One Frustrating Comment That All Travelers Make

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel

Until now, I’ve shied away from writing a blog post that is critical about travelers or traveler culture. I didn’t weigh in on beg-packers. I haven’t criticized the false dichotomy of traveler vs tourist (it’s the same thing guys, we’re all tourists!), and I haven’t joined in on lambasting trust fund kids on their gap years. But as I ride my bike around Cambodia and move from remote areas of the countryside to heavily trafficked tourist cities, I’ve decided its time to address a frustrating comment I’ve heard from almost every traveler I’ve spoken with.

Ask any traveler what they love about Cambodia, they will inevitably answer “the people are so kind!” or something similar.

This isn’t limited to only Cambodia. I’ve heard it said about Myanmar. About Nepal. About Laos. And I’m certain that it is said about many more countries around the world. “I love [insert country here], the people are so nice!”

Why Is This Problematic?

Whats wrong with saying this? On the surface, it seems like a great thing to say about a country. It’s a positive comment that expresses how open we are to meeting people from this culture that is so different from ours. To be honest, I used to say this all the time. This comment is one of the reasons I came back to Cambodia in the first place.

But since being back in Cambodia and learning more about their culture and making friends with Cambodian people, I’ve begun to think more critically about my old ways of thinking, and I’ve noticed a few troubling things.


EDIT: I’ve removed a section here where I discussed only seeing westerners make this comment about Asian countries. I have been corrected by friends from around the world. This comment “the people are so kind!” is made in the same spirit about countries around the world, rich or poor.

Being able to say that “the people are so nice” allows us to make a sweeping positive comment that says something and nothing at the same time. We’re expressing an opinion about a culture but it only indicates that we haven’t actually learned about or understood that culture in the least.

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Cambodian Countryside

Smiles Are Not A Substitute for Interactions

At least in Southeast Asia, I think this notion that “the people are so nice” stems from the fact that strangers will almost always smile when you make eye contact. And yes, it feels good to be smiled at all the time.

I often read blogs or talk to people who say “even though they have nothing, they are still so happy and content with their lives!” This comment is based on a smile and a two minute interaction with a local before returning to their foreigner filled hostel.

But the ever present smiles in Southeast Asia come from a culture tradition and don’t necessarily mean that the person smiling at us is actually happy.

On the flip side of this, I’ve met travelers who say “I don’t really like Cambodia, the people aren’t very nice. They always frown at me.” Which, okay, I don’t like to be treated badly either. But why not ask yourself why the Cambodians could feel that way? What is going on below the surface that you aren’t seeing?

We’re getting close to the heart of my issue with this “the people are so kind” comment.

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A Buddhist Icon in Cambodia

“The People Are So Kind” is Insensitive and Reductionist

When we boil an entire culture and entire people down to “the people are so kind” we are romanticizing their life and ignoring the depths of their culture. We’ve decided that, based on our week or month spent traveling around this country, we understand “the people” who live here, only because they smile at us.

Beginning to see the problem?

Something I noticed as I backpacked around Asia was this: when we travel through a country, we don’t really get to know that culture. When we travel, we see a country’s highlight reel. We see what they want us to see. We don’t see the big picture.

How can we assume to understand “the people” of a country from just a short visit to their touristic cities and main attractions?

I think this becomes more noticeable when you decide to settle down in a foreign country. After a few months, the beauty fades and the reality remains. The country is still beautiful but you also begin to understand that the people who live there have problems, have daily stressors, have flaws. They can be happy and sad. The country can be enjoyable and annoying. What you loved while traveling is still there but the picture is more nuanced now.

To be fair, even after a full year of living in Cambodia, the people and culture here still surprises me on a near daily basis. Assuming that you understand a culture or understand a group of people is, dare I say it, pretty arrogant.

When you decide to say that “all the people in Cambodia are so kind” you are allowing yourself to say you know Cambodia without actually getting to know Cambodia. This applies to any country. The people are happy because they smile all the time. They are unpleasant because they don’t smile.

The reality is much more complicated.

I have some Cambodian friends who are kind, caring, and some of the best people I’ve ever met. I have other Cambodian co-workers who I cannot stand and hope never to see again. In short, the people I know in Cambodia are just like the people I know in any other country: some are kind while others are self-righteous assholes.

Perhaps things could be better if, as travelers, we try to remember that the citizens of any country are actual people, with actual lives that have ups and downs, and actual personalities that are a mix of good or bad.

There is no country where “All the people are so kind”.

What can we do instead? What positive thing can we take from this rant?

If we really want to learn about different cultures pick up some books about the country before heading over. Read about their history, recent and ancient. Pick up the English language newspaper in the capital city and read about their current events.

If we look at other cultures as equals, instead of tourist attractions, the entire experience of travel becomes so much richer.

End rant.

TL;DR: Please stop saying “I love [insert country here] because the people are so kind!” It’s insensitive and a total cop-out. Make an effort to learn about the culture instead.

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One Frustrating Comment All Travelers Make

In Photos: The Deserted Mansions of Kep, Cambodia

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel, Uncategorized

Kep, Cambodia. Or as the French once called it, Kep Sur Mer, is a small seaside town that was once a romantic getaway for the rich and famous of Cambodia’s bourgeois class. Jungle clad mountains rolling into turquoise waters made it the perfect escape for upper class Phnom Penhoise. That is, until upheaval, genocide, and decades of civil war ripped Cambodia into pieces, leaving behind only the ruined mansions of Kep, a ghostly reminder of what once was here.


The Golden Age of Kep

Back in the 1920s, when Cambodia was still under French control, the French turned Kep into a seaside resort town. And when King Father Sihanouk of Cambodia negotiated a peaceful independence from France in 1953, the Cambodian upper class continued the trend, turning Kep into an elegant seaside getaway.


Part of that transformation included the building of sophisticated modern and art-deco style houses in the mountains overlooking the sea. These structures, designed by some of the most fashionable architects of the 1960s, including the beloved Vann Molyvann, reflect the so-called “golden age of Cambodia.” To my untrained eye, they’d fit right in among the art-deco houses of Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon.


Kep’s Violent Upheaval

When the Lon Nol government took over Phnom Penh in 1970, expelling King Sihanouk, construction of these mansions was put on hold. That construction was halted forever when the Khmer Rouge came to power.


Given its location in between Phnom Penh and Vietnam, Kep was affected by the war in Vietnam and the wars in Cambodia. When the Khmer Rouge took over the city, they rounded up Kep’s upper class, forced them into a gas station, and lit the building on fire.


Kep’s fortunes didn’t look good even after the “fall” of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. A faction of the Khmer Rouge continued the fight in the hills and mountains of Kampot and Kep until well into the 90s. By then, the romantic lifestyle of the 1960’s felt like a dream, slipping away and tinged with horror.


Today, Kep is finally in a full blown recovery. Khmer families travel from across the country to relax by the shore and enjoy Kep’s famous blue crab. Foreign tourists travel for a day trip from Kampot. Some, like me, decide to stay for a few days. Kep is a relaxed and beautiful seaside town but the scars of its violent past live on.

IMG_0177The Abandoned Houses of Kep, Cambodia

Just a cursory drive around the town reveals glimpses of Kep’s abandoned houses poking out of the jungle. Spend a day exploring the back streets and you’ll come across ruin after ruin, like a sick modern parody of Angkor Wat. Many of the houses have been reclaimed by the jungle, some are gone forever, marked only by the 1960’s era wall surrounding the overgrown plot of land.


Still others have been reclaimed by Kep’s population, filled with squatters and families who, perhaps too poor or perhaps too afraid to relive the painful memories, live in the broken down ruins without rebuilding.


In today’s Cambodia, where the land is more valuable than their cultural heritage, these ruins face an uncertain future. Many have already been torn down in the face of new development, and many more will soon be removed as well.


But I was in love with these ghosts of Cambodia’s golden age. I found them compelling and haunting, pulling me back in time to a Cambodia before the fearsome pain of the Khmer Rouge wars. I hope, for Cambodia’s sake and for tourists’ sake, that someone protects these 1960’s mansions of Kep, keeping at least a few of them safe for the next generation of curious explorers.


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abandoned mansions of kep cambodia

How to Climb Bokor Mountain in the Rain

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel

As part of my trip around Cambodia, I spent a few days resting and exploring the charming riverside town of Kampot. Driving into Kampot, the first thing you notice is the massive mountain rising up beside you. And sitting on top of that mountain is the fabled Bokor Hill Station, a must see if you’re wondering what to do in Kampot.


French Resort in ruins

But since I was there in the beginning of the rainy season, I was a bit nervous to rent a moto and ride up Bokor Mountain in the rain.

