I have been shirking my blogging duties of late. However, the trip to Cambodia earlier in 2019 was way too epic to be ignored. The pictures have come out quite nicely so I will make a photoblog of this one. This is the first part of a two blog series. Read the second one here.
I was returning to Cambodia after two and a half years. While I had traveled the country extensively, there were a few parts that had been left out in the last go. This was to be Parul’s first time to the country so we made a mixed itinerary of places that would interest us equally.
We reached Siem Reap after the long layovers that is typical of budget airlines. The first order of business was to open a can of Angkor beer and to celebrate the beginning of our time in South East Asia!
We spent a couple of days in Siem Reap preparing for the journey ahead – booking tickets and buying a SIM card. The hot days were spent on chores and cocktails and the evenings were dedicated to the lively Pub Street. Of course, there was the Cambodian cuisine that we were smacking our lips on.
We left Siem Reap soon enough. We were going to come back for it later. We went south to Battambang. This was one town that I had missed on my previous visits to Cambodia. We hired a tuk-tuk to go see the Phnom Sampov in the evening we reached the town.
The mountain has an interesting legend behind it. We had to pay a small admission fee to enter. It most certainly seemed to be forced donation. Not that I minded the money but the authorities might as well officiate the ticketing process.
We saw the Killing Cave on the way up, a sad remnant of the horrific past of the country.
Up on top we found a vantage point to sit and relax a while after the arduous climb in the hot and humid weather.
There were a bunch of temples on the top and we walked around checking them out.
There were a lot of monkeys around and they amused us and the other tourists to no end. I tried putting my camera to work and found that photographing monkeys is a thoroughly indulgent task.
We walked down close to the time for sunset and took a seat in a nearby cafe to watch the bats fly out of the cave on the side of the mountain. The phenomenon is something to behold. Every dusk thousands of bats leave the cave to travel many kilometers till Tonle Sap, their feeding grounds. The steady stream of bats lasts for more than half an hour before it slows down to a trickle.
Bats at Phnom Sampov
The next day we made a cycle trip to the Crocodile Farms. This one was not as impressive as the Crocodile Park we had seen years back near Chennai but the fact that you could walk about anywhere added a sense of thrill to the experience. One really needed to watch his foot out here!
Lazy as she goes!
We found a nice cafe on the way back and feasted some healthy food before cycling back to the guesthouse.
That night we left Battambang and headed east to the beautiful province of Mondulkiri. Road transits are a convoluted and tiresome affair in Cambodia. The bus took us to Phnom Penh where we changed to another bus headed to Kratie. After 18 hours of travel, we relaxed in a guesthouse by the Mekong and tried unwinding over some cocktails, kisses and books.
Around Sen Monorom
The next morning we were back on our way to Sen Monorom. We rented a motorbike the following morning and headed out to the countryside. We rode all the way till Bou Sra falls. The water in the falls was less than I remembered from the last time. This meant no swimming but we spent our time clicking pictures and fooling around. Parul asked a dressed up local girl for a picture since her clothes were more Instagram friendly.
I introduced Parul to Banh Chiao at the Chamka Cafe on the way back. I think she liked it.
We saw the sun set from the Doh Kromom hill before heading back to the town.
The next morning we went for the elephant tour, the main reason why we had come to Sen Monorom. I immediately recognised our guide, Heng, from the last time, and by the time we reached the forest, she had recalled me from two and a half years back. As we chatted and walked in the forest, we ran into the elephants we had come to greet!
There were just two this time, Mi Kun and Chi Chrin. The older one, Chi Wa had passed away. I had a sense of familiarity with these creatures and was much more at ease with them this time. I was given some bananas to feed Mi Kun. That woman can eat! She hustled all the bananas from me in one go and I had to show her my empty hands to make her back off. Parul was having a gala time herself petting and feeding Chi Chrin.
Once the elephants had enough of us humans, they went into the bushes to play with each other. We headed out to the pond for a dip and waited for the elephants to come for a bath.
A little while later, they did come and the first thing they did was take a dump in the pool. The mahouts cleaned up the mess and the tourists got in to play with the elephants in the water.
