Angkor Wat – Visiting Sacred Spaces

Siem Reap is a city in Northwest Cambodia, and one of the most popular destinations for travelers due to its proximity to one of Southeast Asia’s biggest attractions: Angkor Archaeological Park. The park contains the remains of the world’s largest pre-industrial city in the world, covering approximately 250 square miles.  The temples and other structures were not thought to have been built all at the same time, but the complex is approximated to be about 1,000 years old.

Like most visitors of Southeast Asia, Angkor was one of our top destinations–about 2 million people visit each year.  Our hotel was about 4.5 miles away from the entrance to the complex, so we decided to rent bicycles to get there.  Once we arrived, we had to choose which ticket we wanted.  A one day pass is $20 and a three day pass is $40.  Knowing that one day is not nearly enough to see more than a fraction of the park, we decided to go for the three day pass.

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A screen shot of Angkor on Google Maps.  It’s seriously huge!

We decided to dedicate our first day solely to the park’s most famous temple, Angkor Wat.  Angkor Wat is so famous that many people don’t even know that the park has its own name, they think the whole complex is just called Angkor Wat! Once we reached the front of the temple, we parked our bikes across the street and made our way to the entrance.  It’s really hard to justly describe in words, luckily we took plenty of photos!

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The entrance to the outer wall, within the (man-made!) moat
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The entrance
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Closeup of the outer wall
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Another close up of the outer wall
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Inside the outer wall
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Wall detail in the outer wall
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Once inside the outer wall, we followed the causeway to the central structure
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Lying on either side of the causeway are libraries
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Angkor Wat, the temple proper
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…and some local monkeys hanging out 🙂
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The walls were sculpted into masterful depictions of things like war and work

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There were a lot of repeated patterns in the architecture, like these columns, for example.
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One of the coolest parts is that you don’t get to just walk around and look at it from afar, visitors get to climb up, around, and through the temple.
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A courtyard

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The temple is so impossibly huge that people look tiny when walking around.

Another good thing about the three day pass is that you don’t feel pressured to spend all day temple hopping.  It was insanely hot and the sun just zaps the energy right out of you.  This way, we were able to spend a relaxed afternoon at Angkor Wat and save the rest for the other days.

…and we did just that! Except this time, we were planning on going further than just Angkor Wat so we had to decide what we wanted to do about transport.  You can rent a tuk tuk to take you around for the day, but we ended up deciding to rent electric bicycles instead.  They don’t allow motorbike rentals in Siem Reap, so the electric bike was the next best thing.  Plus, they’re fun and better for the environment (and Siem Reap is pretty polluted.)

There are two popular routes that take visitors to some of the other major and minor temples in the complex called the ‘small circuit’ and the ‘grand circuit.’  We decided to do the small circuit, which is about 10 miles starting at Angkor Wat. The bike ride was an experience in itself.  The scenery was beautiful and the breeze felt great in the heat of the afternoon.

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We followed the road into Angkor Thom which translates to “Great City.”  It was built in the late 12th century, covers about 5.5 square miles and is believed to have housed between 80,000 and 150,000 people. In the center of Angkor Thom lies The Bayon, a well-known Khmer temple decorated with hundreds of faces.  This ended up being one of our favorite sites and we spent quite a while exploring it.

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Entering The Bayon

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After exploring The Bayon, we hopped back on our bikes and moved on to Ta Prohm, another popular temple.  Ta Prohm is one of the temples that was left as it was found, because its merging with the jungle was so impressive and picturesque.  It was also used as a location in the movie, Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie. Ta Prohm was undeniably stunning, but it was crowded with hoards of tourists to the point of discomfort, so we didn’t spend as much time there as we might have liked.

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Riding to Ta Prohm

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We followed the road to Banteay Kdei, which means “Citadel of Chambers.”  It is not entirely known what purpose this temple originally served, but it did house monks at various times up until the 1960s.

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Banteay Kdei

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We were exhausted by the time we neared the end of the circuit, but on our way back home, we spotted a bunch of monkeys on the side of the road and decided to give them a couple of our bananas.  One of them hopped on our bike and started looking at himself in the mirror!  It was funny until he wouldn’t get off…

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We decided to give this guy a little treat.
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Then, he hopped on one of our bikes and started watching himself in the mirror!
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He kept putting his weight on the handlebars and we were afraid he was going to tip the bike over. Joe tried to step in, but he was really difficult to shoo away!

Once we got back into town, we finished the day with dinner on Siem Reap’s Pub Street where all the hip bars and restaurants are.  We had a lot of fun there!

The electric bicycles ended up being perfect because we rented them in the afternoon the second day, so we didn’t have to return them until afternoon the next day.  So when we got up to go to Angkor Wat at sunrise, we didn’t have to pay for another day of transportation which was great.

We woke up at about 5am and groggily got on our bikes to ride to Angkor Wat.  Sunrise is a really popular time for tourists to go, so it was very crowded!  It was kind of funny to see all of the people packed around the lake in front to get the stereotypical shot of the reflection in the water.  We ended up getting some pretty nice pictures in between our yawns!

