A week in the Cambodian kingdom of wonder - Coconut beach and Phnom Penh

Tripoto

Details and photos on http://travelfrreak.blogspot.com/2017/12/a-week-in-cambodian-kingdom-of-wonder.html

Day 4 - Siem Reap to Coconut beach, Sihanoukville

The day we had landed in Siem Reap, we had got an email from our next hotel, Coconut Beach Bungalows on Koh Rong island about a recent storm because of which ferries which would take us to the beach were not running regularly. They suggested booking alternate accommodation in case we were unable to reach the island. So I tried booking hotels in Sihanoukville itself but everything was booked out as it was New Years Eve that time. Since that did not work, we thought we would try our luck anyways and try to reach the bungalows somehow.

We did eventually do that, but it was quite an experience ????. Even though everything had been planned well, it turned out to be a washout day and we spent almost the whole day in travel. I had booked a 7 am flight from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville, so that we could make it to the 11am ferry to Coconut Island. But it all went very very differently...

Hai again dropped us at the Siem Reap airport in the morning in his airy and fresh tuk-tuk. The domestic airport was quite small and had only two gates, so all was convenient and quick in the morning. We were in Sihanoukville in an hour and took a taxi to the ferry stations.

The air already felt beach-ey and relaxed when we got out of the airport, with the humid winds and the palm leaves swaying around. There were lots of green areas on the drive towards the city. Once in the city, it felt like quite a big and bustling place. It is a major port in the area and had lot of high rises and stuff, very different from Siem Reap.

When we reached the ferry company (Buva Sea), they told us that there was an ongoing storm in the sea, because of which the ferries were not running normally and we could only take the 5 pm one - the last one for the day. There were at least 4-5 ferry companies around and we checked with all, but they all had the same answer.

This was quite a downer, but we bought the tickets anyways and went to Serendipity Beach to spend the rest of the day while waiting for the taxi. Our taxi driver conned us a bit and dropped us in front of a hotel on Serendipity Road which he said had an Indian restaurant but it didn't. Anyways, we dropped our luggage at a travel agent's shop, and then walked around a bit in the area to pass time.

This road seemed to be the hub of tourist activity in the city. It was full of hotels, youth hostels, shops, restaurants, travel agents and and so on. We first had lunch at the only Indian restaurant we could find - the Kamasutra - and the food they served was very bad. Then we got a foot massage.

And we even tried to find a room for the 2-3 hours we had left, so we could sleep rather than stay outside. But there was not a single room available even though there were hundreds of guest rooms all around! Looks like all the tourists had descended on the beach to celebrate the New Year. In fact, even the king and PM of Cambodia were in town to celebrate the New Year ????.

So we spent the remaining 2-3 hours on the beach itself. There were loads of restaurants there with outside beach chairs and food. It was nice to sit outside but a bit hot and humid as it was still afternoon. The beach was huge and extended forever. I went into the water a couple of times and it was good for swimming, very calm and clean. But I mostly sat outside in the sun, sleeping and lazing! While we were sitting there, the beach was being set up for the parties being held at night. It must have been an awesome New Years venue, with the music, the moon and the waves splashing in the background ????.

After spending the whole day on the beach, we finally left in the 5 pm ferry which first goes to the more popular island and beach town - Koh Rong and then drops a few of the passengers to Coconut Beach on the other side of the island. By this time, even though the weather was hot, dark clouds had come out and it had started raining.

The ferry ride was in a huge speedboat and would generally have been very nice, though today it was quite crowded because of all the tourists going for the New Year party at Koh Rong. The sea was also quite choppy, which gave us a few scares, plus a few splashes! But all in all, the ride was uneventful.

The adventure of the day was not over though ????. Once we reached Koh Rong, the captain of the boat told us that the boat will not go to Coconut Beach but instead will drop us at another village nearby. It was a bit disconcerting as it was getting dark by then, and we had a few heavy suitcases with us which were not that easy to lug around. Anyways, the captain felt confident that it was easy to manage, so we carried on.

