4 Hidden Cambodia Tourist Spots Near Angkor Wat

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel

You’re planning a trip to Cambodia and you’re hoping to find some other spots. You want to escape the tourists yet stay close to Angkor Wat. With this list of four of my favorite spots near Siem Reap, I hope you can visit these hidden sites tucked away from the main tourist trail.

Each of these tourist spots is within a one or two day trip from Angkor Wat and could easily be added on to a traditional Cambodia itinerary.

Banteay Chhmar

Satellite Temple in the Jungles of Banteay Chhmar

Banteay Chhmar

Imagine visiting Angkor Wat without the tourists. Picture a temple half reclaimed by the jungle, with massive trees growing out of the faces and towers. Sounds pretty magical, right? That’s what you’ll find when you visit the temple complex at Banteay Chhmar.

Located a full days journey from Siem Reap, Banteay Chhmar features a massive central temple with the enigmatic carved face towers similar to those found at Angkor. There are four smaller satellite temples surrounding the main temple as well.

Though Banteay Chhmar lacks the preservation of Angkor Wat, there is a certain charm to its tumbling walls and neglected towers. Without the crowds, you can take your time and appreciate the remarkable beauty of this ancient Khmer temple. Stroll around the grounds, scan the bas-relief murals, and gaze up at the faces of long-dead kings as they stare out at a now-vanished empire.

IMG_20170622_113539

Face Towers of Banteay Chhmar

How to Get to Banteay Chhmar

From Siem Reap, take a bus or taxi to Serey Sophorn/Banteay Meanchey. All buses that go to Battambang will pass through this town. From there, you need to get a taxi to Banteay Chhmar. The community-based tourism cooperative located in Banteay Chhmar has one taxi that they run, otherwise, you can easily find a car waiting near the bus depot that will take you to the temple for a small fee.

Banteay Chhmar Cambodia

Strangler Figs Growing in Banteay Chhmar

Accommodation in Banteay Chhmar

Banteay Chhmar doesn’t have any traditional guesthouses or hotels, so if you’re looking for those, you’ll want to get a room in Serey Sophorn and take a taxi up to Banteay Chhmar. It is very doable as a day trip.

If you want to sleep in Banteay Chhmar, the people who live in the village around the temple run a Community Based Tourism project (CBT) that runs homestays in the village. Get in touch with them ahead of time to let them know you’re coming. They have an office in town, but when I visited in June 2017, it was unmanned.

Koh Ker Temple Cambodia

Koh Ker Temple

Koh Ker

Another impressive remnant of the Khmer Empire, this ancient temple complex sits only 75 miles (120km) from Siem Reap, making it an easy day trip. This tourist spot has the added benefit of being less well known and thus lacking the crowds associated with Angkor.

Though there are over 180 temples and sanctuaries in the Koh Ker region, the main attraction is Koh Ker temple, a square stepped pyramid rising dramatically out of the surrounding Cambodian landscape. Also worth a visit are the beautifully carved red temple Prasat Prahom, and the fantastical Prasat Pram overgrown by strangler figs.

How to Get to Koh Ker

The easiest way to get to Koh Ker is by hiring a private taxi for the day. A taxi to and from Koh Ker stopping at several temples along the way should set you back about $70.

prasat preah vihear temple cambodia

Preah Vihear Ruins

Preah Vihear Temple

Arguably the most impressive temple in Cambodia, this little-known tourist spot sits atop a mountain on the border of Thailand and Cambodia. Older than Angkor Wat, it is built in a similar style and can be reached in a two or three day trip from Siem Reap.

Preach Vihear Temple is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and stretches 2,600ft (800m) on a north-south axis at the top of a mountain in the Dangrek Mountain range. The sight of a thousand-year-old temple standing on the edge of a 1,600ft (500m) cliff looking out across the Cambodian floodplain is not something you will soon forget.

How to get to preah vihear temple

Main Entrance to Preah Vihear

This tourist spot also has an intriguing modern history. Because of its location on the border between Thailand and Cambodia, the two countries have had several conflicts over ownership of the temple.

In June of 1962, the Hague ruled that Preah Vihear Temple belonged to Cambodia. And yet, the two countries continue to dispute ownership. If you visit today, you will still see Thai soldiers positioned across the border, a few fortifications, and maybe a Khmer soldier sitting idly waiting for something to happen. The area has been conflict-free since 2013, but it may still make sense to check with your embassy before visiting.

Preah Vihear Temple Cambodia

Temple at Preah Vihear

How to Get to Preah Vihear

This may be confusing so read closely. There are two places in Cambodia called Preah Vihear: the first is the temple, the second is a city of the same name. You do not want to go to the city. The nearest town to Preah Vihear temple is the village of Sra’aem.

There are minibuses that run from Siem Reap to Sra’aem, passing through Anlong Veng. Tickets should be $10-15.

From Sra’em, it’s 18 miles to the temple. You can hire taxis or a moto in town or your hotel may be able to help you find a ride. Expect to pay $15 round trip.

Entrance to the temple is $10 and you need to show your passport to buy a ticket. Getting a ride to the top of the mountain is a further charge, you can pay a motodop ($5) or take a truck ($25). It’s also possible to hike to the top using the ancient staircase. I highly recommend taking this track if you’re relatively fit an adapted to the heat in Cambodia. Bring snacks though, there is no food at the top.

Where to Stay

There are several guesthouses in Sra’aem that line the main road through town. Rooms in any of them should be between $8 – $15, depending on the time of year and your negotiation skills. When I visited in June 2017, I stayed at the Soksan 66 Guesthouse and I thought it was perfectly comfortable.

Ta Moks House Anlong Veng Cambodia

Ta Mok’s Mountain House

Anlong Veng

This town, situated 83 miles (135km) north of Siem Reap, is home to some stark reminders of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge Genocide. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Anlong Veng was one of the most remote towns in Northwestern Cambodia, inaccessible by road. This inaccessibility made Along Veng the perfect stronghold for the Khmer Rouge leaders in the dying days of their power.

A quick history lesson for you: from 1975 to 1979, Cambodia was ruled by the communist Khmer Rouge who orchestrated a massive genocide, killing over a quarter of the Cambodian people. The Khmer Rouge was controlled by Brother Number 1, Pol Pot, and a group of his cadres, including Ta Mok (Brother Number 4), Son Sen, and Khiev Samphan.

When the Vietnamese invaded in 1979 and pushed the Khmer Rouge out of their capital, Phnom Penh, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge retained control of the fringes of the country, continuing to fight a guerrilla war for decades. Pol Pot, Ta Mok, and many others made their home and center of control in the remote town of Anlong Veng

Today, physical signs of this complicated history remain in Anlong Veng. The five most notable dark tourist spots in Along Veng are Ta Mok’s house and lake, Son Sen’s grave, Pol Pot’s Grave, Ta Mok’s Mountain House, and Pol Pot’s House.

In town, tourists can visit Ta Mok’s house and see the artificial lake he constructed in the 1990s. This is easily reachable by foot, just head north towards the mountains from the roundabout in town and the driveway will be on your right.

IMG_20170620_100319

For all the other sites, you will need to have your own transportation or hire a motodop driver in town for the day. I highly suggest hiring a driver, because many of these tourist spots are incredibly hard to find, and some are not signposted at all. A motodop for the day should cost between $10-$20 depending on your negotiating skills.