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Riding through the streets of Siem Reap before sunrise
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Just arriving at Angkor Wat
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People waiting to get their picture of sunrise reflected in the lake. Apparently people get there at like 4am to get the best spot!!
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Sunrise just peeking over the temple
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Funnily enough, the crowds vanished about 3 minutes after the sun made its appearance. We just strolled over a few minutes later and got virtually the exact same shot!

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We had to have the bikes back before 1pm so we decided to spend the morning doing the Grand Circuit to check out some of the temples we hadn’t seen yet.  The first one was The Terrace of the Elephants, a viewing platform for public ceremonies.

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There were pictures of elephants carved into all of the walls
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Elephant sculptures on either side of the entrance

Beyond the Terrace of the Elephants, we explored and climbed the temple, Phimeanakas.

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The walkway leading to Phimeanakas

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The very top
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The view from the top

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Next we rode on to Preah Khan, a lesser known temple that has also been left largely unrestored.  There was a lot of rubble, but the trees growing over the stones were beautiful.  Plus, it was a lot less crowded that Ta Prohm (the Angelina Jolie one.)

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The next temple was Neak Pean, a Buddhist temple built on an artificial island.  It is surrounded by four connecting pools that are believed to represent the four elements.  The temple was originally designed as a sort of hospital, so people were meant to bathe in each of the pools to cure diseases by restoring balance.

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An ornate balustrade
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The middle of Neak Pean

The final temple we visited was Ta Som, another small temple left mostly unrestored.  One of the entrance ways is overgrown by an enormous strangler fig!

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Words really don’t do it justice, but Angkor was beyond breathtaking and we were really glad we decided to invest in a three day pass.  Despite all of our exploring, we barely scratched the surface.  The complex is so huge, it’s impossible to fit it all in in three days (or four, or five, or six, etc…) but we got to see most of the commonly visited temples and a few of the lesser-known, as well.

Definitely a major highlight of backpacking through Southeast Asia!

Battambang – Crocodiles, Killing Caves, and a Bamboo Train

After wrenching ourselves away from the beautiful island of Koh Rong, we spent another night in Sihanoukville and booked a bus to Battambang for the next day.  We just couldn’t do the night bus.  (We’re still scarred from our journey from Nong Khiaw to Don Det in Laos.)

“How long is the bus?” we asked the woman at our guesthouse.

“…maybe you get there at 3 or 4pm.”

Well, the bus was to leave at 7am and we had to backtrack all the way to Phnom Penh before heading west to Battambang.  Who knows how she came up with that answer, but in reality, we arrived in Battambang at about 9pm.

Luckily we had looked up accommodation in advance and found a hostel called Here Be Dragons a little outside of town.  We instructed our tuk tuk driver where to take us from the bus station and we were greeted with a smile and shown our room as soon as we got there.

The hostel did not disappoint.  After we dropped our bags off, we headed back downstairs to the bar to collect our free beers that we were given on arrival.  Even better, they had Kaiserdom in stock (for only $2!) and we nearly died of happiness, as it had been months since we’d had anything but local watery lagers.  The bar was also full of locals and expats happy to chat which was nice.

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We had a late breakfast the next morning, and it was brutally hot that day, so it took us a couple hours to get ourselves motivated to go out and see the sights.  That ended up working out just fine, because wanted to be at our last destination at sunset, anyway.  We got a tuk tuk to take us around all day for $15 and set off.

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Driving across the bridge in Battambang

The first stop was a local crocodile farm.  As soon as we got there, a woman greeted us and asked us for $2 each.  Unfortunately we only had 100 dollar bills on us, because those are what come out of the ATM machines in Cambodia.  We scrambled to find any small bills we had on us and found a total of only $2.50.  To our surprise, she just smiled, took our $2.50 and assured us that it was just fine.

She ushered us to the pits where the adult crocodiles are kept, she said there were about 400 and some of them were huge!  And sadly, they looked pretty cramped in there.  Excited by the prospect of seeing giant reptiles, we had failed to consider the ethics of a visit like this beforehand.

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Driving to the Crocodile Farm
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One of the crocodile pits
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The water is shaded for the crocodiles or they can get out and sunbathe

The woman that greeted us was very friendly and her English was better than anyone else we had encountered in Cambodia.  When we asked what the crocodiles were used for, she told us that the leather is exported for handbags and other things, the meat is sent to Vietnam for eating, and some are sent to the China to be used for medicine…Eek.

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An especially formidable looking croc peeking out

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Feeling depressed about our contribution to this less than ideal situation, we were glad to find out that the woman working there was not the owner, she was just working there to improve her English and save up money to buy a tuk tuk.  She told us she aspired to be the first female tuk tuk driver in Battambang, which is actually pretty cool.  And we were glad to be able to help her out.

As we were walking away from the crocodile pits and back toward the exit, she surprised us with two baby crocodiles that we got to hold!  She told us they were twins, one male and one female.  They were making the cutest noises and she said it was because it was almost their feeding time.

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Babies!

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Our next stop was the Bamboo Train, so we hopped back on the tuk tuk to take us there.  Note:  We had no idea what the bamboo train was, we had just read that it was one of the ‘top things to do’ in Battambang and figured that meant we should probably do it.

So, we drove on to the “entrance” which was basically a couple of stalls selling drinks and snacks.  On the other side we could see tracks with what looked like big pallets on wheels.

