(192 Days In)
…Ok, so we’re admittedly a little (M: six months) behind at this stage.
Our last post took you through our experiences in Malaysian Borneo: the orangutans, the sunbears, the nausea – great times. Now it’s time for our real step into the ‘backpacking’ part of this adventure. With no more flights (M: apart from a couple) or car rentals and still a lot of ground to cover, it was time to resort to buses and trains and lugging our big packs around ourselves.
Our First Land Border
After our flight into Bangkok and almost two hours of the longest immigration queue I’ve ever waited in, we had a short taxi ride to our hostel for the night. A pretty nondescript place, it was simply a place to lay our heads as we were to leave the country the very next day on a six-hour ‘Giant Ibis’ bus to Cambodia. Our destination was Siem Reap, gateway to Angkor. I was pleasantly surprised by the trip itself – the bus had been modified for a comfier ride with air-con and reclining seats – but I’d be lying if I said I had been looking forward to it.
Having got up early and found the bus a couple of hundred metres away from where it was supposed to be, we boarded and were immediately given a croissant and coffee that put my worries to rest. They were shaken again ten minutes later when we had to do a block as they’d forgotten someone, and the driver managed to narrowly avoid hitting what I’m pretty sure was the same biker twice, but we soldiered on. The city of Bangkok is a lot bigger than I had initially though, but soon enough we had left the urban sprawl and made it into the rolling pastures of what I had imagined the Southeast Asian countryside to look like.
The journey was fairly uneventful, until the most confusing border crossing I’ve ever made with a literal coachload of people. We handed our passports to the guide, who informed us that he would go and get the visas for everyone at once instead of us all having to go out and queue in the heat. It felt odd watching a gentleman just take our identities and wander into a shantytown but we were far too British to voice our concerns, and luckily he was back shortly after with the stack of passports. Following this we had to drive two miles to the actual border where we alighted from the coach. We walked through a small market to get to the not-at-all-signposted Thai border, which signed us out of the country, then had to walk through ‘No Man’s Land’ to the not-at-all-signposted Cambodian border. All of this was done whilst the bus we had been on (and which all of our possessions were still on) slowly made its way forward and grabbed a parking space.
Once we had been fingerprinted, stamped and given the all-clear by the border staff we were ushered to a nearby building for a quick toilet break, which also happened to be a casino and in an almost PTSD-like fashion our days in Vegas clawed their way back into my mind. I was forcibly dragged back outside and back onto the bus by Megan, where we were handed a plastic box of fried rice for lunch and left the spinning lights promising cash prizes behind.
Eventually we made it to our destination: a small bus depot on the edge of town. It was so small that I would have liked to stay and see the bus make the 3-point turn it needed to get back out, but alas, we had to continue our journey. Almost literally pushing aside the horde of tuk-tuk drivers, we found our bearings on Google, shouldered our six-months’ worth of possessions and headed off toward our hotel (M: in retrospect we should have just accepted a tuk-tuk as it was far too hot to be carrying fifteen kilos of dirty washing and souvenirs, but we made it eventually).
What struck me first was the immediate fear of being hit by something motorised, as the streets were a lot like those we had encountered in Bali’s Ubud but with a lot less pavement for pedestrians to seek refuge on. A few (M: 30) stress-filled minutes later and we arrived at the our hotel, Neak Pean. Lathered in wooden panelling and with a pool in the courtyard, it promised to be a good one. We were to be disappointed though, as the room we were led to was far from the booking.com photos and even though we were quite used to that by this stage, it was almost the complete opposite of what we had been expecting.
We sat for a few minutes in not-so-quiet, sleep-deprived annoyance until the unthinkable happened: I, Peter David Couzens, went to complain at the front desk. This was a shining moment, as with pride and fire burning in my eyes I informed the host that the room he had just placed us in was nothing at all like it should have been and frankly, I would like it if he could move us to one that was. He peered back into my impassioned eyes and with a sorry expression told me that “the hotel is full”. And that was that, I apologised for taking up his time, wished him a good evening and went back to our crappy room. I am, before most things, British.
Among the many problems with the room, the bed was even more solid than the one that had almost given me a black eye. This meant a pretty poor night’s sleep for the both of us and so we resigned ourselves to a ‘bed day’, catching up on admin and planning our next few days around the sub-continent. I was charged with finding a nice dinner spot (which happened to be a far more swanky place than I thought, with small portions, lots of wine and staff that did not like it if you tried to pour it yourself) and afterwards we had a short wander through the nearby night market.
Once back to our cell we grumbled some more at the hotel/other patrons who had taken up so much room and tried to get an early night, as tomorrow was going to be a long one.
