So after we left Siem Reap we took a 12hr bus to Bangkok where we got street food in the city and immediately headed to the airport to meet up with our friends Charlie and Emily. They being absolutely insane decided to come out and visit us on their one week of vacation from work. Yeah they flew travelled 30hrs each direction for 6 days in Thailand. Baller. We flew down to Krabi with them and hung for a bit. We spent a day over in Railay Beach, which is infamously known for the huge limestone cliffs and white sand beach of and the long tail boats you have to take to get there
Next we headed over to the Island of Ko Phi Phi (pronounced pee pee). Man what a party island. There are bars every two feet and everywhere has fire dancers at night. It was a great place to hang with friends for a few days and when we were bored of partying we just hung out on the deck of our room and played cards with bottles of Hong Thong (Thai Rum) to keep us company.
After their time in Thailand came to an end Athena and I were very ready to get off Ko Phi Phi and find somewhere less “touristic” as the rest of the world calls it. We ended up stumbling onto an article about the islands of Ko Yao. Broken into two islands, Ko Yoa Yai in the south and Ko Yoa Noi in the north, these two islands are one of the last places not overly populated by vacation goers in the Thai islands. Both Islands have a very large Muslim community who has actively tried to keep the party tourism out. What this means is there are these two beautiful, quiet, huge islands perfect for love birds and those trying to escape the drinking and crowds….perfect for us. We had no plans and just decided to take a boat to Ko Yao Yai and figure it out as we went. We ended up staying at this beautiful private bamboo bungalow right next to the beach. So we stayed for a while. The Island is 46km long so being able to ride a scooter is imperative. Everyday we’d wake up, hop on our ride and find a new random secluded white sand beach, which might have you and at most two other people there. From the island you look out on the surrounding limestone islands that jut up out of the Andaman Sea. It’s like a prettier quieter version of Phuket. I think its Thailands best kept secret. That being said, its not the best place to go swimming. At low tide the beach stretches out some 200m from shore meaning you have to go a ways out to ever get more than ankle deep.
After Ko Yao Yai we took a little long tail over to Ko Yao Noi where we stayed for another week. There’s so much to explore all over the island. I was having a blast riding down dirt roads on my little scooter, now knowing what they could take after seeing so many people in CRAZY places in Cambodia. We took a boat trip out to the surrounding islands with this awesome German couple. We snorkeled all over the place and climbed up a tiny island and got a great view looking down on the incredible blue water.
We stumbled on this really cool resort called Jai Yen Coworking Retreat. It was still technically being built so they gave us an incredible discount on a room and holly hell was it beautiful. The owner was a super cool guy who was working to design these eco-conscious productive-vacation spots for creative types to come and work. It was supposed to be $500/night we paid $40.
After countless days of beautiful white sand beaches and nights with one spectacular sunset after the next we eventually moved on to the other side of the Thai Peninsula.
After a nice long ferry to a bus to another ferry we made it over to Ko Phangan. This weird Island is a combination of party goers and hippies. The southern half of the island is the club night life scene, most popularly known for “the full moon party” where some 40,000 people show up once a month to get trashed on a beach. Athena and I decided to stay on the north west side instead. Over here you will find countless vegan and veggie restaurants, juice stands galore and nice beaches with families on vacation. No longer do you have the beach to yourself…anywhere. for the first day both Athena and I were like “why did we ever leave the Ko Yao’s”. But Phangan is pretty cool. There are waterfalls and nudie beaches. Incredible places to snorkel and that crystal clear blue water that Thailand is known for.
There is also a huge network of dirt roads that run all over the island….and dirt bikes to rent. So I got myself a Honda crf250L for $15/day and went exploring. Getting down to the beaches you’d otherwise have to pay a boat to get to was super cool. I ended up finding a little hotel out on a beach away from everything else so the next day Athena and I moved over there for a few days.
Not a bad place for a $10/night room
cool rocks’n stuff
It’s a pretty cool island for sure and I can see how people end up getting stuck there much like the Pai hole. Everything is easy and beautiful and there’s a little bit of something for everyone.
We then continued up the Chumphon Archipelago to Ko Tao. Famous for its diving, Ko Tao has over 500 certified dive operators on the island, and a ton more who aren’t certified. It’s the cheapest place in the world to get a dive certification and knowing that we wanted to dive the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, Athena decided to conquer a massive fear of the ocean and finish out her dive certification. It was awesome. We found a well rated shop and they ended up doing a one on one class for her with a certification, two dives for her, and two dives for me for about $250. Crazy cheap. So we dove and ate and around the island and did a bit of exploration, but by now our free 30 day thai visa was starting to run out and we still wanted to make it to Khao Sok National Park back on the peninsula. So after a few days diving and Ko Toa-ing we headed back on one of the roughest early morning ferries I’ve ever been on to the main land.
Southern Thailand is seriously vacationland, everything is cheap, easy, beautiful, and you can find a little bit of anything from partying to hanging out naked (stay away from the cops) on a beach. Pretty much just long tail boats and perfect sunsets.
This was on my Cambodian dirt bike adventure after dinner and my guide La had headed to bed. I was sitting writing my report of the day and just as I finished the owner of the homestay came over to hang out. His name was Pek, and this is his story.