To reach the remote sites, follow the road north towards Choam and the Thai Border. The home and grave of Son Sen sit off the road to the right, shortly before you reach the mountains. Son Sen was once a leader of the Khmer Rouge, but his death was ordered by an increasingly paranoid Pol Pot in the late 90s.

Up in the Dangrek Mountains, just on the border with Thailand and directly across the street from a gaudy casino building, Pol Pot’s tomb sits quietly unadorned on a small side street. It is something of a travesty to think that a man who ordered the death of a quarter of his countrymen should be buried in such a beautiful place.

Just before the border crossing, take a right onto an unassuming dirt road and you’ll soon come to Ta Mok’s mountaintop vacation home, now the location of a Peace Museum and Khmer style resort with small pavilions and hammocks perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the floodplain below. This is a good spot to enjoy a picnic lunch, as bizarre as that sounds.

The last spot of the day, if you have the energy and fortitude to reach it, is the most gruesomely interesting. Deep in the jungles of the Dangrek Mountains sits the remains of the house of Pol Pot.

IMG_20170620_111158

Road to Pol Pot’s House

Following the road that passes Ta Mok’s mountain home, continue east, climbing up and down mountain slopes, through small villages, across wide open farmland, and through several military encampments. The border between Cambodia and Thailand is a bit porous up here and there is a chance the road passes in and out of both countries.

After many kilometers, a few forks, and lots of confusion, the road shrinks down to a muddy single track through the jungle, culminating in the graffitied shell of structure: the home of once all-powerful Brother Number One.

Pol Pot's House Anlong Veng Cambodia

Once you soak up all the eeriness you can handle, head back down to Anlong Veng to recoup from your day of dark tourism.

How to Get to Anlong Veng

There are mini buses that run from Siem Reap to Along Veng every day, several times a day. Tickets should be $8-10.

Accommodation in Anlong Veng

There are several guesthouses on the main road in Along Veng, some nicer than others. I stayed in a perfectly comfortable family guesthouse in a room for $5, though I negotiated somewhat aggressively for that price. Expect to pay $7 to $15 for a room with a fan or A/C respectively.

Tourist Spots Off The Tourist Trail

Each of these tourist spots is located with a day or two of Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor Wat. If you only have a short amount of time in Cambodia and you want to understand this country’s history on a deeper level, I hope you’ll consider exploring one or more of these gorgeous and important tourist sites.


Like this post? Pin it!

Discove 4 Off the Beaten Path Tourist Spots in Cambodia - What to do near Siem Reap after you visit Angkor Wat4 Tourist Spots to Visit in Cambodia after you finish touring Angkor Wat and Siem Reap

Hiking Bukhansan; Seoul’s Highest Mountain

Adventure Travel, Korea, Travel, Trekking & Hiking

Though Seoul is more famous for its nightlife and culinary scene, this urban oasis is actually an incredible city for outdoor lovers. The city is ringed by mountains, with smaller hills popping up in almost every neighborhood. And every hill and mountain, no matter how tall or small, is covered in hiking trails. Though I lived in Seoul for nearly a year and a half, I still didn’t make it to the top of every peak. But one peak that I did manage to hike more than a few times was Bukhansan, Seoul’s tallest mountain.

Even after living in Seoul for nearly a year and a half, I still didn’t make it to the top of every peak. But one peak that I did manage to hike more than a few times was Bukhansan, Seoul’s tallest mountain.

View from Bukhansan

Bukhansan, located at the northern edge of Seoul, is both a national park and a mountain with three main peaks. The park has many different access points and mountains worth climbing, but in this post, I’m going to explain how to hike to the top of Bukhansan Mountain, the challenging Baegundae Peak. It’s a fairly tough 4km climb up, with several options for hiking back down.

How to Get to Bukhansan Mountain

Seoul has one of the best public transportation systems in the world, so getting to Bukhansan mountain is incredibly easy. From anywhere in the city, just get on the subway line 3 and take it all the way to Gupabal station. Take exit 1 then head to the bus stop just behind the exit. Take either bus 704 or bus 34 to the Bukhansan National Park stop.

If you’re confused, just follow the pack of older Koreans in brightly colored hiking gear. They know where to go.

hiking bukhansan trail markers

Get off the bus at Bukhansan National Park and follow the crowds up the hill towards the Ranger station. From there, you have access to several hiking trails that head up towards Baegundae Peak. Helpful signs point the way. I took the 4km trail, which follows a really nice river up the mountain.

Hiking Bukhansan Mountain to Baegundae Peak

The trail begins slowly. It follows a rather beautiful river as it tumbles down large rocks from the pine-covered peaks rising above you. After a short while, you’ll come to a road and a sort of open space. Keep walking around to the left to stay on the path for Baegundae peak.

Bukhansan Mountain Trail

After about 1.5km of walking, you’ll come to another fork in the path with two options for heading up to Baegundae. I chose to take the shorter of the two routes, heading towards Wonhyobong Peak. Further up, the trail splits again, one heading to Wonhyobong, and another (our track) heading directly towards Baegundae.

Climbing Bukhansan Mountain

You’ll pass a gate to a temple with Korean carvings all around. You can walk through the gate to visit the temple, but the trail to Baegundae continues up to the right. Not too long after that, you’ll come to the final fork and path to the peak.

Final Push up to Baegundae, Seoul’s Highest Point

The final half kilometer up to the peak of Bukhansan is classic Korean hiking at its finest. The trail, if you can call it that, cuts straight up the granite boulders. In some places, posts and metal rails are there to assist you in climbing. Cling onto these as you haul yourself bodily up the side of the mountain. Don’t forget to look up! Hikers will be descending by these same metal ropes, so be aware and try your best to avoid collisions.

Hiking in Korea

After some sweaty pulling and climbing, you’ll reach the top of the peak. You’ll know it’s the top because a) the trail stops and b) there is a Korean flag jutting proudly from the rock.

From the peak, you’ll get a great view of Insubong and Mangyeongdae, the two nearby, but slightly lower, peaks of Bukhansan. Mangyeongdae is covered in rocks and trees and the stairs leading up to it should be visible. Insubong is a smooth granite peak jutting up from the forest below. This peak is only reachable via rock climbing. On most pleasant days, you should see a few intrepid climbers scaling her steep sides.

Insubong Peak Bukhansan

Baegundae Peak has plenty of smooth, flat spaces to stretch out for some well-earned rest. Not a bad idea to bring up some food and have a picnic alongside the Koreans. Just be careful how much Makkeolli you drink. You still have to get back down off the mountain.

View from Baegundae Peak

Hiking Back Down Bukhansan to Seoul

For the hike back down, you have essentially three options: go back the way you came (boring but quick), continue on the path to Mangyeongdae and then back to your starting point (rather long and challenging but also quite beautiful), or go down the other side of the mountain to the Baegundae Information Center.

Bukhansan trail markers

I chose to go down to the Baegundae Information Center, as the sign said it was only 1.6km away and I was out of water. It was a mistake and I don’t recommend taking this trail down unless you’ve got plenty of time on your hands and love exploring every last nook and cranny of Seoul.

The trail heads down steeply from the peak until you reach the Baek-Woon Mountain Hut. This is a sort of traditional Korean house that has been built and re-built over the years. Today, it serves as a shelter and a small shop where you can buy water, drinks, some candy bars, and perhaps some soup or kimchi. It also marks the starting point for the ascent of Insubong (I think).

