It seems like this always happens. Anytime I have to leave somewhere, things start getting really good. With just a few weeks left in South East Asia before I needed to hop a flight to Nepal to meet up with yet more friends from South Korea, I arrived in Cambodia and immediately wished I had budgeted more time for it.
Kampot & Kep
Well, let me back up, cause I didn’t feel that way when I first got there because it was a hellish trip getting to my first stop, Kampot. In an attempt to avoid spending anytime in Phnom Penh (another large, dreadful city in a developing country), I chose to take a back way into Cambodia by going down into the Mekong Delta and crossing at the rarely used Chao Doc border crossing. I left Saigon at 8am and should have easily made it to the border in time to cross before it closed at six that night. However, the “six hour” bus ride turned into a ten hour one, and I arrived too late to cross that day. Instead, I stayed in a very small city for the night where, based on the stares I was getting, not many black people and/or foreigners spend any time in. I got up early the next day and tried crossing again.
I hired a bike to take me to the border. Other than a few truck drivers hauling scrap metal and a few guards, I was all alone. I walked across the few hundred meters of no-man’s land and entered Cambodia and asked around to see what the best way to get to Kampot, a river town on the coast, was. Everyone kept telling me the only way to get a bus there was to go up north to Phnom Penh (PP) and then get a bus back down south to the Kampot. I pulled out my map and saw how far out of the way going back to PP was and decided to make my own rout. What followed was a series of four long bike rides with me and all my gear riding on the back of scooters for a couple hundred kilometers until I was finally able to make it to Kampot.
Once there, I went to a hostel well-outside of town and far up the river. I had heard about this place, Arcadia, by word of mouth and as soon as I arrived, I felt like it was the place I had been looking for my whole trip. It was secluded, had a fun party vibe, lots of like-minded travelers, was built right over the river and had a blob (see picture). Everyone and everything there was super chilled out, and I spent my days sitting on the deck over the river, riding bikes up to nearby ghost towns from the Khmer Rouge days in Kep and eating great fresh seafood, stupid good ribs and lots of luk luk (a Cambodian beef dish). I could have stayed there for a long time, but after a week, I had to go. I still had a few more places I wanted to see and few more friends I wanted to visit.
A few years back I spent one of the best months of my life bartending at one the rowdiest backpacker clubs I’ve ever seen, JJ’s Playground. Thanks to Facebook, I knew that not only were the Khmer guys I had worked with still around, almost half the Westerns I had met were, too! I have to admit to being a bit hesitant about visiting. These guys had now been there on and off for two years and must have seen a ton of people come and go. I really thought I might have just been a passing thought or a foggy memory for them. But as it turned out, what had been a special month in my life was also period of time that was a highlight of living there for many of them as well. My friend who came there with me from Kampot and I were greeted warmly and everyone went out of their way to show us a great time in the city it now seemed they were running. Everyone was either managing or owning their own guest houses and bars. I can easily say some of the best nights of this trip so far were spent there. Big shout out to The Big Easy Guest House and Restaurant, The Nap House Bar and, of course, JJ’s Playground. You guys are the best and all come highly recommended by me.
I guess I should also mention that one day while laying on the beach, two girls from my old neighborhood in Korea just happened to rock up and take the beach chairs right next to me (Korea reunion count: 15).
From the first day of my trip, this was the most talked about place in all of South East Asia. Hell, I even read an article on the Huffington Post calling it “one of the places you must go to before they get famous.” (Too late on that one). I couldn’t wait to check it out, especially since it wasn’t even on the radar the last time I was in the region just two years earlier. Well, I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There are lots of great pictures to be taken there, but there was nothing special about the place and despite it not having power or running water half the day, or maybe because of it, this off-the-beaten-track island already felt overrun. Sure, there are no cars, no paved roads and everything from ice to rice has to be brought in by boat, but Huffpost saying it was like Thailand 20 years ago was way off the mark. For starters, to this day you would have to go out of your way to find a 40 dollar a night bungalow in Thailand. That, however, was the price for lots of places on this hot, littered, sand flee and mosquito ridden, breezless island. There were cheaper places, but they didn’t have electricity at night and without a fan, you’ll just sweat the night away awake and miserable. Kho Rong also didn’t give me the feeling of isolation I like when I go to islands since the mainland and all it’s bright lights were plainly visible.
Personally, I think the reason the island is so popular is because SE Asia is full of a lot of people who are traveling for the first time. I think this overpriced island that is so lacking in basic infrastructure gives newbie travelers a feeling that they’re roughing it. However, most of the more seasoned travelers I knew saw it the same way I did: as an overpriced tourist trap that has already killed any charm it might have had by bringing in too many tourists too quickly. Don’t get me wrong, it has beautiful beaches and clear water. It’s just that there are lots of easier, cheaper and more comfortable places to see the exact same thing. After you’ve traveled for a long time, you don’t feel the need to go out of your way to be uncomfortable. That will take care of itself and will happen plenty of times where you have no other options. There is no reason to seek it out, and going to Koh Rong is seeking out discomfort for no damn reason.
However, while there I did get to meet up with Chris again who I had met my second day of this trip in KL 3 months earlier and who I traveled with for three weeks. I also ran into a few of the Lads on Tour from Vietnam. But, after just two nights at my ridiculously overpriced bungalow (thank god I still had my friend from Kampot to split the cost with), I went back to the mainland and spent my last few days in SE Asia hanging with old and new friends back in Sihanoukville. That’s where I also got to see Man City win the Premier League for the second time in three years (GO BLUE!). I then, once again, went to Bangkok.
I arrived in Bangkok just a few days before the coup was officially announced, but the protests and a military looked ready for anything and both were already out in large numbers. The bus I arrived on couldn’t get within 5 kilometers of Khoa san Road, where I was staying, and just let me and the other passengers off in the middle of a huge crowed of reform minded Yellow Shirt protesters. I walked around their encampment for a while and the mood seemed positive and peaceful. After an hour or so of getting very lost, I finally made it to the backpacker district no worse for the ware. I used the next day to do some shopping, mail some stuff home, and get my last taste of Thai street food. While I was all set to party it up that last night in SE Asia, like I had mentioned in an earlier article about travel tips, liquor sales were closed for Buddha’s birthday, and I ended up just going to the airport to spend the night verses getting a hotel room since I was going to have to get up at 5 am to catch my flight to Nepal anyway.