So that’s it, the beginning of the end. At 10 am tomorrow we will be boarding a flight ready to whisk us back to New Zealand. You would think that we would have something really poignant to say as we reflect on our trip – some amazing pearls of wisdom on how much we have learned/changed as people, or something really moving about how our world view has broadened, but the reality is that, right now, sitting in a hotel room, ramming souvenirs and dirty clothes into our backpacks for the final time, nothing like that is springing to mind. We’re thinking about what time to get the taxi to pick us up tomorrow, making sure we request an aisle seat on the plane, not forgetting anybody’s duty-free order and the fact that when we get to Taupo, Sid (the most beloved Sandilands family dog) will not be there to greet us (RIP Sid). That’s not to say that we haven’t learned anything, or that we’re not just the teeniest bit different from when we left. I just think that perhaps those differences will reveal themselves a bit more subtlety – organically, and over time.
In saying all of that, we couldn’t sign out without any fanfare, so we have used Campbell’s mega (don’t look too closely or your eyes will bleed) trip planning spreadsheet to present:
“The Wilsilands World Trip – By the Numbers”
It goes something like this:
90 cities, towns, villages, islands
117 hotels, motels, guest house, homestays, Air BnBs
22 buses and minivans
10 boats and ferries
6 rental cars
1 travel insurance claim
4 sharting incidents (I’m not providing a breakdown of who was responsible for how many)
countless laughs, a good few rows and only one semi-serious conversation about getting a divorce; and
a whole lot of moolah (but worth every penny)!
Favourite places to party: Las Vegas, Greek Islands
Favourite beaches: Pelion Peninsula (Papa Nero and Milina)
Most beautiful landmarks: Yosemite National Park, Grand Canyon, Taj Mahal, Sapa rice paddies , Provence lavender fields, Jaisalmer Desert
Most relaxing places: Provence, Pelion Peninsula
Most challenging destination: India
Best place for eating: Seville, San Sebastian
Best local dishes: BBQ (America), pastries (France), lemon gelato (Italy), souvlaki (Greece), fruit smoothies and baguettes (Laos), chicken noodle soup (Laos), BBQ (Laos), bun cha (Vietnam), pad thai (Thailand)
Best experiences: Driving Pacific Highway 1 (America), camping in Yosemite (America), cycling trip (Cuba) Fado club-hopping (Lisbon), sea kayaking (Lagos), Pinxtos crawl (San Sebastian), camel safari (Jaisalmer), trekking and homestay (Sapa), dirt-bike riding (Kasi), volunteering at ENP dog school (Chiang Mai).
Best bang for your buck destinations: Greece, Vietnam, Thailand (northern)
Countries we most want to go back to: Spain and Greece.
And, as my beloved Forrest Gump would say, “that’s all I have to say about that”.
Thank you for reading the blog and sharing our journey.
It’d be fair to say that the tail-end of our trip has not exactly gone to plan. Hue was a blow-out and then, to top that off, I got sick – really sick. It looks likely that I’ve had a relapse of dengue fever (which I managed to get in Battambang) with a side of bronchitis, but, of course, I haven’t gone to get a blood test to confirm that. My family and closest friends know full well about my deep-seated and wholly irrational fear of blood tests. At 32 years of age, I am yet to have a blood test that hasn’t required me to be physically restrained, sedated, or both. I didn’t have a blood test without my Mum present until my mid-20s (before that I would have to wait until Uni holidays, or drive home especially, if I ever needed a blood test), and my first solo mission only resulted from a particularly demeaning experience where I worked myself into such a state that the nurse had to go to the childrens’ playbox, dust off a miniature Casio keyboard and sing me a soothing version of Silent Night before I would let her take my blood. With that as background, there was no way in Hades I was taking myself down to a Vietnamese health clinic to offer up my veins. Conversations about whether we needed to go to the hospital ended in a definite ‘no’ for the same reason.
Irrespective of what specific health issue I’ve had, one thing is for certain – I have had the best doctor in the business looking after me. Dr Cam Medicine Man has been a stand-up legend this last week, and I actually couldn’t have done it without him – he has done early morning and late night drug runs, woken up in the middle of the night to get me another cold flannel, dealt with all life/trip admin, wrangled with hotel staff to have chicken soup delivered to our room, carried the bags/me everywhere we’ve needed to go, let me set the AC on arctic even though it meant he was freezing, and even helped me get dressed on the really shit day when I couldn’t manage that on my own. In short, he’s been amazing and, while this week hasn’t been a stand-out from a travelling perspective, from a relationship perspective it’s been rock solid. After ten months of travelling together, I’d call that a big win.