We then landed at a village which was barely a village to be honest! It felt like a few small huts half on the water. And it felt scary and dark. The ferry was docked next to another boat which you had to go through to get to the jetty. So we (and all our luggage) had to jump over the other boat to get to land! And in the dark! By that time, I had lost my patience. But it still wasn't over!!

The captain then said that our bungalows were a bit far, so we would be taken there on bikes! Thankfully, it turned out that they had a wagon with a trailer on which the luggage was taken to our bungalows. And for the passengers, they had 2 men on bikes who offered to take them to the beach!

One group of people left first, and then we waited for them to come back. During this time, somehow the data on the mobiles started working and when I checked on Google Maps, it seemed like the Coconut beach bungalows was only 10 mins walk away! (Weird that no one told us that and instead they were driving people on bikes to the hotel!). That seemed feasible and so all of us started walking towards the hotel, following Google Maps.

We walked on an unpaved road through the jungle, in the light of the phone flashlights. It felt like walking in the wild - the stars above, a cool breeze blowing on your face and sounds of insects all around you. It was an adventure of another kind ????. The walk was more like 15 minutes, and the small paths were not very well marked either. So we took an early wrong turn, turned up at the beach and then walked all the way on the beach to reach our Bungalows.

There were a few other resorts and holiday homes on the beach that we crossed. And so, after a full day of being in transit, after waking up at 5 am, we were finally at our destination by 8 pm! But it was totally worth it, and we realised it at night itself. Even without daylight, Coconut Beach felt like a small little paradise by itself and we did not want to leave it once we were there.

The Bungalows were all on one side of a small hill, nestled in between the vegetation on the island and facing the sea. They were made of wood and had a nice windy balcony outside. They were basic but were furnished with everything you would need to be comfortable. The owners of the place were a guy called Robbie, his sister and father. They were all very jolly and made their guests feel at home.

They had a lovely open air terrace restaurant which offered a nice variety of simple Khmer food. We were quite tired after the whole day of travel, so we had a nice tasty vegetarian dinner, cooked specially for us, and soon slept off. In fact, we slept with the doors and windows open to allow the wind and sound of waves to come inside. I think we even heard a gecko at night!

Except that it was New Years eve and Robbie woke us up before midnight to come down to the beach and celebrate! To be honest, since we were tired, we were in no mood to get out, but he came and called us twice and we finally did get out to the beach to celebrate. It was a short walk down to the beach, through the steps. And what a lovely beach it was, even at night!

There was already a large group of tourists there by that time, who were staying on the beach in the various hotels. They were all dancing and partying, with music, a choreographer and a bonfire all setup with seats around to sit and relax. And at midnight, there were fireworks set out in the jetty in the sea to welcome in the new year, 2017.

The ambience on the beach was great - pleasant temperature, stars above in a clear sky and cool sea breeze flowing - the perfect way to usher in the new year????. Everyone danced through the night I think as we could hear the music for very long. We however went back and crashed soon enough after our long day of travel!

Day 5 - Coconut beach

The next day was a relaxed lazy day at the beach itself. And we finally got to see the beach in daylight. It was a small remote private beach, with no real road coming in. It was connected with the unpaved walking path to the small village we had come from the last night. And all it had was a few small resorts with 10 or so huts in each. It was almost like having your own very private space with white sand to bask in the sun, and turquoise green waters to go for a swim. And given the beach was located in an inland lagoon, the water was quite calm. There were no waves there, just crystal clear water to swim in!

The beach had white sand, but a bit of leaves and sticks which had come in through the storm the previous night. Swimming was comfortable, with the sun being hot enough to make the waters warm but cool enough to make it enjoyable being in the water. So we spent the whole day lazily eating in the terrace restaurant, swimming or just lounging on the beach.

We also saw all the 4 ferries from Sihanoukville coming in on time that day. There was a pier right in front of the beach and it was so efficient to just land and go up the Bungalows. Alas, it didn't happen for us the day before and it wasn't going to happen the next day either!

In the evening, we went out on a walk towards the interior of the island to see what it had to offer. It felt quite wild and isolated, with the typical tropical vegetation of dense and green trees, dotted with some plantations. It felt so isolated and from a different world. For an hour, we did not see anyone at all, just trees around and the sky above. While coming back, we also saw a few holiday home coming up on the beach, I think those would be a good investment for sure!