Mountain House Bukhansan

From there, the trail continues downhill more gradually. Stone stairs feature prominently in the descent. After a short time, you’ll come to the Baegundae Information Center, characterized by a large parking lot and coffee shop.

Insubong Peak Bukhansan

But lest you think you’re back into the city, you are not. No, from there it is a further 2km walk down a paved road with wooden sidewalk until you reach a bus stop. In my opinion, there are far more scenic ways to get off of Bukhansan Mountain. I really don’t recommend taking the Baegundae Information Center route.

Baegundae Information Center

If you do end up down here, just follow the road off the mountain until you come to town, then continue until you reach the main road. When I was there in September 2017, they looked to be building a new subway line but it was not yet operational. When it does become operational, the stop will be called Ui Bukhansan.

Seoul Streets near Bukhansan

For now, I hopped on the 120 bus and took it to Suyu station and back into central Seoul.


Like this post? Pin it!

Hiking Bukhansan; Seoul's Tallest Mountain: a complete guide for how to get to Bukhansan and How to Hike Bukhansan, the tallest mountain in Seoul, South Korea Hiking Bukhansan; Seoul's Tallest Mountain: a complete guide for how to get to Bukhansan and How to Hike Bukhansan, the tallest mountain in Seoul, South Korea

Bike Tour Cambodia: Phnom Penh to Mondolkiri

Adventure Travel, Bike Touring, Cambodia, Travel

This leg of the trip has been incredibly scenic, empowering, physically challenging, and overall rewarding. But despite this, it all started off with more of a fizz than a bang.

After waiting 9 long days in Phnom Penh, my 6 month visa extension finally came through. Gratefully clutching my passport to my chest, I rushed back to my room to pack up my bags and get ready to finally, finally head out of Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham, Take One

I left Phnom Penh around 7am, excited for the 112km day ahead of me.

My bike, however, had other plans.

While in Phnom Penh, I had taken my bike into a fairly high end bike shop for a check up. I told the guys at the shop that I was having trouble switching gears and that I kept getting flat tires. They told me they would look into it.

$85 later and I had new, fancy inner tubes, a new cassette, new bottom bracket, and a few other touch ups. It hurt my wallet but I figured it was worth it. No more flat tires.

Yeah, about that.

On the road out of Phnom Penh as I was coming around a bend in the road, I felt it. The horrible thumping feeling you get when the back tire goes flat.

Are you f****** kidding me?

My back tire was flat! 30km outside of Phnom Penh! How was this possible? I pulled to the side of the road and set about changing the inner tube. As I did, I felt the inside of the tire. It was shredded in places. My tire was almost worn through.

IMG_0339.jpg

I decided to swallow my pride and head back to Phnom Penh to buy a new tire.

New inner tube in, I headed back the way I had come, off onto some side roads that meandered through rice fields towards a ferry across the Mekong and into Phnom Penh.

Just kidding! You didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?

20 minutes later, once I was well and truly too far away from the highway to walk back, my tire was flat again. The same tire! The new inner tube! I was overpowered by anger, frustration with myself, frustration with my bike, and fury that the guys in Phnom Penh hadn’t noticed this.

Also, I was in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t want to fix up this inner tube or worse, put in a new one just to have it ruined. I needed a ride back to Phnom Penh. But how was I going to get one this far from a main highway?

I walked my bike along the road until I came up to the back of a garment factory. There were a group of Khmer people there. What transpired will go down as one of the most overwhelmingly frustrating moments of my life:

I approached the group of people and one man came up to me speaking broken English. He immediately noticed my flat tire and tried to direct me to someone who could fix it.

The last thing I wanted to do right then was pay for yet another inner tube, only to have it burst in a matter of minutes.

“No” I insisted, “I don’t want to fix it, I’d like to go to Phnom Penh.”

But despite my repeatedly saying “I want to drive to Phnom Penh. Please take me to Phnom Penh.” the English speaking man continually tried to lead me to someone who could fix the flat.

This went on for about 15 minutes. Him saying “we can fix it” and me replying “No, thank you, I don’t want to fix it, I just want to go to Phnom Penh.”

After about 10 minutes of it, I started crying.

Finally, in a fit of frustration, I told him rather firmly that “no, I don’t want to fix it. I fix it again and again and again and again but it always breaks.”

That got through to him.

It only took a few more minutes for them to arrange a cart to take me back to the ferry into Phnom Penh. That part was actually pretty fun. Sitting in the back of a farmer’s cart that normally trucks sugarcane around. Got some pretty funny looks from the other locals we passed by.

20170531_120756.jpg

And for a 20km ride, it only cost me $5. Seems fair.

Back to Phnom Penh, replaced the tire, and woke up early the next day to really leave Phnom Penh.

This is a nice moment to remark on something I’ve learned over the course of this ride: you are never alone and never without help in Cambodia. Even in remote areas, on backroads, deep in the mountains, a Khmer person is always going to come by and 9 out of 10 times, they will help you, fix your bike, find you a ride, give you food, or do whatever they can to make sure you are ok. Knowing this is what allows me to do this ride every day without an ounce of fear.

Cycling Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham, Take Two

With the tire problem sorted, I hit the road feeling positive and energetic. I was ready to put those 10 days in Phnom Penh behind me and get back into the groove of cycling.

I had two potential routes to get to Kampong Cham: one was quite boring following National Highway 8, to National Highway 11, to National Highway 7 into Kampong Cham. Highways are the actual worst and should only be used as a last resort.

The other option was much more appealing, if a bit riskier: I’d follow the National Highway 8 for about 25km, then take a turn onto a country road that cut through the rice fields, met up with a small river, and finally, followed that river until it reached the Mekong and Kampong Cham. It looked like it would work out, on Google, but if I’ve learned anything on this trip it is this:

Don’t trust google maps in Cambodia.

IMG_0343.jpg

Even as I left Phnom Penh, I didn’t know which route I would take. I wanted to take the country road, but I was nervous that it either didn’t exist, or would be impassable from all the rain.

Nonetheless, I was willing to try.

I rode out to this country road quite quickly, making it there before 10am. Stopped to have a second breakfast/early lunch at a restaurant. While I ate, I asked the locals about my potential route. Does this road go to Kampong Cham?

“Oh nooo, no.” They told me. “No it doesn’t.”

Despondent, I consulted google maps on my phone. I really, really wanted this route to work. I didn’t relish the idea of spending a whole day on highways.

After the chorus of “noo’s” was finished, one guy spoke up. He mentioned that in fact, it was possible to get to Kampong Cham that way, but it wouldn’t be easy.

That was all the encouragement I needed. I turned onto my country road and in so doing, began one of the best rides of the trip.

IMG_0356.jpg

This road begins at a village called Prey Pnov and heads north towards Sithor Kandal. At first it was paved and cut a straight line through the rice fields. I flew along, admiring the traditional Khmer houses and basking in the palm tree lined glory of the street. The rice fields were a vibrant green, the sun was shining, and I was delighted.

Eventually the road turned to dirt, but remained in good condition. I continued to fly along. After a time, I came upon a market town. In the middle of nowhere. What was this market doing here?

I had reached the T junction at the river. The market down does have a name, but I’ve forgotten it and it isn’t listed on google. Sorry.

