After almost a month in the country, this is what we have learned:
- Bring medications. Getting food poisoning on day three of our 15 day trek, was no fun. I still don’t know for sure what caused it. It is hard to avoid local food. First of all, because it can be very good. But also because, in some places, there simply is nothing else available. Be sure to not drink water from the tap, even in luxury hotels. I even switched to using bottled water for brushing teeth. We brought things like Tums and gravol. I used them all. Anti-Diarea pills are better to bring rather than to buy them abroad.
- In Cambodia, going to remote areas, we had to take malaria pills. But instead of using official malaria pills at 10.- a pop for about 40 days, we were able to take Doxylin, a mild antibiotic which was less than half the cost.
- We did not realize, before we went, that money dispensed from local ATMs would be dispensed in US dollars! We had assumed we’d be paying in riels, even though US $ are readily accepted. But basically everything is in US dollars, all posted prices. Just when you pay cash, you get the small change back in riels.
- Bring a (quick dry) towel. Several times we stopped for a swim and needed a towel. I was also glad to have a towel when washing up in a village during our homestay.
- Toilet paper! Most public toilets, even in restaurants, do not have toilet paper. Bring your own!
- You might want to check with your tour planner about meals. We really like to chose our own food. But sometimes we were confronted with a set menu. That resulted in the same fish dish three days in a row until we asked that we can select our own menu.
- Bring gifts. Any guide will appreciate a small gift from your home country. But especially if you visit local schools, you will want to leave some meaningful things behind. We brought a large pile of simple, English picturebooks, lots and lots of pencils with pencil sharpeners and lots of stickers. We also bought, at a local market, some soccer balls to bring to remote schools where a soccer ball will be hugely popular with the kids. We left good clothing and shoes with our homestay family. I brought clothes for the entire trip that I could discard. This cut down on my laundry but also made it possible to leave good clothes behind with families that could really use it. I just gave a bag of my last clothing to a lady who was raking the beach. Her smile was enough reward.
And lastly, traffic can be daunting. Drivers of motorbikes, tuk-tuks, busses, cars and trucks all ignore all signs or lines. Two lines painted on the road mean at least 4 rows of traffic, all vying for an empty spot. We switched from a car ride to a bus to Phnom Penh, just to be in something bigger… All in all, it’s been a memorable, wonderful holiday in a hot country with lovely people. Arkoun, Cambodia!
Knowing that we would be doing a lot of hiking in the heat, we planned to end our time in Cambodia with a relaxing time on a beach. We did a lot of online research to find a good spot. We’re not really into just sitting on the beach but we did want something where we could rest after our hiking.
We talked to friends who had been to Cambodia and read lots of reviews on Trip Advisor and other sites.
We ended up selecting something a step up from the very cheap beach cabins where, on photos, we could look outside through the planks and where they often had no bathroom.
We picked Sok SanBeach Resort on Koh Rong, off the coast of Sihanoukville. Sihanoukville is a big ugly city with lots of traffic and lots of (Chinese) construction of highrises and casinos. We stayed near Otres Beach on the far west end of town to clean up and reorganize before crossing to the island.
The only way to get there, of course, is by boat. A few rinky-dinky “ferries” offer a way to cross the water, the Bay of Thailand, to Koh Rong. But really the only option is the modern catamaran operated by the resort. I must say I find it strange that you have to pay US $20 per person per ride to get there and back. This effectively added another 80 dollars to our stay. I think that the resort should provide transportation if they want you to come. But…
We selected a seaview cottage, which was a good choice. The room is small but adequate. It’s nice that two lounge chairs are reserved in front of our room because all other chairs are claimed daily and occupied by towels all day long, even if people move on.
The other guests seem to be mostly French, some German and Italians, and some Chinese. China even offers direct flights to Sihanoukville….
Turns out this resort found its origins in the TV series Survivor. To accommodate the crew for Survivor Cambodia, they started what is now Sok San Resort.
You can watch that Survivor season here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_9KMkP_frT8
The resort is quiet, no partying or loud music. The food is limited: small portions and fairly high prices (27.- for an Italian Buffet). We walked into the village for a few meals (5.- for breaded pork and fries, less for Khmer food).
But it is the perfect place for us to veg out, swim in the warm sea, walk and even kayak. We went out with some other guests for a 2 hour kayak session on a small mangrove river that ended at the beach on the other side of the island.
The resort has fairly good wifi so I was able to get things done. It’s amazing how quickly our 5 days here went by. I could definitely stay much longer!
