Hippie’s Paradise – Mad Monkey Koh Rong Samloem

Cambodia isn’t well known for its beaches. Thailand has its world-famous Phuket and ultra sleazy Pattaya, while Indonesia has Bali and Lombok. Cambodia is still known as the land of Indiana Jones temples. Angkor Wat is so majestic that it attracts so much attention around it, leaving other parts of the country relatively unknown to most tourists.

When AirAsia started flying to Sihanoukville, I jumped on the chance to explore Cambodia’s beach offerings. While Sihanoukville itself isn’t a remarkable place (no joke, it’s hideous and tacky), I had the best experience at Koh Rong Samloem, a small island 40 minutes off the mainland.

Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem

The two islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem are only accessible via speedboats from Sihanoukville. A return trip to either of the islands is priced at about USD20, which isn’t very cheap for Southeast Asian standard. Good thing is, you can get on a bus right at the Sihanoukville jetty to Battambang and Phnom Penh, which means that you don’t have to spend so much time at the port city before or after your island excursion.

My speed boat took me right to a jetty at Koh Rong Samloem – from there, the staff led a few of us on the boat to a catamaran that took us to Mad Monkey Koh Rong Samloem.

The boat ride!

The resort is owned by the Mad Monkey group, which operates a string of hostels in Cambodia. I’ve been to their hostels in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and had a really good time, so my expectation was quite high.

And I wasn’t disappointed.

Upon arrival, our group was greeted by the friendly staff who walked us to the registration area at the bar. It’s really sandy, so bring your crocs or plastic thongs! The bar is really hippie and a very social place, with music playing until late. The frontline staff are mainly locals, managed by some Australians.

I booked a private bungalow. There’s no air-conditioning, but at least the place is clean. The bed is alright, with some basic pillows – it’s not 5-star hotel quality but for USD25 per night, you really get what you paid for here. I wish there was a chair though, it’d be nice to lounge at the spacious balcony that faces the beach. The bungalow is a wooden structure, with many small cracks and holes on the floor and the wall, and its location right next to a tropical jungle means that there are many bugs and insects. Fortunately the mosquito net does its job well.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There’s no wifi or mobile phone reception on the island, and there’s no restaurants, shops, not even a village nearby, so you’re basically stuck in Mad Monkey throughout your stay – which is not a bad thing, since the quiet, unspoilt beach will keep you occupied. There are beach hammocks and swings that you can use.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The remoteness of the place gave rise to a friendly culture. While it felt a little awkward at first since I came alone, I ended up making new friends throughout the three days I was there. Everyone’s friendly, so as long as you’re open-minded, non judgmental and friendly too, you’ll have a really good time there.

The bar is where the socialising is most of the time. Drinks are quite cheap there, for Malaysian standard, and there are happy hour prices too. The restaurant, which shares its space with the bar, serves alright food. It’s a hit-or-miss. The menu is rather extensive, covering western, Thai and Khmer cuisines. Throughout my 3-day stay, the food ranged from the delicious creamy seafood tomyum and yummy fish amok to the passable breakfast of omelette and terrible Khmer-style fried noodle. The morning coffee is good though!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Mad Monkey Koh Rong Samloem shares the space on the tiny island with the military, so the bar stopped playing music at midnight. However, after the music ended, everyone headed to the beach for a tipsy dip. The water was surprisingly warm, considering that it was past midnight, and it was a perfect opportunity to see luminous planktons. These planktons are only visible underwater, and there’s snorkelling equipment that you can borrow.

