Cambodia, Part II: Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, Koh Rong, and Phnom Penh

5:35 AM Jessica Montgomery 0 Comments

The bus station in Phnom Penh was small, Indochine yellow, and buzzing with flies. I was meeting Chris in Siem Reap in a couple days time and this was my first experience taking a city-to-city bus in Cambodia. (Actually, this was my first time taking a bus in South East Asia.) I met a man there who looked like he'd just participated in a Bruce Vilanch look-a-like contest. His shirt was ripped, stained, and clinging to his hard, round, belly. He fanned himself with a Phnom Penh newspaper and looked liked her was right at home sitting in that red, plastic, picnic chair. I asked where he was headed and he told me that he owned a villa in Sihnaoukville that he rented out to tourists. (Smack in the face: Do not judge by pure face-value.) He was English and had been living in Cambodia for 6 years. "If we didn't like the chaos, we wouldn't be here right?", he said, throwing his hands up in the air with a smile. We got to talking about Cambodian tourism and, oddly enough, after hearing that I lived in Korea, insisted that Koreans are the worst tourists on the planet. (Hooray for dethroning the American tourist!) He said they were rude and disrespectful of the relics and overall hell to be around. I hate generalizations, often being in their path as an American, but it was interesting to hear his opinion none-the-less. And honestly, based on past personal experiences, I agreed with some of his grievances. He got on his bus, waved goodbye, and shouted, "Punch some Koreans for me!", as he stepped onto the platform. Interesting guy.

My bus pulled up and was packed with locals, their families, and their family's produce. Wooden crates lined the aisles and plastic bags of fruit hung off of the headrests. I found my seat number but also found that an entire family was sitting in it. I shuffled on past, with endless eyes following me, until I found an open seat. I wedged myself in, slid my backpack onto my lap, and found a place to nestle in my right knee. Whoever sat next to me would have to deal with my left one. We made one more stop and picked up two young men in hotel uniforms (They were on their way to work in Siem Reap; halfway across the country.) One slid in next to me and had to lean out into the aisle, dealing with my left knee. We were so cramped I could lean my forehead against my backpack by barely curving forward. But I was comfortable, wedged in and secure, and at least I had a seat. Some people were sitting on those wooden crates in the aisle.
The Cambodian countryside was stunning. Terra cotta dirt roads cut into the spring green fields, little villages sprung up out of tarps and dust, and, canoes hollowed out from tree trunks, floating in mangrove streams slowly transitioned into factory complexes moated by trucks full of potential workers. We were stripped away of city life. Our bus plowed through the muted clouds of dust and the vibrant color palettes of the countryside with often little to no transition. The Cambodian countryside offered glimpses of people working to survive. Backs bent either over murky water, tending rice fields, or backs bent over sewing machines, making our beloved Nikes.

More than halfway through the trip our bus pulled into a dirt lot. It was raining and getting dark. The bus driver held up a piece of paper and seemed to be ordering people to get onto a different bus. We weren't at a bus station and I had absolutely no clue as to where we were. I heard Siem Reap and looked around to see if anyone else was making moves. I shifted my backpack about just to signal that maybe I was getting up, maybe I wasn't; it was guessing game for all involved. The father of the family that was in my original seat looked at me, knowing I was obviously a tourist headed to Siem Reap rather than his little home town, smiled and pointed out the window to the other bus. "Siem Reap! Siem Reap!" I grabbed my bag, nodded, and did my best at pronouncing 'Thank you' in Khmer. I guess I had to get on a different bus.

