The Wizardess of Oz

An American's Adventures in Australia and Beyond

Tag: Otres Beach

Welcome to Cambodia

Cambodia has become synonymous with the 400+ square-kilometer temple compound of Angkor, found just outside of Siem Reap. And it is stunning. But Cambodia is so much more than that, and is worth a lot more time than most visitors give it.

In addition to a few days touring the temples, here are a few of the other places and things worth doing:

  1. Volunteer: I spent a week with children at the Missionaries of Charity in Siem Reap, and it was one of the most heartbreaking and fulfilling experiences of my travels. There is so much need in Cambodia, and so much opportunity to help. I was lucky to spend time with a big group of volunteers from the UK and Australia, who assisted with anything from teaching English to providing legal assistance to an NGO focused on preventing spousal abuse in rural villages. The Cambodians are such beautiful, kind people that it’s almost impossible not to help.
  2. Go Island Hopping: Cambodia’s coast has islands to rival those of Thailand, with easily 1/3 the traffic. Still relatively undiscovered but with enough amenities to be comfortable, Rabbit Island, Koh Rong, and Koh Rong Sanloem are well worth a few days stay. Or you can park yourself in the sleepy Otres Beach or party-town Sihanoukville and take day trips that will hop amongst the smaller islands just off the coast.
  3. See a Different Side of Khmer Rouge Atrocities in Battambang: Phnom Penh is the most famous for it’s killing fields, where millions of innocent Cambodians were ruthlessly slaughtered by the army led by Pol Pot. Because of an increase in petty theft crimes in Phnom Penh, I opted to avoid the city as much as possible. However, I still wanted to experience and understand the history of the country. In Battambang, we took a day tour, which included a stop at a Killing Cave, where Cambodians were tossed 50+ feet to their deaths. It’s a chilling experience, and hiring one of the local students is well worth the cash for the history lesson.
  4. Get a Taste of Local Life in Kampot: This largely rural area isn’t a top ranker for tourists (other than the French), but it is a charming city with heaps of waterfront accommodation options along the Kampot River. Plus, the best pepper in the world is grown in plantations just outside of town, and one of the oldest temples is nestled in a cave in a national park. I had one of the best days of my life on the back of a motorbike zipping through the village roads outside of Kampot.
  5. Learn to Cook Cambodian Cuisine: Thai food is an old staple, and anyone can whip up a curry without much skill. But how many people can say they know how to cook Fish Amok or Beef Lok Lak? These are two typical Cambodian dishes that are really delicious. Unlike Thai food, Cambodian food isn’t spicy, so you don’t need to worry about alienating your capsaicin-fearing friends.

And here are some practical details for a visit to Cambodia.

Getting Around: 

  1. Bus Companies: There are many bus companies that will take you almost anywhere you want to go. The best of these, without a doubt, is Giant IbisEspecially if you’re traveling overnight anywhere, like I did from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville, you will not regret spending the extra money on a sleeper bus ticket with GI. The beds fully recline, there is an outlet and lamp for each individual bed, and your own air conditioning vent that you can adjust at will. If you have to sleep on a bus, this is the way to do it. Pro Tip: Get a top bunk, because full buses mean that sometimes someone will stretch out in the aisle… directly next to you.
  2. Share Taxis: If you find yourself in jam, like I did when I wasn’t switched onto the right bus just before Khmer New Year, there is a share taxi option. This is faster, but very tight, and usually a little more expensive than a bus. A typical sedan will cram four people in the back seat, and sometimes two in the front, so get ready to get cozy with the Cambodians! You can try to get more space by purchasing two seats. Recommended for shorter trips only.
  3. Private Taxis/Tuk Tuks/Motorbikes: Jumping on the back of a motorbike is by far the cheapest option to get from A to B, provided you are traveling solo. It’s a fantastic way to really take in everything around you, and it’s the most direct and quickest way to get wherever you want to go. Just be cautious, the drivers don’t always have extra helmets for passengers. Because of the lack of paved roads in many parts of Cambodia, grab a surgeon’s mask from one of the kiosks on the side of the road that sells gasoline.

Money:

  • They use the US Dollar! This makes things so easy for us Americans, since no currency exchanging is necessary at all. However, many merchants will not accept bills manufactured before 1975, and if the bill is ripped or overly creased, it will be denied. I learned this the hard way trying to buy my pass to Angkor with a bill that didn’t pass muster. If a merchant tries to give you shoddy bills as change, hand it back and ask for a new one. It’s a common practice in Cambodia and not considered rude.

