Temples by day, parties by night... Dutch style
26.07.2012 - 17.08.2012 35 °C
I met the first of the Dutch trio in a back alley Saigon hostel. The desk clerk had given away my reservation and was forced to put me in a female dorm. The room was empty save for one young traveler reading on her bed. As is natural in dorm room situations, we got to talking. Her name was Dana and she boasted an impressive travel resume. She had been on the road for several months and had already backpacked through Russia, Mongolia and China before buying a motorbike in Hanoi and driving it to Saigon. She was laidback and easy to talk to. Even after just few minutes of chatting, it was clear we would get along well.
I had not eaten dinner at the time so I soon left to grab a bite. Dana and I agreed to meet later for drinks. She left a note and a small map taped to my bedpost illustrating at which bar I could find her and her friend Lara later that evening. Before I even had a chance to see the note, I ran into the two girls by chance on Saigon’s fresh beer street. I assumed that on this particular night, we were destined to drink together. Sitting at a tiny table on the side of road, sipping fifty cent glasses of beer, I met the second of the Dutch trio, Lara. She looked innocent enough at first glance, but I would soon come to see how Lara is an expert at finding, attracting or creating a party. Lara had already spent a couple months travelling Laos and Thailand and had just arrived in Saigon to begin her second stint in South East Asia. The fresh beer flowed like water that night. It was cheaper than water after all. We bar hopped, danced and drank until the last of the bars kicked us out before sunrise. As we stumbled back to the hostel, Dana and Lara convinced me to tag along with them as they made their way to Cambodia. The next morning, Dana and I were on a bus to Phnom Penh. Since Lara’s girlfriend Naomi was still on her way to Saigon, we agreed to meet them in Cambodia a few days later.
Many travelers I met in Vietnam had not spoken fondly of Cambodia. I had heard that the Cambodians were pushy, that there was not much to see beyond Angkor Wat and that the topography was flat and boring. Thus, I left Vietnam with the impression that I would only stop in Phnom Penh and Ankor Wat as I scurry my way back up to China. However, when you meet people, plans change and the Dutch girls were in no hurry. As we slowly travelled through Cambodia, I came to realize that the country has a lot more to offer than most realize.
Upon arriving in Phnom Penh, I was relieved to find that the city is not as touristy as any city in Vietnam. After leaving the riverside promenade where you find the majority of Phnom Penh’s hotels, we were hard pressed to find many other foreigners. The city was not very developed and had a relaxed atmosphere. As much as I enjoyed the craziness that is Saigon, Phnom Penh was a welcome relief from the chaos. There is not much to see in the way of tourist attractions, but the central market is a great place to waste an afternoon and the streets are full of interesting cultural displays. For a capital city, the people were quite friendly and welcoming. The young Khmer men and women who worked in our Hostel (the Happy 11) always greeted us with a smile and a beer.
We rented motorbikes one day and took them out of the city and into the countryside. Since this was my first attempt at riding a motorbike, I was anxious about learning how to do so in a South East Asian capital city. From the sidewalk, the river a mopeds flowing down the streets looked hectic and dangerous. But after a little instruction from Dana (who rode a moped from Hanoi to Saigon) and ten minutes on the streets of Phnom Penh, I felt a lot more comfortable. Once I was inside the torrent of traffic, the system became clear. The trick was to go with the flow, not make any sudden moves and stay out of way of anyone in a hurry. We rode the bikes to a lake fifty clicks away to relax in hammocks next the water. The lake was nothing special but it was more about the journey than the destination. The small villages, Buddhist temples and smiling locals along the way kept us interested. Unfortunately, I forgot to put on sunscreen in the morning. While I already had a protective tan on my arms and face, the highway wind pushed my shorts up into my groin exposing my upper thigh. This section of my body had not seen sun in years and got badly burnt. It took close to a week for the skin to recover. Nonetheless, the day was worth it. It was my first taste of the freeing experience that is traveling by motorbike. Compared to traveling in a bus... well… there is no comparison.
When we returned to Phnom Penh, Lara and Naomi were waiting for us at the hostel bar. The third of the Dutch trio had finally arrived and the team was complete. Lara greeted me with a slap on the thigh, ouch… Naomi was a little shy at first but soon warmed up. She was a friendly girl and, like Lara, always up for a good time. Later in the evening we were joined by a British friend of Dana's named Sophie who had just finished a six month spiritual quest through India. Sophie had some great stories from her adventures. Most of them revolved around her new life philosophy: do only what the universe tells you to do. I guess the universe told her to party because that night we went out on the town hard. First we hit a local club where the DJ played ridiculous remixes of western songs at four times their normal speed and then hit an expat bar where the DJ played the same ridiculous remixes but at their regular tempo.