The next morning saw us getting up before the crack of dawn and climbing into the back of a tuk-tuk. Through bleary eyes and rattling bones we were taken out of the centre of town and to Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. I had been excited to see this since we began travelling and it was on the top of my list of things to see in SE Asia. We paid our entry and made our way across the floating bridge in the dark, surrounded by other tourists with torches. Once we made it into the complex we found a semi-comfortable seat on a rock and waited for the sun to rise over the iconic towers of the main temple. Hopefully you’ve seen our photos, but I can tell you that they do not do the scene justice.
Once we were satisfied that the sun had indeed come up again (and it was no longer dark) we headed inside, along with the hundreds of other Instagram users. We neglected to make our way up the main tower (there was a large queue to a very steep and long staircase, not my scene) but instead traced a loop around the grounds, taking in the carvings and artwork. Angkor Wat was originally built as a Hindu temple, in worship to the god Vishnu, but over the years it slowly became a Buddhist monument which, alongside a few other architectural quirks, makes it an incredibly interesting place to wander around.
A couple of hours after being dropped off we headed back to the tuk-tuk carpark, passing dozens of drivers napping in hammocks in their vehicles or playing board games with each other and finally found our guy on the phone. Back on the road and a little less terrified now that we could see the oncoming traffic being dodged, we made our way to Angkor Thom, another group of temples nearby. These were set out in the open and had been surrounded by roads, which meant that after seeing a couple of them we were able to get drive-by shots of the others – exactly our kind of tourism.
Whilst trying to find our driver after we’d wandered round the last one, we were pleasantly surprised to see an elephant casually wandering down the road. Unfortunately, the creature had some tourists on it back (this isn’t recommended by groups who care for elephants) but it was still awesome to see one a little closer than the snapshot Meg caught in Borneo!
The last stop on the tour was Ta Prohm, the filming location for a scene of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, starring, to quote our guide, Abolina Bolie. Unfortunately it was under huge renovation (don’t ask me how that works), but we were still sufficiently impressed by the trees’ integration of the temple.
Having dodged enough tourists for the day (M: including one Asian gentleman with EXTREMELY inappropriate socks for a temple visit) we asked the driver to head back to our hotel – he had some other sightseeing suggestions but we were starting to feel the early rise and lack of caffeine, and still needed to check out of our lodgings. He understood, and a short ride later dropped us back at the front door – a successful day of tourism!
We had booked another long bus journey to take us to our next destination, but this time at night. A bold move I think, but it is a very common way for tourists to get from place to another in Cambodia. Run by the same company that got us into the country this one was to take us to Sihanoukville, a large town on the coast that has a ferry service over to the beach island of Koh Rong – our actual destination for the next few nights. This meant that when we got back to our hotel at around midday following our sightseeing, we had to check out and then kill a lot of time in a nearby coffee shop. They had decent WiFi so we set the devices to downloading the entirety of Netflix, checked over the budgeting and generally did nothing for a while.
Before too long it was time to head on out, and we walked back to the hotel that had graciously held onto our big bags for the day (I suppose they weren’t all bad). We hopped into another tuk-tuk and told the driver “Giant Ibis bus, please”. We thought this would be rather straightforward but apparently Giant Ibis had recently moved location and the depot they dropped us off at was not where we needed to be. Thankfully technology exists and Megan showed the gentleman the address on Google Maps – he was still uncertain but headed off in that direction anyway.
We had left plenty of time before the departure for this to not be too much of a problem but I was getting slightly worried when we got to those coordinates and the guy in the office had no idea about where we should be. Luckily, on the way back up the main road to yet another destination, I spotted the glowing signage above what we now know is Giant Ibis’s new bus office.
The bus itself was surprisingly pleasant. It had been converted for complete night-time use, so instead of seats there was a row of semi-private double/single beds. By beds I mean squares or rectangles of thin foam on a wooden panel, but each ‘bunk’ had its own air-con, blanket and pillow and since we had chosen a bottom ‘bunk’ (yes, they had made use of the vertical space as well) we had some degree of privacy and shielding from outside light.
I was interested to find out how well I would sleep on this journey. I am an awful sleeper at the best of times – my body apparently laughs in the face of a recommended 8 hours and normally after about 6 I start waking up (M: less than ideal given I require at least 9 hours to face the day with any degree of composure). Not only this but I am quite sensitive to noise and light when I’m trying to sleep so it wasn’t looking good as the bus started its journey. These night buses all have a lot of flashing neon lights on the front and back of them, presumably to inform other drivers that the usual ‘beep every time you remember you’re driving’ routine should be held off around this particular vehicle. And to give credit where credit is due, it seemed to work – there was minimal outside noise, the driver always chose the least bumpy route over whatever road surface we were on and it was actually quite pleasant for a night-time bus ride. This, of course, had no effect on my sleeping habits and so it was a long ten hours of my music, my thoughts and glancing snapshots of dream world when my brain decided it couldn’t handle anymore (M: dark).
