Siem Reap could rub you the wrong way if you tackle it from a certain angle. Much like Khao San Road in Bangkok, it’s easy to wound up exactly in the wrong place of the city (let’s hypothetically call this place Pub Street) and wonder what could have possibly gone wrong in such a quaint, culturally-rich, and spiritual part of the world. I did it, several people have done it, has Lonely Planet told us to do it? We’ve all got our reasons as to why we ended up in the most touristy and dare I say backpacker-damaged part of Cambodia whilst on the hunt for vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Siem Reap.
There is a lot I have missed about Southeast Asia since I was last here – sunshine, fruit that tastes like sunshine, a focus on space as opposed to time, tuk-tuks, negotiable prices, … There is less I currently miss about Berlin – except for one thing. My recycling bin. Traveling as a vegan is becoming a relatively straightforward thing to do, but integrating all my conscious habits from back home is a different story. Especially in Southeast Asia, where they really really REALLY love their plastic packaging, and recycling facilities are currently as mythical as unicorns… So when I rocked up at luxury boutique hotel and ethical resort Jaya House Siem Reap, I was excited not just at the anticipation of a comfy beds and good coffee (fine, I miss these a little bit too), but to find out what a hotel with the ambition to be 100% plastic free is like.
One year ago today, on January 1st 2014 at 8am, we locked the door of our flat in Montreal for the last time, leaving behind an empty shell of what was our life of the previous seven years, and dropped the key through the mail slot. As it resonated loudly in the dark empty box, I felt an excitingly familiar feeling in my stomach: we were homeless, the unknown awaited us. It was amazing to ring in the New Year in such a drastic, life changing, exciting way, and the feeling hasn’t left me since.
Four hours east of Kampong Cham was the lovely town of Kratie, so lovely that it left me wondering if perhaps we should have broken down our time in Cambodia differently? Had we spent too much time in Otres Beach? I tentatively suggested that perhaps we should come back to explore more of the Cambodian countryside at a later time of our trip? Oh, the meagerness of the one-month tourist visa.
As the last few days of our Cambodian visa quickly trickled down, we sat through several bus journeys only to 1. Ride on a flimsy bamboo bridge before it collapses, 2. Take the chance to see some of the 80 or so critically endangered irrawady dolphins living in the Mekong in Kratie and 3. Backtrack past Kampong Cham and all the way to Phnom Penh. Whether that was going to be worth the 20 or so back breaking bus hours or not, we did not know.
The food in Cambodia was nowhere near as good as the food in Thailand, and the vegan options were also a lot more sparse. We had our fair share of rice and noodles with vegetables, and quite a few incidents of unsolicited eggs. One thing I realized early on in Cambodia is that, no matter how vegan something appears to be on the menu, always specify no egg or you might end up with a surprise. That being said, we did have some amazing food in Cambodia. From baguette, to durian, to tofu amok (a mildly spicy, coconut-heavy curry), to mango salad, we had some lovely exotic food – most of the time 😉
I had not heard all that much of Siem Reap, apart from the fact that it is the city that serves Angkor Wat. Yet I discovered a surprisingly charming riverfront town, full of markets, cafes and healthy restaurants, and we decided to linger around even after being done with our Angkor 3-day tickets. Yes, it is largely westernized and tourist oriented, but what are two frazzled, sleep-deprived, sunburnt people to do in such case? Go play mini putt, is what!
I am just in Phnom Penh reading First They Killed My Father by Luong Ung and the pre-Khmer Rouge city she portrays is way too similar to the Phnom Penh I am seeing now: young boys chasing each other through back alleys, schoolgirls in uniform playing hopscotch, ladies being pushed around through the incessant traffic on cyclos, food carts surrounded by people snacking at every corner and the usual cornucopia of market goods overflowing onto the street. Was that ill-fated day of 1975 when the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh and expelled everyone from the city a day like today? The extent of the atrocities that are unfolding before me as I visit Phnom Penh’s main memorial sights make it to hard to believe. Alas.
Saying that we were reluctant to leave the beach would be a slight lie. Upon returning from our remote paradise in Koh Rong Samloem, we arrived in the mayhem that is Serendipity: aggressive tuk tuk drivers, pushy street vendors and beauticians, and drunken half-naked westerners – my newfound zen was being rubbed the wrong way. The next morning, we were almost relieved to leave beaches and sandy buttcracks behind to experience a somewhat more cultural side of Cambodia.
Having only seen beaches and paradise islands since arriving in Cambodia, we felt it was only natural to go forth with the theme and to crash one more island before moving along to the ‘real’ Cambodia. There are several islands around Sihanoukville where one can stay overnight, the main ones we were interested in being Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem, both located just a few hours off shore from Sihanoukville.
Arriving in Otres Beach, we spent a good hour combing up and down the two dozen or so guesthouses that lined the sand and beach road, comparing rooms and prices. With no 3G or WiFi to check Tripadvisor, and with the Lonely Planet recommendation of the Koh Kong Guesthouse still fresh in our minds, we were understandably taking our time to have a close look.
We arrived in Cambodia via the Hat Lek / Koh Kong border with surprising ease, having seemingly avoided the scams and touts we were worried about. I guess we had gotten a little comfy in our travellers flipflops, as we didn’t really do any research into where we were going to stay, nor did we get a sim card to investigate hotel reviews before venturing in, just wishfully thinking we’d wing it as we had successfully done before. Upon Lonely Planet’s recommendation, we were taken to the Koh Kong Guesthouse and checked in for the bargain price of US $6 a night!