After five days in bed, I was finally ok to get up and go for a little excursion on Wednesday. First stop was the tailor in Hoi An, where we wanted to get some new clothes made for our return to work. Thankfully Mum had hooked us up with a recommendation from one of her clients, so we bypassed all the street hustlers and the Tripadvisor reviews and went there directly. It should be said that neither of us are really great shoppers – Campbell has a shopping tolerance of about twenty minutes (he generously pushed this out to half an hour the day we bought his wedding suit), and I shop almost exclusively online, because I hate trying on clothes in those awfully-lit sweatbox changing rooms during my lunch break (much better to do it at home where I can ask Henry his opinion).
We approached our trip to the tailors pretty much the same – we went armed with pictures (highly recommend), I picked out the fabrics for both of us (to Campbell’s male eye all the suit fabrics looked the same), we got our measurements taken (resisting the urge to suck in the extra holiday pounds) and that was that. We went back for a fitting in the evening, and were super impressed with how things were shaping up. We requested a few minor alterations and agreed on hem lengths etc and picked up the finished product mid-morning the next day. All in all a pain-free and successful mission.
I was still feeling ok after our morning trip to the tailors, so we took our scooter for a little spin around town so I could get some fresh air. Campbell hired a scooter for our entire stay here, so that he’s been able to get out and do some fun stuff while I’ve been in bed. It’s been really great – he’s been to Danang twice to play golf, which he’s been waiting a long time to do. It also meant that I didn’t feel guilty about being stink company, because he could still get out and about while I snoozed or watched reruns of America’s Next Top Model on cable (I loved this, because it reminded me so much of Friday nights in my old student flat with my flatmate Geemo, where we would eat ready salted chips and kiwi dip for dinner and recite all of Tyra’s lines along with her “13 beautiful young girls stand before me, but I only have 12 photos in my hands. . . “).
Today was our last day in Hoi An, so we made a big effort to get out and about. We had a lovely lunch at a place on my “must-eat” list (a definite sign I’m on the mend) and then a gentle wander around the streets. Hoi An is so much quieter now than it was when we were here with Mum and Dad, and I’ve enjoyed it a lot more as a result. There are far less tourists, and a lot less people screaming at you competing for your business. Without all of that madness there’s more time to take in what a beautiful little town Hoi An really is. Consider my opinion of this place significantly softened. We took one final stroll around the night market this evening, polished off a ritzy meal and are all set for the trip to Ho Chi Minh, the launchpad for home, tomorrow.
The next few days will be a whirlwind – we have friends to catch up with in Ho Chi Minh, dentist appointments (so much cheaper than home!) and I have booked myself in for a bumper spa session to address the fact that I currently look like a sack of dogs’ bollocks. They’ll be just enough time for some final souvenir shopping at the market and then we’ll be on a plane and winging our way to home sweet home. See you soon!
I’m just going to put it out there, Hue is boring. Really, really boring! The last three days here have been an exercise in frustration – we’ve been truly bored for the first time on the trip and, with only ten days left before we fly home, had limited flexibility to throw in the towel and move on. We’ve looked into every possible activity to do, but have come up short. We googled “bored in Hue” and found a lot of posts from people complaining about being bored, but none proposing any solutions. Campbell even asked one of his buddies who lives in Vietnam, but all he could offer was that we should “move south” because “Hue licks Jesse Ryder’s balls” – a hilarious (and accurate) insight, but not all that helpful for our predicament. The fact that it rained every day (not pouring rain, but that fine misty rain that’s just heavy enough to mess with your hair and your mood) was the icing on the cake.
Hue is in central Vietnam – it is a small town on the banks of the Perfume River. It’s popularity as a tourist attraction stems from its history as the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty Emperors and the capital of Vietnam from 1802 – 1945. The main attractions are the Citadel (which includes a variety of palaces and shrines, former emperor’s homes etc) and various Emperor Tombs dotted around the city and its surrounds. Aside from that, the town is quaint, but desperately short on things to keep an active traveller amused. We didn’t actually get to see any of Hue’s limited tourist attractions, because last night I was struck down with Dengue round two and we had to can the half day tour that we had booked for today. We also had to cancel our motorbike trip from Hue to Hoi An tomorrow, which we’re both gutted about. I wanted to push on, but Campbell (sensibly) made the call that I would be a danger to myself and others behind the wheel of a scooter all day. We’ve sussed out a private driver instead and are very much looking forward to getting to Hoi An and shaking off our Hue-induced funk.
