Koh Rong Sanloem: A Vacation within a Vacation
Our adventures in Vietnam were over and for the first time of the trip, the three of us split off. Taylor and I left for Cambodia and Alex stayed in Hanoi, as he had already traveled through Cambodia. The trip to Cambodia was a long one, 2 days until we got to our main destination. The first leg was a midnight flight to Ho Chi Minh. Our plan was to sleep at the airport until the morning then, catch a bus to Phnom Penh from Ho Chi Minh. Our plan was abruptly interrupted in the airport as a security guard woke us up 20 minutes into our sleep. It was almost 3:00 AM and we were a little disappointed about the airport eviction. We then hopped into a taxi to hopefully find a hostel that would have a lobby we could hang out in until the morning. We headed to a hostel called The Hideout, as it is very popular with backpackers. There were a group of employees and backpackers hanging outside of the hostel. When we asked them if they had a place for us to stay they immediately told us no and to go sleep on a park bench. These guys were going to be zero help to us, so we decided to hang out in a Circle K for a few hours while we waited for the 6:00 AM bus to Phnom Penh. After about an hour and a half of sleep and almost 7 hours of traveling, we were on the bus to Cambodia. An employee of the bus company collected our passports and we kept our fingers crossed the collection was for Cambodian Customs. Sleep was the main goal on this bus, so for the majority of the 6-hour ride, we were both passed out. We awoke to some commotion and heard someone mention customs. We had arrived at the Cambodia border. We hopped off the bus confused on where to go and what was happening. About 10 seconds after we got off the bus, without warning, our bus was gone. Assuming this was all part of the plan, we followed some people into a building and it turned out to be the Cambodian Customs Office. In the middle of the warehouse were 3 customs agents. Aside from some chain linked fences, nothing else occupied the dusty Cambodian Border warehouse. We were given back our passports with a new Cambodian visa and returned to the bus which, had only driven a few hundred feet past the exit of the warehouse. Three minutes later we were issued off the bus a second time. Again, we were sent through a checkpoint where our visas, we received 3 minutes ago, were checked. Then we were finally allowed into the country.
Another 3 hours and we were in Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh. It was noon and the only reason we wanted to stay in Phnom Penh was to go to the Killing Fields. This led us to book another night bus to take us to Sihanoukville, a beach town in south Cambodia. The bus left at 12:30 AM that same day. This gave us plenty of time to see the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh. We found a tuk tuk driver (more like he approached us with an opportunity to pay him to drive us around for the day) and set off to the Killing Fields. Tuk tuks are scooters that tow a trailer fit for 4 people. They are essentially inexpensive taxis and a very popular way to get around cities. Here, in the killing fields, we were taught about the very dark history of Cambodia. Between the years 1975 – 1979 around one in four Cambodians were murdered by the Cambodian communist government the Khmer Rouge. This made it one of the largest genocides in history. The leader of the operation was Pol Pot, and his goal was to bring everyone back to simple times of farming and manual labor. Once in power, Pol Pot pulled all the Cambodian citizens from their homes in the cities and sent them to the farms to work. The whole goal of this was to recreate a self-sufficient state that was comprised solely of farmers. Pol Pot set out to murder every person he deemed educated, rich, or anti-Khmer Rouge. For example, if you wore glasses, he saw them as educated and smart. Therefore, you were killed. The killing fields were where the Khmer Rouge accomplished this. The one we visited in Phnom Penh was one of the largest killing fields in the country with over 20 mass graves; thousands were murdered here. As you walked through the fields clothing pieces, bone fragments, and teeth were scattered on the tops of graves. This is because the rain erodes the graves bringing their contents to the surface.
