Koh Rong Samloem

Phnom Penh had taken quite a bit out of me. It was emotional, morally confusing, and uncomfortably hot. There was so much to digest. I decided the best thing for myself was to make my way to the beach. Lucky for me the Cambodian islands are little known gems. Koh Rong and its smaller neighbor Koh Rong Samloem are less traveled than the Thai islands but still contain similar beauty. I opted for Koh Rong Samloem as it was the more secluded of the two. It had no cell service, no wifi, no problems. It sounded perfect.

The only issue I had was getting there. Per usual, Cambodian transportation was not ideal. I played it safe; knew the last boat to the island from Sihanoukville was at 3pm, knew it was a 3-4hr ride from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, took the 8am bus. I should have gotten to Sihanoukville between noon and 1pm. I planned to roam around, maybe pick up a new pair of swim trunks. Unfortunately, this was not to be.

About half way through my mini-bus ride, we pulled over. I was sitting in the very back (which I hate) and the driver went around to check out the engine which also happened to be in the back. It seemed as though nothing was wrong. When he started the bus again, a large plume of white smoke erupted from the engine. It seemed as though something was DEFINITELY wrong. He stopped the engine for a moment, started it again, and began to drive. Things were not good. Considering that if the engine burst into flames I would be roasting above them, I was alarmed. As he continued to literally steam along, the smoke got worse. It turned darker and seemed to get heavier. After about 2min of this, I led a mutiny from the rear. My band of back seat riders would not resign ourselves to this fiery fate. Basically we just yelled at the guy along with the rest of the bus until he pulled over again. Through a translation we found out he was upset we wouldn’t let him make it the final 5km to the rest stop. We apologized for not wanting to burn to death. He said ‘just smoke, no fire’. Apparently the old adage ‘where there’s smoke there is fire’ has yet to reach Cambodia.

A former UN employee from the UK owned the rest area and came with his pickup to ferry us to the stop. Once there, we waited another 3hour for our replacement bus. We had all lost hope of getting on the 3pm boat. When we finally arrived in Sihanoukville it was about 3:45. Most of the bus crew was heading to the big island, while I was headed to Samloem (a little more difficult to get to). Through an odd sequence of events we all managed to arrange a weird speedboat to take us to the islands. He said he would stop at both. The ride was terrible. The boat was absolutely flying and I wish that was a figure of speech. The swells were so big and we were moving so quickly, the boat actually launched out of the water. Plus it was quickly becoming darker. I was the first one to be dropped off. There are very few docks and I knew I had a dilemma ahead of me. The driver actually had me point out on the map where I wanted to be dropped off. Considering I am not from Cambodia, and I am not part of the crew, this was difficult. When I got out on my pre-selected dock, I was completely alone. Bad choice Eric. Bad choice. There I was on a deserted pier, connected to a deserted beach, on an island that is legitimately just beach and jungle. Oh it was also dark by this point. And the worst part was that I KNEW this was going to happen…

The hostel I was staying at, Mad Monkey, owns its own beach and small bay on the island. However, the speedboat ferries can’t drop passengers there. Therefore when the last official speedboat arrived around 4pm, the hostel had a longtail boat waiting for guests. Obviously I was not on that boat, and there was no one waiting there for me. I could always call or shoot and email, but like I mentioned earlier, this island was totally disconnected. For about 30min I was Tom Hanks in Castaway but I didn’t even have a volleyball to bounce ideas off of. My options were to walk a half a mile down the beach to spend the night in one of the ultra-fancy resorts for about 150$ a night, or trek 45min in the dark through the jungle (that was never going to happen). However, I tend to be unusually lucky in situations where I’m just winging it, and there was a blessing on the horizon.

It was supply night baby! Once or twice a week the supply boats come to Samloem from the mainland, and when those big boys come steaming in the bay comes alive. Every resort sends their own little boats to pick up the supplies they ordered. And wouldn’t you know it, hear came the Mad Monkey longtail boat chugging around the rocks in the distance! Its beautiful monkey flag was flying like a beacon of hope. Rescue was on its way. I was saved by the supply ship!

The boat moored just off the beach and you wade in the rest of the way in knee deep water. I could have practically kissed the ground when I arrived, but I did not because its sand and that is gross. Instead I went straight to the bar, ordered a beer and checked into my bungalow. It had been an adventure and it was worth it.

