Phnom Penh; Mightier than the Sword

My introduction to the city of Phnom Penh is much like every other introduction has been during my time in South East Asia, whizzing by in a clapped out old bus…followed by a clapped out old shoddily-negotiated tuk tuk. This time I am arriving from Sihanoukville on the coast of the Gulf of Thailand with (increasingly ill) travel buddy Buffie.

We check in at Eighty8 hostel which touts itself at the ‘flashpacker’ market, those willing to pay an extra dollar or two for increased luxury. After the rat infested beachfront pad on Koh Rong, we feel we owe it to ourselves. This is the glamour to which we have not become accustomed.

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Named after the street it is on, it’s in the north-east of the city around 5 minutes walk from Sisowath Quay where the boats arrive from Siem Reap. So exploration starts with a long walk through the city from north to southern tip.

Wat Phnom is the first item on the agenda. It’s the hilltop sanctuary from which the city takes its name. Cambodian legend has it that a wealthy widow called Daun Penh (try saying it without thinking of Sean Penn) found five bronze and stone Buddha statues in 1372 during a walk along the Tonle Sap river. As a mark of respect, she built a sanctuary on the top of a hill to house them. It became known as Phnom Penh, translating as the hill of Penh. Over time, it became the shorthand for the city that sprung up around it.

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With $1.50 ticket in hand, I ascend the stunning naga staircase passing bronze carvings of battle scenes and Apsaras dancing, replicated to look like those at Angkor Wat.

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The sanctuary, or vihara, at the top was rebuilt in 1926 and little of the original building remains but it is very close to the heart of the population here, so it’s worth spending some time at the summit surveying the city or cross-legged in meditation inside the Wat itself.

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The inside is beautiful, vibrant and colourful.

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Behind it, a stupa has been built to honour Daun Penh.

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Not unlike neighbouring Laos, the Cambodian people also release birds from cages at the top of the hill to invite fortune and good health.

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Offerings are left inside the wat for the statue of Buddha; some of food and some of local currency the Riel.

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Continuing south, at the crossing of Sihanouk and Norodom Boulevards, I see the Independence monument which has the dual role of commemorating independence from the French in 1953 but also stands as a cenotaph to those who have died in war.

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On display around it are the riches of various parliamentary buildings, in stark contrast to the poverty I’ve seen elsewhere in the country.

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I swing into Mali’s for lunch and a couple of Kingdom beers on nearby Norodom Boulevard. It’s a grand spot, if a little formal.

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After lunch, I set my internal compass for Psar Toul Tom Poung (the Russian Market) but I seem to be following a slightly fraudulent map. I’m still walking 90 minutes later…but many of the sites along the way have kept me in good humour.

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Despite this, I swiftly come to learn two key facts about Phnom Penh:

1) It is nigh on impossible to cross the road. You’ll find many of your restaurant/shop/sightseeing decisions are led by this.

2) As a visitor, you’ll be offered a moto taxi or tuk tuk approximately three times per minute. It’s not at all irritating.

Eventually, (273rd time’s a charm) I grab a moto taxi to the Russian Market, so-called as all the goods would have originated from there, Russia being the only country to provide aid during the Vietnamese occupation. Browsing through the ramshackle tarpaulin-covered market, I find it’s the usual miss mash of textiles, hand-carved artefacts…and knock off electronics. Dr Dre was kind enough to reduce his speakers to a mere $3 here. What a philanthropic gent.

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But there’s no show without punch…

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Back into the tuk tuk

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and (via the petrol station) I’m headed north again.

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Street number 240, just behind the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, is where you’ll find the craft boutiques and book shops. After a browse at D’s Books on 240 and Monument Books on Norodom Boulevard, I bag a copy of Virginia Woolf’s ‘To The Lighthouse’ before scooting back to the hostel to scoop up a much less peaky Buffie.

We head out to Bopha Phnom Penh, a beautiful outdoor restaurant on Sisowath Quay.