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The bamboo train

As we approached, we were asked to pay the entrance fee, then pointed toward one of the pallets.  It turned out that the pallets were made of bamboo and that is what we would be riding up the tracks!

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Don’t worry, it’s five stars!

We sat down on the first one and one of the guys hopped on the back and started the engine.  It started out slow, but soon enough we were racing along through the fields.  Not to mention, the rails were not lined up very well, so there was a huge jolt every few feet and huge bang to go along with it.  It was loud, a little terrifying, but mostly really fun!

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Ready to go
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Racing through the jungle
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A small bridge

Off in the distance, we could see something on the tracks.  As we came closer, we realized it was another bamboo train going in the opposite direction.  Just as we were wondering how this would be handled, our driver slowed the train and motioned for us to get off.  We were in the middle of nowhere, so we had to just kind of stand in the brush once we jumped off.

Then, the driver of the other bamboo train came over and helped our driver disassemble our train.  They took it completely off the tracks and set it aside, let the other train pass, then reassembled it on the tracks!  Then the drivers hopped back on their respective trains and continued on the journey.

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Letting another train pass by
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Reassembling the train

After about a 30 minute ride, we slowed to a stop in what seemed like a random spot with about 6 booths selling drinks and tshirts, in the middle of no where.  We stopped and had a beer (and enjoyed the shade) before getting back on the train and heading back the way we came.  Apparently the bamboo train is used (or at least originally intended) to transport goods.  A bizarre little tourist attraction, but definitely a unique experience!

On our way to the next stop, our tuk tuk driver pulled over to a small cart on the side of the road.  He told us they had a tasty treat there…

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Mmmm…rats.

We almost tried a rat, but it had clearly been baking in the sun all day, so we passed.  Our driver also pointed out the jar of fruit soaking in rice whisky which Joe did try and said it was very tasty!

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Trying some local whisky

We got back on the tuk tuk and drove to Phnom Sampeau, a large hill about 7 miles out of Battambang.  There are large caves in the hill that were used by the Khmer Rouge to deposit bodies of the people they murdered.  The people were bludgeoned to death, then tossed down a hole that lead to the caves.

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Climbing Phnom Sampeau
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Allll the steps!
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A painting depicting the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge

There was a small memorial inside the cave with skulls and bones inside, but it didn’t seem well looked after.  We could also look up and see the hole where the bodies were thrown.  In some ways, the lack of upkeep made it even more depressing than the killing fields we visited in Phnom Penh.

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A small memorial containing human skulls of the victims
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The hole where victims were thrown into the cave.

By this time it was late afternoon, and we walked around Phnom Sampeau to our last stop, the bat cave!

As we got closer, we started hearing a strange sound.  As we rounded the hill, we got a glimpse of the cave and it was clear that that was where the sound was coming from.  At first the cave looked like it had dark rocks inside, but then we realized that they were actually just covered in bats!

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Those aren’t dark rocks!

Just before sunset, the bats started to stir, and then they started flying out of the cave!  It was a slow stream at first, but they kept coming and coming!

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The beginning of the flight
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Bats!

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After watching them for a few minutes, our driver met up with us and told us to get back in the tuk tuk and go to the other side of the hill to see more bats.  Once we got to the other side, we climbed up the hill and got to stand right next to the mouth of the cave.

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There was traditional Khmer music coming from somewhere down in the village and it almost looked like the bats were dancing to the music as they flew into the sunset.  It was pretty amazing!  Though the bats were kind of smelly.

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The smokey looking trail on the left is actually the trail of bats!
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It seemed like they would never stop coming out of the cave!
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A gorgeous sunset over the jungle

We ended the day with dinner and one more round of Kaiserdom back at the hostel.  We had almost skipped Battambang because it was slightly out of the way, but we were really glad that didn’t!

Koh Rong – Paradise, Plankton, and a Full Moon Party

After a couple of days in Sihanoukville we were ready to get off the main land and head out to the island of Koh Rong.  We bought a ferry ticket at the pier called the “Backpacker Ferry” for a $15 return trip to the island.  We were given a ticket stub for the return ferry and were told we could take it any day we wanted, so there was no obligation to return until we had our fill of the island.

The ferry took about 2 hours and the water was delightfully smooth.  As we made our way across the water we saw hundreds of huge jellyfish the size of dinner plates just under the surface!

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The boat wasn’t crowded at all, a welcome surprise!
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Smooooth sailing!
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Almost there!

As soon as we got off the boat we could tell the vibes on Koh Rong suited us much better than Sihanoukville.  It was significantly cleaner (though still some litter and sewage draining into the ocean, it’s still Cambodia after all) and there were no gross old men or prostitutes.  The water was much cleaner as well.  We found a guesthouse called Three Brothers with private rooms and shared bathrooms for $12, a few steps down the beach.  After we dropped off our backpacks we headed right back out to get some lunch and go exploring.

Joe’s sunburn was really bad.  Like really bad.  We avoided sunbathing for his sake and opted to take a walk up the beach to get our bearings of the island.  Our guesthouse was located on the Southeastern most part of the island called Tui Beach, which is where most of the guesthouses on the island are situated.  We walked up the beach, past all of the bungalows, restaurants, and bars until we got to a more secluded place called Treehouse Bungalows, where all of the bungalows are built up on stilts as tall as trees!