Still, I’d been wanting to visit the famous Bokor Hill Station on top of Bokor Mountain for months. Back in the early 20th century, when Cambodia was still a French Protectorate, the French built an elaborate resort and casino on top of the hill. Today, all that remains is a shell of that decadent past. It makes for a great day trip.


The resort, up close

Although I had ridden my mountain bike 600 kilometers to get from Battambang to Kampot, there was nothing that could make me ride my bicycle up to Bokor Mountain. The road is 35km uphill. Just no. I was relishing the idea of renting a moto and effortlessly driving myself up to the top. It was something I’d been dreaming about for a few days while I pushed my bike up the ruthlessly steep hills outside of Koh Kong.

Renting a Moto in Kampot

Renting a moto in Kampot is incredibly easy. It’s the main way that tourists get around town, so there are heaps of people willing to rent you a “new moto” for $4 a day. I saw one guy offering motos for $5 a day. I think he doesn’t get a lot of business.

I’m a brat and wanted a manual moto, so I wandered around town for 15 minutes looking for one. Most places only rent automatics, but eventually a found a shop, Hong Kimeng, and for $4 I had a Honda Wave for the day.

If you, also, want to rent a manual moto, you can find this place kitty corner from La Java Bleue.


Moto entering the mists

When you rent a moto in Kampot, you have to leave your passport behind as collateral. As long as the moto comes back with no damage, you’ll get your passport back.

If the moto comes back damaged, they’ll hold on to your passport until you pay for the damages. And assume that you’ll be overcharged.

The Ride from Kampot to Bokor Mountain

Getting from Kampot to Bokor Mountain is pretty easy. Just head back out of town on the road to Sihanoukville for about 10km, maybe a little less, and eventually you’ll see a massive gate on your right hand side. The gate says Thansur Bokor Highland Resort but this is also the entrance for the national park. They’ve just built a massive, and massively ugly, modern resort casino up there.


Gateway to Bokor National Park

Entrance for a moto is 2000 riel, or 0.50USD. You pay a guard at the gate and he gives you a parking pass. Hang onto that, you’ll need to show it again at the top.

As I drove past the gate, I looked up to see the mountain wreathed in fog and clouds. It had been raining earlier in the morning in Kampot but by now the rain had let up. Still, as I drove towards the mountain the rain began again. I hoped it would clear.


Buildings in the fog

The road up the mountain is winding but easy. It’s uphill but not to steep, and the corners aren’t particularly tight. It’s a pleasant drive, but make sure you fill up your gas tank at the bottom of the hill.

Driving up, I quickly entered the clouds and with them came the rain. I couldn’t see to my left or my right, and even my visibility in front of me was limited. Still, I’m a stubborn girl and I was determined to get up to this ruined old resort.

After 30 minutes or so of driving, I came to another gate, and a sign indicating that the road would split into a T-junction. Showed my parking pass to a guard and passed through. Because the fog and rain was so thick, I had no idea where I was or what was around me. A sign showed the “old casino” was off to the left, so I took the left turn after the roundabout.


Limited Visibility

The rest of the drive was incredibly spooky, in a really great way. Limited visibility. Every once in awhile people or buildings would emerge out of the fog. I drove slowly, headlights on, savoring the effect. The rain had let up a few minutes before but I was still soaked and shivering, even under my thin plastic poncho.

Eventually, confused and lost, I came to the end of the paved road. I couldn’t see anything. There were no signs telling me where to go, and nothing to indicate where this old casino was located. I was a bit frustrated but still game for an adventure. I parked my bike and wandered off into the fog.

Exploring Bokor Hill Station in the Fog

A large building emerged and I could see a path going behind it. As I followed that path up the hill, the fog began to clear, and I was suddenly confronted with a jaw dropping view out over the mountains to the ocean.


The view begins to appear

I gazed out at the sea for a few moments, soaking in that uniquely euphoric feeling you get when standing on top of a mountain. After a few moments of stillness, I looked around and realized the fog had lifted. And with it, my location was revealed to me. I was standing on the edge of a cliff, with the old casino 100 meters to my right, and some other ruined buildings down below me on my left.

In the fog and the rain I had driven by everything, completely oblivious. Now that the fog lifted, I found myself in a stunning environment. The mountains rolled away behind me, the sea stretched out before me, and a ruined old resort sat perched a top the cliff to the my right.


Bokor Hill Station

The casino itself was fun to explore. You can’t go inside the building but you’re free to wander around outside of it. There are some stands across the street that sell coconuts and snacks but I didn’t go check them out.

After some time taking photos and enjoying the atmosphere, I was ready to ride back down the hill. It was 4pm by this point and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. I hopped back on my moto and cruised down the hill.

Home to Kampot

The way back down was wildly different than the way up. The fog, clouds, and rain had entirely disappeared and instead I was gifted with incredible views of the surrounding mountains and countryside. I passed an old church, the ugly modern casino, and a large statue of a meditating woman, which I believe was called Lok Yeay Mao.


Lok Yeay

I flew back down the hill, mostly just coasting in neutral and enjoying leaning into the turns. If the ride up took about 45 minutes, the ride down might have taken only 25.


Ugly modern casino up ther

If you’re planning to ride up to Bokor Hill Station in the rainy season, pay attention to the weather patterns. The few days I was in Kampot, it rained around midday then cleared up in the afternoon. My luck held and I was granted stunning views of Kampot and the countryside. Being up there in the fog, though pleasantly creepy, is nothing compared to the views you get when the sky is clear.

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Bokor Hill Station

Bike Tour Cambodia: Koh Kong to Kampot

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel

Where we left off last, I had made it to O Soam, a remote village high up in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains. I’m hesitant to even describe O Soam, only because I love it so much and obnoxious as I am, I’d love for it to remain “undiscovered.”

Imagine a tranquil lake situated below the tallest mountain peak in Cambodia. The surrounding landscape is covered in a thick jungle. You lay in a hammock most of the day, listening to the birds and the insects. You eat communal meals with a local family and the one other foreigner who stumbled in that day. When you’re feeling adventurous, you head out on your mountain bike to find some trails going off into the jungle. You discover rivers, massive trees, stunning views.

Yeah. That’s why I was there for 6 days.

But all good things come to an end. After those 6 days, it was time to make the long ride from O Soam to Koh Kong.

Cycling O Soam to Koh Kong

The road from O Soam to Koh Kong is 120km of relentless mountain hills. There are a few houses scattered up at the top followed by 90km of pure jungle. Given that I wasn’t convinced I would even make it in one day, I needed to carry all the water and food I would need for one, possibly two days of riding.

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Road to Koh Kong

I’d tried to make this ride once before, in November 2016, only to be thwarted by a flat tire. Back then, I flagged down a passing SUV and got a free ride all the way to the city.

This time I was determined to make it to Koh Kong only under the power of my own legs. I had all the tools and inner tubes I needed to make it all the way. I had my hammock and tarp in case I couldn’t quite get there.

Can I be honest? I was scared.

I was scared the road would be too hard. My legs would be too weak. I would be unequal to the task. I was more or less convinced I wouldn’t be able to make it to Koh Kong.

The night before the ride, the skies dumped gallons of water onto the mountains below, turning the road out of O Soam into a muddy obstacle course. I skidded and slipped down the first 15km or so, hoping that eventually the road would dry out.

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Boats in Koh Kong

It did, but I soon realized I faced another problem. Weighed down as I was with all my water and food, my back tire was having trouble holding air. It wasn’t completely flat, but it would get deflated easily. I had to stop once an hour to laboriously pump air into it with my tiny hand pump. Counting to myself to make sure I sent enough air into the tire, thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty.

As I came down a hill, I saw a house on my left. I knew from my last trip down this road that this was the last house before Koh Kong. I pulled over to ask if they had a proper tire pump.

I was greeted by a smiling and surprisingly outspoken Khmer woman who seemed to know a bit of English. When you first meet them, most Khmer women are soft spoken and a bit shy. To meet a woman who greets you loudly is out of the ordinary, to say the least.

She eagerly grabbed my bike and rolled it up her driveway, pulling out a tire pump and filling up both tires. Then, perhaps because she saw my already exhausted face, she sat me down and put a plate full of rice, an omelette, and a bowl of papaya soup in front of me. “Eat, eat!” She urged.

After the meal, I got up to continue and offered to pay for the meal. But she was having none of it. No money, no money, she insisted, over and over.

I grabbed my bike to head out and just then a bee stung my thumb. It wasn’t super painful, just surprising, but I guess it unleashed all the nerves and tension I’d been bottling up for days. I burst into tears.

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Koh Kong Resort

“No cry! No cry!” The surrounding Khmer people burst into action. They offered to drive me down to Koh Kong, offered to let me stay there, kept telling me not to cry.

I did eventually pull myself together, declined the free ride, and kept riding down the road. This was all before 9am. I wouldn’t arrive to Koh Kong until 5pm that evening.

