Cambodia is THE destination for having a good time, relaxing and celebrating Xmas and New Year, and not only. We took a boat to cross the boarder from Vietnam to Cambodia. The boarder control/visa application office are actually on the water in the middle of Mekong Delta, so you get off your boat at a floating raft office, submit your passport for visa sticker and continue to the border on another boat. To reach Phnom Penh, the capital, you need to change the boat for a minivan for the last 1hr of trip.
We spent Xmas in Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh is an interesting city - it has many distinct areas and depending on where you are, the city experience is going to be different. There is touristy waterfront area with all the restaurants, bars and expensive hotels, there are parks and temple areas, there are bustling market areas, there are NGO areas where volunteers and expats live, there are food & entertainment areas. The city generally is quite pleasant, with a lot of things to see and do. It's busy and the streets are very lively.
If you're visiting Cambodia after Vietnam you'll enjoy all the temples and Buddhist decor all around the city, and you'll enjoy the tuk-tuks. Cambodian tuk-tuks are one of the most comfy ones in Southeast Asia - I love riding in those!
We stayed in a NGO area at a cool Top Banana hostel with a great bar and rooftop terrace, got a room for $7 a night, and spent a lot of time walking around the city - markets, little streets, neverending food stalls, temples. Food is excellent - try fish amok, snacks and BBQ in street stalls, seafood friend rice, fried Tarantula (at Romdeng restaurant that supports locan young people training them for jobs), and the 4:20 people might enjoy a happy pizza at the waterfront (order it medium happy :)
With all this cheerfulness and friendliness of the city it is easy to forget the history that is still remembered in so many Khmer (Cambodian) families - The Khmer Rouge and the times of Pol Pot Those who don't know about Khmer Rouge - better get a book or a documentary on it. We went to the former S-21 prison (local school that was turned into torture prison for assumed Pol Pot's enemies) and it gives you a different perspective about Cambodia and Khmer people. Out of 17,000 prisoners only 7 survived the tortures. Most Khmer people don't live an easy life now and many of them live in poverty and deal with corruption. But when you talk to them - they are happy people, and they consider themselves lucky, because 35 years ago their life would be much worse. We are simply fascinated with Khmer people attitude and their optimism, and since visiting Cambodia we look very differently at people in Europe and the US who complain about their lives. Hence the saying "white people problems" :)
Our plan was to spend New Year's in Sihanoukville, beachside town lovingly nicknamed Shnukville by backpackers, with our friends Rachel and Brian whom we met in Vietnam. It's a 5-6 hrs bus ride from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. And as it turned out, we werent the only ones who planned to hit beachside for New Year's, so on 28th of December there were no more buses available for Sihanouk.
In desperation we decided to give a chance to the travel method locals use a lot - shared taxi! Shared taxi is not what you might imagine - comfy taxi ride with a couple of people sharing a ride. To "catch" a shared taxi first you go to the central market area and you start asking people around, I know it sounds unproductive, but it is eventually. You end up negotiating with locals behind the market and in the end they agree to give you a ride for a ridiculous price (if they know you're desperate) - $40 for 2 people. What happens then is they start cramming their relatively small car with stuff. Bags, parcels, boxes, furniture go inside the trunk, backseat and top of the car. And as soon as you think - well, ok, we can still sit inside comfortably with all the stuff around - your co-passengers start to arrive :) In the end the car is just too full of stuff, we're squeezed in the backseat with a very plump lady and on the front 2 seats they have 4 people, the driver is sharing driving duties with another person, so that one of them steers and uses pedals and the other one manages the transmission stick, for 5 hours. It's fun!
Sihanoukville is great! It's the place focused on backpackers and Cambodian families rather than upscale tourists. Long strips of beach are right there, there are hundreds of cafes and bars along the beach, you can find a good room for $7-20 a night, food and drinks are excellent and cheap - $1-5 dishes, $5 huge seafood BBQs, $1 snacks and fruit from beach vendors, $1 beers, $2-3 cocktails, the atmosphere is amazing - people just hang out on the beach, sleep, swim, laugh, sing, party. At night multiple bars have wild parties and dance marathons on the beach.
