Thailand / Cambodia - 2005

After my second trip to South East Asia I wanted to experience more and this time I decided to visit one of the less developed countries in the area - Cambodia. One of the main reasons for this itinerary was also to experience the temples of Angkor. I arrived from Thailand via the "southern route" from Trat to Krong Koh Kong.

Check out the photo gallery.

Places visited in Cambodia:

  1. Koh Kong
  2. Sihanoukville
  3. Kampot
  4. Phnom Penh
  5. Siam Reap / Angkor

This trip was the most unfortunate one so far. During my second night I got drugged and robbed. I lost quite a lot of money, camera and mobile phone. As the first thing I decided to fly back home but after some thinking I continued with my original itinerary. Fortunately I had still my credit cards. I won't share the unpleasant details of the robbery in this diary - therefore a couple of days are not covered in this diary.

Just when I had recovered from the first incident I heard some shocking news from back home (on the second last day of the trip). There had been a surprising and very unfortunate event in our family during my absence. I left Cambodia with mixed feelings...

Anyway despite these events Cambodia is definitely an unforgettable experience. It is a very controversial yet fascinating country with a tragic history that can still be seen almost everywhere. Regardless of the obvious poverty people still seem to be happy and hospitable. It was there where I experienced some of the most memorable moments in Asia.

10.3 - 11.3.2005 Helsinki - Copenhagen - Bangkok
I board the SAS flight to Copenhagen in the evening. The flight is on time and I have a couple of hours to spend in Copenhagen. I head to the city center to have a proper dinner - my choice is a buffet in an Indian restaurant. Definitely better than any inflight meal! The flight to Bangkok is painful as usual - even though it is a night flight it is pretty hard to get any sleep. In Bangkok I head directly to Khao San Road and book a room from the same hotel where I was staying last year. It is the usual chaos on the streets but I'm too tired to stay out for long.

14.3.2005 Bangkok - Trat
I do some shopping on KSR and visit also the big shopping mall MBK to buy some supplies including a new camera. I take the skytrain to the northern bus station and catch the next bus to Trat. I realize that it is too late to get to Ko Chang today so I have to stay overnight in Trat. The bus journey is a long and tedious one and there is lots of time to do some thinking of the recent events. Trat is not the most impressive city around so I book the first available hotel room and after a quick dinner I go to sleep. I don't sleep too well though...

15.3.2005 Trat - Ko Chang
It is a cloudy day as I wake up. The first task is to find a bank where I can change US dollars for the Cambodian leg of the trip. This proves to be more challenging than expected but after several tries I finally find a place where this is possible. After that I fetch my backpack from the hotel and take a sangthaew to the harbour area. The water looks suspiciously green there - the reason seems to be the dredging work that is going on nearby.

I took a waterbus to Ko Chang - the ride is somewhat dodgy but uneventful. I took another sangthaew to Hat Sai Khao beach where I plan to stay overnight. The place is not very attractive compared to other similar spots in Thailand - the water is pretty shallow and because of high tide the stretch of sand is quite narrow. There is also lots of travellers and therefore finding a bungalow seems to be rather difficult. This reminds me of Phi Phi - also the price level of accommodation is really high. I finally find a vacancy from place called Apple - wouldn't recommend this place to anybody as the bungalow is really hot and the owners are surprisingly inhospitable by Thai standards.

Anyway I plan to move on tomorrow. I spend a couple of hours at the cloudy beach - the waves are quite high so it is not good for swimming. Not much activities for the rest of day apart from writing the diary and reading some books...

16.3 Ko Chang
Apple was a terrible place - I did not manage to sleep much as the bungalow is really hot and there was constant noises coming from somewhere. I take a sangthaew and continue south to the next beach. It proves to be a lot more pleasant place than Hat Sai Khao and I also manage to find a really nice bungalow further away from the beach. There is even an inroom safe which is pretty rare in the cheaper bungalows.

I spent the rest of the day on the beach - a pretty good one even though it is also quite shallow for swimming. I have some chilli octopus for dinner and it is the spiciest meal so far. I later woke up in the middle of night with urgent need to visit toilet... Anyway apart from this incident the day was a pleasant one and I managed to sleep quite well.

17.3.3.2005 Ko Chang
Time for a do-nothing-day. Any other activities than lying on the beach, swimming, reading a book and listening to music are forbidden. I'll snapper for dinner and decide to continue to Cambodia tomorrow.

18.3.2005 Ko Chang - Koh Kong
The main objective is to get to Cambodia before end of day. To get to Koh Kong I need three sangthaew rides, one ferry and one minibus ride and finally a moto ride (with backpack) to take me to my final destination. As I finally get to the border crossing at four o'clock and there seems to be quite a hassle going on. I get my first impressions of Cambodian touts as there are dozens of people offering motos, taxis and accommodation.

Getting a visa is not a problem (just pay the 1100B fee). The taxis seem to be vastly overpriced ($5) so I take a moto instead (I choose one of the less aggressive guys who is not trying to oversell his services). The driver keeps my big backpack between his legs which makes the ride somewhat dodgy...

