Falling in love with Cambodia’s coast: Koh Rong and Otres 


Another day, another bus journey gone wrong. Akriti and I been promised an early bus from Phnom Penh in order to get to Sihanoukville to catch the 2pm ferry to Koh rong, but as we were quickly learning Cambodian time is a law unto itself. Everyone will depart an hour later than it’s supposed to and you always need to add two hours on to the projected time (i.e. “The bus will only take four hours” actually means “the bus will take six if you’re lucky”).

We therefore had time to kill in seaside port town Sihanoukville while we waited for our 5pm ferry. The pier area is a bit of a dump, full of construction and tuk tuk tours, but thanks to a recommendation from Merel we killed time at dreamy vegan restaurant Dao. With the vegan fritters, fancy juices and sea views I could almost have been back in Bali. 

Koh Rong 

A fairly painless hour long speed boat ride took us over to the island of Koh Rong. It stopped first at Koh Toch, the busy backpacker part of the beach, and then onto smaller bays around the island. We had elected to stay on the quieter side of the island at Coconut Beach, which was super secluded and away from it all. 

Let me start by explaining that Koh Rong was only discovered by tourism a few years ago. People say it’s like Thailand was 30 years ago and it’s hailed (rightly so) as total paradise. There are no roads on the island yet so the only way around is either by boat or a pretty rough trek through the jungle that inhabits the middle of the island. For this reason, it really is different from anywhere I’ve ever visited – and by far Coconut Beach felt like one of the more remote place I’ve stayed, excepting perhaps the Malawian safari camp I stayed at with my friends a few years ago where we only had each other and elephants for company. There are no shops, just a couple of bungalows dotted in the hillside overlooking the sea, and a couple of small cafe shacks that have now sprung up to serve the tourists that stay there. Needless to say, despite its remoteness, there is of COURSE wi-fi because, I am learning, there is wi-fi absolutely everywhere in the world! Which sort of makes me sad, but also forever grateful to be connected. 

Akriti and I had booked into the aptly named Coconut Beach Bungalows, and it was the best decision we could have made. After our time in Cambodia’s cities we really needed to chill. Coconotbeach is a simply gorgeous, rustic place tucked away at the end of the shoreline. Run by host Robbie and his lovely family, it is honestly the stuff dreams are made of and I my time spent here was one of the absolute highlights of my whole trip. 

When I emailed Robbie my initial enquiry he explained that we could stay in a bungalow, a no frills cabin or a tent on the seafront – with slight trepidation and zero research, we decided to be adventurous and chose a tent. Neither of us actually thought to look at the pictures so both envisioned arriving off the ferry some glorious white glamping yurt. But no, of course this was indeed your regular camping tent but set up off the ground on a wooden platform with a rain/anti mosquito canopy and a mattress, sheet and pillows inside it, so not totally roughing it! You used shared bathroom facilities and had no electricity in the tent, as you’d expect from a proper campsite. It was utterly amazing falling asleep to the sound of waves and waking up and pulling the zipper open to see the sea crashing on the shore through the trees on our first morning. 


The beaches on Koh Rong were probably the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, perhaps with the exception of Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays. They even surpassed the Nusas and Gilis of Bali. The feel of squeaking powdered white sand under your feet, the coconut trees blowing in the breeze and water that was the clearest blue, plus the seclusion and lazy island vibes, make it one of my favourite places I have ever visited. 

Secluded it was, but Robbie and his family were keen to ensure their were comfortable and happy at all times. The food was delicious and served in a gorgeous wooden restaurant at the top of the hill overlooking the sea – with its own well stocked library, much to my delight. At this point we were both sticking to veggie food and it was all really good. I will say that Cambodian food did not blow me away; had it not been sandwiched between Vietnam and Thailand where the food is so amazing and unique, it might have. And I did really enjoy Amok, their traditional coconut milk curry, and some delicious breakfasts at Robbie’s. 

