Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Around Cambodia; Sihanoukville, Koh Rong, Siem Reap

Over the last few weeks I've had a chance to travel around the country a bit. Over Christmas Hermione and I traveled to Sihanoukville and Koh Rong. After New years spent in bed with a rather harsh respiratory bug and work not picking up much, I decided to head off to Siem Reap for a change of scenery and a chance to bike around some of the most spectacular ruins in the world; Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples.

Sihanoukville

So the original plan over Christmas was to go to Thailand, but some logistical issues surfaced last minute and we decided to head over to the Cambodian coast instead. Lucky for us it's just a bit over a 4 hour drive and were able to get there from a taxi we picked up near Central Market not long after Hermione got out of work. Some folks unacquainted with Asia may find a speeding taxi on Cambodian roads distressing, after spending time on Nepal's highways I was at ease and could have napped. After arriving we were able to check into a place right on the main road heading down to the pier on Serendipity beach.
Tropical Christmas
So Christmas Eve and day spent out on the beach in Christmas hats, to be at least a little festive. We had white sand instead of snow, but it's still a white Christmas, and this is the type I prefer. In Asia Christmas generally isn't so much a family holiday but is instead an excuse to hold lots of parties, and this seemed to be the case here. To be honest the party scene here was a bit too backpackery and the DJs playing on the beach were some of the worst I've tried to dance to in recent memory....and that's saying something. I've danced to some rather shit music over the last five years, but this was just dumb. You're a DJ, blend songs and eventually drop the friggin beat- it's not rocket science. It might take skill to be really good, but it doesn't take much to be passable. This was for the most part not.

Serendipity Beach
On the plus side, the beach was nice. lots of sand, lots of shaded spots, some decent surf, plenty of excellent food being brought around and cheap quality cocktails. For me this was the high note of the place. $2 well made Mojitos at one of the beach bars were a nonstop source of something worth smiling about. Grilled seafood is carted around the beach by locals and is quality and cheap. Ate plenty of grilled squid, prawn, and the local version of lobster. While on the food front it's worth noting that the places that do set BBQ menus with fresh fish and meat are by far the best food deal in the tourist area. Had some excellent barracuda, more prawn, pork ribs and wings. The places we enjoyed most were the ones set just one street back from the beach. 

Golden Lions at a Roundabout- why?
Because Asia
Something else worth noting is that Sihanoukville has this reputation as the kind of trashy part of Cambodia with a bit of a seedy underside. It very well may be, but I really didn't see much. Yes the tourist demographics tended a bit more toward the overweight and tattooed, a few more Russians than is probably good for any holiday destination, and there was a good sized backpacker contingent, but it all seemed rather chilled out. It's a beach side resort town and has a kind of cheap resort beach town feel. Nothing wrong with that really. And while there were certainly a few working girls about, they were fairly inconspicuous, and there was only one small area set back from the beach that had a concentration of girly bars, most of which looked fairly empty when we waked by. Pattaya (or any holiday location in Thailand) this is not. 

Lastly it should be noted that we ended up having to take medication for Giardia, a stomach ailment which comes generally when you've ingested fecal matter of some kind. Gross? Yup. But quite common in Asia. Recognized it quickly due to previous bouts of it in Nepal. Raw sewage gets into the ocean here, and though the ocean looks great, it may not be the cleanest. Could have also picked this up on Koh Rong, or it could have even been in food- but I suspect it was swimming off of Serendipity beach, even though symptoms didn't really manifest until just before leaving Koh Rong.

Koh Rong

Looking Down Toward the Pier at Sunset
So on to Koh Rong, which might be one of the most pristine islands I have ever spent time on. The sand is about as bleached white as I have ever seen it. There are not really any resorts and no airport means the island is thankfully free of large scale package tourists. It had a very backpacker vibe to the place, which is both good and bad. On the plus side I love the cheap accommodation (though more expensive than it should be for Cambodia now that I think about it), decent cheap food, and all in all a rather chilled out atmosphere. You do however have to endure late teen and twenty somethings trying to impress each other, binge drinking, talking about things like they know what they're talking about and hippies. Too many damn hippies. It takes all types I suppose. 

Some of the Best Beaches I've Been To
The pictures here are of Tui beach that is near the pier and the majority of the accommodation on the island. The coast line of the island however has a number of really great beaches. It does not however have any real roads, so to get to said beaches one must hike over the islands surprisingly steep trails that traverse the cliffs or take a water taxi (basically some guys fishing boat). This is highly recommended. Long Beach on the west coast of the island is just miles of some of the best beach I have ever been on. I don't have photos because I didn't bother bring my phone, but the water was perfectly azure blue, the sand was bright white, and there was so little sediment in the sand that it squeaks between your toes as you walk. It's just really spectacular. I say this as someone who has been to some really wonderful beaches in Mexico, Thailand, Fiji, Australia, etc. This very much vies as one of, if not the, best I have ever been to. Also due to how inaccessible the other beaches are, and how massive they are you'll likely have this spectacularly beautiful spot all to yourself. We also did some snorkeling at the north end Tui beach near the Treehut Bungalow place, and was actually quite surprised that it was decent. There are a few coral gardens out there and we saw a rather decent array of fish. I got to chase around a school of at least a hundred or so fish for a bit that had a mix of different species including a few really good looking parrot fish. Not a bad way to spend the afternoon.

