Southeast Asia travel diary: Days 16 to 20

Day 16: Back to Vientiane

I woke up early enough to have the time to go visit the famous lagoons around Vang Vieng before my check-out time. I rented a bike and headed to Blue Lagoon 1, which is probably not the most impressive one, but it is the closest one at around 5,5km from Vang Vieng, making it the most accessible one.

Biking was a great idea, as I got to enjoy the nature all around in a different way than from a car window. In that part of Laos, the landscape is made of what looks like huge stones rising from the middle of nowhere. It’s not really in the mountains, but there are hills, and some of theses rocky monuments are big enough to look like small mountains. I wouldn’t really know how else to describe these majestic natural elements.

Blue Lagoon 1 was a pretty touristy site, even already at 9 am. The water was sure blue, and you could swim in it, but it was way smaller than I expected, and didn’t differ too much form a regular pond. Especially after Kuang Si falls, it was a bit disappointing. But apparently the other lagoons are supposed to be better, so with more time, that would have been on my list next.

There was nevertheless something more interesting at Blue Lagoon 1 than the actual lagoon. At the end of the area surrounded by restaurants, stairs carved in the stone led up the surrounding hills. An info panel indicated that they lead to a cave, so I started making my way up. The steps were big and uneven, so I can promise you’ll break a sweat trying to get up there, and I nearly fell so many times that I can’t count them. But that was a great workout, and definitely worth the detour. On top of the stairs, there was a completely empty cave where almost no tourists had decided to go, at least at that hour of the day. It was really impressive to stand in the middle of this huge hole in the rock, made up of stones of all sizes and different shades.

As the clock was ticking, I made my way back to the hostel, packed my bags and waited for my ride to Vientiane. Back in the capital, I met a few girls in the hostel, one of which had been there for a while and knew the area around. She took us to a local night market, where you could count the number of tourists with two hands, and so many different and delicious-looking foods that the choice wouldn’t have been easy if she wouldn’t have had recommendations. We ate and chatted for a bit, then went back to the hostel and quite early to bed. Partying is nice from time to time, but usually, this kind of chill evenings just learning about other people’s stories are the best ones.


Day 17: Phnom Penh

Time for a new country. I took a morning flight to Phnom Penh, where I arrived in the early afternoon. The first thing I realized when hopping in the tuktuk was how crazy the traffic was. The traffic in general in southeast Asia is very different from the one we’re used to in Europe, but Phnom Penh – and as I realized later, Cambodia in general – is particularly chaotic. Cars, motorbikes, tuktuks, buses going in every direction at the same time in an intersection, there doesn’t seem to be any logic or priorities to who goes except the fastest. My tuktuk driver even managed to hit another tuktuk because he was on his phone at the same time. Fortunately, thanks to the crazy traffic, he wasn’t driving fast and there was no damage done. Just a regular thing in that traffic, I would imagine.

Arriving to the hostel, I was welcomed by the news that half of the city had been out of power for around two weeks, including the hostel, where the power goes on and off whenever it feels like it. Welcome to Cambodia, I guess. But that’s all good, showering in the light of a candle was pretty cozy and at least people would do something else than watch Netflix on their phones.

Because I had only one night in Phnom Penh, I wanted to see S21, the museum established in the memory of the Khmer Rouge genocide. It was 2 km from the hostel, so I thought I would walk instead of bargaining with tuktuk drivers. I prefer walking in general, you get to see more and have time to stop and take pictures or enjoy something to eat or drink.

Even if I quickly developed a certain liking to the chaos of Phnom Penh, mixing small, local businesses, colonial time buildings and modern skyscrapers, there are a few negative things you see quite fast when walking in the city. First, it’s definitely not a city made for pedestrians. I had to constantly jump on an off the sidewalk because it seemed to be more of a parking spot, the rest of the time there was no sidewalk at all or it would be in such a bad condition that it’s just easier to walk on the road. That’s probably why the few other pedestrians I crossed were all foreigners unaware of the challenges the city has for the ones who don’t want to be a part of the crazy traffic. Second, Phnom Penh is a dirty city. The trash all over the city and the smell make what could be a very charismatic mixture of old and new seem sad and not taken care of. That’s such a shame.

Eventually, I made it to S21, and like Auschwitz last summer, this was an experience. The audio guide takes you around the buildings of what used to be a high school but was turned into a detention and torture center by the Khmer Rouge regime, explaining the horrors that happened there. So many people suffered a terrible fate inside those walls and all over the country during those years. It’s hard to keep yourself from shedding a few tears when listening to those stories. In the end, I sat down under a tree in the corner of the yard to listen to the songs in the memory of those who passed away during those times, and just cried. These terrible things have happened all over the world and still do in some places, and they must be remembered. Visiting this kind of places is the most powerful ways to understand the horrors of the past to prevent them from happening again.