At night after dinner, we went out to see photoplanktons in the sea. There is an area right in front of the bungalore, where if you walk a few metres into the sea (all very shallow), you can see the water shine and sparkle! This comes from the photoplanktons which shine when there is movement around them. And there were some in the sand too! So while you are walking on the sand, as you step, the sand starts to shine! Its similar to what we had seen in Vieques in Puerto Rico many years ago, and it was nice to experience the same again. We didn't take any pictures and so its tough to explain how it works. But its something definitely worth experiencing once!

We had all our meals in the terrace restaurant, with a majestic view of the sea and beyond. The food was awesome as always, with vegetarian dishes cooked specially for us. We had another fireworks show on the ferry pier for the New Years, this time conducted by another resort on the beach. And at night we could also see the lights of Sihanoukville twinkling away far off, a nice view by itself. So all in all, a nice good day but not bracing us for what was coming the next!

Day 6 - Coconut beach to Phnom Penh

The next day also turned out to be a full day of travel for us, waking up at 6 am to leave Coconut beach and landing in Phnom Penh only by 10 pm at night! Though most of it did not have to be like that. We had decided to take the 3 pm ferry to Sihanouk and then take a 2 hour taxi from there till Phnom Penh. However, Robbie woke us up at 6 am in the morning with the news that there was a storm that day. And so the ferries were not running as usual.

He said we should get up early and be ready to take an early morning ferry from the same village 20 mins away where we had landed the day before. So we woke up and got ready. However, when we asked him when the ferry would come, he said 12 am! So he had woken up everyone who was leaving that day to be ready at 7 for a ferry coming at 12! I think he was being overly cautious but ending up wasting a lot of time for everyone. Thankfully, we spent some time on the beach in the morning though that was giving Robbie a heart attack that we would be late for the ferry!

We went to the village again riding the bikes from the resort. There were already some 20-30 people from the beach waiting there since the morning, sitting in the village in the sun, doing nothing but patiently waiting. We finally did get to see the village during the day, it was partially built on the water, almost like a a floating village.

Once we reached the village, another long wait started for all of us. First the ferry was delayed till 1230. After a few phone calls at 130, it turned out that the ferry wasn't coming at all. So everyone decided to rent a typical wooden tailboat to take us to the mainland.

It looked like quite a unreliable one at that, and took us much longer to reach there. It was a good experience though, being out in the open sea in a wooden fishing boat! We also saw another floating village on the way, with houses very far away from anything. Anyways, this boat was dropping us at a pier different from the ferry one. We had booked a taxi to meet us there to take us to Phnom Penh but the taxi wasn't there! Apparently, since we were late, the taxi had found someone who would pay more and left with them ????.

Then we took a tuk-tuk to Serendipity beach and started looking for a way to get to Phnom Penh. There were loads of travel agents there who offered taxi services. And a couple of buses too. We spent about 2-3 hours looking for another taxi but it didn't work out as easily as we expected.

For one, everything was quite disorganised here. So we had to go and check with each travel agent individually. Then there was nothing available given it was New Years. And if there was something, they were quoting 3x of the price for the ride! It was a bit stressful figuring out how to get to your next destination in a new country where things werent too well organised!

Anyways our patience paid off and we finally got one taxi driver to agree to share the ride with another of his passenger. He was waiting for his passenger to come on the ferry and we waited with him. The weather in the afternoon had been very humid and had made us all very irritable when trying to find the taxi. In the evening though it improved, the temperature became cooler and tempers also cooled down ????. And when the other passenger came, we all took off for Phnom Penh, finally seeing light at the end of the tunnel.

Interestingly enough, the other passenger (a French guy working in Vietname) had also been staying at Coconut Beach and had had a similar adventure while getting into and out of the Beach. He was also waiting with us at the village in the morning, but when the ferry had got cancelled, his hotel owner had agreed to drop him off on his bike at the other end of the island, at the Koh Rong beach. The only problem was that there wasn't a full road till Koh Rong.

