You never know how much time you have with someone… that is what my travels are also teaching me… Best to make the most of the present moment…
I met Oscar, a Mexican kundalini yoga teacher with a shamanic spirit, at Samathi Lake Resort in Phnom Penh, and we decided to set together for a little adventure, exploring Kampot, Kep, the National Parks in the area, Sihanoukville and some of the Cambodian renowned islands…
We took a mini bus, called “VIP van” by the Mekong Express Bus Company to Kampot. The driver was a star and got us to the place even ten minutes before the expected time of three hours, while normally the ride takes actually longer on the broken and dusty country sides, amidst the unregulated traffic, cow crossings and all the constructions happening. The bus cost us only 8 dollars per person.
We struggled to hire a scooter in Kampot since nobody wanted to accept the copies of our passports, they wanted the originals and we did not bring them along out of security reasons. Eventually, we took a tuk tuk (always use the Grab or PassApp to order these, otherwise you get ripped off) to the Ganesha resort where we had previously booked a night online, and they allowed us to hire a scooter there – just as Oscar expected while I was desperate and sad: actually, Oscar was a huge help and angel on the trip from the very beginning to the very end, always believing that things would get solved and always finding a solution.
We headed out of the resort on a scooter to admire sunset in the provincial countryside of streams and ponds and rice fields and meadows. We stopped at a local night market and funfair before exploring the lovely town of Kampot which keeps its French touch and Western atmosphere of cafés and bars located along the riverside and on the houseboats. I got a crab for dinner, a delicacy so popular in this area as well as durian fruit, high quality pepper and fish sauce.
While cannabis is officially illegal in the country, many “Happy” restaurants, namely Happy Pizza restaurants, located in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, Kampot and in other destinations attractive to tourists, publicly offer food cooked with marijuana, and if you are a tourist and ask politely at the bar you can even buy your 30 grams for 10 dollars inside the restaurants. I guess for the Cambodian government it is of greater concern that the locals do not get too messed up when it comes to hallucinogens rather than caring about what the tourists do.
Oscar and I had a little ritual that night by our cabin, looking up at the starry sky (not spoiled by any city lights, since we were located deep in the countryside, with very limited number of lights in the resort), chanting together, praying, meditating. Oscar´s icaro chanting took me far in my visions and I got a chance to embrace a very special experience that night.
The next day we set off on the scooter to explore Kep, one of the newest provinces and actually the smallest one in Cambodia. The beach town of the same name has a very laid-back atmosphere with the locals chilling out on the pavement stretching along the beaches, selling their food and drinks, chatting. There are fishermen catching fish and crab and if you come to make a photograph of their haul they will readily show you some starfish and seahorses that got caught accidentally…
Kep is the place where you go to see the National park of the same name and from where you can take a ferry to Rabbit Island. Oscar and I went to the ferries to check the prices and see if we want to go to the island. We were not impressed by either the prices (25 dollars private boat one way – going any time, 8 dollars the shuttle – going four times a day, while our journey to Koh Rong Sanloem cost 24 per person, return, including the ferry and the bus to Sihanoukville – read more below) or the sea waters surrounding the island (basically the same as those of the Kep beaches, honestly, nothing thrilling, rather muddy and dark), so we were wondering what to do instead when I noticed a Western-looking guy standing behind us at the ferry information stall. I started chatting to him or perhaps he started chatting to us. His name was Nick, an Englishman living in London and taking his vacation. He gave us many tips on what to do to see around and also recommended a travel agency in Kampot he used to book his journey to Koh Rong Sanloem which was our idea for the next day.
Oscar and I left Kep to go and see the Bokor Mountain National park. You can drive through most parts of the park on your scooter, and even though it is hilly, there is a proper road running through, so the drive is safe even if the weather gets funny – and it does, on the way back it was me driving, through fog so thick you could barely see five metres ahead which appeared all of a sudden and disappeared as suddenly as it arrived.
You can get some really nice viewpoints in the park, out of which my favourite would be the one that opens into the valley and up to the sky behind the Old Catholic Church. The church itself is a special place. You get to the church by passing a casino (in fact Old French Palace which was constructed by French settlers and completed in 1925 for the French social elites who were living in Cambodia and needed an escape from the humidity and heat of Phnom Penh; in 1950s and 60s, the Old French Palace was used as a casino during the time of Prince Sihanouk; nowadays, it is frequently used as a movie location, the most famous being City of Ghosts, starring Matt Dillon) and walking up a staircase that reminds you of a stairway to heaven as it is steep and you can see only the church and the sky as you walk up. When you enter the church, you are stunned by how dilapidated it is, abandoned, ruined, yet, how it still keeps it genius loci. The energy and acoustics of the place is just something so overwhelming that I could not hold myself back and all of a sudden started singing chorales in spontaneous gratefulness and awe. The magic of the place made me feel the divine power and filled me with a feeling of appreciation as I understood that the same power has been lifting me up every time I feel down and doubtful. Honestly, I don’t care about a religion, I care about faith. I don’t care about a dogma, I care about the truth… I could have sung out my thankfulness in any other sacred place of the same strength of energy and it could have been a mantra instead of a chorale. But I will never forget the moment in the church and the love and light that felt so tangible.
When Oscar and I walked out of the church we were blessed by the wonderful view of clouds moving as if down below in the valley, while the sun was shining bright high up in the sky… something memorable, one of those precious moments that simply stays with you…
We made our way to the most famous of the several waterfalls in the park, Popokvil. Even in the dry season, the fall is beautiful, with its massive rock-face and lush forest around. Oscar and I had a proper yoga session down by the fall while the locals were watching us with interest, including four young monks who found the courage to follow us down (meaning they had to conquer a short, yet truly unbeaten path with huge rocks) to ask for some pictures with us. I would have never thought of monks having an interest in anything like that but it left a kind smile on my face.
