Kompong Cham and a Morning on Koh Paen

Yesteday was another early morning after a sleepless night. The downpour started a bit after sunset, with whipping winds and buckets of rain. The restaurant I was sitting at, with a view of the Mekong, even closed early. Sleeping in my own room in a city where no one knows my name, with that crazy storm going on, did not equate to comfortable sleeping.

My alarm went off at 5, and even though I had listened to Vegan Fitness podcasts (no joke) til after midnight, I jumped up feeling ready to rock out. I was on my bike, cruising along the riverside, before the sun had risen.

Kompong Cham Koh Paen Mekong sunrise 2
Sunrise over the Mekong – so beautiful I had to get 2 photos
Kompong Cham Koh Paen Mekong sunrise biking backpacking
Sunrise over the Mekong

After some confusion, I found the path to the bamboo bridge to Koh Paen, an island in the Mekong. I’m so bad with directions. (To find it, follow the road along the Mekong until you see an opening in the barrier that follows the entire length of the walking path along the road. Or just ask anyone “bamboo bridge”)
The bridge is amazing. Built entirely of bamboo every dry season, every monsoon it is washed away. It is strong enough to withstand the weight of any vehicle, even trucks. Its springy surface of flattened bamboo makes for an uneven, off kilter ride, and combined with the lack of side rails to prevent you from falling into the river, it’s quite the scary experience. Add the motorbikes rushing past and the horse carts charging by (yes, horse carts are a very common sight on Koh Paen – awesome!), it’s one of the more unnerving bridges I’ve crossed. (Bridge fee is 1000 riel with return)

Kompong Cham Koh Paen Bamboo Bridge biking
Koh Paen Bamboo Bridge
Kompong Cham Koh Paen Horse Carts
They still use horse carts on Koh Paen

Once on Koh Paen, the terrifying bridge crossing just a memory (until you have to go back!), it’s impossible not to relax. The 5 hours I was there, I didn’t see one other tourist. Success.

Kompong Cham Koh Paen Bike Path Biking
Path on Koh Paen

As usual in the more rural villages, small children greeted me with a chorus of ‘hello!’s, and even the adults smiled and waved. A girl on her way to school biked with me for a bit, asking the usual questions. She was shocked when I said I was 24 and not married. She told me she was 17 and wanted to study instead, that’s why she wasn’t married yet.

After seeing the majority of the island, including the temple, schools, rice paddies, and livestock every where, I headed back to town to pack up my stuff, have lunch at Khmer Food restaurant (lovely tofu salad for $2 right on the Mekong), and catch my moto to the bus, so I can get to Phnom Penh today.

Kompong Cham Khmer food restaurant salad
‘Khmer Food’ Restaurant Tofu Salad

The bus didn’t have air con. Of course. ( Sorya sucks. Take any bus company but them if you can manage). But I did meet 2 peace Corp members from Colorado currently stationed in southern Cambodia (they were on vacation and traveling back to work from Ratanikiri). Reignited my curiosity in joining up. Hmmmmm.
I found an awesome guest house named Okay and splurged the extra $2 for air-conditioned luxury. When I went to pull out my passport, I realized I had forgotten it in Kompong Cham. Ughhhhh.

Kompong Cham

I got up at 6am to change some baht into riel (moneychangers in Kratie also often sell phones or jewelry, you know they change money because they display different currencies in glass containers on the counter) and grab my last sticks of krolan for the bus today, which I got on at 7am.
The bus was supposed to take 4 hours to the little city of Kompong Cham (where the current Prime Minister was born) so of course it took 6 (to determine length of public transport in southeast Asia, this is the formula : ((time you were told) x 1.5)= actual time). It’s just the way it is, and I plan on it. No reason to stress, the scenery is pretty, and though the Cambodian buses are usually far from comfortable, I am beyond thankful if at least the aircon is working or the windows open.
A moto taxi offered to take me to my hotel for 1000 riel (25 cents). His English was excellent and seemed like a legit guy so I asked for his recommendation for a guesthouse under $5. He took me to a place next to the river, and waited while I checked it out. 3rd floor, fan cooled, PRIVATE bathroom (!), and even better – my own balcony!! Definitely. My moto translated for the guesthouse manager, who spoke no English, and I paid them each their due, was given an extra set of padlocks, and went upstairs to nap off the heat of the day.

Kompong Kampang Cham Balcony Budget Cheap Guest House Mekong
View from my balcony
My guesthouse

I wandered around the riverside for a bit, staking out ideas for a morning bike ride tomorrow before I take a bus to Phnom Penh. There’s an awesome bamboo bridge to an island in the Mekong, rebuilt after every monsoon season. Definitely thinking that’s my destination tomorrow morning before I hop the bus (or will I go wild and splurge that extra dollar or so for the much faster minivan? Living fast and furious here)

While an awesome budget find, my place lacks wifi. Or, I lack the language ability to ascertain whether there’s wifi. There’s a nice little coffee place a few doors down across the street – Destiny. It supports an NGO, and had fast/free wifi, friendly service, and great shakes and food (at reasonable prices).