When I saw that the online itinerary of Cambodia Cycling offered the options of a home stay, I got all excited. I thought staying with a local family would be a wonderful way to learn about real life and to meet people.
Once we were in the country, I started to worry about a home stay. What kind of house would it be? More like a boutique hotel or truly in a local home? The local homes look pretty darn spartan.
Our very last night was the planned home stay. South of Phnom Penh we turned into the hills and bumped along smaller and smaller roads until we entered the natural area of Kirirom National Park. Villages were far and few between. Finally we drove into a small village with beautiful, local houses. Well kept, ornately painted. The yards look swept and tidy. We noticed lots of ‘homestay’ signs on the houses. We drove through the village, past the school and temple and into an area where the road ended at some shelters – roofs sheltering large tables. This turned out to be the ‘Women’s Restaurant’ – a communal kitchen were visitors are fed.
From here, we hiked to some lovely waterfalls and back. Then we were taken back into the village and to one home that was to be our stay for the night. Slowly, over the next day, we pieced it all together.
In 2002 a German NGO came to this area to convince the locals not to cut down any more forest. They explained how slow the trees grow and how they could make a much better income by protecting the environment and inviting tourists to come and spend money. I’m not sure how long it took to convince the people but when all was said and done now, some 16 years later, the community thrives, the environment is protected, the people have learned diverse skills and host visitors from all over the world. If they come. They need a lot more publicity to make this place really known.
But the foundation is great and, so far, proving to be sustainable.
We are told that about 300 women now work locally rather than having to go to a nearby city for work. They take turns growing food, cooking it, cleaning, and preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner in the communal kitchen where the visitors come.
After our dinner of fried pork and pineapple, rice and fried noodles, we went to our home stay. The traditional house, like the ones we have seen everywhere throughout Cambodia, is built on poles. Underneath is a sitting platform on which a clean mat is spread for visitors. Upstairs is one large room. I’d been dying to see what was in that main part of a house.
Now I know. There is nothing! Absolutely nothing. Except for sleeping mats for the entire family and one tiny shelf holding some incense and a cup of water for the house spirit. No pictures on the wall, no decorations.
No airco! But at least there was a ceiling fan. No wifi. No running water.
A squad toilet only.
The host, for western guests, put a thin foamie and a pillow on the floor but those are only for the guests -the local sleep on the hard floor on a woven wicker mat. We had the room to ourselves and deducted that the family slept downstairs, somewhere, during this night.
The families in the village take turns hosting so that they are only displaced a few nights per month but earn money for hosting.
The kitchen of the house is a small wood fire outside on the dirt, with a pot or two simmering. The family’s cow sleeps next to it and is taken back into a field around 5 AM.
I had expected a night in a village to be peaceful and quiet but instead it was a cacophony of sounds all night long. The music stopped around 1:30 AM. The dogs never seized barking. The roosters crowed until midnight and started up full swing again around 3 AM. The crickets and other things happily chimed in. By 6 AM all of the motorbikes were roaring out of the village, taking the men to their jobs.
The women have learned many skills and organize the sales of drinks and food, they make a few crafts to sell and plan meals and overnights for the visitors.
The children all attend school and have the option of English lessons after school, taught by a volunteer.
All in all a very interesting look, not only at life in a rural Cambodian village, but also at how a well run sustainable project like this can both protect nature and provide a more solid income. It was explained to us that the money not only benefits the entire community (they share all income) but also supports very poor families living in the nearby area who were not able to provide enough food for themselves. These people now receive enough rice and staples to help support them.
It might be hot and uncomfortable, but I highly recommend spending time at a home stay. The experience is an eye opener. It gives a glimpse into the real Cambodian life and how people live in a rural village.
One day we boarded a ferry, on foot, to Koh Dach island. It seemed to be similar in size to our own Salt Spring Island. But instead of its variety of artists, everyone on this island is a silk spinner or weaver. For generations, people here have been spinning the silk worm cocoon into thread, dyeing it and weaving traditional Cambodian cloth.
Outside, underneath each house is a large loom. Old and mindblowing how they all still work. Some of the spinning is done with the use of a bicycle wheel to wind the thread onto spools.
We walked about 10 KM, right across the island, along the road we shared with thousands of motorbikes and bicycles. And with oxen being led to greener pastures.
We crossed a temple compound. School was out, then school started again for the afternoon session. Little kids waved at us calling ‘Hello!’
We stopped for a break of fried bananas and cold drinks. Then walked on along rows of palm trees loaded with coconuts and huge bunches of bananas. There were mangoes and jack fruit.