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Joe on Tui Beach
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So much better than Sihanoukville!
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Stopping for a swim on the way there
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One of the treehouse bungalows

Just past the treehouses, the sand ended and there were rocks separating us from the next beach.  We walked around the rocks and found a small, secluded beach with beautiful orange sand.  It was sort of like a private beach for the guests that were staying in the treehouses, but the attached restaurant was open to the public as well.  We stopped there for a margarita and enjoyed the view.

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Beautiful beach by Treehouse Bungalows
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Perfect.

We wanted to walk even further, but the sand ended once more and there were even larger and more numerous rocks and boulders in our path.  To go around them we had to curve around into the jungle and follow a small path that led us to Long Set Beach, complete with beautiful white sand, turquoise waters and hardly any other tourists!

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Walking through the jungle to Long Set Beach
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Long Set Beach!

After enjoying the beach for a while and making our way back, we ended the night with dinner at a restaurant on the beach called White Rose before heading to bed.

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When we woke up the next morning, we decided to try a place a few doors down called Dream Catcher that boasts the best breakfast on the island.  With options including eggs benedict, french toast, and coconut muesli, it did not disappoint!

Our goal for the day was to trek over to Long Beach on the other side of the island.  We had heard it was one of the top beaches in the world on some list or other, and made for a fine place to watch the sun set as well.  There are no roads or motorized vehicles on Koh Rong, so to get there, our options were to take a taxi boat or a one hour hike through the jungle to the other side.

We decided to hike it and found the sign leading the way.  The trail is not really marked and at some points we weren’t sure which way we were supposed to go, but there was always a friendly local nearby that would point us in the right direction.

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We saw a sign that said “follow the flip flops.” At first we thought it meant the tracks on the path but then we saw this…
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Hiking through the island
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One of the more treacherous parts of the hike!
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It was a fairly difficult hike, but our minds went elsewhere as soon as we set foot on Long Beach.  The water was crystal clear and the sand was squeaky clean–literally!  The sand squeaked under our feet with every step.  We spent the afternoon on the beach and watched the glorious sunset before taking a taxi boat back to the other side of the island.  (It’s not safe to hike at night due to the probability of hurting yourself, in addition to the venomous snakes, spiders, and scorpions that inhabit the island.)

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The beautiful Long Beach

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Amazing sunset on Long Beach
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Glorious
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It just kept getting better

It just so happened that this was the night of the full moon and there was to be a Full Moon Party taking place on Police Beach, a short walk south of the beach where we were staying.  Knowing we weren’t going to be on Koh Phangan for the infamous Full Moon Party in the Thai islands, we decided we might check out Cambodia’s version instead.

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Fire poi on the beach
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The moon!
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Full Moon Party on Koh Rong

We drank gin and tonics while watching people spin fire poi to electronic music on the beach with a few hundred other backpackers.  It was actually really nice hanging out with everyone on the sand.  We even met a guy from Cleveland!  Definitely none of the famed debauchery of Koh Phangan’s Full Moon Party, but probably more enjoyable for us, personally.

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Lots of people but not out of control

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We woke up with the raging hangovers that are to be expected after such an event, but luckily we were in the best possible place for such things.  We walked up to Long Set Beach and strung up our hammocks under some trees by the sand.  Hanging in the shade with a cool breeze on our skin and tranquil ocean waves in our ears had us feeling in top shape.

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We walked even further up Long Set Beach this time and found a place where the water cuts into the island, creating a hot pool
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Doesn’t get much better than this!
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The view from our hammocks
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Not a bad hangover cure!

As we were discussing every possible way to stay on the island permanently, we found ourselves hungry for an early dinner and made our way up to a place called Sky Bar that overlooks the island.  They had a small menu but we had an amazing dinner of gnocchi and vegetables-the perfect end to a perfect day.

We ended the evening on the beach with a couple of chocolate crepes before heading back to our room for the night.

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Having done much of where there is “to do” on Koh Rong, mayhaps we should have left the next day.  But…we just couldn’t resist one more day of paradise.

We intended to do exactly as we had done the day before, but this time when we tried to walk up to Long Set Beach we were stopped by an official looking man in uniform.

“Where are you going?”

“…to the beach?”

Points to various locations. “What part?”

“…just…the beach?”

“I would like to inform you that this beach is closed for 4 months.”

“Er, okay…why is that?”

“I can’t tell you.”

Of course we were disappointed that we couldn’t go to the beach that we wanted, but we were more curious about what the heck that encounter had been about.  At first we wondered if there had been some kind of scandal, but then we remembered that before we even got to the island, we had read that the TV show Survivor was going to be filmed on Koh Rong starting later that month.  Sure enough, when we looked it up, we found an article on a Cambodia news website saying that the crew was already on the island preparing and that there was to be a four month filming schedule.

We were kind of honored to have been on the beach the last day it was open and grateful we had not come any later!  We hung out on the small beach by Treehouse Bungalows instead and enjoyed one of their woodfired pizzas later in the evening.

One thing that we hadn’t done yet during our stay on Koh Rong was visit the phosphorescent plankton.  There is too much light pollution coming off of Tui Beach to see them, so we paid $5 each for a boat to take us to a small island right off of Koh Rong.

