Our plan for Phnom Penh was this. Get in, see the Genocide Museum and Killing Fields, and get out, ideally without being mugged. Jealous? I thought so. Admittedly our itinerary for the Cambodian capital doesn’t sound like the MOST #travelgoals part of our trip.
So why were we approaching our time in Phnom Penh with such an air of grim inevitability?
In true fairytale style, three ominous warnings had been bestowed upon us ahead of our arrival in Phnom Penh. The first was from a British mansplainer who had trailed us around Angkor Thom the week before, yelling cycling advice in our direction. He said his friend/a woman he was stalking had – the previous week – been mugged by a guy on a motorbike in the capital. Of course, our White Knight painted himself as the hero of the piece, having ‘held on tight’ to his female companion so she wouldn’t chase the muggers down. He may have been well-intentioned, but if I had to choose between meeting a gang of hardened muggers in Phnom Penh or spending another hour listening to that insufferable man, I’d be very tempted by the former. Later, a local tuk-tuk driver in Angkor Historical Park warned that a tourist recently died in Phnom Penh after a botched motorcycle mugging. And finally, the night before we were due to leave Battambang, a friendly waitress warned us only to carry rucksacks once we got to the Cambodian capital. “I want so much for you to have a good experience of Cambodia,” she explained, in a tone that suggested our time in Phnom Penh would dash her hopes. All this – perhaps understandably – put us a bit on edge about our time in the city once known as ‘the Pearl of Asia’.
In the end though, it was fine. “Tell me more about this scintillatingly ‘fine’ city Caroline”, I hear you plead…
No two streets are the same in Phnom Penh. While other Southeast Asian cities can seem haphazard to our Western eyes, used to huge sterile chain stores and sensible health and safety regulations, Phnom Penh feels like it was built by a giant hamfisted toddler in a whimsical mood.
We zoomed through the sprawling city in a tuk-tuk, our bags wound tightly around our arms and legs. A shop exclusively selling TV receivers – its aluminium storefront decorated with satellite dishes – was squashed up next to a traditional Khmer eatery, fronted by an arch covered in polished yellow tiles. Cambodian EDM boomed from a pepto-bismol-pink shop, piles of speakers and thin mattresses covering the pavement outside. A topless man sat eating noodles inside a furniture shop cobbled together from shards of corrugated iron, while next door LED signs flashed from a glass-fronted store with a rip-off Apple logo advertising phone screen repairs. Two doors down there was a large family watching a Cambodian soap opera in their wooden, open-front home, as their grandma sat outside, manning a small cart selling cigarettes, 7up, and baguettes. Every so often, we’d pass clusters of coffee drinkers sat on astroturf around hip, industrial-style vans flogging espressos and lattes at London prices. The buildings jumped from tiny shack to high-rise and back again at a dizzying pace, thick tangles of black wires tracing the skyline. What I’m trying to say – I think – is that given the sheer diversity of Phnom Penh, it is impossible to sum up. And – of course – it has a tragic recent past.
In the 1970s, the communist Khmer Rouge evacuated the gargantuan city as they sought to ‘cleanse’ Cambodia of intellectuals and the wealthy. While the regime held power, the population of the capital city shrank until it was little more than a ghost town as hundreds of thousands of residents were forcibly evicted and put to agricultural work – a scene that was replicated in urban areas across the country. Pol Pot and his followers used an old high school in the capital to house and torture their political prisoners before sending them to the Killing Fields. After liberation, people reclaimed Phnom Penh as their home and the population exploded.
We stayed at a decent hotel attached to an Indian restaurant, where the dahl was fabulous but the vibes were a bit off. The restaurant was – inexplicably – home to the hotel’s swimming pool, and was populated by gamblers and tuk-tuk drivers trying to sell a tour to anyone unfortunate enough to take a pew. We had yet another conversation about Brexit with a Swedish gambler, who had apparently won $19k in the casino the night before, but preferred hanging around little India to his own fancy hotel, where no-one ever talked to him. The barman hovered nervously in the background after putting a bet on a Premier League game.