In Koh Kong you quickly understand the main differences between Cambodia and Thailand: there are only a few paved roads and the buildings are at their worse wooden huts. On the contrary there are also several brand new hotels. I check in to a local guesthouse which is fairly decent place to stay. Moto driver sells me a ticket to the morning ferry (after openly admitting that he gets a commission for it). I do some sightseeing in the village just to realize that there is not really much to be seen. The poverty is obvious but there are so many smiling faces to be seen.

I have dinner at a guesthouse owned by some German guy - a tasty portion of "beef loc lac" and less tasty German meat balls as side order. There are also some older Germans in their fifties waiting for the ride back on their "visa run" (long term residents of Pattaya tend to come to Cambodia to renew their visas every three months). In addition to excessive drinking these guys also celebrate the evening by smoking a huge joint! A good example of Cambodia's more liberal drug policies. Before going to sleep the receptionist from my guesthouse asks if I'm interested in massage or other services from the local ladies...

19.3.2005 Koh Kong - Sihanoukville
I wake up early at 8 to catch the ferry. It is just a 200-meter walk so that is not a problem. Some local youngster manages to get 20B from me as some sort of "baggage fee" (which proves to be a scam later - the guy was not a member of the crew!). Anyway the journey starts in time without problems. It is not a particularly scenic one as the ferry is actually a big speed boat (which means that everybody sits inside in the cabin with fairly small windows). Interestingly it was almost freezing inside because of the airconditioning.

After four hours I arrived in Sihanoukville where the usual hordes of touts and moto drivers were waiting. I shared a taxi with a british couple and followed them to the Occhectal Beach Side Bungalows that somebody had recommended to them. It turned out to be brand new and very comfortable so even though the expensive rates I decided to stay there. I spent the rest of day at the nearby beach, which was quite an experience: beach bars, street vendors, beggars and lots of local people. Not quite a chilled out place but lots of action going on. I had delightful and huge chicken meal at a beach bar and returned to my bungalow.

After dark I did not feel like wandering around so I stayed at the terrace of my bungalow. Seems that after the robbery I have become overly cautious in many ways...

20.3.2005 Sihanoukville
I booked an "island trip" from a local travel agency. It proved to be an "island trip from Hell" - even though after returning to mainland it felt somewhat funny afterall...

There was a big longtail boat with two engines waiting for the group. It was really stormy weather and it soon became obvious that the boat was not meant for such a rough ride. The first activity was snorkeling which turned out to be hopeless because of the poor visibility as there was sand and seaweed everywhere in the water. We continued onwards and soon one couple was feeling badly seasick that I thought they would soon faint!

As sun started shining after a while the crew decided to remove the canvas roof - unfortunately at the same time they managed to hit a british guy with one of heavy wooden planks used to attach the canvas! The poor guy broke his sunglasses and some of the shards got stuck in his head.

The next destination was a small island with just a couple of primitive bungalows and a decent beach. Interestingly there were several pieces of Russian artillery from the 70s stored on the island. If you wanted to shoot a picture it would have cost $1. As we left the island after swimming and having lunch another accident happened. As we were leaving the island the crew managed to get the boat stuck on a big rock. After some struggling they managed to get the boat moving again but at the same time they broke the rudder which immediately started floating away! The only way to recover it was to send one of the crew members swimming after it as the others tried to somehow steer the boat with motors and anchor. After half an hour they finally got the rudder back and another half an hour was needed before it was in its original place!

Surprisingly the rest of the trip was uneventful and nobody was willing to try the second snorkeling spot. I was relieved to return to my bungalow and just to chill out...

21.3.2005 Sihanoukville - Kampot
I thought that I had seen most of Sihanoukville and the next destination would be Kampot about 100km away. There were no buses so it was the time to try the local method of transportation known as "shared taxis". This means a normal car (usually japanese sedans) that will be packed full of people (meaning anything from six up to ten people in a car that can comfortably carry five). If you paid a double fee then you could have the whole front seat - otherwise you would have to share the seat with somebody.

I paid some extra and shared the backseat with a british couple. After some pointless driving around in Sihanoukville some locals packed themselves on the front seat and we finally got moving. As expected the driver was a madman and the road was anything from brand new to terrible. Anyway we got to Kampot unharmed...

Kampot is not the most beautiful city around but in its own way it is a pretty pleasant mixture old french buildings and newer concrete monstrosities. It was rather filthy on streets and there were mopeds everywhere. Only few roads were paved. I spent the afternoon by hiring a moto driver and visiting the nearby village of Kep. It was an interesting place with numerous old villas that had been looted and destroyed during the Khmer Rouge. The place had a kind of eerie feeling - especially when I visited the abandoned palace of the current king.

I returned to Kampot before dark and had dinner in place by the river where nobody spoke any English. After that I returned to the guesthouse that had a pleasant roof terrace where I stayed up till late chatting with a German guy called Martin and his companion Alex from the UK.