Parul splashed water on Mi Kun while I kept my distance. I had done it the last time and found it a little uncomfortable for both, me and the elephant. Two other tourists in our group irritated Chi Chrin to no end though. They got on top of her in the water and would not get off no matter how much she shrugged them. I secretly wished she would stamp on those morons but she simply got out of the pool and decided enough bathing had been done for the day.
We dried ourselves and then hiked to a small hut where we lunched on some fresh food and then took a nap amidst the sounds of the forest.
Cicadas making a ruckus
The elephant tour gets a lot of flak from the internet. For me, ethics is a big grey area. The elephants are definitely domesticated, so I am not sure whether the ones who criticize the tour are against domestication of animals as such (I hope they don’t foster pets). Then you also need to understand that a traditional means of income can only phase out and cannot be abruptly stopped. Going by personal experience, I had found that the elephants had been treated with enough respect and love by everyone involved in the tour the last time I went. And so, we returned.
We woke up and Heng took us for a tour of the Bunong village.We got to see some interesting fruits and their plants. We also found out that the Bunong huts had been converted into homestays. It seemed like an experience that I would like to indulge in if I ever went back to Sen Monorom.
The next day we had an entire day to kill between checking out of the guesthouse and taking the bus to our next destination. We spent it in a friendly cafe Bunong Kitchen. The owner was kind enough to us sit and the food was absolutely delicious!
Koh Rong Samloem
We took an overnight bus to Sihanoukville with the usual change at Phnom Penh. Sihanoukville had changed a lot since the last time I had been here. There were many casinos and most of the places had Mandarin signboards. It had been developed immensely for Chinese tourists.
From Sihanoukville, it was a short ferry ride to M’Pai Bay on Koh Rong Samloem. I had missed the island on the last two times in Cambodia due to bad weather and was looking forward to it the most this time around.
We went to Clearwater Bay on the day after we reached M’Pai Bay. This involved a 40-minute hike one way and we were somewhat tired by the time we reached the bay. But the stunning beauty of the beach took away all our fatigue.
There was hardly anyone there! I would have hardly expected to find such a piece of paradise in this part of the world. The water was so calm that Parul learned how to float and backstroke on day one
We had to call off our beach frolicking due to hunger pangs. The beach was so secluded that there was no shack or cafe serving food out there.
We returned to M’Pai Bay and feasted on some cheese toasties, something that became an instant favorite of Parul’s.
We decided to come back the next morning better prepared and so we did. We started early and settled into the beach right after sunrise.
For a couple of hours, we had the beach all to ourselves! We spent the entire morning swimming in the water, chilling on the beach, clicking photographs, taking a nap, reading, jumping in the water again, and sitting and marveling at the hues of blue.
Driftwood Hostel, the only hostel that used to provide accommodation on the Clearwater Bay, was closed and we learned that there was a casino that was coming up on the bay. We were lucky enough to experience the bay before the casino ruined it.
Back on the M’Pai Bay, we feasted on a heavy late lunch (or early dinner) at Seapony Cafe. Their bread is to die for!
The Island Life
We chilled for a few more days on the M’Pai Bay. From our initial hostel, we shifted to a more comfortable bungalow.
Walking around the island made for some beautiful pictures.
There was an interesting food scene on the island. Loads of backpackers and hippies had made it their home and had started cafes to earn a living.
We had a local dinner with a group of international friends we had managed to make on the island. The M’Pai Bay was so small that you’d run into each other ever so often.
And of course, we had more toasties!
Nights usually involved hunting for cheap cocktails and then going to the bay to swim with the bioluminescent phytoplanktons. Despite our many attempts to capture it we never managed to. But trust me, it was magical!
On the last morning on M’Pai Bay we tried scuba diving with two others we had met earlier. I was put in a batch with three DSD divers so it was not very enjoyable for me. Even Parul found the experience rather meh compared to her last time in Amed.
Next, we took a boat to Saracen Bay which was on the other side of the island.
We had another small hut by the beach out here.
We walked around the beach, ate some amazing Mediterranean food, clicked photos, and took a dip in the water. While M’Pai had much backpacker vibes, this part of the island was crowded with resorts. It was beautiful but we personally preferred the M’Pai Bay.
Eventually, it was time to say goodbye to Koh Rong Samloem. But we had more time in Cambodia ahead of us.
Read on about the remainder of our trip here.