On the plus side, I will give Hue a big tick for having lots of good cafes and restaurants. Hue cuisine is distinct from that in other parts of Vietnam, which results from its origins as “royal cuisine” fed to the Emperors. There are several unique Hue dishes, and Hue food is generally known for being slightly more refined than that found in other places around the country.
If we’re honest, a little bit of the problem is that we’re struggling to keep our head in the travelling game as the countdown for home ramps up. We’ve had moments of travel fatigue earlier in the trip but, at that stage, we were so far from home, with so many weeks to go on the trip, that giving into it really wasn’t an option. Now though, with only ten days to go, and being so close to home, it is hard not to let thoughts drift to home even though we’re determined to make the most of the last wee bit of our trip. Wandering around the town trying to take everything in, while discussing the best day to get the carpets cleaned at home, or wondering why the insurance company hasn’t responded yet, or when to reactive the car rego, has us feeling a bit like we’re in two places at once. Trying to ‘reactive’ the life we put on hold almost ten months ago has definitely brought with it a certain amount of admin.
Because this blog is such a downer, we thought we’d wrap it up with things we’re going to miss about Asia:
The Bum Gun: The bum gun is effectively a hand-held bidet. It’s designed to help you clean your bits after using the loo, and cut down on the amount of dirty toilet paper to put in your bathroom rubbish bin (because paper can’t be flushed here). I was sceptical at first, but once I gave it a try (and mastered my technique – there’s obviously a few thing to take into account when using the bum gun – water pressure, aim etc, ) I was converted. Campbell was less convinced, but found it a very useful substitute for a toilet brush (you just want to keep your face well out of the way when attempting skiddy removal).
Noodle Soup: Anytime, anyplace, anywhere. I love this stuff so much and will miss it the most of all the food we’ve tried when we get home.
Breakfast Buffets: Most accommodation in Asia comes with breakfast included, which is quite different to hotels and motels at home. The breakfast buffets are outrageously good and really encourage you to make a total glut of yourself. I’m not sure I’d ever get sick of watching the chefs at the egg station make perfect omelettes time after time.
Flexibility: SE Asia is an incredibly easy place to travel by the seat of your pants. It doesn’t matter where you want to go, you can seem to book a bus, minivan, flight, boat, or train at the very last-minute and at a fair price.
“English” signs and menus: There’s a fair few laughs to be had at some of the signage at restaurants, train stations and out and about generally. One of my favourites would have to be the sign in the bathroom at a bus station, which
requested that, “at the completion of your mission” you put your “disgusting” paper in the bin. Product packaging also provides a few laughs – “Craven” cigarettes, really?!
People: It’s true what they say about the people here – they are friendly, relaxed, good-humoured and almost excessively eager to please. Sure, there’s the odd moment of frustration when things get lost in translation, but that’s just as much our fault as it is theirs – we could’ve always learned the language before coming if we wanted to avoid mix-ups.
So, that’s the last few days. They’ve been testing and we’ve been glum. Still, tomorrow is a new day and we’re off to Hoi An where we’ve been before and know there is a fair bit more to keep us amused. First stop will be the tailors to get some new clothes for the return to work – I’ve decided to only wear my floral pjs to work on Fridays.
We spent our last two days in Cambodia in the seaside village of Kep. Kep was just a quick tuk tuk ride up the line from Kampot and, from there, we could travel straight into Vietnam. Kep used to be a French colonial beachside resort, but it’s now primarily famous for its crab market and the dozens of restaurants selling Kep crab along the promenade. Kep beach is really nothing to write home about – white sand is trucked in from Kampot to make it more beautiful, but it’s a very low-key affair – a few people swimming, a few ladies hiring out loungers and families picnicking on the footpath tucking into bags and bags of crab. With six days on Phu Quoc Island just around the corner, we decided to give the beach a miss and hit Kep National Park instead. The Park is really well-maintained with an easy 8 km loop, and a few more adventurous detours that you can take along the way. It provides awesome views of neighbouring Rabbit Island and Phu Quoc, and you can also spot some of the crumbling mansions left over from Kep’s hey day as the Cambodian Riviera.
