Monthly Archives: February 2014

Cambodia’s Hidden Corner

When most people hear “Cambodia”, this is what comes to mind:

1. The Khmer Rouge

2. Laura Croft

3. Angkor Wat

4. Nobody really gets past #3… but if you did, “The Beach” with Leonardo DiCaprio. (Even though that was in Thailand).

5. Backpackers

6. Asian Women

7. The Mekong River

8. Not Thailand.

9. The French

10. Sihanoukville 

A valid list, but definitely not accurate. Not in the purest sense of Cambodia. When most people book their tour du monde, their Cambodian stop over generally involves the Killing Fields, Angkor Wat, and some form of Khmer curry.

Hopefully you’ve gained a greater sense of Cambodian geography and culture through the past seven months here at alohakuwait. I’m here today to expand your knowledge a step further. It’s high time I paid homage to that great road trip—from Phnom Penh to the Thai border. Most people speed through on an afternoon bus, in transition from Bangkok to Phnom Penh. They see the stretch from Koh Kong to the Mekong river as a boring, bumpy ride that stands in the way of their Southeast Asian experience.

Well, Cambodia’s got a lot of secrets in her hidden Southwestern passage…

But, since I came from a family of pig farmers, let’s be honest with ourselves.

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The pigs. Stick ’em in barrels, stack ’em on trucks, slide ’em in trailors. There is no modest way to transport pigs anywhere in the world. Any country that tells you otherwise is lying to you.

As you wind your way along highway 4, the road begins to climb through heavily forested hills. The slopes become steeper, and the homes become sparser. It feels as if you have left the populated world behind. Just as you are ready to pull over to marvel at the beauty of it all, a turn off is provided for you.

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And what a turn off it is. I had driven past this specific stopping point numerous times on the way to the beach, and never noticed the troupe of monkeys that live in this stunning valley. Man, if you never pulled over, you would never SEE the stunning valley! There are myriad Buddhist shrines, and the monkeys are not seen as pests but rather positive additions to mother earth. Look at this killer playground they’ve got!

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Nothing says road trip like sipping on a cold soda and watching some monkeys.

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Or were the monkeys watching us? I wonder what they wrote about me in their blog…

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Like I said, this turn off was really pretty awesome. There were monks, chanting, shrines, monkeys, rituals, and of course, tubes of Pringles and fresh-cut pineapple for sale. What more could you want?

By the time we rolled onto the coast,  it was time for lunch. (Isn’t it always?)IMG_1939

So where else do you go but the Crab Chack. Home of the tastiest crab in Koh Kong.

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And while you wait for said crab, you can relax on their swing with your sister, dipping your toes in the water, sipping on a well-deserved Anchor or two. Paradise.

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I have previously blogged about the Rainbow Lodge in Koh Kong, but I have found yet another place of passion. Welcome to Thmorda Garden Riverside Resort. You can lounge on the shore of the river, and kayak in the mangroves all afternoon. The best part? You’ve got this entire place all to yourself.

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And their patio is fantastic.

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Morning in Koh Kong: Such a kaleidoscope of colors. Why rush through on the way to something better? You can’t find a superlative to this.

We did spend a few days in the luxury of Koh Kong and Southwestern Cambodia, and then we moseyed on to Thailand. On the road, my dad (who was visiting with my sister!!!) snapped a photo of something I have so long overlooked: the spirit houses. You see them everywhere, but I hadn’t really though twice about them until my dad brought it up.

IMG_1953Spirit houses are common in Southeast Asia, and are placed in a particular spot of your home, business, or natural area (often at the base of trees). They are a place for the spirits to be appeased—or to reside—depending on who you talk to. It is believed that so long as you keep the spirits happy, you will live a prosperous life. Sometimes spirits is synonymous with ghosts. I recently had a seventeen year old student tell me he was afraid of ghosts. I had to ask around to determine that he was talking about the spirits, which are very prevalent in Thai and Cambodian culture.

Your mission, if you choose to accept it: Take a road trip. Explore your home. Find something new. Stop at a place you’ve never stopped at before. Take a picture of something you’ve seen a million times. Maybe you’ll find monkeys. Maybe you’ll find spirits. Maybe you’ll find love.

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Koh Ta Kiev: Our first Cambodian Island

I confess: It took us a long time to make it to the Cambodian islands. It’s not that we didn’t want to go, it was simply that there has been so much to do. We traveled to Laos, Koh Kong, the hills, the rivers, oodles of places, but not a single island. Once we knew we had friends coming, we reserved our first island trip for them.

Our friend had recommended we go to Koh Ta Kiev (pronounced Koh Tah “Q” in Khmer). She loved the bungalows there, and said it was really quiet and underdeveloped. Since our friends were coming from the dusty desert metropolis that is Kuwait, we thought it sounded perfect.

We left Phnom Penh in the early morning, and got to Sihanoukville by around 10:30am.

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The circle outlines the port town of Sihanoukville as well as the sprinkling of islands that one can visit with ease. (The big one, Phu Quoc, is actually Vietnamese. You have to enter Vietnam—with a $65 visa for Americans—and backtrack across the water to get to Phu Quoc. It’s probably easier to fly from Ho Chi Minh City. But I  digress.)
IMG_9699On the beach at Sihanoukville. Otres Beach, to be exact. Abby and Sean enjoyed brunch on the white sand, while we waited for our boat to whisk us away to the island of Koh Tah Kiev (and away from underclad men in Speedos).
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The boat was the size of three canoes and as noisy as three hundred lawn mowers. As the shoreline faded into the distance, we peered into the horizon in search of the island.