IMG_0370.jpg

I’ve noticed something about rural Cambodia vs. Main Highway Cambodia. On the main roads, people are usually pretty open when I pull into a shop or restaurant. Sure, they might be nervous that I don’t speak Khmer, but they are still willing to try, open to talk with me, grabbing their youngest child who might maybe have learned some English in school.

But out on the backrounds, in markets or towns like this one, buried deep in the rice fields, miles from any main road or city, things are a bit different.

When I pull into remote places and stop my bike, I’m greeted with silence. In this particular market, everyone around me froze. There were plenty of people there but none were speaking. They all stood, still as statues, and watched me as I looked around. Trying to break the tension a little, I smiled at a few of the women. One smiled back but the rest looked down, shy. I walked down the road and took some photos of the river. By the time I came back, a small crowd had gathered around my bike. One of the braver men there struck up a conversation.

“Tos na?” He asked me, “where are you going?”

“Tos Kampong Cham.” I replied. “I’m going to Kampong Cham.”

It was as if I had spoken the magic words to break the spell. A wave washed across everyone’s face, the relief was palpable. She speaks Khmer! Suddenly, questions were coming at me from all sides. Everyone wanted to talk to the strange foreigner, find out where she was from, what she was doing there, and if she was hungry.

I’ve learned over the last weeks not to be afraid or uncomfortable if people are unfriendly at first. Sure, not everyone is happy to see a random foreigner in their home, but usually someone ends up being welcoming.

After that market, the road conditions deteriorated significantly. The road was dry, but narrow, rutted, and filled with puddles I had to dodge. If it had been raining, I’m not sure this road would have been passable.

It wound along next to the river, passing through villages, rice fields, bamboo forests, and Buddhist temples. Because of the poor conditions, I was forced to ride slowly. This road was only for the final 26km, but with the bad conditions, fatigue, and stopping to take pictures every five feet, it took me three hours.

IMG_0388.jpg

But what a glorious three hours it was. I’m not kidding when I say this was one of the most beautiful rides I’ve ever done in Cambodia. Truly a special route. I highly recommend it.

Reached Kampong Cham late in the afternoon and curled up in a nice riverside guesthouse for $5.

Kampong Cham to Memot

I spent one night in Kampong Cham, then rode out 7km along the Mekong to visit the Chiro Village Homestay. It is a local NGO where I once volunteered, back in 2014. I’m not a fan of voluntourism anymore and I must say that I didn’t find my return visit all that satisfying. It’s a great place to stay, though, if you want to get a glimpse of Cambodian village life.

IMG_0401.jpg

After my day in Chiro, I woke up bright and early, literally before the sun came up, and was on my bike by 5:30am to begin the 90km trek to Memot, a small town on Road 7, along the way to Mondolkiri.

This day was, much to my regret, entirely along the highway. Luckily, the further away from the Mekong I rode, the less crowded the highway became. Flat at first, it wasn’t long before I found myself riding up and down rolling hills. Pepper farms extended away from me in all directions. I had no idea what to expect from this part of the ride, but so far it was proving quite beautiful.

And then, about 50km into my day, I saw an interesting sign on my right hand side.

“Knoung Sdech Kan Temple 5km”

If you know me, you know I can’t resist the lure of an ancient temple. Plus it would only add 10km to my day. A drop in the bucket, surely. And who knows what kind of magical forgotten place I might find…

Turning off the main road, I followed the signs down a paved road through undeveloped countryside. This was about when I realized just how remote an area I was really in. There were a few rice fields, but not many. No houses to speak of, and very few people. The people I did cycle past didn’t wave, didn’t shout hello, didn’t do any of the things I’ve come to expect from Cambodians.

Instead, they stared. Eyes blank, shy, or cautious. I’m not sure what they were thinking and they certainly weren’t giving me any hints. All along the empty road I was met with blank faces hidden behind scarves and visors.

IMG_0439.jpg

After about 5km, I came across a moat, similar to the moat around Angkor Wat, and a village. Here the people were a bit more welcoming. The response was still mostly silence but at least a few of the children waved.

Then I came upon the wall of the temple. Cycling into the complex, at first all I saw was the large modern temple rising up in front of me. Then I noticed two ancient towers, similar in style to the towers of Prasat Kravan in Siem Reap, only less well preserved.

And of course, I had the place almost completely to myself. As I stood beneath the ancient towers, I heard footsteps behind me. Turning, I saw two little boys watching me. One was dressed in typical schoolboy clothes, the other in the saffron robes of a monk. They couldn’t have been older than 10.

Walking behind the modern temple, I found a massive reclining Buddha, beautifully painted and surrounded by a small garden and other meditative statues.

IMG_0457.jpg

Places like this, Buddhist temples and their compounds never fail to instill a sense of peacea nd calm in my mind. There is something in the air that requires you to pause and appreciate the stillness. Although peace and quiet can sometimes be hard to come by in Cambodia, I can usually find it in a temple.

As long as they aren’t chanting over a loudspeaker.

After my solo adventure to the temple, I hopped back onto the bike and out to the main road. Oddly enough, this time around the people were much more friendly. Waving, saying hello, cheering. I’m not sure what the difference was.

IMG_0486.jpg

Back to the main road and onward to Memot. The rest of the ride was smooth and uneventful. Rolling hills that gradually got larger until I arrived in town. Took a room in a guesthouse just off the main road before 3pm. Spent some time exploring town, took a walk around the temple, visited the market, and had a lovely chat with some locals over my rice and pork dinner.

Riding from Memot to Snuol

The next two days threw a bit of a wrench in my plans. I originally intended to ride 50km to Snuol, then 120 to Mondolkiri. But life happens, and I got my period. I know there are some women out there who can just keep on ploughing through no matter what. I am not one of them. I am incapacitated by my menstrual cycle. Literally cannot get out of bed.

But there’s no crying in bicycle touring! So I split up my 120km day into two 60km days.

IMG_0501.jpg

From Memot to Snuol was a real treat. I found an alternate route by following the paved road up past Memot Temple. Up and down rolling hills through pepper farms and rice fields, the ride was easy and scenic.

Came to a four way intersection and took the righthand turn. The road became dirt but was still in great condition. Up and down many rolling hills, through rubber plantations, pepper farms, and untamed jungle. Every once in awhile I’d roll through a remote village and people would stare, yell “Hello!” and call out “Barang chi kong!” (A foreigner riding a bike!)

After awhile I decided to stop and take a break. I wasn’t feeling particularly tired but my own personal honor code is this: If I’m passing through a remote, rural area, I want to spend at least a little bit of money. To give back, in my own small way.

IMG_0509.jpg

I stopped at a shop for a sugar cane juice and the family offered me a seat. Not long after that, pretty much the entire village had gathered around to chat with me. My khmer is pretty limited but we managed to work out where I was going, where I was coming from, that they had all voted in the election that morning, and my age. Hilariously, they told me that I looked 15. Thanks but.. no.

The rest of the ride was euphoric and smooth. The road was deserted, rugged, and perfect. The day was short. I pulled into Snuol before lunchtime. Got a room, and rested my poor, cramping, menstrual ravaged body.