At 7pm, we waded in waist deep water out to the boat along with about 15 other people.  We were all crammed in the boat and once we were all on board, they started handing out goggle masks.  When we had signed up for the boat ride we figured we would just be riding out to the island and looking at the plankton from the boat or shore or something, but when they handed us the masks we wondered if maybe we were supposed to stick our faces in the water…?

It took maybe 15 minutes to get to the small island but we stopped about 20 or 30 feet away from it.  Once the boat stopped, we were instructed to just jump off the boat and into the water!  Luckily we had been wearing our swim suits but several other passengers were not…they really aren’t clear about this when you buy the ticket!

Anyway, everyone was looking at each other wondering who was going to jump in first.  Finally someone did and when they hit the water, we could see a million green glowing lights all around their body.  That was enough encouragement for the rest of us and a few minutes later we were all in the water splashing around and watching the plankton.  It looked like our bodies were engulfed in a magical green aura and they got even brighter if you swam down deep.

Ten or fifteen minutes later, once the magic wore off and were all starting to get cold, we climbed back onto the boat and went back to shore.  We ended the night with dinner at a bizarre but delicious Italian/Reggae restaurant for our last night on Koh Rong.

We both agreed that it was our favorite place we had been on our entire trip so far and it was veeeeery difficult to leave!  We had also read that there are plans in the making by a huge investment company called Royal Group to turn Koh Rong into an “eco resort island” which means it might not be a backpacker paradise for long–hopefully the development is done responsibly.

In short, Koh Rong was very choice, and a high highlight of our trip through Cambodia!

Kampot and Sihanoukville – Adventures in the South

After enjoying several days in Phnom Penh and successfully acquiring our Thai visas, we decided it was time to move down south.

We were picked up by a tuk tuk at our guesthouse and transferred to a local bus that stopped over in Kep before taking us to our destination of Kampot.

Kampot was honestly pretty disappointing, so much so that we aren’t even dedicating a full post to it.  Though we did visit a restaurant called Rusty Keyhole which boasts the best ribs in Cambodia.  Joe insisted that we go back the second night.

It was mercilessly hot with no breeze whatsoever, and we could barely even stand to exist, let alone conjure up the motivation to go exploring.  The town itself was kind of a hole, but we spent most of our time relaxing in the hammocks in the lovely garden at our guesthouse before moving on to Sihanoukville.

The bus was to pick us up at 7am and we woke up early, ecstatic to finally get to the beach.  Unfortunately, the bus ride was one of the most unpleasant we had experienced thus far.  In reality, the driver and the bus itself were exactly what you’d expect for a Cambodian mini bus…the problem this time was the other passengers.

As soon as the bus pulled up, we could see that it was already full of people.  The bus driver came around to load our packs in the back, but there wasn’t enough room.  At this point, we noticed a middle-aged woman (we will henceforth call her Angry Lady) seated on the bus glaring at us angrily, as if it was our fault that she was being subjected to this experience.  Hello, if you want luxury, maybe don’t take the $6 bus.  Or maybe don’t go to Cambodia.  Just a thought.

The driver starts doing what they always do when there isn’t enough room for the packs: shove them under the seats to make more room.  One of the bags he begins to forcefully shove under a seat belongs to Angry Lady.  Angry Lady does not like this one bit.  She begins shouting at him in French about how the bus is not safe, there are too many people, and the driver is damaging her belongings.  To my amusement, those five years of French I took in high school somehow started coming back to me and I understood most of what she was yelling about.  The bus driver does not appreciate her yelling (especially because he doesn’t even know what she is saying?) and proceeds to counter it with a mighty ROAR!  He doesn’t even say words, he just screams.  I wanted to give him a hug.  The other passengers make defensive gestures as if to protect Angry Lady from his threatening howl (as if she hadn’t provoked him), and he subsides when he realizes he is outnumbered.

Angry Lady is still throwing us loathsome looks as we help the bus driver secure all the packs in the back of the bus.  In her fit of rage, she grabbed her pack away from him and is now sitting with her pack on her lap…while complaining about how she has to sit with her pack on her lap.  Eventually the bus driver offers to put her pack up front and she eventually consents after some more bickering, watching his every move to see if he dares try to squeeze it under a seat again.  We are squeezed into the back of the bus with Angry Lady and her husband, but are quickly shuffled around once they realize they are trying to make us share seats.  Angry Lady must have her own seat!  So they move up to the row ahead of us and two more submissive souls like us end up squeezed next to us in the back, with overflowing backpacks sitting practically on top of our heads.  We spend the rest of the bus ride trying to push them into a secure position without pushing too hard (because the back door is not fully closed and could fly open at any moment) while Angry Lady sits smugly in the row ahead of us.  Once we are finally tucked in and ready to go, Angry Lady’s husband has the audacity to request that the driver tries to drive more slowly.  All we could think was that these people must be new to SE Asia…this was one of the better bus rides we had been on!

Thankfully the driver didn’t heed the Frenchman’s advice and we landed in Sihanoukville about 4 or 5 hours later, right on Serendipity Beach.  We checked into a guesthouse, changed into our swimsuits and headed straight for the beach!  Serendipity Beach is lined with restaurants so it was easy to find a place to have a beer and lay in the sun for a few hours.