IMG_9716We stayed at Ten 103 Treehouse, a series of bungalows spread throughout the jungle. Each bungalow overlooks the ocean, and is open air. I shot this photo right before sunset. Can you spot Sean reading in the hammock?

IMG_9703The view the next morning from inside the bungalow.

Koh Ta Kiev was incredibly quiet and undeveloped. You could walk along the desert beaches, and only stumbled upon a handful of other people—and we were there during the high season! It’s a small island, so you can cross the jungle on small footpaths for a view out the other side.

The swimming was good, too.

IMG_9717…for the most part. You couldn’t really swim directly off the bungalows due to the sea urchins. Abby took this photo, which I unfortunately did not get to witness myself. I still cannot work out how this guy handles those things…

IMG_9719The jungle was thick, and hung over the white sand foot path.

IMG_9820 copy Sean and had a blast exploring the island. We were there for three nights, which was the perfect amount of time to lose yourself in the rhythm of the waves and the glow of the stars.

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But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Cambodia, it is this: You are never alone. Ever. Even when you think you’re on a desert island, you spot a man carrying bananas. Or monks playing volleyball. Or cows. The first two didn’t surprise us too much, but the cows cruising the coast, that was surprising.

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We had heard that one side of the island had a nice cove and a rocky shoreline. After about an hour of exploration, we stumbled upon it. Like I said, you are never alone, even in paradise. The husband and wife sorted their fish and sipped their tea, taking a break from the day’s work. As much as I like to have nature as my private playground, I love the moments when I remember that I am a visitor in someone else’s seemingly normal life. A life to me that seems so exotic. How exotic must I seem to them?

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On our way back from the cove, we found a swing with a view…

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And at night we feasted by candlelight.

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I did find my own private paradise, if only for an hour. One evening around sunset, I walked to “Naked Beach” by myself. Sean, Abby, and Kyle were reading, and I was feeling antsy. Naked Beach didn’t have a single development on it—maybe that’s why it’s called Naked Beach? Balancing my camera on a rock, I took a timed photo of myself. The water was so warm, and so clear and blue! I had my snorkle gear, so bobbed around in the waves until the sun sunk below the trees…

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Sean took this great panorama of the bungalows. The water had great snorkeling, and the beaches were perfect. We’ve got to go back. IMG_9988 copy

But with so many other Cambodian islands to discover, it may be a while before we can say Sua S’dye to Koh Ta Kiev again.

I’ll leave you with a quotation that has guided me in my travels, and will hopefully continue to lead us to more islands like Koh Ta Kiev…

“Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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The Iceberg of Siem Reap

Siem Reap has more hidden surprises than just her temples. She is a region of quirks—and I don’t mean the sunburnt expats with a pretty lady on their shoulder. At first glance, it seems possible to “do” Angkor Wat in a day, and then be done with Siem Reap. Which is precisely the itinerary that shapes the majority of visitors.

Upon closer inspection, if Siem Reap were an iceberg, the main temple of Angkor Wat would be the tip.

Do I sound pretentious? Probably. But a blog is less interesting without superlatives.

First off, there’s the hidden ruins of Kbal Spean.

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About an hour’s drive out of Siem Reap, you enter the region of Phnom Kulen. You park your car in a forested area, as food vendors compete for your attention. As you walk through the jungle, ropes dangle in your pathway, begging to be climbed.

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It’s a forty-five minute hike up to Kbal Spean, the “river of a thousand lingas”.

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When you arrive, you find a woman sunning herself on a rock. She’s a bit old, but has a great complexion.

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Then you begin to see the lingas. (In case you forgot, a linga is a phallic Hindu symbol for the god Shiva. As these were submerged in a river since the 11th century, you’ll have to use your imagination to get the full linga effect.)

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The river was seen as holy since it flowed into the Tonle Sap lake, passing through the temples of Angkor on its way.  (Note the more clear lingas on the vertical rock nearest the photo.)

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They were carved by hermits who lived in the area. Have you ever read a cooler sentence? They were carved by hermits who lived in the area.

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For the careful—and patient—eye, Siem Reap has much to offer.

IMG_9271While the carvings are the main facet of Kbal Spean, we were drawn to the waterfall.

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And then I went swimming, as one normally does on a warm winter day in December.

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And it felt good. (Photo courtesy of Abby Franks.)

After Kbal Spean, we visited Banteay Srei. 16 miles outside of the main temple complex, it is often overlooked in the main loop.

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They are carved out of red sandstone, which gives them a beautiful color, unique to Banteay Srei.

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Banteay Srei is Khmer for “Citadel of Women”, because it is thought that women did the carvings. People speculate that they are too delicate to have been the hand of a man.
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This was one of Sean’s favorite temples—if not his favorite. What can I say? He is interested in exquisite beauty.

What else did we do in Siem Reap, you ask? What comprises the rest of the iceberg?

1. Fish foot massages.


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Kyle is thinking of installing one in his house back in Kuwait.

IMG_9479Abby isn’t so sure.

2. Pub Street

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3. Real elephants.

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4. Pseudo elephants.

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5. Headless statues.

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6. Eating crickets.

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7. Hidden places of serenity.

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8. Counting Apsara dancers.

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9. Meeting Apsara dancers.

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10. Warrior stances.

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11. Angkor beer at Angkor Wat.

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12. Road trips and street food.

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As I am a keeper of promises, this concludes our trip to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.

Will I go back? Absolutely. Will  it be the same? Never.

That’s why I have to build a school on the banks of Kbal Spean and promote Abby and Kyle to executive directors.

UP NEXT: Ten103 Treehouse on Koh Ta Kiev….

Categories: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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