Pek was born in 1973 in Siem Reap. He was a child during the years of the Khmer Rouge and remembers clearly the prevalence of violence during that time. He said nights without gunfire were a rarity, and shacks full of bullet holes where common place sights. Luckily his family survived the Khmer Rouge and his father became a mechanic in the military. Pek lived a basic Cambodian child’s life and like all other kids of his age he was told Cambodia was the whole world. There were no neighboring countries, as a matter of fact he didn’t know what a country was. He was made to believed Cambodia was all there was. One day in 1983 he was walking through town when he saw a giant, like the ones his elders had told him stories about who would snatch children if they went into the jungle alone. This was a story told to keep kids away from the many land mines, which were what really claimed lost children in the jungle. But this giant was special. He had blonde hair and hairy arms and a huge vest with many pockets. He was carrying a big black machine on his shoulder, which Pek knew must be used for killing children. But he was not an evil giant, he was a reporter from the US trying to learn what life was like for the children of the Khmer Rouge. Pek sat down with an elder who translated back and forth and immediately Pek had to know how the man was communicating with the giant. “Who is he and how are you talking to him?”
“He’s a reporter from the US and speaks English”
“It’s another country”
“THERE ARE OTHER COUNTRIES!?”
“Yes but answer his questions.”
“But what is English”
“Not now just answer his questions”
“But where is the US”
“Look just remember English, and learn it someday and you will know all about the US and other countries”
From that point on the seed was sown. It’s important to note that during this time the Khmer Rouge was technically still in power and Siem Reap was very close to the province of Pol Pots home, thus learning nor speaking English was an offense punishable by jail time. 1 offense could land you 3 years in a political prison.
Fast forward to 1985. At this time Siem Reap was still a small town. Only the political elite and very wealth could travel to Cambodia, and when they came to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat they were escorted by military the whole way and there were only two guides in the whole town. One day Pek decided to wait at the one hotel and after the guide dropped off his guests for the day, Pek followed him home. He confronted him and said he wanted to learn English. The guide yelled at him, saying he didn’t know English and the boy should go home and he was stupid for even asking. But Pek came back the next day, and the next. And finally after a week of pleading and being told to leave the guide alone, the man broke down and could see the desire in the young boys heart. So he agreed to give him and his 3 friends secret English lessons from 10-11pm every other night. For 6 months Pek studied with him, until one day the cops followed him to his lessons and they were all arrested. By this point Pek’s father had worked his way up in the military and was one of the main commanders in Siem Reap. After hearing his son had been arrested he took his troop over to the police station and demanded his sons release. After much back and forth, Pek was allowed free. With much punishment from his parents who had no idea about his sneaking out and learning English. But Pek couldn’t be stopped. 6 months later he started taking English lessons again. 9 months and 14 days later at 10:15pm he heard a loud speaker outside the class room.
“This is the police. We know you are learning English inside. We have the place surrounded. If you try to flee you will be shot.”
With no option Pek and his classmates filed out of the building and into the police trucks, which took them straight to jail. Again Pek’s father tried to get him out of it, but the commander of the police wouldn’t budge. So Pek’s father took 300 army troops with trucks and guns and mortars and surrounded the prison. For three days they commanders argued back and forth. Shooting in the air escalated to the military mortaring the roof of the prison.
The prison being only 1km out of town, this whole scene was very public. Eventually it made it all the way to Phnom Pen where higher ups in the government looked into the issue to see who these kids learning English were. The main fear was that they were in some way spies or talking to other governments but after doing deep research on them and realizing Pek and his friends where farmers and sons of military officers they sent word to the police that they were to be set free.
Pek got home where he was beaten within an inch of his life and had to beg his parents to stop. That he would never try to learn English again. He said “I remember my father grabbed an AK-47 and shot a whole magazine around my feet, but guns didn’t scare me. To me gunfire was the same as music.” He was 14 at the time.
Eventually forgiven Pek still had a desire to learn about the outside world. So when the king returned in 1989 and boarders were opened again and English was no longer illegal, Pek took a job as a driver. He mostly drove reporters and politicians who wanted to talk with him as much as he wanted to learn from them. So he used them as his “dictionary”, learning new, more complex words and everything he could soak up about the outside world. For years he loved and worked in Siem Reap, first as a driver, then later working with NGOs trying to bring development to local communities. He met an Australian woman and fell in love. They moved to Australia for a short period of time but after things didn’t work out he returned to Cambodia to keep working with the NGOs.
But by this time Siem Reap had grown. There were now more than 2 hotels in town, and western restaurants had started inundating the small town. Before he knew it the small township he grew up in was a tourist central. So he moved away. Out to where it was quiet in a small village atop Kulen mountain. He got a job with ADF, an archeological company who were exploring and cataloging the ruins in the national park on the mountain. For 12 years Pek has worked with ADF uncovering the oldest Khmer temples ever found, dating back to 802AD, some 300 years before Angkor Wat. They found massive highway systems running north south and east west, at the crossroads of which was a royal palace. The biggest and oldest ever found. In his work with ADF Pek has played a major part in cleaning up land mines, which are still scattered all over the country. They go out and do preliminary searches for ruins then have bomb teams sweep and clear the area, then locals build roads out, and excavation of the sight begins. He’s the primary contact for the three bomb disposal units who work in the national park, and is the intermediary between locals who discover UXOs and the people who go out to clear them. Pek loves his quiet life living up in the jungle where the food is fresh, and I was confirmed the chicken I ate for dinner did indeed come from the hen house behind the building. He loves to share his stories and now 46 years old he still loves to practice his English.
So for Christmas, in addition to my epic Vietnamese motorcycle lego, Athena found and planned a 4-day dirt bike trip through the jungles of Cambodia outside Siem Reap. So naturally it was a countdown until I got to get out and ride some motorbikes! When the day finally came it was weird saying goodbye to Athena for 4 whole days since this would be the first time we’d been apart, pretty much at all for the last 3 months! We got breakfast and I was sent on my way in a Tuk Tuk to find the office for Kickstart Cambodia. When I got there I saw the bikes prepped out front. Two Wr250fs ready to play in the jungle. I met the co-owners, Dave and La. Dave is from the U.K., but has lived the last 15 years in Cambodia riding dirt bikes. Unfortunately he broke his wrist a few weeks ago and was on desk duty. This meant La would be my guide on our two-man trip through Cambodia. Originally from Kampong Cham he’s also been riding dirt bikes around Cambodia for more than 15 years and any kind of smaller motorbike he could get his hands on since he was a kid. After paying the difference still owed and suiting up in the most stylish of dirt bike gear, we were off through the streets of Siem Reap, and before you knew it out in red dirt roads leading into the countryside.