This is Serendipity beach in the afternoon:
Spending New Year's on the beach was especially fun - it's a huge party stretching for more than 3km along the water. It's loud, it's bright, people dancing around, buckets sold everywhere. If you're crazy enough, you can buy a bucket of very bad cocktail ingredients for $3, mix them up with ice and get your party started with a couple of buckets of local whiskey, coke and local Red Bull mix. Red Bull formula was actually developed in Thailand and the old version which is sold around Thailand is illegal in the West due to the amphetamine equivalent present in the drink. When sold - the buckets look like this. Don't buy already mixed buckets as there are known attempts to drug and rob the tourists. At midnight when the countdown is finished the entire beach goes crazy on firecrackers. It's not very safe, but it's Cambodia. Looks like this.
Us and our friends Rachel and Brian heading to the beach for the New Year's:
Besides the buckets, another thing to be aware of in Sihanoukville are kids beggars, actually gangs of children and teens working on the beach. Some are quite obnoxious and it looks like some English speaking assholes taught them very bad swearing in English, so sometimes if you don't give them money they will express their frustration better than some criminal in Bronx. Some of them will look miserable and will make you feel sorry for them, but be strong - these children and teens are working for adult gangs, and the only currently available option to stop this madness (besides educating local families) is not to give them money. If I'm eating when they come by, I may share my food, but never money. In any case be aware as most of these kids are also great at pickpocketing. Sad, but true.
Sihanoukville is divided into different beaches - Serendipity and Ochheuteal beaches are the party ones, so if you want to get away into a more relaxed, much less crowded and more "don't worry be happy" atmosphere - go to Otres beach. It's located about 7km from Serendipity beach and you can reach it by asking any tuk-tuk or motorbike driver to take you there. On the way you have to pass a cliff and tuk-tuks can't get over it, so they must take a bit longer route around. This other route is a fun ride - mostly not paved, with neverending potholes and covered in red dust. Tuk-tuks are used to drive here, so they won't slow down which means that the passengers will be flying around the cabin for about 10 minutes. The drivers also tend to like racing with each other on these roads - you can see excitement and а huge satisfied smile on their faces when they pass or force each other out of the better spot of the road.
Otres beach is just amazing. We came for a couple of days and we stuck there for 2 weeks. You never wear shoes, you walk around refreshingly wet from swimming most of the time, beach sand is practically grown into your body and hair, you sleep 10 metres away from the sea and listen to the waves and breeze all the time, you eat fruit and drink coconuts all day, you have beers or cocktails in the evening, watch sunset and walk around.
We stayed in a very basic and humbly furnished room for $5/night built above a beach cafe - Sunshine Cafe, best place to be! The owner Kem and the family who runs the place are always there and are always kind and sincere. Kem serves excellent cocktails and the family cooks absolutely amazing Khmer/Southeast Asian dishes (fish amok, banh xeo, tamarind sour soup, vegetable curry, etc.) Kem also organizes night fishing trips, boat tours and as a coach can even invite you to see a local village youth football game.
We also went to one of Cambodian islands in the Gulf of Thailand. The trip to Koh Rong island takes about 2 hours on a boat and they bring you to your accommodation. Ours was one of small huts on a wild beach.
It's absolutely beatiful - since the place can't host many people, there is no electricity except generator that works for 4hrs in the evening, and there are no villages nearby, the beach is always empty, the sand is perfectly white and the water is crystal clear. The part of the island where we stayed is pretty wild itself, so if you're adventurous enough you can take a walk into the jungle, see some monkeys, birds, lizards and huge caterpillars or stumble upon an old abandoned temple. Or you can just lie on the beach, play with hermi crabs, listen to lizards, watch fish, water stars and sea urchins or take a walk with local beach dogs.
Cambodia amazed us and it kept doing it again and again. It's one of the places we miss the most.