Snuol to Keo Seima: Swallowing My Pride and Cutting It Short

From Snuol, I had planned to ride the 120km to Sen Monorom in Mondolkiri provide. This would involve rolling hills, and an ascent of over 2000 feet during the last 50kms. But because of my period pains, cramps, nausea, and a fitful, sleepless night, I absolutely wasn’t up for it.

In true Megan style, I couldn’t just give myself a break. No, first I had to berate myself and give myself a hard time. But in the end, I listened to my body and did what was right. I rode only 60km to a place called Keo Seima, where I hoped to find a guesthouse.

IMG_0493.jpg

Ride itself was nice, but I was in a bad headspace. Tired and in pain. I made it to Keo Seima sometime before 11am, found quite a nice guesthouse and curled up in bed.

Keo Seima to Mondolkiri: The Most Beautiful No Good Very Great Terribly Awesome Day

The ride up to Sen Monorom was everything I had hoped and feared it would be, and more. It was relentless rolling hills, more up than down. It was remote, it was devoid of human life, it was incredibly hard, it was unbelievably beautiful.

The day began with dense rainforest. I’m talking about massive rolling hills coated in a thick jungle. I even saw a family of monkeys watching me ride. When I looked up at them, they began to jump away through the trees.

For the first few hours of the day, I was having the time of my life. I’d power up the hills and giggle as I gained ridiculous speed on the downhills. But after about 35km with no breaks, I began to feel some fatigue in my legs.

During one particularly steep uphill slope, I started grunting and yelling. Not really saying words, just making noises, giving voice to the pain in my legs. Some Khmer guys rode by on their motor and looked particularly alarmed.

With only 5 more kilometers to go before the next village, I gave myself a small pep talk. If I could push through these final five, I could have a break.

And, cursing my very existence, cursing the day I decided to do this ride, I pushed onwards and upwards. That climb was beyond physically exhausting. And yet even as I was cursing myself and burning from head to toe, I loved it. I knew I would look back on this day as one of the best of the ride. And it was. It really was.

Stopped at a shop in Ou Rieng and had a plate of rice and pork. Rested for about an hour. Read my book. Generally felt proud of myself for what I had accomplished and optimistic about the final 20 kilometers of the day.

After Ou Rieng, the landscape changed. Due to deforestation, the rainforest has been cut back from the tops of the hills, clearing the way for villages and their livestock. While in my heart I know this is a bad thing, it makes for a very beautiful ride. Huge sloping hills covered in vibrant green grass, dotted with trees, stretching away to the horizon. I mean, really?

IMG_0546.jpg

I know I’m supposed to complain about it but I just couldn’t.

The hills continued to be unforgiving, but since I was riding through verdant green elysian fields, I found myself cursing less and giggling more.

During one incredibly long downhill I even belted out “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morrisette. Don’t ask me why that particular song. I can’t control the weird songs that get stuck in my head while I’m riding. They’d make a pretty eccentric mix tape though.

Rolled into Sen Monorom tired but pleased around 3pm. This was a part of Cambodia I’d been aching to visit for years. And finally, here I was.


Stay tuned to hear more about my day with elephants in the jungle and my ride along the Death Road from Mondolkiri to Ratanakiri.

Like this post? Pin It!

CYCLINGCAMBODIA-min (1).png

Bike Tour Cambodia: Kampot to Phnom Penh

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel

How strong can your body get over just 3 weeks? Could it really be possible that riding 100km could go from impossible to easy? And do my legs have the strength to race the rain?

It’s been awhile since I sat down and wrote one of these trip reports. But here you go, this is what happens when you try to ride a bike from Kampot to Phnom Penh, via Kep and Angk Ta Saom.

Kampot To Kep: The Short Day of Pleasant Surprises

After two days in Kampot, riding motos up mountains and kicking it in cafes, it was time to make the incredibly short 26km ride out to Kep. It could easily have been a day trip, but I had other plans.

The ride from Kampot to Kep follows Highway 33, a well paved road in good condition. It cuts through several different Community Based Tourism initiatives, marked by their big green signs with arrows on the highway. I turned off the road to go explore one but after the recent rains the road was in terrible condition. I was forced to abort.

IMG_0044

Welcome to Kep

Back on road 33 I road until the turn for Kep, featuring a statue of a white horse rearing into the air. Why a horse in particular? Not sure. Take the right hand turn and follow that road until you reach Kep. You’ll know it by the signs for guesthouses, and the big green sign that reads BEACH.

A Surprisingly Nonsensical Arrival in Kep

Kep, or Kep Sur Mer as the French once called it, is a small town situated on a peninsula that juts out into the bay of Thailand. The peninsula is dominated by a fairly small “mountain” rising to an imposing 300m (984ft). Bungalows and boutique accommodation dot the lower hillsides and a massive, four lane road sweeps around the perimeter, providing access to all the major attractions, and a neat loop back up to road 33.

IMG_0157.JPG

Road through Kep

As I cycled into town I couldn’t stop laughing at the absurdity of this massive road. It was one of the cleanest and most modern roads I’ve ever seen in Cambodia. Once you pass the construction just off road 33, it turns into smooth blacktop that is four lanes wide.

Who are they expecting?

IMG_0134

Welcome to Kep Cambodia

Kep is in many ways a beach resort turned ghost town. Picture Cape Cod in the winters except it isn’t winter. The infrastructure is set up to receive a massive tourist influx but the tourists never arrived.

Oh well. I love quiet, deserted towns, especially on this bike ride, so I was pumped. Kampot had been too crowded for me after the solitude of my ride and I was charmed by Kep’s empty streets and deserted accommodations.

IMG_0046

View from the guesthouse

I checked into Tree Top Bungalows, a cute but slightly overpriced guesthouse nestled into the foothills of the mountain. I say overpriced because I saw online that there were bungalows for $5 but I had to pay $7. Oh well. It isn’t the best hotel in Kep, but it is the cheapest.

After that it was time to explore all that Kep had to offer.

What To Do in Kep, Cambodia

There are basically three main things to do in Kep: go to the beach, eat at the crab market, and explore the Kep National Park. Obviously I went for the national park first.

IMG_0066

Kep National Park Views

The park sits on the mountain in the center of the peninsula. A frenchman who owns a cafe up there has spend the last 10 years creating and maintaining a network of trails and roads that wind around and over the mountain.

IMG_0103

Kep National Park Critters

The most popular trail is a small road that circles the mountain. It’s a 7km trail that is more or less level, in alright condition, and doable on a moto, bicycle, or by walking. I road my mountain bike around it. It’s not overly technical but it’s more fun than riding on pavement.

The park costs $1 per day for use. There is a sign off the main road pointing to the entrance. Just follow the road up to the gate, then follow that dirt road all the way around. At one point maybe 4km in, the road turns into pavement again. Stick to the right and you’ll find the dirt road again about 1km further down.

IMG_0061

Mountain Bike and Moto trail in Kep National Park

After the national park, I went to check out the famous fresh Kep Crab market. I was pleasantly surprised by how accessible and fun the market is. There are a series of restaurants right on the water where I assume you can have someone cook up your crab and serve it to you on a nice place for a premium.

If you want to do it the rustic way, head down all the way to the end (or the beginning) to the rougher looking market stalls. Walk all the way back to the water and you’ll find people hauling up crates of crabs straight from the reef. You can buy fresh crab from the women there. A half kilo is enough for one person, 1 kilo is enough to share. 1 kilo is $6, or five if you are particularly good at negotiating.

