Posts Tagged With: swimming

Camping in Cambodia: A Trip to Kirirom

In America, June signals the start of camping season. People get out their coolers, tank tops, and bug spray. Living in Cambodia, it’s camping season all year round. The weather remains at a balmy ninety degrees, there are always mosquitos, and there’s always use for a cooler. So, back in March, we loaded up our cars and took to the hills for a weekend of camping in Cambodia. (Note: Many photos are compliments of the lovely Anna Sudra.)

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I know, it’s the last place you expected to see pine trees, right? Normally Southeast Asia brings to mind palm trees and white sand beaches.

Not in Kirirom. Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 10.33.51 PM

Kirirom National Park is about two hours outside of the city along highway 4 and has an elevation of about 2,200 feet. Compared to the rest of the country which lies barely above sea level, Kirirom is home to a vast pine forest and cool evening temperatures. The perfect camping spot.

To get there, however—like the rest of the country—is quite a journey.

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Once we turned off highway 4, the road turned to dirt and potholes. Not to mention bridges on the brink of collapse. Cambodia is definitely more set up for motorcycles than cars.

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Climbing higher into the forest, families in wooden shacks selling porcupine needles, pinecones, and firewood dotted the roadway.

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Kirirom National Park is not exactly the stereotypical “National Park” that exists in many countries. In Cambodia, national parks are sometimes quite developed on the inside. This one has a hotel in the center, an active pagoda, and a few families selling things throughout. You can’t buy property in the park. Anyone who lives there I assume has been grandfathered in. However, even the national parks of Cambodia are for sale to the highest bidder, which is why there is a hotel now in the center of Kirirom. (Similar to the giant casino that rests atop Bokor Mountain National Park…)

Before the Khmer rouge, there were a few hotels and cottage-style homes on the mountain. There’s currently a small tea plantation and visitor center. It makes a great stopping point if you’re traveling to Sihanoukville.

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This plant naturally grows on trees all over the forests of Cambodia. (I’ve seen it before in Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri, and now Kirirom.) When I was hiking in Mondulkiri, the guide said it is good luck to see one of these plants for your wedding, but it is illegal to harvest and sell them. However, I saw them for sale all over Kirirom. I tried a number of Google searches and haven’t found an explanation. If you know about this cultural phenomenon, post in the comments below!

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The view from the lookout near the highest point in Kirirom.

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Once we got to our campsite we had lunch and set up the tents. Our campsite was not part of a regulated campground, but rather a clearing at the end of a deserted road. Because that’s how you make your own fun in Cambodia!

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As the sunk sank into the clouds and our campfire started up, we had our own little paradise.

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You couldn’t hear anything but bird calls and the wind.

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In the morning we drove to the visitor center.  Again I saw more local forested products for sale, which I recall reading were illegal. Looking back, I can’t find the articles that give me more information. I think the brown things are dried mushrooms, and the wood on the right is scented local wood. (It smelled delicious.) Unfortunately, I don’t think either of these things were sustainably harvested, but I hope I’m wrong…

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Having fun at the visitor center.

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Our last stop of the day was at a tiny waterfall off the main road.   10653673_10152670349147102_9136605122980195175_n

It felt great to rinse off the campfire smoke.

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Relaxing by the waterfall before heading back into the noisy city.

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Did I mention that it was my birthday? Chino and I are born a week apart, so we celebrated our birthday with a weekend filled of fun in the forest. Anna was sweet (as always) and baked us a cake. Nothing goes better with a waterfall swim than a chocolate brownie!

Add Kirirom to your agenda the next time you visit Cambodia! Just don’t forget to bring a flashlight.

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Summer Is Almost Here…

The month of May means different things to different people. For Cambodians, it marks the Royal Ploughing Ceremony and King Sihamoni‘s birthday.  In America, we think of flowers blooming and some mysterious dance around a Maypole, which I don’t think anyone really understands.

For teachers, and students, it only means on thing.

Summer vacation is around the corner.

To herald the summer of 2015, I bring you a video that Sean made of one of our favorite Wisconsin activities: playing in the water.

Last summer we spent a few days at our friend’s cabin in Eagle, Wisconsin.