So I think this is a good time to mention my dirtbiking experience. While I would consider myself a more than proficient motorcyclist on the street, my cumulative dirt experience sums up to a total of about 3 days. Sure I’ve been on some fire roads and am familiar with what it feels like when you loose the back end, but this would be my first real attempt at single track riding. So needless to say I was a little bit nervous. But it really wasn’t all too bad. While being on a tour by myself is less fun in the evenings, it means the speed and terrain can be tailored to what I’m comfortable with. While there were only a few last minute saves for the most part I kept up well and by remembering to stay light on the bars and let the bike do what it wanted I was fine. Until the DEEP sand. Leaning back and riding it out worked pretty ok, except if I was too close behind La when there was a patch of sand I wouldn’t be able to see anything and twice my wheel got stuck in a sand rut and I went over. Luckily I fell into deep sand, so nothing hurt. I picked up the bike and she fired right back up.
All day we went back and forth through sections of red dirt roads then double track through the jungle. One of the coolest stops was after a nice tight and sandy section of trail we turned off and La stopped and there was an Angkor era temple in the middle of the jungle. After all the temples of Angkor park it wasn’t particularly fancy but being alone in the middle of the jungle made it extra special. I felt very Indiana Jones exploring the ruins in my dirt bike gear.
Technical in their sandy and twisty aspect the trails in Cambodia are like the rests of Cambodia…FLAT!! Even in the dry season we came across a couple of puddles, which were fun to rooster tail through. La told me how a lot of the trails become practically impassible during the wet season when EVERYTHING turns to mud. While a little mud sounds fun, a lot sounds a bit overwhelming.
One section we were riding along through old fields and being the dry season everything is very brown. Riding through the flat brush with small bushes here and there it looked like it could have been somewhere in Africa. Or at least what I imagine African plains to look like. If only a tiger had jumped out….but I’m really glad it didn’t.
Oh before we left from Kickstart headquarters David mentioned the primary road hazards were chickens, pigs, dogs, and especially cows that like to dart across the road. (I had flashback thoughts for Athena) But the cows are particularly dangerous because farmers like to tie them down to something so they don’t run away, so not only is there a cow to avoid that stupidly ran across the road, but it can be followed by a clothes line of doom with a stake on one end and a steak on the other. Sure enough almost the first trail we came across out of Siem Reap we got a darter. La was up front and luckily swerved around but this gave me enough time to stop and avoid a clothesline of doom. I just chuckled that it happened so immediately after leaving.
By the time we got to “The African planes” it was about 12 and even after drinking the majority of my 3L bladder I was feeling dehydrated and hungry…leading into a headache. My worst nightmare. Luckily we were only about 20 minutes away from our lunch stop. Confidently across from Bean Mealan Temple we stopped at a little roadside restaurant and got some food. Taking my upper layers off and feeding helped tremendously. Since there wasn’t too much technical stuff after lunch, we spent some time just hanging in the hammocks and I went and explored the temple across the road.
Walking around the temple by myself was a really interesting experience. While it was only about 30 minutes of time to myself it was the first real solo experience of the whole trip. Like I said, Athena and I have been in 24/7 constant contact for the last 3 months (with a 2hr break for Christmas shopping) so it was interesting to see what it would be like being alone. And while yeah we separated this morning riding I was A. occupied and B. still with someone, but walking around the temple in silence with my own thoughts was weird. While there are times traveling together the other person can be annoying and you wish you were on your own, this showed me how alone alone can feel. While you’re freer to wander where you want, there’s no one to share your experience with. No one to randomly talk about nothing with, and thus much more time in your own head. In that short 30 minutes, after less than 12 hours away, I realized how much I love having a travel partner. The introspective aspect could be nice but simultaneously so isolating and I’d much rather share my joys and sorrows of the day with my best friend. Plus hey if we can do 3 months of constant travel together marriage will be a breeze right?
After lunch/temple/hammock break I was feeling much better and La asked if I wanted more jungle or just the easy way up so I opted for………more jungle. No surprise. It was fun, but at one point the trail turned to nothing and we were over landing across burnt fields that gave new meaning to the word bumpy. I though my arms might rattle out of their sockets! We found the trail and made our way back to the main road where we rode over to the base of Kulen Mountain. So Cambodia’s not entirely flat. We took the red dirt road that winded up the side of the mountain with a quick break for some photos. It was fun to finally go up something, and fling the back end out every time we came to a turn :).
Our lodging for the night was up on top of the mountain and once it flattened out it is wild how quickly the red dirt road turned into about a foot deep of fine sand. And I think I did pretty well after only a days experience in the sand. Well up until there was a patch I didn’t see up ahead and was too close to La, completely blinding myself in his dust storm and dumping it again. But no shame here. I bushed myself off and was back at it. But even more remarkable than my mediocre sand skills were the people on regular scooters who were also attempting to traverse this road. I was struggling with knobbies and gobs of power so I have no idea how they were making it through other than surfing.