But I made it. The road was long, the day was intense, but I made it to Koh Kong.

I spent two days in Koh Kong, one for recovery, and one making a quick visa run to Thailand. I’ll talk about that in a separate blog post.

Cycling Koh Kong to Kampot

From Koh Kong, my next section of the trip was riding down Highway 48, a paved road that would take me out to National HIghway 4, one of the busiest roads in Cambodia, and from there over to Kampot, a tranquil river town that had been on my Cambodian bucket list for months.

That first day out of Koh Kong was another intense day. At one point I had a 10km uphill climb of 350m. And another. And another. Just like the day from O Saom, this day seemed to stretch on forever.

These long days have taught me something. The challenging of physically pushing myself past my limits is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Sure, walking across Peru was also physically challenging, and maybe the memory of that has faded over the years, but there is something about riding a bicycle up a mountain that is just relentlessly hard.

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The First Big Climb

I knew before I started this ride that it would be challenging, but I could never have imagined the extent to which I would be exhausted. Riding up these hills, my thighs burning, my lungs burning, my fingers going numb from some kind of pinched nerve in my palm, and yet still pushing through, knowing that I can’t stop yet.

As I climb the massive hills, I set tiny goals for myself. Get to that next corner and you can stop. Reach the corner, okay just kidding, get to that next sign and you can stop. Reach the sign and, oh theres the top, get to the top and THEN you can stop.

But I get to the top and I don’t stop. I roll down the hill, gratefully resting my legs for a few seconds before cranking into high gear and pumping down the hill. The sudden speed sending a burst of adrenaline into my mind and my muscles. All energy, I fly down the road towards the next uphill, ready to tackle this one just like I tackled the last.

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Kids Fishing in Andong Tuek

This process of riding through unforgiving territory for hours on end triggers some pretty intense realizations, both mental and physical. In a single day I might think “I can’t do this anymore” at least five times. But what I’ve learned is that I can do it. I can reach my goal. I can ride until I can barely stand, but if I need to, I can keep riding.

I’ve learned that I am stronger than I ever imagined.

Two days out of Koh Kong, I had one of those days where your muscles just wont warm up. Where even after two hours of riding, you still feel like your legs are made of lead. The bike is the heaviest thing in the world. I wanted to lay down. I wanted to cry. I wanted to give up.

But I had 70km more to go.

It was a 93km day and I probably felt strong for 20 of those kilometers. It was the day I hit National Highway 4, the road that runs from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh. It is one of the busiest roads in the country.

The ride down Highway 4 was a constant barrage of trucks, cars, buses, more trucks, big trucks little trucks all rushing by me at top speed. Truck drivers found it amusing to shout things at me as they drove by. Busses didn’t find it necessary to move over even 6 inches to leave me any space. I felt their gravitational pull as they passed by.

Through it all, I’m operating on my lowest energy reserves. As my legs grow more and more tired, my mind becomes more and more negative. I get taken out of the moment and thrust into the horrible cycle of “when will this end?”


Statues on Highway 4

I did my best to stay positive, but by the end of that day I was mostly just thinking about laying down in whatever bed I could find and not getting up until the next morning.

At 3:30pm I rolled into my intended destination for the day, a placed called Veal Rihn, which is really just a market situated at the turning point for Kampot. I found a small guesthouse and for $5 a night got myself a room with an ensuite squatty potty.

Not 10 minutes after I checked in, the heavens opened and it proceeded to downpour for the rest of the evening. After a shower and some time just laying in bed feeling thankful for cotton and synthetic foams, I got up and peeked outside to find some dinner.

A woman was holding court at a small khmer style restaurant, cooking up stir fried beef and spinach with steamed rice. I ordered a plate and sat down, half conversing with the locals, telling them where I was going, deflecting their offers of beer, and mostly just feeling like a zombie after 2 days and 200km of riding through mountains.

I fell asleep early that night, knowing I only had 55km between me and Kampot.

The Road to Kampot

After my dinner of beef and rice, I woke up the next morning feeling strong and confident. It was ready to bang out these 55km and enjoy my two days of well earned rest in Kampot.

The ride to Kampot was incredibly scenic. It was flat and tree lined. I enjoyed my smooth ride through small villages, market towns, and cresting little hills with views of the ocean and Vietnam’s Phy Quoc island.

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Kuy Tiev on the way to Kampot

I took my time, stopping to take plenty of photos and enjoy the scenery. I had no idea what awaited me in Kampot but I was expecting a typical out of the way Cambodian town. Some markets, women selling pork and rice, maybe a guesthouse or two.

Boy was I wrong.

Kampot: First Impressions

Kampot is a tourist Disneyland. Or at least, after days of interacting only with Khmers and staying in Khmer style accommodations, that is how it felt to me. I rolled into town and was immediately confronted with signs offering vegan and vegetarian meals, twice daily yoga classes, and backpacker hostels. Now I understood why everyone stopped here.

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Feeling Strong

The town itself is gorgeous. French colonial architecture lines the river, with a view of the Bokor Mountains beyond. With all the little shops selling Kampot Pepper, cafes with charming chalkboard signs, and whimsical backpacker shops, it’s the kind of town that you can find anywhere in southeast asia, adapted to please the backpacker crowd.

It’s like Battambang, but with more tourists.

Kampot is charming, delightful, and I’m seriously considering living here for a few months after the ride. But in the middle of this ride, the transition from regular Cambodia to Tourist Cambodia was a bit jarring for me.

Oh well.

Tomorrow I ride to the beachside town of Kep, a mere 26km away, where I’m excited to do a few hours of hiking on the hills there, then spend an evening on the beach. After that, one day ride up towards Phnom Penh then, as a present to my mom from mothers day, I will swallow my pride and get a bus for the last 60km into Phnom Penh. You’re welcome, mom.

I don’t love the idea of putting my bike on a bus but when your mom asks you, as a mothers day gift, well… you say yes.

Bike Tour Cambodia: Battambang to Koh Kong Through The Cardamoms (Part 1)

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel

It’s 4pm, absolutely pissing down rain, and I am hiding in a Khmer family’s house watching lightening crash across the sky. I have 2 hours until sunset and 30 more kilometers to ride through potentially extremely steep mountain roads. My mind is full of despair. Why did I think I could do ride from Battambang to Koh Kong? Is my body even capable of this?

My bike trip around Cambodia has begun.

First up, cycling from Battambang to Koh Kong through the Cardamom Mountains, stopping in Samlout, Pramaoy, and my picturesque paradise: O Saom Village.

The night before I started the trip, I was operating at a low level of panic. In my mind, I was too out of shape, too unprepared. I feared I would set out the next day and not even make it to my first stop.

My friends did their best to cheer me up, but by that point the only thing I could do was start the ride.

My 5am alarm rang sooner than I would’ve liked.

Day 1: Cycling Battambang to Samlout

Waking up, my first thought was, “You don’t need to start the ride today. Go back to sleep.”

Thankfully I have at least a teaspoon of willpower. I headed out the door and left my Battambang life behind.

The first hour or two of the ride was really peaceful. I was up and riding by 5:20am, and had made it out to the picturesque hilltop Wat Sampov temple before the sun had fully risen. All the fear of the night before washed away as the scenery rolled past. By the time I stopped for breakfast I was in the zone.

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Samlout Scenery

My route followed the paved highway to Pailin for about 45km then turned off onto a dirt road heading out towards Samlout. Little did I know this was the last paved road I would see for over a week.

Riding out to Samlout my thoughts were conflicted. All I saw around me was peaceful farmland and Khmer daily life. But I also found myself contemplating the history I knew sat beneath the surface of this region.

Battambang region, and specifically the mountains on the outskirts, were some of the hardest hit areas of the Khmer Rouge period and subsequent civil war. By 1998, the town of Samlout and the surrounding mountains were cut off from the rest of the world. Old Phnom Penh Post articles talk about how impossible it was for wartime journalists to make it to the town, where the last vestiges of the Khmer Rouge fighters were still revolting against the now firmly in power Vietnamese backed Cambodian government. The articles describe how the street to Pailin was lined with refugees. The very same street I was riding down during my first day.

Today, the legacy of that war is hidden somewhat. The valley is peaceful and still, filled with countryside scenes and Cambodian people herding cattle. But the scars remain beneath the surface. Signs dot the roadsides cautioning about mines or detailing mine clearing efforts.

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Demining Sign in Samlout

This violent history doesn’t define the people of Cambodia, however, and I was happy to meet many helpful and engaging locals during the days ride.

The road to Samlout is hilly without being too steep. I finished the 77km before 1pm, exhausted but happy.

As I thankfully rolled into Samlout, I saw a sign that said “Guesthouse” so I pulled in.

No one was home.

I waited.

