Koh Rong

I wake up to the sun shining through our hostel window. Wait, why is no alarm ringing?! What time is it?! No!!!! My phone is dead. It is most definitely later than 8:30am, when we were due to catch the ferry over to Koh Rong. Sigrid was going to meet us at the pier and everything, oh my god, I am a terrible friend.
In my defence, the entire hostel room is without a single wall plug. In the hostel’s defence… It’s $1 to sleep there. Rats.
I wake Tamara, tell her we’ve missed the boat, and we scramble to get our stuff together before heading downstairs where there are a plethora of plugs to be used. I see that it’s 9:30am according to the clock above the bar. I order some breakfast while I wait for my phone to charge, feeling so guilty all the while. I’m used to being a bit late, but it’s rare that I miss something entirely.
The first thing I do when it finally turns back on, is message Sigrid. She’s surprisingly chill about us missing the boat, and says she’ll come back to the pier for the next boat at noon. I hope it isn’t too far from where she’s staying. She’s found a room at a guest house for all three of us to share when we do finally arrive. I’ve heard accommodation can get pretty expensive on Koh Rong, but apparently this place is only going to cost $4 each a night. Sweet!

We get our stuff together for 11am and make it down to the pier…on time. We pile onto a relatively large boat with a bunch of other backpackers, and take the smooth ride across to Koh Rong. When we arrive, we are directed to CoCo’s bar where we have to listen to a small lecture they call a “safety meeting”. It mostly consists of important information like; don’t try to ride the wild water buffalo, be aware that the power goes out every night between 3 and 9am, don’t go hiking alone in the dark, watch out for snakes, expect to get infected bug bites, and watch out for theft. Apparently, because Koh Rong is still so newly available to tourists and mostly consists of simple wooden guesthouses, they’re easily broken into and many things mysteriously go missing. When our lecturer starts advising us on which restaurants to eat at, we silently slip out and go to meet Sigrid. Ain’t nobody got time for that when there’s a beautiful island to be explored!
Luckily, the pier is about 10 feet away from our guesthouse, so even though us being so late wasn’t cool, Sisi didn’t have to walk too far or waste money on a tuk tuk or anything to come meet us. Koh Rong is even smaller than I imagined. There isn’t a road in sight; just a beach lined with modest guesthouses and bars. Nothing fancy, just bare minimum, bamboo, closest we’ve come to untouched, tropical beauty. Crystal clear tael water lies just steps from the doors of each building, making any lodging along the beach an ideal beach front property. You can’t lose. Sisi shows us to our $12 guesthouse. It’s just one queen and one single bed with a small table and two bug nets protected by four flimsy wooden walls. That’s all we need anyway. It’s perfect. We drop our stuff, leaving everything behind except for our towels, and head down to the beach. We walk 10 minutes down the shore just so we’re not so close to the “central” area, next to Coco’s bar and the pier.
We lay in the sun and take in our surroundings. It truly is a paradise; the most beautiful island I’ve ever been to. A few long tail boats are anchored just off the beach, and a couple even smaller islands are visible on the horizon.

A few hours later, Devin arrives. He’s earlier than the last boat is due to arrive from Sihanoukville, but definitely too late to have come in on the morning boat. He tells us he tried to save a few bucks by opting for the $9 slow boat, instead of paying $15 for the regular ferry which took us an hour. He was told the slow boat would take 2 hours. 6 hours later, after picking up and dropping off fruit at other neighbouring islands on a boat filled to the brim with people, he arrived in Koh Rong. He says it wasn’t worth saving $6.

We have a lazy day, playing frisbee in the crystal clear ocean water and laying in the sand. The sand flies are pretty relentless, but a few bites on my legs here and there is a minor sacrifice to make for this island paradise.

When dusk rolls around we head down to the other end of the beach past our guesthouse. Before we even arrived in Koh Rong people were raving about Sigi’s; a food stall owned by a Thai chef who once lived in Manhattan, but left that busy world behind to live a humble life on Koh Rong, selling delicious Thai dishes for $2 to hungry visitors. I order something called “drunken noodles” which I’d never seen before while visiting Thailand. It’s mildly spicy and entirely scrumptious. Definitely worth $2. We get there early enough that we can sit down and chat with Sigi a bit while he cooks. He’s only about 50, but exudes wisdom and inner peace. He lives in a simple tent on the beach just behind his food stand, and I’ve never met someone so happy. I foresee more meals here in my future.