We eventually made it the last 2km to our homestay for the evening and what a cool little place. However much our tiny trip through the villages surrounding Kampong Chhnang felt like “exploring Cambodia” this was a whole n’other experience. The rooms are little bungalows across from the people’s house and the bathroom and shower are just their bathroom and shower. There’s no “government electricity” up here so everything is run off solar. Dinner was served in their outdoor living area, from which you can see the kitchen where everything is made. La and I split a chicken, seasoned to perfection, which was likely one of the ones I had seen running around their property earlier in the day. Sitting down for dinner I learned that La is 35 and has 3 kids. And almost 60% of his take home wages go towards his kids going to an English speaking school so they’ll be better off when they grow up. He’s a cool guy who’s been riding dirt bikes in Cambodia since he could afford one and is living the dream making money doing what he loves. But then again he said in the past 3 weeks he’s only spent one night at home with his family. Definitely not the conventional Cambodian career choice.
After dinner La hit the hay and I stayed up and talked to the owner of the property. His name was pek and the conversation we had will be getting post all of its own. Being on solar, there’s no wifi here so “hey family I hope you’re feeling my good thoughts and safe vibes”. Tomorrow sounds like it’s going to be the most technical and intense day riding real genuine single track back down the mountain! So wish me luck and safe riding!
So day two. We got up and shared a classic Cambodian breakfast of fried noodles. I wasn’t all to hungry but put some down anyways. After saying goodbye to Pek and his family we hit the road. Maybe 100ft down the road we turned off and were immediately on single track that twisted and wound its way through the jungle. The first part was through an orchard that La had warned me had some low branches and he wasn’t kidding!! Luckily the previous night, after almost getting my head ripped off when the antenna style GoPro on top of my helmet caught on a branch, I decided to relocate the GoPro from on top to a chin mount. Now I A. wouldn’t get my head ripped off and B can actually see when I was or wasn’t recording meaning much fewer “is this on?” stops. After the low trees the trail got tighter as it wound its way down the mountain. We pulled off to see “the giant stone elephant”. A feature Pek had told me about discovering the previous night. It as well as the two lions adjacent to it are dated back to 800AD!
After the elephant we were back on more single track which for the first time really felt like exploring the jungle. I felt like a less hot, less cool version of Laura Croft out to find some hidden treasure. Thus tight jungle trail lead us to our best stop, “the bat cave”. This stop, while yes having a cave, which yes did contain bats, was far more interesting due to the commune of Hindu/Buddhist… followers? who maintained it. They all looked like Asian Jesus, with long hair, tendrilly goatees, and all white robes to cover they’re skinny almost emaciated bodies. They were an interesting group for sure living in this small outpost only accessible by single track trail. La had a mean knot in his back from the day before so while I was exploring the cave he got an Asian Jesus to rub it out for him.
After “the bat cave” the trail opened up slightly and turned to slick rock and sand. I was having a blast, popping little jumps over the rocks. And as I’m reving along over these rocks and through some deep sand we came across 3 locals headed the other way on scooters. They were about to go up the single track trail I though I was so cool for doing on my fancy wr250, on a bunch of loaded down scooters with street tires. That was a nice little reality check.
Down at the base of the mountain we stopped at Phnom Kulen Waterfall. I left La up top and climbed down to the bottom. While I probably should have gone for a swim, the though of having to take off all my gear and then put it on again over a wet body didn’t sound awesome. That and I’ve had the privilege to see and swim in many an amazing waterfall so far on my trip.
ooh a waterfall
yeah, im not taking off these boots
After taking in the scenery I went back up and La and I got some coconuts to rehydrate. From here it was red dirt roads that switch backed their way down the last bit of mountain to where we stopped for lunch. I realize this sounds like there were a lot of stops and not much riding but there was sure as hell a lot of riding today. At lunch we ate and chilled in hammocks while the woman in the stall adjacent to our eatery aggressively tried to sell me t-shirts. After my first 15 “no thank you”s and a promise that if I was going to buy a shirt I go to her shop, she switched tactics and told me I had to buy something because she hadn’t had any sales all day. To which, I understand the issues associated with being poor in the developing world and trying to make ends meet, but that’s just not how consumer economies work. After our lunch when we got up to leave and I said no one last time I heard her yell something in Khmer, to which La chuckled, shook his head, and put on his helmet.
From lunch it was a bit of a slog. The next hour and a bit were just paved road and dead straight red dirt. But then we turned off into a rubber plantation and at the end of the trees the red dirt road became a red sand road. Having gotten my little bit of practice the day before, and now knowing to leave ample room behind La so I can see, I had a blast in all that sand. It went from intimidating to being like floating on fresh powder. Once you accept all reality that the front end will fly back and forth as it will and you can still maintain a straight course, you enter a world where neither tire has traction and unnerving becomes amazing. Intermixed with little bunny hops here and there it was so much fun to drop a gear and rev the peppy little Yamaha thumper and swing the back end back and forth. Plus hey, after yesterday I knew if you eat it in the sand at least it’s soft. After 30 + minutes in this we stopped for a cold bottle of water and took off my helmet beaming as I could feel the dirt in my teeth from La’s left over dust cloud.
From here it was another straight bit of red dirt road to Along Veng and we were cruising along in 5th gear hauling ass down this road. When we finally got to the hotel I got into my room and straight up collapsed. I was soooooo tired. It had been a long day, in the hot sun, fighting sand, trails, and aggressive saleswomen and I was beat. Setting a time to meet up for dinner I stripped down to my slicks and collapsed into bed.
I ended up being so tired I couldn’t be bothered to write a full description of the next days but here are the highlights.
-saw pol pots gave. Great way to start your day
-mountain climb up to Pol Pots house and grave
-lunch with a mountain view
-lots of miles on pavement and red dirt
-finally get to trails…it’s worth it
-whoops and dust, oh so much dust
-made some kids smile with the classic, twist the throttle
-stopped at a temple with quite a view
-saw a flipped over truck right after it happened
-hotel with “a pool”
-woke up slowly and listened to my book.
-LA’s got a fever but he’s still continuing on!
-stopped for gas and water then about 20 minutes of tarmac
-riding through the jungle for about 1-2hrs hitting sand and twisty roads.