The next day the girls went out motor biking. I decided to give my legs a rest and check out the Royal palace. The palace was big and fancy but not worth the entrance ticket. The main square next to the palace was much more interesting. Families gathered to line dance, skateboard and watch lady-boy lip-syncing performances. Spending an afternoon there was like watching a documentary on Cambodian city culture.
The following morning, we delved into Cambodia’s deep dark history. First we spent a couple hours at Toul Sleng prison, a former high school turned Khmer Rouge detention center where thousands of Cambodians were tortured and killed. Classrooms had been transformed into torture chambers and the courtyard turned into a gallows. It was an eerie place full of horror stories and chilling images. We then caught a tuk tuk the killing fields, one of around two hundred walled fields where more than one and a half million people were murdered by the Khmer Rouge regime in the 70s. Throughout the field, grassy knolls represented spots where innocent men, woman and children were bludgeoned to death and buried by the thousands. Some trees had deep indentations from where babies were once hurled against them. In the center of the field was a tall three story monument full of the skulls of thousands of victims. The small walled area spoke to the depths of horror that the Cambodian people had to endure during the three years of Khmer Rouge rule. A sobering attraction to visit but something everyone should see. We stayed in that night and watched movies on the rooftop patio of our hostel. We were all still taken aback by the experiences of the day. The next morning we were off to Sihanoukville.
Sihanoukville deservingly receives some scathing reviews. Its beaches are dirty and there is not much to do beyond party. Nonetheless, the party is deserving of reputation. The mishmash of dance floors that flow into swimming pools, late night beach side bars packed with both locals and backpackers, fire dancers covered in body paint, one dollar vodka redbulls and laughing gas balloons made for an interesting few days, especially when you’re traveling with a group of Dutch girls who are bent set on having a good time. Beyond Naomi winning a wet t-shirt contest, I don’t remember a whole lot from those nights but I will do my best to recount the days.
Much of our time was spent on the beach playing guitar and recovering from hangovers. We had some meals of freshly caught fish and generally took it easy. One cloudy day we took a tuk tuk out to a local waterfall to do a little swimming. We ended up getting covered in leeches and ditched the waterfall in favour of catching the happy hour at our hostel. We spent a day touring some of the islands surrounding Sihanoukville. The tour began with snorkelling in water that was so murky that I bashed my foot on rocks I couldn't see below. The tour improved when we arrived at a deserted island beach. The crew fed us fresh barbequed barracuda, one of the best meals I had in Cambodia. We capped off the tour by doing flips off the top deck of the boat and returned to the hostel, once again, in time for happy hour.
On our last day in Sihanoukville, some locals invited me to a quiet beach called Otres. It was much nicer than Sihanouville’s main beach. I stayed covered in the beach side bar playing pool all day to allow my sunburns to heal. I returned to the hostel later in the afternoon and, of course, in time for happy hour. After five nights of partying we decided to get the hell out of Sihanoukville for fear we might be lost in the belly of this alcoholic beast. The beach side town was a ton of fun but after almost a week of partying we were in need of a more relaxed environment.
We found just the place a few hours up the coast in Kampot, a little riverside village with a fairly large expat community and the gateway to the beautiful Kep national park. We stumbled upon a large hostel owned by a friendly American expat with voice of Casey Kasem. He was selling us his hostel as if it was a used car. When told us a room includes free access to a 9-hole mini-golf course we were sold. After a couple games, we got a good night sleep then woke up early the next day for one of the hostels delicious breakfast burritos. The cook used a crepe as a tortilla shell. Brilliant. After breakfast we rented motorbikes and made a limestone cave our destination. The area was not easy to find but refreshingly tourist free. At the mouth of the cave we were greeted by nine rambunctious thirteen year old boys who were, apparently, going to be our tour guides. The cavern was more impressive than I expected and the boys did an alright job of telling us about the various Buddhist carvings nestled inside. In fact, the tour leader was strangely professional. That is until he told us to scale a wet five meter wall with only a thin vine for support and scurry across a precarious stone bridge in order to exit the cave. It was no easy feat.