The next day it was time for some tragedy tourism at the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. I should mention here that I came to Phnom Penh around five years ago by myself, and visited both locations then. Hearing the stories and seeing the mass graves of the unspeakably brutal Khmer Rouge regime is a harrowing experience, and far from enjoyable. It wasn’t one I was particularly eager to repeat, and – had it not been Phil’s first time in Cambodia – I would perhaps have chosen a more cheerful occupation for the day. That said – like visiting the former Jewish ghettos and concentration camps of Nazi-occupied Europe, or the museums of the ‘American War’ in Vietnam – it’s a humbling experience, and one I believe we, as humans, owe the victims. Much like last time I visited, I left with a heightened sense of the danger that political extremism poses to human dignity. This time, however, given the rise of the far right in Europe and the US, it seemed more poignant.
That night we sat on the balcony drinking (a lot of) Angkor beer, trying to shake off all the death. Before long we were joined by a German couple from the Black Forest, who – somewhat inevitably – asked us about Brexit. We sighed. This has become a common theme of our travelling, despite a pact Phil and I had made not to bring it up. As well as the German couple and Swedish gambler, we’ve been quizzed on the subject by an Israeli ex-soldier, a French historian, a lovely Italian traveller, a Belgian beer expert, a Battambang tuk-tuk driver, an Australian teacher, a Vietnamese biker, a very intense Brazilian man, and a young woman from Seattle in the US. That’s right: people from THE US are confused about OUR POLITICS. Despite this wide variety of professions and nationalities, they had one thing in common: none of them could understand why Britain is self-sabotaging. Enough of that, anyway!
The South Coast: Kampot, via Durian Roundabout
Glad to leave the much-hyped danger of Phnom Penh behind, we jumped on a 2-hour bus to Kampot – a town on the south coast famed less for motorised muggings and more for its pepper and sunsets. We’d always planned an expedition to Cambodia’s south coast, but originally had set our sights on Sihanoukville: a destination popular among tourists as a jumping-off point for the paradise islands off the coast. When I last visited Cambodia, just over four years ago, Sihanoukville was certainly getting a lot of buzz. However, a tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap had warned us that it was now “full of casinos and Chinese mafia”, and suggested we visit Kampot and/or Kep instead, the latter remaining rather nicely off the beaten track. Since then, a number of other tourists we’d run into had described Sihanoukville in no uncertain terms as “a shithole”.
So, Kampot. A wide promenade sweeps the riverfront, giving Kampot the aura of a Spanish ‘Costa Del…’ resort, with polished pink paving slabs underfoot, and competitive pizza joints called things like ‘Happy Pizza’ and ‘Ecstatic Pizza’. Head to the uneven backstreets and there’s endless shops and restaurants that cater to Westerners, among them a tequila-themed bar, a French ice-cream shop, and a handful of coffee houses. The shops sell bikinis, Lays crisps, and Kampot pepper. In the more urban section of town squats the Durian Roundabout, which pays homage to Southeast Asia’s most notorious and repulsive fruit.
We had come to the South Coast to write: it was time to top up the old bank balance. Consequently most of the daylight hours were spent with laptops around the pool, jumping in whenever the day’s heat became too unbearable. I really liked the bungalow-style hotel we stayed at, in part because they seemed to like me a lot more than they did Phil – this being an unusual order of things in Southeast Asia, where tall white men are revered, and short brunette women treated as nothing but an inconvenience. At night we explored the boat bars that moored up on the waterfront. Each had a theme (botanical, nautical, pirate) and offered cruises to watch the delicate rose-pink sunsets with free beers. One night we took our Angkor lager on a boat that – despite having no other customers – was loudly booming Cambodian EDM as a large white rabbit hopped around the deck looking confused. It was surreal AF. I’m not saying that’s WHY we left, but the next morning, after two nights in Kampot, it was time to catch a tuk-tuk to Kep – 20 minutes’ drive along the coast.