-I feel much more confident and want to go fast but don’t want to push La too much
-after much trail, we hit the red dirt again and made our way about 30 minutes back to where we had lunch the first day
-FAST trails after lunch as my speed and confidence was building
-trails, ruts and red dirt roads all the way to the green fields
-super green fields that were only able to be planted in the dry season
-back to kickstart for a couple of beers and hanging with David and La
It was a truly incredible experience, and one that I know I will never forget. I felt like I got to see much more of the real Cambodia. And having a Cambodian guide meant I ate at all the best locals restaurants and just ate what he did. No fried rice for a whole 4 days! David and La both started early in the dirt bike tour game out of Siem Reap and now there are over 15 different companies offering tours, all at differing prices and more importantly competency of their guides. If you ever head to Cambodia and happen to ride motorbikes, or happen to ride motorbikes and want to travel somewhere cool I highly recommend Kickstart Cambodia! https://www.kickstartcambodia.com/
UPDATE: If you’ve been following along or happen to get an email when I put up a new one of these get ready. Its been a long bit since I posted and it turned out that I was having too much fun traveling to stop and figure out photo uploads and all that jazz. But I do have a bunch written from the last 4 months of travel. So here are a bunch of the stories of our travels. Currently most are without photos, because that take way too long, but I hope to update them to full products later. enjoy reading!
I’ve missed a spectacular post about our awesome New Years adventure on the island of Koh Rong Samloem, but hopefuly that’ll be written soon and up to read. Until the here is a little story of probably my favorite place in all of Cambodia.
We started our day early in Kampong Cham. We woke up at 6:15 and rolled over to see the sunrise over the Mekong from our bed. A great reminder why starting the day early is so nice. We had seen the sights and booked a bus out of town so we got our things and headed downstairs where a tuk tuk was waiting to take us to the bus station. Luckily there was only one bus leaving then, because there was very little communication from the station about what bus to get on or when it was actually leaving. I thought we were going to have to go all the way back down into Phnom Pen, but to my surprise the bus took the northern route and in a quick 3.5hrs we were arriving in Kampong Chhnang. This however was not the buses last stop. And good thing I was checking my location on my phone because it ended up not being a stop at all. I waited as we went through the center of town and as we were leaving and after I realized there was no plan to stop, I went up to the front and the bus driver happily pulled off and let us off. Close one.
We walked into town and got lunch. After lunch we were approached by a tuk tuk driver as always who offered to give us a free ride to Garden Guesthouse, the place we were already planning on going, but we said no and chose to walk the 15ish minutes assuming as always it’s some other ploy to get $$. We got there and who’s hanging out but our favorite tuk tuk driver. We got a nice cheap private room and now being almost 1, figured we should head out to see the sights. Our tuk tuk man offered to drive us to the pier to see the floating villages for $2 there and back. Not bad so we got in.
When we got there we bargained with a woman who ended up taking us out on her small lawnmower powered boat about 30 minutes up river where we meandered through a series of floating villages. I had heard this was the “thing to do here” and that while Siem Real also has floating villages these are much lest touristy and more real life. And real life is true. Out on these floating raft homes are families hanging out together, kids playing in the water, and ice cream/beer boats that troll up and down the rows. Everyone has dish TV, begging the question, where do they get power? Some had solar panels but definitely not all of them. As we were cruising through the rows of houses Athena turned to me and said “we’ll this is not exactly what I had seen coming from my day but it sure is beautiful”. It was a very interesting, very different slice of life that was quite something to see and a great reminder that all while there’s people watching Sunday football, others are living this drastically different life.
We got back to the dock after our boat trip around 2:45 and not wanting to head right back we asked our friendly tuk tuk driver if there was something else in the area we could do. He said for $15 he could take us on a whole tour loop around the country side, so with nothing else to do we finally took our first tuk tuk tour. We stopped at the one mountain as far as the eye can see and hiked to the top. Mountain is a very exaggerated term but comparatively there was some elevation…..Cambodia is FLAT!!
After that we stopped at “the stone bakery” aka a brick “factory”. Our second third world factory in two days. (A rubber factory in Kampong Cham being the other, check the Vlog for proof). Our driver got out and explained the whole process. Next we went to a pottery factory were they make clay oven/cookers that are used all over Cambodia. Here we learned that town gets its name from its two most famous features. Kampong means river, and Chhanang means pottery. The clay from the “mountain” we had just climbed is used by the surrounding village to make all manner of clay items from cookers to piggybacks. We stopped in one “the pottery village” and got to go house to house seeing how each family made their own pottery item and fired them in kilns made in their back yards. The pottery at many of these places is nothing like you’ve seen. No throwing wheels, bust a smooth rock and a bamboo swatch to slap the bowls into shape. There was one stop in the village that had a foot powered throwing wheel where Athena and I got to try our hands at a little vase making. For the second time today Athena looked at me and said “well this is really not what I was expecting out of my day this morning”. With a good laugh and the help of the woman who worked there we were able to make a half decent product….mine was better.
While we were in the village we also got to try some palm sugar, the other main piece of the local economy. Palm men climb 40-50 palm trees twice a day to harvest the water out of the palm flowers which is then either boiled down to make palm sugar or fermented into palm wine. It was delicious. And makes sense when you see how many palm trees litter the utterly flat landscape.
