Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The one with Koh Rong Island, Cambodia.

The beauty of ESL schools and the way their schedules sometimes works is when your class ends for the session you might have a day or two before the next session begins. A day or two can be the equivalent of an entire week because of the every other day rule. My Tuesday/Thursday class ended in early August 2012 and I suddenly found myself with a free week. What was a travelholic to do with a week of free time in August? I knew that if I didn't take full advantage of it I would regret it for the rest of my life and I'm not exaggerating. I had several choices available to me for only a week - options where I didn't have to spend too much money or time: Da Lat, Hoi An, Mui Ne (all in Vietnam) and Cambodia. I knew I was going to go to Da Lat and Hoi An later in the year and I had already been to Mui Ne twice before and I'm absolutely in love with Cambodia so the choice was easy (even if I did spend more time travelling than sitting on a beach.) 

Give me a beach as one of my options and I will, without a doubt, always choose that. Granted, it can’t be a beach in Delaware versus a night in Rome or something like that. Luckily, most beaches in Southeast Asia can hold its own in that kind of a fight. A coworker of mine suggested seeing the islands off the coast of Cambodia. Koh Rong is the second largest of Cambodia’s islands. It’s in the Gulf of Thailand, right off the coast of Sihanoukville, which was named after former Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk. If it sounds familiar to you history buffs out there it is because Sihanouville is the site of the last official battle of the US Army during the Vietnam War. Divers can see the wreckage of two U.S. battleships in the area. Or so says Wikipedia.

Getting to Koh Rong was not easy. I bought a ticket for a bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh, missed that bus in the morning (which I seem to have a knack for doing) and had to wait for another bus. I chatted with this cray cray Australian guy who only told stories about fights he got into (which seemed to be every single time he was in public), and endured a 6 hour bus trip from Saigon to Phnom Penh in a seat that was overheating because I was at the back of the bus. When I arrived in Phomn Penh I was surprised to see a familiar face in the crowd. You might remember Naren, the fabulous tour guide I had the first two times when I was in Cambodia. Well, turns out he was there picking up another visitor, but when he saw me he had one of his guys help the other tourist to his tuk tuk and he helped me with my problem. My problem was that I had another 6-8 hour journey to Sihanoukville ahead of me and my bus was leaving at 4, which meant I would arrive extremely late in a strange town and have to find my bungalow all by myself. Naren took me to the bus depot "customer service department" and got my ticket changed for a bus leaving within the hour. What was I to do with that hour? Central Market bebe! 

Central Market or Psah Thom Thmey is literally (yes, I understand the meaning of the word) one of my favorite places in this entire world. For example, I've been several times and I have never had a cockroach run over my toes. (I'm looking at you Ben Thanh Market!) Also...and I've got to face the music...I'm a shopaholic and this place is where I get my fix. I left my bags with Naren and headed to the market for a small shopping spree. Small because I had only walked with my backpack for a week. ::sigh:: What happened to that girl? I wish I could go back to being her. A few sundresses later I headed back to get my stuff, profusely thank Naren by giving him a gift for his wife and baby, and hop on the bus. One uneventful bus ride later, unless you count the snoring tourist wearing the neon pink tank top sleeping next to me, I arrived in Sihanoukville. Thank God for earplugs. 

(10 hours later!)

I don't understand how bus companies can advertise 4 and 5 hour trips and good, well paved roads in Cambodia when they're clearly not. I mean, I get that they lie about it and people believe it, but it just makes me mad! I arrived in Sihanoukville around midnight. The neon wearing guys next to me were very unsure about what to do. I told them, based on what I'd heard, heading towards the main part of town, which was within walking distance, would give them quite a few options. They asked if I wanted to walk with them to find a place, but I tossed my hair over my shoulders, smiled a mysterious smile, said "no, thanks I've got a place" and walked towards the motorbike taxis. I haggled with the guy for a $3 ride to Otres Beach (which I still maintain was a ripoff) and hopped on, my one backpack and all. As we sped out of the parking I was feeling really cool. You're probably thinking "way to go!", but you know me and deep down you know that feeling didn't last forever. I asked my driver to stop at a grocery store so I could grab a few things and as I was getting off the bike my strap got caught and I was yanked back towards the exhaust pipe. You'd think after a year in SE Asia that I'd know NOT to get off on that side of the bike. Don't know what I was thinking, but my Saigon kiss was a painful reminder of my stupidity and arrogance and immediately took away that feeling of being awesome.

That bike ride is one of those things I'll remember until the day I die. Otres Beach is outside the city limits of Sihanoukville - maybe, maybe not, but there aren't any street lights, houses or even paved roads at times the closer you get to it. It wouldn't be a problem during the day if you could see where you were going, but in the dead of the night on the back of a stranger's motorcycle it's definitely one for my history books. It was one of the few times I was ever really concerned about my decisions in life and I only got through it by telling myself that I was too old and too fat to be a sex slave. It's a terrible thought especially since it's a real fear for many young girls living in SE Asia. I prayed during that bike ride. I told God that I'd never put myself in a position like that again if I survived. I'm sure he was listening, but at the same time I'm sure I was being my typical American self thinking that the world is out to get me. Is that an American thing? Maybe it's just a me thing. Either way, the thought that there's always someone out to get you can be potentially life saving and drive you crazy at the same time. I'm grateful that nothing happened. In fact, when we arrived my driver parked on the side of the road and walked all the way up the road stopping at all the hostels trying to figure out which one was mine. Hard to see signs in the dark you know. He found it for me and waited until I registered, got a key and was assured that I was safe there. I'm thankful that I have such great luck in meeting such lovely people while travelling. 