On the Sunday, we spent a lazy day on the beach, lying out in the sun until the sun started to go down – I think my favourite time of day to lie on the beach is that lovely, balmy, hazy late afternoon time when the sun softens and the sky starts to darken. Sigh. At 6, when it got dark, Robbie lit a bonfire and invited all the guests staying there to sit around it and drink beers (and listen to Wonderful Tonight by Eric Clapton which was seemingly played on a loop, they really bloody LOVE that song in Cambodia). We then sent off lanterns into the sky (and made wishes obvs) and watched fireworks. I think the best part of this was the reaction of the Cambodian schoolchildren staying at the camp, who screamed with elation every time a firework went off. 


Later on, Robbie turned off all the lights so there was no light pollution and we went into the sea and swam with bioluminescent plankton! I’ve never done this before and it was absolutely beautiful. We then lay under the most beautiful starry night I have ever seen before having an early night in our tent with only the sound of the sea lulling us to sleep. We both agreed it was probably the most romantic night of our lives, more romantic than we have had with any guy (if anyone is looking for a rustic honeymoon spot this would be a DREAM)! But there is no one one I would rather have spent it with and it honestly was one of my favourite memories of my whole entire trip. 

Koh Toch 

After almost four days of total seclusion and laziness, we decided to head to Koh Toch, the busy backpacker strip of the island – mainly to meet some other travellers and have a few drinks. For meeting people and eating at some good restaurants/finding some decent bars, it was great, but that was about the extent of the charm of Koh Toch for me. The most unappealing part of this small strip of beach is that there is no sewage system, so big blue pipes just spew sewage into the sea – it is honestly such a shame and makes me so sad that such a beautiful beach is being so polluted! We heard stories of travellers getting nasty infections from going in the water there so stayed out of it. If you want to swim in Koh Toch, think again – you’ll need to walk to 4K beach or get a taxi boat to one of the other beaches on the island. 

‘People go to Koh Toch and never leave’ warned one traveller I met in Siem Reap. And it’s true that there is a small expat community of people who seemingly visited the island and never left. While I understand the appeal of living on a tropical island, I have this fascination with this particular type of expat that ends up in places like Koh Toch as the lifestyle I observed many of them living isn’t one that appeals to me in the slightest. I am absolutely not saying everyone does this but from what I see, there’s just a lot of daytime – and night time – drinking, a lot of smoking weed and not a lot else to while away your day doing if you decide to live there. One Australian woman working in a restaurant there served us drunk and proudly told us she’d been drinking all day and gone to work anyway. It just felt like a bit of a bizarre place and we observed that a lot of these Western people seemed a little bit out of it and a little bit lost – but I guess that’s what you get if you visit one of the drinking hot spots of Cambodia? 

Take island “legend” Richie Rich, who heckled us from a bar stool outside his bar to join the “biggest ever Koh Rong pub crawl” on Tuesday night. We were hesitant, and didn’t join it officially, but ended up going along because the strip of bars was so small it’s just where everyone who went out that night ended up anyway. 
Ok, you all know that I can get wild and crazy and let my hair down and many people reading this will have been witness to some outrageous behaviour, but let me say this here now – I am officially over organised pub crawls. I just can’t relax into them. I find the forced fun/big group of people thing utterly overwhelming and the way people behave horrifies me to the point I’ve realised I might just be becoming a proper, boring grown up. There’s a reason most of them are full of young backpackers and at 21 I would have LOVED a lairy pub crawl with a bunch of strangers (in fact I did, does anyone remember Carnage in Cardiff?! Those really were the days). But that side of backpacking isn’t for me. That night, between us we saw three couples doing bits VERY publicly (including two women on a pool tables upstairs, much to the delight of the group of men who had gathered to watch and were behaving like a pack of rabid dogs), one guy we genuinely thought had died because he fell and smacked his head and there was blood everywhere and arghhhh (I really hope he ended up being ok), people vomiting and pissing in the street. Etc etc, you get the picture. 
That said, I’m kind of glad I went believe it or not because we made the best of it, laughing at ourselves and some of the drunk people we met. It’s not partying or having fun or drinking a lot of tequila I object to, I just find the carnage that comes along with these events really disrespectful to local cultures and communities – especially in a town where there are signs saying please don’t wear a bikini in the street and please don’t drink in the street. I KNOW I sound like a boring old kill joy but this blog is for my reflections and these are my reflections on pub crawls. So there you have it. 