It was a very cruisy couple of days, followed by a very long travel day getting from Kep to Phu Quoc. In standard fashion, the trip went something like this – minivan ride, change minivan, minivan ride, wait for passports to be processed, walk across border from Cambodia to Vietnam, wait, minivan ride to the port, ferry ride to Phu Quoc, minivan ride to resort – done! Sure, we could have flown, but where’s the fun in that? Like so many coastal areas in SE Asia, Phu Quoc is in the midst of a full-blown construction boom. There are new resorts, golf courses and casinos going in everywhere. Luckily our wee resort was tucked away up a long (and very steep driveway), which sheltered us from lots of the commotion. Away from the hub of Long Beach and the main town there is also a variety of beaches all at various stages of development, and some lovely remote places to hang out.
Phu Quoc is renowned for its beautiful beaches and is also a great spot for diving and snorkelling. We’d been toying with the idea of getting our PADI dive certificates since we got to Asia, but decided we probably wouldn’t get the use out of it, so we signed up for a day of snorkelling instead. It was an early morning start to get out to the An Thoi islands just south of Phu Quoc. The sea was rough as guts which, not surprisingly, saw some onboard emptying their guts within just a few minutes. It was a hell of a ride, and nobody had high hopes for visibility or the quality of the snorkelling on the day. The captain did an awesome job of finding sheltered dive spots for us, and the day was much better than we expected.
There was a fair amount of sediment in the water, but we still managed to see all sorts of tropical fish, hard and soft corals, sea anemones, crabs and even a super poisonous sea snake (we didn’t realise it was poisonous as we were flapping about in the water trying to follow it). It was pretty cool, just not as cool as my unrealistic expectations of life under the sea, which I blame on Disney and Pixar. Every time I have been snorkelling there is an immediate (and irrational) disappointment that things under the surface aren’t just one great fluorescent maritime party. The fact that there are a lot of things coloured brown, or just “rock” coloured always disappoints me. I don’t recall much brown in “Finding Nemo” or “The Little Mermaid”. We got in three long sessions with the snorkels, before lunching onboard and heading home. It was a long, tiring day (especially for the little girl still vomiting in the minivan on the ride back to town), but a great day on the water.
And, what the ocean was lacking in fluorescence was more than made up for by our accommodation, or “Pleasantville” as Campbell referred to it. Once we’d got our heads around the fact that we weren’t staying at the much fancier resort up the road (two resorts – one high-end and one a bit more budget – sharing a website makes for much confusion) it was very pleasant indeed.
Aside from our day snorkelling, our time on Phu Quoc was very relaxed – we had a lot of time at the resort, quiet evenings out, a day on the scooter, a visit to the night market and plenty of beach time. It’s been a nice wind down, before we wind up again for our last two weeks before home.
As we get closer to returning home, we’ve spent a lot of time chatting about what we’re looking forward to, and what we’re dreading. The list of things we’re looking forward to goes a little something like this:
Seeing family and friends
Being reunited with our ginger-fishy-freckle-face fur baby, Henry
Being able to drink water from the tap, and clean our teeth in the shower
Toilets that can handle having toilet paper flushed down them (ie. no more rubbish bins for poo paper in the bathroom)
No more squat toilets
Smelling like something other than sweat, sunscreen and DEET
Having clean clothes, clean hair and shaved legs all at once (ok, this one is mainly a priority for me, but my desire to feel like a “real girl” again has me sounding like Pinocchio at the moment)
Hanging out in the garage, going bush, beer at the Workers’ and lighting the fire pit (no surprises whose wish-list this is)
Home-cooking (at the time of writing it has been 2.5 months since we last cooked ourselves a meal); and
(in no particular order) – Marmite, Vogels, corn on the cob, steak, feta, avocado, anything and everything from a bakery, kiwifruit, courgettes, hummus, mushrooms, kransky sausages, etc (Mum and Dad – you wouldn’t be totally off base for thinking this is my not-so-subtle way of adding some items to your shopping list before we get to Taupo).
Tomorrow we head to Hue, the last “new” place on our itinerary. Tonight we have the unenviable job of trying to get our bags under the 15 kg weight limit for our flight. It could be a very long night!
