A Recount of My Travels: The Third Installment


I’ve been on the road for nearly two weeks now and I’ve found it difficult to keep up with writing a daily post or to even post something every other day. But, you’ve probably picked up on that.

My hope is to catch you up to the present by sharing with you where I’ve been, what I’ve seen and a few anecdotes from my travels that have stuck out to me so far. After this installment, I’m going to try to stick with posting much shorter installments on a daily basis with more photos so, stay tuned for that!

Day 5, April 22, 2017: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I left Bangkok on April 22, 2017 and flew down to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It was about an hour flight and I arrived in Phnom Penh in the early afternoon. I had heard you could get a visa upon arrival so I risked it and hoped for the best.

I grabbed my pack and headed to the exit. After stepping off the plane, I saw a sign with an arrow to the left that said “visas.” There was no line so I walked right up to the counter and handed the agent my passport and a passport photo. She took a quick glance at me and said, “tourist or business visa.” “Tourist visa, please.” She then asked me how long I planned on staying in Cambodia and I replied, “about three weeks.” She pointed down the counter and said, “pay over there.” It was that easy.

After obtaining a one month tourist visa, I walked through customs and headed towards the exit. The Phnom Penh airport is quite small despite it being in the nation’s capital.

I grabbed a seat at a table outside Burger King to get my bearings. First order of business, get an in-country SIM card.

I noticed a row of booths by the airport exit, they were all cell phone providers. I sat and watched others go up to the booths and everyone seemed to be going to the same provider. I figured that must be the best one so I walked up, handed them my passport and asked for a SIM card. I definitely over paid and felt like I got scammed, but I now had an internet connection.

I knew I had been scammed because after paying I noticed a small promotional poster with prices in the back of their booth. In a last ditch effort to get some of my money back, I pointed to it and asked, “why was I charged more?” The salesperson didn’t acknowledge my question, but she did give me more “gigs” on my SIM card with a few key strokes and I walked away feeling slightly better about what just happened. Lesson number one: Research cell phone providers and SIM card prices before entering a new country. And, always negotiate.

Next task, get to my guest house.

I was bombarded by a number of tuk tuk drivers all asking me, “where are you going?” After a lot of confusion and mayhem, one driver confidentially said, in broken English, “I know where,” and waved his hand to summon me to follow him.

Phnom Penh is very different from Bangkok. Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in this region and that became immediately apparent to me as the tuk tuk driver weaved through the city streets towards my guest house. The fumes were almost unbearable. I noticed the driver was wearing a mask over his face so I did the same and pulled my shirt over my mouth and nose.

We reached my guest house, which was situated a block from the river. There were a couple of “expats” sitting on the patio and I was shown my room by the guest house manger. The place was pretty clean so I was feeling fairly good about my choice. I found the guest house on Agoda, a travel app that two of my friends told me about. The reviews were positive and you couldn’t beat the price.

I dropped my stuff off and went back downstairs to grab lunch. The guest house manager was very nice and visited with me for a few minutes while I ate. After exchanging some pleasantries, I sat back to watch the world go by from the porch. I started to notice there were a number of expats, specifically men, walking around and I started to read the names of the places near me — Candy Bar, Mr. Butterfly, 69, to name a few.

I finally mustered up the courage to leave the porch to explore my new neighborhood and to find the bus station I was supposed to meet my friends at the following morning. The instant I left the porch I started to feel unsure about where I was staying. I wondered if it was just my street or if the whole neighborhood was like this — girlie bar after girlie bar so, I kept walking.

I managed to find the bus station, which was only a few blocks away, but on my way there I was offered drugs and “boom boom” multiple times by tuk tuk drivers and women walking the streets in heels and tight dresses.

I returned to the porch of my guest house, where I felt a little more comfortable, and quickly started reading online about the neighborhood I was staying in. Based on what I could find, I was staying in the heart of the “unofficial red light district” of Phnom Penh. Lesson number two: cross reference where to stay in new foreign cities with blog posts, travel guides and other sites before booking a place. Don’t fall into the trap of choosing a place based on proximity to where you need to be and reviews.

The rest of the day I spent reading about Phnom Penh and to be honest, I started to psyche myself out, but I was also getting restless. In an attempt to overcome the uneasy feeling I was having, I prepared myself to go see Wat Phnom, a temple nearby. As I started to head out, the guest house manger stopped me. “Sir, where are you going?” I told him and in an instant he made me even more nervous. He told me it wasn’t safe to go there at night and to stay in the neighborhood where there are more people. It was only 4:00 pm, the sun was still out and I didn’t want to hang out with the people on my street. Regardless, I took his advice and stayed at the guest house.

I passed the time by hanging out on the porch of the guest house and watching the world go by, again. I read more about Phnom Phen and Koh Rong, an island off the coast of Cambodia that I was going to the next day. I called it an early night and went to sleep. Lesson number three: Befriend the manager of the guest house to get their pulse on the neighborhood and what you need to know about the city you’re in. Oh, and don’t stay in “red light districts,” unless you’re into that sort of thing.


Day 6 — 11, April 23 — April 27: Coconut Beach, Koh Rong, Cambodia

Although I stayed at the Nordic House on 136 St., part of the “unofficial red light district” of Phnom Penh, I slept surprisingly well.

I packed my bag, walked down stairs and happily handed over my room key, checked out, and walked to the Giant Ibis bus station, which was only a few blocks from where I was staying.

As I went to pull open the door of the bus station I heard my name. It was Hunter! With a sigh of relief, I gave him a hug and boarded the bus behind him. There was Maggie already situated in her chair. It was great to see them — a couple familiar faces from home. They were so relaxed. I couldn’t quite get over it, but in fairness to me, they had already been traveling for over a month and they seemed to have found their groove.

