Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Cambodia - Koh Rong & Phnom Penh

Koh Rong - a small island off the South coast of Cambodia
After touristing ourselves out in Siem Reap, visiting the Temples of Angkor, we decided to head South through Cambodia to spend a few days relaxing on an island we'd heard a lot about - Koh Rong. 

We took a 'hotel bus' through the night from Siem Reap down to Sihanoukville, a town on the coast before getting a 45 minute passenger ferry across to the island. I loved travelling on the hotel bus! We booked the tickets with the promise of our own little cabin with TV, wifi, free water, plug sockets and a light - of course none of the [sounding too good to be true] freebies were actually included but we did have a little cabin with mattress, pillows and blankets where we could lie completely flat for the 12 hour journey. None of this reclining chair sleeping for us! I would definitely book this option again if I see it, you arrive feeling like you've actually got some sleep and will be able to enjoy the day - unlike stepping off a reclining seat bus! Beware though, the cabins are pretty cosy, so make sure you know the person you're sharing with!

From the bus station, a tuk tuk driver took us to the boat ticket office then straight to the ferry port for a very cheap price, I was waiting for the catch but it never appeared. The ferry crossing was choppy, but only took 45 minutes to get across to the beautiful island! On stepping off the ferry, we knew that this was going to be different to every island we'd previously stayed on. There were no tuk tuks, no buses, no cars [there are none on the island at all] - you step straight from the pier onto the bright white sand of the island - where a couple of friendly guys were waiting to point us in the direction of food and guesthouses. They weren't after sales or commission, they'd just been living on the island for the while and wanted to help out the newcomers.

We found 'Ty Ty's Guesthouse', a little wooden building right on the beach - with private double rooms [shared bathrooms] for $5 a night [approx 3GBP]! Crazily cheap! The walls of the room were pretty thin planks of wood [it kinda felt like sleeping in a shed], but it was private, had a good bed with mozzie net and a communal balcony area with wifi which was good for chilling out on and meeting other travellers. I have to admit, we were incredibly lazy for three days, but as you can imagine once you'd got a little camp set up on the beach for the day, it was very difficult to move! The only downside to the island was that the food choice wasn't greatly varied - there was a lot of average western style food but there were some amazing BBQs on the beach in the evening!

Phnom Penh - the Capital city of Cambodia
After feeling suitably chilled out on Koh Rong for a few days, we decided it was time to see some more history. We got the boat back over to the mainland from Koh Rong and took a 6 hour bus over to the other side of the country, to Phnom Penh - the Capital. 

Phnom Penh is a really busy city, with some parts of it being set out like a holiday destination [along the riverfront] and some parts of it not catering to tourists at all. The city as a whole isn't my favourite place, it's quite hard to get around, but the history was incredible. It holds so much recent history, there's loads of must visit places! We booked a day tuk tuk tour of S-21 Prison and The Killing Fields - both incredibly harrowing visits but something I feel like we should all know more about.

S-21 Prison [pictured above] is an old school, converted into a place of detention and torture of men, women and children by the Khmer Rouge regime [a dictatorship that ruled Cambodia in the late '70s]. You can wander through the cells of the Prison, learning about the detainees [many of them innocent], their stories and the horrors that occurred at S-21. It really wasn't a nice morning, hearing about these things that happened so recently - but I didn't know much about it before, so I definitely learnt a lot. It's estimated that 17,000 people were imprisoned at S-21 and there are only 12 known survivors. 

The second part of the trip was to The Killing Fields, where many of the S-21 detainees were taken to be killed en masse. It was equally as harrowing, with mass graves marked around the site and the risk of bones moving to the surface after heavy rain. The Killing Fields entry ticket includes an audio tour - it's definitely worth listening to as you move around the site, it's so interesting and helped to fill in the gaps of our rubbish history knowledge. Despite such horrible acts being carried out at The Killing Fields, the Cambodians have now changed it's focus and turned it into an informative site plus created a memorial in the middle to commemorate those who died. The main killing areas, including a tree where children were beaten to death, and the graves have now been marked by thousands of brightly coloured friendship bracelets - left by visitors to honour the dead. It's definitely a must visit place to learn more about Cambodia's recent history and a reminder of just how lucky our generation is. 

After another day exploring the city, including the Grand Palace and riverfront [holiday] area, we decided it was time to leave Cambodia and move across to Vietnam. I was really excited about visiting Vietnam and I wasn't disappointed - more on that soon! The border crossing from Cambodia to Vietnam, with pre-arranged visas, was much easier and less stressful than the Thailand to Cambodia border! We barely even noticed we were now in Vietnam! :) 

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