Entry #40 of our travel diary. This week we moved south in Cambodia, and spent most of our time in the beach.
6-7 December 2016 – Battambang
When later on we said to someone we visited Battambang they would always ask: what is there to see. But I can not give a straight-forward answer. There are no obvious sights. It is about experiencing the vibe of the town, by walking down the streets or along the river, observing colonial style buildings, visiting art galleries and having coffee in a cosy café. There are many of these kind of establishments that claim to support local communities or underprivileged children.
This is a place with less tourists than Siem Reap and definitely not a target for large groups. Nevertheless there are some drawbacks. I went to the local market to buy some fruits. “3 dollars” seemed to be the only English words that locals have learned. This was the price for anything I pointed, like apples, mandarins, etc.
Another surprise was to see many beggars. We didn’t noticed it before. We think that Siem Reap has been ‘cleaned’ by the authorities forbidding locals to harass tourists.
We read that Cambodia is famous for its acrobat circus. In Siem Reap we didn’t manage to get tickets. Battambang is the home of it. In fact, it is French-Cambodian co-project established to support and give opportunity to the underprivileged youth to study various arts as dance, painting, music and acrobatics.
We went to see the circus, however, it wasn’t exactly what we expected. The so called ‘circus’ was rather a play with elements of acrobatics and somewhat funny ‘clown-like’ moments accompanied by live music and all of it was performed by the students of this school. As Luis said, and I tend to agree, it was too much of chaos and screaming in the play, nevertheless, some tricks were quite thrilling and made my palms sweat.
Besides, the story itself was something more understandable for the local audience: an old man is not feeling well and is about to die, thus his children ask a shaman to help. After treating the father shaman says a bigger house will make the old man feel better. And all the rest was about building the house.
When our bus stopped in Battambang I felt like a rock star arriving to a venue and getting cheered by a crowd of fans. But we are not rock stars and the dozen people were not fans. They were tuk-tuk drivers touting us for the “best deal” on transport and accommodation. We declined and walked to our guesthouse that was 300m away. Tourist harassment in Cambodia is the worst we experienced in 9 months of travel in Asia.
Battambang is a little city south of Siem Reap that feels like it is still in the colonial times. Little traffic, colourful two-storey colonial houses. It is less touristy as there are no major sights to see. Instead, it became a kind of arts centre of Cambodia, with plenty of art galleries and hip coffee places. And that’s what we did in there, strolled around, had some coffee and visited some art galleries. Good place for a break after the chaos of Siem Reap.
8 December 2016 – Pit stop in Phnom Penh
There are two things I have kept in my mind about the capital of Cambodia: expensive ex-pat and tourists cafés and bars along the river, and the dodgy district that lights up in the evening.
While Jacques took a rest in the hotel room me and Luis went for a small walk. First thing I noticed when approaching the river was a group of poor-looking people that were obviously living right there, on the street.
We sat down outside one of the cafés facing the street and river. As we ate there were numerous people passing by and stopping to ask for money. There were several mothers with children in their arms, small children selling handmade bracelets and so on. I had a feeling that there is a queue of them waiting their turn. And soon I felt so sad that I barely could swallow a piece of food. I felt terrible and somewhat guilty: here I am, having a drink and snack in an expensive coffee place and there are people standing in front of me and looking straight in my eyes with extended hand.
By the time a handicapped man in a wheelchair approached us to sell books I felt so bad that I wanted to cry. I guess Luis felt my mood and without any hesitation he suggested we buy a book. In fact, it was a copy which most likely costs a dollar or two. The man asked 10 dollars and we just paid it. I really wished he would just go away. And as he did, I burst in tears.
In the evening we went out to search for some food. Now the streets were bright with neon lights. Bar after bar and young girls with exaggerated make-up and provocative clothes waiting outside. Occasionally one could see an elderly western man sitting at the bar surrounded by young girls.
I read that Phnom Penh was a pearl of Khmer and Indochina. Although, I acknowledge I haven’t seen much, what I saw made me sad and distressed. And we didn’t even go to ‘the Killing Fields’ and prison of the Khmer Rouge regime. This is the main reason why the tourists come to Phnom Penh. I believe currently there is nothing pearl-like about this city.
By now we know that any bus trip in Cambodia always takes 1 or 2 hours more than what is advertised. The companies seem to “forget” to include the pit stops and all the traffic to get into the big cities. And the traffic in Phnom Penh was terrible and we easily spent 1h inside the city.