So the hotel owner had dropped him and his luggage a kilometre away from the beach! And he had to walk that last km, with his luggage, through the forest!! And his adventures hadn't finished yet either, as his ferry from Koh Rong to Sihanouk stopped working midway in the sea and a new one from the beach had to come to get them! After hearing his stories, we did not feel as bad about our day anymore ????.

On the 4 hours drive to Phnom Penh, we each complained about our trips and the issues. So it was an entertaining journey! The road was a single lane one and we couldn't see anything outside as there was limited light. But the driving was safe and disciplined, unlike India for sure. Anyways very late at night, we reached our hotel - the Skyline Boutique Hotel which was located right in the middle of Phnom Penh.

During the drive in, Phnom Penh felt like an old and rundown city. At least the outer areas felt quite poor, and the buildings felt quite old and falling apart. But the area we were staying in felt quite posh and well-to-do. It had a lot of huge buildings and monuments around which we saw when coming in. And our hotel was quite nice too with a nice little kitchenette and balcony to sit outside. We checked in quickly and crashed soon enough after our long long day of travel flaps.

Day 7 - Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is not really a touristy city, it almost feels like a poorer cousin to Bangkok. We ended up doing a few of the touristy stuff but we could have avoided Phnom Penh completely and stayed at coconut beach longer. We hired a tuk-tuk for half a day to take us around the city and drive us to a couple of places. Our tuk-tuk driver did not know any English though which was quite a tough thing to overcome! But the tuk-tuk ride with the wind blowing in the whole time felt fun, especially given how hot it was.

We drove around a lot during the day and Phnom Penh felt like a bustling metropolis wherever we went. It was a mix of the old and the new, the rich and the poor, the well maintained and the run down. Our first stop was the Wat Phnom, a temple which lends its name to the city.

Then on the way to the Silk Island, we visited a local temple made of gold! It was a Buddhist temple but you could see the impression Hinduism has made in the country over the last centuries. A lot of the sculptures were based on images of Hindu gods - Hanuman, Ram, Sita and so on.

After that we went to the Silk Village which was a bit of a ride. We had to take a ferry across the Mekong river to get to the island, our tuk-tuk went onto the ferry. Once there, it felt like we had come a world away from Phnom Penh. The island felt quite rural, with green fields and fruit trees everywhere, and people living in wooden houses with stilts.

As you drive through the houses, you start noticing that each of them has a silk loom on the ground floor and is selling silk products. It felt like everyone here was making silk - no wonder the island got its name. We stopped at one of the houses and observed them weaving beautiful pieces. Except that the ones they were selling were all Chinese made ????. So we didnt buy anything there and drove on. We did notice though that the women there were all watching hindi serials dubbed in Cambodian, while they were weaving ????.

After the house visit, we went to the silk centre where they grow mulberry leaves, raise silk worms on the farm itself and make silk. There were also some women who used to stay there and weave. As part of the tour, they showed us how the silk worms are raised. I learnt so much about silk making from there which I did not know before. Apparently, you can get 100-300 metres of silk from one small cocoon! And it takes 20 of those thin threads to stick together to make one usable silk thread!! The individual silk threads all stick together and don't break. The whole process of weaving one of the silk shawls on display takes about 40 days and you can weave that only by hand.

There was also a story about how this silk farm and the island name came about. A guy from this island had married a rich girl and then opened this silk centre to give jobs to the women on the island. There are only 18 women who stay at the farm and weave silk. They work 8 hours a day and get only 80 usd a month. Everyone on the island weaves now. Some of them use the silk from the silk farm and the rest from outside. As silk making increases, the place started getting known as Silk Island. The products there were pretty and worth buying. And the silk farm also had a few other things to keep people busy - a small zoo with iguanas, fish and monkeys. And typical Cambodian straw huts, with a pool and picnic area for families who visit.

After the silk farm, we also stopped at a local Buddhist temple which was magnificent. There were three of them next to each other, each gilded in gold, out in the open and so beautiful and calm. And completely empty! We spent some time there but it had got too hot to stay out by this morning. So we decided to call it a day and head back to the main city. After an Indian lunch, we came back to the hotel and slept for some time before going out in the evening. It is generally so hot in Cambodia, even in winter that taking an afternoon siesta is definitely the best way to be a tourist. We were planning to go to one of the local markets but they closed early, So we went out for a walk to my favourite part of the city - the riverfront!