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Despite this being the site of our initial hoodwinking when we first arrived in Phnom Penh ($5 to tuk tuk 25 steps) we still manage to enjoy the lights twinkling on the Tonle Sap river and the Apsara dancers defying the laws of joint capability.

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They accompany our Fish Amok curry washed down with a house speciality cocktail made with their local spirit. Game.

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We dart across to the Flicks 2 on 136 which is a comfy, cozy cinema that regularly screens movie The Killing Fields.

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It seems a fitting way to mark visiting Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields) the day before (see previous post.)

The next day, we swing by Friends which is a not-for-profit cafe that supports the training of young chefs and servers in the hospitality industry.

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There is so much to compute at the end of our trip to Cambodia. We do so with outstanding falafel burgers and raspberry rum cocktails.

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Afterwards, we cross to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club to watch the world go by below.

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And I watch my final sunset over the Mekong (on this trip at least.) It’s how this trip started back in Ventiane so it seems right and proper to end it that way.

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The last supper is Pad Thai alongside numerous Pina Coladas and Angkor beers.

The next morning, we trip out to Psar Thmei (the central market) to pick up some gifts to take home. It is much more glamourous than the Russian market, housed in an actual hall with art deco arches stretched above.

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The art of the oversell is not lost here, and it is a fittingly frenetic final experience for my time in Cambodia.

To balance things out, we head out to the local Wat and are blessed by Buddhist monks. We are ceremoniously soaked by litres of water thrown over us as the monk chants his blessing.

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It’s a strange sensation, but there is certainly something very  peaceful about it. Blessed, and soaked, we tuk tuk back so I can pack for the flight home to London.

You might remember that when I embarked on this trip, it was after a fairly grim few months. South East Asia has helped me draw a line under that, with aplomb.

My tuk tuk ride to the airport is insanity personified, and with joy in my heart and tears in my eyes, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

And the soundtrack was:

Arcade Fire ‘Afterlife’

The Antlers ‘Familiars’

Him Sophy ‘A Memory From Darkness’

Sufjan Stevens ‘Seven Swans’

Midlake ‘Antiphon’

Edison Lighthouse ‘Love Grows’

 

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Gaining Perspective at Phnom Penh

To say that I have been putting off writing this post would be an understatement. I have been willing it away.

Like millions of visitors to Phnom Penh, I have struggled with the things I saw when learning more about the regime of the Khmer Rouge…things that can never be unseen. To put it into words seems indomitable.

However, it is intrinsic to understanding more about Cambodia and, more importantly, the Cambodian people who have shown more resilience, industry and positivity than many nations would in the wake of such atrocities. For them, I am going to give it a try.

The first stop on this journey is Tuol Sleng. Formerly a school, it was taken over by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979 under Pol Pot’s ruling and was turned into S-21, the notorious secret prison (one of 196) through whose gates more than 20,000 people passed to their deaths. Now it is a Genocide Museum.

When the Khmer Rouge took power of Phnom Penh, something the Cambodian people were initially happy about after a drawn out war with Vietnam, Pol Pot began to target the educated and elite; teachers, doctors, military personnel etc. Basically anyone intelligent enough to question his way of ruling…and glasses wearers. Many were accused of largely fictitious acts of treason or fraternising with other governments. Typically, entire families of the accused would be taken and people wouldn’t know what charges were being levied against them.

They were brought here for interrogation and torture in a bid to extract a confession. If they didn’t die accidentally during this process, they were marched out to Choeung Ek (aka the killing fields) to be killed and flung in mass graves.

“Better to kill an innocent by mistake, than to spare an enemy by mistake” Pol Pot

We knew this would be a difficult day, but there are times when I was actually gasping for breath with the weight of it all. If it already sounds too much for you, you shouldn’t read on. Gruesome does not begin to cover it.

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We’re guided around three of the four main buildings. Our tour guide lost her father, brother and sister to the regime. She tells us very calmly and assures us that talking about it regularly and showing S-21 to visitors has helped her come to terms with it. But it brings tears to my eyes immediately.

We first walk through the rooms with original beds and torture implements left just as they had been found.