Looking back on it now (M: to be fair he did write this bit a good few months ago), the time went quite quickly and eventually we made it to the bus depot where we were kicked off and immediately descended upon by another wave of desperate tuk-tuk drivers.
Boats, Beaches and Booze
Megan managed an early-morning miracle and found the one guy who actually had a car instead of the usual death-trap and was willing to take us to the check-in office for the ferry and then the waterfront. This left us with about 2 hours to kill for breakfast before the ferry would leave – or rather, until the ferry would sit and wait for another 40 minutes before making its leisurely way over to the island.
Once on the other side we had decided that we could manage the ten-minute walk to our beach resort, but the host had other plans. We were practically forced into a (M: VERY) small boat with two other tourists and then taken the short distance by the loudest engine I have ever heard.
With our memories of Fiji being dragged back into view we were deposited on a sandy beach metres from the main bar of where we would be staying, Tree House Bungalows. Given the nature of our transportation it was still quite early in the day and we were informed that the last people in our room hadn’t checked out yet, but we could sit and order a drink/breakfast. This was fine by me and I was happy to just sit in the sea breeze and not be bumped, shunted or rocked in anyway. We both enjoy people-watching so it was rather blissful to sit by the beach, coffee in hand and sarky comments for any of the other inhabitants that happened to wander by (obviously not to their faces though, back to that Britishness I mentioned earlier).
An hour or so later we were finally allowed to have the key to the room. I should mention now that during our time in the bar, we realised that a lot of this resort was still a construction site. The front half, along with the bar, was all completed and quite lovely, but if you went further inland you were met by a number of men with power tools trying to build a communal hall area. This meant that we didn’t have high expectations for the room itself.
We were led a short distance from the bar and up some rickety wooden steps to our bungalow. It was fine. Perfectly serviceable and we were only there for two nights, so the fact that we could see daylight through the floor and feel the wind through the closed doors didn’t bother us that much. The wet room/bathroom was set at a jaunty angle and was a little off-putting, but as long as we didn’t throw ourselves at the back wall it would hold (probably).
We settled in for a quick recharge before heading back down to the bar for their 3-hour happy hour and sampling some of the alcohol available to us. We found that the generator powering the whole resort was not the most reliable, and there were three entertaining power cuts whilst we sat there, turning the beach vibe into more of a ‘stranded on a desert island’ vibe.
The bed was a whole lot comfier than the bus we had been on the previous night, and we ended up being woken by some pretty lazy chickens, calling for dawn at 9am. We set about making the most of our day, alternating between the beach, the sea and the bar. Next to our resort was 4K Beach, and given it was around the corner of a large rocky outcrop from us, it was a bit cleaner and warmer (being 100 metres further from the main ferry port makes a lot of difference, it seems). We planted ourselves in front of a different hostel that seemed to be throwing a festival for the day, so we had music and a lot of other tourists enjoying the weather to accompany our sunbathing.
With our tans topped up (a little too much in someone’s case) we headed back to our treehouse, washed off the sea and noticed that it was just about happy hour again (happy coincidence). Only the one power cut that night, but we noticed afterwards that they saved electricity by just shutting it off around 11pm – understandable, if it wasn’t the only thing running all of the fans. Luckily for us there was one heck of a storm coming through which kept the room cool (and made the curtains look a lot more creepy than they should have been). This also meant that we got 3am-panicks about the prospect of a tsunami coming to wash us away – I know I can stuck in my own head sometimes, but Meg started this one! A fun night all in all.
The next day we had a long old trip to Phnom Pehn. Luckily it didn’t really kick off until about 11:30 so we have a bit of a lie-in and mocked the chickens that still couldn’t tell the time before being bundled back into the small boat for the short trip back over to the main ferry port. We shared this boat with large American man and his petite Asian girlfriend, and once he started talking all the nice things we had learnt about Americans melted away and were replaced with this pompous arse, seemingly complaining about his entire time spent in Asia:
“Did you guys like it here?”
“Yes, thanks. Quite lovely, even if a little incomplete.”
“Did the staff all address you when you came to the bar? No one said good morning to us, so rude,”
“Uh, I think so? They’re all friendly…”
“How about the raw sewage? You guys notice all the raw sewage?”
“Didn’t notice anything horrible, no…” (I don’t think he knows how much effort it takes to install infrastructure on a random island)
“Nothing was done when we asked for it, it’s like they didn’t care about us.”
“They all seemed lovely and laidback to us.” (I think they clocked you pretty early, mate.)