As we left, sobered from the kiting fields, we made our way back to Phnom Penh to wait for our bus. The rest of the day was spent hanging out waiting for our night bus. The night bus to Sihanoukville was fairly uneventful, Taylor and I got to share a bed that was five feet long and four feet wide so that was exciting. We arrived in Sihanoukville at 4:00 AM and hung out at a hotel restaurant until we could take a 9:00 AM ferry to our final destination. We booked a bungalow on Koh Rong Sanloem. This is one of two main islands off Sihanoukville. The bigger and more populated island is Koh Rong and is your standard Southeast Asia party island. Koh Rong Sanloem is much smaller and way more laid back. After 2 ferries we made it to our hotel The Sunset Bungalows. We followed a sand path to our bungalow and were blown away by the beauty of the place. This place consisted of 10 bungalows 150 – 200 feet apart that looked directly west which, made sunsets unbelievable. There was no sand, only rocks, on our beach but this created fantastic snorkeling. This is by far the greatest place we have stayed. We bought a bottle of local Cambodian Whisky and some pineapple juice for a total of $5 to complete our tropical experience. There was no wifi on at the bungalows and no air conditioning. The electricity goes out between 12:00AM and 7:00 AM but honestly, this made the experience that much better. We were in paradise. This is by far my favorite accommodation I have ever stayed at. There were numerous other small guest houses on the island and others were being built. Although there were plenty of guesthouses we rarely saw backpackers on the island. Our first two nights were spent laying low, real low. We kicked it in hammocks, drank pineapple juice with Cambodian Whisky, and swam in the water. On our third night, all of the bungalows were booked up. This opened up a great camping opportunity. Equipped with hammocks and our cameras we set out up our rocky beach to find a place to sleep. Our final camp was a rocky point just feet from the water. There were enough cracks and outcroppings in the rocks to hang our hammocks. The night was clear, fishing boats were hard at work, and before I knew it I was sound asleep under the stars. This night was one of, if not the, most memorable nights I have has on the trip so far. The stars and sounds of the jungle really made me feel as though I was the only one on the island. The occasional boat would quickly remind me that there were others but the silence, when it existed, was amazing. One side note about the boats used in the village. The boats were long skinny canoes, very similar to the boats we saw in Indonesia. Except the engines on the boats were nothing like I had experienced before. They were essentially old weed whackers with a propeller attached to the end. The weight of the engine was used as a counterweight when the ships captain would lower it into water using a small rope. Sure enough, the small engine got the job done.
The final 2 days on the island were spent doing what anyone was meant to on a small island, relax. In between relaxing, I spent a solid amount of time snorkeling and exploring the reef. The visibility was a little murky but the coral was beautiful and there were plenty of fish to be seen. The main motivation for the snorkeling was to see a seahorse. I had heard from the owner of the bungalows that there were seahorses in the reef. Unfortunately, after hours of searching, I was unsuccessful. Diving and flipping off the dock, at our bungalow getaway, was a common activity. Taylor has now perfected the art of a backflip.
Directly north of Koh Rong Sanloem there was a small uninhabited island, Koh Koun we decided to swim to. The 500-meter swim didn’t look too daunting at the time but in the 90-degree sun and 80-degree water made for a toasty adventure. The island didn’t have a single person on it when we arrived. Koh Koun is surrounded by a large rocky beach. The rocks are more like boulders rather than small rocks. The rest is a dense jungle full of snakes, spiders, and other fun Cambodian insects. The swim back to our bungalows was completed without any problem. Aside from the bars and restaurants at the hostels, there were 2 main local restaurants to get food. The food on Koh Rong Sanloem ranged from $2-3 and if you wanted to splurge they had mango or dragonfruit shakes for $1.50. Since all refrigeration on the island is with ice we tried to eat as little meat as possible. Our breakfast was usually eggs and potatoes, and vegetable curry was always for lunch and sometimes dinner. We also ate a pizza place run by a Turkish lady a few times. Her pizzas were all cooked in a wood-burning oven and were the best pizzas we have had on the trip so far.
After 5 beautiful days on Koh Rong Sanloem, our vacation in a vacation was over. We boarded the ferry back to Sihanoukville with hopes of catching a night bus to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. Koh Rong Sanloem was, by far, my favorite destination of the trip. I am looking forward to Siem Reap and checking out what else this country has in store for us.