My only photo from Koh Toch….

To summarise, I would go back to Koh Rong in a heartbeat but would skip Koh Toch and head straight for Coconut Beach to read books in the sun and drink margaritas at lunch and wake up to waves crashing on the shore. 

Otres Beach 

Situated about 10k West of Sihanoukville, Otres Beach won Akriti and I both over instantly and we both wished we had longer there. 

Let me explain that everything in Cambodia is slightly rough around the edges so this is not a pretty little village – when I had heard that most of the businesses were Western run I think I conjured up a European seaside town in my head. But of course, Otres has got the same dirty dusty roads and random piles of rubbish and cows hanging out in the street and ramshackle buildings that grace the rest of Cambodia. But something about it just charmed us both and the beach itself was beautiful and clean.


The vibes are far more laid back than Koh Toch – there are a lot of expats and older travellers there, it’s very hippy and VERY chilled. Everything just felt nice and slow in Otres, I think it helps that pretty much everywhere on the beach is 420-friendly (I couldn’t possibly comment on whether we made the most of that or not but I was verrrrry relaxed by the end of our stay here). We stayed in a really nice bungalow (Whitemoon Bungalows)  in Otres Village run by a lovely family, but hung out on the beach at Otres 1. Our favourite spot here was an Italian restaurant/beach bar called Papa Pippo where I had my first pasta in four months and it was my favourite – simple, al dente spaghetti with good olive oil, garlic, chilli and black pepper. YUM. 
Is definitely recommend skipping and Sihnoukbille and heading straight for Otres and the islands. 

Reflections on Cambodia 

And just like that, mine and Akriti’s time in Cambodia – and together – was over. We headed back to Phnom Penh together so she could head back to London and I to Thailand. It was really hard for me to say goodbye as not only did we get much closer (inevitable when you’re camping in a tent on the beach in hot season) but with Christmas just around the corner I sort of just wanted to jump on the plane to London with A and see everyone. 


We reflected together a lot on Cambodia so let me summarise. We absolutely loved it. Something about it totally got to me and I think knowing about its history only made me appreciate it more. 

But it is not an easy country to travel; kudos to Akriti for using two weeks of annual leave for what was probably quite a tiring trip, with lots of disjointed and long journeys, mishaps and amusing ‘this could only happen in SE Asia moments’ (for example, the time we waited an hour and a half for our dinner and every time we asked when it might arrive were told with a shrug “maybe soon, maybe later”). Luxuries like hot showers and air con are out of the question on a backpacker budget, in fact after Siem Reap we never had one. AC – and indeed electricity – isn’t a given everywhere. Unlike Bali and Thailand it is a proper developing country. 

When people scoff at Cambodia for being dirty or poor or boring I would urge them to consider why. We would have agreed that, unlike its slap-you-in-the-face-with-culture neighbours Vietnam and Thailand, Cambodia is sort of lacking an identity, as well as some of the dramatic scenery . It feels like a country that doesn’t quite know itself and is catching up with itself. Of course it is. When you look at what happened here, you understand why that is and forgive it those things and appreciate it for what it is. You look a little deeper. You notice things like there aren’t many old people in Cambodia – because most of them were killed. You find yourself looking at the people you meet and wondering how they were affected. You forgive it its poverty and, in a non patronising way, you are amazed at the way it has done such a brilliant job at recovering just forty years on and building a tourist industry which is growing year on year. 

You see the beauty in its temples and its stunning, relatively undiscovered islands and its warm people and you love it for those things. I would never discourage anyone a visit and, if you missed it on a SE Asia trip you’d be doing yourself and a recovering country a massive disservice. 

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Cambodia’s cities, ancient temples and a sad history 


It’s generally very easy to travel overland to Cambodia from Vietnam but because I was going to Siem Reap in the North, not Phnom Penh which is closer to the border, I decided to fly (on a vehicle which resembled a tin toy plane with propellers).