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Eagle Spring Lake is a funky area. Kettle Moraine State Forest is next door, there’s an island with a house on it in the center of the lake, and there’s a gorgeous little channel of water that connects you to Lulu Lake, which is just beautiful. I’ve never seen so many lily pads.

If there’s one thing you’ve got to do in Wisconsin, it’s spend some time on our lakes in the summer. (Even if you’re from Minnesota. I won’t judge you.)

Watch Sean’s video below (in 1080p if you can), and just try not to get out your sunscreen and sunglasses.

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Koh Rong, Cambodia’s Survivor Island

Cambodia’s islands are a place of mystery. In comparison to the Thai islands, they’re pretty much distant specks on the map. As I’ve said before, Cambodia is most famous for Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields. But once you’ve visited the Cambodian islands, it’s tough to stay away.

The most popular port for getting to most of the islands is the city of Sihanoukville, or “Kampong Som” in Khmer. If you look at the map below, you’ll see that Cambodia has two tiny peninsulas that jut out along the coast.  The left peninsula consists of Koh Kong and Botum Sakor National Park. The right peninsula has Sihanoukville and Ream National Park. This past January, we took a long weekend and headed down to the coast for a dip in the Gulf of Thailand.

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The town of Sihanoukville isn’t much in itself; the layout is rather disjointed and scattered across a series of hills. The beauty of the area reveals itself when you step onto the sprawling white sand beaches.

We arrived at the port in the morning, and were planning on catching a boat out to Koh Rong at around noon.

In the meantime, I snapped a photo of the ephemeral graffiti scene that seems to be making its way across Cambodia…

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Our destination was the island of Koh Rong. Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 6.44.28 PM

The journey to Koh Rong used to take a minimum of two hours. As you’d imagine, this greatly dissuaded us from visiting; there’s nothing worse than spending two hours leap-frogging over waves with an outboard motor under the penetrating sunshine.

Luckily, Koh Rong has a speedboat business now that cuts the trip down to forty-five minutes.

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Packed full of Khmer and foreigners alike, we held onto our lifejackets and started our journey.

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Now, a bit about the title of this post. To those who read local news, I like to think that Koh Rong is known as “Cambodia’s Survivor Island”. In 2013, the French version of Survivor, titled “Koh Lanta”, was filmed on Koh Rong. (Koh Lanta is actually an island in Thailand, but it wasn’t filmed there. Perhaps the producers thought that Koh Lanta sounded more romantic than Koh Rong?)

Here’s where it gets eerie. First, one of the contestants died from a heart attack during the filming of the show. Then, the television show’s resident doctor was found dead ten days later, having committed suicide in his bungalow. He left a note expressing his guilt over the heart attack of the contestant days prior. (To read more, click here.)

As if that’s not enough, the American television show Survivor is currently being filmed on the island as we speak. No joke. As stated in The Cambodia Daily, filming began this spring and is expected to conclude in July.

But to be clear, Koh Rong is not as remote as primetime television may lead you to believe.

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It is one of the more touristy islands of Cambodia. From the snorkeling and dive companies to new restaurants that pop up daily with fried rice and banana pancakes, some say that Koh Rong is a backpacker’s paradise.

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We did expect it to be full of tourists, but I didn’t quite anticipate how crowded the little stretch of beach would be. Since there’s no roads on Koh Rong, all the shops and bungalows open right onto the beach. This leads for a continual stream of bikini-clad tourists and pounding bass long into the night.

They’ve even got a pharmacy for tourists right at the pier once you get off the boat. Need some stitches? They’ve got you covered. What about typhoid? Ear cleaning? Or how about just some basic “cleaning stuff”? And while you’re at it, why not a blood test?

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We didn’t want to stay on this part of the island. Luckily, we didn’t have to.

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I booked our time at Pura Vita resort, a tiny series of bungalows on a secluded stretch of the island. Pura Vita means “pure life” in Italian, and is well-reviewed for being a clean and comfortable place far away from the hustle and decadence of the main part of the island. We were picked up by our hotel and jetted off across the bay and around the corner, to a truly quiet stretch of the island.

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And it was perfect.