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Victims found by the Vietnamese army in January 1979 are buried in unmarked graves in the courtyard.

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Some of the rooms are divided into 3ft by 5ft spaces that two people would share shackled together.

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Those considered VIPs, such as military personnel, would have their own rooms. Same conditions and torture, just more space in which to enjoy it.

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In the next sombre block, there is an exhibition where hundreds of black and white photos, of victims and perpetrators, stare hauntingly back at you.

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On of only seven survivors is there, and I find his presence mesmerising. He managed to make himself useful to the Khmer Rouge leaders by painting portraits of them. This appealed to their vanity, and spared his life.

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We’re offered a photo with him when we purchase a copy of his memoirs. Somehow I can’t see a place for it amongst these images.

Torture devices are all around. The gallows in the main square were built for the school’s students to take exercise but were adapted by the Khmer Rouge. They would tie the prisoners hands and hang them upside down until they lost consciousness, then dip their heads into filthy water which would bring them back into consciousness allowing the generals to continue their interrogations.

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The final building holds an exhibition of eight Khmer Rouge combatants, and their stories of how they felt forced into the killings.

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We take some time to reflect.

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Then it’s time for us to make the journey that hundreds of thousands of Cambodian prisoners did on the way to their deaths, we tuk tuk out to Choeung Ek.

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It’s a long old dusty road, and a sad trip. When we arrive, we’re given our headphones and we pass silently through the grounds, witnessing horrendousness after horrendousness. From the point where the trucks would stop to deliver prisoners, to the serrated sugar palm they would used as a weapon of torture, to a series of mass graves.

One after another.

The uneven earth undulates before us, and we’re warned that the horrific crimes present themselves in the ground below. When we look down, garments of clothing, bones and teeth are in the process of rising to the surface. It’s an unstoppable sadness brought on by nature’s rainfall and erosion.

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Only some of the graves have been excavated, there are likely hundreds of thousands of bodies still to be found over time.

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Each is surrounded in friendship bracelets left by travellers wishing to pay their respects.

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We’re manoeuvred to the side of a nearby lake where we’re encouraged to sit or walk alongside it and reflect on the atrocities.

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A piece of music has been commissioned to help us do this. ‘A Memory From Darkness’ by Him Sophy. It is a most unexpected and welcome interlude, an opportunity to allow the emotions to flow over you.

From here we pass collections of clothes most recently found by the groundsman.

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But the worst is still to come. One of the final excavated mass graves is ahead of us, and next to it a large oak tree covered in friendship bracelets just as the grave walls before it. This is where babies and children were killed.

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They would either be thrown into the air and shot with a pistol or smashed against the tree. It is the most horrific thing I have ever known or seen, and it breaks me. There, by the tree, my spirit collapses. I can never un-know what I now know, and I’m different. Its as simple as that. I sit and weep.

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Towards the end, a sprawling tree serves as the spot where speakers were hung to play regime-friendly music drowning out the screams of the victims.

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The final stop is the majestic and graceful Choeung Ek Memorial built to commemorate every life lost during this harrowing era in Cambodia’s history.

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The design incorporates garuda birds, like those ridden by Vishnu in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, alongside magical naga serpents said to have fathered the Khmer people. Together, they are a symbol for peace.

Categorised skulls are piled high within it.

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I lay flowers at the door. But we’re so saturated with grief, it is absolutely time to go.

On our journey back to town, the beautiful Khmer children give us unwitting comfort with their cries of ‘Hello’ from the roadside.

We’re stunned. And we’ll never be the same again.

 

And the soundtrack was:

Think of the saddest song that you’ve ever heard, and listen to that.

 

Koh Rong but it feels so right

Time for another ambitious travel day as we make our merry way from Siem Reap to the arms of the sea. We start with a dart down the Tonle Sap river on this submarine-esque boat for around seven hours.

