When you’re thinking about what to wear in Cambodia, it’s super important to think about the time of year - I went in April and oh my good goodness it was hot. If you don’t do what I did and go in April you might be cooler, but by that I mean 30-degrees instead of 45 with high humidity.
Whether you want to gaze at the Meekong and guzzle amok, go wild on Pub Street, drink bottles Angkor by the beach, climb a greased-up pole for cash on an island, or explore the wonders of the ancient city of Angkor, you’ll find it in this complex country of ancient history, dried fish, temples, turmeric soup, scams and smiling faces.
Even if you're not a traveller, the islands of South East Asia are probably on your bucket list.
The sands are white, the waters are clear, warm and blue, you can dive in the reefs, stay in bungalows, eat local food, lay on the sand, and drink cheap cocktails – anyone who's been to a Thai island will probably recommend it.
Before I begin my tirade in to why you should probably avoid Koh Rong in Cambodia, I should mention that the island does look lovely on face value – the waters are clear, the sands are white, and the beach huts are wooden and picturesque and really nice to sit in, but on the other hand, the island is basically inhabited by tourists.
I'm not really sure why, but I thought Koh Rong would be like a Thai island, and it really wasn't. It was kind of grimy.
If you're in to drinking all day, everyday, you don't care what you eat, and you're not fussed over things like hygiene, you'll probably love Koh Rong – lots of people do, and that's great! I think we were there over some sort of holiday, and one of the festive activities involved drunkenly clawing your way up a greased-up metal pole to reach some cash. If that's what you're in to, stop reading and buy a ticket immediately! For everyone else, here's a bunch of reasons to avoid Koh Rong.
1. Extreme Tourism
I'm not usually someone who cares about 'touristy' spots while travelling (it seems weird to me that some people seem to hate 'touristy' locations when they're tourists themselves...), but in Koh Rong, you can't really walk around and get a taste of local culture because almost everything there exists for tourists. Drunk, sexed-up tourists.
2. Expensive Accommodation
Given how ramshackled the place is (not in an endearing way), accommodation is way more expensive than it needs to be. We're talking big cracks in the walls of bungalows, a lack of mosquito netting (don't care about mosquitoes? Here's why you should!), and just a general lack of basic cleanliness – all this would be fine if it was cheaper, but it ended up costing more than anywhere else we stayed.
3. The Food Is Terrible
If you're in to Khmer food, definitely avoid Koh Rong. All the food joints are run by drunk and/or stoned tourists who (largely) can't cook. If you want local food, forget it – the menus are full of sandwiches and pizzas, and they're greasy enough to put you off bread for life. If you come across somewhere selling 'fresh' fish, you'll get something that's been fried within an inch of its life by one of the aforementioned tourists.
This one is based on personal experience, but after a day or so we noticed the staff at all the hostels and food joints had some kind of infection. They all had a bandaged arm or ankle, and we overheard someone talking about how contagious it was. There was also a human who seemed to have the same skin disease as some of the wild dogs.
So what do you have once you look beyond the accommodation, the food, everyone else who's there, and lack of local culture? A nice beach and not much else.
By the end of three-days, we couldn't wait to get off the island.
If you want to travel to the beaches of Cambodia, I recommend Sihanoukville. If you ignore all the drunk tourists and onslaught of Australians screaming "Koh Rong? More like Koh Right!" in the most ocker accents you've ever heard in your life, and look at the actual beach, it's really quite lovely. Plus, the food is great.
Alternatively, if you're looking for some peace, head to Otres Beach. It's very close to Sihanoukville, but it's the complete opposite – calm, serene, and underpopulated. We spent about five days going to each of the 10 or so cafes and restaurants along the beach, and sat there for hours while I worked online and tried to detox from all the beer we'd been drinking.
If you're looking for actual relaxation, avoid Koh Rong and head to Otres – that's where it's at.
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I've never been scammed like I was in Cambodia.
To be fair, I don't mind paying more at markets and things like that – what's a small amount of money to me can be a lot to someone else, so I'm ok with it, as long as the price isn't exorbitant. What I'm not fine with is being lied to and totally screwed over. If I learnt anything about getting around Cambodia, it was to double-check all transport-related information.
Our trip to Ban Lung was probably the icing on the cake.