My journey from Ho Chi Minh to Siem Reap almost went without a hitch, but on arrival at the airport I was told that even though I was told by my agent my already very expensive flight included luggage, it didn’t. I had to fork out £55 in excess baggage fees even after putting on as many items of my clothing as I could manage and waddling through security like the Michelin man – £55 doesn’t seem like a lot but for the budget conscious backpacker, it is! 

Bad budgeting 

At this point I’ll admit my budget was getting seriously tight; after three months of virtually doing what I wanted I was having to watch every penny I spent. I’ve tried really hard to budget carefully for this trip but made a crucial error in not budgeting any contingency/emergency money or researching inter country travel and visa costs and including them in my budget – so after a couple of hospital visits, only one of which I was able to claim back on insurance minus significant excess, funds were running low. Luckily, I only had three and a half weeks left – and I now fully accept that I am going to be flat broke for the first two months of 2018. Hurrah! But hey, I tell myself any initial hardship when I get back will have been totally worth every experience I’ve forked out for on this trip. 

Initial reflections on Siem Reap 

Money woes aside, I arrived in Siem Reap to a gorgeous sunny day. Now before I get going on my opinions, I wanted to explain that of all the travellers I’ve met Cambodia is the place that has divided the most opinion. Some people flat out hated it, others labelled it boring and others absolutely loved it. I was intrigued to see this country that no one could seem to reach a common ground on. 

As we rattled through the streets of Siem Reap on a tuk tuk, I liked what I saw. A small, bustling city with lots of colour and life. Many were surprised I would be spending 5 days in Siem Reap, as most come in and out just to see Angkor Wat and in all honesty there’s not much else to do there besides the market. But as I’ve iterated in previous blog posts,I really like to base myself somewhere. Vietnam had been a whirlwind and I’d been on the go every 3 days so 5 days in one place appealed, and I decided to go there and wait for Akriti, my friend from home who was joining me for a couple of weeks. I really really liked Siem Reap – it was a great place to wander, eat, drink and chill and the locals were so kind and friendly.  

It helped that I stayed in the best hostel of my whole entire travels while in Siem Reap, Lub D. While Captain Coconuts was the most aesthetically pleasing to date, Lub D just had everything a backpacker could possibly need to not just be comfortable but feel like you’re really living the high life. After my Vietnam accommodation, I really needed it. The dorm beds were huge and even he top bunks have their own little stairway (not, thank god, a bloody ladder) with a curtain and charging point, light etc. The bathrooms were clean and had hot water and washing machines so you could do your own laundry. There was a travel desk to help with booking tours and bus tickets on to other parts of the country. It wasn’t a party hostel at all but there were loads of social events on that you could take part in – night market visits, pub crawls, cycling to the local village. The restaurant was amazing – I was delighted to find Bircher muesli on offer for breakfast. There was a huge pool area with sunbeds and great music where it was super easy to meet other travellers. 


I quickly met Michelle, from Scotland and Sarah and James, an Irish couple, who it was great to while away the day chatting and comparing travel stories with. Hi guys!  Michelle and I had an amazing dinner at a restaurant called L’Annexe, which was proper French cuisine. I had my first glass of red wine in months and months and it was wonderful. The French food in Siem Reap is truly fantastic. 

I also met up with lovely Rita, who I had met on my Halong Bay cruise, for dinner at a great Cambodian restaurant called Try Me. It was lovely catching up! 
A UK Visitor! 

Akriti got in touch back in November and said she had some holiday to use and was thinking of travelling to Cambodia in December and would our dates match up. I knew she was a pro at backpacking and would have no qualms about roughing it, spending entire days on buses and taking a more adventurous approach to travel (necessary in Cambodia) while also being one of the most chilled out people I’ve met, so it was an absolute no brainer to meet up and, as you’ll read, we had the best time ever together. I miss you A! 

