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My friend Ella and I made it to Saracen Bay after waiting for 4 hours for the ferry and trudging though a rain storm. We split the cost of a reasonable bungalow on the beach owned by The Beach Island Resort. After not the best day, the two of us decided to make the best of the evening by getting pina coladas at a bar on the beach. We even got them to play Jimmy Buffett’s “If You Like Pina Coladas” song which made my day!
The following two days, I explored Lazy Beach and Sunset Beach. Both are beautiful and about a 40 minute hike through the jungle from Saracen Bay. I prefer Lazy Beach because it only has one set of bungalows along a section of it, whereas Sunset Beach has many different properties lining the beach. Both are essentially deserted and great for swimming.
Lost in Paradise
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It was a huge hassle getting to and departing from the main bay of the island off of Cambodia. Unfortunately, I had booked the wrong fast boat to my hostel and definitely paid the price.
However, once I got to this secrete island hostel, everything was perfect! The water is crystal clear and not polluted. The water is extremely shallow until you go out quite deep, and even then you can spot starfish on the sand 20 feet below you. At night, you can go swimming and see the phosphorescent plankton! The beach didn’t light up like in photographs, but if you move your arms around in the water it looks like electricity is coursing around them. It was spectacular!
The hostel I stayed at is the quintessential backpacker paradise. Literally, it is the only hostel on the beach with dorms, hammocks, and tents available. I stayed in the dorm for two nights and then switched to a hammock overlooking the beach for three nights. The staff are friendly, but the food is expensive. Funny enough, I met amazing friends there and even bumped into Tyler and Nathan who I had previously met in Phnom Phen!
I also explored M’pay Bay twice during my stay which is a 50 minute hike through the jungle. There are many poisonous snakes on the island including cobras! So far I haven’t seen any, but I have seen adorable monkeys, frogs, and giant geckos. While on M’pay Bay, I made some friends who later moved to the same hostel I was staying at.
Overall, it was the best place to disconnect from the outside world (there was no wifi or reception) and connect with the present and people around you. Whether that be through swimming, cards, monopoly, reading, food, or drinks. I love it there and used it as my own personal yoga retreat. It reminded me of my cottage which is one of the only places I can truly relax and get lost in the moment.
Sunset over Otres Beach
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I probably should have left the night before from Phnom Penh, because two nights there was definitely enough! I didn’t enjoy the city very much with its large skyscrapers and seemingly dodgy streets.
I left my hostel at 7:30am and arrived at Otres Beach just outside of Sihanoukville just before 2:00pm. I stayed at BOHO hostel and it was beautiful! The people staying in my room were lots of fun to party with!
Once I got there, I rented a yoga mat and headed to the beach to swim and relax. The water is unexpectedly warm and the breeze is welcoming. There were not very many people on the beach and only a couple locals selling goods.
Later that night a group of about 10 of us went to a jungle party (yes, actually out in the middle of the jungle) called Kerfuffle. It is a famous party that happens just outside Otres Beach every Wednesday from November till the end of May. It was lots of fun and I recommend going.
The next day, I grabbed a beautiful breakfast of muesli (granola), yogurt, and fresh fruit and then headed to the beach again with my yoga mat in hand. I did my entire Ashtanga Primary 1 Series for about two hours. It felt great to exercise again!
In the evening I watched the sunset over the water. Through my travels I have found that clouds really make sunsets and they did not disappoint tonight! The sunset was spectacular and I felt blissful watching it with a few people from my hostel.
“The Killing Tree”
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In my hostel, I met two guys Tyler and Nathan from Nanaimo, British Colombia! That is so close to my home. Together we visited the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center also known as the Killing Fields. During the Khmer Regime, this place was used to execute people transported from Phnom Penh.
According to their pamphlet: “Choeung Ek is the most well know of over 300 killing fields throughout Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge did unspeakable things to kill people. Bullets were too expensive so they used bamboo poles, axes, and anything else they could get their hands on to kill people. They would play loud music to muffle people’s screams at night. There is even a “Killing Tree”. They would hold infants by their legs and smash their heads into the tree until they were lifeless.”
Over 3 million people or 1 in 5 people were killed in three years by the Khmer Rouge. It was absolutely devastating and a chilling place to be.
Next, Tyler, Nathan, and I went to the Toul Slang S21 Genocide Museum. Residing on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, this high school was turned into a torture, interrogation, and execution center by the Khmer Rouge. Of the 14,000 people known to have entered, only seven survived. Every person was photographed and had their height measured before they were executed.
The brick cells in some of the buildings were incredibly tiny. Most prisoners only got one meal a day of rice in boiling water. Some prisoners got a shower twice in two months. Instead of living through such grueling and torturing circumstances, many individuals committed suicide before having the chance to be executed.
I was wondering why their hands were rarely shown in photographs… and then I realized they were most likely handcuffed behind their backs. Around the grounds, the museum had a few survivors of S21 who gave speeches.
Watching the Sunset from West Mebon
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In the afternoon, one of the managers of our hostel and about five others decided to go to West Mebon. This is the largest man-made reservoir in the Angkor area and is about 8 km squared. In the dry season it completely empty of water. However, there was still some water there in April. Before we left, we filled up some water-balloons and threw them at people along the way. Once we arrived at the pier, we hired a boat and brought some stuffed frog along to eat.
