After riding the bamboo train in Battambang we had a pretty open agenda for the rest of our time in Cambodia, as well as for the remainder of our trip. We heard great things about the Cambodian beaches, so we knew we wanted to check them out. From Battambang in the northwest, we had to take a 14 hour, two bus journey to Sihanoukville, on the southwestern coast. Once there, we took a short tuk tuk ride past all of the popular and crowded beaches (which are also reputed to be pretty seedy) to the edge of development at Otres beach. We stayed at a place called Mushroom Point, and lucked out on our second night by getting their best hut, right on the ocean. They didn’t take reservations or require you to tell them when you were leaving, so once we got this hut, we could play it by ear. One night turned into two weeks pretty quickly. If not for our 30 day visa limit in Cambodia and our goal to go back to the Western coast of Thailand before coming home, we may have stayed even longer.There isn’t all that much to do at Otres aside from laze on the beach. We got to slow down and really relax for the first time on our trip, and maybe for the first time in our lives. It was amazing to have two weeks in one place with very little to do. Our hut there was the most rustic room we had, with no furniture other than a foam mat on the floor for a bed and a small shelf for our things, so we didn’t even spend much time in there. There were shared bathrooms with a hose for a shower (that often only had a small drip of water coming out), but we quickly got used to it. While Otres didn’t look as pretty as some of the Thai beaches we visited, we found it to be the best water for swimming on our whole trip. We spent our days alternating between eating, drinking, swimming in the ocean, and reading in papasan chairs.
In our three days there, we rode the bamboo train, took a cooking class, walked the roughly 4×8 block town numerous times, and visited the nearby Phnom Sampeu (a temple), which is near The Killing Caves (covered in this post about memorials of the Cambodian genocide). We also spent a not insignificant amount of time figuring out how to leave the town and buying bus tickets.
Riding the bamboo train was the main reason we came to Battambang and it was a great time. It only lasted about an hour and did feel touristy, but we went early on a gorgeous yet hot day, so it was pretty refreshing. I just don’t think there is anything like it in the world. Also called a ‘norry‘, the makeshift bamboo platforms on wheels run on old train tracks put in by French colonialists that were mostly shut down during the Khmer Rouge. A small electric generator engine powers the train, and the rails can be a bit warped as they haven’t been kept up. The only bamboo trains still running in Cambodia are in Battambang. Each platform went up to 30 mph and felt like a flat roller coaster (more like the bumpy old wooden kind) going through beautiful green fields and countryside. There was an increased adrenaline rush when we went flying over a few bridges that were quite high above either creeks or creek beds. We saw lots of other tourists taking the ~1 hr roundtrip ride like us, but locals also use the train for transportation and to carry things like rice along the route.
Our cooking class in Battambang was one of my favorite activities on the whole trip. We had a really great instructor who owns his own restaurant called “The Smokin’ Pot.” The sign has a large smoking black cauldron on it so not that kind of pot (although we did learn that marijuana is used as an herb in traditional Cambodian cooking). At $10 for a 4+ hour class that included a trip through the market to buy everything we needed, this was a great deal. Since we didn’t have the opportunity to cook for ourselves on the trip, we didn’t often take the time to saunter through markets and never bought greens, fresh fish, or meat. But with our Cambodian instructor leading the way and conducting the transactions, we got a firsthand glimpse into a very traditional experience. We bought all of the food for our meals straight from the local market and then prepared it ourselves, which was (sadly) an uncommon experience for me.
Our day trip to the temple was really fantastic and included a strenuous hike up to and around the temples at Phnom Sampeu, which are on a limestone mountain with amazing views. The Killing Caves are also at this site. I think the best part about this whole day trip was that we hired a tuk tuk driver to take us from our hotel and back (about 30 minutes each way) and we had no idea that he was also going to hike with us through the entire complex and serve as a tour guide. The paltry amount he charged us (with no haggling from us) was so little that we actually felt bad, but I think this was indicative of the low demand in a not-so-touristy and poor town. He seemed really excited to have our business and hang out with us for the day and we really enjoyed his company.
