Oops, I did it again… another post skipped last week. I’ve got no excuse this time — I was just having too much fun.
I’ve been exploring…
After experiencing a nice little bout of food poisoning in Railay, I was ready to escape to somewhere a little less sweaty than the bungalow I’d spent the last few days in.
I took the first longtail boat from Tonsai to Ao Nang, planning to spend the night there before moving on to Ko Lanta. After sitting down in McDonald’s to rinse the free wifi and write about how life can’t always be planned, I decided (for the second time — I did the same before heading to Railay) that I didn’t want to stay in Ao Nang. So I hopped on the first ferry to Ko Lanta.
I spent my first couple of days in Ko Lanta recovering, barely walking beyond the street that my hostel was on (which itself was walking distance from where I got off the ferry). Luckily the food places on that street were great — great Thai and Western food, with beautiful sea views from their terraces stretching out into the sea.
Once I felt a little better, me and a friend picked up a moped and toured around the island. On the first day we travelled the length of the island on the east side, stopping off along the way at a deserted beach (protected by a massive spider with a web across the path) and a small restaurant with incredible sea views.
On the second day we went along the west side of the island, stopping at Bamboo Bay, a beautiful beach. The weather was a little sketchy and we ended up having to rush from the beach to the (limited) cover in one of the beachfront bars when a storm rolled in.
Before the storms rolled in we managed to get some amazing views:
Most evenings involved heading to the small night market in Saladan, the port area where I was staying. The highlight was an old lady with a range of curries that she prepared during the day, ready to sell at the market in the evening. You could pick and mix a plate of them for 50 baht — just over £1.
I ended up spending 7 nights in Ko Lanta. Although a couple of those were spent lazing around, reading and recovering, I’d still have spent 4 or 5 days there if I had been in full health. It’s a really nice, chilled place.
Phuket Old Town
Whilst in Ko Lanta I’d booked a flight to Cambodia to meet a friend. The flight was from Phuket, so I needed to head over there. My impression (before getting there) of Phuket was that it was just a beach party spot, without much to it. I was totally wrong.
I stayed in Phuket Old Town, a decent distance from any of the beaches. The Old Town used to be a centre for trading, with a mixture of Chinese, Portuguese and colonial architecture. It looked totally different to anywhere else I’d been in Thailand:
After exploring the Old Town, I headed to Phuket Indy Market. It’s a night market open on Thursdays and Fridays with clothes, souvenirs and (my reason for going) food. It came close to challenging Pai (possibly my favourite place in Thailand) for best food market. Mostly Thai food, everything had a twist on what you’d seen in a restaurant. I wanted to eat it all.
I returned to the Old Town the following day, escaping the heat to explore some of the art galleries displaying work by local artists. One place (i Mon Art Gallery) had some awesome portraits of artists and musicians which, although they had no small prints available to buy, I was allowed to take some photos of:
As well as the galleries, there was tons of cool graffiti around the Old Town:
Although the Old Town was great, I had a flight to catch. I took a bus over to the airport and crashed in a dorm room near the airport — I needed to check in at 4am so I just wanted to be near the airport.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
After peeling myself out of bed, I enjoyed a pretty painless journey to Siem Reap. I paid for a visa on arrival at the (incredibly nice) airport, bought a Cambodian SIM card and then shared a taxi to the centre of town.
My friend Shira was travelling into Cambodia from Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, so I was meeting her down south in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. I booked a spot on the Cambodian post bus to Phnom Penh, travelling with the local mail. We stopped on the way for some food and I was chuffed to find they sold baozi, the steamed buns that I developed a love for in China last year. I’d seen them occasionally in the north of Thailand but almost never in the south — Cambodia had got off to a good start.
We spent a couple of nights in Phnom Penh. Although we weren’t particularly grabbed by the city itself — it felt pretty seedy, particularly at night — we wanted to learn more about Cambodia’s history.
We hired a tuk tuk driver for a day, travelling to the Killing Fields in the morning and S21 museum in the afternoon. Both were key locations used by the Khmer Rouge during their genocidal reign of terror from 1975 until 1979. The Killing Fields was an execution site, whilst S21 was a large prison and torture site.
Both the Killing Fields and S21 had a cheap ($3) audio tour which I’d highly recommend. It’s narrated by a survivor with first-hand experience of the Khmer Rouge regime and includes tons of interviews, explanations and descriptions.
It was a pretty draining day — the details are pretty hard to stomach. Although it might not be pleasant to hear graphic accounts of execution and torture methods, they can’t be hidden from. The people of Cambodia live with the ongoing consequences every day — survivors live with post-traumatic stress and the whole country is covered with unexploded land mines. If you’re going to understand Cambodia, you have to understand its history.