Day 18: The living ghost town

The reason I timed my night in Phnom Penh like this is that it’s election time in Finland, and I had the possibility to vote there. So that’s what I did in the morning, after which I got ready for my bus to Sihanoukville.

As could be expected, the road to Sihanoukville was pretty bumpy, and people don’t drive in a safer way outside the city than in it, quite the opposite. People drive fast, bypass dangerously and just honk at the car in front so they know you’re on the wrong lane when getting dangerously close. So many nearly-an-accident situations in just that one trip, I understand why road accidents are quite common here.

I made it to Sihanoukville safely though. It was already dark, but straight away, the number of casinos, signs in Chinese and construction sites struck me. The whole city was a bizarre, living ghost town. A place where there were people, but that didn’t feel like it was really alive. Frankly, I’m happy I stayed there only one night.

A strange thing in Cambodia that I can’t get used to is the currency. In Cambodia, the local currency is the Riel, but US dollars are used just as much, if not more. All prices are written in USD, you can get both Riel and USD from ATMs, or sometimes only USD, when you pay with one currency, you might get the other back. It’s very strange, I’ve never seen this before. I’m slowly learning the system, and I feel so proud every time I manage to count my money right to pay with a mix of USD and Riel. Little moments of joy, I guess.


Day 19: The dream bungalow

As there didn’t really seem to be anything to see in Sihanoukville, I took the boat to Koh Rong island right in the morning. Even finding a nice breakfast spot was hard in the city that didn’t really feel like one, but I managed to find a local restaurant that had a few okay breakfast options while waiting for the boat.

The ferry to Koh Rong takes about 40 minutes, and you arrive on the main beach of the island, which is also the busiest, with a lot of restaurants and bars on the seafront. But even with that, it seemed somehow authentic, and there was even a traditional Khmer village right next to the busiest spots, it was nice to note that tourism hadn’t driven locals away. It was a mix of locals and tourists that you don’t see in most beach paradises.

I booked a private bungalow room because I had caught the flu on the bus the previous day (damn you A/C), and sleeping in a dorm isn’t so fun when sick. Fortunately, I found one that was pretty cheap, uphill and a bit outside of the village. I had a private room and a balcony overlooking the jungle and the sea, which was pretty cool. Exactly the kind of spot I was dreaming of when planning this trip. So I sat on that balcony, sipping a fresh lemonade, and even the flu didn’t seem like such a bad thing. I came to the island to relax anyway, so the flu just forced me to do that, right? I even skipped the pub crawl that I was tried to be persuaded in going to. One point for the me who listens to her body instead of fomo.


Day 20: The stars in the sea

I had been snorkeling only once before, last year in Thailand, and that wasn’t too impressive, so when I booked the snorkeling day trip in Koh Rong, I expected it to be better. We went to three different snorkeling spots, and frankly, it was not any more impressive than Thailand had been. Mostly a lot of dead coral, some living one, and a few fishes here and there, but no wow effect. What was impressive though was how clear and warm the water was. I don’t think I’ve ever swam in such warm water. About snorkeling, I heard that Bali should be a better place, so my expectations are there now.

Even if the snorkeling didn’t leave me in awe, it was overall a good day. It was a fun group, we had a nice lunch in M’Pai Bay on Koh Rong Samloem, watched the sunset from Coconut Beach, had drinks and fresh fruit, chatted about this and that. And the best part came only in the evening, after the sun had set.

We headed back to the sea in the darkness and the boat stopped in a spot way further from the shore than our previous snorkeling spots. Everyone jumped in the water and the lights were turned off from the boat, and we were instructed to move as much as possible while snorkeling. And now this was the wow effect I was waiting for. If you’ve never seen bioluminescent plankton, it looks like a thousand sparkles floating in the water. Like swimming in a sky full of stars. It illuminates when you move, so as I moved my hands, it looked like they left behind a trail of sparkles. I felt like a fairy. I don’t know if you watched the Winx as a kid, but for that moment, I felt like one. It was absolutely magical, and I can only recommend that experience.

From what I understood, Koh Rong is more of the party place and Koh Rong Samloem a more laid-back spot. On koh Rong, the main beach is where the party happens, but as it is quite a big island, you can also find calm and quiet spots on other parts of the island. Anyway, I got to experience the party side of Koh Rong that night, as there was a techno party on Police beach, just a five-minute walk from the main village. I’m not a hardcore techno fan, but it was quite a nice and laid-back type of party, and they had made an extra effort with a 3D-lightshow on the DJ’s booth. I met some Spanish guys and after a few beers I was comfortable enough to speak Spanish with them. I should definitely practice my Spanish also outside of parties as well, it’s such a nice language and I have enough of a basis in it to get it to a descent level pretty quickly.

I didn’t even look at the exact time I went to sleep, but it must have been around 4 or 5 in the morning, which is super late, especially since I had a 6.30 am wake up the next morning… To be continued.


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