There's a lake in Ban Lung that's so round and deep it was supposedly formed by a meteorite years and years ago, so naturally, we really wanted to see it. Mistake number one was going to any old travel agency in Siem Reap.
In India, you can walk in to the sketchiest looking place and book a bus or train that will leave from where they say, when they say. This does not happen in Cambodia.
They said we would be on a big bus (not an over-populated minibus) with air-con, and the whole trip would take five hours. We got on a large bus the next day that had air-con, and a few mosquitoes flying around, and proceeded to travel south instead of east.
The powers-that-be only seemed to understand English when it suited them, so we gave up asking where we were going after a while, realised there was really nothing we could do, and sat there for five-hours travelling in the wrong direction. We were eventually left with a few other tourists at a road-side eatery (in Krong Kampong Chnang, wherever that is) and basically told to shut up and eat some fish soup for an hour while a mini bus came and got us.
It was on this minibus that we discovered we were the only ones going to Ban Lung, and all other tourists were going to Laos. The people in charge told us we would be heading north again, and given that Laos is north from where we were, it seemed pretty likely that's where we were going. Our luggage was strapped to the back of the van (despite everyone's protests), and off we went for another seven hours.
When it got dark, the drivers (who could now miraculously speak English) piped up and said they hadn't been instructed to go to Laos or Ban Lung, and stopped in Stueng Traeng where there was a hotel owner conveniently waiting to take people to his hotel. While everyone else went with him, Chris and I refused, and went to find our own hotel up the road after being assured there would be a bus to take us to Ban Lung the next day.
By this point, we were pretty annoyed. Paying higher prices at a market, for transport or hotels is to be expected, but dealing with two-days of unplanned travel and total uncertainty in a foreign country when no one will give you any information is completely different.
After a lot of questioning, the bus driver's eventually gave us the name of the man who orchestrates these operations (Jed), put him on the phone, and Jed hung up immediately. We were very close to calling off the rest of the trip to look for him and bring justice to tourists everywhere.
The bus did show up the next day (albeit three-hours after it was supposed to), and we arrived in Ban Lung three-hours later. What should have been a five-hours morning trip turned in to a 15-hours odyssey spanning two-days. Wherever Jed is, I'm pretty sure he has more money than I'll ever have in my life.
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As much as I wanted Angkor to be a highlight, I really didn't feel that way at the time. It's a must-see place and I'm so glad I went, but I do not recommend seeing it the way we did. It’s suggested that you see the temples over five days. We did it in two. We also decided to rent bicycles for $4/day instead of paying $25 to get chauffeured around for the day. Unless you're a pro-cyclist who maybe does it in tropical climates all day, every day, always take the chauffeur.
I hadn't ridden a bike in years, and I don't think we really thought about how far it really is around those temples – it's not just Angkor Wat, it's basically a city full of temples and monuments that are all kilometres apart. There's no shade, and at that time of year there's no escaping the heat and humidity. I calculated we'd ridden about 48km on day one. It's about 8km from Siem Reap to Angkor, so you've been going for quite a while before you've even seen a temple.
At that point in time (before I got sick), I had never been in such muscular pain in my life, so when Chris decided he desperately needed to get to Angkor Wat at 5am the next day to see the sun rise, I nearly cried.
It was a morning of misery and woe. I don’t know why we didn’t get a chauffeur for the second day – possibly because we figured we’d already biked the first half so we could do it again. My legs were still burning from the previous day, I was having trouble standing upright, and even at 5am, the humidity was unrelenting. We visited where Tomb Raider was filmed and ogled at everything for another 45km, before arriving back at about 5pm and feeling excruciatingly happy it was over.
I think the worst thing about being so outrageously hot you want to fall in a heap and waste away slowly is that all the locals are dressed from head to toe in jeans, turtlenecks, jumpers, jackets, scarves and hats. The few we spoke to said it’s to keep their skin white (even though they’re in so many layers no one would ever know), but they weren’t sweating or anything. I was a burning red mess.
After that experience, I think I have to go again, but maybe in January next time. The heat and humidity really killed it for me – I can't explain how all-consuming it is, but unless you're from SE Asia, somewhere near the equator, or you just love the heat, I really don't recommend visiting after February. If you want to know when to go, check out my Cambodia Travel Guide.