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Serendipity Beach
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Looking out to sea from the Sihanoukville pier
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Sun setting over the trees

We had dinner in town, then went back out to the beach at night for a dessert of mango and sticky rice.  There were people (mostly children) selling fireworks to tourists who would set them off right on the beach.  This was sort of cool until some drunk people near us started doing it.  They were going off literally no more than 15 feet away from where we were sitting.  And these were full sized, no joke fireworks.  Then they bought some sparkler type things and started literally shooting them at each other.  It was terrifying.

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The next day we woke up early and had breakfast at our guesthouse before returning to the beach.  Serendipity Beach is really filthy, to be honest.  There’s a lot of litter everywhere and the city’s sewage flows in a river, down the main road by the pier, and straight into the water that everyone is swimming in.  It’s grime is matched by the trashy behavior of many backpackers and the scummy old men courting their prostitutes.  Ignoring all of this, we decided to spend our morning building this awesome sand temple.

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Digging the moat
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The beginnings of a temple
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A strange creature washed up to join us
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Some decorations from the sea
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The finished product
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Success!

We had a lot of fun doing this, but after a couple of hours, we realized we should get out of the sun before Joe got burnt.  We were too late.

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At least Ajax was wearing sunscreen….

Realizing that being in the sun any longer was probably not the best idea, we decided to explore the city instead.  People come to Sihanoukville for the beach, so there really isn’t a whole lot going on in town.  It was still a pleasant time just meandering around and waving to all the local children.

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Local children riding a carousel sort of structure
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Sihanoukville Night Market
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A strange, enormous statue of two golden lions in the middle of a roundabout

Once the sun had gone down, we ventured back to the beach to watch some local guys spinning fire staffs.  A couple of them were really good!

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A roadside bar
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Fire spinning on the beach

The Royal Palace and National Museum

The lasts sites on our list to check off while in Phnom Penh were the National Museum and the Royal Palace.

After getting breakfast, we walked to the Royal Palace only to find out that it was closed until 2pm.  To kill some time, we stumbled upon the OunaLom Pagoda nearby and decided to check it out.

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The entrance to OunaLom Pagoda
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No chaos in the pagoda
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Inside the pagoda

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The gate from the inside with the river in the background
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An example of the fractal architecture in the pagoda

We still had an hour or so to kill before 2pm, so we found a cozy place near the river to hang out and have a couple of drinks before heading back to the National Museum.

The National Museum was really cool and houses one of the largest collections of Khmer art in the world.  Unfortunately, photography was forbidden, but we really enjoyed exploring the museum and looking at all of the sculptures and statues.

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The path leading to the museum

Once we were finished with the National Museum, we moved on to the Royal Palace which is right next door.  The Kings of Cambodia have resided in the Royal Palace since the 1860s (with the exception of the reign of the Khmer Rouge.)

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Jojo in front of the Throne Hall
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The gardens
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The Throne Hall from the front
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The Moonlight Pavillion (a stage for traditional Khmer dance)

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The steps of the Throne Hall
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Walking toward the Phochani Pavillion (a dance hall)

There were also some parts of the Royal Palace (mostly inside) where photography was forbidden, but we got some shots of the gorgeous architecture and surrounding gardens.

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More gardens

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Architectural detail
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A detailed gate that we loved!

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By the time we were finished, it was late afternoon as we made our way to find a place to have dinner.  We ended up choosing a restaurant called Friends, a training restaurant for former street kids to work in the hospitality industry.  Not only was it for a good cause, the food was excellent!  It was tapas-style and we got sundried tomato hummus wontons, zucchini cheddar fritters, and braised pork quesadillas.  Yum!

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Walking outside the gates of the Royal Palace
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Some people feeding pigeons in the gardens of the Royal Palace
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The streets of Phnom Penh
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Dalmations?

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The next morning Joe was hankering for french toast, so we wandered the streets until we found somewhere promising, a place called Jay’s Diner.  As the name would suggest, it was an American style diner with all of the breakfast options that can be hard to find in Cambodia, including good french toast!

After our bellies were full of sugary delicious breakfast foods, we discussed how we wanted to spend the day.  We had seen all of the major sites to be seen in Phnom Penh, but we had to stay an extra day because we were waiting to get our visas for Thailand.

You can’t get a visa on arrival in Thailand like you can in Laos and Cambodia, so we had to arrange it ahead of time.  When we first arrived in Phnom Penh, we asked our guesthouse if they could arrange it for us, but they said they needed proof of onward travel (meaning a flight ticket) out of Thailand, which we didn’t have.  They told us we could just book a flight and then not actually take it, but we weren’t exactly keen on spending a bunch of money on flight tickets that we didn’t actually need.

In hopes of getting a second opinion, we ventured over to Lucky! Lucky! Motorcycles Shop, where they offer a well-known and well-loved visa service to travelers and expats.  The conversation went sort of like this:

“Hello, we need two 60-day Thai tourist visas.”

“Okay, do you have flight ticket out of Thailand?”

“Uh, no.”

“…okay…do you have a bank account statement?”

“Yes…?”

“Are both of your names on it?”

“Oh…no.”

Sigh. “Okay, I can help you.”

