Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Sihanoukville & Koh Rong Island, Cambodia

Next destination after leaving Siem Reap was located in the south of Cambodia in the city of Sihanoukville. To get there I needed to first take a sleeper bus to the city of Phnom Penh and then take a second smaller bus down to Sihanoukville. The bus bus company I chose to use, Giant Ibis, is very well rated and has very clean buses with friendly staff aboard. I came across this very helpful and detailed blog post (Move to Cambodia) regarding transport around Cambodia which helped me with my decision. My first experience with a sleeper bus was not a pleasant one at all unfortunately, not due to the bus company or bus itself though but more so due to my inability to sleep well in vehicles (and the complete shit roads you will find all over Cambodia). I maybe slept about 1 hour out of the 8 hour ride to Phnom Penh and have since learned my lesson and picked up some sleeping pills for future overnight bus trips I encounter. After about a 2 hour waiting period in Phnom Penh I boarded the second smaller regular seater bus towards Sihanoukville which was approximately a 5 hour ride.

I finally arrived in the coastal beach city of Sihanoukville and luckily the hostel I had chose to stay at (One Stop Hostel) was literally a 5 minute walk away from the Giant Ibis store font. It was a very similar setting as the One Stop Hostel I had stayed at in Siem Reap which was nice to have a bit of familiarity and comfort after a bit of a rough night of transport. But there was a bonus, they have a pool ... which was where I ended up spending the majority of my first day relaxing. The city of Sihanoukville is very, very touristy and a bit of an annoying place to be as I found out over the next couple of days. While it's a nice enough place, you get constantly approached by locals (and kids) hawking a variety of useless goods. Politely declining these individuals becomes an exhausting task very quickly and it takes away from the beautiful beaches you had set out to enjoy originally. But, thankfully through some fellow travellers I had heard about a newer and far less touristy beach area about 15 minutes tuk tuk ride outside of the city called Otres Beach. That's exactly what I was looking for.

Through some on-line research (Hostelworld, Booking.com, Agoda, etc.) I opted to stay at Hacienda located in the heart of Otres Village. A nice chilled out place with incredibly helpful and friendly staff, and even a chill bar right on site where they also have an extensive menu of great food. From Hacienda its approximately a 20 minute walk to either of the currently developed locations of Otres 1 or Otres 2. But the fine folks at Hacienda can even have a scooter rental delivered right to you which is a fantastic way to explore the area and I highly recommend it for as little as $5 USD per day. If you chose to walk it though you will notice the large area of beach between the two Otres locations that is being primed far a large amount of new development so I would suggest you make a stop to that area ASAP as it will definitely loose the fantastic charm and relaxed vibe it currently has. I spent several afternoon enjoying beers while swinging in a hammock next to the waterfront in Otres 1, that's the vibe I headed south for. The currently undeveloped beach along Otres is completed unspoiled at this point so you can go and grab your own little piece of paradise for the day and not be bothered by a single person ... for now, enjoy it while you can.

During my time in Sihanoukville and Otres I had heard about the island of Koh Rong which is a very popular destination as it turns out. I had yet to visit any island during my travels so I figured I should go check it out. The fine folks at Hacienda even booked my speedboat ticket and transportation to the speedboat dock back in Sihanoukville which was great and required zero planning on my part. The speedboats you take to and from the island average about 50 minutes travel time one way. Since I didn't directly book my boat I don't recall the name of the company I used but there are a handful to chose from all costing the same, $20 USD round trip. Koh Rong was the first location during my travels I opted to just show up and find a place to stay as most of the available dorm's on the island are not bookable on-line anyway. I stayed at a place called Bong's Guesthouse located a few minutes down the beach, there is a ton of places to stay all right in one spot as you arrive. Unfortunately for me since I didn't do any research it turns out that they have a regular issue with bed bugs, yay!
The island itself apparently used to be a very chill place but has since been purchased by some large developing group who intend to make it more like a tourist island in Thailand. This as I found out after being there was a bit disappointing for me as it appears at one point it used to be a beautiful and relaxed place to be. It's now more of a commercial tourist hub which is fine if you are looking to party and do island pub crawls and stuff. While I didn't completely hate my time on the island I would definitely recommend people visit the smaller island nearby Koh Rong Samloen where it sounds like more of the unspoiled island paradise that many people are after.