After our village visit we were taken through the rice fields out to our drivers favorite sunset view point. It was now 5 and the sun was low in the sky. So we stopped and took some photos and talked while the sun we had seen rise over the Mekong not set over the clay mountains of Chhnang. While we were stopped we chatted with our driver (who’s name we never got and I’m kicking myself about it) about Cambodia. He’d lived in Chhnang his whole life and talked about the development in the cities by the Chinese and his dislike of the government, which had been set up by the Vietnamese after the genocidal Pol Pot Khmer Rouge fell. He talked about how Cambodia had given so much to the Vietnamese in both land and cheap exports the Cambodian people needed. And how the government, which has been the same for the last 40 years hasn’t done anything to change or help and refuses to let elections happen. He quickly became quite as another motorbike rolled past suggesting the current government was only slightly better than Pol Pot and you can still get in a fair bit of trouble for saying anything against the government. He talked about the millions of people who have left to work in Thailand and Vietnam instead of Cambodia due to the lack of trust in government and low opportunity for work. It was a very real life conversation, and one which I’ve had in more than one country we’ve been in so far. On the ride back into town Athena and I both looked back on our unplanned unexpected day in Kampong Chhnang and how this little slice of real life in a small Cambodian town was so refreshing after hitting the main tourist spots and had been by far our favorite place in the country so far. Sure even though we were doing the touristy things here it felt like a nice break going a whole day sunrise to sunset without seeing another westerner. Having hit the sights, tomorrow we’ll catch a bus up to Battambang, but for now thank you “River pottery”.
I will again preface this with I am not a professional historian so what is conveyed bellow is what I understand to be correct. If you know more and would like to educate me further, please reach out so I can correct any misinformation. Thanks.
Something which is known by some, but largely forgotten by the international community, is the atrocities which occurred in Cambodia under the reign of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970’s. Building off the countries anger from the aggressive bombings throughout the country by the US during the second Indochine war (Vietnam War), the communist fanatic Pol Pot was able to raise a militia and take control of the country. Pol Pot had been raised by a farming family in Cambodia, and got an education in the capital while living with his brother who worked in the royal palace. Later he moved to France, where he furthered his education, and became a strong following member of the French communist party. Upon his return to Cambodia he grew in the ranks of the Communist Party of Kampuchea and eventually headed the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge militia overran Phnom Penh as well as most other major cities later in 1975, and the people welcomed them as a liberation force. Pol Pot wasted no time and quickly drained all populated areas of people and within three days there were fewer than a couple hundred people in the capital city. He told the people it was to protect them from any further air raids, but little did they know it was the beginning of a systematic plan which ended up killing more than a third of the country less than four years. Pol Pot claimed they were giving the country back the the famers and peasants and moving people out of the cities and having them begin working in the fields would increase the prosperity of the country. However Pol Pot and the high members of the Khmer Rouge deeply distrusted any intellectuals thinking they might turn agains this new power. Doctors, teachers, skilled professionals, politicians, were rounded up and taken to prisons where they couldn’t rebel. These prisons were particularly dark. Here prisoners were not just held, but tortured repeatedly until they wrote forced confessions claiming they had been plotting against the Khmer Rouge. Once they confessed they were taken out of prisons and put to death for their crimes against the Ankor. The Khmer Rouge had abolished any religion and replaced it with worship to the Ankor, the high powers in Khmer Rouge. As such many monks and religious figures were also brought to the prisons. In just a few months these prisons and killing fields sprouted up all over the country and a systematic culling of the population began.
One such prison, S-21, one of the largest in Cambodia, was located right in Phnom Penh and has been converted to a museum to honor those lost and to teach the horrific acts of the Khmer Rouge so they will never be forgotten. A primary school before the Khmer Rouge take over, class rooms were converted to holding cells, which would contain 50+ prisoners shackled to the floor. Other class rooms were converted to the torture chambers where “interrogators” would torture prisoners until they confessed and were sent to the killing fields. The museum explains the horrific conditions people were held in, and the even worse method of torture that were used. Everything from beating, to waterboarding, to being hung upside down till the blood in your head caused you to pass out, only to be dunked in a vat of rotten food and human feces to cause you to come back to consciousness. Interrogators were frequently children who were brainwashed by the Khmer Rouge head of prisons, Duch. While they were torturing prisoners, the Khmer Rouge had a very backwards control over their people. Saying they were rooting out traitors, no one was allowed to be killed until they had signed a written confession of their crimes against the Ankor. Interrogators could themselves become prisoners if they crossed a line and accidentally killed their victims in the process of getting a confession. As the Khmer Rouge rule continued, prisoners went from just intellectuals and religious figures to just about anyone the Ankor deemed “dangerous”. These “dangerous individuals” included children, simple farmers (the people Pol Pot said he was fighting for) and even a few unlucky foreigners who stumbled into Cambodian borders during the Khmer Rouge reign. Believing they were actually rooting out enemies of the state, these prisons kept detailed reports on all the prisoners who came through. In the four years of their reign, 21,000 prisoners went through S-21 alone. Only 4 survived.
Walking through this tainted place you can feel the destructive power the Khmer Rouge had over the county. Pictures from the prison’s records adorn the walls as you walk along and listen to an audio tour that tells the story of the Khmer Rouge and what happened at the prisons. To this day people still come to sort through the records recovered to see if loved ones they had been separated from had become prisoners and later victims of the genocide. Not for the feint of heart, the audio tour takes you through a journey showing the destruction this place had, not only on the prisoners, but their families, and even the people who worked there.
After visiting S-21 we continued on the depressing tour 15km out of the city to Choeng Ek, commonly known as the killing fields. One of many which accompanied the numerous torture prisons spread across the country these were the sights were the “confessed” prisoners were taken to be executed. Another audio tour walks you through the place where the 21,000 prisoners of S-21 were murdered. Depressions in the ground mark were mass graves were dug and a practically constant stream of people were executed for four years straight. Deeming bullets too valuable, the Khmer Rouge found horrific ways to kill victims. Most involving blunt force by metal rods, machetes, tilling hoes, hard sticks, and just about whatever else they could get there hands on. Prisoners were typically brought out at night by the truckload so no one knew where they were going. They were blind folded and forced into sheds, not knowing their fate listening to the sound of loud diesel generators and blasting propaganda music to drown out the cries of those ahead of them. Soon after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 these sights were discovered and many of the remains were exhumed and cataloged, however as you walk around the grounds new bits of bone and clothes regularly make their way to the surface and can be seen across the ground.
