We've been to Cambodia once before, but decided to go back in part because it fit our tight budget and also because we wanted to spend some time in rural Cambodia (on an island) and it's just one of our favorite places on Earth.
We chose a little bungalow resort on Koh Thmei in Ream National Park near Sihanoukville. It was owned and operated by a super cool German couple. The resort (while not in the "official" protected part of the park, I believe) was the only infrastructure on the island. There was also an island border control police station (we could see the hills of Vietnam over the water) and a few fishermen's huts. The electricity was limited and the showers were cool. No internet, of course.
It was fabulous.
To get there you take a bus from Phnom Penh to a tiny village called Ou Chamnar (5-6 hours), then hop on the back of a moto (20 minutes to a fishing village) and then climb into the resort's boat (30 min- 1 hour).
We met a cool Danish couple and a group of students who just so happened to be from Centralia. I know, small world, right?
We swam, ate great food, walked the beaches, played card games, lazed in hammocks and read and took one woeful kayaking trip.
The morning of our last full day on the island, we rented the kayak (a sit-a-top double). Everything on the island was really laid back, so we received no instructions for the kayak. The sit-a-tops I've used before were significantly smaller, but I figured it would be pretty much the same.
We decided to head out to an adjacent island where we could see some more sandy beaches. The trip over went perfectly. The water was low and we found ourselves over a bit of reef. Luckily, it wasn't too low and we were able to glide over (we didn't use our paddles since we didn't want to risk disturbing it). Lots of little fish and brain coral. So cool. We walked the beach and watched little blue crabs scurrying in the shallow water.
It was great. Until we tried to go back. You see, Ian and I together were likely at the tail end of the recommended weight for the kayak. But, that wasn't the actual problem. When Ian got back into the kayak, it took on a little water. Now, sit-a-tops are pretty simple vehicles. They have holes to let the water in and out. But, ours wasn't letting water out, it was getting heavier and, therefore, harder to control. It didn't help that each of our paddles had a broken blade, which had probably happened when someone accidentally struck a rock, since the area was very rocky.
Anyway, the kayak was impossible to steer and getting harder and harder to keep level. We fought, we tipped. I wish I could say that I handled it like a pro, but on the contrary I had a full blown panic attack upon hitting the water. I'm a good swimmer, but vast things (like the ocean or the idea of space) or very big things (tall buildings, bridges) will sometimes trigger a primal need to flee. We eventually realized that we could flip the boat. Unfortunately, we couldn't drain it. We figured we were 1/3 of the way back to camp. But instead of turning around and draining the boat on the other beach, ewe made the terrible, terrible decision to press forward.
I got back in the boat, but Ian could not. He felt he could swim it (I measured the distance between the two islands and it's somewhere between 1 and 2 miles). So, it wasn't that far. But we had another problem. Or, two, actually: the wind and the current. They were pushing us out into the Gulf of Thailand and they were efficient in this endeavor. The boat continued to take on water and Ian had to hang from the back to keep it level. In the end (the last 1/4 mile, probably), I decided to bail out of the boat and pull it as I swam because the wind was winning and I could see the island slipping away to my left. We made it back, but we were a ways down the beach, so Ian walked it back along the shore in the water. I ran ahead and ordered lunch (we had been out for over 3 hours). Ian struggled to pull the boat to shore as it was so heavy with water. When I saw the staff drain it, several gallons poured out of it. So, it was functioning as a boat about as well as a rock might. We clearly had the vents set up incorrectly (and, as I mentioned, we were violating the weight restriction).
I wore sunscreen, but still managed to get a righteous sunburn that just started to peel today. Oh well, at least we got to see the reef!
After our time at the resort, we headed back to Phnom Penh to stay two nights (and one full day) hanging out in the city. We went to several markets, drank lots of what most Americans call "Vietnamese coffee," saw some schools, monasteries and temples and even toured a brewery.
It was much more laid back than the normal "Go, go go!" of our normal trips and we enjoyed every minute of it.
Oh, in Phnom Penh we did meet an... interesting fellow at our hostel. We later found out that he was just a harmless odd duck. A philosophy grad from PSU, of all places. But, our first encounter with him left us fearing for our kidneys. He greeted us with, "So, you're staying here?" and followed with "Are we going to have a problem?" We did our best to be cordial. He asked if we each had our own beds or would be sharing one. Then he asked who had the top bunk. We submitted ourselves to small talk and feigned interest for safety (I couldn't help but recall the Dane Cook [sorry] sketch about a creepy guy at work) and found out that he had been let go from a teaching position in Thailand and was headed to Germany to find work in a factory and "join the proletariat because [he's] pretty conservative in the US." I shit you not.
"How's your German?" Ian asked. "Ich möchte etwas Wasser," he said, (I want some water). "Well, at least you won't die of dehydration," I said. Ian mentioned that he studied WWII history and his response was, "Do you know what Lebensraum is?" When we told him where we were from (upon his inquiring) he left the room and slammed the door, coming back a few seconds later to tell us he had done it for comedic effect. We let him know we hadn't understood.
An odd fellow, for sure.
Everything else was so relaxed that I have no more stories to share. We met and befriended several street/community cats and dogs. Ian took a video of a little boy (3, 4?) tailing us trying to sell us bird seed, so I'll have him post it to FB, so that you can see what that's like. It's important not to give kids money in Cambodia because they're sent out by adult handlers. Giving in just makes the cycle stronger. It's hard to say no, but it's important.
Photos! Some of mine were too big to post (I'm too lazy to go in and resize right now). I'm in the process of getting all our photos (from everything) on Flickr. I'll post the link when it's up.