We stopped at one house to admire, and buy, some scarves woven of cotton and silk.
And, finally, we reaches the ferry on the other side of the island which took us back to the mainland, not far from the big city of Phnom Penh.
What is poverty? When is a person ‘poor’?
When I walk here, with my western preconceptions, I am appalled by the poverty everywhere. Kids run barefooted through the village. They have nothing – no toys, perhaps a rusty old bike. We travel with cabin luggage only but I swear that we carried more with us in one bag then most of these people own.
But they grow their own food. They have rice and chickens, they pick mangoes and drink coconut juice or sugar cane juice so their bellies are full. Education is free so the kids go to school. And they are so happy. Everyone smiles, everyone is cheerful. So are they poor? Or are they just fine?
These two little girls used two empty bottles as dolls. They talked to them, wrapped them and rocked them like babies.
In a country with 31º average temperature, 95% of the population does not have a refrigerator. There simply is no electricity. People use ice boxes and buy large chunks of ice each day. So someone has the job of icemaker and hauls these blocks on his wagon, wrapped in tarps to deliver to roadside stands and other customers.
It is so interesting to see how people carve a living out of their surroundings. As we drove north from Siem Reap to Kratie, some 400 KM, we stopped along a short stretch of road with nothing but stone carvings for sale. A young man was hammering away at one of the giant blocks, turning them into buddhas.
I lose track of how many temples we have visited but all of them have an abundance of stone statues, mostly grey stone but sometimes painted. Often long staircases are lined with figures carrying an enormously long rope or snake. On one side are evil, or mad looking persons, on the other are smiling, good people. Someone has to produce all of these statues.
Many thousands work in the garment industry, Cambodia’s major source of income. A factory worker – often women – earns about $150 per month! That’s for 9 hour days, 5 or 6 days a week (comes to about 80 cents per hour!!). Yet everyone, and I mean éveryone, has a cell phone in their hands. Even in villages with almost no electricity, people have cell phones. A plan is 5.- per month.
As we were driving a very bumpy dirt road, I was just thinking what a poor area this must be, with shacks, uneven planks for walls, rusty tin for roofs. Then our guide said “This is a well-to-do area with larger homes. Tomorrow we will be in a much poorer area…”
Kratie is a bustling city on the Mekong river. From here we crossed that mighty river in a small wooden boat used by locals as the ferry to Koh Trong, an island in the river. With us on the ferry were school teachers and workers bringing supplies. One man brought large ice blocks to sell, others had big bags of produce.
On the other side, we first walked about 400 meters over soft white sand which, in rainy season, is well under water.
Then we walked over to the Primary School of Koh Trong. Within minutes we were in the first grade and I was given a piece of chalk and told to write the English alphabet on the blackboard. The kids all chanted sounds and many knew the “alphabet song”. Education is incredibly important here. It is free for all but the kids need a school uniform (blue or black pants or skirt and white shirt). Teachers used to make a pittance and have to have a second job in order to be able to afford teaching. Now it is getting better, we’re told. Kids learn English in the higher grades. They sang songs for us and we left them lots of pencils, pencil sharpeners and a soccer ball. I really admire my friends Jan and Anne who taught here for many years and really made a difference.
We strolled along one side of the island, up around the tip and back along the other side through rice paddies. We were passed by lots of motorbikes, bicycles and oxen carts. We stopped in one yard to eat a pomelo, got to use the squat toilet at another.
Many people sat in the shade under their homes. Some swept the yard with a bunch of twigs. One had a chair outside and a mirror hanging in the tree with a sign ‘Haircuts one dollar’.
Language fun: Every night at dinner we get asked “Would you like rye with that?” Unfortunately, he means ‘rice’ but doesn’t pronounce the ’s’.
The clerk at the hotel does pronounce the ’s’ even if it is supposed to be silent. As in “You are going to Iceland today.” Me: “Iceland?!”
“Yes, Koh Trong is Iceland,”
Me: “Ah! Island! Yes.”
33º and we are hiking… It’s all Kees’ fault. He’s the one who loves to hike. When locals here look at us in astonishment and ask “why??” I shrug, point at my husband and say “ask him”. I know, I know. He loves the physical exercise. He loves the solitude of walking through the country side. He loves the challenge of long distance hikes with a big pack, walking day after day.
After trudging along for several long distance hikes in Holland, for a long hot one in Australia, for part of the Camino de Santiago, I decided that – much as I love him – I like walking but not long distance hiking.
And so we look for compromises. Active holidays with lots of walking but the comfort of a good room and no lugging of luggage day after day. Is a 15 day trek in Cambodia a compromise? I think so, although it is different from what we expected.
