Jan 20, 2014

Cambodia's stunning beaches

I last visited Cambodia some 6 years ago, when we toured Ankor Wat (my second time) and previous to that, I was backpacking in the country in 2003. Over Christmas we went down south and I got to see Sihanoukville ten years on, Koh Rong for the first time and the amazing Otres.

I remember I had stayed in a bungalow up on the hill, just past the Lion roundabout where you followed a gravel track to the beach. The place has changed beyond recognition and the beach is much cleaner. However the main Serendipity strip I wouldn't want to hang around too long. The scene is very much backpackers and old men;  the beach itself is dominated by government mandated promenade-front bars, all the same, all with the same furniture.

A night later and we headed to Koh Rong, a largish island off the coast. As our last trip was enhanced (or as Chi would say -  'ruined') by a very interesting boat trip to Battambang, I hoped this one might be better. A new half-million dollar catamaran would be our vessel cutting journey time from 2 hours to 30 minutes. As we sat aboard with the engine turning over I was still optimistic. As the Cambodian engineers disappeared into the engine compartment, half an hour went by and travelers started hopping off to drink beer at the jetty-side bar, my faith wavered. An hour later, chugging along the coast in a distinctly non-Koh-Rong direction, a Russian regular delivered the hilarious truth...they're taking us to the slow boat. Once deposited right back to square one and the best sunbathing spots had been bagged we were off again, this time to our destination.

I had no idea where Paradise Bungalows was, but we would be able to walk there along the path, which didn't exist, but at the least the tide was out aiding the dragging of unjustifiably heavy luggage through sand for 800 meters. Never presume anything travelling in this part of the world: hopefully you'd hop on the boat, be disembarked, checked in and ready for a swim before sunset cocktails - realistically, prepare for the fact that despite your destination being maddeningly close, you could end up there after dark and feeling like you've just been long hauling it across a continent.

Koh Rong is stunning. A small stretch of crowded cheap accomodation surround the pier but at the end of the beach is the much quieter Paradise Bungalows. The place is slightly stuck in a time-warp in terms of tending to guests, and our $60 a night beach front bungalow was basic, open to the elements with not a shelf or drawer in site, just two double beds with saggy mattresses and mosquito nets. Having had our food chewed through by a critter we soon disposed of anything aromatic to avoid more visitors. Other guests staying up in the hills talked of monkeys in their rooms! They were complaining in the nicest way possible, the staff just looked amused and shrugged their shoulders as if to say 'This is paradise, take it or leave it!'. The beach front water-buffalo added to the faraway feeling. One mesmerized tourist whispered to me in awe as she slowly raised a long-lens, : 'What is that...'. Newb.

Cambodia Xmas 2013
Paradise Bungalows, Koh Rong
The mandatory jungle trek was the closet to a jungle trek I've seen on a tropical island, a moderate climb followed by a very steep descent over large boulders. As usual the flip flops I had weren't doing me any favors. We emerged from the foliage onto a long beach which had been named by the unimaginative beach naming committee of South East Asia (who seem to have a big influence in the region) 'Long Beach'.

Cambodia Xmas 2013
Long Beach, Koh Rong

The catamaran had been repaired but on the 40 minute journey back to the mainland we wished it hadn't as we pitched and rolled as if entombed in a washing machine, my daughter proceeding to vomit everywhere garnering the sympathy of backpackers who were missing their cousins back home. I sat anxiously next to Chi who I knew specifically hated boat trips of this nature and was using every ounce of mental strength not to see her breakfast again. Conversation was out of the question.

A tuk-tuk down to Otres just 3 kms from town and an utterly amazing, largely deserted beach, with very limited accommodation. We rented a terraced garden shed and shared a 'bathroom' with the rest of the resort that bilged yellow water from the well out of its taps. Safe to say I let the hygine go a little those three days, even though it was Christmas, and maintained a decent alcoholic haze the whole time. One night our whole row of bungalows lay wide awake blinking at the ceiling at 3am listening to a drunken couple having a domestic in the row behind.
Cambodia Xmas 2013
The garden shed
Cambodia Xmas 2013
Otres Beach

A scenic two hour drive took us to to Kampot and 'The Mango Tree'. Traditional Khmer houses sit in a lush tropical garden by the river, the breeze swaying the palms and sheep grazing in the garden; all a welcome background as you sit on the veranda over the water and enjoy the sun setting behind Bokor mountain. Renting a three bedroom house on stilts for $60, the place had the atmosphere of a French summer camp: kids, swings and board games, kayaks and bicycles for hire. We took the night trip on the river to see fireflies in abundance and disturb the bioluminescent algae, the next day took the bikes and pedaled through a maze of grassy, single lane tracks bordered by the residences of smiling locals and shady banana trees. A lot of over-exuberant barking dogs too.
Cambodia Xmas 2013
The Mango Tree, Kampot
Although its rough around the edges compared to the polished experiences available in Thailand and Malaysia, Cambodia has just as much beauty. The people are great, and one more thing, the food was fantastic.

Phnom Penh is still a good 5 hour trip from Saigon by bus/car, or a (relatively) expensive 40 minute flight. Car hire is reasonable (e.g $50 for a private car with driver Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, 4 hours).  

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