She arrived late afternoon on the 6th and I was ELATED to see her. I love meeting new people but it was so nice to be with one of my own, someone who gets me and will be quiet with me and also doesn’t mind if I have a total emotional breakdown about losing my flip flops then find them under my bag. Akriti’s luggage had been left behind in Bangkok but luckily the airline and hostel cooperated to get it to us that evening. She was pretty exhausted after 20 hours of travel, and we had to be up at 4am to visit Angkor Wat so we chilled at the hostel and went to bed early (not before a mammoth catch up). 


Akriti and I work together at a charity in London, so naturally spent our first few hours talking about work and because I always need to know everything about everything I asked a million questions, but we decided after that to put a ban on intense work chat as neither of us particularly wanted to focus on it. But let’s say I’m feeling more than prepared and positive about my return to the office!

Angkor Wat

Let’s talk temples. I’m a huge fan. There’s something so beautiful, calming and spiritual and awe-inducing about a good temple. Many travellers you meet in Asia talk of being templed out, and I have felt the same at times, but was so so excited to see Angkor Wat (which for some reason I can’t say without going Angkor WHAT?! Lols). I’d been waiting for years and years to make it there and it really didn’t disappoint. 


We booked a tuk tuk driver for about $16USD for the day (everything in Cambodia is paid for in US dollars), and then an additional $37 for entry to the temple site. Many people take a three day pass as its impossible to see all the temples in one day, and you can actually cycle around rather than use a tuk tuk if you have the time or inclination. We only had a day, so got a tuk tuk and chose the route with the main attractions on it – Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Phrom (the tomb raider temple, probs my favourite). 
We were up at 4am to make the sunrise at Angkor Wat. It was truly truly beautiful and worth the early start to see the sun slowly rising above the silhouette of the temple, with the orange and pink hue tinged sky reflecting in the water. However there’s no denying that the huge volume of crowds, which we were of course part of, jostling, waving their cameras around in your face and in front of the view do at times detract from the beauty. Below is the side you don’t see on Instagram! 

After sunrise was finished, we wandered around Angkor Wat. It truly is beautiful. The temple complex is the largest of its kind in the world, and dates back to the 12th century, and is now a UNESCO World Herotage Site. we stopped off at numerous temples, some small and others more majestic, including beautiful Bayon, which is richly decorated and the official state temple, and Ta Phrom, now best known for it’s starring role in Tomb Raider. It was my favourite by a mile, I found it so atmospheric and beautiful with the towering trees climbing out of ruins. 


If anyone is planning to visit Angkor Wat I recommend our driver Mr Seng (google Mr Seng Siem Reap and you’ll find him). He was really sweet and helpful. He isn’t a tour guide but as we were on a budget we were happy to just do our own thing wandering around the temples. The whole site is just really beautiful and leafy and a great place to spend a day – or several! 
A night on Pub St

After a power nap at our hotel, we headed out for the evening in Siem Reap. The town is buzzing at night because of the market and token boozy backpacker street – aptly named Pub Street. We ate Amok for dinner (Cambodian curry, similar to Thai but doesn’t pack quite the same punch), shopped for souvenirs, then went for a 2 dollar foot massage at a street massage shop – the foot bit was most pleasant but at the end they turned us over and started cracking our backs and pummelling our shoulders which is ALWAYS fun in full view of an entire street. Akriti’s massage was most definitely done by a very dolled up lady boy. I’m not insinuating that every lady boy is a prostitute, but There’s definitely some obvious sex tourism present in Cambodia – though not quite the same level as Thailand, I can see it going that way. 

Then we hit the booze. We were both ready to meet some other like minded backpackers and have fun, and I imagined it being a similar vibe to Hanoi’s beer street. How wrong we were! 

We had a GREAT night because we were together and laughed about everything, but Pub St on a Wednesday attracted some real characters. From the old Indian guy who approached Akriti and asked how much she charged for a night (the outrage!!!), to the 7ft tall South American giant who literally threw me around the dance floor to Despacito against my will (I love Despacito more than life but I have my own set of carefully crafted moves that don’t involve your overactive hips or crotch thank you very much mate), to the weird starey men who just sat on bar stools and bore holes into the back of our heads for hours, then felt it appropriate to whisper in our ears that they’d been watching us, it was all just a bit TOO weird. 