One last hidden treasure during our time in Battambang turned out to be the very loud nightclub by our hotel. It was apparently a popular spot every night with the locals, and this could’ve been much worse for us, but the music was fantastic from our balcony! It seemed to be a local band playing what sounded like traditional music, which we had also heard at Angkor Wat and reminded us of Bluegrass and Celtic music.
The four of us spent about two days touring various ruins of Angkor Wat, a temple complex and archeological park that covers 400 square kilometres (about 150 square miles). No matter how you measured it, the place was huge. Thank goodness Alex and Camille planned ahead and arranged to have a guide with an air conditioned van! I’m not sure I could’ve made it through two days of touring the ruins in the intense heat otherwise. Our guide picked out about 7 ruins for us to visit over two days. She knew the best times to go to each one in order to get the best light and have the fewest crowds. I am sure you could enjoy Angkor Wat without a guide or with a bicycle or tuk tuk, but I’d highly recommend the way we did it.I can’t even begin to describe all of the many cool things about the experience of seeing these ruins, so hopefully the slew of pictures below will give a hint. Oddly enough, while it was really neat to finally see Angkor Wat itself (the one with the five towers that is famous as being the largest religious monument in the world), I have to say my favorites were Ta Phrom, which overgrown by the jungle, and Bayon, a ruin with over 200 large Buddha faces. I think that going in with relatively no knowledge of any of the lesser known ruins added an element of surprise. Either way, it was really amazing to get to see so many of the ruins, to get a feel for their impressive scale, and to learn so much about the history.
It would be hard to share our experience in Cambodia without mentioning the genocide that took place at the hands of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. It seemed to us that understanding anything about the current state of affairs and the Cambodian people required knowing more about this recent history. So this is a depressing post, but one I thought was important to write before we go on to share our other experiences in Cambodia.
During the period from 1975-79 after the end of the Cambodian civil war, the communist revolutionary Pol Pot wanted to return the country to an agrarian socialist society, to which end he tried to institute ‘year zero‘ meaning that ‘all culture and traditions within a society must be completely destroyed or discarded and a new revolutionary culture must replace it, starting from scratch. All history of a nation or people before Year Zero is deemed largely irrelevant, as it will (as an ideal) be purged and replaced from the ground up.’
The Khmer Rouge regime, under Pol Pot, arrested and eventually executed almost everyone suspected of connections with the former government or with foreign governments, as well as professionals and intellectuals. In Cambodia, teachers, artists, and intellectuals were especially singled out and executed during the purges accompanying Pol Pot’s Year Zero. Ethnic Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, Cham, Cambodian Christians, and Budhhists monks were targeted and killed. Most families were separated, and Pol Pot even killed many of his closest co-conspirators and friends. It is estimated that somewhere around 2 million people were executed or died from starvation over the 4 year period, and there are many mass graves around the country, several of which we visited while we were there. You can read more about the history here.
It is the kind of knowledge that makes you sick to your stomach and just at a loss for even how to process it. While in Phnom Penh we visited The Killing Fields, the largest site of mass graves from the Khmer Rouge Regime. The whole area is now the largest memorial to those who lost their lives. We thought this memorial was really well done. Everyone gets a headset so that you can walk through the grounds at your own pace and listen to the various histories, stories, and some first hand accounts. This was a nice way to handle such a tragic place and allowed everyone to keep to themselves and reflect, which was much better than having to interact with other tourists or guides while hearing about this unfathomable history.
We followed our visit to The Killing Fields by going back into Phnom Penh to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum at the site of the S-21 prison where thousands of prisoners were held before being taken to Choeng Ek (The Killing Fields) for their execution. This prison was formerly a high school in the middle of the city, and it was just as depressing as you’d expect. In one exhibit, there was room after room of photos of the prisoners. The Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records about its prisoners and many of them were forced to write up and sign false statements admitting to some made up crime against the regime.
