other end of Koh Trong – with a short stop to see a local turtle along the way – and settled in to watch the sunset over the floating villages.
We sat on the banks of our island watching the villagers going about their daily lives and stared in wonder as they lit a fire amidst the 30 or so teak homes all set in the middle of the Mekong. The homes were connected to each other by a series of walkways. From there we rode back past the villagers’ homes, past the temple and the monastery and back to our accommodation.
Without the stops it would probably take about half an hour to ride around the island, and the ride gives an interesting insight into the way the locals live. Other than bikes the main modes of transport on the island are mini horse and carts (and when I say mini, I mean the size of a large dog) and pushbike.
From here we had planned to go on to Kampon Chnang by bus, but after our experience getting to Kratie we figured it was better to fork out the money for a taxi and head straight to Siem Reap instead.
It was worth it – comfort and our only stop was for lunch!
And so we arrived in Siem Reap and finally made it to those temples! And the markets and Pub Street!
It’s hard not to love Angkor Wat for the sheer size of it. And seeing something in person that you’ve seen represented in images so frequently is always quite thrilling. But I would have to say it wasn’t my favourite of the temples. I loved the Tomb Raider temple – Prah Tom.
There is something about the way the trees continue to grow up through the walls of this ancient temple that makes it really interesting – a good reminder that nature can’t be contained, we can try and tame it, try and control it, but in the end it will find a way through.
We spent three days exploring the temples. On the first day we were picked up early for an organised tour to see the temples at sunrise. We joined just about every other tourist in Cambodia to get that one shot of the buildings reflected in the lake at the temple entrance.
Unfortunately Ade was quite sick and while he battled the crowds to get a shot with as few tourists in it as possible, he wasn’t happy with the outcome so we had to go back – anything for a good sunrise shot! We tried again, this time on our own with just our Tuk Tuk driver Mr U, but again Ade fell ill and didn’t even make it out the door. In the end we went at sunset. Mr U took us to the back of the temple, where the number of tourists could be counted on one hand and were outnumbered by the monkeys.
The sunset was beautiful and the temple peaceful.
On our first night in Siem Reap we watched while a little boy drove his remote control car along Pub Street. We were sitting in a pub, of course, watching him play in the street when next thing a Tuk Tuk driver ran over the car. The driver laughed about it. We were all outraged. Ade got straight up and went to see if we could buy the boy a new one, he looked so sad – the boy, not Ade.
Apparently he had bought the car from the market and it would cost $5 to buy a new one. Ade was going to go with the boy to the market, but decided instead to just give him the money.
We did half wonder whether it was a scam, but we didn’t see the boy again and didn’t think much more about it until we discovered the boy’s father was one of the street vendors selling books from a cart around Pub Street. We had seen him a couple of times, he had lost his legs in a landmine explosion. We bought three books from him and looked forward to seeing his smiling face whenever we were in Pub Street, which, let’s be honest, was pretty much every night. He told us his son was visiting family but had indeed replaced his car with the money Ade had given him.
It’s devastating to see the ongoing impact of the Khmer Rouge all through Cambodia. There are victims of landmines throughout the country – singing, begging, selling books – anything to make a living. And these are the people who survived; up to a quarter of the population was killed in the four years Pol Pot was in charge.
Yet despite what they have been through, or perhaps because of it, the Cambodian people are very friendly, their smiles so warm and welcoming.
Someone told us they would “steal the milk from your coffee”. But we didn’t find that.
We kept looking out for the scams, expecting to be ripped off, but it never came. Sure, a lot of people wanted to sell us stuff, wanted us to give them money, but the locals we met had a warmth that was infectious and a smile that shone through every pore in their faces.
We stayed at Arun Mekong Guest House on Koh Trong for two nights and Rose Royal Hotel in Siem Reap for six nights.
Was it long enough? We had plenty of time to explore the things we wanted to see in Siem Reap, including three trips to the temples. Two nights was long enough in Koh Trung, unless you want to go dolphin watching.
Highlights? Pra Thom temple, watching the sunset over the floating village of Koh Trung, chatting to the locals.