Some of the highlights I found on Koh Rong island were Long Beach, which you can take a 1 hour trek through a jungle path to reach on the other side of the island. It's a beautiful 7 kilometre stretch of almost untouched beach (It too is currently in the early stages of mass development). You can also opt to take a water taxi service around to different locations on the island for $5 USD one way. We had completed the trek to Long Beach but after several hours of lounging around on the beach none of us were too keen on hiking back so we took the water taxi which was an really nice 20 or so minute ride around the south portion of the island, and we bartered them down to $10 USD for three of us instead of $15. The available food on the island was another highlight, and surprisingly it was cheaper than back in Sihanoukville. They feature many different BBQ stations along the beach front hostels and business. But if there's is only one place you MUST eat at on Koh Rong, it's Sigi's. He is an incredibly friendly gentleman from northern Thailand who now calls Koh Rong his home. A one man show who takes 4 to 5 orders at a time and creates some of the best Thai food I have ever eaten (and I started my trip in Thailand). Pull up a seat and watch him do his thing as it's an absolute pleasure to witness first-hand.

The boat day tour several of us signed up for was a great experience as well. It consisted of some snorkelling, (pro tip: the mask can be a bit leaky I found out when you have facial hair like me, but apparently some Vaseline helps fix that problem) some fishing using small handheld spools and the boat and the boat staff BBQ up all of the days catch right on the boat for lunch, a stop at one of the fishing villages located at the very far end of Long beach as well as enjoying the evenings sunset on the boat. The highlight of the days boat trip for me was swimming with plankton after the the sun had completely set, seriously the trippiest thing I have ever seen! Its like a blue-green aura that appears around you and reacts with the movement of your body while in the water.
     
So my beach time in southern Cambodia wasn't all I had initially hoped for, all in all it was a travel experience that I can reflect back on and grow from for all my future travel's.





  

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Siem Reap, Cambodia

My flight from Chiang Mai, Thailand landed in the city of Siem Reap, Cambodia which is a city most famously known for Angkor Wat. The city itself is quite a busy place as a result due to high tourism demand for people wanting to explore the Angkor Archaeological Park (which is a UNESCO Heritage Site as well). Angkor, Cambodia was also listed as one of the 21 finalists in the New 7 Wonders of the World. In Siem Reap I stayed at One Stop Hostel, a very fresh and clean place with incredibility friendly staff as well. As it is not a "party" hostel the social scene in the common area was a bit lacking, but it was a great place to stay located right in the heart of the city near Pub Street which is actually more of a nightclub street as it turns out. 

In the evening on Pub Street you will find various street food and alcohol vendors (tuk tuks with bars attached), countless patios, and several clubs (Temple Bar and Angkor What? are the main two across the street from each other) blasting music at insanely loud volumes in hopes that you will come and drink buckets at their location, which eventually turns into a street dance off party where you'll usually find a local Khmer girl (who sells bracelets) out-dancing everyone who challenges her. She may even challange you to a game of rock, paper, scissors as well. And while I did have a great time on Pub Street the first evening I arrived, I found it to be quite old and repetitive very quickly on the subsequent nights as you will hear the exact same tunes each night. Other unique bars to visit not located in Pub Street include the Mad Monkey Top Banana rooftop bar located at the top (obviously) of the Mad Monkey hostel, the entire bar is beach sand which is pretty awesome to play some beer pong in. The other bar I enjoyed was X-Bar located not far from Pub Street. It is a multi-level facility which features beer pong, pool tables, live music as well as a rooftop half-pipe which the legendary skater Tony Hawk even skated at one point last year!

The temple tours were the real reason I came to Siem Reap though. I ended up completing two different temple circuits which I was easily able to book my tuk-tuk ride with through my hostel, though you can likely ask any driver you see and they can do the same. The first day of my tour called the Small Circuit included stops at Angkor Wat, Bayon, Takeo, and Ta Prohm. The second days tour I completed called the Grand Circuit included visits to Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Tasom, and Pre Rup ... I may have misspelled a few of those. Each days tour took about 6-7 hours, and even then we only ended up seeing a small handful of the extensive network of temples in the area as you can see from this thorough online Temple Guide. I would highly recommend using the tuk tuk drivers to visit these temples as you will do quite a lot of walking throughout the day in a very hit climate and will be very exhausted by the days end.

