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Monday, September 23, 2013

Koh-Rong - off the map

Koh-Rong is two hours off the coast of Southern Cambodia, technically somewhere in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand. To anyone else in the world - it's Timbuktoo or Narnia, not many will ever get to go there but believe me it's worth it.

It's basically a like a beachfront village. There is no five-star accomodation here - in fact I think the tree-top hut April and I inhabited for our stay ($15) was about as classy as it gets. The only disconcerting part was that after we'd walked down the wooden quay to the beach (after getting off the boat) we entered Coco's (after removing our flip flops - everyone in the bar is barefoot) and the first thing I hear is a Dublin accent.... Almost 11, 000 km from home...sure where else?
Our hut - Fabulous, although we were convinced there was a polar bear from "Lost" underneath it one night. This may have had something to do with copious amounts of alcohol and some hallucinogenics... we didn't plan on the hallucinogenics by the way.... but on a remote island in South East Asia...well, let's say you're always going to get more than you planned for.

There is very little electricity on the island. Coco's had a generator but all the lights outside the bar go off around 1am. We made our way back to the hut in the dark or by candlelight, we also heard alot of other people falling around the place in the dark late at night.

The few days spent there were passed in a hazy bliss, massages overlooking the sea as the sun went down.... delicious noodle soup served in a shack which had a roof but only two walls (people lived there and dogs and chickens ran all around our feet), snoozing in the sunshine after swimming in crystal clear waters, drinking suspect cocktails at Coco's and dancing to questionable Euro-pop with other backpackers who'd found the island, eating fresh fish that the man went out and caught right in front of us in the ocean - with a spear no less, watching youths learning to become flame-throwers....It was all a little surreal.
My favourite little pup - BBQ!

Sandflies and puppies and Phil, the traveller from Manchester who was completely spaced out, we didn't know if he'd been there 4 days, 4 months or 4 years. I had breakfast with him one morning where we had a long discussion (mostly him - I was still recovering from casting Harry Potter spells in the bar the previous night) about how it would be if we could all read eachother's minds. Phil eventually came to the conclusion that it would be a bad idea. Excerpt as follows:
Phil: It would be bad, really bad....(spaces out for a bit - I'm still looking at him) bad, man, ye know?
Me: Yeah
Phil: Like I'm a nice guy, a bright guy and I know alot of stuff, but sometimes...sometimes I just think - I'd like to kill you, ye know?
Me: Yeah (Note I didn't even argue here, maybe I too was spaced out)
Phil: Not you personally but you know when you meet someone really stupid.....stupid, stupid (pointing at his head)
Me: Yeah
Phil: Well, like that, you're like Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! in your head like, and I wouldn't want people to know that
Me: Yeah, I know what you mean Phil.
And then he lay down on the bench again, staring into space, with one hand up shaped like a claw. He was an interesting guy.

Standards and habits that you have at home need to go by the wayside when you're traveling. April managed to wash her hair each day in the cold water, but I mostly just had a swim in the sea and a sponge down afterwards, my hair was in an interesting condition after three days but my skin was ultra soft! I lived in a bikini and sometimes threw a ti-shirt over it.

All the children on the island are schooled in one room - which has a roof but is otherwise open air. We could hear them learning their colours in English as we passed down the beach. Absolutely charming. These people are poor though and rarely go to the mainland, we would see them washing their clothes in the sea and the clothes lines hung across the trees. They are so friendly though, always smiling. The children would run down the beach after us and giggle shyly if we said hello or waved.

There's wonderful diving and snorkelling off the island. You can even go at night, as the sharks come out then :) We were content just to read and swim and take it all in, the longest walk we managed was about twenty minutes.

There will be gecko's and mice in your room, and possibly other things too, but I thought of a hut on a lake in Thailand two years previously and just decided to go with it. There's no point stressing over these things when you're traveling - you just won't enjoy it as much. Which is not to say that I didn't sleep in with April, and all her luggage, whilst on the island (I found fresh droppings in my bed....when my mossie net had been up...) but then there's more stories in there.

