Cambodia: As Seen From a Tuk-Tuk
Hey everybody, welcome back to the Coordinates Unknown blog! It has been another three week hiatus for me since I wrote to you all, but I am back now and can’t wait to tell you about the unique country of Cambodia, and of course to relay a few stories the world should hear (or maybe shouldn’t hear) about AJ and my travels. In all, we spent 9 days in Cambodia, visiting the islands of the South, and the two biggest cities of Pnhom Penh and Siem Reap. In order to keep things organized, I’m going to try and break each leg (not literally) of our journey into a separate blog post, and then summarize the whole trip with this post. Here we go.
As a backpacker preparing to head over to SE Asia, you will most likely hear only one thing, and two words about Cambodia: Angkor Wat. For those who might not know, Angkor Wat is a massive ancient temple complex located in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and is also the name of the largest religious structure in the world which is located inside. Travelling to Angkor Wat is considered a must for nearly all backpackers in SE Asia, and rightly so. The sheer scale of the Angkor Wat temple and complex is enough to blow you away in itself, and you even have the option to buy a week long pass to take it all in. And that is just the start. The detail of the temples, the history of it all, the feeling of being in such an ancient place, it all makes for an amazing experience. But it is hard to do it justice with words, so you will have to see it for yourself one day, right?
But enough about Angkor Wat, what I wanted to point out with this post is that there is much more to do in Cambodia than simply visit the temples and call it quits. The beauty of travelling is that you have an infinite number of ways to explore any given place, whether it be a country, a city, or anything, so I will tell you the way I did it in Cambodia, but of course there is no right or wrong way! To begin recounting how I travelled through Cambodia though, I will also have to tell you about the process of leaving Vietnam, which in itself is a topic deserving of its own blog post, but more of that to follow.
Our story begins at midnight, amid the subdued murmur and bright lights of the Hanoi Airport…
The plan: take a redeye flight from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, sleep at the airport, spend the day in Ho Chi Minh, then take a sleeper bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia that night. Simple enough, right?
The characters: The usual suspects (minus Alex who had already been to Cambodia).
After a month and a half of Banh Mi and motorcycles, it was finally time to say goodbye to the wonderful country of Vietnam. Next on the agenda was a quick (9 day) stopover in Cambodia before we moved on to Thailand. In a way, I was very unsure of what to expect in Cambodia. As with every country in SE Asia, you hear varying opinions from other travellers you meet along the way regarding Cambodia — Some people have good experiences, others have bad ones, that’s just how it goes. With Cambodia though, it seemed like everyone either had the time of their life, or nearly died in a bus crash. We met fellow travellers who had spent months in Cambodia and had the time of their lives, and we met others who had spent a week sick in bed and swore never to go back. Either way, you had a feeling this was going to be an experience for the books, and sometimes all you can do is go into it with a positive attitude and see what happens.
Back in Vietnam, our flight from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh had been quick and painless, and as 2 AM came around AJ and I had found a couple “beds” in the Ho Chi Minh airport on which we would get some much anticipated shut eye.
Little did we know that at this moment our adventure was just beginning. Shortly after setting up camp we were asked to leave by security, at which point we were faced with two choices: take a taxi into the center of Ho Chi Minh City at 2:30 AM and roll the dice on finding a hotel, or sleeping on the concrete floor of the airport lobby until the morning. One might say we were stuck between a rock and a hard place… (please keep reading, I’ll step up the jokes, I promise). After a few minutes of discussing, we hopped in a taxi and headed back to where it all began for us in Vietnam: The backpackers haven known as District 1. Once we arrived, we were lucky enough to find a 24 hour mini Mart where we could post up for the night, so we ordered a couple coffees, bought ice cream, gummy bears and M&M’s (yes, we really are 24! And a half) and dug in for an all nighter. Since we had all night, AJ and I searched online and managed to find a morning bus that left 6 AM the next day to Phnom Penh, so bright and early the next morning we arrived at the bus station and boarded our bus to Cambodia, and 6 hours later we found ourselves in Phnom Penh.