One of the hardest parts for me was “the killing tree”. Babies would be stripped from their mothers arms and taken to this tree, where their heads were smashed against the hard bark and they were thrown into the mass graves beside it. If S-21 was hard, the killing fields themselves hold an even deeper level of eerie dark power. The exact numbers are still not known but somewhere between 1.7-2.5 million people were killed this way between 1975-1979.
The atrocities of the Khmer Rouge didn’t end with just their direct murder of a significant portion of the country. Further losses of life occurred from the forced labor when Pol Pot demanded rice production be tripled in the country. People of all ages, many of whom had no idea what they were doing were sent to work in the rice paddies. However much of this increased production was sold to China to purchase weapons for the Khmer Rouge fighters, leaving 10s to 100s of thousands of more people to die of starvation.
The Khmer Rouge finally fell from power in 1979 when they were run out of the capital by Cambodian rebels backed strongly by Vietnamese troops. However many of the heads of the Khmer Rouge lived on in Cambodia, including Pol Pot who lived until 1993 when he died in his home on the Thai border. Following the fall of the Khmer Rouge the Cambodian Peoples Party was formed with he help of the Vietnamese government. Yet somehow, even after the killing fields were discovered and the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge were known the UN still recognized the Khmer Rouge as the ruling party of Cambodia until 1989! Having recently lost the Vietnam War the US refused to back a Vietnamese aided communist government so instead they recognized known murders for almost 10 years!
The bus ride across the border into Cambodia was easy and pretty fast. The bus took us straight to the center of Phnom Penh, where we got a tuk tuk to our hostel. While it may not be nearly as interesting to anyone else, I’ve been having a great time seeing all the tuk tuk variants that each country uses. And Cambodia’s are definitely a bit different. Unlike the three wheeled cars of Thailand, or the “side tuk” of Vietnam, in Cambodia they use “fifth wheel” type trailer pulled behind none other than a 125cc scooter. Even more astounding is there use of scooters to haul “busses” which are similar to the tuk trucks but frequently carry around 12+ people!!! (Seen above it is literally the only photo I took while in Phnom Penh). Cambodia has truly taught me the power of these little machines in many ways. I love the small differences you find between countries which are so similar in many ways but definitely individuals. As they say in Thailand. “Same Same, but different “.
Anyways, we got to our hostel and took the day walking around the city to see some of the main sights. Namely the waterfront, which is the hub of tourist activity, and the Royal Palace. And I’ve got to say, while it is interesting, Cambodias got nothing on the Thai Royal Palace in Bangkok. Apart from that my first impressions of Phnom Penh (PP) weren’t spectacular. On the bus and border crossing we talked to an older American guy who had lived in PP about 10 years ago and had travelled back a few times since then. He told us about the remarkably rapid growth in the capital city in that time, and how it recently blossomed from the small riverside village he knew when he lived there. All that rapid growth has lead to a big city that doesn’t really know what to do with itself, full of traffic, less desirable types, and a truly overstressed sewer system. STANKY! On a tuk tuk ride headed out of the city to see the killing fields (more on that later), we saw massive developments going up. Unfortunately however, these are all luxury apartment housing and massive shopping malls built to service the ultra wealth and the large influx of Chinese “entrepreneurs” into the country. These complexes seem vastly out of place when contrasted with the shanty huts that are also scattered around the outskirts of PP. It’s just sad to see so much development and growth that is very clearly not going toward helping the Cambodian people most of whom, if well-off, make about $110 / month.
Furthermore, that first night, Athena and I went out to experience the PP nightlife that we’d heard a lot about. Huge sections of the city are street after street lined with bars, but some of the things we saw definitely weren’t our ideal vibes. Many of the streets sport “hostess bars”, which are glorified brothels emanating a particularly sleazy vibe. Even worse was when we were walking down a street and we saw a tuk tuk pull up to a bar and an old man who must have been at least 65-70 got out holding hands with a girl who couldn’t have been more than 10 walking towards a bar. Suddenly I became significantly more aware of all the single older men travelers I had seen, some of whom had been taking naps during the day to be able to go out at night and my stomach turned. I hope I’m just a judgmental individual, but it is VERY clear that sex tourism is very much alive in PP. Of all of the the places we’ve travelled in South East Asia, this was the first place that I didn’t feel completely safe, and was very conscious of where my wallet was at all times.
After that rather unpleasant experience Athena and I headed back to our room calling it a night and getting ready for our depressing day tomorrow. The next day we visited Tuol Sleng War Museum and Choeung Ek otherwise known as the killing fields. These two sights, which explain in depth the horrors experience in Cambodia during Cambodian Genocide from 1975-1979, are overwhelmingly heart wrenching. While I can tell you what we learned was disturbing, educational,and depressing, they deserve their own story.
After our two night “layover” in Phnom Penh, both Athena and I were quite ready get out of the city and head south to spend New Years on the Island of Ko Rong Samloem with Janine, our Kiwi friend from Dalat.
Originally we had wanted to spend Christmas on an beach somewhere but after our quick 2 day stop in Mui Ne we decided not to stay there. And Phu Quoc, the Vietnamese island in the south, was supposed to get hit with a major storm. So as we have many times before, we modified our plans and decided to spend our foreign Christmas in good ‘ole SAIGON!!