Our guides told us about a spectacular 'secret' lake nearby where we could cool off. The lake did not end up being very spectacular nor much of a secret as it was surrounded by hammocks and a restaurant but the swim was nice. We gave our tour guides a good tip for keeping us entertained and made our way back to Kampot.
The next day we took the bus to Kep then chartered a boat to Rabbit Island. The boatman left us on what appeared to be a deserted island. There was no beach, no trails and definitely no rabbits. The place was not supposed to be developed but it was supposed to at least have a couple bungalows and a food shack. We aimlessly walked the coast for a while until we eventually found a path which led us to back to humanity. The boatman had dropped us off on the wrong side of the island to avoid docking fees. The beach was beautiful and the water clear. We spent a relaxing day swimming, lying in hammocks and reading. I got a one hour Khmer massage for five bucks. Crab and double gin and tonics were on the menu for lunch. Our waiter literally took our order, walked out into the sea, pulled a trap up onto the beach and selected a few crabs. The smell of curry paste wafted from the kitchen to our table as we sat the sipping gin and tonics. The perfection of this moment propelled us into a conversation over how we are ever going to survive going home to real life and real responsibilities. When the waiter interrupted us with a delicious bowl of fresh curry crab, the conversation was dropped. We decided not to worry about it.
The next morning we took a minibus back to Phnom Penh (the transportation connections are so bad in Cambodia that you generally have to go back to Phnom Penh to get anywhere) then an overnight to Siem Reap. We arrived early and checked into a pretty depressing guesthouse to get some much needed sleep. Early the next day we moved to a more backpacker friendly hostel which had a chill rooftop patio, a pool table and tiny kitten who would come sit on your lap if you ordered a plate of fries. We called her French Fry.
Siem Reap is just a jumping point for visiting Angkor Wat but I was expecting the city to have at least a little cultural character. I was wrong. It’s the perfect example of a small city that has been destroyed by tourism. As a backpacker, I felt like a minority in the tourist demographic. The streets are dominated by western restaurants selling mock Khmer food, pushy tuk tuk drivers and large clubs that play only American top40 songs. Worse still, there is a massive volun-tourism network there which allows unskilled tourists to pay to play with ‘orphaned’ children for a day to up to a month. This has fostered a network of fake orphanages to which parents rent there children for a small fee. This is one of many examples of how volun-tourism is doing more harm than good in the developing world.
If Siem Reap was not as nice as I expected, the Angkor Wat temple complex certainly exceeded my expectations. Dana and I spent three days going temple to temple by tuk tuk and bicycle. Angkor Wat is imposing and detailed beyond belief but the main temple is only a small piece of what there is to see in the complex. There are several other massive temples and monuments. The one which made the biggest impression on me was Ta Phrom where many large trees and vines have grown through around the temple. It is an ancient structure which is now at one with nature. Three days was not enough to see all there is to see in the complex. I doubt a week is even enough. But we covered a lot of ground in the time we had and were ‘templed-out’ by the end of it.
With Angkor Wat crossed off the must see list, a decision had to be made regarding what to do for Lara's birthday. She did not want to stay in Siem Reap and two more of her Dutch friends were on their way to Cambodia for the event. Eventually Lara decided she wanted to spend her birthday back in Sihanoukville and the other girls followed suite. I originally decided to just carry on towards Laos without them but Dana persuaded me to come to the coast for just a couple more days so that we could travel Laos together after Lara and Naomi returned home.
Sihanoukville was more of the same. Another big crazy dutch party. Some of other people we had met in other parts of Cambodia even showed up for the event. It was a nice way to say farewell to Lara and Naomi. After the birthday bash Dana and I continued our adventure two Dutch girls short. We caught a bus up to Phnom Penh where we stayed one night before taking another bus North across the border into Laos. Cambodia was now in the rear view mirror.
Cambodia will not go down as one of my top destinations but it’s far from the worst. It certainly exceeded my expectations. I think it gets such a bad rap because people don't really give it a chance to begin with. Most travelers we met were spending a couple days in Siem Reap and a couple Days in Phnom Penh then leaving. To be honest, this was my initial plan as well until I met the Dutch trio. While Cambodia is not naturally as beautiful as Vietnam, it is less developed for tourism and more laidback. With the exception of Siem Reap, most tourist destinations in Cambodia are still backpacker dominated and there are countless untouched areas to explore. Of course, the Dutch trio certainly added to the experience. An important lesson I learnt in Cambodia is that travel is more about the people you meet than the places you go. I will always remember the good times I spent in Cambodia with a great group of travelers.