I had heard that going from Vietnam to Cambodia was like stepping back in time, and to a degree that was definitely true. Vietnam for one, was surprisingly modern, especially in the big cities, and staying in Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi supplied you with all the comforts and amenities you would have in any modern western city. At times you even felt like you were in a western city. Phnom Penh couldn’t have been any more different. Here, as you took in the cityscape from the back of a tuk tuk, you saw dirt roads, more apparent poverty, and the type of improvised and ramshackle housing that we saw in Indonesia. It felt like we were on a different continent than Vietnam, and that realization naturally puts a question to your mind: how is it possible that these two neighboring countries, so close in proximity, could be so far away in terms of wealth? I would soon have my answer when we visited the Killing Fields which lay just a short tuk tuk ride outside of town. If you would like to learn a bit about Cambodian history, the Khmer Rouge, and the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, I have another post dedicated solely to that so feel free to check it out! In general, visiting the Killing Fields and learning about Cambodian history there was an unforgettable experience.
After catching a tuk-tuk back into the city, AJ and I booked a sleeper bus for that night which would take us down to the southern sea side city of Sihanoukville. It was from here where we would catch a boat to the small island of Koh Rang Salmoen, and relax after 36 hours of travelling.
You could say AJ and I became closer after this bus ride. The quarters were a bit tight!
By the way, I feel like I should say a word on tuk-tuk’s, since they are the primary method of travel in Cambodian cities, and because they are awesome. It’s pretty simple, just your normal motorcycle, but with a carriage on the back for 2-4 people. It’s the Cambodian response to Uber, and with no surge pricing and cheap fares starting at $1, I don’t think Uber could compete in the Cambodian market. Plus, there is something special about being in a tuk-tuk as compared to a taxi. When you are in a taxi you are separated from the world outside, separated from the heat, the noise, the smells, the people all around you… You could be anywhere. But in a tuk-tuk you are unmistakably still right there in the middle of Cambodia, and there was something about that which I enjoyed. Plus, AJ and I were lucky enough to get in touch with an awesome tuk-tuk driver and tour guide named Chheiya with Old Mates Tuk-Tuk service, who took us all around Angkor Wat and Siem Reap. If you are going to be in Siem Reap definitely consider Old Mates tuk-tuk with Chheiya.
Another interesting characteristic of Cambodia is that the primary currency in use here is the U.S. dollar. The ATM’s even dispense U.S. dollars. However, there is still Riel (the “Cambodian” currency) in circulation as well, which can make things a little confusing sometimes. Most of the time how it works is that if your meal is $2.50 and you pay with a $5 bill, you will recieve two $1 bills and 2,000 riel (50¢) back, since there is no U.S. coinage to use as change in Cambodia. I’m not 100% sure why they use the U.S. dollar here, but from what I’ve heard the story goes that back in the 90’s when the U.N. effectively ran the government, they brought with them a large influx of U.S. dollars, and that coupled with a lack of faith in the Riel gave rise to the dominance of the dollar. Although there is more faith in the Riel now, the dollar is still prevalent.
That was a massive tangent, sorry about that! It’s hard to stay on track with these posts sometimes. But now at last we have made it to the best part, the peak of this blog post, the pinnacle of this trip (and maybe my life), in a word: paradise. With that, I introduce to you: Koh Rang Salmoen.
Koh Rong Salmoen is a small island off the southern coast of Cambodia which is still largely uninhabited, except for a small resort beach on the South East of the island, and a fishing village with an even smaller tourist area of bungalows which lies on the north tip of the island, known as M’pei bay. To the north of Salmoen is the bigger island known simply as Koh Rang, which is more populated and is considered more of a party island. From what we had heard before, Salmoen was more of a place to kick back and relax, as compared to the party vibe of Koh Rang. Now AJ and I have had some fun in our time, but we’re 24 now, we know our place, so we thought we would leave it to the young kids to visit Koh Rang, while we headed to Salmoen, and to a week of that solitude that us old men are so fond of.