Based on the advice of some colleagues at ILA I stayed at a guesthouse on Otres Beach called Don't Tell Mama, which I found to be such an apt name after my bike ride. Unfortunately, I'm kind of telling mama by writing this blog post. (Ha, I laughed even if you didn't.) Otres Beach is quiet and further out of town so it's not plagued by the seedy feeling that Sihanoukville suffers from. Even though it was well past midnight the guesthouse across the street called Mushroom Point was open so I decided to grab dinner. A glass of wine, really good food, the sound of waves crashing against the shore and a really friendly and relaxed atmosphere finally put me in vacation mode. 

I got a bungalow room with the use of shared bathroom for  $9/night as opposed to a bungalow with a private bathroom for $18/night. Since I was the only guest there I got such a great deal because my shared bathroom was essentially a private bathroom. Peter and Ulla, the owners of the bungalow, kept me company while I ate breakfast the next morning and shared suggestions on how to get to Koh Rong. They sent me to speak to a woman at a nearby guesthouse who had the schedule for the boat to Koh Rong. I bought a ticket from her, but had to head into town to get a bus to the boat. I asked her about booking a room, but she said that it was unnecessary. I quote "you'll be able to find a room."  I spent a few hours of the morning on the beach and then packed up and headed back into town. 

I got dropped off at the travel agency that was transporting us to the island and I'm sorry, but I've completely forgotten the name. I know it's associated with the bungalows I stayed at on Koh Rong, but I have the feeling it's the same company no matter where you go. Anyhoo, you're in luck because there is a Wiki Travel entry on getting to Koh Rong. I honestly don't remember how long the boat ride was, but I vaguely remember it being more than an hour long. This boat ride is another one of those times when I wished I wasn't travelling alone. It was a pretty boring boat ride and I was afraid to use my iPod because it would be just my luck that it would fall overboard. The only saving grace was the clearly hungover girl who was clearly suffering. I hate when people make fun of other people who get hurt or suffer in any way, but when you bring the suffering on yourself (drinking excessively the night before travelling???) you get no sympathy from me. She turned out to be a really lovely girl, we became travel friends and I only felt slightly bad for feeling superior to her, but more on that later. 

The boat finally arrived and a couple of guys on the dock started hauling people and luggage off the boat. The guy who was clearly in charge started yelling and asking people where they were staying so he and his guys could get the luggage sorted. When he got to me I told him I hadn't booked a room because I was told I could get one very easily. Guess what he told me. "Sorry, all rooms booked." I, naturally, was flabbergasted. I said, "they can't all be booked, can they?" He said, "yes." I said, "how do you know?" He said, "I know" and walked off. How was I supposed to argue with that? I began to quickly formulate a plan which included sleeping on the beach. Suffice to say I wasn't happy with that plan, but hey, backpacking around does have it downsides. (Note: I chatted with a guy on the boat ride back who went for a late night swim the night before I got there and was robbed because he left his things on the beach. So glad I didn't have to sleep out there!) Thankfully, and I it say with the utmost sincerity, two girls who were standing nearby overheard the conversation and said "We have two beds in our bungalow and you can have the second one if you want." Needless to say I was flabbergasted for the second time in the span of five minutes. I still believe in the goodness of humans even though I also believe the world is fundamentally broken, but I hadn't experienced the good side of the world in such an obvious way in a long time. They were two really cool, really sweet, really British, youngsters travelling around SE Asia. I even met up with them when they arrived in Saigon a few weeks later. I think some of the best people I've ever met were met during my time abroad. We spent two days together (that's all the time I had after all my travel time) and we had just the bestest time together ever! We walked around the island, or as much of it as we could, were discouraged from walking over the mountains to the other side of the island because of the rain, took pictures with water buffalo (okay, okay, OF water buffalo), swam in clear, blue waters and ate lots of seafood. We stayed at Cocos Resort and it's kind of the party place on the island so I was grateful that our bungalow was all the way up the hill. Other than the pulse pounding noise...ahem, music...emanating from the bar at night, Koh Rong is picturesque and quaint and everything I had ever dreamed of in an island, but I think all of that is changing or may have already. Due to it's growing popularity, more and more commercial activity is taking place on the island. The girl I mentioned previously, the hungover one, had dinner with us and told us how she'd visited the island about a year earlier and how it had changed drastically since then. She said at least ten new sets of bungalows had appeared since she was last there. I can only imagine the changes wrought since I've been there. 

I spent two lovely days on Koh Rong and would head back in a heartbeat. I highly recommend it and here are some photographic reasons why. (Note: Not all of the pictures are mine because my memory card was corrupted during the trip so I've borrowed a bunch I found online. They're all marked as borrowed.) If you do visit and you don't find it to your liking, remember that it's gone through two years worth of changes and I'm sure not all of it is for the good. 

(Borrowed. I did love hanging out on that bench though.)

Borrowed to show the clarity of the waters.

My bungalow at Don't Tell Mama's.

Otres Beach

Otres Beach

View of the bungalows on Koh Rong from the inbound boat.

View of the pier enroute to Koh Rong


Nikki on the left and Gemma on the right. Two super awesome chicks.

The things we encountered on our trek around the island. 

The reason we couldn't walk all the around the island.

Koh Rong pier at night.

Dinner at Cocos. I lost the picture of my fried fish. :(


Puppies under the pier.
That's me waving hi! Borrowed from Gemma.

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