The island was perfect. It was a legitimate paradise. I had booked a room for 2 nights but I stayed for 5. The accommodations were bamboo huts with beds covered in mosquito nets. The common area was a giant bar and lounge overlooking the turquoise blue water. There was no need for electronics. People just mingled, made friends, played cards, read books, relaxed. On a typical day I would wake up, go for a swim, eat breakfast, read my book on a hammock, move to the beach, read my book on the hammock in the water, take a walk to the waterfall in the jungle, take a nap, get dinner with friends I’d made and then drink and laugh late into the evening. Then you’d dive into the water when the moon hid behind the clouds. In the darkness, the bio-luminescent plankton would sparkle where your splashed and swam.  There was no stress. You didn’t hear about the outside world, and you didn’t care. There were no politics, no fights, no cultural disagreements. There was just genuine conversation and universal acceptance. On that island we were all just people. Koh Rong Samloem was as close to perfection as a person can come. If I hadn’t booked a flight to Vietnam I might have still been there now.

PS. I should have taken more pics but I barely even touched technology while I was out there. Sorry. No cameras in heaven.

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Cambodia Round 2: Phnom Penh

After 4 days in Siem Reap I was ready to move on. The Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh awaited me. The ‘Pearl of Asia’. All that stood between me and that city was a 6 hour minivan ride through the countryside. I sat in the middle seat, between 2 individuals who smelled of old spaghettios and urine, in a van with no AC. Things were not great. I did not have a fun time. Eventually I arrived in the big city of dreams.

Phnom Penh was different than any city I’ve been to. It’s a city that seems to be at the crossroads between the past and the present. The shanty towns and shacks along the river are less than a km from the financial centers and government buildings. The streets are littered with trash and covered in dust, but it has its charms. The loud markets are vibrant and bustling with merchants selling everything under the sun. The people are friendly and smiling. The city seems to have a rapid pulse. This is a miracle in itself when you think about what happened in Cambodia 40 years. I would spend most of my time in Phnom Penh learning more about the atrocities that took place during those years of despair and sorrow. It was a time for personal reflection. A time to appreciate the resiliency of the Cambodians and strength within people in general.

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The two points of interest in Phnom Penh are the Killing Fields and the Genocide museum. I hired a tuk-tuk driver for the day, and decided to take on these attractions on my own. I knew it was going to be a heavy day and I preferred to be solo.  I knew what I was in for. I had studied the Cambodian genocide at University while obtaining my unbelievably useless degree in International Relations. It was surreal to actually be walking the streets where one in every four citizens were killed between the years 1975-1979. It seems as though this part of history is left out of the high school history books back home. Perhaps its just another piece of SE Asian history we’re not too proud to have been a part of. Americans seem apt to want to forget our unsavory actions.

During the Vietnam war, the United States began to secretly bomb eastern Cambodia. Northern Vietnamese forces were using routes through Laos and Cambodia to supply Southern Vietnamese resistance with troops and weapons. Between 1965 and 1973, the US dropped over 2.3 million tons of bombs in ‘neutral’ Cambodia, killing thousands and displacing millions more. To put that in perspective, the United States SECRETLY dropped more bombs on Cambodia than they did during all of WWII. Most of these bombing sorties targeted ‘unknown’ targets (aka; indiscriminate carpet bombing) During this time, communist party of Cambodia gained power under its leader Pol Pot. Known as the Khmer Rouge, the party would capitalize on the desperation of the rural people and take control of Cambodia in 1975. Immediately his party undertook a project of mass social engineering. The cities were emptied and millions were marched into the countryside. The vision of the Khmer Rouge was to create a perfect communist state, completely free of class identity. The people would only be peasants and workers; ‘The old people.’ In a single step, the government would do away with the ‘bourgeois’ who they saw as oppressors; ‘The new people.’ All citizens were forced to become farmers and laborers. The goal was to create a completely self-sufficient state, and the regime imposed impossible quotas. The entire population was worked to the bone. For 4 years the Cambodian people would face mass executions, starvation, widespread disease, and continuous hardship. All opposition to the regime was eliminated. Anyone seen as one of the ‘new people’ (estimated to be around 2.5million) faced the most severe oppression. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, businessmen and bankers were all executed. If you wore glasses, knew foreign languages, or even quoted poetry you could be executed. In total, more than 2 million lives were lost under the Khmer Rouge in just 4 years, roughly 25% of the total population at the time.

The Killing fields were sites where mass executions took place under Pol Pot’s regime. The most famous was Choeung Ek, just outside of the capitol. Thousands were killed here. No guns were used as the ammunition was considered to be too precious. My trip to the site took about 2 and a half hours. I listened to the audio guide and heard the tragic stories of that horrific place. The light rain that fell seemed fitting for such a harrowing site. You could see the pits where the bodies were thrown. When it rains, bone fragments still bubble to the surface of these mass graves. In the middle of the field lies a Buddhist stupa filled with more than 5,000 human skulls exhumed from the surrounding field. It sits as a stark reminder of the violence and terror during those years. The beauty of the stupa helps to honor the victims of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

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From the killing fields I traveled to Tuol Sleng detention center in the city. This is the official genocide museum of Phnom Penh. During the rule of the Khmer Rouge, a detention center was set up at a local high school in the city. It became known as Security Prison 21 (S21). Within its walls, the truest horrors of the Cambodia genocide took place. Over 20,000 entered the dreary concrete prison. There they would languish for weeks or months. The torture they endured was indescribable. They were forced to ‘confess’ to crimes that did not exist and implicate their accomplices. Many confessions were given just to end the torture. While touring the prison and listening to the stories, I was truly moved. It’s nearly unfathomable to think that humans could do such things to other humans. S21 was one of many such detention centers set up around the country. Of the 20,000 who were imprisoned there between 1975 – 1979 only 7 are known to have survived.