*Quick note on Mui Ne: I’m sure it can be nice, and no doubt there are party hostels if that’s what you want, but both Athena and I found 2 days was more than enough time there. The beach front is entirely claimed by resorts that you have to either sneak onto or pay to use. That, an astronomical amount of Russians on holiday, and neon lit store fronts with aggressive hawkers make it for an all around B- experience. Oh and Athena hit the trifecta of deaths seeing a dead bird, dead fish, and a dead rat all within 10m on the beach. But hey there’s a really fantastic Indian restaurant called Ganesh India!
So we got into Ho Chi Minh on the 23rd and we spent Christmas Eve Eve at a hostel in District 1, the backpacker central. Walking from the bus stop to the hostel we immediately understood why they call Saigon the crazy city. Holy sh*t f*ck*n hell! Hanoi’s got nothing on the madness that is traffic in this city. There are NO rules. It probably didn’t help that we arrived in the city right around rush hour but you’ll be walking down what you’re pretty sure is a sidewalk / motorbike parking lot, to be suddenly confronted by a motorbike coming straight at you, going the wrong direction, honking madly like you’re the one who’s not where they’re supposed to be. It’s all quite an experience. But we made it safe and sound. We dropped our stuff and went to check out Bien Thien, the hot nightlife bar scene of HCMC. In standard fashion we grabbed a drink walked around a bit and were back at our place by 10pm. Going out and getting drunk is great and all but it’s tiring and expensive (even if beers are only like 75¢).
We woke up Christmas Eve morning with a plan! We’d decided to get a nice apartment for ourselves with a kitchen were we could hold up for a few nights and pretend like we weren’t traveling for a second. We woke up and parted ways for the first time in the last two and a half months for two whole hours to frantically search the city for little last minute gifts so that we’d have something to open on that fateful day. We serendipitously met up on yet another life threatening street crossing right after we had both finished shopping.
Still having a decent chunk of the day left we headed over to the War Remnants Museum. Outside are all manner of big pieces of left-behind US military equipment, from artillery pieces to helicopters and fighter planes. Inside however tells the tail of the US war of aggression against the north Vietnamese who were simply fighting for their own governmental freedom from the US puppet government of Saigon. And while yes there is definitely a slight propagandist bias they don’t sugarcoat the war in the way it is taught in the US. Stories of villages of innocent civilians that were slaughtered and whose homes were burnt to the ground are all to frequent. Atrocities such as prisoners being thrown out of helicopters alive with photos to prove it really make you see the war in a whole new angle.
Quotations from intellectuals from all over the world condemning the actions of the US as aggressive war crimes aren’t hard to believe.
I will say they do a remarkable job of noting instances of protest to the war in the US, such as the Kent shootings, to show it was not the American people but the government who had caused this war. Additional exhibits on the effects of agent Orange (dioxin), both ecologically and congenitally in the birth defects that survive 4 generations later, are not easy to stomach. Dioxin is one of the most harmful chemicals known to man, and exhibits paint a picture of the US knowingly testing this new chemical agent on the people of Vietnam, and their own soldiers, to research its effects for future wars. The contrast between the well maintained machines of death on the outside of the museum which in ways glorify war to the horrifying images and stories told within show an entirely new view on the “American war of aggression”.
After our uplifting afternoon we found a food co-op and got groceries to make ourselves a proper home cooked Christmas feast. Being both limited and wanting a slice of home, we decided on a pasta and homemade sauce with a creamy tomato soup (which I had been craving for weeks), garlic bread, green beans and some mashed potatoes. With our ingredients in hand we grabbed our bags and moved to our apartment. After some secret present wrapping and a candy cane provided by miss Athena, we had a proper fake plant Christmas tree! We closed our blinds of our 15th floor apartment, and apart from faint Vietnamese karaoke (the worst in the world, like seriously how is this whole country so tone def) you wouldn’t even know you were abroad. We started cooking dinner and realized that in our haste at the grocery store we had grabbed a bundle of shallots instead of garlic…garlic being the mainstay of our entire meal. Oh well we made it work, sort of, and enjoyed a nice dinner by a YouTube fireplace.
The morning finally came and somehow Santa managed to fit through the computer screen and deposit our gifts below our Christmas bush. And the spoils were good! Mostly little necessities we had lost along the way or had wanted for a while but weren’t in a city, but the icing on the cake was something extra special. The day before, after we’d bought our gifts, I realized that this would be my first Christmas without a token Lego. When I was a kid I was obsessed and that’s all I wanted. and in tradition every year my mom would get me a little something to put together on Christmas Day. And Athena played along with my disappointment, so imagine my surprise when Christmas Day I open one of my presents and here is a knockoff Vietnamese lego dude…ON A MOTORCYCLE!!! I knew I chose the right girl to marry 🙂
After a leisurely morning we set off for our one outing for the day. A family tradition of mine, we went to see a movie on Christmas Day. Since Christmas was just another Tuesday for most of Saigon, getting tickets wasn’t too hard. So we decided to go see the only half decent English film in HCMC, Aquaman. Wouldn’t have been my first choice but it was alright. The real experience though was the 10 seat private theater with HUGE leather love seat recliners and the best sound system I’ve ever heard. Top notch movie viewing experience for two for a whole $20 including lots of popcorn. The rest of the day was lazily spent hanging out. One the way home we got garlic and wine to use what was left of our ingredients for another home cooked meal. And somehow the revised leftovers were way better with just a few ingredient additions and of course garlic.
The next day we sadly had to leave our 15th floor paradise and once again descend to the world of travel outside. It’s something you don’t understand until you travel long term but the little breaks from your “vacation” can sometimes be the best parts. And certainly some of the most relaxing.
After leaving our paradise, we decided to head back to our hostel and book a bus to Phnom Pen for the next morning because we’d already made plans to meet a friend in Ko Rong Samloem for New Years and we wanted a few days to see the capital city. So after a few more strolls through the city, and some delicious craft beer our time in Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh had come to an end.