We didn’t get to talk to many Cambodians about the genocide. Our conversations with folks were usually limited based on their English abilities, given that we didn’t speak any Cambodian. We felt like asking about the recent genocide was a touchy subject to broach if someone else didn’t bring it up first. While visiting The Killing Caves in Battambang, our tuk tuk driver/guide talked to us about it the most, but he hadn’t even born yet when it happened as he is currently in his late 20s. He was separated from his family when he was young, raised by his grandmother on the Thai/Cambodian border, and then sent to live with monks at a monastery for his teen years, which was where he learned English. So it sounded like he life was very much affected by the history even if he didn’t live through it himself. He was a wonderful guide and described some of the paintings and memorials around The Killing Caves, but he also seemed very emotionally detached from what he was telling us. Again, this was one of our few interactions talking with a Cambodian about it, but it wouldn’t surprise us if detachment is a pretty normal coping mechanism in order to just be able to live with this tragic history and move forward.
This tour got mixed reviews on TripAdvisor and was pretty cheap for what it offered, but we figured as long as it got us from point A to point B it would be ok. The first day we felt a little beat up after being herded like cattle from one tourist stop to another. We were taken on tours of a coconut candy making operation, a rice crispy making operation, and a bee/honey farm, among others – with lots of touristy shopping options along the way.
After spending the night in one of the creepiest 1 star hotel rooms we’d had, and having several questionable meals, we were about to call the tour a complete bust. Then, on the final morning we began a series of boat rides from Chau Doc in Vietnam north along the Mekong river which would be our transportation for the last few hours to our designated border crossing into Cambodia. It was peaceful and beautiful and also felt like a great way to see a slice of real life along the Mekong. The boat trips more than made up for the previous day.
When we got off of the last boat, we were in Cambodia, and it was our most interesting border crossing of the trip. The extreme heat and more primitive physical conditions of this crossing made if feel like our most adventurous entry into a country.
We had to walk quite a ways on foot from the river to the first check point. Of course, we were snapping photos which quickly brought several guards running toward us forcefully screaming “no photo! no photo!” So we put the camera away and went through a second check point where our tour van and guide were waiting on the other side. How did it get there without us while we had to walk? We had no idea. At the second check point, one guard very slowly and meticulously approved the visas for each of us in our group of 7 while we patiently stood by with sweat running off of us in small rivers. Behind our guard, two officers were openly playing computer games. I’d like to think they were on a lunch break.
It was a long two days, but after our successful border crossing we were pretty happy to get into an air conditioned minivan for the final couple of hours to Phnom Penh.
And it was hot. Over the space of 3 weeks, we had travelled almost 1,000 miles North to South. Nearly freezing temperatures in Sa Pa had become steaming hot in Saigon. And we had the 6th floor room in a 7 story walk up. We were happy for the small balcony which we spent quality time on in the evening.
The recent history between Vietnam and the US seemed to hover around many of our interactions and experiences. In Ho Chi Minh City, we would spend time exploring this, visiting some of Saigon’s historical buildings and heading outside the metropolitain area to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, an area in Southern Vietnam where anti-American VietCong attacked Saigon, the capital in the South, from a network of small tunnels that finally ended up stretching 400km.
We rented motorbikes to get to Marble Mountain and at peppy speeds nearing 50kph (or 30 miles an hour) flew north up a four-lane highway that connected Hoi An to Da Nang. Offerings to ancestors littered the road as part of Tet. Fake paper cash, chocolate coins, glittering confetti, and other symbols of prosperity being ‘sent’ to the afterlife crept out into our lane. Most of it looked dangerous. Some of it was burning.