Eventually a little kid saw me, then ran off shouting. He came back with some little friends and they all stood off to the side and giggled quietly to themselves. After some time, a family showed up. I asked them, in Khmer, if this was a guesthouse. They nodded, then proceeded to more or less ignore me. It was pretty strange but I figured they were just taking their time.


A motorcyclist checks me out on the road to Samlout

As I waited, I lay down across a bench and in my exhaustion, began to fall asleep. The father of the family ushered me inside and offered me a space to sleep on a wooden bed. No hotel room, just a wooden surface inside their house. I thought this too was odd but I was too exhausted to care. I fell asleep for an hour.

Woke up around 2pm absolutely starving. The family was almost entirely gone. A young woman probably about my age sat outside. Leaving my things inside the house, I left to find some food.

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Coming into Samlout

Rode around a bend and discovered that there was a whole second half of the town I hadn’t even seen yet. My doubts about the validity of my “guesthouse” began to solidify. But first, food.

As I’m enjoying my market stall noodle soup, the cook comes over and starts talking to me in English. Asks where I am from, if I’m traveling alone… typical questions. Then she asks if I’ve found the guest house yet, and points in the opposite direction.

Okay, so I wasn’t at the guesthouse.

Back at the first “guesthouse” the young woman was still sitting in front in the same position as when I had left. I picked up my bags, put them on my bike, said goodbye to her, and rode away. She didn’t seem phased at all. Just smiled and went back to staring into space.

From their point of view, I’m pretty sure a Cambodian family found a random foreigner sitting on their front step, let her sleep in their house for a few hours, and then the foreigner rode away.

Who knows.

Anyway, I found the proper guesthouse and got a room for the night. Had a really festive dinner with the owner and his friends, and was up at 5am the next day ready to ride.

Day 2: Cycling Samlout to Pramaoy and Everywhere In Between

How to even begin to describe this day? It was the first of many truly challenging days I would have cycling in Cambodia’s mountains from Battambang to Koh Kong.

The ride to Pramaoy taught me who I am as a person. It changed my understanding of myself on a fundamental level. It broke me down and built me back up over and over again.

I set out from my Samlout guesthouse all confidence. Yesterday had been so effortless, so fun. I was sure today would be even better. Only 71 kms. Throw a couple mountain climbs in there. No problem. Piece of cake.

It only took a few minutes for that hope to be shattered. My route veered onto jungle paths that barely live up to the word “road.” Eventually I made my way down to the river. No bridge. I was stuck.

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On the New Route to Pramaoy

I quickly found a new route that would add about 20km to my day. The new route cut a fairly straight line through some foothills towards the mountains. I rolled through several villages, coasting up and down small hills with the mountains rising majestically to my right.

After breakfast, I crossed the “bridge” which was really just a couple of logs strung together and got some questionable directions from the local villagers.

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The Only Bridge for Miles

I took the first right hand turn, checked my GPS and pedaled off down the road. Energetic from my breakfast and confident as I faced off with the mountain ridge in the distance, I pedaled hard and fast, allowing my thoughts to flow with the scenery around me.

I daydreamed like this for a good hour before stopping to check my GPS. To my horror and dismay I had missed a turn. Not missed it. Overshot it by about 20km. There was NO way I was backpedaling 20km. Not after the bridge incident from the morning.

I asked to my GPS to recalibrate. Took a new road forward, confident I had tricked google maps and found a better route after all.

But Cambodia had other plans for me.

The road soon disintegrated into a mucky, muddy mess. If you’ve never experienced the unique substance that is Cambodian mud, let’s take a minute to pay homage to this unique form of torture.


Just a Cambodian Mountain Road

Cambodia’s soil is a rich clay that, when wet, becomes a slippery pit of despair that eats everything in its path. The harder you try to stay upright, the more the mud pulls you inexorably downwards.

It was a struggle, to say the least. There were some single tracks that intrepid motorcyclists had carved around the muck, saving me a bit of time and effort. Nonetheless, I took my first massive fall of the ride right into a giant puddle. With great effort I pulled myself upright and came face to face with a laughing old man.

Stifling his laughter, he asked where I was going. He leaned down and drew a map to Pramaoy in the mud. The rest of the morning entailed riding down a dirt road, hoping to eventually reach a T-junction.

I must admit, there came a moment where I shouted “I can’t do this anymore!”

5 minutes later I reached the T-junction. Because of course I broke down right before the end. Put myself back together and carried on, now safely back on track.


Happy to see the T-Junction and be back on the main road

Popped into a market, had a plate of rice and pork, and fell asleep in a hammock for an hour and a half. Got up at 1pm to head up into the mountains, excited but nervous.

And of course, almost immediately, google maps sent me off on some crazy “short cut” road that was barely a road, mostly mud, and literally ate my bike up to the front wheel shocks. Luckily I still had one foot on solid ground and could pull myself back up.

Exhausted, frustrated, and a little excited, I fought my way through the bush road and made it back to the official road up into the mountains.

And man, was it up. It was relentless. A steep climb that just kept going. I had to stop several times to catch my breath and sit with the truck drivers who were also taking breaks. Because I guess driving trucks up mountains is also hard work.

But eventually, even though there is always more up, I came to the top. Actually, I made it to the top a lot more quickly that I expected to, which is pretty unusual in the mountains. Still, I couldn’t let myself get arrogant. Some truck drivers I had spoken to made me a bit nervous. Pramaoy was still very far away, with another big climb between here and there.


At the top of the climb, about to take the downhill.

After that massive steep climb I was rewarded with every mountain biker’s dream: a long, almost endless downhill. It went on forever. It never went up, just down, down, down. Down through this wide open valley surrounded on all sides by mountains. There is a small village up there that stretches along the road. The locals would call out and cheer as I flew by. I would smile and laugh in return.

I was exuberant. I was flying. I was ecstatic.

Then everything changed.

Dark clouds pregnant with rain gathered in the sky over my head. As the first fat drops splattered down, a woman waved me over to cower under cover of her shop. I sat and ate a quick meal, and checked my phone and GPS.

4pm with 30km more to go through the mountains.

Sunset was at 6:20, and during my previous climb and rugged road conditions, it had taken me 1 hour to go 10km. At that rate, and with it pouring rain, impossible to ride in and guaranteed to make the dirt roads more difficult…. I doubted my ability to make it to Pramaoy.

Still, I was determined to try. by 4:20pm, the rain had cleared up and I was back on my bike, flying down the road.

Adrenaline and determination were flowing through my veins. I pushed and pushed. The downhill continued for a bit but then the road again began to climb. Thankfully nowhere near as steep as the early afternoon mountain ascent. I continued to push with an intensity I didn’t realize I had.

Honestly, that whole end of the day is a bit of an adrenaline soaked blur. I know the road passed through thick jungle, through a town, and I saw lots of roads turning off to the left. I knew the road would fork, and I needed to take the right fork, so I studiously stayed to the right.

Nonetheless, as the last light left the sky for the day, I found myself speeding out onto the main road, a Khmer man laughing nearby, most definitely NOT in Pramaoy.

How the fuck had I taken the left fork? I don’t even remember there BEING a fork, and I definitely stayed to the right the whole time.

Never solved that particular mystery.


Cambodian Village Life

Checked google. 7.2km to Pramaoy. Okay, I told my fatigued legs, my exhausted lungs, and my disappointed mind, you can do this. 7km is nothing.

In the dim light of dusk, I rode. The road was now a large, well maintained dirt road. The hills were small, but my exhausted legs still complained on every uphill. With about 5km to go, I hit the wall. I started cursing the day I was born, cursing my decision to make this bike trip, and definitely cursed at a dog that started barking at me.

But curses aside, at 7:20pm I rolled into Pramaoy and collapsed into the first guesthouse I saw.

From 5:20am to 7:20pm, including an hour and a half in a hammock, I had been traveling for 14 hours. But I had made it to Pramaoy.

I’d love to say I gratefully took a rest day there in Pramaoy, but Pramaoy isn’t the kind of town that begs you to stay.

No, instead I woke up the next day and did it all over again.

Day 3: Cycling Pramaoy to O Saom

This was my second time making the cycling trip from Pramaoy to O Saom. I’d made it once before. Last November on my first trip through the Cardamoms.

This time was easier. I knew what to expect. Instead of stressing about the climbs or my mileage, I savored every hill. Pushed through the climbs, enjoyed the struggle, and made it to O Saom by 11am, with a little help from the ferry across the lake.


Almost to O Saom, looking back.

It was a great ride. The road was in poor condition, but considerably better than it had been in November.

I rolled into O Saom exhausted but happy.

That’s a wrap on the first half of my ride from Battambang to Koh Kong. Once I’ve finished cycling through the Cardamoms, I’ll cover the unbelievably intense ride from O Saom to Koh Kong and Koh Kong to Andong Tuek. Until then,

Never stop exploring.