Kampot is cool; seriously cool. We would highly recommend it to anybody visiting Cambodia. We arrived here yesterday via a fairly uneventful two hour minivan ride. On the trip we met a really nice woman from Chicago, who is part of the Peace Corp and has been working in Koh Kong for the last year and a half at a public health clinic. Her initial expectation was that she would be educating people about HIV, contraception etc. However, when she got here, realised that she’d have to start at a far more basic level. She said one of the key things she talks to people about is the need to drink more water, and trying to overcome the commonly held view that drinking water makes you fat and/or gives you a cold. It sounded like she also spends a fair amount of time convincing people that her freckles are not a sign of some deadly contagious disease.
We said goodbye to her on arrival in Kampot. We were keen to get checked-in and get to exploring. Kampot is a really easy town to get around – you can navigate based on the river that borders the main part of town, the three bridges that run across the river and the iconic roundabouts throughout town. Directions often go something like, “take the first left at the durian, go straight for a bit, go right at the salt mining couple and carry on until you get to the big white horse”. We had an awesome brunch (the food scene here is so so good, and you can actually get decent coffee) and then wandered the streets for a bit snapping pictures of the street art and French colonial buildings and picking up some really cool vintage souvenirs. In a nutshell, Kampot is everything we thought Battambang would be, but wasn’t. We tucked into some of the meatiest ribs we’ve ever had (voted the best in Cambodia two times running) for dinner in the evening, and wrapped things up with a foot massage. First day in Kampot = tick!
Today we set out on a scooter to get a glimpse of what Kampot is really famous for – pepper and (to a lesser degree) salt. The salt flats aren’t really in peak production at the moment, so we whizzed by those on the way to Sothy’s Pepper Plantation. Sothy’s is a member of the Kampot Pepper Producers Association. Kampot pepper in all its forms (green, black, white and red) is regarded amongst the best in the world. Apparently, its superior flavour is due to the high concentration of quartz in the soil, the consistency of the Kampot climate (no great variation between day and night) and the fact that only organic fertiliser (cow poo and bat guano) is used. Kampot Pepper has recently received Geographical Indication status meaning that only pepper grown in Kampot to very specific standards can be called “Kampot Pepper” (in the same way as only certain wines can call themselves “Champagne”). Many of the world’s top restaurants will only use Kampot Pepper – it’s quite the big deal.
Sothy’s offer free tours of the plantation, which was actually a whole lot more interesting than expected. Turns out that pepper plants are actually incredibly vulnerable and require huge amounts of love and tending to. The pepper plants aren’t fertilised by insects, but by the right combination of sun, water and nutrients, so it is critical to get these basic ingredients right. There is only one harvest a year, so you’re in trouble if you cock it up. The harvest itself is done in March, April and May and is an entirely manual process. The different grades of peppers must adhere to the strict standards of the Geographical Indication status and every individual peppercorn is sorted and quality checked by hand (and tweezers) – that’s what this lady (below) is doing. Peppercorns that don’t make the grade are either sold as an inferior product for a discount, or sold as ground pepper.
There was no hard sell at the end of the tour, but we picked up a few bags of different peppers to bring home. They’re almost too fancy to just bung in the pepper grinder, so we’ll have to do a bit of swat and figure out how to use them.
It was a long trip on the bike to get to our next destination, and Kampot’s premier tourist spot – Bokor National Park. Bokor was established by the French in the 1920s as a hillside retreat for expats to escape from the ferocious Kampot heat (it really is hot as hell here). A church was built, along with a palace, post office and other amenities. The French abandoned the area at the height of the First Indochina War and it was later claimed by King Sihanoukville who pimped out the palace and turned it into a casino and built himself a wee summer house on the hillside. The whole area was abandoned again in the 1990s, but not before being the site of epic gunfights between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese (one group holed up in the church, and the other in the casino) during the height of the Khmer Rouge’s power. Nowadays, almost all of the historic buildings have been abandoned, but are open to the public to explore. They’re far more interesting than the god awful new casino and resort that have been recently constructed on the hilltop.
Wandering through the abandoned buildings, spotting the bullet holes in the walls and reading the slightly creepy graffiti on the walls made for a fairly spooky experience. Not surprising then that several horror films have been made here.