We arrived on the island at noon, after 36 hours of travel, and we promptly checked into our bungalow, set up hammocks, and let the island life take us. We ended up spending 5 nights on Salmoen, and made some new friends (shout out to Lisa and Zwarte Piet) and plenty of memories. I could go on and on about this island, it was a remarkable place, one of those places where life is so easy, where you forget everything, and the whole rest of the world is irrelevant. I have dedicated another blog post just to Koh Rang Salmoen, so if you would like to hear more about it please stop by and read it. This is a place that for me personally is one of the best in the whole world, and I know I will be going back in the future.
Although AJ and I both put it off for as long as we could, eventually we had to depart Salmoen and return to the real world. At this juncture in our trip we would now be looking at an 11 hour night bus from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap. It was at this unfortunate time when we learned that Cambodian buses, especially night buses, have a penchant for crashing and for luggage “dissapearing”. We looked at review after review of people recounting terrifying experiences. But what choice did we have? We booked the 7 PM bus to arrive in Siem Reap at 6 AM. Thankfully, like our previous bus rides, everything went according to plan, and with no issues, we arrived in Siem Reap, grabbed a tuk-tuk to our hostel, and prepared for a few days of seeing the magnificent Angkor Wat.
However, when we arrived at our hostel and traded the 100℉ heat and hard tuk-tuk seat for an air conditioned room and a soft bed, we soon realized that contrary to what we had thought, there was no way we were seeing Angkor Wat that day. But the day was not lost! After a few hours of chilling, we met up with Chheiya and he offered to take us to another place, the floating villages of Lake Tonle Sap, the biggest lake in South East Asia which lay just outside of Siem Reap. We would be just in time for sunset, he assured us. With that, we hopped back into the tuk-tuk, and took in the Cambodian countryside as it flew by on the way to the lake. On the way we also stopped for some nourishment in the form of beatles and crickets, a snack that is a Cambodian favorite. The lake itself was massive, and the floating village (Chong Kneas) was a thing to behold, and is another marvel of South East Asian engineering that I cannot comprehend. That is why my brother is the engineer, people! After leaving the lake, AJ, and I headed back to Siem Reap to where we thought a quiet night was in store for us. Little did we know, it was Chheiya’s birthday that night…
Upon hearing this, we felt obliged to go into Siem Reap and hang out with Chheiya, have a drink or two, and then call it a night since we were all going to wake up at 4:45 to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat the next morning. We should have known it wouldn’t go like that at all… After only an hour in Siem Reap, we had consumed more than a drink or two, eaten scorpions (another Cambodian treat), and made a pact to do the sunrise temple tour some other time.
With that, we move on to the main attraction in Cambodia, and the final chapter in our Cambodian Saga, the beautiful Angkor Wat. Since it is such a massive temple complex, most travellers will agree that the best way to get the most out of your time in Angkor Wat is to purchase the 3 day pass for $40. Then, you can either rent a bicycle for $1 per day, or hire a tuk-tuk driver for anywhere from $15-$25 per day. As I mentioned above, we had a guide and a tuk-tuk driver in Chheiya, which was a great experience. Earlier on our travels, Alex had told us that he had gone the bicycle route when he toured Angkor Wat, and that it was a good option since it was so cheap, but it also had its pitfalls in that biking from temple to temple in 100℉ heat can be testing, not to mention you will be covering some long distances. Renting the tuk-tuk was a solid move in my opinion.
Ok. I should probably say more here on Angkor Wat since it was an amazing place, but to be honest, I think it’s time for me to move on to another topic and another post! I’m now in Thailand, and it feels wrong writing about another country behind its back. Anyways, if you have made it this far, as always, thank you for sticking with me, and if you are ever in Cambodia or are thinking of going, drop me a message and I would love to tell you more about this awesome place.
Take care my friends,