Bike Tour Cambodia: The Plan

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel

If you’re subscribed to my youtube channel or follow me on just about any form of social media, then you already know I’m going to ride a bike around Cambodia for the next month and some change. If you want to learn how to travel the world by bicycle, here is what I’ve learned.

Bicycle tourism has always been something I’ve wanted to try. Even when I was organizing my first backpacking trip back in 2013, I considered biking around Vietnam and Laos. It didn’t play out back then because I thought it would be too difficult to organize it once I arrived in Vietnam.

And back then, it probably would have been. But now it’s 2017. I’ve been traveling for years. I’ve lived in Cambodia for over a year at this point. And most of all, I know how to organize an adventure in a foreign country. So that’s what I did. And it’s almost time to go.

As I write this, today is Wednesday, April 26, 2017. I start my ride on May 1st. That is this coming Monday. I still have things to buy, Khmer I’ve never studied, and my foot is still just a little bit sore from an injury that set me back a month ago.

Oh yeah, did I mention I haven’t been able to ride for the last month because of an injury in my ankle/foot? Yeah.

Let’s get down to it. In this article I want to break down what I’m packing, where I’m going, and the things I’m most excited about seeing on my bicycle trip around Cambodia.

The Packing List: What to Bring on a Bike Trip Round the World

Okay, it isn’t a bike trip around the world, just Cambodia. But still! Here is the list of what I am packing, split up into categories. I’m trying to pack light, while still having everything I need in case of disasters or nights spent out in the middle of nowhere with no guesthouse or even regular house for shelter.

Category 1: Bike Gear

  • 1 Merida Mountain Bike
  • 1 Multitool
  • 4 Inner Tubes
  • 1 Patch Kit
  • 1 Hand Pump
  • 1 Can Chain Grease
  • 1 Rag
  • 1 Bike Helmet

Category 2: Clothing

  • 3 pairs biking shorts/pants
  • 2 long sleeve shirts
  • 2 T-shirts for relaxing/pijamas
  • 1 sarong (doubles as a skirt and towel)
  • 1 dress (for when I’m not on a bike)
  • 5 pairs of underwear
  • 5 pairs of socks
  • 1 poncho
  • 1 hat
  • 1 pair sunglasses
  • 1 pair bike gloves
  • 1 krama scarf

Category 3: Toiletries

  • 1 small bottle 2-in-1 shampoo
  • 1 deodorant
  • 1 toothpaste
  • 1 toothbrush
  • 1 floss
  • 1 comb
  • 5 extra hair ties
  • 1 menstrual cup
  • 1 bottle sunscreen
  • 1 bottle 98% deet bugspray (SORRY NOT SORRY)
  • 1 First Aid Kit (disinfecting spray, bandaids, wraps)
  • Many packets of ibuprofen

Category 4: Electronics*

  • Macbook Pro & Charger
  • Phone & Charger
  • Canon DSLR & Kit Lens & Charger
  • Kindle
  • External Hard drive

Category 5: Miscellaneous

  • 1 Hammock
  • 1 Rope (about 4 meters)
  • 1 Tarp (to cover panniers, and me if I get caught sleeping in the rain)
  • 1 Mosquito net
  • 1 Notebook
  • 1 Flashlight
  • 1 Knife
  • 1 Spoon
  • 1 Camelpak
  • 1 Passport
  • 1 Wallet with money

And that is IT! That is everything that I will have with me as I ride in a big giant circle around Cambodia. Any questions or concerns about my packing list? Have I forgotten something? Tell me about it in the comments down below!

*I wouldn’t normally want to bring a laptop on a journey like this. However, I’m planning on working during the ride and I need to have my computer with me in order to do that. Do I now wish I had purchased a more lightweight laptop? Yes. Yes, I do.

The Route: Getting Off the Beaten Path in Cambodia

I’ve spent the last year living in Battambang, Cambodia. Battambang is a gorgeous city with incredible countryside, but it does have some drawbacks. Most notably, that you cannot get anywhere else in Cambodia without first having to go through Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. And since Siem Reap is a 3 hour drive away, and Phnom Penh a 6 to 8 hour drive, that sort of rules out weekend getaways.

All that is to say I’ve spent the last year gazing longingly at maps of Cambodia, wondering what is out there. To date, I’ve visited two cities on the coast, Sihanoukville and Koh Kong, ridden a bicycle for four days through the Cardamom Mountains, and spent some time in Pailin, Siem Reap, and Phnom Penh.

Okay that actually sounds like a lot.

But there is so much more of Cambodia to explore! When it came time to plan my route, I knew I wanted to reattempt the Cardamom Mountains and I wanted to explore Mondulkiri, Ratanakiri, and Preah Vihear. The rest of the route just planned itself.

Before we get into the nitty gritty, here is a map of my route:

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This a mostly accurate map.

Let’s talk about a few of the places I am the most excited for.

First up, I’ll begin the ride in the Cardamom Mountains. This is similar to the route I took back in November, just with a different starting point. My original plan was to be in really good shape so that I wouldn’t struggle as much as I did the first time around. Oh well! A twisted ankle threw that plan out the window. Instead of being in peak physical form, I’ve just rested for an entire month. Cardamom mountains, here I come.

With the Cardamoms, I’m really looking forward to taking in beautiful views, struggling up the mountainsides, and the sense of relief I will feel when I finally get a view of the lake and O Saom village. The highlight of any ride through the Cardamom’s is tranquil O Saom village, and I cannot wait to get back there. After that it’s just a quick 100kms through the mountains to Koh Kong.


On the lake in O Saom Village

Spend a day working and recovering in Koh Kong, a city on the coast, and then I’m off to Chi Phat. Chi Phat is this little town up in the Cardamoms where hopefully I can squeeze in a two day trek. I’ve heard they are a bit expensive and it can be challenging if you are traveling solo, but I’m going to give it a shot anyway.

From there, it’s a one or two day ride over to Kampot, where I will spend two days exploring and working. I’ve heard from many people that Kampot is wonderful and not to be missed. I’m looking forward to visiting the ruined old French resort at Bokor Hill Station, and riding my bike casually through the countryside.

Pop over to Kep on the ocean real quick because I heard they have good food then it’s a few days ride up to Phnom Penh. In Phnom Penh I will have to buy a new visa (yipee!) but luckily this is Cambodia so you can literally stay for as long as you have money. A 6-month multiple entry business visa is $150.

After Phnom Penh comes the part I am the most uncertain about. I’ve chosen to follow a road called “National Highway 8” that goes towards the Vietnamese border, skirts it to head north, and eventually meets up with Highway 11 and the route to Sen Monorom in Mondulkiri.

I’m nervous for this section because there are no major cities, there are no tourist hubs, this region is in effect a “wildcard” for me. I have no idea if there will be guesthouses, I don’t know how the people will be, I have no idea what to expect. And that is why I picked it. I could’ve chosen an easier route, riding from Phnom Penh up to Kampong Cham and over to Sen Monorom. But really, what is the fun in that?

Then, Sen Monorom is the main city in Mondulkiri Province. There is an elephant sanctuary there, the Elephant Valley Project, and I’m planning to spend half a day with those elephants. Might spend another day in town exploring, might not.

Up next: THE DEATH ROAD. Okay, in all seriousness, there is a long road that runs between Sen Monorom and Banlung. In the past, it was unpaved and referred to as “the death road.” It’s paved now. But I’m still excited to ride it. Should take me two days.

Banlung. I want to do some trekking up there but the only prices I can find online are $130 for 2 days! I’m sorry but that is just not right. I’ll wait and see what happens when I get there. If I can trek, I will trek. If they insist on this ridiculous mark-up then whatever, I ain’t mad.


My bike from my previous ride through the Cardamoms

After Banlung comes the newest addition to my route: the road to Siem Pang. This road is irresistible. The road to Siem Pang is not paved. In places it is barely even a road. I’ve read trip reports from guys on motorized dirt bikes who say it took them 9 hours to finish the 95km, so I’m imagining it will take me two days. This is why I’m bringing the hammock, guys.

From Siem Pang, I ferry across the river then head back down to Stung Treng and hug the Laos/Thai border over to Preah Vihear. Preah Vihear has been a Cambodian travel goal for me since I arrived in April 2016. It’s a large, Angkorian era temple situated on top of a cliff right on the border with Cambodia and Thailand. It commands stunning views of the surrounding countryside and is apparently really well preserved. Can’t wait.

After that, I’ll stick close to the Thai border, enjoying some Cambodian countryside, staying in homestays, and loop back down to Battambang!