The entire trip took roughly 8 hours. I was the last one to get off the bus. The outskirts of Siem Reap looked remarkably familiar, as if I'd never left. And the barrage of tuk tuk drivers on the steps leading off my bus were awaiting my imminent return, no doubt. I made it to my hotel and before I stepped off the tuk tuk, I spotted Dorn, chatting to some of his friends hanging in the tuk tuk's hammok. (Dorn was Kate and I's tuk tuk driver my first time to Cambodia. We had become friends and had chatted since. I contacted him prior to let him know I was coming.) I said his name and one of his friends slapped Dorn's shoulder and pointed me out. All three were squinting at my inquisitively. Dorn took a couple steps forward into the light, and I could tell by the look on his face that he really had no clue who I was. He walked up to me slowly and cautiously, like a child, late night in the kitchen, trying not to wake up their parents. Dorn? It's Jessica. Remember me? Still nothing. Remember me and Kate? We w- That's when his eyes lit up and smiled. He lunged forward and hugged me. He spoke quickly and enthusiastically (His English!) and immediately offered to take my bag in for me. I declined but told him that I'd see him in a couple days.  I felt rejuvenated.

I was placed in the same room that Kate and I had shared. I couldn't of been happier. I had just been transported back into one of my happy 'time-capsules'. I assumed my position on the balcony after visiting the market for beer and tourist-priced lychees. I sat on the balcony and it began to rain. It stormed, I drank, it stormed some more, I ate, the rain dissipated and I sketched a bit in my new notebook for the first time on this trip. I met a lizard and he was my muse. Life was resembling an orange: Bright, fragrant, sweet; inviting all your senses.

Chris arrived a few days later and I felt like a dopey, rainbow-eyed, tour guide showing him all of my favorite spots around town. Restaurants, markets, temples. After a day of downtime Chris and I, with Dorn as our guide, made our way to Angkor Wat. (How lucky am I? Most people never get to see this place once. And here I am, seeing it for the second time.) We bummed around the temples and climbed a few shrines that I didn't even know existed on my first trek there. We were spoiled by stone, moss and relic.

We booked a sleeper bus (another first!) to take us down to Sihanoukville the following day. From our hostel, we were picked up in a military style, open cab, pickup truck, with bars on the sides for safety of course, and held our bags on our laps. We were taken to a side street where our bus, aka 'hostel on wheels', was located. We squeezed onto the bus. Squeezed being the optimal word. We could barely fit facing forward as our shoulders were too wide for the dual cubbie, bunk bed system of this place. Almost every curtain was pulled shut to each bunk and the bus took off before we located our bunks. We finally found numbers 16 and 17, but also found a woman comfortably occupying our spots. Food and feet spread about. We had the mis-pleasure of informing her, and the man above her, that each bunk held two people, not one. They, or someone!, would have to combine so we could have a space. The woman on the bottom bunk crawled out just as her friend came back from the bathroom. "Well, where am I supposed to go?", she said as I dove under the bottom bunk, twisting and contorting myself, let alone my bag, to fit. All was resolved and the man on the bunk above us had to combine with a larger man on the bottom across from us. It was hilarious to watch them snuggle up, shake hands, and introduce themselves. I guess it's better to know the name of the stranger you are going to be spooning for the next nine hours than to not? Chris and I couldn't hold back our giggles. Neither of us could extend our legs, neither of us could sit up; we were tall, lanky, foreigners in a tight, compact, Asian world. Surprisingly enough, Chris and I both were comfortable enough to sleep almost the entire ride there.

We made it to Sihanoukville and were grateful that we didn't intend to stay long. Sihanoukville was a pick-pocket dressed up in resort's clothing. Women and children constantly approached, offered, and touched us. It wasn't ideal. We boarded the ferry to Koh Rong and soon began our cover-of-a-magazine island getaway. The water was bright blue as our speedboat skidded along the water. We stopped once at Koh Rong Samloem (a smaller island with little to no sense of habitation) to drop of people and supplies and continued on to Koh Rong. We docked and marched across the sand, carrying and dragging our bags along, until we reached the end of the beach: The Treehouse Bungalows. I felt like an Amazon Queen, a tree nymph, a giddy hippie who was about to revel in not showering for 9 days.

