18 days night bussing it through Cambodia

Considering I only left for Cambodia around three weeks ago, it feels like an endless amount of time has passed since I was mosquito-bite free.

Along with returning with a nice tan, I’m also heading back to the UK as basically one giant mosquito bite that no amount of anti-histamines can fix. This is a problem that had the potential to be fixed by Cambodia’s seemingly lax prescription policy; in a place where you can buy everything from max-strength Xanax to questionable antibiotics and the morning after pill in the supermarket, I thought it’d be a piece of cake to find mosquito spray with DEET in it. Alas, it was not. Had I been waving goodbye to a sore throat or an unwanted pregnancy, it would have been much easier to solve.

So it was pretty much a case of saying hello to any number of red splotches that found their way up and down my legs, coating my feet and, inexplicably, dotted across my ass. Isn’t travelling fun?

Fortunately, the people of Cambodia and everyone else I met on my travels were all just as friendly and enthusiastic as the mosquitos – or arguably more so, considering none of them tried to bite my ankles while I slept. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve spoken back home about making friends when travelling abroad and Cambodia was no exception.

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Except this time, I had my sister along with me. As I’ve said time and time again, travelling solo is glorious and something that everyone should do. But this trip (or at least the first 10 days of it, before Jens flew home) reminded me of how nice it was to travel with someone. For example, when I woke up in Phnom Penh after our first night out, it was lovely being able to send Jens in her smug not-hungover state down to reception to get our towels, rather than having to drag myself downstairs in my pink pyjama shorts. It was also interesting to hear so many surprised reactions when we told people we were traveling together as sisters (“not friends”, according to Jens).

We started our trip with three days in Phnom Penh. Day one was spent by the pool at Mad Monkey hostel, stroking a local’s dog and sipping on $2 gin and tonics. We interspersed our first day of culture with the occasional nap and a pub crawl. Fortunately it wasn’t too late a night, as we were up early the next morning for a day of learning Cambodia’s tainted history: the genocide museum and killing fields.

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Cambodian history fascinates me in a fairly morbid way; something not too surprising when you learn about the ruling of the Khmer Rouge and the effect it had on the country as a whole. I’d already read and watched “First They Killed My Father” ahead of the trip but nothing could prepare me for the atrocities of the museum. We spent half a day wandering around the ex-prison and the killing fields themselves, listening to audio clips and seeing first-hand some of the tools used during the regime. It’s an element of Cambodian history that’s impossible to sum up, but it’s an absolutely essential visit for anyone visiting the country.

Day two was spent exploring the town itself. We got a tuk tuk to the Old Market, where we must have admired about 16 pairs of virtually identical earrings and haggled the prices down for a pair that would make a clinking noise every time I moved for the rest of the day. Jens got a silver bracelet, we stroked an adorable husky and then headed towards the Mekong to look at the water.

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I’ll never complain (properly) about the heat but dusty and dry Phnom Penh around midday is a place that should only be experienced briefly. Once we’d strolled up and down the riverside, enough was enough and we gladly spent about 80p on a tuk tuk to take us back to the pool at the hostel. Later that day we explored the Grand Palace (gorgeous and a hell of a lot quieter than Bangkok’s palace) and watched the sunset on a $5 boat tour. We ended the day with a wander around the night market and stopped for food at a cute cafe on the way back.

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Our plan initially was then to spend a night in Sihanoukville – a place that I’d like to officially christen as The Worst Place I’ve Ever Been In My Life. People we’d met in Phnom Penh had spoken of the huge Chinese casinos, endless building sites, sewage in the streets and general apocalyptic nature of the city. I naively thought that they were all just being a bit pessimistic. They were not.

Sihanoukville has a really interesting past that The Guardian can sum up a lot better than I ever could. The short version is that the Chinese started building loads of casinos. Gambling is illegal for Cambodians so it’s an area built almost entirely with the Chinese in mind. As a result, the local Cambodians have been almost entirely pushed out by huge rent hikes, lack of local culture and the swift uprising of casinos that they legally can’t access. There are no proper roads; dusty paths and bumpy tracks are as good as you’ll get, and many ‘shops’ are only accessible by crossing a wooden plank covering a mini river of sewage underneath. Piles and piles of building materials, rubbish and god knows what else line the streets and I can’t think of anything worse than having to spend a night there.