The water was shallow enough for me to stand on the sandy bottom. All of us, including the tuk tuk drivers, and boat driver relaxed in the water and enjoyed some cold beers. We even made a floating table out of the water cooler top! It was an amazing day of relaxing and chilling.
We also explored the West Mebon Temple in the middle of the lake. However, it is currently under reconstruction so there was not much to see.
We were the only people out on the lake and we just stay until the sun sank down below the clouds. The sky lit up in a multitude of colours for an amazing sunset.
A Monk at the Tomb Raider Waterfall
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Tours to Phnom Kulen National Park normally cost around $32 USD which is a little outrageous. However, this is because the park is privately owned and the entry fee is a steep $20 USD. Mount Kulen is considered by Khmers to be the most sacred mountain in Cambodia.
I decided to rent a motorbike and go on my own because I really wanted to see the waterfall featured in the movie “Tomb Raider”. It took about an hour and a half to get to the park entrance from Siem Reap. The drive there was gorgeous! I passed oodles of fields with grazing water buffalo and small stalls along the roadside. Several beer trucks passed along the way.
The road into the park had unpaved sections which weren’t too bad compared to the “roads” on Nusa Penida in Bali.
As you approach the waterfalls the first one you view is quite small, only four of five meters high. It was very refreshing just to stand underneath and feel the cool. There were beautiful butterflies everywhere in the park!
The second waterfall or better known as the “Tomb Raider Waterfall” is another five minute hike down a dirt path. It is 15 to 20 meters high and absolutely spectacular! A group of about thirty monks arrived shortly after I did. They greatly enjoyed swimming in the holy water and I chatted with a couple of them.
Further on from the waterfall lies “The River of a Thousand Lingas”. Just under the water’s surface are over 1000 small carvings etched into the sandstone riverbed. The carvings represent fertility and the water is very sacred to Hindus. It was amazing to see.
On my way back I stopped by the Banteay Srey Butterfly Centre to check out some of the 32 species of butterflies native to Cambodia. I also saw some large and colourful caterpillars, an adorable tree frog, and several large moths.
Watching the sunset over the fields at Phnom Kraom
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When no one showed up at my 5:00pm yoga class, I spontaneously decided to watch the sunset from Phnom Kraom. I rented a motorbike for $8 USD and it took about 20 minutes to reach the mountain. Luckily, I got there so late that the guard had already gone home so I didn’t need to show him my Angkor Wat Pass. I parked my bike at the bottom of the mountain next to a beautiful staircase. Little did I know that the climb to the top would take so long and there is a road that you can access by motorbike. I ended up hitchhiking to the top and got to the sun set just in the nick of time!
The temple of Phnom Kraom is not very interesting compared to the other ones I’ve seen, but the sunset and view of the fields is amazing from the top!
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I met Katherine in the morning just after breakfast after overhearing that she was interested in exploring Banteay Srei. An hour later, we caught a tuk tuk together and headed out. Banteay Srei is 20 km north of Angkor Wat. Its name means “Citadel of the Women” and was constructed using pink sandstone. Although it is petite and not a royal temple, every inch is intricately decorated and beautifully carved.
When you enter the site there is a welcome booth and an exhibition hall with details about the history and restoration of the temple. It was how I imagined Angkor Wat would be set up, however, hardly any information is provided at Angkor Wat. I suspect this is the case because they want you to hire a guide.
On our way back to our hostel we stopped at the Cambodia Landmine Museum. It was extremely educational and free audio guides were provided. Aki Ra, the founder of the museum, is a Cambodian hero. He went from being a child soldier to a disarming thousands of bombs throughout Cambodia. The sad fact is, there are still approximately 3 million landmines in Cambodia and even more throughout the world. I felt very proud to be Canadian as I learned that we had provided a large donation to create the museum. Additionally, in 1997, Canada introduced a Mine Ban Treaty, also known as The Ottawa Treaty. It prohibits the use, stockpiling, production, and transfer of anti-personnel mines. Most of the countries of the world have signed it.
Just before sunset, Katherine and I went to Ta Prohm (the “Tomb Raider” temple) to take some photos in the “golden hour”. It was very quiet compare to going midday and felt very mysterious. I love looking at all the giant trees growing on top of the temple ruins.
These Young Monks Aren’t Scared At All!
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Close to Siem Reap’s airport lies a 3D art museum called Art Box Siem Reap. I have always been curious to see what lies inside. The museum is only a year old and very large. Inspired by trick art museums in South Korea, this one displays wall paintings that you place yourself in and take a photo. Due to the perspective of the painting, it looks like you are actually in the artwork.
The Art Box has many different themed room including dinosaurs, the Seven Wonders of the World, famous paintings, and more. It even has an entire room dedicated to Angkor Wat in different seasons which was well done.
Other than a few local tourists, it was just Anna and I inside the museum. Our tuck tuck driver also decided to join us as well because he had never been before. While inside, I was very surprised to stumble upon a group of young monks taking photos. I never would have expected that!
Overall, it was lots of fun and I thoroughly enjoyed myself! The entrance is $15 for tourists which is quite expensive and the local price is $5.