Once you get your crabs, you have two options: you can have them steamed on site or have them chopped up and fried with fresh green Kampot pepper and a mild spicy sauce. I HIGHLY recommend the peppercorn fry. Having your crabs cooked is an extra 5000 riel or $1.25

IMG_0149

Kep Crab cooked in Kampot Pepper

Women in the market will sell you rice for 1000 riel or $0.25. Have a seat at one of the tables, order a sugarcane juice (2000 riel, $0.50) and enjoy your gourmet seafood meal right there.

After my late lunch in the market, I headed back to Kep National Park to try out some of the trails that cut up into the hill.

To access these, head up the dirt road from the gate until you see a trail heading off to your right. This is the transverse trail. It was pretty steep at the beginning, so I opted to chain my bike to a nearby tree and head out on foot. That afternoon I followed the signs to Sunset Rock to get a nice view of Kep beach and Vietnam’s Phu Quoc island in the distance.

IMG_0087

View from Sunset Rock in Kep National Park

Hiking to Sunset Rock in Kep National Park took me probably 30 minutes. It’s steep at first, then a fairly level walk around the mountain to the rock.

Headed back to Tree Top for some dinner and a decision. Should I ride to Phnom Penh the next day, or did Kep deserve one more day of exploring?

In the end, I spend two more days in Kep. Hiked to the top of the mountain, road my mountain bike around the trail again, had another lunch at the crab market. I also spent some time exploring the deserted mansions from Kep’s heyday in the 1960s. A really fascinating and ghostly view of Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge changed everything.

IMG_0122

View over to Kampot from Kep National Park

But all good things must come to an end, and after three days I had to head out. I needed to get to Phnom Penh to extend my visa for 6 months, and anyway, I was missing the open road.

Cycling from Kep to Phnom Penh

From Kep, I took Highway 33 towards the Vietnam border, then followed Highway 31 up until it meets Road 3 just south of a small town called Angk Ta Saom, which, I hoped, would have a guesthouse. The whole day would be 93km, a distance that had almost killed me just a week before on my way from Koh Kong to Kampot.

Would it kill me today? I admit, I was nervous.

IMG_0216

Road to Phnom Penh

From the beginning, the roads were quiet. I flew along their flat surfaces through wide open rice fields and quaint villages. It was the kind of picturesque day I had imagined when I dreamed up this trip in my apartment in Battambang.

I had to deal with the occasional truck flying by but for the most part it was just me and my daydreams cycling down the road, pedaling to the rhythm of my breath.

Along the way I passed by Kampong Trach, a small town that featured an unexpectedly stunning view. Rock formations like those that characterize east Asian landscape paintings rose up from a flooded wetland. It looked like a pretty great place for some rock climbing.

IMG_0202 copy

Kampong Trach

The rest of the day was smooth sailing through rice fields. Minus the two flat tires (YES TWO) in one day. I also met a peace corp volunteer along the side of the road just after lunch. Like most peace corp volunteers I’ve met in my years abroad, she seemed friendly, happy, and a bit starved for English language conversation.

Let’s talk about flat tires and the trouble they cause.

My last flat tire of the day came 10km outside of my destination, Angk Ta Saom. It also happened to be on a pretty deserted slice of road. I didn’t have any extra inner tubes with me, so I had to wander off down a nearby dirt road until I walked into a village.

In my best Khmer, I asked around for a mechanic and was eventually pointed to someone’s house. Indeed the guy there could fix my tire, and of course the whole village had to come out and watch.

IMG_0153

Fixing a flat in Kep

As with many things in rural Cambodia, fixing my bike tire was a leisurely affair. They took their sweet time, because whats the rush? Nothing else was going to happen that afternoon.

Except for me, the rush was building in the sky to the north, threatening me with impending doom.

Deep purple clouds were gathering in the sky, an ominous rumbling beginning to sound from far off. The wind started to sweep across the rice fields, bringing dust and garbage.

The tempest was about to begin.

The villager fixing my bike continued on at his leisurely pace. Stopping to just kind of sit there, or talk to someone else, or just look at me.

I tried not to get frustrated. It was only 10 more kilometers. I’d be fine.

At long last, the bike was repaired. Ahead of me, the sky was a warning sign. Dark clouds pregnant with rain gathered on either side, with just a narrow strip of light blue sky between them, seemingly positioned just over the road. I knew that when those two rain clouds met, I was fucked.

Those 10km were the fastest I’ve ridden yet on this trip. My heart rate had to be up above 180. It was a full on sprint. My muscles were screaming, my lungs dying, and my mind was frantically praying to the Cambodian spirits to please just hold off the rain for 10 more minutes.

The sprinkles started as I reached Road 3. Only 4 more kilometers to go. I ignored my protesting muscles and continued to race. Would I make it? I had to make it.

As I passed the road marker that said “Angk Ta Saom 2km” the heavens opened. The rain came down, first in fat splattering droplets, then in a heavy pour. I screamed, shouted, but kept riding. 2km! You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

I wasn’t going to stop 2km short of town.

Thankfully, just as the water began pouring down in sheets, I saw a sign for a guesthouse. I pulled in gratefully and even though it wasn’t yet 3pm, asked for a room. The bewildered looking Khmer family that owned the place showed me to a simple yet clean room and left me alone.

As I sat in the room, I took stock of my day. I’d just ridden about 95km, with the last 10km being a full on sprint. I felt good. I felt like I could ride another 50km if I needed to. I felt like 90km was basically nothing, a walk in the park.

I was getting stronger.

That was one of the best gifts I’ve received from this ride.

Bussing to Phnom Penh

I’m not happy about it but I had promised my mom I would take a bus into Phnom Penh, avoiding the heavily trafficked road 3. And that is exactly what I did. I found a bus stop in Angk Ta Saom and hopped on a bus coming up from Kampot the next morning. Made it to Phnom Penh by noon.

IMG_0231

Gateway on the road to Phnom Penh

Since then, I’ve been in Phnom Penh waiting for my 6 month visa to Cambodia to come through. I’ve ridden into and out of the city numerous times on day trips. Yes, riding in the city is stressful but it’s totally manageable.

So if any other bike tourist are reading this, just don’t tell your mom about it and cycle into Phnom Penh. You’ll be fine.

Next up is a 154km day out to Kampong Cham and then it’s up into the remote mountain wilderness of Mondolkiri!

Let’s see what happens.

Like this post? Pin it!

Bike Tour Cambodia Kampot to Phnom Penh

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.

IMG_0069

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.

IMG_0187

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.

IMG_0139

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.

IMG_0198

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.

IMG_0181

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.

IMG_0068

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.

IMG_0175

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.

IMG_0098

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.

IMG_0167

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.

IMG_0155

Like this post? Pin it!

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.

IMG_0019

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.

IMG_0023

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.

IMG_0008

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.

IMG_0004

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.

IMG_0011

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.

IMG_0010

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.

IMG_0013

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.

IMG_0026

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.

IMG_0037

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.

IMG_0032

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.

Like this post? Pin it!

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.

IMG_9802 copy.JPG

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.

IMG_9826 copy.JPG

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.

IMG_9864 copy.jpg

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.

IMG_9870 copy.jpg

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.

IMG_9913 copy.jpg

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?”

IMG_9922.JPG

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.

IMG_9939 copy.jpg

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.

