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’

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Tha Khaek to Si Phan Don

After another hugely entertaining bus journey, this time from Phonsavan (via Paksan) to Tha Khaek a burgeoning town on the east bank of the Mekong river. Its literal translation is ‘guest landing’, thought to be a nod to its original role as a stopping point on the river for foreign traders passing through with their wares.

There are multiple selling points for this stunning beautiful central region of Laos, but it is also fair to say that there are two lead reasons that time-poor backpackers swing their rucksacks through this town. The first is to merrily motorcycle ‘The Loop’, a three day off road experience round a circuit of the more remote parts of Khammuan and Bolikhamsai provinces. The second is to spend a day’s merry motorboating through Tham Kong Lo, a 7km long cave through a limestone mountain in the nearby Phu Hin Bun national park.

Unfortunately, I am one of those time-poor backpackers so it is Tham Kong Lo that draws me here to Tha Khaek. As we exit the bus, there are quite a few of us headed towards the most popular budget choice in the area, a hostel called The Travel Lodge. Our game driver packs up the heavily laden tuk tuk, and deposits us (two Swiss, two Americans, one English and the standard solus Scot) at the hostel.

The Travel Lodge is to Laos hostels what, well, Travelodge is to UK hotels…basic, wildly overpriced for its standards and vaguely uncomfortable. Thankfully for me, nobody has a booking…and I watch politely as everyone else checks in to the available rooms. By the time myself and travel buddy Jackie get to the front…there is only one room in the Lodge rather than the hostel, which is finished to a significantly higher standard, ant free and positioned round a little courtyard about 100 metres along the pathway. It is still only 12 pounds like…but it feels like walking into Malmaison. Result. Having been poorly for a day or so back in Phonsavan, this is the (relative) luxury I have been craving.

The next day, after a momentous sleep, we wave our compadres off on their dollar-a-day rented motorbikes to do ‘The Loop’, equipped with minimal safety features and maximal smiles. I’ll admit to a sharp pang of jealousy and a subsequent internal vow to return one day with ‘The Loop’ in my sights.

For now, it’s time to explore the small, sleepily relaxed town. Franco-Chinese architecture and tall trees line the streets all the way to the riverside, its natural centre, which is a pleasant 1.5km walk from the hostel.

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Again, the sun here disappears into the haze before it hits the horizon. Yet it is still a sight beautiful enough to stop the locals in their tracks.

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We bump into two travel pals from the bus, Spanish Berna and French Audrey who teach English in Beijing, and settle into Inthira for a beef and cashew stir fry with sticky rice. We tried for a sundowner by the river, but approximately 6,000 large river flies had the same idea so we escaped inland.

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It is here where our story saddens. Fans of Same Small World (both of you) will know that I’ve never had the greatest luck with cameras whilst travelling. My blog post from the stunning Galapagos Islands was cut short by the introduction of an impertinent wave to my unsuspecting camera. This time, here in Laos, the unfortunate meeting was between a large pothole in a Tha Khaek road and the wheel of the tuk tuk ferrying us home. It set off a chain of events including my open bag being airborne for less than a second, choosing to execute a mid-air spin and landing indelicately, contents first, on the floor of the tuk tuk.

The camera doesn’t make it through the night, and I contemplate the onerous thought of a dearth of beautiful images to reflect on after this trip.

The next day, Jackie and I head out to Tham Kong Lo with Brit brothers Sam and Harry and students Shoya and Maren from Japan and Germany respectively. Lucky for me, Maren is something of a photography whizz and kindly offers to share her shots with me. So you can thank her for the following contributions.

Having spent many an hour staring out the window at the Laos scenery, the sights which await us en route to the cave are the standard to which we’ve become accustomed. Gothic mountains darkly preside over verdant landscapes below. But when we reach the monolithic mountain that hides the cave itself, a beauty not yet seen starts to reveal itself.

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We’re kitted out with headlamps and wisely relieved of electronic devices, then we meander through the rock paths to the mouth of the cave.

