Due to some last minute friends and a couple of pre dinner beers, I made the wise decision to postpone my previously booked bus out of Vietnam by a day. Ordinarily, there wouldn’t have been any trouble with this change in plans, but the extra night in Saigon meant that I would now be leaving at 11:30 pm on the 17th- the day my visa was supposed to run out. No real issues at the border, I just had to pay an extra $5 because I was a day late. Totally worth it though; met some seriously cool people that night and have happily crossed paths with them in Cambodia as well.
Speaking of Cambodia… After an hour long stop in the capital of Phnom Phen, I switched buses and was off to the beach town of Sihanoukville in the south. I’ve found over here that I never have to look far to meet fellow Canadians (we’re everywhere!), and lo and behold, I’d barely sat down when four lovely people sat down as well- all toting packs with Canada flag patches. Introductions took place and I found out that they were all from Nanaimo- they were surprised that I actually knew where that was. One uneventful bus ride later we found ourselves in Sihanoukville and headed directly for a recommended hostel called Monkey Republic. Sadly MR was fully booked, so we settled for a dorm room at the nearby Utopia hostel. It was one of the grubbier hostels I’ve been to, though to be fair, we didn’t spend much time sleeping in that room- nightlife was calling! Managed to move into Monkey Republic the next morning and was delighted to see that their dorms contained actual bunk beds (Utopia provided gym-type mats on a wooden floor). Cannot say enough good things about the food there either- almost wished I could have stayed longer to try more on their menu, it was that good! While we’re on the topic of food, don’t miss the fish and chips from the stand just outside of Utopia, they’re seriously amazing.
Spent the next couple days doing more or less the same thing: eating, beaching, relaxing and drinking. Sihanoukville is known as a beach and party town, and who were we to argue with that? Serendipity is the main beach and is nice enough, but I would highly suggest grabbing a tuktuk and heading over to Otris Beach. Fewer people, fewer restaurants, fewer bits of garbage bobbing in the ocean, and most importantly, fewer locals trying to sell you things. Not 5 minutes would go by on the main beach without someone coming over to you with an ‘amazing’ offer. Sunglasses are the SEAsia staple, but there were also ladies offering everything from massage to hair removal, and kids making and selling friendship bracelets. I somehow got swindled into buying bracelets by a lovely young male entrepreneur who told me his name was Nicki Minaj (he serenaded me while he made my bracelet). Basically, if you want hustle and bustle go to Serendipity, but otherwise Otris is the place to be.
During a more memorable night we decided to enter a quiz competition that was raising money for a local woman who had just lost her husband and was due to give birth any day. For those of you who have seen me play Cranium, you know much I love these things. Plus, it was for a great cause! We formed a team and sat down ready to win (for those of you who have seen me play Cranium, you also know how competitive I get with these things). Alas, with a team of four Canadian 20-something’s, we didn’t win. The questions were hard! A couple of examples: Approximately how many grains are in a 20 pound sack of rice? What is a group of monkeys called? List 4 countries that border the Black Sea. Didn’t get those three, but I did know that the iPhone was first released in 2007 and that Rudiyard Kipling wrote The Jungle Book. I think we ended up in fourth…
Just one more thing to mention before moving onto Bamboo Island: while walking down a dim path (actually on my way to buy a ticket to the Island), saw a black thing move across the way ahead of me. Initially thought it was a gecko, given how plentiful they are in Asia, but then I realized it was moving much too slow, and was far too dark to be a lizard. I’m kind of making this into a big deal (which it’s not), but when I looked closer I saw that it was a huge black scorpion! Maybe four or five inches and shiny black. Sadly I didn’t have my camera on me, you’ll just have to take my word for it!
Okay, Bamboo Island. It takes just over an hour by longboat to reach this little piece of paradise, and although the boat ride is not the more comfortable mode of transport, it’s definitely worth suffering through. There was a little bit of confusion when we arrived as to where we would be staying (do not stay on the same side that you get dropped off on!!), but after walking 15 minutes across the island we settled into a lovely $3/night dorm. Pretty much all there is is a large open hut that the kitchen/bar is run out of, a handful of bungalows, and our dorm hut. The island only gets electricity from 6pm to midnight, and forget about wi-fi! It was a nice feeling to totally disconnect for a bit. I only had one night there, but I can definitely see how it would be easy to get stuck in the incredibly relaxed vibe of the place. In fact, the islands unofficial motto is “one more day”, a saying that nearly every person visiting says on a daily basis. The staff is made up of a handful of westerners who ended up staying for weeks at a time, repeating the motto and eventually landing a job. Spent an amazing afternoon alternating between laying on the beach, lounging in a hammock, and ‘swimming’ in the ocean (more like bobbing with the surf). Before I knew it it was time for me to head back to reality and onto a bus to Phnom Phen.
I arrived in the capital at midnight and somewhat scrambled to find a hostel that was open and still accepting people. I’d heard great things about Mad Monkey, Top Banana, and Mini Banana, but no luck, everyone had gone to sleep. Ended up at 19 Happy House, which wound up being a pretty solid hostel. I got up early the next morning to apply for a Thai Visa when the guy who owns the hostel, Alex, said he could do it for me. Happily agreed and then jumped in a tuktuk with three Brits to see the ‘sights’. As some of you may already know, the sights in Phnom Phen are rather dark and depressing- they serve as reminders of the period between 1975 and 1977 where the Khmer Rouge was in control. The Khmer Rouge was an extreme political party that wiped out 2 million Cambodians- in a country of 8 million people. The two places worth visiting are the S21 Prison and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge turned a school into a prison and torture centre called S21. It has since been turned into a museum and memorial, where you can walk through the buildings and see the former classrooms. It is a chilling feeling walking through a room that has a blackboard on the wall and a wire bed used for torture in the middle of the floor. There were also a lot of displays and information about the victims and the Khmer Rouge. After a somber hour perusing the four buildings we headed off to the infamous killing fields. The fields have an excellent audio tour to accompany your walk around the grounds, and I would highly recommend that you take advantage of it. Apart from the numerous mass graves throughout the center, the must see is the massive memorial stupa that houses 17 shelves of skulls and bones that have been recovered from the fields. Listening to the stories and descriptions of what happened right beneath your feet was an interesting, if not disturbing experience.
Having seen pretty much all there is to see in Phnom Phen on my first day, I didn’t have a whole lot to do until my visa was supposed to be ready three days later. Managed to check out the Russian market as well as the Grand Palace, though both are more of the same of what I’ve seen so far in Asia. Not to sound ungrateful or anything! Ended Phnom Phen in much the same way as I ended Saigon, and stayed an extra day after I missed my 630am bus (betcha can’t guess how that one happened). Onto Siem Reap!
PS. Genie pants are my new favourite thing ever