I don’t know what kind of connections these people have or what kind of strings they are pulling, but we handed over our passports and $110 and were told to come back three days later to get our passports and visas.

So here we were, three days later waiting to pick up our passports, only we were told that they wouldn’t be ready until late afternoon.  So we had an entire day to kill with nothing particular to do and no particular desires.

Having been quite a while since the last time we had gone out drinking, lounging around sipping frozen cocktails was starting to sound pretty appealing while we walked through the scorching, smoggy streets of Phnom Penh.  So, we headed to a local bar/hostel called Top Banana that has a bar on the balcony and ordered ourselves some fruity deliciousness.  On the blackboard behind the bar was a giant scoreboard with 50 or 60 countries on it and a number next to each country.  Across the top said something like “Banana Bomb Challenge.”  Naturally, Australia was in first place with 200 and America (‘MURICA) was in second with 164.  A banana bomb is a shot of tequila, chased with a shot of banana liqueur dropped into a glass of red bull.  Nothing makes you want to purchase something you don’t actually want more than proving your country’s superiority in the ability to binge drink.   …’Murica’s score was higher before we left.

After working up an appetite at Top Banana, we headed to Cocina Cartel, a burrito restaurant with a menu and set-up eerily identical to Chipotle.  Joe has been complaining about wanting Chipotle for 2 months now, so we obviously jumped at the opportunity as soon as we found out about its existence.  The food was good, although they didn’t know how to properly wrap a burrito.  We forgave them, though.

At last it was finally time to pick up our passports.  As we walked to the motorcycle shop we braced ourselves for rejection or some other issue that would further stall us in getting our visas.  Fortunately, we were given our passports back with two 60 day Thai visas, no questions asked!

We called it an early night in preparation for our 7am pick up to Kampot.  We loved Phnom Penh in all its gritty goodness.

2/26

Breakfast: $8.50

Water: $0.50

Beers: $5

National Museum: $10

Royal Palace: $13

Friends: $19.50

Water: $0.50

Accommodation: $16

2/26 Total Spent: $73 USD

2/27

Jay’s Diner: $8.50

Top Banana: $15.50

Cocina Cartel: $16

Waters: $1

Accommodation: $16

2/27 Total Spent: $57 USD

The Killing Fields – Cambodia’s Painful History

Following the Cambodian Civil War, Cambodia was reigned by the Communist Party of Kampuchea, known as the Khmer Rouge, from 1975 to 1979.  “The Killing Fields” refer to the various sites around Cambodia, where over 1 million people were brutally killed and buried by their own government during that time period.

Choeung Ek, a short ride out of Phnom Penh, is the most well-known of the aforementioned sites, where visitors can learn about Cambodia’s horrific past and view remnants of the mass genocide.

When we arrived at the entrance to Choeung Ek, we were each given headphones and an audio tour that would guide us around the memorial.  It included stories of victims of the Khmer Rouge and even an account of a former guard talking about what it was like to serve the Khmer Rouge and participate in the genocide.  It was deeply disturbing to listen to, but a part of Cambodia’s history that needs to be remembered and acknowledged by visitors.  The audio tour went into chilling details, and I’ve included photos of the signage for those interested in learning more about how things worked at Choeung Ek:

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All the prisoners could hear was the loud music and a loud generator running that drowned out the sounds of people dying.

Although the offices and buildings have been torn down, the graves, huge pits in the ground, are scattered all over the area.  They have been fenced off and covered with roofs for protection and visitors cover them in friendship bracelets to honor the victims.

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A mass grave full of friendship bracelets

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Children were swung by their feet and dashed against this tree. When it was first discovered, there were still remnants of blood and brain on the tree.

As we walked through the grounds we were warned by signs to avoid stepping on the scraps of clothing and bones that are still resurfacing today.

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A sign pointing out fragments of bone and teeth found on the ground
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And sign warning to not step on bone. The clothing on the ground is from a victim.

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Bones that have surfaced on the path

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The audio tour ended with the memorial stupa that sits in the very center, filled with over 5,000 human skulls of victims, including children.  The skulls were marked with colored dots that matched a key explaining how the victim in question was killed.

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The stupa in the center of the memorial
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The key explaining the manner of death of each victim, as evidenced by their skulls

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To continue our education of Cambodia’s grisly history, we moved on to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the former security prison known as S-21.  Before it was converted into a prison, the site was actually a high school.  When the Khmer Rouge came into power they closed all schools (and pretty much everything else) because school was ‘unimportant.’  People were torn from their homes, jobs, schools, and even hospitals, regardless of their age or condition, and forced to work in the fields.  The prison also served as an execution center and saw as many as 20,000 prisoners killed.

Walking through the prison, many of the cells have been preserved and look the same as they did when they were in use.  The most luxurious cells were large rooms with a metal bed and a ‘case for excrement.’  The floors above were tiny cubicles made from brick or wood with nothing but shackles and a box.

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Walking the halls of S-21
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Doors to the cells
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An example of one of the large ground floor cells
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Shackles and excrement boxes
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Each cell has a large photograph of a victim that was imprisoned in a similar room.

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At first, many of the prisoners were associates of the previous regime, but later the party started turning on its own people out of paranoia.  Prisoners were heinously tortured until they confessed to the crimes they were accused of and even forced to condemn their own family members (who were then captured and imprisoned as well.)