We found a website and liked what we saw. We received an itinerary and Cambodia Cycling & Trekking was very willing to tweak and answer questions. Each day we would walk – the itinerary told us things like “Day 3: Siem Reap to Kratie. Breakfast at the hotel, visit Kompong Kdei Bridge, transfer to Santuk Mountain, climb to hilltop pagoda, transfer to Kratie.”
What we didn’t realize, is that the ‘transfers’ that day amounted to driving 400 KM. Each day listed the walking distance, ranging from 3 to 17 KM. Three days seemed to be awfully short hikes, and 17 was a bit daunting but oh well.
Once here, we realize that the oppressive heat plays havoc with your body. I found that 4 to 5 KM was fine, after that things became a struggle especially when the ‘hilltop pagoda’ was on top of 800 steep, uneven steps in the blazing sun.
We had also not realized that the same guide and driver, two wonderful young, energetic men, would stay with us the entire time. It was wonderful to have our luggage transported and near us at all times. From the correspondence, we had understood that it would just be the two of us, with a different guide in different regions. It was great to get to know each other and to always have a local to explain things or to ask detailed questions.
The listed distances both in the car and on foot, were not very accurate. We soon discovered we had to be very flexible and keep asking for details. ‘500 metre’ often was one KM. A ‘half hour’ often was double.
On day 3 or so I got a bad case of food poisoning by eating at a remote restaurant. This completely zapped me of any energy. I skipped a day of hiking and enjoyed reading and writing in the air conditioned van. The next day we would walk to an indigenous village. Not wanting to miss this, I decided to walk but told our guide that 4 KM was too much for me. He agreed to drive further along and cut the hike in half. Unfortunately the road was blocked half way so we had no choice but to start walking. A local park ranger joined us, with a machete. Soon we left the road and plunged into the jungle, where he cut a trail for us. We trudged up and down hill, over logs, among brambles and thorns. It was all very gorgeous and interesting, but I should have never attempted this in my condition. I had not eaten in three days, my insides were cramping and – after a while – I thought I’d die. When we came to a small creek, I couldn’t scoop enough cold water on my head. But we had to keep going. I lost all sense of distance and time. But did hike for hours. ‘Can you call a taxi from inside the jungle?’ I kept wondering. I voiced that wish once I got really desperate. “A motorbike!” I said. Everyone here rides motorbikes everywhere and they all have cell phones. “If you know where we are, can’t you ask the driver to send a motorbike?” At first they laughed but soon they realized I was serious. I had started thinking, I’d pay 5 dollars for a ride out. Soon I was thinking 20. Then 100! Anything.
Two motorbikes actually did appear out of nowhere, in that dense jungle, zigzagging and jumping over boulders, coming down a deep dried creekbed. Alas, one was loaded with wood. The next one had no seat and was also fully loaded with cassava. Plus they were going the wrong way. I crawled on, sweat dripping down my face and splashing on the ground. My hands and knees were shaking. It was 34º.
About 10 minutes before we’d reach the road, we found a man with a motorbike who agreed to rescue me for 10,000 riel – about 2 dollars. He was a knight in shining armour on a white steed. Too bad he hadn’t come along earlier. But he took me to our van where I crawled inside and collapsed.
My favourite walk, perhaps, was a simple stroll along a dirt road through a village. On a Sunday afternoon when most families were lazing around their yards (pretty unusual here for these hardworking people) this walk gave us a chance to see the real rural life. At every house, a throng of little kids came running out of the dusty yard and greenery, calling “Hello! Hello! Hello!”, waving and beaming at us. When we waved and called back, more kids came running. Mothers waved with infants on their hips. Fathers grinned from behind their rice wine or cans of Cambodian beer. Dogs listlessly approached and then plopped down in the dust. Chickens scurried. Cows lifted their heads but continued chewing. We bought sugar cane juice from one of the many machines parked in a driveway. The woman cranked sugar canes through the press, folded them, repeatedly pressing them. The juice dripped into a bowl inside the glass contraption, she scooped it out into a plastic bag, and tied it closed around a straw. It was delicious! Sweet, refreshing, lovely.
The other fabulous hikes were around Angkor Wat where our guide led us through shady forests, along flat paths and on top of the ancient stone walls surrounding the temple areas. The hikes here were easy and pleasant and much more appealing than hanging out with lots of tourists. Plus, walking puts us in touch with the environment, either nature or the people around us, much better than driving by can do. So, that’s why we walk.