Words fail me as I try to describe the stupa of skulls at the Killing Fields, marking tribute to the tens of thousands of victims of the Khmer Rouge reign in the seventies. With every rainy season, more skulls, bone fragments and even teeth appear through the dirt, with just over half the discovered mass graves having been excavated over the years. Thirty-two years on, there are only 5 people being put to trial over these atrocities, following their arrests made many years after they committed these crimes. And now, the Killing Fields are a popular site for both national and international tourists to visit and show their respects for the many deceased.
We only had a day and a half in Phnom Penh, with the lure of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap being too great. That, and our lovely hotel manager suggested that we could see everything we needed to see in less than two days. We took that into account and made the most of our time here, with a few nice memories of monkeys and temples to show for it. S-21 Jail and the Killing Fields deserve their own entries.
During the Khmer Rouge reign in Phnom Penh, from 1975-1979, a school was turned into a prison. Over the years, almost 10,000 people were imprisoned here, arrested for sometimes just assumed opposition to the new government. Very few made it out alive – more often they were put to death here, or at the Killing Fields. When the soldiers in charge fled the prison in 1979, the bodies of fourteen people (13 men and one woman) were found here, and have been buried on site. Today, the jail is open to the public, allowing visitors from all over the world to visit and understand just some of the atrocities that occurred here just over thirty years ago.
When Jamie Talbot suggested we skip Sihounakville in favour of lesser known Kep, and Rabbit Island, I was concerned. The first blog I read suggested the island was tiny, with hardly any people on it, and all it offered was cheap bungalows and a nice walk around the island. That’s exactly the point, he exclaimed! I slept on it though, and that was a good decision. While Kep is small, possibly even smaller than anywhere else I’ve visited so far, it is a beautiful, relaxing and inexpensive spot right over the border in Cambodia. There might not be a lot to do here, except to drink beer with the locals, eat fresh crab, and visit Rabbit Island for the aforementioned bungalows and beach walks, but still – highly recommended.
Seeing as the internet is so so fast here at our beautiful hotel in Phnom Penh, I thought I might share a few recent photos of us that haven’t made it onto the main page. Hopefully you will all note that the skies are (mostly) blue, the delta was green, the water is crystal clear, and that our tans are developing nicely!
After only a few hours sleep overnight on Rabbit Island, I was very happy to wake to birds chirping, roosters crowing and the sun shining, on what was a glorious Monday morning. Actually, I only just realised it was Monday yesterday, so I’ve clearly lost track of the days finally. And to forget that it was a Monday, of all days, as I slept in, read a book, and enjoyed a late breakfast – my, what a better way to spend a Monday opposed to working!
We eventually got up at about 9am, and decided to make the three hour trek around the entire island. It was considered the day before, but as I wasn’t feeling too well it was postponed in the hope that the weather would be kind to us the next day as well. And it was. So first up, we filled our bellies with the only breakfast option available – pancakes! Nutella pancakes! Thank you, Monday!
Setting off at about 10am, we circled Koh Tonsay through mini jungles, across rocks and seaweed, and along empty beaches. The weather was sublime, the breeze was cool, the few locals we met along the way were charming. As we walked, we discussed how easy it would be to arrive on Rabbit Island and go undetected for as long as you wished – either pay upfront for a month in a bungalow, never to be disturbed, or rough it in the jungle, and no one would know you were there. There’s no internet, no hot water, and only limited electricity. If you are happy with Nutella or banana pancakes, then you’ll be satisfied with the breakfast options. There was also a shortage of crabs while we were there, so sometimes you might have to have fish instead. But really, you could escape to Rabbit Island and never be found again.
But I digress. The walk only took 90 minutes, so we were back before lunch. Maybe we walk very quickly, or maybe it’s just the skewed perception of time and distance that people have in these parts of the world. Either way, it was time for a cold drink, a cool swim, a brief sun bake, and a quick massage. We sat at one of the small bamboo shacks on the beach and had banana shakes, and pulled faces at a 5 year old local boy (photo included). A quick dip in the cool water got the sweat off our backs, before we air dried ourselves on the sun lounges under the palm trees. Then right there on the beach, there are a few options for massage – coconut oil, Thai massage, Khmer style – but we went for the coconut oil option. An hour later, my brow was un-furrowed, the knots in my shoulders were gone, and I could walk without leg cramps again. Bliss, bliss, bliss.
Then onto lunch, with the freshest ingredients you could imagine. I had a fish curry with ‘fresh coconut milk’ – and the cook went over to a pile of coconuts sitting at the base of a tree and selected the ripest one for my curry. Amazing. Jamie ordered crabs with lemon pepper, and a moment afterwards we saw a woman wading out to get the crab bucket from the water. They pulled out 6 or 7 small local crabs and carried them into the kitchen for cooking. Minutes later, a fresh and very tasty lunch was delivered to our table – absolutely awesome. My curry was delicious, perfectly seasoned with the local pepper, and Jamie devoured his crabs. Slowly, I might mention, because neither of us have extensive experience with prying meat from a tiny crab shell!
By 2.30pm it was back to the sun lounges for a post-lunch rest before the boat whisked us back to the mainland. It was a brief, energetic yet relaxing time on Rabbit Island, which may not stay so untouched for much longer. If you’re ever in the south of Cambodia, do stop by for a swim, a walk, a massage and some fresh crab. Simply divine.
Once back on the mainland, we decided to hang around in Kep to watch the sunset with a couple of local Angkor beers before heading back to our bungalow at Botanica. But more on that in the next post!
About a month ago, we stayed in a bungalow in Nong Khiaw, Laos. For $10 a night, with intermittent hot water and a scoop toilet. That was the cheapest accommodation we’d come across so far. Until now.