Another note on this is that when we went over we took the afternoon speed boat, which is much much worse than the morning boats in comfort level. We were in rather calm seas and that thing was all over the place, I can imagine a few people get seasick if there are any decent waves. So when I was heading back and feeling quite ill, I was not looking forward to the ride at all. Thankfully the morning boat is a much bigger and much more stable boat that actually made for a rather comfortable ride even in my depreciated state.

It should also be noted that it appears there are some seriously grand plans to develop the island. Airports, golf courses, resorts, malls, and everything that ruins a destination like this. Sure there are other islands to go to, but if you want to see this island as a pristine gem, I advise going sooner than later. It's like the difference of a place like Phi Phi in Thailand 15 years ago compared to today, or Samui 20 years ago compared to now. Always best to get there before the resorts and airports, it all goes down hill once the people on planes start arriving.

Siem Reap

Looking for a change of scenery I'm currently sitting and writing in a Hotel in Siem Reap, which has to be the most visited city in Cambodia for tourists. I can't get over how many are here compared to when I was here five years ago. I arrived late and just grabbed a place that was a short walk from pub street. As I approach 40, I've noticed that I am in an odd demographic where I don't really want to hang out with all the retirees and if Hermione is not around I am just too damn old to go into a place full of twenty somethings dancing and drinking. So while multiple people recommended Angkor What? and Temple Bar, they just dint feel like a place for me. I stopped at Triangle(?) bar for a bit as the live singer was playing some excellent old Khmer music that I really like. 

Angkor Wat is Stunning
Relief on the Walls of  Angkor Thom
 Of course most people aren't here for drinking and dancing, they're here to see the temples of Angkor. Angkor wat remains one of the top destinations in the world for just spectacular ruins. Pictures don't do most of it justice. These are spectacular ancient temples spread over a rather large area of jungle. It should be on the bucket list of anyone who likes to travel, and probably for some that don't. Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Machu Picchu in Peru, Pamukkale in Turkey and Karnak in Egypt are my favorite ancient ruin sights I've been to, and of those Angkor is near, or at, the top of the list.
Having already spent days wandering around the ruins a few years ago I thought I would take a different approach. I rented a mountain bike and picked up a day pass. The sun is quite intense at this latitude, but most of the time you are cycling in the shade of the trees. It was really pleasant, and the ability to just stop anywhere I like and take in the scenery at whatever pace I liked was nice. Then it was back into town for another evening.

On the whole I remembered Siem Reap much more favorably then this experience. On the whole it has been pleasant, but the city has lost a bit of its charm. Pub street is kind of a subdued  version of Bangkok's Koah San Road, but without that element that makes it fun. The local food is mostly overpriced when you know what it costs to make, and the foreign dishes are mostly what you would expect, edible but mostly imitations of what they are trying to be. 

After having to change hotels due to not booking enough days I moved up to the north side of the highway to a much nicer place for almost the same amount of money. On the way I stopped at a restaurant named Abacus which is run by a couple of French guys apparently. Can't say enough good things about it. A little on the pricey side for Siem Reap, but the quality is there to make it very much worth it. Best meal I have had out while in Cambodia. The crab & mango salad was really excellent and the duck confit wasn't bad either. Will definitely go there again when visiting people inevitably want to come see the temples, glad I know about it now.

This north side of town seems ok, though as I write this I can hear a lot of Karaoke, which is entertaining now, but could be a bit much if it goes on to 2 or 3 am. There are not thousands of Chinese tourists up this way stopping in every part of the road for photos with everything at least. I get that Asians like their photos, but Jesus....when there are so many people stopped taking photos in congested areas it tends to get bothersome. Move on Folks! You can take a selfie with the menu some other time. Besides no one wants to look at that photo! Anyway, Khmer pub street is just around the corner and seems to be full of Khmer style beer gardens and plenty of KTV places. None of it is really my scene but may be worth checking out. Well not the KTV, that requires substantial amounts of alcohol and other people to go with. Regardless, will strongly consider staying up this way in the future. 

1 comment:

  1. Agreed on the picture taking. I think it is their way to remember the experience.

    Tough having to wear the hats on the beach on Christmas for sure.

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