IMG_9953 copy.jpg

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.

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…

how to (1).png

Mud & Water: The Kindness of Strangers in Rural Cambodia

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel, Uncategorized

The one true constant that I have found as I move around the world is the kindness of strangers. Of course, people have also been terrible. In every country I have met selfish people, hateful people, violent people, I’ve had things stolen, I’ve been followed home, and I’ve been harassed.

But these things don’t stick with me. I don’t remember the bad moments from Korea, Nepal, or any other country. What I do remember is the kind words and kind actions from strangers. The little moments when a stranger reached out to me, across cultural misunderstandings and language barriers, and offered me help or support.

20160914_180505But What About Battambang?

My weekends in Battambang are remarkable in their dullness. Please don’t think I am complaining. I work hard all week, slaving away at an underpaid NGO job, spending my lunch breaks and evenings creating content for my freelance writing clients to make ends meet. By Friday afternoon, all I can think about is the two days ahead of me filled with absolutely nothing.

Or actually filled with five to ten hours of writing, or seeking new freelance writing gigs… but also nothing.

This is a stark contrast from my life in Korea and Peru. In South Korea my weekends were full of partying, drinking, and weekend long excursions across the tiny country. In Peru, living in the Andes, my weekends were usually filled with hiking and backpacking adventures.

Here in Battambang things are different. It’s so goddamned hot every day, I can’t be fucked to leave my apartment. If I go out in the sun I’m immediately blinded and can feel the cancer cells erupting from my skin. Cambodia makes me feel that I am part Vampire, craving the darkness. Or maybe that’s the buffy I’ve been binging on…

Yet Sometimes I am Adventurous

One weekend, I made a conscious effort to get out of my house. A girl named Valerie recently moved into the apartment next to mine, and we hit it off right away. And even though I had been dealing with a persistent ear infection, and I knew I had other shit to do, I asked her in passing… want to go for a drive?

I wanted to check out a temple I had spotted on google earth. I got the sense it wasn’t a temple frequented by westerners, because I couldn’t find any mention of it in any blog, anywhere. Of course this only made me want to visit it more.

Now might be a good time to mention I haven’t really visited any of the tourist attractions in Battambang, except for the one I work for.

The Eventful Trip to O Krasang

20160918_124131So we hopped on my decrepit Honda Daelim 150cc motorbike and set off for O Krasang and the Angkor Era temple. What I hadn’t anticipated was that the road there would be a dirt road.

Or, in the dry season it is a dirt road. But now, three months into the rainy season, it was a muddy death trek of doom. When dry, the road would be wide enough for one car to drive safely, but two cars would have difficulty passing each other. In the wet there was one track, exactly the width of a motorbike tire and no wider, on which it was safe to drive. Everywhere else was either puddles or slippery muck.

As I set off onto this road, my whole body was tense. I wasn’t worried about myself or my bike. If I fell and muddied up the bike, whatever, it was just part of the story. But I was also responsible for Valerie’s well-being.

So this is what I am thinking as I start winding my bike along this twisting 5 inch wide strip of rideable road, desperately trying to maintain enough momentum not to get stuck, keep my eyes on the path in front of me, and not kill Valerie.

The tension was quickly broken by the source of my worry, Valerie. Instead of acting scared or stressed out, I heard her shouting behind me “Yeah, Megan, you got this!” “This is so cool!” and “There are so many cows!”

Pretty soon we are both laughing, and I was really enjoying the challenge of motoring along the muddy death trap. The road probably took 20 minutes to traverse, and I’m proud to say I didn’t fuck up once.

After the 20 minute joyous ride of doom, we turned onto a paved road and the rest of the trip was smooth and comfortable. 10 minutes later we pulled into this small temple in the middle of a Cambodian village. I probably don’t have to tell you that we were the only foreigners there. They didn’t even charge us an entrance fee. In Southeast Asia if they don’t charge you an entrance fee, it means you are the first foreigner ever to set foot there.

We explore the temple, wander around the footpaths into the jungle a bit, find ourselves in someone’s backyard, work our way back to the temple, and eat a picnic lunch. Eventually it’s time to go home.20160918_121306

On The Way Back, Things Get Interesting

As we are hopping back onto my trusty steed ancient scooter, I mention to Valerie that I had seen a different way home on the map. It would take longer, but be much prettier, following a stream as it wound through the jungle and farmland. Was she game to try? Valerie, the embodiment of adventure, consents. We decide to try out this wilder route home.

Of course, it isn’t a paved road. We find ourselves facing another muddy dirt path, winding along a murky river swollen from the recent rains. Overconfident from our recent success on the 20 minute ride of doom, I turn onto the street and rev the engine.

We hadn’t even gone a quarter of a mile before we’re faced with a muddy patch that outdoes everything we saw on the way to the temple. It makes my earlier “ride of doom” feel like a cake walk. Instinctively I know, 5 seconds too late, I can’t do this.

But of course, my hands don’t follow my brain. My brain says NO! Stop! Turn around! My hands drive the bike into the muck. I hit mud, I slide, step my foot to the side to catch myself, my foot hits the mud and slides uncontrollably backwards, my bike slides to the left and I fall into the mud. I feel Valerie fall behind me. I push my hands into the muck and they sink a good 6 inches. I try to push myself up and that’s when I realize… I’m stuck.

When my foot hit the muck, it slid backwards and Valerie fell on top of my leg, trapping me in the mud. I try to twist my face over to look at Valerie and ask her to get up. That’s when I realize she can’t. She is trapped under the motorbike.

Okay, I think, you’ve crashed your motorbike on top of your new friend. Time to pick it up so she doesn’t get hurt and hate you forever. I grab the handlebars and try to pick up the bike. But every time I try to move it, I just slide deeper into the mud. I can’t get purchase to leverage up the bike. I can’t move it.

Shit. I’m trapped under Valerie, who is trapped under the bike that I can’t move because I’m trapped under Valerie. Things were not looking so good.

20160918_164419

That’s when I heard him. A man ran over saying something in Khmer. He grabbed the back of the bike, I grabbed the handles, and we lifted the bike up a few inches, enough for Valerie to get out and me to stand up.

He took the bike and walked it out of the muck, setting it on its kickstand on the side of the road. I realized we had crashed right in front of a house with a family sitting outside. A woman came over to us. She grabbed Valerie and motioned to me. She led us into their compound and beneath the house.

Traditional Cambodian homes are raised up on stilts. Beneath the house, the family will set out tables, hammocks, and a few large jar shaped cisterns to store water. The woman led us to one of these cisterns to wash ourselves off. By now her husband had joined us again.

I thought they might give us a bucket to wash off the mud, but no. The husband walked over with a small plastic bucket and started to wash Valerie himself. She is laughing and saying thank you “akun, akun, thank you so much” over and over again. He turned her around, washing her legs, her arms, his wife standing behind him, pointing and fretting. They clean her cuts, her feet, he even tries to clean her face.

The wife steps up and tries to help me clean myself as well, but being the rather shy person I am, I gently shake her away and set about cleaning my feet. She settles for cleaning my shoes.

Once we’re all tidied up, we turn to the family and try to say thank you, over and over, in both Khmer and English. They shake off our thanks, smiling shyly. There is probably some huge gap of cultural understanding behind our desire to say thank you, and their unwillingness to accept our thanks.