Time to Bike Around Cambodia

There you have it, that’s my plan. Am I nervous? Yes. Is it the hot season? Yes. I’ll be waking up at 4:30 or 5 am each day to ride, hopefully finishing shorter days by 11am. For the longer days, I plan to ride all morning, sit under some shade during the hot period, then start riding again at 3pm. I’m also planning on working the entire time. I create content for blogs and businesses around the world, so I’ll still try to spend 2 to 4 hours each day on that. Longer during my rest days. So, there you have it. That’s the plan.

Let’s see what happens.

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Koh Rong Samloem: The Subtle Pleasure of Island Life

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel

Koh Rong Samloem is a little slice of heaven in Cambodia. White sand beaches, turquoise blue waters, and fairly cheap accommodation if you know where to look, this is the kind of place that lures you in and lulls you into an enchanted slumber.

I want to pretend that I intentionally set time aside and treated myself to a little island getaway, but that isn’t how it happened at all. Instead, I went to Koh Rong Samloem on a whim, with no reservations and almost no research.

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Pathway to the beach on Koh Rong Samloem

I’d spent the five days prior relaxing on Otres Beach during the Khmer New Year. I was supposed to go to Phnom Penh. I was meant to get back to my “real life.”

But with only $150 in my pocket and a sense that I couldn’t leave Cambodia without seeing at least one island, I booked the ferry instead of the bus.

Getting the Ferry to Koh Rong Samloem

I booked a ticket through my hostel in Otres and didn’t really ask any questions about where it went on the island or if it was the best choice.

That was a mistake.

All ferry tickets to Koh Rong Samloem cost $20. This covers your ferry ride to the island and your ferry ride back to the mainland, no matter how long you stay. But here is the catch: there are several different beaches and bays on the island.

Saracen Bay is the main beach featuring resorts and bungalows. M’Pai Bay is the more casual backpacker hangout with hostels and cheaper prices.

My ferry took me to Saracen Bay, the land of luxury. Since I hadn’t done any research at all, I had no idea that I wasn’t on the right beach. As I first stepped off the ferry onto the pier, I was ecstatic to be on the island. The beach was stunning: crystal blue waters reflecting the tropical sun. The kind of beach where one can imagine James Bond meeting a gorgeous woman and then beating the Sultan of Brunei in a game of poker. I set off to walk down the beach and find a place to stay.

It only took a few moments for something to feel off. The only accommodations I could see were resorts. No one else was walking down the beach. No one had an overly stuffed backpack. No one else looked confused. Something was wrong.

I even walked up to one place that had the appearance of a backpacker hangout. Yes, they had bungalows. For the low, low price of $90 a night. Welp. I’m clearly in the wrong place.

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Kid’s rafts at M’Pai Bay

I walked for almost an hour down the whole beach. With a twisted ankle, I should probably add. I tried to ask a local guy running a shop how to get to M’Pai Bay, and he gave me some story about needing to rent a private boat for $50. Like, where am I? What happened to my Cambodian paradise?

DSC00948.JPGI was completely confused and thrown by how difficult this all was. Years of showing up in cities with no reservations had made me arrogant. I was thrown by my own hubris. Of course, you need to plan and do research! But I hadn’t, and I was paying for it.

Eventually, I walked down almost the entire beach and saw a place with a crowd of backpackers standing in front, looking confused. My tribe! I had found them. I wandered up and asked the first person if they knew how to get to M’Pai Bay.

“We’re waiting, apparently a water taxi is coming soon.”

Excellent. I was right on time. Not 5 minutes later 2 different water taxis pulled up. For $5, I got a lift to M’Pai bay, land of the backpacker hostels. This is the kind of beach James Bond would hide out at after he killed the ambassador to some African nation.

I later learned that different ferry companies stop at different bays. I paid a total of $30 to get on and off the island, including the water taxis from Saracen to M’Pai. I could have paid only $20 for a direct ride from Sihanoukville to M’Pai. Megan didn’t research. Megan paid extra. Don’t be like Megan. Do your research.

Staying on M’Pai Bay, Koh Rong Samloem

Let’s get to the wondrous parts. After all the chaos and frustration of my arrival, I finally made it to Paradise. I met some people on the water taxi who were all headed to a hostel called Yellow Moon. Cool, I had no reservations so it sounded just as good as any other hostel.

Travel Tip:
If you make friends on the way to a destination, stay with those friends. If you don’t, take your time and explore the options. It doesn’t always make sense to take the first thing you’re offered.

Yellow Moon ended up being the last hostel in the bay, right on the water with lots of hangout spaces and a nightly bonfire. Their dorm was full, but they directed me to the nearby Coast 23 hostel, where I took a bed in the 10 room dorm. The dorm was extremely basic, just 10 metal framed bunk beds with mattresses and mosquito nets. Coast 23 is basically an extra dorm room for Yellow Moon and they share a common area.

Yellow Moon ended up being the “party hostel” of the island. I put it in quotes because there isn’t much of a party scene on Koh Rong Samloem. The music stops at 1 am. Parties are for Koh Rong. Life on Koh Rong Samloem is about the more subtle pleasures of island life.

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The view from M’Pai Bay

Checked into the dorm, put down my stuff, then headed out to explore. I found some rocks by the water and had a moment of silence, staring out across the bay. As I stared out across the bay I was thrown back to my backpacking trip in 2014. The memories of other tropical islands and peaceful beaches came flooding back to me, and I recalled the sense of peace and tranquility that comes with life on an island. This is why we fly halfway around the world to be here.

One Full Day of Peace on Koh Rong Samloem

My one full day on the island was dreamlike in its perfect. I awoke late, finding myself to be one of the last people still sleeping in the dorm. Oh well. Rising from my bed, I wandered off down the beach in search of a coffee.

Sat in some chairs in front of a place called Mango Lounge and sipped my coffee, reading my book, and enjoying the sound of the waves slowly rocking up to shore. Backpackers ambled by, locals drove motorbikes through the sand, and I existed, quietly.

After enough time had passed, I rose from my chair and wandered off to the beach.

The beach at M’Pai Bay is a bit far away from the hostels, which makes it all the more isolated and gorgeous. A 5-minute walk down a sandy path opens onto a white sand beach devoid of houses, roads, or hostels. Way down the far end there is a small pier and maybe some bungalows, but tucked away into the foliage, you hardly notice them.

I ambled down the beach until I found my perfect spot, shaded by the trees. Deposited by things and headed into the ocean.

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The beach on M’Pai Bay

I let the salt water envelop me, I let my consciousness go and became the sea. The water was warm and gentle, like an embrace from someone you love with all your heart but never get to see. The waves were soft, the sun was bright, the air was fresh. If perfection were a place, this would be it. I swam, I rested, I floated, I stood. I laid in the sand. Read my book. Slept.

Got up and walked back into the ocean.

I think it was one of the best days of my life. Stillness has a way of making everything brighter.

Saying Goodbye

One more night on Koh Rong Samloem, spent chatting with backpackers around a bonfire and drinking a bit more beer than I should’ve. I woke early on my last morning, very reluctantly ready to leave my island paradise.

Leaving was just as confusing as arriving, unfortunately.

I got on the first boat to show up at the pier, around 8:30 or 9 am. It took me back to Saracen bay for $5. But then the problems began. I was dropped off at the FAR end of the beach from the pier I needed. It would be an hours walk in the hot sun (on my currently twisted ankle) or I could try to figure out a water taxi.

I flagged down a small dingy and (in Khmer) tried to ask the guy how much to go to the far pier. I was ready to pay up to $2. His starting price? $10. I countered with $3. He said yes, then laughed, and drove away.

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M’Pai Bay Pier

The one thing I did not like about this island: relationships between locals and tourists seem very strained. The locals do not seem to like or respect us at all. It isn’t so surprising, our party culture is the exact antithesis of Cambodian norms. But it was still disheartening.

Some time later, another boat showed up and the captain drove me to the further pier for free, so alls well that ends well. My ferry showed up 10 minutes later and I was off. Waving goodbye sadly to my little island paradise.

I could have happily spent a week laying on that white sand beach outside of M’Pai Bay.

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Otres Beach: Cambodia’s Hippie Hideaway

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel

Otres Beach. I’ve been here three times now. I keep meaning to get out to the islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem, but somehow I end up seduced by Otres again and again.

Theres something so wonderfully compelling about this little beachside collection of tumbledown shacks. Maybe it’s the complete lack of luxury resorts, maybe it’s the assemblage of hippies and vagabonds that populate Otres Village, or maybe it’s the blend of live music, backpacker parties, and soothing beach vibes that make Otres so addicting.

This is my third (and final?) trip to Otres Beach and I think I can finally put my finger on why I love this place so much.

Relaxing Otres Beach Vibes

Contrary to most backpackers and tropical travelers, I’m actually not a huge beach person. I grew up near the ocean and I love it, but sitting on a beach isn’t my main priority when I’m traveling.