Accommodation:

  • I started off staying at the highly-recommended Mad Monkey in Siem Reap, and ended up with the worst case of bedbugs I’d ever had in my life. Because of this, it was the last time I used a dorm room in all of Southeast Asia. Because of my intense reaction to bedbug bites, it wasn’t worth saving a few bucks. In fact, I spent any savings I would have had on medicine and getting my bags and clothing cleaned and treated. Thumbs down.
  • However, I was able to negotiate my way into a hotel room, with air conditioning, a nice shower, and included breakfast, for $15/night. Online, the price was double! It never hurts to walk in and negotiate.

The Beaches of Cambodia

For many, Cambodia = Temples.

And you wouldn’t be wrong, with the Angkor compound stretching for miles around the northern city of Siem Reap. But spend a little time in the south, and you come to the coastline of Cambodia.

This area is a hidden gem for budget and off-the-beaten-path travelers. Without the hype surrounding much of the Thai coastal areas and islands, Cambodia dishes up pristine beaches for fractional prices.

Unfortunately for me, the whole thing was a bit of a flop. 

At least storm clouds make pretty sunsets

At least storm clouds make pretty sunsets

I didn’t have a plan when I arrived in Sihanoukville after a 10-hour bus journey from Siem Reap. I had spent most of the night in a surprisingly comfortable sleeper bus. That is, it was comfortable until the ‘co-pilot’ decided that the aisle directly next to my bottom-bunk sleeper space was where we was going to rest of the duration, his hand casually brushing me every once in a while until I finally smacked at him.

I had heard glowing reviews of Otres Beach, so I hopped on a motorbike, jetted over there, and started my now-customary slog to each of the guesthouses to see who would give me the best deal.

I had heard that I should check out Koh Rong or the more relaxed Koh Rong Samloem, or at least find my way to one of the islands off the shore at some point while down here. But not long after my arrival, the clouds rolled in and a rain shower began!

Thus far into my travels, I’d had luck with the weather. I was chasing the end of high season as I made my way east, and this was intentionally done so I had negotiation power for accommodation. It had finally bitten me in ass: I was at the first beach I’d seen in weeks, and it looked like rain. Since my visa to Vietnam needed to be processed in Sihanoukville, I was stuck here for at least a couple of days while it was processed.

So, I decided to just relax. I caught up on a lot of writing. I made friends with Mern, the bartender at the guesthouse I was staying at, and defended myself against the playful advances of middle-aged Psykhe, the Greek manager of the place.

Rain-washed beach

Rain-washed beach

The day before my departure, it looked like the rain would finally stop. So I booked myself onto an island hopper tour that allowed me some social interaction and an exploration of Kaoh Russei, Kaoh Chanloh, Koh Ta Kiev. On Koh Ta Kiev we discovered a treehouse absinthe distillery run by an American guy who had a Keith Richards/Jack Sparrow thing going on, but the majority of the trip was forgettable.

IMG_20150413_130212 IMG_20150411_124700

Trying to leave the beaches is what proved to be the struggle. I had booked a van transfer to Kampot for the afternoon, so I could go to Sihanoukville and collect my passport with my new Vietnamese visa. However, the travel agent who had booked the van service had (mistakenly?) put me on the morning van, and now he was gone for Khmer New Year with the $8 USD I had paid him for the booking. I started to fear that I would be stuck in Otres or Sihanoukville, and I was really starting to get cabin fever.

A quick consult of the Lonely Planet reminded me about share taxis in Cambodia – people who drive their private cars and sell half-seats to people who wish to travel from one place to the next. So my tuk tuk driver started toward the bus station, where these could be found. I was a stressed-out, harried wreck, having just had strong words with the woman who operated the van service in the hopes that I could convince her to give me a space on the bus.

But before we’d even reached the bus station, my tuk tuk driver abruptly pulled to the side, having heard something shouted in Khmer that I would never have understood. It was a man offering rides to Kampot and Kep! After an attempt at negotiation, I parted with $20 USD so I could leave immediately, thus purchasing the last two seats in the car (which ended up being just the whole back left seat of his four-door sedan).

After a squishy (but blessedly fast) ride, I was in the center of Kampot, ready for the next adventure.

What I Learned:

  1. Confirm travel arrangements, especially if they’ve changed. I was supposed to have my passport back earlier, but the Vietnam Embassy pushed back it’s availability, so I had to push back my van departure time. The change was clearly not confirmed!
  2. Pay attention to the weather reports. If it hadn’t been for the visa situation, I probably would have simply moved on to the next spot after a day or two of rain. But if I had paid a little more attention, I could have maybe skipped the beaches entirely and made my way to Rabbit Island, which I unfortunately had to skip!
  3. Educate yourself on all (legitimate) ways to travel. If I hadn’t known about share taxis, I’d have been stuck in Sihanoukville or have had to pay $60 USD for a taxi to the next town (which was so not going to happen). The best way to think in your feet is to arm yourself with knowledge!

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