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Brick cells
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The cramped conditions of the brick cells
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Chum Mey’s cell. One of only a handful of people to survive S-21
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The wooden cells
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The wooden cells were even smaller than the brick ones

Prisoners were subject to all kinds of horrific torture tactics and some of them were used for medical experimentation.  All of this was for the purpose of getting a confession out of the prisoners, and the guards were strictly forbidden from killing them before getting a confession.  Extreme measures, like daily body searches and electric barbed wire, were taken to prevent prisoners from committing suicide.

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Barbed wire along the walls

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There were also very strict rules enforced on prisoners.  If they so much as took a sip of water without asking a guard first, they would get a severe beating.  There are only a few known survivors out of the ~17,000 people imprisoned.

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Frightening prison rules posted outside in the yard

After walking through the cells, we went into the display of photographs of all of the prisoners that included many women and children.  There were also graphic photographs of victims being tortured and the devices used were also on display.

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Every prisoner was photographed upon arrival at the prisoner, including all of these children

Visiting S-21 and Choeung Ek was a disturbing reminder of the horrors of humanity, but it was important for us to educate ourselves on Cambodia’s history.  Despite being such a horrific event, it doesn’t seem to be something most people know many details about, and we were grateful to have had the opportunity to learn more about what happened here and why.

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Something to consider

Breakfast: $7

Tuk Tuk: $15

Choeung Ek Entrance: $12

Tuol Sleng Entrance: $6

Dinner: $10

Top Banana: $2.50

Accommodation: $16

Total Spending: $68.50

Phnom Penh – Exploring the Capital

After recovering from a stint of food poisoning in Kratie, we were ready to head down to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.  We were given two options: a 4-5 hour minibus where we would have to share seats with other passengers for $7 each, or a 7-8 hour full sized bus with our own seats for $10 each.  In the end, we opted for cheaper and shorter and went with the minibus.

We were picked up around 8am and made it to Phnom Penh by the afternoon.  As usual, we were mobbed by a pack of tuk tuk drivers offering us rides.  One of them conned us into a ride to a hotel that he promised would be $5.  “If you book a room, the ride is $1, if not it is $3.”  Convinced we would probably take the $5 room, we agreed.  When we got there, however, the cheapest rooms they had were $10, not $5.  Maybe he meant $5 each or maybe he’s just a dick, who knows.  Also, the room was pretty horrible, and that’s saying something coming from us.  We refused the room and paid the driver his $3, then decided to walk to a nearby hostel instead.

The hostel was full, and by then we were tired and sweaty from lugging around our packs, and we needed to sit down and eat before we started maiming each other.  After a quick lunch (and the first real meal we had since we were sick) Joe suggested that he go find a room for us while I sat with the backpacks.  A few minutes later he came back and we carried our stuff to the hotel he found.  For $16 a night, we had a huge suite with air conditioning and a kitchen!  Not the cheapest accommodation, but a good deal for what we got.

By then it was already late afternoon, so we decided to just take a walk and explore the area.  We walked over to the riverside area where there are a lot of trendy hotels and restaurant.  We didn’t realize how developed Phnom Penh would be, nor that there would be so many world class restaurants!  Apparently Phnom Penh is an up and coming “foodie” city.

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Exploring the streets of Phnom Penh
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Cambodian men playing with a shuttlecock
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Hanging out by the river

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We caught a nice sunset behind the Royal Palace and the city lit up as the sun went down.  The traffic was also insane, just as bad as the big cities in Vietnam.  Except in Vietnam it seemed organized where the traffic in Phnom Penh was more like survival of the fittest.  Sometimes it seemed like people actually wanted to run us over.

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Sunset over the Royal Palace

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We’d heard it said that Phnom Penh was seedy and we saw the truth of that right away.  There were more beggars on the streets than anywhere we had been previously and lots of neglected looking children.  At one point we passed a public bench where a woman sat huffing a can of glue or something, while her naked infant lay next to her watching us walk by with the dead looking eyes.  It was really disturbing and reminded us of the reality of life in Cambodia for some people.

Cambodia, and Phnom Penh in particular, also has a pretty notorious sex industry and is apparently a hotspot for pedophiles from all over.  There are lots of gross old white men hanging out with young Cambodians girls everywhere…it’s kind of hard to miss.  Tourists can also visit orphanages, but there are a couple of organizations trying to spread awareness about the truth of such places.  Apparently many of the children there have at least one living parent and are being exploited for the purpose of making money.  These are just a couple of the ugly truths of present life in Cambodia, but it has gotten and continues to get better.

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The streets of Phnom Penh at night

Despite its dark parts, Phnom Penh is also really hip.  It’s pretty huge and there is a lot of cool street art.  The people are pretty nice too, though they hustle you for tuk tuks and other things a lot more than in Laos.  The children are also the friendliest we have met so far in our travels.  It seemed like we heard little voices shouting “Hello! Hello!” at us from every angle.  Sometimes we couldn’t even tell where it was coming from!  And they have the biggest, most heart melting smiles you’ll ever see.  There’s nothing cuter than a beaming, two year old baby with no pants or shoes on, chasing you down the street to wave and say hello.