The next several days were awesome! We spent them on Koh Rong, a small island off the south-west coast of Cambodia. We stayed at Coconut Beach Bungalows on…Coconut Beach, which is a much quieter part of the island compared to Koh Touch, where I understand most backpackers go to party. We shared a bungalow and were among the few people staying there. The beach was made up of pure white sand and the water was bath warm and crystal clear.

I think my pictures do a pretty good job summing up our time in Koh Rong:

We took the fast ferry from Sihanoukville to Koh Rong
Coconut Beach
Boat trip to Long Beach — complete with snorkeling , shopping, beach walks, BBQ and sunsets.
Another sunset plus a walk to the local fishing village for dinner, cards at “The Village Inn,” a small hostel on the island, and some laughs with our new friends (not pictured).

Although, I had only been on the road for less than a week, our trip to Koh Rong came at the perfect time or just in time for me. Before meeting up with Maggie and Hunter and after my experience in Phnom Penh, I was honestly questioning my decision to travel for an extended period of time. It sounds crazy since I’ve wanted to do this for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t realize how mentally challenging and exhausting this was going to be. It has been a long time since I’ve been truly outside my comfort zone and this trip has already tested me. Everything is new — the place, the culture and being alone. Oh, did I mention I’m allergic to fish? As Hunter said, “fish sauce is added to almost every dish similar to how olive oil is used in cooking back in the states.”

Despite these challenges I’m incredibly grateful and feel very fortunate to be traveling and challenging myself in this capacity. Since my time with Maggie and Hunter on Koh Rong, I’ve gotten re-energized about the adventures ahead.

Maggie and Hunter kindly shared with me what they’ve learned and what resources they’ve been using on their trip thus far. Their insights were incredibly helpful and their general positive and laid back attitude gave me the confidence that I needed to get ready to set out on my own. I’m grateful for the time I got to spend with them on what turned out to be a very romantic tropical island.

I should also mention the people we met on Koh Rong were incredibly friendly and hospitable. We hung out with locals, expats and a few fellow travelers. A highlight of our time there was we went on four awesome scuba dives — on one dive, we saw a “field” of anemone, which is apparently unique to where we were and incredibly rare.

Thanks, Maggie and Hunter! Next stop, back to Phnom Penh.


Day 12 — 14, April 28 — May 1, 2017: Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Believe it or not, after my one night in the “red light district,” I went back to Phnom Penh. But, this time I was with Maggie and Hunter. I also reached out to an old friend from Apogee, an adventure summer camp I led for after my freshman year of college, who lives in Phnom Penh. Roswell, gave me some great recommendations on where to stay and I’m incredibly glad I reached out to him for advice.

My second visit couldn’t have been more different from my first. By the time I left Phnom Penh this time around, I thought to myself, “I could live here.” I felt that way after having dinner with Roswell, two of his fellow expat friends, and Maggie and Hunter, but I’ll get to that in a second.

We spent three nights at the Cozy Boutique Hotel in the BKK neighborhood of Phnom Penh. Our place was quiet, it had a pool and it was a short walk from Hops, a beer garden we visited, and a very cool alley, where we went for dinner and drinks.

“Hops”

We spent our first morning in Phnom Penh at S-21, also known as, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which is the site of a former high school and was used as the notorious security prison by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise in power in 1975 to its fall in 1979. The audio tour we went on recounted the horrific acts of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime. As difficult and upsetting as it was, I’m glad we went. I left there with a lot of questions — how could this have happened, especially so recently? How can people be so brutal to each other? It doesn’t make sense. I don’t think it ever will but as the audio tour suggested, by educating ourselves on the past hopefully we’ll be able to prevent something like this from happening again.

S-21

The rest of the afternoon we relaxed by the pool and mapped out our plans for our last day together.

The next day we went on a tour of the Grand Palace, the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where over 17,000 men, women and children were executed after being detained and tortured at S-21. Just writing about this experience gives me the chills. It was incredibly difficult and troubling to be there to say the least. And, we checked out Wat Phnom, a temple near the center of the city.

The following pictures may be difficult to see, but I feel it’s important to share them since much of our time sight seeing in Phnom Penh was all about Pol Pot and the the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime since its a major part of this city’s history:

Killing Fields of Choeung Ek

That afternoon, we got much needed traditional Khmer massages. We ended up all in the same room — talk about third wheeling and a hilarious experience. After some R&R, we met Roswell and his friends for dinner.

Roswell and Me

It was fascinating to talk with Roswell and his friends about being expats in Cambodia. They described being an expat in Phnom Penh similar to that of being back in college. Apparently, its a very a small community, everyone is incredibly social and looking to make friends since, most of them don’t have family nearby. Sounds intriguing to me at the moment, but it would be hard to be so far from family.

Hunter, Maggie and I grabbed a couple drinks back by our hotel after dinner in celebration of our last night together in Cambodia.

Hunter, Maggie and Me (from left to right)

I’m now in Siem Reap! The bus ride was a little over five hours, but painless.

Bus stop en route to Siem Reap

I under estimated the amount of time it would take me to walk from the bus station to my guest house so I arrived drenched in sweat. It only took me about a half hour — that just goes to show how hot it is here.

I took a much needed shower and then set out to find an air conditioned coffee shop to research Siem Reap, Angkor Wat and to finish writimg this post.

Turns out, the coffee shop, Temple, I was at doubles as a club at night with live music. There were a number of birthdays there and let me tell you, they take them very seriously.

Tomorrow, I’m waking up around 4 am to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat with a bike tour group. I hope I don’t sleep through my alarm.

Thanks for reading! Now that I’m caught up on posts keep an eye out for more regular recounts of my travels.

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