On Rabbit Island, or Koh Tonsay as it is also called, just off the coast of Kep in Cambodia, we have a bungalow for only $7. A bargain really, with a double bed, mosquito net, western-style (read: a porcelain bowl with no seat or flush or anything…just the bowl) toilet, and the beach is just outside the door. There is no hot water in this one – no shower at all, actually. Two hammocks on the verandah, but electricity for only 3 hours a day. I think it even comes with it’s own guard dog, based on the scratching and snoring I heard outside our door during the night. But there is one small problem – it’s not waterproof.
We discovered this at about 9pm last night, when we were making the most of the limited electricity to charge the laptops, read the Kindles and get comfy under our mosquito net. The rain started up, which was lovely. Rain at night time usually is – peaceful and comforting to fall asleep listening to the consistent drops on the roof. But then I felt drops on my legs, my feet and my stomach. Not quite as heavy as the rain outside, but definitely rain leaking through the roof. Just on me, mind you, not on Jamie. Damn my preference for sleeping on this side of the bed!
As luck would have it, it rained on and off throughout the night. At first I couldn’t sleep at all; listening to the rain that was always so relaxing now had me mildly anxious, waiting to hear if the drops would get heavier and soak me and all my belongings. When the drops started up again, I’d reach for the blanket – which seems to be made of towelling material, or may even be an oversized towel, in anticipation of such events. Unfortunately the oversized towel/undersized blanket didn’t quite cover two people, so throughout the semi-sleepless night there was a gentle tug of war going on between Jamie and I – when it rained, I needed protection, and when it stopped he pulled it back to stay warm.
When I woke up this morning I checked all my stuff and it’s dry. It seems I was the only one affected because I slept directly under the cross-beam of the bamboo ceiling. Jamie stayed dry, snug and warm for most of the night… but at least I got a shower in the end!
I remember seeing a photo on Travelfish while researching our trip to South East Asia and thinking “I want to go to there!” (thank you, Liz Lemon!) With some further investigation I discovered that the island I was seeing was Phu Quoc Island, so far south and west of the bottom of Vietnam, that the Cambodians believe it should belong to them. I can see their point – when we arrived in Kep, on the Cambodian coast, a few days later, you can plainly see that Phu Quoc lies much closer to the Cambodian coastline than to Vietnam. But politics aside, it’s a gorgeous, undeveloped gem – an alternative to the busy Thai islands, and a great option for a weekend getaway in the Gulf of Thailand. Unfortunately I spent far too much time sleeping, reading and enjoying the warm water, so there are hardly any photos to share… but here’s just a couple.
We’re in seats 79 and 80.
Ok, up the front, next to driver. One sit up front, one on bench.
Realising that the rows of seats only made it to 78 at the back of the boat, we knew we were in for another interesting transport experience. We arrived early enough for this one – a boat ride from the east coast of Phu Quoc Island to Ha Tien, back on the mainland of Vietnam, right near the border of Cambodia – hoping that would give us priority seating for once, maybe even a window with fresh air. But alas, we were given the last two numbered seats on the boat… and someone was already sitting in one of our seats.
She looked pretty angry. She wasn’t going to move. The assistant didn’t even make an attempt to move her, or explain why she was in one of our seats. Perhaps she had also taken one look at this woman’s face and decided to leave her in peace. An hour later, while breathing deeply to avoid sea sickness, I’d be hoping that she would leave me in peace – the old witch kept falling asleep and collapsing on top of me, threatening to knock me from my precarious position at the front of the boat.
This seat wasn’t my first preference. I’d started out with a third of the captain’s seat all to myself. There were no other spare seats – in fact, I think they had sold seats 79 & 80 to at least fourteen different people, as evidenced by the overflowing cabin and plastic chairs being handed out for people in the aisle. The captain’s seat had some padding, but it was still uncomfortable. At least there was a view up front, so I could keep an eye on the horizon and try to settle my queasy stomach.
Twenty minutes into the ninety minute trip and Jamie felt queasy too. I switched seats with him, and became the human pillow for the old witch. How she was able to sleep while sitting sideways, on a hard wooden bench, in the turbulent conditions, I’ll never know. There were a few others that managed a nap as well – I was jealous.
Finally we made it to Ha Tien. We wait now for our Cambodian visas to be approved and completed, then we set off for Kep, on the coast of Cambodia. We’ve booked accommodation there for one night – for only $8. And with a now less queasy stomach, I am happy – for there will be no more boat trips in south east Asia.
After 3 weeks, it’s time to say goodbye to the coastal country of Vietnam and jump the border into Cambodia. We’ve covered most of the length of Vietnam – from Hanoi and Halong Bay to Saigon and Phu Quoc Island – and it seemed to get better the further south you went. Maybe because the weather improved, or because we had more beach time in the second and third weeks – either way I’m glad we had the time to see so much of the country.
Today we depart Phu Quoc Island for Kep, which is just over the border in Cambodia. To do this, we catch a taxi from our hotel on the western side of the island over to the eastern side, take a ninety minute boat ride to Ha Tien, a border town on the coast Vietnam, then get a minibus across the border, sign all the necessary paperwork, and arrive in Kep by mid afternoon.
With only 11 days left until we need to head back to Thailand for our next flight, it was time to make a decision about where to spend out time in Cambodia. After much deliberation, it was decided to focus our time mainly in Phnom Penh and Siam Reap, with 3 days at the beginning in Kep and Rabbit Island. Unfortunately we’ll miss Sihounakville and Battambang, two places that we’ve heard really good things about, but seeing the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat in Siam Reap get priority so we’ll just have to come back to Cambodia another time!