We all sit outside Coco’s bar with some new found friends from all over. Chile, Denmark, Germany, the USA, and some fellow Canadians. We order round after round of the ever-cheap 2000 riel (50 cent) Klang beer and sit chatting in papasan chairs along the beach. I’m not sure exactly how this comes about, but Devin and the other Canadian guy, who’s name happens to be Kevin, manage to convince the German guy, Levin (I’m not making this up) that they are brothers. Devin’s from Calgary and Kevin is from Halifax, literally opposite ends of the country, but Levin doesn’t need to know that. At some point the joke escalates and they manage to slip in that their “fathers” name is Evan. It takes everything I’ve got to keep myself from bursting into a fit of laughter, but I don’t want to ruin the joke.

When the power goes out, and there’s nothing to light the sky but the bright white face of the moon, we go on an adventure. Phosphorous plankton surround the island, and someone has heard that they are best seen on Four Kilometre Beach; a 15 minute walk through the forest from where we sit now. I swam with phosphorous plankton in Thailand for the first time, and still value that night as one of my fondest travel memories. Regular swimming has never been the same since. I can’t wait to go and have my body movements lit up by the tiny little glowing blue plankton.

I grab my phone as a light for pathway to the beach before we leave. We can’t exactly be walking through the forest in the pitch black, with the natural moonlight blocked by the tree canopy, or we’ll never find the place. There’s a faint pathway to follow that has no doubt been created by the footsteps of other plankton chasers of the past.

At the end of the trail, we arrive at a short rocky beach. This isn’t what I had in mind, but it must be the place. We strip down and wade into the calm, dark night’s water. I can’t understand the hype about this beach; it’s million little rocks digging into the soles of my feet as I try to walk deep enough to swim. The tiny blue plankton glow beneath the surface, illuminating nothing but my legs as I struggle to find a way to swim. That’s when I hear Tamara, who has made it slightly further than I, shout back to me that her foot is burning. She quickly makes it back to shore, and I pull out my phone to inspect her foot with some light. She has at least three or four black sea urchin needles lodged in the bottom of her foot like splinters. We panic a little bit. Aren’t these things poisonous? We’re at least 15 minutes from the main beach, and I’m sure that the one single doctor on the island is asleep.
Shortly after we start looking at the splinters under the light of my iPhone, Tamara’s burning sensation goes down. Devin comes back to the beach with similar needles on his knees, but doesn’t seem too concerned, so we just carry on. No one seems like they’re dying.

We head back to the main beach anyway, in search of a more comfortable and less rocky swimming area where no one has to worry about being poisoned with sharp black urchin needles.
I put my phone in Devin’s bag and dive off the dock into the sparkly plankton-full water. Doing my best to soak up my incredible surroundings to be sure this moment never leaves my memory. Cambodia, and Koh Rong in particular, is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. I love it here. Going home in three weeks is going to feel painful.

When the beer haze and our infatuation with the plankton start to fade, we call it a night and climb back up to the dock. Devin reaches his bag first, and blankly states that it’s been ransacked. I laugh, assuming he’s making some weird joke, but then I see some of his things scattered around the ground.

Oh. No.
My phone was in there. Please dear god tell me it wasn’t taken!! I NEED that! I look around, panicked, and looking for any possible culprit, but there’s nothing but an empty beach and darkness around me. Devin loses an iPod full of music and a camera with 11 months of travel photos, I lose my precious iPhone, and our two Chilean friends both have their wallets stolen. I feel like an idiot for even bringing the phone out with me tonight, but we needed a flashlight! There’s no electricity at this hour, so I can’t even use someone else’s wifi to track it down. It’s gone.

I go back to the guesthouse and fall asleep feeling foolish, angry, and grieving the loss of my phone. It will surely be an adjustment… I don’t even have an alarm clock to wake myself up tomorrow.

Border Crossing

Waking up at 6:30 isn’t fun, but I still have yet to pack and the bus is coming to pick us up at 7:15. It’d also be ideal if I could fit in a shower. Even with the air-con on, our room is sweaty hot.

We get on a bus and are taken to the docks where we are directed to board the smaller of two ferries. We watch everyone else from our van as they are directed to the larger boat. I’m still not really awake and frankly I don’t care, but it’s just another mystery to add to my list.
I drop my bag, find my seat and fall asleep before the ferry even leaves the dock. When I wake up, it’s to the shuffling of passengers getting ready to leave. I’ve slept solidly for an hour and a half. My neck hurts a little but at least I feel awake now.

