Strictly: Siem Reap – Part #2

As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, I survived my 8 hour bus trip to Phnom Penh. When I was planning my travels 2 weeks in Cambodia seemed like loads of time, but by the end of week one it was pretty clear that it was turning into a whistle stop tour. So, in the vein of lightning travel I had two nights in Phnom Penh to see all the sights. Cambodia has got a very dark recent past and there’s nowhere better to learn about it than in the Choeung Ek Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng (S-21) Prison Museum. It is to my shame that, before coming to Cambodia, I knew very little about its history and the role of the Khmer Rouge. But, touring around S-21 it became pretty quickly apparent that very few people in the West knew about what the Khmer Rouge were doing in Cambodia (or Democratic Kampuchea as it was known for the 4 years of their regime) and those who did, by and large, didn’t believe it. It was pretty hard to believe that, after all the Khmer Rouge did, and all the people they executed, they were allowed to represent Cambodia at the UN for 12 years after they’d been removed from power. Both sites are pretty harrowing and doing both in one day is quite a lot but it is really interesting and important to learn about such an important part of history. The Killing Fields is a very weird place to visit, a former Longan orchard, it’s strangely peaceful and the fact that the ground is littered with mass graves, some of which are still only being discovered, is very jarring. It’s no wonder that, when the Khmer Rouge were driven from power the local people quickly destroyed all the buildings at the site.

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The Killing Tree at Choeung Ek Killing Fields. This tree was where the Khmer Rouge cadres executed babies and young children by beating their heads against the trunk. When Choeung Ek was discovered, after the ousting of the Khmer Rouge, blood and brains were found on the bark of the tree and the grave of those killed was discovered nearby.  
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The mausoleum at Choeung Ek is filled with the skulls and other major bones, carefully analysed, of the bodies uncovered at the killing fields. 

Visiting the Killing Fields and S-21 takes pretty much a whole day, and with that my time in Phnom Penh (with the exception of a quick overnight before my flight to Ho Chi Minh) was over. My next, and final, destination in Cambodia was Otres Beach, a quiet beach side village a few kilometres from the popular tourist town of Sihanoukville. I’m not really that much of a beach person. I’m pretty sure that I’ve said before on here that I like the beach in theory, but in principle it’s sandy and windy and I (like Miranda) find it quite a stressful experience most of the time. So, my verdict on Otres Beach? It’s one of the best, least stressful beaches I’ve ever been to, ruined only slightly by the fact that my hostel didn’t have any water for two days, meaning I spent two days being sweaty, sandy and salty (I could’ve had a bucket shower, but that consisted of water that had been sitting, for god knows how long, in an urn also filled with quite a lot of plant life). I had three, unwashed days on Otres so decided to spend one on a snorkelling and island hopping day trip. I’m sure that I’ve mentioned before that I’ve developed a love of snorkelling since being in Asia, so of course I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to spend a whole day snorkelling. The day consisted of three snorkelling stops, a few hours on the beautiful island of Koh Ta Kiev and a quick stop for cliff jumping. The cliff jumping I did not enjoy. I’m pretty afraid of falling and having to jump from the top of the 8 metre high Elephant rock into the ocean (while being careful to jump out 1 metre first so as not to crash into the rocks below and, you know, die) was not my idea of fun. The fall felt like it lasted for far, far too long, and there was definitely a moment when I could see those rocks looming up towards me, even though I had my eyes closed. The snorkelling was great fun, although it was a shame that so many of the coral reefs were bleached and littered with the evil of the reef, sea urchins. Also fun was the moment, when we were about to head back to the mainland, that the boat wouldn’t start and, with the thought of being stuck out at sea all night we decided the best course of action was to just crack out a beer and enjoy the sun. The rest of my time at Otres was spent chilling on the beach and trying hard to take arty sunset photos, so, shower issues aside, it turned out to be a very relaxing three days.

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Recovering from jumping off an 8 metre high rock on Koh Ta Kiev island
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An Otres sunset

I really wanted to fit a trip to Kampot into my time in Cambodia but just didn’t have enough days to fit it in. I do regret not going but I don’t think I could have done any of it any quicker, and really it just gives me a reason to come back one day! But if my first destination in Asia has taught me anything, it’s don’t underestimate how long it’ll take you to do the highlights of a country. And, with my three days on the beach and another long drive to Phnom Penh over it was time to try and figure out how on earth to get into the airport (seriously, it’s not obvious it even is an airport in Phnom Penh, let alone where the actual entrance is) and set off for my next stop, Vietnam.

Before I go, a quick paragraph of my thoughts on backpacking and backpackers. Someone I met in Cambodia asked me what I’ve learnt from travelling. I’m nowhere near finishing my trip yet but I think I’m qualified, by now, to answer that question. I don’t think it’s taught me anything about myself that I hadn’t already learnt from moving halfway around the world alone (except maybe that travelling solo long term isn’t for me, that it’s always worth it to fly with a nice airline, and that I really appreciate a good western toilet) but it’s taught me something important about travel. I’ve had countless conversations, during my time in Asia, with people that go something like this: “oh you’re flying to Vietnam? Well that’s a luxury! I took a 1 million hour bus.” or another common one “you want to get a tuk tuk? But you’re a backpacker, you’re not supposed to spend money on things like that! Let’s walk the 5 miles to the hostel.” (well maybe not quite those, but you get the idea). It turns out that some backpackers can be very judgemental. There’s this idea of backpacking, that I’ve come across more than once, that you should spend the bare minimum on everything, walk miles to everywhere regardless of how much transport costs and only eat shitty noodles in order to spend as little money as possible. Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone should splash out a fortune travelling, and I’m definitely not saying that you shouldn’t travel like this if it’s what you want to do. But that’s kind of my point. Travel should be about doing exactly what you want to do. Travelling, and backpacking in particular, is an amazing privilege afforded to a very small percentage of the world’s population, so I would argue that you have a duty to experience as much from it as you possibly can. If you want to travel like a local, eat like a local and sleep like a local then do it. If you want to spend all your money on seeing famous sights and eating every national dish you can get your hands on, then do that. Just don’t let anyone tell you how you should ‘do backpacking’. Oh, unless you’re being a culturally insensitive idiot, in which case definitely listen to people when they tell you not to do that.

And on that heavy old note,

Leah Out X

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