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As is usually the case in Cambodia, the advertised travel time is actually doubled. The boat’s captain even stops for a quick dip mid way. Still, I’ve always been about the journey rather than the destination, so long as there is music (sweet music), a decent read and some time to put your mind into neutral and take stock. The riverside views and Cambodian life whizz by.

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We arrive at the capital Phnom Penh and tuk tuk to the bus station for the next connection to Sihanoukville. We are punished at this point for not looking at the map beforehand, and we’re immediately charged $5 by an industrious tuk tuk driver who then proceeds to drive us approximately 20 steps.

Six hours and one stop later (good luck to those who are weak of bladder travelling in Cambodia) we pull into Sihanoukville bus station for the mandatory haggle with the gaggle of tuk tuk drivers. The entertaining (and devilishly handsome) German (hi Lasse) I met back in Si Phan Don urged me to ditch the town centre in favour of nearby Otres Beach which is 6km east. Backpackers trade on recommendations like this, yearning as they do for turn offs from the well beaten track. In fact, the next few days will be spent in places that weren’t on my original itinerary.

It’s late and the tuk tuk drivers are trying to extrapolate $40 from us for 6km, which is pretty much on a par with London black cab prices. Negotiating skills need to be at their sharpest in Cambodia, but at midnight after 16 hours on the road, we settle on a generous $10 and scoot off to Otres Beach where we’re booked into hostel Don’t Tell Mama.

After a brilliant night’s sleep, we wake to the beauty of our little beachside bungalow complete with en suite bathroom and mosquito nets.

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It’s clean, well kitted out with amenities and secure. Perched right on the end of the strip, it’s also peaceful. The best (and most talked about) in Otres Beach is Mushroom Point with its unique round bungalows with thatched roofs shaped like little fungi. You’ll need to book early to get in there though, so it’s not an option for the more spontaneous traveller.

Otres is a fishing village set on a simple strip of coastline which can’t be more than quarter of a mile. Both sides of the red sand road are lined with hostels, bungalows, tour operators and quirky bars and restaurants. Tuk tuks ply the route swerving to avoid potholes and other ‘pedestrians’ like those below.

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It is a great place to relax and enjoy Cambodian cuisine. One of our favourite places to eat is the chic outdoor diner, Dune.

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Here, I enjoy my first taste of Fish Amok which is a native spiced curry with chilli, garlic, turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, and lime zest. The view out to the Gulf of Thailand is cracking.

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It’s also illegal in the Same Small World travel guidelines to sit beachside without a pina colada in hand. Standard.

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Here we watch the sun dip down into the sea as the bells on the fishing boats ding gently as they bob on the waves.

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The territory of the next part of the journey is so unchartered that it’s not even in my guide book! I’m fairly trad when it comes to travelling; ebooks will never replace books, my blog will never place my diary and the travel forums on my iPad will never replace travel guides. I used to be a Rough Guide sort of a girl, but Lonely Planet won me over during a trip to Thailand nine years ago.

ANYWAYS, the next stop is Koh Rong, the second largest island of Cambodia which is located in Koh Kong Province about 25 kilometers off the Sihanoukville’s coast in the Gulf of Thailand. The island has 43 km of beaches, unspoilt jungle, quaint beach bungalows, no roads or traffic and no electricity. It’s the classic island paradise, very rough round the edges and only for the seasoned traveller.

We wash up on the shore after a 45 minute journey from Sihanoukville.

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And first impressions are everything we’d hoped for.

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First things first, we’re taken into Coco’s for a briefing.

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The stark realities of living on an island paradise are outlined to us in no uncertain terms. We’re warned against jungle walks due to snakes,  told how to outsmart sandfly bites with coconut oil and advised to get comfortable at the sight of rats. It’s fair to say that for all the attractive lure of its underdevelopment, Koh Rong has sanitation issues that bring their own challenges.

Briefed, and on high alert, we troop to La Mami one of the only guesthouses set out over the water (a sensible place to be to avoid unwelcome guests of any kind.)

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We’re remarkably underwhelmed with the accommodation (including a drop loo into the sea…yeah the one we’re due to splash in later.) We ditch it and make for the White Rose Guesthouse at the end of the pier.