When in the park, it is a must to stop by the 29 metres high statue of Yeay Mao or Lok Yeay Mao (Grandma Mao), an ancient mythical heroine and a divinity in the local popular form of Buddhism and Brahmanism.
Cambodian countryside generally is a lot about stupas and temples and cows running gaily freely everywhere and dogs eating garbage in the streets and rivers and streams that are muddy but have their charm thanks to the simple fishermen barks that are randomly parked here and there. The traditional rural Khmer houses (varying in size from 4 metres by 6 metres to 6 by 10 metres), consist of basic wooden structure and the roof is erected before the walls on the upper floor are inserted. A common feature in every type of house is a 5 to 10 cm gap on all four sides, between the top of the wall of the upper floor and the roof, enabling natural ventilation of the house. The insides of the dwelling are usually quite dark as the locals avoid letting too much sunlight in. The houses are raised on stilts that sometimes extend as high as 3 metres off the ground so that the annual floods do not affect the main room; also farmers are able to use the ground level area beneath the house for working, rice drying or to provide shelter for livestock. One or two wooden ladders, ramps or staircases provide access to the upper floor.
The upper floor generally consists of one large room. The main part of this room, the area where visitors are received, is defined by four central pillars; in this space there will be a Buddha, a television, and an (often battery-operated) electric light in the centre attached to the pillars. The parents’ sleeping space is usually separated from the central entrance by textiles. To the back of the upper floor, on the left, there is a space for the girls, whilst the boys have a space reserved for them on the right. This arrangement may vary, but children are always separated by gender and placed at the back of the house.
When you drive through the countryside, you get nice views of these houses of varying colours that somehow gives you the feeling of calmness and serenity. Life pace here is quite relaxed and peaceful with kids playing in the rice fields, catching snakes for fun (unlike Thailand, in Cambodia it is still legal to eat snake and drink the blood), riding old shabby bicycles or chasing the cow and chickens while chewing on sugar cane…
I would say that generally the atmosphere of Cambodia is kind and pleasant when you forget about the tuk tuk drivers who can become annoying with price haggling and most of whom will try to rip you off. They are also often reluctant to pay back your change. The best way to avoid any of those problems is to use the Grab App or Pass App and make sure you always have some smaller banknotes in your wallet.
I had a very unpleasant experience with a tuk tuk driver throwing money paid back at my feet when I asked for the change back. It happened by the travel agent´s bus station in Kampot from where we were going to Koh Rong Sanloem, one of the renowned Cambodian islands. All the other local people present, who observed this incident, suddenly aligned and when I picked the money – and Oscar asked the driver again to give me back my change (to which he replied he had no change at all) – and went to change the banknote at the travel agent´s they refused to help saying they had no money there! I was forced to pay the driver without getting any change back. Oscar insisted that I remain strong and throw the money at his feet too, explaining to him that this is not the way he can treat women. I did so and off he went angrily while the other women present (some in veils as they were Muslim) avoided my eyes…
Anyway, the situation melted to oblivion as Nick arrived, the Englishman we met in Kep before, and seeing us present (and understanding that we liked the deal he got and opted for the same one) said in a joking manner: “The trouble of this place is that you keep bumping into the same people.”
Laughter is the best healer, truly… and we laughed all the way from Kampot to Sihanoukville (about 2.5 hours on the bus) as we met four Czech people (two couples) on the bus and played games with them and shared a lot of stories.
Nick, a stunning story teller with a great eye to perceive details, became my second angel on the way to paradise, Koh Rong Sanloem, probably the most beautiful island I have ever seen in my life, placed in the midst of pristine turquoise waters and white sand beaches, with limited electrical supplies and no means of transport other than boats (even bikes are impossible as the island is filled with sand, so you have to walk), with sea food, fish and local fruits and veggies as the main dishes, and with cold water only even in the expensive beach resorts.
Nick cancelled his original accommodation arrangements to stay with Oscar and me, who did not want to take an expensive fishermen boat to the other side of the island, and all three of us spontaneously arranged for a room together in Dolphin Bay, a backpackers place right on the beach in the left corner from the ferry boats pier.
I will never forget the beautiful sunset swim and acro yoga on the Lazy Beach, the walk in almost complete darkness (since only Nick used a torch on his phone on the way through the dark forest from Lazy Beach to Leng Meng Beach near which we were staying) and swimming in the fluorescent plankton at night. There was only Nick and me on the small bark that took us onto the sea, and suddenly we stopped, and there was complete darkness, only the stars above, and the boatman put his leg into the water and started the swirl of light, and I began squealing with delight and jumped into the waters, just to observe the beauty I was creating with my moves.
Those beautiful memories beat those of the long waiting back in Sihanoukville (a city of Chineses investors, construction works, casinos and skyscrapers) for the bus to Phnom Penh, the funny lunch at a Chinese restaurants where I got the first and most probably the last ever dumplings, the food poisoning that arrived two hours later as we were sitting on the bus with no loo and I was counting every minute of the five-hour ride before we stopped at a dirty petrol station where the toilets were filthy (and wet again as the locals use bum showers rather than toilet paper that cannot be flushed down the toilet) and even the moments when I vomited on the bus and when we had to get off earlier (just on the edges of Phnom Penh, as I desperately needed the toilet again) and then haggle with the tuk tuk drivers to take us to our yoga resort while I felt so sick.
Koh Rong Sanloem is to stay in my beautiful memories as the time in Paradise with my two loving and compassionate angels who let me have the biggest bed in the shared bedroom…