Koh Rong is due for redevelopment soon, which is a real pity. I think they are going to stick some five star resort on it, and you can see why, but they will definitely destroy some of the wonderful magic they have going on there.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Staying in a shack in Sihanoukvile

After a 7 1/2 hour bus ride through the country-side (which is very picturesque by the way, but after that length of time, and mostly in the dark it gets a little tiring) we disembarked in Sihanoukville. The town was larger than we originally thought and since it was by now 9.30pm we knew we weren't getting to the island of Koh Rong that night so we set about finding suitable accommodation. We teamed up with two Swiss guys and got a tuk-tuk down towards the sea, finding a hostel/guesthouse on the corner. We checked out the log cabins and it seemed clean so we booked in for the princely sum of USD12 each.
Our cabin in Sihanoukvile

After a quick bite we decided to explore the little coastal town, first coming across two cows wandering down the main street. I wished I had a camera as it was absolutely hilarious to watch. They walked up to a little bar and a man sitting down nearly jumped out of his seat. We saw many tourists/backpackers like ourselves in the bars dotting the seafront. It was like a really run-down version of the seafronts you see in Majorca or Ibiza. There were little shacks everywhere on the beach with various genres of music blasting out and people in various stages of undress, many holding joints, dancing to the rhythms being pumped out.

We found a place where we could book the boat to Koh Rong and also accomodation in some treetop huts at Coco's. As the boat departed at 8 we decided we should head back and get some sleep for our early rise. Unfortunately sleep was not to be that soon as the lights went off I heard some scratching in my bed. Terrified of bed bugs, I decided I would sleep on the covers, but that didn't work either so I moved over to April's bed. She seemed to be sleeping soundly. Unfortunately her bed was near the window so I could hear our neighbours outside their room partying. I took a panadol night....then half an hour later another......then a Xanax, then another. Eventually I gave up and just read my book. Not a nice feeling. We struggled out of the room around 7am, without showers and made our way by tuk-tuk to the meeting place for the boat....where we were told that the bus had left. He'd mistakenly given us the wrong time (although he maintained that he hadn't). We asked if the tuk tuk driver would take us to the port.... It was a battle against time, we didn't know if the tuk-tuk would make it...we tore along the streets, maneuvering in and out of traffic, animals and people... we pulled up at the port and dashed to our boat just as they were pulling up the anchor. Relieved, we sat quietly in the sun, getting our breath back and watching the boats go by.

Bye Bye Sihanoukvile! We made it!

It was the first time I really realised how far away we were. It was a great feeling but also quite emotional. April and I had been rushing around since we'd met up but the stresses of the previous month (after the break-up) were getting to me and I had a little cry on the boat. It passed quickly - I think I just needed a little release. April was great, she put her arms around me and told me, as great friends do - that it would all be fine. Watching the pretty clouds pass by and the open blue sea ahead, I thought maybe she might have a point.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

They do things differently - tips I wish I'd had prior to my Cambodia trip

I thought rather than bore you with some of the anecdotes that led to these tips, I would just put them down in an easy format for you. Cambodia is a wonderful country but if you're from the Western world you have to accept that things are very different from home.

1. Bring an adaptor. Sure, it seems obvious but you wouldn't believe how many people assume "the hostel" will have one. Some do, but the more off the beaten track you are, they probably won't. We were in a small bar on an island and approx 30 people were trying to charge their ipads, iphones etc with one adapter.
Voltage: 230 V; Plugs A & C* (Some outlets are a combination of type A and C and can accept either type plug. Plug G may be found in some hotels.)

2. Do take your malaria tabs before you go. I've actually heard people bragging about not taking them. Not big and not clever. Be wary that those tabs may affect your mood, so I wouldn't recommend taking them the day before going to S21 or the Killing Fields. You might cry endlessly or decide that you're going to go and destroy Pol Pot's grave. I didn't do either thankfully (my fellow travellers might argue that point!). S21 was pretty emotional anyway.

3. Realise that time is a very loose idea in Cambodia. If someone suggests that a bus trip will take 4 hours, bank on about 7. If they say you're going somewhere in a tuk-tuk about 40 minutes away, it will be at least double. Accept it. This is how it is. Thousands of travellers don't complain and neither should you.