A karst formed of marble and limestone, Marble Mountain is twenty miles from Hoi An and topped with caves and tunnels filled with Buddhist sanctuaries, Hindu grottoes, and a Japanese pagoda or two. We were worried it would be too kitschy given the name but we ignored the hundreds of marble shops selling carvings of anything you could imagine and were pleasantly surprised. A long climb to the top rewarded us with odd paths leading to beautiful hidden treasures that our photos do a much better time of describing then these words do …
I’ve always been a big fan of visiting ruins from former civilizations, and taking a trip to see the Vietnamese equivalent of Ankgor Wat or Chichen Itza did not disappoint. The indigenous ‘Cham’ people controlled a large part of now-central Vietnam until 1832. Mỹ Sơn (pronounced Me Son in English), near Hoi An, is the largest site of Cham ruins and was considered to be the religious center of the Champa Dynasty. The ruins date back to the 4th through the 14th Century and Mỹ Sơn is an homage to the Hindu god, Shiva. Interestingly, Buddhism was adopted as the official religion for a few centuries in the middle, and by the end of their reign most Cham people had converted to Islam.We grudgingly awoke at 4:30 am to get to the ruins by sunrise. There were only two other people on our tour, and the four of us were the only people at the ruins.
The chill in the air, the mist hovering over the ground, a trickling brook, and the long forest path took us centuries away from the large parking lot. We arrived in the ruins to find them hugged, almost reclaimed by the lush jungle they were carved into many years ago. We listened to the guide’s short talk and then he allowed us to explore on our own. Being there for the morning crescendo of chirping birds and buzzing bugs while the sun rose over the intricate and crumbling ruins was peaceful and thrilling at the same time. For me, it was spiritual.
Maybe it was because we were at the halfway point of our trip, or maybe it was because we’d finally gotten adjusted to being on the road, or simply because Hoi An was just that great. For whatever the many reasons, I really loved Hoi An and while we were there I felt like things finally clicked. Lots of things came together that allowed us to finally feel relaxed and more in the moment.
Hoi An has a lot going for it. This town of a little over 120,000 people is in the center of Vietnam, and sits on the eastern coast between a river and the ocean. While we were there, the weather was perfect, our hotel was both awesome and cheap (and at 8 days, it marked our longest stay in one hotel), we were near a really quaint riverfront, and we were also a few minute bike ride from the beach. Not to mention the food was really good and there was lots of good shopping.
Once a major SE Asian trading port town, Hoi An has a very well-preserved historic town center because the river’s connection to the sea silted up a couple hundred years ago, essentially freezing it in time. Today, strict preservation rules keep it from being changed too much and it’s a really beautiful town. I loved that it was just bustling enough to feel exciting and not boring, yet small enough to get around on foot or bicycles. Maybe it was the pleasant sunny weather, or my frame of mind while we were there, or the fact that most locals there are considerably more wealthy than the average Vietnamese person, but everyone seemed really friendly and happy. I loved biking around the town, seeing street after street filled with atmostpheric hanging lanterns, and row upon row of beautiful flowers for the new year. It would’ve been really difficult not to love this town. Hoi An is also world famous for its tailors, who can sew up anything you desire in about 24 hours. There are over six hundred tailor’s shops around the town. I had a few things made that ended up fitting me like a glove and turned out well, but at the end of the day it was a mixed experience. Shipping the clothes turned out to be more expensive than I was led to believe it would be (the cost kept going up the closer and closer I got to handing over my credit card). My tailor turned out to be a bit shady, and I had to threaten to leave a bad review for her on TripAdvisor in order to end the negotiating and get her to agree to mail my stuff home. It was more disappointing than anything, given that I thought we’d developed a friendly rapport over the 3 or 4 days that I came in and out for fittings, but I think she saw an opening and tried to take advantage of my friendliness. At the end of the day I got some cute clothes that were handmade to fit me perfectly, but I did pay for the experience.
We also happened to be in Hoi An for the first few days of Tết, or the Vietnamese New Year. This made it an especially festive time to be in Vietnam, and Hoi An in particular. They had a lantern festival on the river, a special large bonsai tree display, and the whole town was just filled to the brim with flowers the whole time we were there.
We stayed in Hoi An for a little over a week. We relaxed at the pool, swam at the beach, took a few lovely bicycle rides through beautiful rice paddies, planned out our next few weeks, and took a couple of cool day trips to see some ancient Hindu ruins and Buddhist temples, more on those in another post.