Our treehouse was the first on the right and it was perfect. Located directly on the beach, we had a rocky bend to our right, a small island to our front, and the curve of the desolate sand left. It was incredible and truly a moment of 'in my dreams' freedom. Our treehouse had an outdoor wooden staircase that, halfway up, had a small landing connected to the bathroom (toilet, mirror, and hose to rinse). See? It wasn't completely roughing it. The stairs continued up to the main level. We had a wrap around balcony that opened up to our cabin. Two chairs facing the water, a bed encased in a mosquito net, and one lightbulb which would go on for a couple hours every night. (Chris and I actually rarely used the light bulb. It attracted too many friends: bugs and giant lizards, alike.)

The view from our treehouse bungalow.

The next few days was full of amazing food, island puppies, sunrise walks, afternoon swims, and balcony gazing. We logged in quite the hours on that balcony and just as many as the restaurant down the way. Every morning I would wake up at sunrise and walk along the beach. I followed hoof tracks of a mysterious water buffalo and was soon joined by a little white dog who desperately wanted to come home with me. I must say, I did entertain the thought...and, he might've spent a rainy day in the treehouse with us. I couldn't help it.

Mid-island stay, we went diving with a group from the Koh Rong Dive Center. Visibility wasn't ideal, but our dive master and guide was exceptionally enthusiastic and was more than concerned with oceanic and coral conservation. We were treated to nudibranchs, stone fish, giant pufferfish, and  bioluminescent long-spine sea urchins among others. We were even able to hold a giant cushion starfish (exactly like the one in the photo). The top of the starfish was slick yet bumpy, and left a viscus goo on your fingers. It was an incredible creature and I feel honored to have cuddled up to it.
A few days later we rented kayaks and paddled out to a tiny little island that has been in our sights from our treehouse's balcony. We pulled the kayak up onto the white coral beach and set off to snorkel it's waters. I was nervous at first because the first thing that I saw once I stuck my head in the water was a stonefish after stonefish plastered on to every rock. But eventually I was able to look past them and enjoy the beauty of one of our dive, not turned snorkel, spots.

The next few days on the island was a dreamy haze of coconut shakes, puppies covered in sand, and early nights warding off our lizard friends. Koh Rong is a beautiful place to get completely spoiled on a budget. If you've never been, I highly recommend doing so before this little secret turns up on a billboard. Click: Travel Koh Rong.


Chris and I made our way back to Phnom Penh via bus. A bus in which whose ticket vendor scammed us out of an extra $20 USD. My first time being scammed in South East Asia (that I know of)! But, in all fairness, the guy did pull up a few chairs and offer us both water. Perhaps the $20 was his version of a service charge? I'm sure he ate well that day.
Our bus parked in a dingy alley and we were told that this was our last stop. Tuk tuk drivers stormed in to greet us and it wasn't long that two men began to fight over our fare. The younger of the two insisted that he knew where our hotel was. He did not. The older man stuck his head into our tuk tuk and attempted to swipe the hotel address from the younger one's hands. After a bit of a mess and Chris arguing price, we arrived at our hotel to find out that our room had a problem with the plumbing so we could not stay there. So sad too, because the only option that the hotel could offer us was... a beautiful two bedroom, Japanese style, villa. Complete with bathtub, breakfast, dinner, and free wine of course. We were spoiled. And a shower, let alone a bath, was far more than welcome after rolling around in sand for the past 10 days. Spoiled is putting it lightly. Disturbingly lightly. The next day (after we had our super attentive, hand and foot waited breakfast since we were the only two guests at the villa property) we were escorted to our 'original' room. We had a bathtub on our balcony. All this for less than what you'd pay for one night in a motel in the upper peninsula of Michigan.

It was nice to return to Phnom Penh. The country was still on holiday, so most of the touristy spots in the city were still closed. But it was fitting to wrap up our travel days there. Chris and I were packing away and prepping for 2 months apart. I was heading off to Vietnam and he was flying home to South Africa. All things about that thought were daunting to me: Heading to Vietnam alone, long-distance relationships tend to suck, and then the grand finale of me taking the plunge to South Africa in December. The future seemed impossible, yet full of life, promise, and experience to make these next few decisions in my life slightly easier and put into perspective.


--Next! The Dragon & The Fairy: From Sapa to Saigon; solo-traveling the length of Vietnam.


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