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With boatmen at the top and tail of out motorised longboats, we set off into the cave which is 7km long and up to 100 metres at its widest point. Its a natural wonder which meanders nonchalantly through the karst limestone mountain, its vastness revealing glittering stalagmites and veiny walls.

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There are several lighting projects within the cave, mostly funded by New Zealand according to the signage. But much of it naturally attacks the senses, low lighting adding to the majesty and curved stonework which sonically turns our engine into a chopper at fleeting points.

We alight at various points for further investigation or to outfox the water, especially at the effusive Muang Houng rapids. Slowly, we start to emerge into the sun.

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We’re greeted by bathing water buffalo.

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There is time for a swift Beerlao on the riverbank before we volte-face and take the return leg of the 90 minute journey.

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We all cool down with a dip in the clear pool at the base of the cliff, before snoozing all the way home.

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Starved after all of the excitement, we pile out to the riverside and spot a nameless but bustling Thai restaurant just around the corner from Inthira. It is utterly ace, take a left exiting Inthira then the first left and it is four doors up. Green curry, sticky rice and Beerlao cap off a very respectable day of misadventuring.

Here in Tha Khaek, it’s time to bid Jackie farewell as she travels onwards to Vietnam and I catch another bus to Pakse then (four hour) tuk tuk to Ban Nakasang on the banks of the Mekong. Here nestles Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) just a hop, skip and a jump from the Cambodian border.

It’s a long and laborious journey on a dusty road. When we arrive at the shanty port town under cover of darkness, it is closed and there are no scheduled boats. Of course, everything in Laos is available for a price. Before long the tuk tuk driver is hollering through the window of a house calling out a boatman to take us the twenty minute scoot across to Don Det. We glide noiselessly across the Mekong under the pale moon light – it was a pretty special way to arrive. Before long I’m checked into Little Eden on the Northern tip of the island and sound asleep having suffered my last bus journey on this side of the border.

Whilst there is much to explore in and around the islands, two of the favoured pastimes by backpackers here are floating down the Mekong in a rubber ring and enjoying pizzas and milkshakes with ‘happy’ added as a precursor. Contrary to popular belief, this is not because Pharrell Williams wrote his critically acclaimed chart-topping and mind-numbing hit here, but instead denotes the addition of cannabis. Many backpackers do these activities together, creating the kind of sunburn that only an utter imbecile would inflict on themselves.

The unfortunate by-product of this, is that there ain’t much authentic about this paradise. You’ll be lucky to find a word written in Laos or a two yard walk where you won’t be touted at. It becomes abundantly clear that one man runs almost every business on the island, from bike rental to stoner cinema and everything in between.

Cannabis has never been my drug (I’m much more of an Ayahuasca girl…) But thankfully, there is plenty to see if you hire a bike for the day from Mr Mo’s and head on over to neighbouring Don Khon. Cycle down Sunrise Street (one of two only roads, both pedestrian, the other predictably named Sunset Street) until you hit the bridge on the left, for which you’ll need to pay for crossing but the fee includes entry to the Khon Phapheng waterfalls to the south of Don Khon.

After a hot hour-long cycle down a road named Rocky Shadeless Road (I jest ye not) you loop round to the falls which are just about the most aggressive I have ever seen. I take shelter in the wooden mushroom huts set out over the water, called the Oasis, and read to the thunderous beat of the water before cycling back to base. The views have been really wondrous, but I can take or leave the ‘spring break’ vibe. I fall in with Lasse, a German backpacker, just about the only other voice of sanity on the island. Together we hit the culinary high notes of Don Det including the ridiculously tasty Pumpkin Burger at Mr B’s Sunset View (not to mention their stunning Lao Mojitos), and find ourselves to be ‘happy’ enough with the milkshakes.

Next stop Cambodia. Keep the faith readers, I will have photography by then…

And the soundtrack was:

Biffy Clyro ‘Opposites’
Editors ‘The Weight of your Love’
Woodkid ‘The Golden Age’
Teenage Fanclub ‘Songs from Northern Britain’
Roots Manuva ‘Run Come Save Me’
Rodriguez ‘Cold Fact’
Ohios ‘Faceless’