After three days, when it was time to leave, I felt like I wasn’t ready to. I had a massively good time, and left with no regrets – except for one. I should’ve applied insect repellent on my body more frequently than twice a day. Sandfly bites aren’t cool; my whole body felt so itchy for three days after I got back in KL!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Some travel advice:

  1. Mad Monkey Koh Rong Samloem is a party hostel, so if you’re looking for a very quiet destination, this place is probably not for you
  2. Bring coconut oil – it works better than normal insect repellant in protecting you from Cambodian sandfly bites and I learnt this trick too late
  3. Bring USD – the island has no ATM or the internet connection needed for the credit card machine to function. The tab system works here, and you’re expected to settle everything before you leave
  4. Be friendly and kind to the staff – and they’ll be extra nice to you, which helps!
  5. If your budget allows for some splurging, choose the bungalows. Dorms are much cheaper, but facilities are really basic there. The whole resort is sandy, so it’s nice to have your own ensuite bathroom and a little bit of personal space in the bungalow

Speak soon!

FH

Sihanoukville – a city that’s hard to like

Hello from Sihanoukville!

The city is my base this week, from which I went to explore Koh Rong Samloem, an island known for its hippie accommodation offerings and quiet, unspoilt beaches.

Anyway, let’s talk about Sihanoukville first.

Sihanoukville is Cambodia’s only significant harbour city and the industrial centre of the country, which doesn’t say much, since Cambodia’s industry is still at its infancy. Angkor Beer (one of Cambodia’s most recognisable brands) is produced in the city. Sihanoukville is also one of the newest cities in Cambodia, with a relatively recent history that dates back to the 1950s. Therefore, it doesn’t have the long, French-style avenues of Phnom Penh or the rows of charming mustard yellow shophouses that make Siem Reap’s town centre look very charming.

To be honest, the city’s rather dreary. Hygiene is a real issue in Sihanoukville, and even the most touristic parts of the city are very unkempt, with piles of garbage taking over the limited space for pedestrians.

Two golden lion statues mark the centre of the town – right next to the statues are tourist traps like casinos, bars and souvenir shops.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The roads in Sihanoukville aren’t as developed as those in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap – and only main avenues are equipped with street lights, so expect the ride from your hotel to town to be quite rough, as most of the boutique-style accommodations in Sihanoukville aren’t located on the main roads.

I’m staying at Deluxx Boutique Hotel (4 star), which is an amazing oasis of calm and comfort in the middle of the chaotic and unpredictable Sihanouvkville. The hotel isn’t large – it’s a 3-storey building, with rooms orientated to face a nice pool, enveloped in a verdant little garden. I opted for the smallest room, which is actually quite large, with a really comfy queen sized bed and a sofa bed. There’s a flat screen TV, mini bar, and best of all, the bathroom works perfectly, with reliable hot shower (something that you really appreciate when you’re in Cambodia).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There are several popular beaches in Sihanoukville – Ochheuteal, Otres and Sokha. Ochheuteal is the tackiness of Phuket’s Patpong, magnified. Also known as the Serendipity Beach, Ochheuteal is anything but serene. Rows and rows of cheap bars, restaurants, souvenir shops and massage parlours line the beach. Street children walk from a table to another, selling trinkets. Stray dogs forage for food in piles and piles of garbage that are scattered around the beach area – this happened right next to where you eat.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Backpackers and hippies frequent some of the bars nearby Ochheuteal. Monkey Republic is my favourite – it’s fairly cheap, with really nice music. There are also some decent spas too, that are doing legitimate business and not at all dodgy. These places are staffed by professionally trained therapists. The staff at Monkey Republic recommended Ocean Spa. Following their advice was a right decision; I had an amazing 60-minute full body massage for USD12. Worth every single sen.

While Ochheuteal is where most of the tourists are eating and partying, for the best traditional Khmer dining experience, head to Sandan, about 5 minutes from the Golden Lions. The restaurant is a social enterprise, which employs young Cambodians from high-risk communities. It also acts as an on-the-job training centre for underprivileged Cambodians to prepare them for jobs in the nation’s growing tourism industry.

