Well, every trip is bound to have at least one adventure, I just didn’t expect it to happen in the first week of my travels. I guess I was getting too lucky with my first few days of traveling from Korea to Phnom Penh, via Kuala Lumpur, going so smoothly. After a few days in the city, I decided it was time for a change of scenery and booked a bus ticket to Kampot. Referred to as a sleepy riverside down that tends to kidnap its inhabitants I was intrigued by what I would find there. I went middle of the road and booked a bus ticket for 9:30 figuring that if all went well I’d arrive sometime in the mid-afternoon, but when does anything ever go according to plan.
After falling head over heels in love with the city of Kampot I had a tough time trying to decide where to next. My original plan was Sihanoukville, the touristy beach town to the west, but I started having second thoughts. After hearing that the city was overrun with loud hostels, bars and tourists looking for a party I decided that's not the scene I was looking for. Another option was Kep a sleepy beach town to the East which boasts delicious seafood, a small natural park, close access to the pepper plantations and even a little beach, much better. I considered doing a one day tour to the city which included a boat trip out to Rabbit Island but since the tour wasn't running the day I wanted to go I decided to spend a few days there instead. Cambodia does a really good job of being accessible for their tourists offering many different maps, visitors guides and 'pocket guides' for dining and nightlife. It was through my Kampot/Kep Canby Guide that I found great guesthouse and restaurant recommendations including the Tree Tops Bungalows in Kep, a Khmer family run hideaway tucked into the side of the hills of Kep National Park
When I first arrived in Phnom Penh my host Greg started talking about all of these great NGO’s in town and how they support different programs. I didn’t think much of it and was still not impressed when we visited a few of the shops, to be fair though I was working on maybe 4 hours of sleep. Now, after having been to Kampot and seeing various businesses set up there I understand what Greg was talking about. It’s heartbreaking to walk around and see the children begging for money or trying to sell trinkets on street corners, but it’s also hard to know which ones will benefit from your money and which are being used. That’s what make these businesses so cool, you can know where your money is going and who’s going to benefit from it, and even better it’s money spent on things you’d be doing anyways, I mean you do eat, don’t you?
I'm not sure if you've caught on yet or not, but the people in Cambodia are really friendly, I can see why people never want to leave this place. On my second full day in Kampot, I figured it was time to get out of town, away from the tourists and explore the countryside. There are a few options for doing so: hire a tuk-tuk ($5-$25 depending on where you want to go, rent a motorbike ($5), rent a bicycle ($1) or walk. I chose to rent a bike figuring it wouldn't hurt to get a little exercise [the food here is delicious and cheap] and I had plenty of time to kill. My handy little "Costal" guidebook mentioned various day-trip options, most of which were accessible by bike so I just had to pick my poison.
A visit to Phnom Penh isn't quite complete without a visit to The Choeung Ek Genocidal Center aka "The Killing Fields". It's one of those places you're not really sure that you want to visit, due to the graphic history and sadness, but what you take away from it something that can't be explained through history books or even documentaries. I knew little about Cambodia before coming here, but even through the little reading I did in my guidebook I was taken aback by the chilling details. To most of the outside world I believe Cambodia lies in the shadows of it's big brothers, Thailand and Vietnam. For the everyday tourist Thailand is king, the food, beaches and parties get much acclaim; to the East lies another giant, Vietnam which also get's much hype for its natural beauty and history. So where does that leave Cambodia, somewhere in the in between.
After a fitful night of sleep in the Kuala Lumpur airport it was off to Phnom Penh, which would have been really exciting had my brain/body knew what was going on. I actually felt like a zombie as I ate breakfast, and downed a coffee - not really sure how that mixed with the residuals of my sleeping pill, but it tasted good. I caught some more zzz's on the plane and was soon touching down on warmer grounds, time to wake up.
Only recently has this country shown up on the SE Asia tourist route. With a dark, harrowing past it's amazing to see the smiles spread across the locals faces. I've met travelers with mixed impressions, but if you're lucky enough to connect with a few locals I'm confident you'll fall in love.