4. If you do have extra cash it is sometimes worth it to take a taxi. Do haggle though and do have an idea of what you think is a fair price prior to doing the haggling. We got completely done travelling from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap. We paid USD130 and later found out USD75 could have covered it.   Also, pay half first and half when you get there, otherwise  - again like us, you could end up having travel arrangements you didn't bargain on (Changing to another taxi with no question - could have been fatal! No A/C etc)

5. Always buy bottled water, use it for brushing your teeth, washing vegetables etc. Dengue is on the rise, and there is no cure. Although it doesn't affect foreigners as much, it is a waterborne disease, one silly mistake and you could find yourself with a very upset tummy indeed (not nice on a 7 hour bus journey!). Maybe I was a little paranoid by keeping my mouth closed in the shower but you never know!

6. About scams and paying too much. Most of the people are very nice and not out to scam you. If you think that something is overpriced or a scam then be polite and walk away. Remember that these people have to make a livelihood too. We were quite upset that we got totally ripped off pre-dawn at Ankor Wat. We paid for tea and bread rolls and thought it was a bit pricey only to find that half an hour later other stalls had opened selling things at half the price. There are alternatives - if your hostel has food available organise that in advance - ours did - it was an amazing hostel with great food and Phil is a super host/owner. You can also get breakfast if you stay on the temple tour after Ankor Wat, really reasonable and anything you want (Pancakes!).

7. Be wary of child prostitution. Everywhere you go you will see signage about hostels not allowing people to enter with minors. This is a real and serious problem in Cambodia, we saw it in Phnom Penh. Please report anything suspicious to the police. People should visit this country for it's beauty and nothing else. Also, in the markets in Phnom Penh I noticed there was normally an older girl who kept an eye on the younger children. If you can't find the police approach these girls, they are really grateful and ever vigilant.
The guys in the next hut definitely didn't obey no.3

8. Be respectful around religious monuments. This is a Buddhist country, take care not to stand with your back to Buddha's when taking photo's etc. Also, remember the whole area of Angkor Wat and the temples is sacred - dress appropriately (knees and shoulders covered).

9. Every guidebook will tell you not to give to beggars. To be honest, it's only encouraging them and keeping them out of employment. Alot of people will offer to be a guide and then expect some form of payment. There are places your money can do good. Check out Friend's Restaurant (and shop, and beauty training school!!) in Phnom Penh. The food is fabulous, unusual and portions are huge so don't order too much. Pop next door then for fabulous handmade gifts and you can get your nails done. We love, love, loved this place.

Overall, just be safe and enjoy. Take much with a grain of salt - this is not your country. Any questions - I'm happy to answer!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Cambodia - Phnom Penh

My oldest friend April planned to travel for a few months at the end of 2012. I was envious and really wanted to join her but could only really take a couple of weeks off so we planned to meet in Cambodia.  I can't go into a day by day blog like other trips but I did take some notes....

Day 1 - First impressions of Phnom Penh was that it was so different to Bangkok - I finally felt I was in "real" Asia. The airport was tiny and the staff/police there were unsmiling. Outside was a different story. My tuk-tuk driver Pauli awaited me and negotiated the crazy streets with ease. I have never, ever seen so many motorcycles. People everywhere smiled, waved and stared (I am incredibly white, even moreso than the average Irish person and this is a source of great interest for non-Caucasians). I noticed that although everyone is fighting for space in traffic there's almost a system. They squeeze in but don't push you out of the way!

The fumes!

I was excited to be on my own to explore for the day but looking forward to April's arrival. Phnom Penh is such a mixture of the modern and the old. It is a city that still bears the hallmarks of the civil war in the '70's. Could it be called a war? It was more like wanton slaughter by a dictator, people didn't really fight back!

Bird of Peace - A bird sculpted out of recovered machine gun parts - a grim reminder of war.

The city also has a lot of greenery, small shop shacks line the streets, walking was a pleasure although people wondered why I hadn't hired a tuk-tuk or motorcycle.

There are beautifully ornate statues everywhere and Buddhist objects. Strange smells and sights assaulted me everywhere on my walk. I was warned about rats down by the river but didn't see any.

April and I stayed in Me Mates place -
It had been recommended by friends and fellow travellers. It ended up being more expensive than everywhere else we stayed but it was clean and we had our own bathroom. Also, having a bar downstairs with internet was nice, and the owners have dogs (I LOVE dogs!). I didn't find any of the others guests particularly friendly before April arrived but the locals on the street were really nice and were showing me their English copybooks and trying to learn off me which was charming. I shared some of my cigarettes with them and whiled away the time until April arrived.

I felt excited about the rest of the trip and it was brilliant to have my best friend by my side again in a brand new country!