Taking us in and helping us get clean would have filled my daily quota of unsolicited kindness, but of course, there was more. The family walked us back to the bike and watched to make sure we could get it going again. When I was too flustered to start the bike, the husband came over to start it for me.

We made the intelligent decision to take the paved road home, and the rest of the trip was uneventful. Except for the very strange looks we got from strangers as we drove down National Highway 5 on a motorbike completely covered in muck.

All in all, a good day made excellent by the kindness of strangers.

Pay it forward.

How to Plan an International Backpacking Trip

Adventure Travel, Travel, Uncategorized

Begin at the Beginning

I am trying to tell the story of my solo backpacking trip. In 2014, I took 6 months and travelled solo across South East Asia and over to Nepal. It was my first time traveling alone, and it had a profound effect on who I am and how I see the world.

If you are planning a backpacking trip, I hope this can serve as a sort of guide or suggestion for beginners.

My desire for this blog is that it not only tell my story, but also act as a resource for anyone who is planning or even daydreaming of setting off to travel the world alone. Be that for 1 week, 1 month or 1 year. With that in mind, I will try to finish each post with a list of resources and/or recommendations.

But a journey has to begin somewhere, and this one began in Korea.

Leaving Korea was surreal. Life abroad as an expat has one constant: people leave, you stay behind. You make friends, they leave, new friends arrive. But it is never your turn to leave, until one day… it is. You close your apartment door, turn in the key, and take the bus to your friends apartment for the last time. As I rode away from Bangbae on bus 406 I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “I may never ride on this bus again.”

Considering I rode that bus everyday, that was kind of a big deal.

lastmeal
My last meal in Korea

Of course, primarily I was excited. I was flying to BORNEO the next day. BORNEO! Where the hell is that? Is it even a country? Incidentally, it is not, it is an island split between 3 countries.

Was I sad…? not really. Or if sadness was there, I wouldn’t feel it for a few weeks. There was too much ahead. I was nervous, and somewhat anxious. I had never traveled alone!

I had spent the last 2 months attempting to “plan” my trip to Borneo, but every time I sat down to plan I got overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task and simply read other people’s accounts of Borneo on trip advisor, or the pages in my Lonely Planet.

passportticket

In fact, the morning that I left for my trip I had absolutely nothing booked, and only knew the name of a hostel in Kota Kinabalu, my first destination, where I hoped to spend a night. I would later learn that when traveling “on a shoestring” this is the preferable way to do things, because you can often get the best deals if you just show up at the door without a reservation. But at 23 years old, leaving Korea and heading into a black abyss of uncertainty, I was plagued by insecurity.

But mostly, as I went to sleep on my last night in Korea at my friend Gregor’s apartment, I was excited. That morning, I woke up at 4am to catch my 6am flight to Kuala Lumpur. Even the name sounded exotic. Kuala Lumpur.

byebye

Getting on that plane was so overwhelmingly thrilling I got chills. I had a heightened awareness of the fact that I was heading into something I had no expectations of, no understanding of, and no preparation for. I was terrified and it was exhilarating.

You don’t leave for your first trip as an experienced traveler. You leave confused and nervous and green, and that is exactly how it should be.

Let yourself be afraid. Jump in.

 flight
Somewhere over China, en route to Kuala Lumpur


Now for the all important topic of What To Bring!

Packing up your whole life into one backpack is a daunting task. The good news is, you don’t need to get it exactly right, you just need to get it MOSTLY right (pro-tip: socks and underwear are a must) and then you can fill in the gaps on the road. In fact, filling in the gaps can be its own adventure as you try to find out where on earth do they even SELL toothpaste in this country!?

Take Away: You can always buy whatever you need in a foreign country.

Here is a list of the things I had packed on the day I left from Korea. Problem is, I didn’t write it down and can’t remember.

One of my biggest mistakes: I only had one pair of shoes and no flip flops. In S.E. Asia, this is a big mistake. I was heading to a tropical island WITHOUT flip flops. Such a winter child.

Here is the list of what was in my bag when I arrived home at the end of 6 months. Please keep in mind the fact that I bought many things along the way.

A General List for a Backpacking Trip

  • 2 Backpacks
    • 1 65L (60 is sufficient)
    • 1 Small “day pack”
      • I meet people who travel without these, but I find it useful if you want to go on a day trip, or 2 day overnight trek and don’t want to have to worry about bringing all your stuff.
  • Clothes
    • way too many pairs of socks and underwear
    • dry fit shirt
    • underarmour shirt
    • trekking pants
    • 2 cotton t-shirts (one was used exclusively for sleeping)
    • 3 tank tops
      • unnecessary, should probably only have had 1, but they were 30 cents each in Thailand.
    • 2 pairs of flowy funky pants picked up in Thailand
    • 1 pair of yoga leggings
    • 1 Fleece
    • 1 Rain coat
    • 1 pair of shorts
    • 2 scarves picked up in Laos
    • 1 sarong from Cambodia (used as a towel)
    • 1 dress (picked up in Thailand)
    • 1 bikini (and actually, I lost this in Indonesia so it wasn’t technically in my bag when I got home)
    • gloves and hat
  • Footwear
    • hiking shoes
    • flip flops
  • Toiletries
    • toothbrush/paste/floss
    • shampoo[which I also used as bodywash]
    • coconut oil
    • nail clippers
    • razor
  • Miscellaneous
    • first aid kit
    • headlamp
    • converters
    • phone/charger + camera/charger
    • journal and pens
    • tennis balls (picked up in Indonesia for self-massage)
    • yoga mat
    • jump rope
    • hiking poles
    • sleeping bag
    • pain killers + sleeping pills
    • passport/wallet/photocopies of passport/extra passport photos

I think that is it. My bag was very heavy by the end, but that was necessitated by the wide variety of things I wanted to do and places I wanted to go during my trip. I had to have clothes and equipment for a yoga teacher training in Thailand, swimming/snorkeling in Indonesia/Malaysia, and trekking in… well in every country that I visited, but most importantly trekking in the cold high elevations in Nepal.

If you really wanted to pack light, of course it is possible. Could I have eliminated some stuff? Yes.

The most important step is to figure out what you think you want to do during your trip and pack for that. If you only want to party and sit on the beach, you really don’t need to bring much at all. If you want to go to Thailand and also the Himalayas, then your bag will be much more full.

Do yourself a favor and don’t buy into the budget attitude of idealizing having an ultralight bag. If you want to carry around a fully packed, 70L backpack, do it.

I will say this: you do not need to have a sleeping bag. Seriously. Unless you want to be the kind of person who goes camping, but do your research, there are not that many opportunities for independent camping in S.E. Asia. And when you do want to go outdoors, you can usually rent the gear in a nearby city. It all depends on the focus of your backpacking trip.

Adios amigas!


Recommendations:

For Finding Flights: www.skyscanner.com

For Basic Research:

  • Lonely Planet www.lonelyplanet.com I used other brands, but Lonely is the most widely used and useful. Just remember it is a jumping off point/crutch, once I get somewhere I almost never used it).
  • www.tripadvisor.com some of the people who write on here are not to be trusted, but you can get some really good ideas, referrals, testimony of other people’s experiences.
  • www.hostelworld.com decent place to find a mainstream hostel.
  • www.workaway.info If you are at all interested in volunteering during your trip, this is a great place to start.