We exit the boat and are charmed to find a man holding up a sign that says “Tamara” next to his motorcycle. How fancy! He points to both of us to confirm that we are both “Tamara”. There’s no “Naomi” sign, so we just nod. He leads us to a coffee shop and asks us to wait. A few minutes later he comes back with all the necessary visa forms for us to fill out. He thinks it’s weird that my last name is Lai and asks if I’m Vietnamese.
Nope.
He picks up my iPhone, which is sitting next to my arm as I write, and starts inspecting it. He loves my LifeProof case. When I tell him it’s waterproof he’s even more thrilled. He says you can’t get them in Vietnam, and pulls out his iPhone to show me he has the same one. I too, love my case, and I can tell he really wants it, buuuuuuut it’s mine and I keep it. I stuff it casually in the depths of my backpack when he isn’t looking. You just never know.

Once we’ve finished filling out our forms we each hop on the back of a motorbike and are taken to the border. I give our guy $100 USD to pay for both our visas, (which will only cost $50 total) and he takes the money along with our passports and forms to the border office and drops it off. He tells us to wait. We’re the only people at the border which is confusing because there were other backpackers and tourists on our boat this time. No complaints here though, because it should make the process faster!

We wait for about 15 minutes before our passports are returned to us with $50 USD. I breathe a sigh of relief. I don’t even like handing my passport over to hotel staff let alone strangers you meet getting off a boat. Giving a stranger a $100 note doesn’t feel super smart either, so getting everything back is calming. We get directed over to a bus on the Cambodian side of the border where our new visas are checked twice, and we’ve made it! We’re in Cambodia.

Our mini van picks up no other passengers, and he offers to drive us to our hotel. We have nothing booked, but because the visa forms required a Cambodian address, I’ve already referenced my Lonely Planet book. We listed a place called Treetop Bungalows in Kep, which is our first Cambodian stop anyway, so we ask him to take us there. It’s pretty far outside town, but I’m sure we can rent bicycles or something to get around.

It’s only $5 a night for a room. A private room. So $2.50 each. Incredible. Yes please! They take us to a row of bamboo stilt bungalows and show us to a room with a fan. That’s all that’s in there. A bed and a fan. We’ll take it!

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The first thing we do after dropping our bags is to get lunch. We’ve been up since 6:30, but haven’t eaten yet today and it’s pushing noon. We stay for lunch at our hostel, even though I think their prices are a little high. I pay $4 for a squid and noodle dish, which is more than I’m paying for the room! I find it strange that everything in Cambodia is paid for in dollars. Sure, it Vietnam they would advertise things as “$2!” but then you’d hand over 40,000 dong. Here, when it says “$2!” you are literally expected to hand over two American dollar bills. Luckily, my wonderful parents gave me some American money for my birthday before leaving Japan. It has come in handy more than once! Even more so right now, because apparently there are no ATMs in Kep!

We rent a bicycle and bike into town. Tamara has no American money on her, because she assumed she could just exchange her dong, but there are no exchange places here either! I’ve never been so thankful for American dollars.
We ride along the beautiful ocean-side road into town. We even see some wild monkeys on our way!
The bikes we rent are total garbage though, and my tire goes flat as soon as we get to town. Our time there is short, and we simply book a ticket to Kampot for tomorrow morning. I don’t think there’s much to do in Kep besides visit the beach and eat crab. I walk my bike all the way back to our accommodation.

A storm can be seen rolling in from the islands in the distance, so I’m happy we get back to our bungalow when we do. Tamara and I settle into the hammocks outside our front door, and although I plan to do some research on Cambodia, I fall asleep before I get very far.

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I wake up to Devin, a Canadian guy we met at our hostel in Phu Quoc, saying “fancy seeing you here, eh?!” as he and Sigrid walk into their hostel room just a couple doors down from ours. It’s literally such a small world. I don’t understand how we’ve run into them again already. We just saw them this morning!

After they’ve settled in, we all head down to the market on foot to grab some dinner. I’ve heard you can get $1 and $2 meals in Cambodia so we’re looking for something along those lines. The market has a lot of restaurants lined up out front, but all of them are charging at least $7 for one dish. That’s way out of our price range. We find one that charges $7, but at least includes rice. It seems like the cheapest thing we’ll find tonight. We decide to try and make a feast of it and all share the dishes. Fresh (and still live) seafood is displayed beside the menu, and the woman standing behind it sees our distress. She offers to discount the food for us. Devin is a master haggler and somehow manages to talk the woman into cooking us two squid, four crabs, twelve prawns, a red snapper, a plate of vegetables, and rice… all for $18.
I should take notes, this guy is a pro.
We sit down next to the ocean and order four Angkor beer. We can see lightening crashing out in the distance, but it still hasn’t rained in Kep. Tamara and I have been so lucky with the weather it’s unbelievable. Our food comes in waves, first the crab, rice, then the prawns, the vegetables, and we get a little break between that and the fish and squid. I try to take photos of everything but as soon as it’s put down we all dive in with our hands, breaking crab legs and pulling prawn shells off before stuffing them in our faces. We’re messy, but we’re having a blast. Everything tastes amazing, like really really one of the best meals I’ve eaten so far, and by the end I’m absolutely stuffed. For all that food and two beers, we each pay $6. A table of backpackers next to us all order their own dishes and get far less food for much more money. We’re certain they’ve paid full price. Champion meal finding over here!