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Fortunately, we spent a grand total of two hours there before catching the ferry to Koh Rong Samloen. We’d been encouraged to stay at Mad Monkey on the private bay on Koh Rong Samloen and decided to do just that. At a first glance, I imagined it to be on a par with I’m A Celebrity, once I’d heard about the lack of wifi/mobile signal, the tarpaulin-covered makeshift doors and the wooden structures that made up the dorms. As previously noted, me and The Great Outdoors are fleeting friends at best, and I wondered if I’d made a terrible mistake. But Mad Monkey was incredible; maybe the highlight of the trip. While the lack of wifi seemed daunting at first, it forced everyone on the island to chat away to each other instead. If your pals went to the toilet or to get a drink, you’d end up making conversation with others at the table. Leaving phones and laptops in the room seemed alien at first but quickly became the norm. Swapping Instagram handles by writing them down in the Notes app felt a little old school but also really, really nice. I think it was the first New Years Eve in about a decade where I watched the fireworks from the sea at midnight and didn’t take a single photo all evening.

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I could write an entire post on Mad Monkey on Koh Rong (and I might do just that another time) but I’ll leave it by saying that it’s a magical place almost completely separated from the rest of the world. I’m 1000% determined to go back for longer. We actually loved Koh Rong so much that we extended our stay at Mad Monkey and waited on the island until the last possible moment to catch our bus to Siem Reap.

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And what a journey that was! First it was a private ferry from Mad Monkey Bay back to mainland Koh Rong. Then it was an hour-long ferry back to Sihanoukville  (which, for whatever reason, also featured a foam party on deck). After that it was a hastily typed out Google translate conversation with a tuk tuk driver who couldn’t figure out where the bus stop was. Then it was a 25 minute tuk tuk journey where I managed to convince myself that we were going entirely the wrong way and would be forced to live out our remaining days in Cambodia’s own apocalyptic alternate universe. The driver seemed friendly enough but took us the strangest route up winding paths, out of the centre of the town and, according to Google Maps, entirely the wrong direction. I’ve still got no clue how we made it to the bus stop but we did. What would be nice is if that was the end of the journey.

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But it was not: we’d booked a night bus to Siem Reap (read: a single bed allegedly fit for two people, lasting just over 12 hours and complete with far too many bumps in the road) and realised we had no snacks and no water. As this bus stop was in completely the middle of nowhere, we then had to get another tuk tuk to take us to a supermarket, where we grabbed handfuls of questionable Chinese snacks (including possibly dog flavoured crisps, which were hastily thrown away). We walked back to the bus stop, dragging suitcases along dusty paths, narrowly missing the lorries, cars and vans driving very closely next to us. Eventually, we arrived in Siem Reap and grabbed yet another tuk tuk to take us to our next and Jens’ final hostel: White Rabbit.

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Hostels in Cambodia have set the bar fairly high for my future expectations because they almost all seem to come complete with a swimming pool. And when you’re paying only £3 a night, it’s hard to complain. White Rabbit was no exception, and we set our bags down, had a shower and wandered out for breakfast. Round the corner was ARTillery, an Aussie-inspired cafe where we tucked into avocado on toast and fancy eggs. I had a turmeric latte and Jens had something called an “anti-inflammatory hot chocolate” and we left feeling very full and somewhat healthier.

We only had a few days in Siem Reap so we tried to cram as much in as possible. So our first afternoon/evening was spent on a sunset floating villages tour. We were offered two variations of the same tour: one externally-organised tour, focusing on all of the cultural elements of the floating villages, their inhabitants and the history of them. The other, booked directly with the hostel, offered a succinct version of the above with the added benefit of unlimited alcohol. You can probably guess which one we chose.

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The tour was lots of fun. We hiked up to the top of a mountainside to gaze over the views of the city and stroke the (sadly flea-infested) puppies that ran towards us. We hopped, skipped and jumped our way through one of the floating villages, complete with beautiful lily pads and an authentic wooden hut home to a fully-functioning western toilet. We drove on the back of a “tuk tuk limousine”, where we sipped on pre-mixed whisky and fruit juice punch and danced around with the Cambodian children who’d followed us. We sat inside a raised hut playing drinking games and trying to (unsuccessfully) avoid the mosquitos determined to come our way. We got back to the hostel just about in one piece, until I somewhat (wrongly) convinced myself I’d got Dengue fever.