Siem Reap is a great city to visit if you planning to come to Cambodia. I'd recommend renting a scooter or pedal bike as well to get around the place so you can adventure a bit further outside the core of the city.



Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Chiang Mai,Thailand

Finally in the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Since I had just spent way too long sitting on the train I opted to walk to my hostel (D-Well Hostellocated abut a 20 minute walk from the train station. I was greeted by extremely friendly and helpful staff upon my arrival there, the rooms and the facility were all very clean as well. It was a great location near the night bizarre, though as I did some research I found the hostel was a bit pricier than some locations I later moved to during my stay. Yes, I stayed at several different hostels while in one city. Chiang Mai is a fantastic city with very friendly people everywhere you go, I far preferred it to Bangkok and the temperatures are a bit more tolerable as well. I also found the city to be extremely clean everywhere you went as well which was a very welcome change from Bangkok. The other two hostels I stayed at during my time in Chiang Mai include City Capsule and Deejai Backpackers, which are both located quite close to each other actually. If you are looking to meet new people regularly and don't mind some late night party noise you definitely want to head to Deejai. They have also recently opened a bar and pool area (Deejai Gardens) a few minutes down the road from the hostel which hosts regular weekend parties, and has a killer (and quite well priced) kitchen serving up amazing food day and night. Access to the pool is free for registered guests, but even if you are not staying at Deejai and perhaps some of your friends are or you simply want to hit up a pool, you can pay 80 baht (I think) for the day when you arrive. City Capsule is kind of the polar opposite of Deejai, you will not likely not meet any new people there as the isn't really much of a common area, but you will have a fantastic nights sleep which is always nice to have from time to time. Each dorm room at City Capsule features A/C (or AirCon as everyone else outside of North America seems to call it) as well as a small personal fan in each bed area. One truly endearing feature of City Capsule is the owner, whom Chris early on dubbed as Mr. Miyagi, cause he really did have a resemblance. I ended up having several chats with Mr. Miyagi during my time in Chiang Mai and can honestly say I have never encountered someone so genuine and willing to help in any way possible. From his ability to obtain deep discounts on treks and tours, to his area restaurant recommendations, he hit the nail on the head every single time and was extremely happy to do so. To this date he remains to be the most honest, humble and helpful person I have met on this trip (I am actually now writing this about 3 weeks after my time in Chiang Mai).

At one point during my time in Chiang Mai I spent a half day with elephants out in the mountain jungle. What a great experience that was! The company/tour we used was called Happy Elephant Home. They specially cater their tour around feeding, bathing and interacting with the elephants without the touristy exploitation or riding of them. On some of the rescue elephants they had in their care you could actually see the scarring on the back of the animal where the "riding cage/seat" was mounted previously, it looked quite painful actually. I really enjoyed the day trip and highly recommend anyone interested in interacting with these beautiful animals look into a day trip like this. At one point our tour guide had me knocking whole papaya's out of a nearby tree using a pool skimmer. We then proceeded to feed the fruit by hand to the elephants, it's really quite something to see how fast these animals throw back a whole fruit and immediately reach back for another one.

The weekly Sunday Market (walking street) is something you will likely hear about in Chiang Mai, and it is definitely something to be seen. It is located right in the middle of the Old City area on Rachadamnoen Road. It is far different than the Night Bizarre you may also hear about since the Sunday Market features far more locals showcasing their own handmade arts, crafts, clothing, musicians, food and just about anything else you an think of rather than just knock off clothing and purses. If you could do one shopping trip before heading home I would try to make it at this place, in fact I will try and do just that before I fly back home to Canada in the new year. I actually ended up walking through this market on 2 separate occasions since I spent about a week in Pai and returned to Chiang Mai a second time. Even after two separate ventures through the street market I didn't come close to seeing all of the vendors there as there are so many side streets that branch off of the main road filled with goods. 

All in all I really enjoyed the city of Chiang Mai. The people, the energy and vibe, it was exactly what I was hoping to experience from what I had heard from other travellers.