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The double rooms are spacious but basic, kitted out with tired looking mosquito nets and fans which run when the generators do. It has a sociable little terrace, a balcony with hammocks to swing in and two shared bathrooms at the end of each hall.

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Proximity to the pier is a plus point too due to the searing heat. And the view out onto the strip ain’t half bad.

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We set out on an exploration mission walking the length of the beach along the south-east of the island. We quickly surmise that the island is utterly stunning…

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We also realise that the population is about 5% Khmer, 95% tourist; something to be expected for the foreseeable future as word spreads on the backpacker network about this idyllic little spot.

My favourite local is this little guy who sports something we’ve seen a lot of in Asia, Premiere League football strips with a twist. On this one, unthinkably for Chelsea fans, the name Hazard is emblazoned on the back but the Manchester United badge sits proudly on the front.

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There is much to do here, from scuba diving and snorkelling the coral, boat trips to watch (and swim in) the twinkling plankton by night and fishing hauls to nearby reefs.

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Of course if you come, as we have, during a period of rough water and terrible visibility, there is nothing to do here other than eat, drink and bathe in the arms of the sea. We do all three with gusto.

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Daringly at times, we even forsake Angkor Beer and dabble instead with regional brew Klang. (Cue MEGAlols and wordplay around our beloved Scottish colloquialism ‘langers’ – meaning the state one gets oneself in when one has over-imbibed alcohol…)

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The quality of the restaurants relate directly to distance from the pier, with one exception. Despite the accommodation options being underwhelming at La Mami, the food is exquisite. Whilst I am not usually one to go for the western option, their Italian menu is outstanding with handmade pastas and freshly prepared sauces. Between us over our four days, we tried tagliatelle bolognese, pesto fettuccine, blue cheese gnocchi, bruschetta and aubergine crostini. When in Rome right?

In fact the food was so good that a lapse in concentration caused Buffie, travel buddy du jour on this Cambodian jaunt, to drop her purse onto the pier which promptly fell through the slats and into the sea. The manager Leo and his pal nonchalantly reach for a fishing net to catch it and deliver it back safely. Points for service boys.

Another highlight was Monkey Kingdom, midway along the beach, which is a very popular hostel that has a brilliant and very sociable raised wooden bar. The view is great.

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The Thai chef serves up really flavoursome specialities including Guang Kua with pork and pineapple (it is outrageously good)

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and Pad Ka Pow with chicken.

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If you stop in early doors, the watermelon shakes are a winner too.

Further up at the end of the beach, far from the madding crowd, sits Treehouse Bungalows. They mix a mean Banana Rum cocktail and the prawn with garlic, ginger and pepper is ace. Order it at your peril though, I counted 14 cloves of garlic…

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The Seahouse is a relatively new restaurant that we tried, the music was admittedly better than the food, but as it sits on wooden stilts over the water its a good place to catch the breeze and cool down. I had the Beef Lok Lak, another of the national Cambodian dishes, which is marinated beef with a sea salt, lime juice and black Kampot pepper sauce served over salad.

The beach at the other end of the island fast becomes our favourite haunt and we manage days of sunbathing where we barely see a soul. It’s a beautiful walk and the water is perfect, kept calmer by its protective peninsula and shallow enough that you can stride out endlessly before the sand is no longer at your toes.

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Its mesmerising to watch the sand crabs scuttle around on the sand, starting at every vibration. Can you see this little guy?

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There is just something very renewing about being by the sea. I have always felt that way, on coastlines all over this Same Small World. I can literally feel the stresses of the last few months wash away; the hospital stint, the excruciating work situation, the arduous 20 hour-long working days and the joyless relationship I had to pull myself out of. For that reason, I fall for this island…rats and all.

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And the soundtrack was:

Iron & Wine ‘The creek drank the cradle’

The Lemonheads ‘It’s a shame about Ray’

The Antlers ‘Hospice’

Primal Scream ‘Screamadelica’

Phosphorescent ‘Muchacho’