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Practically speaking, I probably deserved to have gotten it by that point. The amount of mosquitos clawing their way across my limbs meant that the likelihood of my catching Dengue fever was fairly high. That evening, I had no appetite and a pounding headache. My limbs felt heavy and my stomach felt odd. I pretty much wanted to collapse and the thought of eating anything made me want to throw up. I drank two litres of water and got into bed, concluding that while I didn’t have dengue fever, I was probably suffering from too much drinking and not enough sleeping.

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Unfortunately, the good night’s sleep I was craving wasn’t to be. Or at least it was, until my alarm went off at 4am ahead of a trip to Angkor Wat. Another unmissable spot; I think it’s one of the few places that people will optionally head to at 4am, alongside the airport. And it was stunning. We’d booked it as another trip via the hostel, which meant that for $11 we had a guided tour and air-conditioned mini bus to take us around the site. Which was definitely needed, because it’s huge. I do enjoy a good temple but I was struggling by the end, thanks to a lack of sleep, the 35c heat and the fact that you (understandably) have to wear long clothes to visit the temples.

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As much as I was listening, I couldn’t explain too much about the temples themselves other than the fact that they either used to be Hindu and changed to Buddism or the other way round. Either way, there were lots of headless buddhas dotted around. Going along at sunrise was a great experience and we took a brilliant time-lapse of the sun coming up to the backdrop of the temples. It was worth the early start just for that. If you’re a huge temple/history person then it’s possible to get a three or seven day pass. But if, like me, you want to go along to check it out and take some nice pictures, a one-day pass is fine.

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Jens headed home that evening (‘home’ being a 35 hour journey featuring multiple flights and various other forms of transport) to prep for her university exams so I had a meal with the hostel group dinner and sampled both snake and crocodile. Snake was a bit like salty beef jerky and crocodile was most similar to pork, I think.

The next two days were spent chilling by the pool, reading my book and deciding where to go next. I considered spending the rest of my time in Siem Reap, before spontaneously booking a night bus down to Kampot on the coast instead. It was one of the better journeys on the basis that the bus was empty so I upgraded myself from a single bed to a double bed. I did harbour fears of waking up with a stranger on the bed next to me (something that’s fairly common on these night buses) so I slept diagonally, with both pillows and both blankets. I arrived in Phnom Penh bright and early, and waited as the sun rose (not as sweet as it sounds) at 6am for the second leg of the journey. Having not eaten the night before, I started that day reading Bryony Gordon’s latest book while sat on a tiny plastic chair eating crisps. Not quite the Instagrammer’s dream that you see online.

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Kampot surprised me with its beauty. I didn’t think I’d be overly fussed about it but the water against the backdrop of the mountains was stunning. I stayed in my third Mad Monkey of the trip (surely I’m practically a rep by this point?) and immediately got chatting to loads of people and we headed out on a bar crawl together. What Kampot lacked in nightlife it made up for in views, which was good because the only “club” we went to was absolutely terrible. It was little more than a hole in the side of the wall, which opened out onto the road and seemed to serve almost exclusively Joss shots. For some reason, we went there two nights running.

The only trip I did in Kampot was another alcohol-fuelled one. It involved another tuk tuk limousine to neighbouring village Kep and a wander around the seafood market. We sampled some local dishes and I managed to snap a crab leg all over the guy sitting next to me. We continued our trip with a drive to the Secret Lake, another spot with a terrible past. The lake, which is absolutely huge and reaches 100 metres at its deepest point, was dug by hand by Khmer slaves. It’s thought that there are between 3000-5000 bodies in the lake still. Utterly staggering considering all of this only happened around 40 years ago.

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Then we made our way to a pepper plantation. Kampot is known for its pepper and so we wandered through the grasses and palms before trying about 10 different types of pepper. Realistically, they all tasted fairly similar but it was interesting learning which pepper to pair with which dish. It was also quite hilarious digging into peppercorns when drunk – not my usual drunk food of choice. What followed was a drive back to the hostel and yet another night out.

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The rest of my time in Kampot was spent chilling by the pool and drinking. After a couple of days, I headed back to Phnom Penh where I planned to have a chilled night which ended up being punctuated by Joss shots and a final night out. Now, I’m finally embarking on my own 36 hour journey home, consisting of a flight to China, waking up on my 24th birthday in China and then suffering through a 13.5 hour flight back to London.

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