I ordered seafood amok and a Khmer seafood salad. Both were excellent, especially the seafood salad. The ingredients were fresh;  the prawns and squids were served juicy and succulent. To wash them down, you can also try Sandan’s inventive cocktails and juices – a tomyam mojito, anyone? I ended up paying USD18 for one salad, one main and two drinks – not cheap compared to other restaurants in Cambodia, but you’re paying for the nice ambiance, great service, fair wages and nicely presented, freshly prepared local cuisine. So it was worth it.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Safety is a main issue in Sihanoukville. The city, with its casinos and seedy bars, has a rough reputation. Make sure you don’t leave your bags unattended at Ochheuteal Beach as petty theft is rampant there. Practise common sense and general caution, especially at night. The city’s streets are really dark at night, so it probably helps to know your route first before taking a motorbike taxi or Uber – just in case.

While Sihanoukville doesn’t have much to offer, the surrounding islands off its coasts are stunning. The city is therefore an important stopover/transit point for tourists, and since Cambodia’s islands aren’t as popular as those in Thailand, tourists who come to visit are mainly adventurous backpackers or hippies.

However, Sihanoukville won’t be so much of a niche destination anymore in the future. Massive Chinese investments have created several large construction sites across Sihanoukville. New hotels and resorts are coming up. AirAsia has also started plying the Kuala Lumpur-Sihanoukville route, putting the city on the map.

Sihanoukville’s skyline is evolving

Change is coming.

***

I’ll write about my experience staying at Mad Monkey Koh Rong Samloem, soon. Stay tuned!

Living it up, in Cambodia!

My case against haggling

Imagine coming to a country where the majority of the population earns less than USD150 per month. You earn 10–20 times more than them.

You start your morning at one of Phnom Penh’s only Costa Coffee branches. You gladly pay USD3 for your coffee.

Then you go to a market. A crowded, poorly lit, stuffy place. Single mothers ply their trade, taking their small kids along. Children have their lunch of rice and tiny pieces of pork and chicken next to a small radio that plays western Top 40 music from 3 years ago.

After browsing for a few minutes, you encounter an exquisite handmade local craft. A small wooden statue. You saw something that looked similar at one of the “hipster” art shops near your office before. It was sold for USD100, and while the price was quite steep, you knew that it was reasonable – especially for something that beautiful.

But at this Cambodian market, the statue, that probably took a day or two to make, costs you USD15.

85 percent cheaper. But here’s a thing. You’re a backpacker who tries to save every single cent so you get to splash out on more booze tonight, so you haggle and bargain really hard.

So you tell the trader, “7 dollars or nothing”.

Desperate for cash, the trader agrees to sell you the wooden statue for USD7.


Because you want to save USD8, which is equivalent to 2–3 cups of coffee at home, the trader takes home USD8 less today.

She has USD8 less to spend on her children’s education.

She has USD8 less to spend on providing nutritious diet of fish and meat for her family.

She has USD8 less to spend on buying medicine for her children when they fall sick.


This is the kind of unhealthy attitude that is sadly very prevalent amongst backpackers in Asia.

Respect the locals and their trade, and the locals will respect you.

***

This post was originally uploaded on Quora. Feel free to follow Faizal Hamssin on Quora if you want to subscribe directly to my answers there.

Weekend getaways: Why Phnom Penh?

Weekend trips to ASEAN destinations are always a possibility nowadays (thanks AirAsia for the frequent promos and the price wars) and the most common getaway ideas are to go for a beach-and-party jaunt in Bali and Phuket, shopping trip in Bandung and Jakarta, and a splashing Songkran weekend in Bangkok.

Having been to these destinations, there’s no denying that they’re all excellent weekend destinations, albeit a little crowded, especially in the case of Bali.

A little off the beaten track is Phnom Penh; that Cambodian city that’s often overlooked by travellers in favour of Siem Reap (which is also fantastic).

Phnom Penh!

Phnom Penh is one of my favourite cities in the region. It’s excellent for a 3-day weekend visit, and here’s why:

It is cheap. Very cheap.

Think that Bandung is cheap? Phnom Penh is even cheaper. While the use of USD has made Cambodia slightly more expensive for Malaysian travellers, the country is still cheap.