Overall, it was a powerful day. I can’t imagine the people of Cambodia ever anticipated the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. The Cambodian genocide is a grim reminder that worlds can change overnight. It was a reminder that humans are capable of incredible barbarity. It was a reminder that there is still evil in the world that needs to be kept at bay. However, while reflecting on my day while riding back to my hostel, I looked at the people in the streets. The markets were busy. Children were playing and laughing in the streets. Cars were whizzing by and men in suits were sipping beers at a local cafe. Cambodia had prevailed. After only four decades the capital city was vibrant once more. Scarred for sure. But the country was healing. What I learned in Phnom Penn was that even when there is incredible evil in the world, the resiliency of the human spirit will always overcome. Even when the whole world seems to burn because the hatred of a few, the love of the many will always rise and rebuild.


Cambodia Round 1: Siem Reap

With Thailand in the rear view, I was off to Cambodia! I touched down in Siem Reap on a sizzling Wednesday afternoon and was immediately confused. The visa process was easy enough at the airport and I was cleared to enter the country, but when I went to take out cash from the ATM i was greeted by Andrew Jackson’s face on fresh US 20$ bills. When I checked the exchange counter, the woman explained to me that in the cities the US Dollar is the desired form of currency and the Cambodian Riel is given in the form of change. Basically 4000 riel is 1 dollar, so when something was $4.50 and you gave a $5, you’d get 2000 riel in change. While it was nice to see a familiar currency, the riel change actually ended up being more of a nuisance than anything.

I’m not sure how much I can write on Siem Reap. I spent 4 days there and the city itself is a little underwhelming. It’s the most undeveloped city I’d been too so far. Many of the roads were unpaved, and those that were had not been attended to in some time. Even so, it had its charms. Down town there was the famous Pub Street filled with shops, restaurants, and bars always bustling with activity. You can lose yourself in the night market down there, and I mean that literally. I could not find an exit to the labyrinth of store fronts and food stalls for 20min.

Obviously there is one MAJOR attraction in Siem Reap; Angkor Wat. This UNESCO world heritage site is the largest religious monument in the world. Created in the 12th century by the Khmer Empire to honor the god Vishnu, the temple eventually became a holy Buddhist site. It’s massive size, attention to detail, and beauty make it one of the ancient wonders of the world. There are also monkey’s climbing and playing around every corner, making for an especially fun visit.

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Angkor Wat is not the only temple in the archaeological park of Angkor. You could probably spend 7 whole days exploring the temples but I only had 1 day. My tuk-tuk driver took me around for 5hours and I was able to see 2 other major temples. Bayon is known for the 216 giant smiling faces that are etched into the stone. The temple was built by King Jayavarman VII in the early 13th century and many believe the faces to be his own.

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The final temple I visited was Ta Prohm. This temple is also on the UNESCO list and is one of the most visited temples in the Angkor region. The ancient ruins are unlike any other in the area, as the trees and forest has weaved itself throughout the ancient stone. The movie Tomb Raider was filmed at Ta Prohm when Angelina was really in her prime.

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You could honestly spend days exploring the temples of Angkor Wat. There are so many secret corridors and ally ways to find. The carvings on the walls look the same as they may have 800 years ago. I feel lucky I was able to spend even a single day exploring such an important piece of ancient architectural history.

As a side note, Siem Reap is a GREAT place to party and I certainly took part in that. The mad monkey hostel is legendary. It’s rooftop beach bar is filled in with about 4 inches of sand and things get rowdy. Spent every night out on pub street having a blast with new friends from all over the world. While the scenery, temples, and culture are all essential, I’ve found the best part of the backpacking experience to be the people. The people you meet from around the world make this trip so special. I’ve learned so much about people from Europe, North America, Australia, the Middle East, and Asia. I’ve made friends and learned about their homes and their lives. It makes you realize that no matter where we come from, and how different our cultures are, we’re essentially the same. Especially as travelers, we have similar goals and dreams and ideas. We all see the world as something to be explored and experienced. We all look to learn about other people and other ways of life. We drink together, laugh together, travel together. No matter the religion, the nationality, the race