It was about this time that, thankfully, the boat made it back to the main ferry pier on Koh Rong. We were suddenly reminded that we would be leaving at a different time of day to that which we arrived. This sounds like a random piece of information, but it meant that the tide was now a lot further out and lower than it was when we arrived, which meant an almost comical attempt of getting out of this tiny boat onto the now towering stone pier. This was obviously more of an issue for my lovely partner more than it was me, and the fact we got through it without her hitting me for any comments made was a miracle.
Eventually we made it onto the ferry, into the seats and across the water to the mainland again. We needed a lift back to the Giant Ibis depot again to catch our bus to Phnom Penh, meaning that we needed to say yes to one of the tuk-tuk drivers of ‘The Horde’. We agreed a rate of $2 with a guy, he pointed us to another guy who also agreed to $2. He then pointed us onto the actual driver who took us back to the bus office and proceeded to demand $3. I understand that this doesn’t sound like a lot of money but the principle of the matter was that we had already agreed a price (M: and it was only a kilometre or so up the hill, meaning that $2 was fairly generous). I’ve mentioned my companion’s ability to act a hell of a lot bigger than she is so there was no way in hell the driver was getting that extra dollar, and shortly after the disgruntled man was shouting “NO” at us as he went on his way.
Horrifying History Lesson
A pretty uneventful four-and-a-half bus journey later (I did have one fun hour of it scoping out the exits and roadside gutters as for some unknown reason my body didn’t really fancy having that coffee I gave it earlier and was very close to giving it back) and we were in Phnom Penh, capital city of Cambodia. Getting pretty used to saying yes to the “tuk-tuk?” question, we had a short hop further into the bowels of the city and arrived at our hostel. We were placed on the top floor and with the steepest steps, no lift and a 15 kilo backpack, it did wonders for my calf muscles. It was also directly opposite a pub/restaurant called ‘Come Here’, so no points for anyone that can guess where dinner was served…
We only one full day in this city so I booked us (yes, I booked us) on a tour that encompassed the infamous Killing Fields and S21, a museum in an old prison (and before that, school) used by the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s civil conflict in Cambodia. The tour didn’t start until early afternoon, so we did what any sane person would do and had a lie-in.
Once on the mini-bus we had about 45 minutes driving around the city to pick up the other tourists and dodging suicidal bikers/pedestrians. Going into this tour I knew incredibly little about this era of Cambodian history, having only heard the name Pol Pot in passing and no idea of his climb to power and subsequent monstrosities. Once everyone was on the bus the driver deployed a small screen at the front and played a documentary about the bloody conflict. Safe to say, it was as informative as it was horrifying and eye-opening to learn that one quarter of the population of Cambodia were killed. We were dropped at the entrance to the Killing Fields, where 129 communal graves hold the remains of nearly 9,000 human beings. We walked in silence, listening to the audio tour through our headphones. I’m not going to go into detail but suffice to say that all of what we heard brought bile right to the back of your teeth and seeing 8,000 skulls displayed in the memorial stupa was a sobering sight, as well as the reminder that this was far from the only mass burial site in the country.
After this we were then taken to S21, a museum made out of a prison made out of a high school in the middle of the city. For anyone who doesn’t know, the Khmer Rouge were Pol Pot’s loyalist militia and literally hours after they made it into the city (to the relief of the citizens after some convincing propaganda) they set about taking pretty much anyone they wanted into custody. This was done to people who were deemed a threat to the Khmer Rouge regime and meant anyone with any kind of formal education or the ability to realise what was going on. The majority of these people were taken to locations similar to S21 – secret prisons – to endure torture for as long as it took to get false confessions out of them. After they had finally given in and admitted to crimes against Pol Pot, they were taken and murdered at one of the Killing Fields I mentioned above.
We walked from room to room, cell to cell, through makeshift prison blocks, holding photos and artwork that depicted what had happened, created by one of the surviving victims of that very place. After we had completed another audio tour and had our bones chilled by what we had learnt, we took our seats back on the minibus and were dropped off at the night market.
(M: I don’t think I’d be able to describe my experience of the Killing Fields and S-21 without sounding unwillingly trite, though I think Pete’s done well above. As with Auschwitz and other such places of horror, I find the scale of the abomination difficult to comprehend and the fact this was allowed to happen a mere forty years ago is unbearable. I think it’s important that such events are not allowed to fade away from the public consciousness as they act as a sobering reminder of what can occur when madmen are permitted to rule, and make Cambodian’s friendly and generous nature all the more impressive.
After a brief haggle with the nearby drivers we were dropped back at the hostel. Our time in the city was almost over and we just had time to pack up our bags and catch some shut-eye before the next long bus ride, and our crossing into Vietnam.