As we were bumping along the wide dirt road to Kep, a tall tanned man with the air of a castaway waved his arms frantically at us from his position at the side of the road, next to a smoking 4×4. Our tuk-tuk driver pulled over and, with nary a word to us, the man vaulted onto the seat opposite. He was an enigmatic French expat with wild blue eyes, and had, by the sounds of it, had the unluckiest day of his life. That morning, he’d set out to sail to Kep from Kampot for a picnic, but his boat had broken down. Undeterred, he decided to drive to Kampot for the picnic instead, but on the way his van had also broken down. We left him at a garage, trying to pick up the right parts for both of his broken vehicles. This was our first taste of the large, mad expat scene on the Cambodian south coast.
We arrived at La Botanica – another paradisiacal beach bungalow-style accommodation, chosen for the fact it was the cheapest hotel with a swimming pool in the area – and were immediately impressed by the fact we had our own hammock strung up on the porch. This set the relaxed, heavenly tone for our time in lovely Kep. Days riding rusted hire bicycles to Kep beach, along the glittering sea front, the silver ocean seemingly unmoving to the horizon. Picnics of baguettes and expensive goats’ cheese from the proliferation of French delis that have sprung up as a result of the European expat community.
In the afternoon, sometimes we’d visit a tapas joint hidden in a dusty side street for hummus and beer. Visiting in the off-season, the menu was heavily redacted, but the Spanish owner was interesting to talk to. “Give it five years, and the levels of tourism in Kep will be very high”, he’d told us. We mentally high-fived ourselves for visiting before the tourist hordes descended, because that’s the sort of people we are now. As sundown approached, we’d stroll down to the upmarket Boat Club, where we’d buy imported Pinot Grigio, and watch as the fiery sun fell past the horizon, briefly turning the sea orange. The next morning we’d return at sunrise for an hour of kayaking before the heat became unbearable. We were very happy in Kep. We’d intended to spend two nights here, but ended up staying a week.
Kampot has its pepper, and Kep has its crabs. Driving into Kep town, you’re subject to a strange greeting. A gargantuan plastic crab sits on a platform, around ten metres out to sea, its clenched pincers spread to the sky. “Welcome to Kep” reads the bold lettering underneath. Clamber over the pitted rocks that line the jetty at Kep beach, and you’ll find violaceous crabs clattering in the shadows. At the pungent, hectic crab market, vendors stand surrounded by buckets of water filled with still-living crustaceans, their wicker traps piled high on the water’s edge, while their wives sell beads or keyrings. Weaving through the busy aisles between the stalls, we held our breath and cringed as murky water sloshed over our sandalled feat. A number of small eateries next to the market serve up crab too. At night, diners sit on the restaurant balconies, tucking into Kep’s most famous dish, while the headlamps from locals laying or emptying crab traps weave above the shallow, inky water.
One day we went for a bike ride, took a wrong turning, and ended up in a tiny fishing village. This was our most ‘authentic’ experience of the Cambodian south coast – well, until we found a bar. Riding along the dirt track, we spotted a one-room primary school on stilts filled with about 20 rambunctious children, and a tumbledown jetty used by local fishermen, who brought home their catches in mint green boats. Passing a number of houses, we spotted the aforementioned bar, which it turned out had been started by two Spanish women, who were allowed to run it on the proviso they cleaned up the beach next door. We spent a few hours here drinking mojitos and looking out at the boats gently bobbing on the sparkling, millpond-flat water.