A meal in a good restaurant that wouldn’t seem out of place in Bangsar would cost you around RM10.

Fancy a tipple? A drink at one of the bars overlooking the Tonle Sap costs you as little as RM10.

A tuk-tuk ride that takes you across the town costs you around RM8-10.

A massage? RM30 per hour.

A decent room in Phnom Penh’s legendary Mad Monkey hostel: RM100/night.

Phnom Penh is cheap, and it’s a good place to relax for the weekend. With RM200-300 per day, you get to live like a king there.

The architecture is varied

During the colonial period, Phnom Penh was considered the pearl of French Indochina, which explains the many French-inspired buildings that still dominate the urban landscape in the city’s old downtown area.

Phnom Penh’s main post office

Wide French-style boulevards used to cut across the city centre, but these thoroughfares are no longer “wide” nowadays, as hawkers and haphazardly parked vehicles take up much of the space.

Phnom Penh’s typical streetscape

The central market building, constructed in 1937, is an art deco gem. It was the largest market structure in Asia when first opened. The market is still bustling today, with a large food section selling really cheap street eats (try it out if you are adventurous) and China-made household items and souvenirs.

The food section, Phnom Penh Central Market
Phnom Penh Central Market

Like other Southeast Asian capitals, Phnom Penh also has some very interesting temples and palaces. Luckily, these structures survived the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime.

The Royal Palace

The food is amazing

Yes, Thai food is amazing, but Cambodian food also deserves some credit.

It’s underrated.

In Phnom Penh, you must try amok, which is Cambodia’s de facto national dish. It’s basically a meat dish (beef, chicken, fish or pork), cooked in very creamy light curry. It tastes different; more like a fusion between Thai green curry and our masak lemak.

Amok

Their cooking style is similar with the Malays’, but Cambodians love santan so much that their dishes are most of the times very creamy.

For those seeking halal food, there are also plenty of halal dining options in the city, as Cambodia is also home to a sizeable Muslim community. Many within this community still speak Malay and practice Malay culture and traditions.

Cambodia’s version of masakan kampung

Vietnamese food is also very ubiquitous in the city, so if you fancy some pho in the morning, you’re in for a treat.

If you’re…uhm…into that kind of thing, there’s a number of Happy Pizza joints in Phnom Penh.

There is so much history

Cambodians have this air of gentility and politeness about them. They are also known to be very cultured; it was their ancestors that built Angkor, the city which, during its peak, was the largest urban settlement in the world.

However, their recent history has been marred by tragic events.

The Khmer Rouge regime, upon its takeover of Phnom Penh, began Year Zero – a push to get Cambodians out of the cities back to the countryside.

Thousands of intelligentsias, professionals, businessmen, even teachers, were systematically murdered.

Close to downtown Phnom Penh is the Tuol Seng Memorial Museum – the building was originally a school, and during Khmer Rouge’s era it was used as a prison and torture facility.

I’ve been to Auschwitz, and the feeling I got at Tuol Seng was similar. It’s a gruesome place.

Haunting in every sense of word.

The gate of Hell
It looks peaceful today; a contrast from what it was during the darkest days of Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror

It still feels very local and authentic

Many travellers liken Phnom Penh to Bangkok before the latter became famous.

There’s truth in their claim, because Phnom Penh still feels very local and original. The tourism boom that transformed Siem Reap into a mecca for western traveller has so far eluded Phnom Penh, so expect some really interesting local sights throughout the city.

Monks walking in central Phnom Penh

There are the drags too!

Well, what’s a visit to Phnom Penh without seeing the drag queens perform traditional Cambodian dances…

So yes…

Phnom Penh is only 2 hours away from home, but everything about this place, from the old-school layout of the city to the slow, less-hectic daily pace adopted by its people, feels very different.

The resilience of the Cambodian people, even after some very tragic events in their recent history, is inspiring – and if you’re still not convinced:

A book seller at the riverside

Speak soon,
FH