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There was no one here except for some morning joggers, the other guests at our hotel, and our lovely host, Vanny. In her mid fifties, Vanny is a Cambodian woman who fled the country during the Khmer Rouge and grew up in Canada with her family. She ran a restaurant for most of her life, but had a dream to return to where she was born. So, with her kids enrolled in college, she bought a patch of land on the island, and started pursuing her dream. If you ever visit Koh Rong, definitely stay at Pura Vita and have a cup of coffee with Vanny. She’s great.

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We spent our days watching the waves, swimming, and walking along the gorgeous 7 kilometer long beach.

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And, sometimes, I did feel like we were on the set of Survivor. 13

As idyllic as it was, we were curious about that rag-tag stretch of restaurants by the pier. So, we spent one afternoon walking from our stretch of beach across the island over to the main area.

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Even though it got a bit more touristy, it was still equally as beautiful.

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As we settled into lunch, we ordered our meals and some smoothies to quench our thirst. Little did we know that you got “One free beer with every meal.” (You can actually see the chalkboard advertisement behind my sister in the above photo.) It was definitely one of those “Only in Southeast Asia…” moments.

And of course, a trip to an island isn’t complete without some swimming.

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The water was perfect. The sand was soft. The sun was warm. The air was clean. The palms were swaying. And we were in love.

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Will I go back to Koh Rong? Absolutely. But not to stay at the main port, nor as a contestant on a reality television show. I think I like the “pura vita” just fine. 

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Walking with Elephants

Happy February! Please forgive me for not posting in the past month. We’ve been absolutely crazy busy with visitors and traveling. My aunt and her friends flew over from Wisconsin for two weeks, and my dad and sister are here with us now. I love having guests visit—when else do I get an excuse to show off one of my favorite countries, visit my favorite restaurants, and play tourist on a school night?

In terms of the blog, the Go Pro is a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse in the sense that we take a lot less photos now, so have less to work with when writing a blog. On the other hand, it’s a total blessing when you have so many hours of absolutely perfect film footage that you don’t even know where to start.

That’s a bit how our photos of Mondulkiri were. Sean took great photos, but even more video. This weekend he took the best of the best and made a stellar film about our trip. I hope you enjoy. I fell in love with the elephants all over again, and groaned at the sight of our poor car being towed by a tree limb behind a van. (Our timing belt broke, and how else do you tow a car 200 miles in Cambodia? Hail a passing van, find a stick and some rope, and cross your fingers.) Take a look, and if you can, watch it in HD.

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Road Tripping The Cambodian Coast

It was the spring break that wasn’t.

 

Moving abroad, you shed some of the terminology that you used so mindlessly back home.
For us Americans, college became university.
America became The States.
Vacation became holiday.
Bubbler became water fountain. (For me, at least.)
First floor became ground floor.
And, obviously, soccer became football.

Anyways, calling it spring break means nothing when you don’t teach at an American school. In Cambodia, the second week of April celebrates Khmer New Year, which is when we have our week-long break. Khmer New Year coincides with Songkran in Laos and Thailand, Thingyan New Year in Burma, as well as Sinhalese New Year in Sri Lanka. Clearly, calling it anything BUT a “New Year’s break” would get you strange looks in most of Southeast Asia.

I was lucky enough to have my parents visiting, and we took a gorgeous road trip along the Cambodian coast. We spent a few days exploring the wild, pristine landscape of our country before heading into Thailand and visiting Koh Kood.

Also important to note, today marks a significant change in the format of Angkor’s Away (AlohaKuwait for you veteran readers). Sean and I purchased a GoPro. Instead of snapping hundreds of photos, we are now shooting high-quality video in 1080p.

And now you will come to be familiar with one of Sean’s favorite hobbies: video-making. Here is our first GoPro compilation from our trip along the Cambodian Coast. We drove down through Bokor National Park to a teeny tiny island near Koh Sdach, which is the home of the best lodging in Cambodia: Nomad’s Land. It is in an absolutely stunning–and absolutely isolated—archipelago between Sihanoukville and Koh Kong. It is the most beautiful place in Cambodia that I have seen yet.

Then we hopped over to Koh Kong for a lovely paddle down the river, dined on fresh shrimp, and frolicked on the beach as the sun set. Take a look:

I recommend watching it on the highest resolution possible; the snorkeling footage is fantastic.

Beautiful, isn’t it? After our few days in Cambodia, we crossed the border to Thailand. But that’s another video. See you soon!

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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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