22.3.2005 Kampot / Bokor
The main activity today was a visit to Bokor Hill. It is a national park with an old abandoned hotel on the top of a high hill. It was a tour organized by some local company and the method of transportation was a pick-up truck. Everybody was "seated" outside. The most comfortable position seemed to be stand up and take a firm grasp of the sides. Not the safest way of travelling but definitely the scenery was awesome!

The road up to the hill was the worst I've ever experienced - the average speed was not even 30 km/h. After a couple of hours we stopped at the first ruins - this time it was the king's old mansion where everything had been looted. We continued on foot and there was a forest hike of some 1,5 hours ahead. It was actually pretty comfortable temperature up on the hills so I did not really feel that hot. One of the attractions should have been a waterfall but for some reason it had dried entirely!

We continued by car to the summit and arrived just in time before the clouds covered the whole area half an hour later. Before that there was a splendid view to as far as Vietnam! The hotel was a sight in itself - as LP said it would be the perfect spot for shooting a horror movie. It was really rundown and ghostly place but you could still somehow feel the past splendor of the place easily. As the clouds came the place became even more eerie... Other interesting sights were an old church (looted completely as every building in the area) and water tower looking like an UFO. The journey back was equally slow.

As I returned to Kampot the sounds of a local karaoke club kept me amused while I was reading a book on the roof terrace.

23.3.2005 Kampot - Phnom Penh
To get to Phnom Penh it was time for another shared taxi ride. I played extra again ($5) to get the whole front seat for me. It took almost one hour to locate the remaining passengers. The road to PP was surprisingly good and as expected the average speed was way above 100 km/h. The first impression of PP was even more chaotic than I expected. The driver left me somewhere on the outskirts of the town - I quickly realized that I did not have a clue of my exact location!

As it proved to be impossible to locate myself I took a moto to the downtown area. There was a decently priced ($10) and clean hotel so I checked in. I spent the afternoon by doing the most shocking sightseeing tour I have ever taken - the monuments of the Khmer Rouge genocide. The first destination was the "Killing fields" where thousands of people were executed. Apart from the 10-meter high tower of real human skulls the place was not that bad but still overall feeling on the fields was somehow unpleasant.

My second destination was "S21" interogation center where people waiting for execution where being imprisoned and tortured. The place felt really scary and disgusting as there were lots of displays of the "equipment" and hundreds of photos of the victims. Most of the rooms were empty which still felt quite shocking.

The afternoon activities left a kind of empty feeling and all I could do was some pointless wandering on the streets of PP (and gradually getting totally pissed of by the overeager moto drivers).

24.3.2005 Phnom Penh - Siem Reap
I spend the morning at the Royal Palace. Not quite as magnificent as in Bangkok but still impressive. There are lots of similarities between these two sanctuaries - for example the similar themes in the artwork. I also visit the nearby national museum which is not too interesting. Lots of buddha statues from various eras but not much else. I spend the afternoon in a bus - because of poor roads there seems to be little traffic after or before daylight.

In Siem Reap I'm greeted by the craziest hordes of touts so far. It really requires some violence to get rid of those annoying people trying to sell anything from motos to day trips to Angkor. I locate a moto driver that is calmly sitting alongside the road and ask him to take me to downtown area. It turns out that I end up in the wrong location and there is quite a lot of walking to the area where the hotels are. I'm feeling ripped of and refuse to take another moto. I check in at place called Mom's guesthouse. I check out the surrounding downtown area - which is surprisingly packed with various tourist-oriented businesses (everything from Irish bars to souvenir shops). I go to sleep early to get prepared for tomorrow's Angkor tour.

25.3.2005 Siem Reap / Angkor
One of the most awaited days of the trip - the visit to Angkor. I rent a bike from the guesthouse as it should be pretty flat terrain there in the temple area. That was a good choice as there was no need for the hassle with the moto drivers. My plan was to do the "mini tour" of 17 km in anti-clockwise direction to avoid the bigger crowds - another recommend choice. I don't know how many temples I actually visited during the day - anyway there must have been at least a dozen.

The area as a whole is unbelievably large. The temples come in different styles and their condition varies from ruins taken over by jungle to the carefully restored beauty of Angkor Wat. My personal favourites where the ruins deeper in the jungle and Bayon with its hundreds of smiling buddha faces. Of course Angkor Wat is an unbelievable place but as it was my last destination and still pretty crowded I did just a brief tour there. It is hard to describe the Angkor with words, instead I recommend to have a look at the photo gallery. The major nuisance in the area is the countless touts and street vendors as everywhere in Cambodia. Many of them are just small children speaking really decent English who are selling pirate books and souvenirs for their living.

After returning I bought my souvenirs from the Siem Reap marketplace after some intensive bargaining. I had dinner and then decided to visit a local Internet cafe. I read my email and there was a message from my mom asking to call her. Soon she told me the shocking news: my dad had passed away after having a heart attack.

26.3.2005 Siem Reap - Bangkok - Vienna - Helsinki
Mixed feelings. After three flights and a stopover in Vienna I return to home in one piece.

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