Otres 1 Cows

Don’t get me wrong, once I get to the beach, I can easily spend hours laying in the sand or swimming in the water. But when I’m traveling, it’s usually the mountains I head for, rather than the beaches.

Unfortunately, as I’ve previously bemoaned, Cambodia is rather lacking where mountains are concerned. So when Khmer New Year rolled around in April 2016 and I found myself with a week off from work, I reserved a private bungalow at the enchantingly named Hacienda in Otres Village and headed down for a week on the beach with absolutely no expectations.

Otres is divided into three beaches. Otres 1 is the most popular. Here, a collection of ramshackle huts, restaurants, bars, and hostels all spill out onto the beach, the buildings opening onto the turquoise waves. I have happily spent an entire day drinking cocktails and laying about on one of the many beach chairs.

Otres 2 is much quieter and less built up. It has a few hotels and restaurants but other than that there isn’t much going on. It’s far less crowded than it’s neighboring Otres 1.

Between Otres 1 and Otres 2 is a long stretch of uninhabited white sand beach. Head there at any time of the day and you’ll be able to grab a piece of shade and have a tropical beach all to yourself. Otres Village, set back 1/2 mile from the beach, is just beyond this bare stretch.

Apparently there is also an Otres 3, but I’ve never made it down that far.

Early morning walks on the beach let you appreciate the tranquility not often found in Cambodia. By midday, the sun is at its peak and you’re forced to find shelter in the shade. Some of the best days I’ve spent at Otres have been by myself, sitting under the shade of a tree, watching the waves crash up on the shore and the sun setting in fiery orange display at the end of the day.

The Chillest People

Otres Beach is one of those places where people come for a few days, but stay for a few months or years. The collection of people who have found themselves stuck on this beach are incredibly relaxed and all a bit weird.

Otres Beach

The first time I came to Otres, in April 2016, I stayed at a hostel called Hacienda. The bar at Hacienda is a repository of people too content or confused to move on. After only a few days, I’d built up a little tribe. The temptation to stay was strong and nearly impossible to resist.

Perhaps thats why I’m back again in April 2017. I’ve kept more to myself this time, but even so, that same vibe exists. Groups of travelers and locals hang out around the bar. After only a few days in town, I’m finding myself playing a late night game of pool with some of them.

This is, I think, the best thing about the backpacker culture: radical inclusion.

Live Music on Otres for Days

The live music culture is the absolute best thing about Otres, for me. Living in Battambang for the last year, I am absolutely starved for live music. We have had exactly one show in the last year: when the Cambodian Space Project came to town. They’re awesome but a girl cannot live on one concert per year.

On Otres, you can find live music, jam sessions, open mics, or something of the sort any night of the week, as long as you know where to look.

The heart of this live music scene is in the hippie enclave of Otres Village. Built onto reclaimed swampland, this little village features winding dirt roads playing host to hostels, bars, and music venues made by the type of hippie who wants to call Cambodia home.

Otres Beach Sunset

If you’re looking for some live music, Stray Cats is a good place to start. The owner is also a musician and they often have jam sessions or open mics.

Wednesday evenings feature Kerfluffle, the weekly jungle rave. Yeah, it’s exactly what it sounds like.

Stray Cats Otres BeachOn Saturdays, the Otres Night Market is absolutely the spot. It’s not your conventional southeast asian night market, probably because you won’t find too many southeast asians hanging out in there. The market features vendors selling handmade jewelry and clothing, along with some speciality alcohols like absinth or craft beer.

Up on stage, band after band plays live music sets. Some of the bands are “locals”, mixtures of local khmer and foreigner musicians who live in Otres. Other bands are travelers just rolling through, playing for a night or two.

Otres Market night is a really good time. It certainly isn’t authentically Cambodian, but if you’ve been on the road for a few months or years, sometimes its nice to experience something that feels so familiar.

Other than that, just have a walk around. You’ll meet people, hear about things, and pretty soon you’ll be floating from one music night to the next.

You Can Check Out But You Can Never Leave

If you’re not careful, you’ll get sucked into life here in Otres and suddenly months will go by in a blur. I was definitely tempted to stay after the first time I came here, and now as I set here in an open air cafe on what it meant to be my last day, I’m contemplating buying a boat ticket out to Koh Rong Somloem, instead of the bus ticket to Phnom Penh that I should be buying…

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My Top 5 Reasons To Visit Battambang

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel

One year ago, I hopped on a plane in Los Angeles, California and flew to Cambodia. I was flying halfway across the world to work as the communications manager for an artistic NGO in a town called Battambang. I had never heard of Battambang before this. My decision to move to Cambodia was based on only vague, happy memories of my time as a tourist there in 2014.

Naively, I thought my 2 weeks spent volunteering in Kampong Cham in 2014 had prepared me for a permanent move to Cambodia. I thought I knew what to expect, thought I knew what would happen in the coming year. I foolishly believed that after a year and a half in Korea, a year in Peru, and six months backpacking Asia, I would now be immune to culture shock. I expected my life in Cambodia to be easy, happy, and perfect.


View of Battambang from Phnom Sampov

Yeah, well, obviously I was wrong. Adapting to life in Cambodia proved to be quite the challenge. The language barrier was my first major obstacle. I hadn’t realized how much I relied on my Spanish while living in Peru. Suddenly, going to the markets to buy vegetables was a herculean task. Even communicating with my new landlord was tricky.

Then there was the job itself. I was thrown right into the thick of it, arriving at the NGO only 1 month prior to our largest event of the year: the Tini Tinou International Circus Festival. With no training and no overlap with my predecessor, I had to hit the ground running in a situation for which I was woefully underprepared.

The list goes on. I struggled to find a social group I liked, I found myself hanging out with Khmer and French people, my mind exhausted by the lack of English. Learning to communicate cross culturally in Cambodia was daunting and I shudder to think of all the culturally insensitive things I must have said and done in those early months.


Battambang countryside

But eventually, slowly, the dust settled. I found friends, both foreigner and Khmer, who I love. I bought a motorbike and took long drives out into the countryside. And over the last 12 months, Battambang has shifted from being an intimidating and noisy foreign city, to being my home.

And on that note, I want to go through some of my favorite things about Battambang.

The Battambang Circus

Okay, to be totally honest, this is where I work. And while all NGO’s have their issues, the programs that are run by Phare Ponleu Selpak are some of the coolest I have ever seen. Phare is an art school that began in the refugee camps during the war with the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s. In the 90s, the school opened in Battambang, offering art therapy through drawing. But it grew and grew, and today they have classes in circus, theatre, music, dance, fine art, graphic design, animation, and more. I know, pretty crazy, right?

Did I mention all those classes are free?


Photo Credit to Caroline Hosey over at Grits and Rice

One of the ways the NGO funds these classes are through weekly circus performances. The shows are put on in a big top on campus, and performed by the top level students of the circus program. The energy and spirit during these shows is contagious. You can’t help but gasp and cheer along as they defy gravity in front of your eyes. It is some of the most inspiring performance art I’ve ever seen. It’s clear they absolutely love what they are doing.

The top students can go on to perform at the professional circus, Phare The Cambodian Circus, up in Siem Reap.

If you’re coming to Cambodia, I can’t emphasize enough what a cool experience this circus show is. You won’t find anything else like it.

Visiting the Countryside

Over the last year that I’ve lived here, I’ve slowly come to appreciate how stunningly beautiful the Cambodian countryside is. If you’re lucky enough to visit Cambodia in October or November, be prepared to be awed by the vivid green of fertile rice fields, and the deeper color of the lush jungle in the distance. Waking up to watch the sunrise across the rice fields is an especially beautiful treat.


My moto Desert Storm takes on the rainy season fields

Battambang is, in my humble opinion, one of the best cities in Cambodia for countryside views. Known as the rice bowl of Cambodia because of its especially fertile soil, the countryside is filled with rice fields, quaint villages, and beautiful temples.


Man makes rice paper

To get this countryside experience, the best way is by renting a moto or bicycle and going out to explore. If you want an organized experience, the best people in town to go to are Soksabike. Their countryside tour will take you to visit families keeping traditional livelihoods alive, and will take you through some of the most beautiful hidden streets of Battambang’s countryside villages.

But if you’re in town for a few days, definitely rent a moto, Ke over at Choco l’art has a few, and take some time to just get lost.

Quietly Stunning Temples

Battambang has applied to be a UNESCO world heritage site, and one of the main reasons for that is its plethora of temples. Some sources claim there are over 1000 around the city, and if you take a day or two to explore, it really feels like that might be true. Turn down any side street, and pretty soon, you’ll see the ornate gateways and golden stupas rising up behind an Angkor Wat inspired gateway.