We had to change hotels a few times in Kep, largely due to the fact we kept wanting to stay on and a lot of places were booked up. This, unfortunately, led us to the door of the man we came to know as Mad Bez. We’d first heard about him when looking for a place to eat at the Crab Market. An American restaurateur had lured us inside, with the usual “oh, you’re from Manchester? My friend is from Manchester!” shtick. It turned out to be one of the worst meals of our travels thus far (inedible fried eggs soundtracked by substandard Rat Pack covers), but he did go into a bit more detail about his friend: he owned a hotel up the road. Figuring that it would be interesting to hear about living in Kep from a guy hailing from the same city we lived in, we decided to stay there for a couple of nights. As we approached, Phil remarked he hoped this guy wasn’t like “some sort of mad Bez”, given the fact that a lot of the expats we’ve met in Asia seem a little…off, and also that he was from Manchester. Anyway, it turned out that Mad Bez was absolutely off his tits.
We rocked up, and immediately established that Mad Bez was, in fact, from London: the American man had lied to get us to eat his awful food. Our disappointment could have been put in the past, had the Cockney man not greeted us by shouting “THERE’S A LIZARD IN YOUR ROOM” in our faces. At first we thought he was joking. But no, he explained, the exceptionally large lizard had laid eggs in the room he had designated us, and was extremely territorial about said eggs. It was – he couldn’t emphasise enough – an UNUSUALLY large lizard, but that wouldn’t be a problem would it? After some contemplation – not that we’re princesses – we decided it would be a problem. Mad Bez’s Cambodian wife found this HILARIOUS, repeatedly pointing at Phil and yelling “HE SCARED HE SCARED”. The marketing campaigns co-opting the negative effects of toxic masculinity are yet to reach this part of the world.
After enduring this spectacle, we were moved to another room, and Mad Bez immediately informed us the noise would be bad because a huge festival was taking place across the road from our room that night and the next morning building work would start on the adjacent bungalow at 8am. He kept telling us about previous guests who had found fault with his hotel, and how angry he was at them, as well as his favourite ever guests: a bunch of Ukrainian doctors who had spent hundreds of pounds during their stay. This – not so subtly – put pressure on us a) not to complain, and b) to spend hundreds of pounds during our stay. We’d already broken cardinal rule ‘a’ with our refusal to stay in the lizard room, and were not of a mind to hang around the hotel’s restaurant, blowing our budget. Besides, Mad Bez had already proudly informed us an extremely huge hornets’ nest was in the tree overhanging the restaurant; there were five mad staffies that lived behind a gate there; and the kitchen boasted a resident snail that he had hilariously named “Usain”. He mentioned this a lot.
After our experience at that hotel, we decided to go somewhere potentially even wilder. Rabbit Island – or Koh Thonsay, to give it its non-tourist name – lies just off the coast of Kep. We took a rocky 20-minute boat ride there, during which time a young Russian boy repeatedly took aim at us with his alarmingly lifelike AK47 replica gun. His parents looked on proudly.
We reached Rabbit Island with our bodies unscarred, if not our souls – but they would soon be pieced back together. Rabbit Island was absolutely beautiful. Its small stretch of sand was fringed with tiny “hotels” made up of bungalows on stilts and bars serving up lethal AK47 cocktails. Even better, there was no internet. We stayed there one night, reading in hammocks strung up on the island’s many cabanas, and would have extended our stay – potentially forever – were it not that the lack of wifi meant we’d had to book our return accommodation back on the mainland in advance.
Goodbye Kep, we can’t Miss Saigon
Kep had been amazing; unexpectedly our favourite place on the trip so far. But we knew we had to leave: my mum was coming to visit us in Vietnam, and if we wanted to see any of the south of the country before she arrived in Hoi An, we would have to bid this paradise a sorry farewell. So we took a seven-hour train ride back to Phnom Penh (at Phil’s insistence, despite it being both more expensive and much, much slower than the bus), passed one last night in the city listening to a Scottish hotelier’s tale of woe, and jumped on an eight-hour coach across the border to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). There would be many times in the coming weeks we would wish we were back in Kep, but that’s a story for another epically-long blog.