On the way up the hill we also paid a visit to Ya Mao, the guardian of the coast and a sort of St Christopher (patron saint of travel) who overlooks the travel of people who make offerings to her. Legend has is that Ya Mao died at sea while travelling to see her husband. As a result, the Khmer assume (and I quote from the Kampot Survival Guide) “that Ya Mao was wanting sausage” and so, to this day, primarily offer her phallus shaped objects including bunches and bunches of bananas. This was certainly true of the offerings on display today. Poor Ya Mao had an entire plantation of bananas to get through. The only downside to our trip was the scorching burn I managed to give myself from the scooter exhaust (schoolgirl error!). Funny how the smell of BBQ loses all its apppeal when it’s your own skin that’s cooking.
Tomorrow we’re off to Kep, the last stop on our Cambodian trip. We’re hoping it can pick up where Kampot leaves off and dish up a few more highlights before we head back to Vietnam.
After all the trouble we’d had with our hotel booking, we were determined to make the best of our stay at Serendipity Beach. I used to work with a hilarious man who, when we had something really terrible/impossible to work on, would describe it as ‘polishing a turd’; and I was genuinely ready to put a shine on the great big log that was our first day at Serendipity Beach. Our (read: my) resolve lasted for one night; a night spent lying awake until 4.30 am listening to horrendous trance music blasting from the beach (over 500 metres away) and then being awoken again at 7 am to a group of Cambodian men playing cards and speaking (read: yelling) to all of their friends on speaker phone right outside our door. There was no way I could do another three nights like that. By the time Campbell got back from his leisurely morning coffee and cigarette, I had worked myself into full-blown Sandilands rage mode – we were leaving this shit hole, we were getting a refund, and heaven help the person who tried to say otherwise. Campbell knew better than to try to placate the beast – I had pretty much turned into that woman from The Exorcist (minus the putrid green vomit).
After hours on the phone to Expedia, we finally had alternate arrangements and we were set to leave Serendipity (minus the five or six pieces of clothing that the hotel had managed to lose while doing our laundry). For us, the only real solution was to throw cash at the problem – we didn’t book the private island, but we did end up back at Otres Beach, somewhere fancier than we’ve been in a long time, and it was the best decision we ever made. We felt like rock stars as we got escorted to our poolside room via golf buggy. We wouldn’t want to unfairly deter anyone from visiting Serendipity Beach – you should definitely visit if sweating, early twenty-somethings, wearing hardly any clothes and groping each other, so high on drugs that they’re chewing their own faces off and dancing to a beat only they can hear, is your kinda thing. If not, I’d probably give it a miss.
Our few days back at Otres Beach were lovely and we wondered why we’d ever left in the first place. As NYE rolled around we didn’t really have any big plans, but figured we’d make our way down to the beach along with everybody else. The vibe was really nice – heaps of Cambodian families had set up camp in the free areas with their tents and BBQs and all of the beach bars were playing great tunes and serving up cocktails. With just the two of us, it was shaping up to be a pretty tame affair but, as we’ve learned, the world sometimes has a way of dishing up the right kind of people at just the right time. We ended up meeting two great girls – one Aussie and one American – and spent an awesome evening with them chatting about our respective travels, watching the fireworks and having an all-round good time.
Michelle (the Australian) was particularly awesome, and I had to laugh as she sat smoking her joint telling us about her study to become a drug and alcohol counsellor. She’d volunteered and travelled extensively through east Africa and had so many amazing tales. We didn’t get to know Julie (the American) quite so much, because she spent a lot of the night running and hiding behind trees and tables to avoid the danger from the home-made Cambodian fireworks. To be fair, the homemade fireworks were an accident waiting to happen, but they were also awesome. They were the equivalent of Roman Candles (the ones you can hold and shoot ten or so blasts into the air), but were made of plastic PVC pipe and homemade bundles of gunpowder. They were totally out of control and would sometimes shoot explosives out of the wrong end, both ends and even sideways. A couple of times they’d go totally rogue and spin off into the crowd, or one of the beach restaurants. Julie did not like them one bit, while Campbell was wondering how to smuggle some home. The thought of him and Trev with a set of them is terrifying!
Sihanoukville also put on a pretty impressive professional fireworks displays at each of its main beaches, and we could see the show from Otres, Serendipity and some bays even further afield. We wandered the length of the beach after the countdown, said goodbye to our new buddies and called it a night.