We only spent one afternoon in Phnom Penh and we have no desire to spend more. Chaotic, polluted, ugly. We stayed in the backpackers area close to the river. It is a dodgy area, a sort of red-light district with plenty of “bars” offering young girls to fat old westerners. Sadly we heard that Cambodia is overtaking Thailand as the top sex tourism destination. And a big number of beggars everywhere. We stopped for a snack in an esplanade and had more than a dozen people coming to us, all in less than 30min. Really depressing place.
9 November 2016 – Serendipity Beach, Sihanoukville
I wished to be on the beach on my birthday. It put a bit of stress on us to plan it accordingly. In the morning we took a bus from Phnom Penh and after 4 hours we arrived to Sihanoukville – a town with long beach front. We checked in a backpackers guesthouse with a little swimming pool. In the afternoon me and Luis stayed in the pool having a cocktail. There were some 8 young guys and girls having fun, some of them already quite drunk, pouring beer in mouth of each other and most of it going directly in the pool. I don’t see any fun there. This is when I realised I’m officially old with no regrets.
Anyway, we got ready and went for a nice dinner, had a bottle of wine followed by another drink on the beach. Bars are lined up on this beach. Unfortunately they don’t have any agreements music-wise. All of them play their music as loud as they can. Thus typically you hear the music from the bar you’re currently in as well as from the bars nearby. And, of course, you get all kind of offers to get a massage, to buy a bracelet, and many others. The best you can do is take it easy and put up with it. At least I was enjoying the moment in the nice company of Luis, Jacques and Daniel whom we met on the way and spent quite some time with.
Another long bus trip to get to the south of Cambodia, to Sihanoukville. This is backpackers world, and we felt old in here, as most of the tourists are 20 year old kids constantly partying and getting drunk. Nothing against it, I did the same at that age. The main tourist area of Sihanoukville is called Serendipity Beach, but the name does not fit at all. Unless your idea of serendipity is a big avenue of guesthouses, restaurants, massage parlours and tuk-tuks. The beach front is full of bars blasting loud crappy music.
Today was Ilze’s Birthday (yeah!!!!) so we had a nice dinner of Khmer food in a cosy little restaurant called Nyam. Best meal we had in Cambodia. We were with Jacques and Daniel (another Canadian we met in Battambang) and had some wine and nice talks. Great night out.
10-12 November 2016 – Koh Rong
I do like islands and beaches but strange enough I didn’t get connected with this place. Beach was quite clean and nice for swimming. And this is what I did: I swam as much as I could and read a book. Three days passed and we left without any regrets.
This place is highly regarded by young backpackers. They were having a lot of fun. On the second day someone approached us and offered a ticket to the ‘biggest event’ of the island – ‘the pub-crawl’ (doesn’t seem such ‘big’ to me as it happens twice every week). The guy advertised it as best as he could: “It will be fun, we’ll drink a lot of shots, we’ll go from bar to the bar, you’ll get a nice T-shirt and a free beer if you buy the ticket now!”
We said we’d think about it and walked away. As Luis pointed out, technically he could be a father for most of these kids. The average age of the main public was somewhat 22.
We didn’t go to the pub-crawl. Instead,we had a nice vegetarian dinner and watched a movie in our hotel room. How did we get a hotel room instead of bungalow that we booked on the first place it is a special story. I just can tell that such a nasty bed bug attack I saw for the first time. But Luis was the one who suffered the most, thus he will tell more about it.
Koh Rong feels like a continuation of Serendipity Beach, without the tuk-tuks and with worse wi-fi. The small village in the main island is a chaotic conglomerate of cheap guesthouses, restaurants and bars, all offering the best happy-hour and advertising parties from dusk till dawn. 95% of the tourists are half my age (I know it sounds terrible) and it’s all about partying, drinking and smoking weed.
Fortunately, when we moved away from the village there was a nice beach and several quiet places offering basic bungalows. This is what we came here for so we stayed in a big bungalow, with three beds (with mosquito nets). From our terrace we could see the sea, warm and blue water, clean and white sand. All seemed perfect until we went to sleep. I felt a big bite and after a while found a small bug in the bed. And another one, and many more. The bungalow was infested with bed bugs and they all came to me. Ilze got a few bites and Jacques didn’t even notice them. I could not sleep at all and by the morning I had killed more than 20 of those nasty creatures. I was really upset and wanted to leave the island, no way I would stay in the same bungalow another night. We talked with the manager and he offered us to change to another bungalow. But I was so distressed that I found a room for me and Ilze in a proper brick building in the village. Lucky Jacques who got a full bungalow for himself.
The change in the room helped me sleeping but staying in the village was not nice. The island lost its appeal and I was happy when we left.