It’s hot, so after dinner we walk back up to our bungalows, change into bathing suits, and try to convince the expensive hotel next door to let us use their pool. We buy a jug of beer and try to charm our waiters, but they say we’ll have to pay $5 each for a swim. Absolutely not.
When no one is around we plot a way to pay, then run and jump in the pool really quick before running home to our bungalows. It seems like a fool proof plan….until the staff members walk us out to the gate. I guess we’re not the first backpackers to pull this trick!

Defeated, we go back home and fall asleep in our bug and frog infested bungalow. I’m ever-thankful for my bug net on nights like these, but for $2.50… who could complain?

Island Sunsets and Swiss Burgers

The first thing we do when we wake up is to find some food. We find a small restaurant down the street with decent prices, and each order a plate of “seafood noodles”. The plate comes full of vegetables, squid, and shrimp, which are cooked to perfection. It hits the spot.

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We spend the rest of the afternoon lazing around on the beach. We are the only people all afternoon, besides Claudio, the Italian pasta cook who made us dinner last night. He comes to join us mid-way through the day. We’re craving more fresh fruit but pretty far away from anywhere we can do some shopping, so Claudio offers to drive us down to the market on his motorbike. He was going to pick up some more fish anyway. Awesome!

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He can only fit two of us on the bike, so Tamara decides to stay back and trusts me to pick up a good selection of fruit and veg. We’ve got a pretty regular order now; mangoes, bananas, pineapple, carrots and cucumbers.

Getting on Claudio’s motorcycle feels less than stable. It’s old, and every bump in the road makes me wonder if a piece of the bike might just go flying off. We make it into town alive but I hang on for dear life. We buy a whole lot of different fruit, including some stuff I’ve never tried before, and Claudio picks out a big red fish. Neither of us know what kind it is, though. We stuff all the fruit in my backpack, including an entire watermelon, and tie the bagged fish to the back of the motorbike to drive home.

When I get back, Tamara and I enjoy a delicious mango and try the mystery fruit. It’s red and shaped a bit like a bell pepper, but much smaller. It tastes like an Asian pear and is quite refreshing. I still don’t know it’s official name.

For the sunset, we walk back down to the beach. I make sure to bring my camera this time. Devon, a fellow Canadian, joins us as we climb up the rocks for the fabulous sunset and we all chat away, exchanging travel stories. He’s been traveling for almost a year so far, and doesn’t plan to be back in Canada for at least another two. I always envy these people who just leave everything behind to go wherever and do whatever they want for such incredibly long amounts of time. It’s so cool, and I think a lot harder than it sounds. Living in hostels for three years wouldn’t be a walk in the park, but the things you would do and see in those three years would make it all worth it I’m sure.

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After the sunset we’re all hungry, so Devon drives us into town on his motorcycle, which is much sturdier than Claudio’s. All three of us squeeze on and drive ten minutes into the centre where we find a place called “SwissFoodViet” who’s sign boasts to have the “Best Burgers in Town!”.
I don’t know when burgers became a Swiss dish, but we all want to indulge in a big juicy burger anyway. It just happens sometimes. We all get a burger with Swiss cheese, which I guess kinda makes them a Swiss restaurant? They taste incredible. So far the food in Phu Quoc has been amazing, but I make note that I should be eating more seafood and less burgers because I’m only on this island for another couple days.

We stop for an ice cream on the way home, and have a relatively early night. Tomorrow, a group of people in the hostel are leaving, and Tam and I plan to do some trekking or motorbiking around to explore the island. There is a huge spider in our room and Tamara bravely murders it with a water bottle, which I highly appreciate.

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Okay, so that’s not the spider from our room…but it was in the bathroom which still counts. Our room spider was much smaller, but still creepy.

Laos: Slow Boat Day 2

I get up at 6:30 in order to take a shower and make it in time for breakfast downstairs, which they asked us to pre-order from a menu last night. I ordered a banana pancake, which turns out to be the best of all the breakfasts. Bonus. They also asked us to order our lunch, which they’ve packed up in boxes so we can bring them with us on the boat. So lovely!

Old City – Chiang Mai

It’s 6:45am before our train pulls into the Chiang Mai station. This is a bad thing, because it means our 16 hour train ride has turned into an 18 hour train ride, but kinda a good thing because it means we are not going to be roaming around the city looking for a place to stay in the dark.