Our posts on Sihanoukville could leave you with the impression that we really didn’t like it here and, while it’s true that it’s been one of the most trying weeks of our trip, we have also had a really great time in amongst all of that. Above all, the tricky moments certainly haven’t overshadowed how much we have enjoyed Cambodia – there is so much to like here:
The People: Cambodian people are outrageously friendly, funny, patient and courteous. Given the things they have lived through in recent times, their resilience and spirit is unreal.
The Food: On the whole, we haven’t found the food here quite as tempting as some of the other countries we’ve visited, but the fresh seafood BBQs on Otres Beach were pretty much the definition of simple things done right. So good!
The Fashion: I am a strong advocate for comfortable clothing, so I whole-heartedly support the fact that Cambodian women wear what appear to be floral pyjamas as everyday wear (I couldn’t get any decent photos of my own, but this one I found gives you the idea). I’m realistic about the prospect of bringing this trend home – it has taken me eight long years to get my boss to accept tolerate my love of the humble cardigan, so I can only imagine the response when I arrive back at work in my floral jim jams. I will, of course, accessorise with appropriate corporate footwear and accessories, but I still expect we’ll be having a “conversation”.
Town and Country: We’ve really loved the mix of big cities, small towns, villages, beachside communities etc that Cambodia has to offer. Every place has felt truly unique and there hasn’t been anywhere on our trip that we could look back on and think ‘we probably could have given that a miss’.
Tomorrow we leave Sihanoukville, and are finishing up our time in Cambodia with quick visits to both Kampot and Kep. We’ve heard great things about both and are expecting good food, a bit of beach time, some scooter action and to go out with a bang.
Christmas in Cambodia was a fairly low-key affair, but I guess that’s to be expected from a country where the majority of the population don’t actually celebrate Christmas. There was definitely more of a festive atmosphere than when we’d left Thailand, and plenty of hotels, shops and restaurants had Christmas decorations and lights set up. Our tuk-tuk driver from Battambang said that this was solely for the benefit of tourists and expats, but we did notice a couple of very sweet local Christmas time traditions – like the fact that Cambodians say “happy merry Christmas” instead of just “merry Christmas”, and the kids get dressed up in little Santa Claus and Mrs Claus outfits on the few nights before and after Christmas and hoon around on their scooters in the local parks. Overall though, the 25th of December is just another day – all of the shops are open and it’s business as usual.
We spent our Christmas morning Skyping family and lounging by the pool, and then set off for a traditional lunch/early dinner at the local Aussie pub. The lunch was incredible, but the quantity of food was bordering on embarrassing in a country where so many people have so little. Our waitress was absolutely stoked when we told her to take our helping of Christmas pudding home to have with her family. She even came by our table to show it to us all packed up in a takeaway box, and said that she was going to let her son have it for breakfast (he’d be asleep by the time she got home that night). Lunch left us unable to do much, but waddle home (stopping for a few more drinks en route) and pass out in a turkey/pork/stuffing/spud coma. It was a fun day, but it’s true that there really is no place like home when it comes to Christmas and we were both a tad homesick throughout the day.
On Boxing Day we did the same thing as loads of people back home, and hit the beach. There is not a hint of sarcasm when I say that the bus ride to Sihanoukville was luxurious – there were only four of us onboard, we got given fresh baked croissants as we set off and then listened to epic old school pop tunes the entire time (Ja Rule, and pre-meltdown Britney, anyone?). The rest stop was at a great cafe with western toilets and, wait for it, toilet paper!! The whole experience was heavenly. On arrival in Sihanouville we were straight in a tuk tuk headed for Otres Beach. Sihanoukville has a bit of a patchy reputation – it is divided into a handful of different beaches; some are idyllic little white sand retreats, and others are tacky party pits known for attracting sex pests (that’s not a joke, there’s a real problem with that here), young backpackers and people with an aversion to deodorant.
For us, Otres was the perfect in-between – there was a great atmosphere with beach bars and restaurants, prices that appealed to backpackers/flashpackers, but also enough family groups and couples to keep things from getting too scuzzy in the evenings. There’s also some really cool local initiatives going on, like the Otres Market. The Market sets up on random nights (you just have to keep your eye out for one of the fliers on the beach) and features local and international bands, a dozen food stalls (Mexican, Khmer, Portuguese etc etc), cheap booze and local arts and crafts. The night we went there were two great bands playing and we spent an easy few hours listening to them, sucking back G&Ts and Cuba Libres and feeling very pleased with ourselves. Days were spent lounging on the beach, and that’s about it.