We walked for about 10 mins from our hotel to the area around the Royal palace. It was on the riverfront and a nice place to walk around, taking in the cool river breeze. There were lots of people around there at that time, just sitting around in the open spaces, having picnics and generally strolling around. I also noticed a lot of young people out and about there. The river front was well maintained and seemed like the centre of all activity. There were loads of restaurants and shops there. And lot of beautiful lights on both sides. It was a nice place to walk, and the waterfront was definitely better than what we have in most Indian cities.

While walking back to our hotel, we took a road with loads of monuments around all lighted up. There were some grand old houses on that street and a lot of activity. We also noticed lot of Cambodian Peoples Party boards everywhere. Overall the city seemed safe enough and vibrant to walk around and enjoy.

We had spent the day visiting non-typical sites in Phnom Penh. Most people generally visit the National museum and the Pot Pol killing fields but I was not keen to go there as it seemed like quite a dark place to go to. Most people do find the visits eye-opening though. Other places to visit are the Royal palace, the Genocide museum, the Silver pagoda and Cruise along the Mekong. We walked by the Royal Palace but I think its much less impressive than the one in Bangkok, so we decided to give it a pass.

Day 8 - Phnom Penh to Delhi

The last day of our trip was relaxed. We had a morning flight back to Delhi, so we again took a tuk-tuk to get to the airport. We saw the outskirts of the town finally in daylight and it felt rundown, unlike most of the central areas. We also figured out that the tuk-tuks which wait just outside of the hotel are all crooks. They generally ask for 2-3X the price. We stopped a tuk-tuk which was driving on the road to take us to the airport which was much cheaper. He did not speak a word of English though (again)! Again on the ride there, I noticed how much more disciplined the traffic there is, as compared to India... sigh...

Overall, within our Cambodian trip, I thought Angkor Wat is a must-do and outstanding. Coconut Beach was amazing if you could make there without travel chaos. And Phnom Penh was missable. But the whole experience of Cambodia was amazing! It felt like quite a nice, calm and comfortable country. Somewhere where you can truly relax and be at peace...

Accommodation

Skyline Boutique hotel, Phnom Penh: The boutique hotel was very close to all the important tourist places, and very well done up. We had got a room with a kitchenette. It had big rooms and was well stocked. The hotel had a very nice little pool outside to deal with the heat. And a nice breakfast place in the morning, where you could sit outside in the sun, surrounded by greenery while you eat your morning breakfast. A good place overall.

Coconut Beach Bungalows, Sihanoukville: The infrastructure at the Coconut Beach Bungalows was amazing. We loved the vibe of the wooden bungalows, nestled in the jungle. Each of them had an outdoor balcony with a view of the sea and ferry pier. And then there were tents set up closer to the beach, for people looking for more basic and cheaper accommodation. The food in their in-house restaurant was tasty. And the views outside outstanding! An outstanding place and a definite recommend.

People

Overall, Cambodia felt like a relatively poor country, but still there was a calmness and satisfaction everywhere which had a positive feeling. People were busy living their lives. Everyone was helpful though English was not that common. It was safe everywhere. People did not cheat. Women were safe. So overall a nice place to visit. The organisation and timeliness was lacking though, but I think thats common for any developing country.

1) Carry USD with you if you have any. Its the most commonly used currency in the country. 2) Keep extra time for things to not go as planned. A lot of things don't work in a timely manner and you need patience to deal with that. Like our ferries from Sihanouk to Coconut Island not working on both the days we needed them ???? 3) You can take a boat across the SonLap lake which can get you from Angkor to Phnom Penh over 6-8 hours. I think its definitely worth a try 4) Phnom Penh is not really a top of list tourist town. Its easily avoidable. 5) Tuk-tuks are one of the different things of SE Asia. They are convenient, airy, comfortable and generally fun to ride:). You should definitely use them for all travel around the city 6) Cambodian massages being good is totally based on luck (unlike in Thailand). So be ready to be disappointed sometimes

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