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21 June 2017

notes from cambodia

One thing I learned in my time in Cambodia is that when you board a bus, you'll need to add two hours on to the proposed journey. Why, you ask? Because the driver will stop along broad stretches of road to pick up passengers. He'll stop at houses to say hello and for a leisurely lunch while you wait under the blistering sun to continue your trip. He'll stop wherever he sees fit for however long suits his fancy. Nothing is said of this added time, neither is it added on to the approximation you're given beforehand. It's simply something that's an unwritten rule. Just the way this part of the world turns, you might say.

We spent much of our time in former Kampuchea on this kind of transport. 7 hours here, 8 hours there. Masses of minutes spent inside metallic vessels whirling and rocking down bumpy roads so fast you think they're sure to hurtle over. But they don't. The pitstops range from holes in the ground with red tables arranged under the baking sun, to Westernised roadside spots that serve Yorkshire Tea. For $4 a cup.
We arrived in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh from Ho Chi Minh City by bus, of course. First impressions? A crumbling metropolis, slightly more sedate than Vietnam’s blitzkrieg highways, but still sizzling. Perhaps it was the heat that made it appear so, or maybe the fact that the buildings seemed to melt into the street. A city chaotic yet charismatic in a wiled-down sort of way, mostly akin to Bangkok. We escaped our vehicle long overdue and checked in to Aura Thematic Hostel near the Grand Palace. It was nice, in the way that an abode with giant oddly intimate flowers pasted on to a wall can be.

It was within our first few days here that we first experienced what would become a recurring theme in Cambodia, a reclaiming of their country’s brutal history through tourism. In Phnom Penh S-21, a former school converted by the Khmer Rouge into a torture chamber, and the infamous Killing Fields are what can only be described as the predominant tourist sights. Both are a harrowing yet crucial visit.

We eat incredibly well in the capital. Cousins Burger, Cartel An, and many delicious local joints give us a mix of expertly cooked Western food and South-East Asian cuisine. If you ever find yourself here try the beef Lok Lak, you won’t be disappointed.  Out of all of the establishments we dine at though, Daughters of Cambodia is the most impacting. Its staff is made up of former sex workers finding financial sanctuary from the rehabilitation and employment offered by the unassuming cafe/shop by the water.

Le Tonle is another place serving up amazing grub while also helping the community; the waiting staff are locals being trained in the fine-dining hospitality trade. It’s located what should be 4 hours south, but is instead near enough 7, in the small dormant Mekong River town of Kratie. Here men play guitars, and we sip cheap mojitos. Later we sleep under pink mosquito nets and boil alive on cartoon covered fleece blankets. One bit of advice: in 35 degree heat always go for the room with A/C if you can afford it — the alternative isn’t the most pleasant.

The next morning we go by boat (on which we were the only ones) to chase Irrawaddy dolphins residing serenely in the water. We’re told beforehand to quell our expectations, that a sighting of them isn’t at all guaranteed. Chuffed we are then to see hoardes of the marine monarchs, distinct noses riding above the ripples. Pure magic.

From Otres we take a Tuk Tuk then a boat to Koh Rong and the Palm Beach resort. For £5 a night we stay in a beach bungalow in a tropical paradise I’ve never seen the likes of. Island pups swim beside us as we paddle in the turquoise water. We’re introduced to a Balinese steel drum by a Chilean. We kayak to the forest and back again. We constantly lament the litter imposing on the next beach along, a parallel we see repeated in many places here. Rubbish, rubbish, everywhere, in amongst the Cambodia snow — the thick red dust that arrives in clouds from the roads and blankets everything in sight.

As we wait for our return journey in a small village, I barter with a woman missing half of her upper teeth for a dress. "Nooooo," she smiles at my counter-offer. Our verbal dual goes on and on until eventually she relents. In the meantime, her minion, a beautiful five year old girl implants flowers in our hair, flashing her own tiny mouth-pearls. She points vigorously at her book, which shows Adam and Eve as half-naked Sim-like characters. We nod, laugh, and sweat, waiting for our train to be ready again.
Otres Beach comes next on our trip, another 8 hour bus ride south of Phnom Penh. It’s the better alternative to nearby seedy Sihanoukville, full of bohemians and backpackers with sand that sparkles in the light of its rose sunset. 

Back to Phnom Penh we go by bus, and then north to the Cambodia’s second biggest city, Battambang. It’s pronounced “Ba-dom-bong” and roughly means ‘Lost Stick’. We’re guided around by Solam, who’s Tuk Tuk is called Wendy after a girl he met on Tinder. One of the sights we see that day is the Bamboo Railway, the only train line in the country. “Are you ready for your free ass massage?” Solam says, smirking. And sure enough the motored raft bobs us up and down at such a frantic speed that we’re initially a little alarmed. While riding the railroad, you must abide by the rail rules. Any time another train comes the other way, who ever reached the point second must dismantle their carriage, move it to one side and wait until its bamboo rival has passed. This makes for quite the ritual. 

The Killing Caves are perhaps the most memorable part of this day. It's dark down here and dank. The history of violence hangs in the air. We walk down the steps into the mouth of it, down into the depths of the burial site, where thousands of people were flung to their deaths. We find an old attendant sitting smoking amongst the rubble and a golden Buddha. He is silent and pensive. I don't know how he spends his days here, I think to myself, goosebumps across my forearms. 

From Battambang we drive to Siem Reap. Here we visit Angkor Wat at sunrise, dance on Pub Street, visit a local school built by the organisation Emily volunteered with last year, we see children in classrooms that would otherwise be peddled into poverty, we meet and drink with great people, and we roam the markets. The temples of this town are utterly mesmerising. I cannot do their beauty justice with words.

Cambodia surprised me. It quickly became my favourite of South-East Asia's backpacker triad of countries. Maybe it was the people - those that told us intimate stories of government corruption still raging, theories of Pol Pot, the Vietnamese and more, or those that either proposed to us or invited us to weddings. Maybe it was the food, and the accessibility of local cuisine. Maybe it was the wild green of its jungles, the white sand of its beaches, and the red of its unblemished earth. Or maybe it was all of these things, plus a whole lot more I still can't put my finger on. 



  1. Jenny I am loving your 'Notes From' posts. The way you write is so immersive - I feel like I'm there with you!
    Kate xxx

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