One of the biggest eye-openers was learning that the Khmer Rouge, the political party responsible for the genocide, were supported beyond 1979 by many western governments. Although there was clear evidence of the Khmer Rouge’s crimes — it’s pretty hard to hide the deaths of 2 million people (by some estimates) in a population of 8 million people — governments in the west still recognised the Khmer Rouge as the country’s legitimate government. Although the politics was complicated — Cambodia was liberated by Vietnam — it seems like the west owes a lot to Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge’s leader, due at least in part to the actions of western governments, was never brought to justice.
After Phnom Penh we took a bus down to the Sihanoukville, a coastal city. We spent a night at Otres Beach, a beautiful, long and fairly empty beach 3 or so kilometres from Sihanoukville. The beach had a totally different feel to any beach that I’d visited in Thailand… although it had certainly seen some recent development, it wasn’t a tourist spot. Backpackers mixed with locals in quiet bars with beautiful sea views.
If we’d had more time, we’d have stayed longer. But, with Shira flying back home in a week, we decided to move on to the nearby islands.
We’d heard great things about Koh Rong — unbelievable unspoilt beaches in particular — but had also heard talk of its imminent development. It sounded like a place that was on the brink of some massive change. I’d seen how the Thai islands had been, in many cases, destroyed by development. I hoped that Koh Rong would be different.
My first impression was great — we walked along the waterfront in Koh Tui village looking for a room and heard Fat Freddy’s Drop (my favourite band in the entire world) TWICE. The bars looked cool, with lots of food options. A good start.
We’d arrived early in the day, meaning we had time to trek through the jungle over to Sok San beach (also known as Long Beach). The trek (despite what you might read online) is pretty easy — it’s flat for 30 minutes, then some climbing down rocks for 10 minutes. You certainly get pretty hot (so bringing lots of water is vital) but anyone who’s reasonably fit could do it with ease.
We’d heard that Long Beach was both unbelievably beautiful and (for that reason) most at risk of imminent development. The view upon breaking out of the jungle wasn’t promising:
Thankfully, after walking past this monstrosity we arrived at a pretty unspoilt (and undeniably stunning) beach. There were signs of development — shells of buildings every 100 metres of so, presumably the base for further building and development — but there was still long stretches of quiet, empty beach. It’s 7km long so it wasn’t hard to find a spot to ourselves. For whatever reason I didn’t take any photos, so you’ll have to take my word for it.
In the evening we toured some of the bars. They were all good fun, playing some great music but the (small) negative was that they all played music so ridiculously loud that they kind of drowned each other out. In some spots you’d sit outside one bar and the bar next door would be so loud that you’d be listening to two tracks at once. It was also stupidly loud in our room, which wasn’t set too far back from the waterfront. We slept fine, but ear plugs were a must.
The following day we paid $10 for a day boat tour with snorkelling (fun, although there wasn’t a ton to see), fishing (no fun for me as I got sea sick, standard for me on fishing trips), a barbecue (more on that later), another stop at Long Beach (nice again) and some snorkelling in the dark to see the bioluminescent plankton (not much to see because of nearly full moon).
At some point during the day, Shira ate something sketchy. It might have been the barbecue on the boat (some of the vegetables were semi-cooked and probably hadn’t been cleaned / had been cleaned with potentially unclean water) or it might have been something else. Either way, it was her turn to get food poisoning. Apparently it’s pretty common in Koh Rong (similar to Railay in Thailand). The following day was spent recovering — luckily she felt quite a lot better by the evening and by the morning after that she was up to taking to the ferry to Koh Rong Samloem.
Koh Rong Samloem
Koh Rong was beautiful but already starting to be spoilt by over-development. Koh Rong Samloem was different. Koh Rong Samloem was pretty special.
We arrived at one of the piers on Saracen Bay, the biggest bay on the island. We walked over to the nearest bungalow operation and managed to find a really nice room for $20 per night — a bargain for an island this beautiful.
In the afternoon we headed out along the bay. Although it’s lined with accommodation and bars, they’re all smaller bungalow setups and everything feels very low key.
The water was insanely clear and the views were incredible:
We’d heard that sunset was unmissable on Koh Rong Samloem so we trekked (along the nice, flat, sandy path) through the jungle to the other side of the island to Lazy Beach.
Sometimes it feels like everyone is searching for the ‘perfect’ beach — white sand, clear water, seclusion and no development. Well, Lazy Beach is probably the closest I will every come to that kind of perfection. There’s one ‘resort’ at the beach, with nice bungalows spaced out along the beach. Although the beach clearly isn’t untouched, the bungalows just fit in.
Although there were people on the beach, there were few enough that it felt totally tranquil. Unlike many Thai beaches, there wasn’t the constant drone of longtail boats — just the sound of the waves lapping against the shore.
Will it remain that way? It sounds like things are more hopeful on Koh Rong Samloem than on Koh Rong, with development seeming to be fairly limited. But it’s hard to see it staying that way forever. I just hope that I get to go back in time.
Until next week…
Although I’ve got more that I could write about — some great books that I recommend and some new stuff I’ve added to Find A Spark — I’ll leave that until next week as this post is long enough already. See you then.