Kompong Cham is definitely not on the tourist short list. Aside from the manager at Destiny, and one European couple at a restaurant I passed by, I haven’t seen any other Falang. Which is awesome! But also slightly lonely – I would love to meet some Khmers, but aside from staring at me, no one is very interested (language barrier is a much bigger issue in non-touristy areas). Except for the teenage boys, who shove each other until one of them shouts an embarrassed ‘hello!’ and then covers his face in his hands while his buddies giggle and cheer. And the toddlers, who all smile big and wave nonstop while yelling ‘halloooooo halloooooo!’ Sometimes women my own age will try to talk to me, the usual questions – where are you going, where are you from, why are you in Cambodia, are you alone?- but then eventually the words run out and they turn to their girlfriends and laugh, and I’m not sure whether it’s at me, for being a sweaty and unusual looking foreigner so out of place.
I’m still getting used to the nonstop attention and blatant, curious stares. It is totally harmless and innocent, but somewhat disconcerting and isolating.. To know you are the center of so much attention and discussion that you can’t understand.
I bought a bus ticket for $4.75, and rented a bike (with basket and lock) for $1 from Mekong Daze bar/restaurant, then grabbed some dinner at Mekong Crossing, had an awesome, big western style salad with perfect Italian vinaigrette for $2.. Oh goodness I’ve missed those salads (seems like salads in southeast Asia are always small, light on veggies and heavy on thousand island or mayo based dressing)! My waiter was super nice, had perfect English, and after chatting came to find out he’s a final candidate for one of 6 scholarships for Cambodians to go to West Point (VERY VERY prestigious academy in the US). Rock on and best of luck!

Kratie

My bus from Siem Reap arrived to Phnom Penh station around 5am, after a $1 tuktuk to the Soriya station at Central Market, I realized I was out of dollars and needed to change baht over.. And of course no one was open, so the bus attendant charged me $5 (ugh) and gave me some riel, aaaand a vastly overpriced bus ticket. Standard. ALWAYS HAVE PROPER CURRENCY.

Before boarding the connecting bus to Kratie I had the honor of experiencing a very unique bus station bathroom situation (this coming from a girl who once shared an outhouse outing with a chicken) – to get to the women’s room you had to walk through the men’s. Hellooooo Cambodian men at the urinal, awkward. AWKWARD (so bad it deserves to be said twice)

About an hour into the bus ride, the air con stopped working. Only two windows could open. The whole ride was supposed to be 4-6 hours but ended up being 8 sweaty, stagnant, sticky hours of pure torture. Not even a breeze could be felt. By the time we got off, my clothes were soaked. Even the Cambodian guys (who wear long sleeves and sweaters in 90F heat) were taking their shirts off.

After arriving I checked into Balcony Guest House (5$ for a fan room, air con is not needed, plus the electricity shuts off all the time so its pointless anyway), on the advice of the tuktuk driver, who picked me up from the bus station and brought me to the guest house for free. I’m here to do the Mekong Discovery Trail, going to bike around Koh Trong tomorrow and have lunch at a homestay, then head out north cycling 50 miles on the trail the next day and stay overnight at a homestay before heading back.

Finally got to try krolan!! At the godsend of a bus stop in Sluon that let us get off that traveling inferno of a furnace they call a bus at Soriya Company.

Thank god for the bus stop break
Krolan – sticky rice and bean inside bamboo
A nice Cambodian lady showed me how to peel it back and what parts are edible

The power went out at Balcony, only for a couple minutes. I opened my door to see what was up and the manager’s wife made me a can candle for my room šŸ™‚

The power went out

side note – Kratie is the most veg-friendly place I’ve been in SE asia (aside from the Little India districts in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur). EVERY menu has special veg options, and the guy at the community tourism even asked if I wanted a veg homestay meal!

Happy Birthday to QuarterLifeEpiphany blog, Happy Anniversary to my quarter life epiphany

Happy three month anniversary to me!
January 25th I landed in Bangkok and began my love affair with southeast Asia.
Now, I’m celebrating by taking a holiday to Cambodia, where I’ll do more than a simple visa run this time (technically I’ve been to the country twice already, though once was just to cross the border and go back, and another I was in Phnom Penh for less than 24 hours).
It feels strange to travel again after 2 weeks of staying in one spot, as Bangkok already really feels like home. As much as I love the city, and feel so comfortable here now, I know it’s so important to continue on, get out in the world again and out of my comfort zone.
The morning van to Cambodia from Khao San Road will pick you up from your hostel and take you right outside Siem Reap for only 300 baht. It leaves at 7am and supposedly will get you to Siem Reap before dark.. but expect to arrive around 8pm or later.
Before boarding the bus, I said goodbye to Suneta Hostel, my home for the past week or so.
As usual I met some awesome people on the van – including 2 Canadians backpacking and then getting married on the islands in two weeks and some amazing Brits traveling at only 18.
For the first time in my experience, the Cambodian border was (relatively) painless and quick. Instead of spending hours sweating my butt off in the Thai exit line, Cambodian visa line, and Cambodian entrance line, I literally walked on through in less than an hour. There was barely anyone crossing through! Oh, the joys of low season!!
We had an eventful bus stop on the way from Poipet (Cambodian border town) to Siem Reap. Met the cutest girl who made bracelets on the spot for the girls in my group (shockingly, no money requested, though I did give her a bracelet of mine in exchange). When we boarded the bus to continue onto Siem Reap… it wouldn’t start. The bus driver asked a bunch of the people to get off and push. About 10 minutes later of pushing back and forth, and we were on our way!

My bracelet making friend
Added an aqua and a purple braid to my collection

We finally arrived in Siem Reap, and a $1 tuktuk later, I arrived at my hostel. I’m totally shocked at how nice it is! I had booked European Guest House through Agoda for only $5, very clean and with a great common area and cheap restaurant/bar. I am already surprised at the value for money here. I’ve stayed in much worse hostels for twice as much money in Thailand.
I’m heading to bed early tonight, as tomorrow I’m getting up at 5am to begin the Angkor Wat temple touring with a dawn start!!

Sunset in Cambodia

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