We exited the 12 seater mini bus with passports in hand, and walked stiffly across the reddish dust at the Cambodian border. We hailed from Vietnam, where we had just spent the last 4 days eating squid and fresh fish on Phu Quoc Island in the South. I pictured rice field upon rice field, remnants of an ancient civilization, cute huts surrounded by lush green jungle, and tons of cows. Which is what I got. Partly. What I didn’t expect though, were some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever discovered, a huge bustling city full of extremes, and a feeling of belonging in a country that is not my own. We started our tour of the kingdom in Sihanoukville, a coastal city, where we spent a couple of relaxing days on Otres Beach before escaping the party scene of Serendipity Beach to Koh Rong. And was it ever a good decision. With only a few accomodations to choose from, this tiny island had it all. White sand, crystal clear waters, morning yoga by an eccentric Italian lady, jungle bungalows, and let’s not forget the multiple beach BBQs held every night. As the island runs on generators, this was definitely the best way to eat. I certainly had my share of fresh barracuda!
On the other side of the island, a pristine and pretty much untouched strip of beach awaited new hammock dwellers, who could arrive by foot via a jungle trail over the island, or by boat, but for ten dollars. Needless to say, we chose the overland route which (despite the signs advertising the various venomous inhabitants of the island), was a beautiful mini-trek of only 40 minutes, complete with a little bushwacking in denser areas of vegetation. Well worth the hike.
After a mere 4(?) days in this special sanctuary, I unfortunately was forced to leave. I ran out of money and there are no ATMs. Whoops. We had spent our days swimming, reading, snorkelling, napping, doing yoga, and nights wandering the beach with wine, eating fish and dancing with locals under millions of brightly shining stars.
We returned to Sihanoukville with a peaceful state of mind, then hopped a boat again, this time to Bamboo Island. All I’d heard was that it was tiny. And it was. We arrived to find a couple broken down bungalows on the edge of the jungle, an awkward restaurant and a calm red sanded beach. We swam all day, and after a few humorous experiences at the restaurant, retreated to our little shack, where we made a nice bonfire out of dry coconut husks. Refreshing and simple it was, on a barely inhabited island on the infamous December 21st, sipping 3 dollar wine from a bean can. The little fire would have lasted longer if it weren’t for the sounds in the woods, the eerie blue light downshore and the mysterious silhouette of a midnight kayaker approaching that light. The next day, we smiled and said our thank-yous to the owners, then caught the first boat we could.
From the sleepy seaside city of Sihanoukville, we departed to the country’s capital, Phnom Penh. Much larger and more modern than I imagined, the busy streets were lined with overflowing shops, big outlet stores, little cafes, markets and people. Our hostel was in one of the more ‘wealthy areas’ which we didn’t notice too much until we started adventuring, seeing how a few blocks could mean the difference between estates and shacks. Phnom Penh was full of hidden gems of restaraunts, shops and things to do. From the buzzing night market by the river to numerous eateries, bars and clubs of every calibre, there was certainly no shortage of places to check out. We enjoyed Christmas in Cambodia at the hostel, watching festive movies and sharing a dinner of garbage can roasted turkey. On a darker note, Phnom Penh was also where we visited the killing fields, where an informative e-tour gave us shocking insight into the country’s recent past. Heartbreaking and disturbing, it invoked in me a compassion for the resilient Khmer people, and left a lasting impression I don’t think anyone could forget. As a lot of people had said this was a place I could skip going to altogether, and not being a huge fan of big cities myself, Phnom Penh turned out to be pleasantly surprising in it’s diverse culture and energy, and also got us ready to get back to the beach!
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