Just a random temple near my house

The town also has a few ancient temples, built around the time of Angkor Wat. The three easiest to find are Banon Temple, Ek Phnom Temple, and Baset Temple. Banon is easily my favorite and the most beautiful, situated on top of a mountain. Climb the 6000 stairs (I exaggerate) to visit its towers and get a nice view of the countryside. Before you leave, follow a path around the base of the mountain to find a sacred cave. There are usually a few locals around to give you a brief tour and bless you with the holy water that drips out of the hanging stalactites. Entrance to the temple and caves is $2.

Ek Phnom and Baset temple are much smaller. Ek Phnom is popular with tourists, located 10km down a winding road through tropical villages north of town. Entrance is only $1, and you can also see a giant Buddha statue. Baset temple is little known to most tourists, so you’ll probably be the only foreigner there. Entrance is free and it’s a nice place to chill out and people watch.

When it comes to modern temples, take your pick. Wat Sampov is the most popular with tourists, and includes the gruesome killing caves and bat cave extravaganza.

Coffee Shops, Art, and Architecture

The center of town is reason enough to visit Battambang. In Siem Reap you can’t walk around the city without being harassed by tuk tuk drivers and opportunistic shopkeepers. The opposite is true in Battambang. Locals know that you’re a tourist, but they figure if you need help, you’ll ask. You don’t get harassed, and you’re free to explore at your leisure. Tuk tuk drivers will call out to you, but just once.

All the buildings in the town center have a French Colonial aesthetic, and in the mornings or late afternoons, a stroll through the streets can be extremely pleasant. Don’t walk around at midday. Only crazy people do that. Midday is for hammocks.


View of the Sangker River, a bit north of town

The stroll can also include a tour of the many art galleries in town, including Romcheik 5, Maek Make Art Space, and Tep Kao Sol. The gentlemen at Bric a Brac have a handy map for taking a self tour, and they’ve got a great wine selection after 5pm, as a bonus.

Battambang also has a pretty great coffee scene, thank god. If you’re into Cambodian street coffee, well, take your pick. Khmer or Vietnamese coffee loaded up with condensed milk and sugar, it ends up tasting like a chocolate shake, in my opinion. But if you’re looking for hand roasted espresso, head to one of the Noi Cafe carts around the central market, or the considerably more expensive (but also more relaxing) Kinyei Cafe.

Runners Up: Bamboo Train, Swimming Pools, City Parks, Pailin

There are so many things I love about Battambang, honestly, it was difficult to write this post. The bamboo train is a fan favorite with tourists. The only reason it didn’t get a write up here is this: the government is rebuilding the train lines from Phnom Penh to Battambang, and dismantling the Bamboo Train. They’ll set it up again in a new location, but the local government will take over running it (and take all the proceeds). Currently, the local villagers run it and its a great way to support local livelihoods. In a few months, not so much.

Okay, my other highlights of my life here include spending weekends at gorgeous tropical swimming pools like the one at Battambang Resort ($5 for the day), walking around the city parks on the river after 5pm, where the locals have open air dance classes that I’ve never been courageous enough to join. I believe it costs 1500 riel (30 cents). And lastly, a road trip out to the mountainous region of Pailin, which deserves its own blog post.

Okay, that’s probably enough to be going on for now. If it isn’t clear, I’ve fallen completely in love with Battambang over the last year here. From the gorgeous countryside, ideal bicycling, incredible art scene, and the pretty chill expat vibe… I sometimes think Battambang is becoming my own hotel california.


Biking The Cardamoms Day 4: O Saom

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel, Uncategorized

And on the fourth day, I awoke to the sounds of roosters crowing practically inside my inner ear. I tried, in vain, to stay asleep until my 5:30am alarm, but by 5 in the morning I had to give it up as a lost cause.

I laid in bed, feeling my legs and gaging my energy levels. They were still pretty depleted, if I was being honest with myself. And I was looking at a 125km day, through the mountains, down to Koh Kong. On top of that, I had really loved my afternoon in O Saom the day before and I fervently wished I had more time to enjoy the lake, this mountain village, and the people living here.20161114_102754

The Decision

The battle raged inside my head. On the one hand, my intense inner voice lambasted me for my laziness. Telling me to stick to my plan, not be a quitter, get on that bike and ride, damn it, never mind the burning pain in my thighs.

My more reasonably inner voice, the one that loves me and believes in a more laissez faire approach to life, told me to chill out. The reason I had set out on this journey in the first place was to spend some time in the mountains. Why was I in such a hurry to get to Koh Kong? The mountains were here, and I had 2 more days until I needed to catch a bus to Battambang. Just stay. Spend the day in the hammock reading a book and swimming in the lake.

Thankfully, the reasonable voice won.20161114_151315

I went to find the proprietor and let him know about my plans, then at 6am, laid back down in bed to go back to sleep. But of course, I couldn’t sleep and by 7am, my stomach was begging me for some breakfast.

A Cambodian Schedule

But Cambodians follow a very different meal schedule than most westerners, especially in rural areas. They wake up at 3:30 or 4, I assume they eat at this time, though I’ve never been awake to witness it, and head to work in the fields before the sun rises and the heat of the day begins. By mid morning they return home, and lunch is at 11 or 11:30. The middle of the day is reserved for napping in hammocks and spending time with the family. The late afternoon sees a bit more work being finished, then dinner is at 5, maybe 6 at the latest, and when they sun goes down, they go to bed.20161114_102802

All that is to say that I ended up cycling into town to get some breakfast and once again, had one of the best meals I’ve had since arriving in Cambodia. A simple red curry over Khmer noodles, called “nom wren chok”.

As I rode my bike the 2 or 3 kilometers from the village back out to my homestay on the lake, I started thinking.

On Self Reliance and Obstinacy

Something I’ve noticed over the years is the effect that the mountains have on my thought process. Somewhere in the struggle and overwhelming challenge of moving my body across mountains, I reach a point of clarity.20161114_162134

The mountains let me step back from myself and observe objectively. Especially when I am alone. Over the past two days as I cycled up, I found myself appreciating my own independence and faith in myself in ways I hadn’t before. I realized as I struggled up the unrelenting mud drenched hills, that I was listening to myself, without fear or anger or shame.

I don’t always have a lot of faith in myself, to be honest. When I am with another person, my desire to please them can get in the way, and I find myself unable to make decisions. Instead of listening to my own inner voice, I try to base all my decisions on what I think will make the other person happy. It doesn’t work out. Ever.

But here in the Cardamoms, alone and struggling through one of the hardest bike rides of my life, I was the happiest I had been in ages. I wasn’t worried about anyone else feelings, about their opinions of me, or comparing myself to someone else. When I want to take a break, I gently push myself a bit further, and then I take a break. I got back on the bike when I Was ready, and not before. And I loved every second of it. Even when my bike broke or I was too tired and had to hop in a car, I wasn’t angry or ashamed, it was just part of the adventure.20161114_162302

If I had been with a partner, who knows if I’d have been able to take this day off to appreciate the mountain village. I may have pushed myself on, dangerously and in spite of the painful fatigue in my legs, simply out of a desire not to appear weak or incapable.

The next step is to take this solitary version of myself, the one who honors her own opinion and respects her own desires, and marry that with the self that I display when I am with a partner. I hope I’m up to the challenge, but I haven’t yet met the person with the adventurous spirit that matches and balances my own.

I love my competitive nature. It makes me fierce and it pushes me to be a better version of myself. But when it gets to the point where I hurt myself, and I hurt the people I love, then it has gone too far. Then it is time to put my competition aside. In the end, the only person you are really competing against, is yourself.20161114_164206

Meanwhile in O Saom

The rest of my day in O Saom turned into one of those travel experiences that you read about in blogs and magazines. I spent the morning riding around in the back of a pick up truck with a Cambodian family, visiting their friends in the surrounded villages, picking up odds and ends, and having broken conversations with friendly strangers. In the afternoon, I rode bicycles and practiced funny yoga poses with some of the local children, then we all went out swimming. At sunset, I walked around taking photos of the lake, photos of the village, and spent a few moments sitting with the local women, while they brushed each others hair.

Really, it was like something out of a travel documentary.20161114_170056

I was not, however, the one and only foreigner to ever pass through this town. In the middle of the day I saw two foreigners go by on dirt bikes, without stopping. And as the sun was setting at the end of my wonderful Cambodian day of realization, two Australian guys rode up on dirt bikes to spend the night at the hotel. We shared a few beers, I admitted I was envious of their bikes, they admitted the thought I was completely insane for trying to ride a mountain bike through this terrain alone.

They were probably right.

I went to bed early, rested and restored, ready to attempt the epic 125km last day out of the mountains.

This blog post is a continuation of a series on my 4 day cycling trip across the Cardamom Mountains of Cambodia from Pursat to Koh Kong. Read about days 1 and 2, from Pursat to Pramoay, or Day 3 from Pramaoy to O Saom.