It’s just as well there was so much to keep us “busy”, because we’d had an absolute blow-out on the accommodation front and we didn’t want to spend any more time there than absolutely necessary. While we’d been wandering around oblivious to what the month, date, or day was, all the other eager beavers had been scooping up all of the Cambodian beach accommodation for the Christmas/New Year period. When we finally came to taking a look, our first search came back with two options – a private island for $3k a night (nice, but not in the budget), or a tent on the beach (not nice). Panic rapidly set in, but after a lot of sleuthing and a lot of stressing we finally found somewhere to stay – another bloody eco resort. This one really took the cake though. When the manager showed us to our “bungalow” and opened the door Campbell’s face transformed from tentative optimism (he’d made the booking), to that of a small child that’d just discovered a turd in its school lunchbox. The place was a dive, and it was absolutely full of critters. I tried to stay upbeat, but when we woke up the next morning to a giant lizard on the bathroom wall and frogs on the toilet seat and the mirror, I joined the pity party as well.
We’ve grown quite accustomed to Henry head-butting his way into the bathroom when we’re sitting on the crapper, but this was a whole other audience and I wanted them gone. Lizzy (the big lizard) was kind enough to just slink back to wherever he’d come from once he realised we were there to stay, but those frogs just wouldn’t budge. We tried to smoke them out with one of those insect repellent coils, but they came back when the smell had worn off. So it was out of pure desperation that I said to Campbell, “I wonder what would happen if you gave them a little squirt with the shower?”. No need to die wondering, I can tell you exactly what happens when you squirt a frog with the shower – the frog will get really really pissed off and leap at your face with all of its little fingers and toes ready to suction onto your face and kill you (at least that’s what it felt like at the time). You’ll then be so terrified that you fall backwards out of the bathroom, smash your arm on the wardrobe and fall arse-first through the mosquito net over the bed and rip it from the ceiling. The frog will then go back to sitting in the bathroom watching you on the loo. Wildlife – 1; Wilsilands – 0.
Despite loving Otres Beach, we literally bounced out of our bungalow this morning headed for our next accommodation on Serendipity Beach. Cambodia is really giving us the treatment though, and we arrived at our hotel only to be told that they’d double-booked our room and had no rooms available. We already knew that there was no accommodation left pretty much anywhere in Sihanoukville (except the private island), so tried to work with the hotel for a solution. A lot of phone calls were made and people were running all over the show with walkie talkies, when the manager said that they had managed to “find” us a room. We set off to check it out (up about 50 flights of stairs) and I knew it was bad when, from around the corner, I could hear that Campbell had been taken with a bout of verbal tourettes and was seriously unhappy with whatever room they’d rustled up for us (“No! I am very angry! No!”). I didn’t even need to see the room – the words “dorm” and “shared bathroom” meant it was a big ‘no deal’ from me too.
After many more telephone calls, a few choice words with the owner and a panicked call to Expedia, the hotel managed to “find” us another room (I’ve no idea where they kept appearing from). We grudgingly accepted (it wasn’t what we wanted, or had paid for), but it would do the trick and, unless we wanted to sell our internal organs, the private island wasn’t really an option. On the plus side, our hotel is in a pretty sweet location – close to the beach and lots of shops, cafes and restaurants. We got lunch on the house, and there are a bunch of puppies that live here, which did wonders to help soften the mood. We’ll spend New Year’s Eve here and then we’re looking forward to striking out for Kampot and Kep – the last destinations on our Cambodian trip.
While our lack of planning screwed us a bit this last week, it has paid dividends on another front and we’ve realised that, once we reach Kep, we can catch a ferry from there directly to Phu Quoc island in Vietnam. Phu Quoc was on our wish list of places to get to, but was starting to look a bit unlikely. We’re so stoked to be able to go there before we venture north to Hue that we went straight to the Vietnamese Embassy in Sihanoukville this afternoon and got our Vietnam visas amended so we can get there quicker. After the day we’d had, we were expecting something like a Visa amendment to be a real drama. I was envisaging stacks of forms, some form of cavity search and lots of money changing hands. I could have hugged the man behind the desk when he said that ‘yes, he could change our Visa entry dates’ and that it would only cost us $20. He then rifled around in his desk, got out his twink pen, changed the dates, blew on the twink to make sure it was dry, and saw us on our way. On a day when easy things have been hard, we laughed out loud that something with the potential to be hard had been so so easy.