Nevertheless, we were out til 3am with our new friend Ria, a young girl from Mumbai who was taking full advantage of being away from home and her conservative upbringing for the first time by chain smoking and drinking margaritas, which of course in the name of personal development we supported. We woke up the next day with sore heads, which was ideal when we had a 6 hour bus journey to Cambodia’s capital, Phnomh Penh. 

Phnom Penh 

Neither of us were looking forward to Phnom Penh. All I’d heard from everyone I had met was that it was an unpleasant, unsafe city. So many people I know had bad encounters there – bags ripped or cut off them, mobiles snatched, knifepoint robbings and women being harassed on the street. We were both nervous about visiting but we’re glad to be together and staying in a well rated hostel in an ok part of the city. We were uber sensible and locked everything we could manage in our safe in the room – we didn’t take phones or purses or bags out with us at all. I simply did the old money in the bra trick. And we felt absolutely fine and had absolutely no hassle – so i guess we were lucky but being sensible helped. 

The reason tourists visit is that it’s a gateway to the genocide museums and memorials which we felt we had to see to really gain a true understanding of Cambodia, and I think any traveller considering bypassing it should re think. Keep your wits about you and you will be fine, it would be a crime to visit Cambodia and not visit these sites and learn its history in my opinion.

Our day started badly when our bus left without us. For the first time on this whole trip, I lost my shit at someone. It’s funny how when you really tell someone off you shock yourself SLASH realise you really sound like your mother when she was bollocking you for bunking off school when you were 17/being mean to your sisters/turning up to work at her restaurant drunk that one time. 

I’d just had enough of general SE Asian indifference when things go wrong and her non bothered shrug and ‘you just go tomorrow, is no problem’ made me see red. IT BLOODY WELL IS A PROBLEM, I AM A PAYING CUSTOMER I heard myself bellow AND I WILL BE ON A BUS TO PHNOM PENH TODAY AND YOU WILL MAKE IT HAPPEN. 

My rant had absolutely ZERO effect and she did nothing to help us but luckily the guy at our hostel was not indifferent, he was mortified, and managed to get us a last minute spot on a new bus. Alas this was not the big air conditioned coach with reclining seats wifi and air con we had initially booked, but we were piled into the back of a tiny mini bus with no leg room. At least it did the job and got us there – we finally arrived in Phnom Penh late that night, shattered and both regretting our alcohol consumption the previous evening. 

The Killing Fields and S21

It’s hard for me to find the words to write about what I saw and heard here. It doesn’t feel appropriate to describe it in detail, simply because it was so awful, so raw, so unimaginable and so horrific. I didn’t take a single picture. 

But I want to ask anyone reading this – did you know what happened here in the 70s? Because I had a vague idea but absolutely NO idea of the level of devastation Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime inflicted. I’d ask all of you to read up on what happened and understand how awful and defining it was for this small, humble country. Please see here: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-10684399 

 The Killing Fields were the Cambodian genocide’s equivalent of concentration camps, while S21 was a school turned war prison where innocent civilians were taken, tortured and killed for ABSOLUTELY NO VALID REASON. Two of the things that could get you imprisoned or murdered, for example, were wearing glasses or having an education. It’s unthinkable. These dictators, specifically Pol Pot and his maddened ideology, are utterly unthinkable. 

A quarter of the entire population (2 million of 8 million) of this country was killed between 1975 and 1979. And this happened just 40 years ago! It wasn’t reported in Western media because the West, of course, had no fucking interest in it because it didn’t involve oil or land or money or anything they could claim from getting involved. It was also largely overshadowed by the Vietnam war and closed borders made accurate reporting difficult in any case. 

In S21, I found myself standing in one spot for a long time, staring into the eyes of a young Cambodian man on his mug shot picture on the wall, in the room he was found tortured and dead in after the coup when the prison was abandoned, with tears uncontrollably running down my face. I really don’t know why, and appreciate this may sound a bit weird, but the only words that came to my mind were ‘I see you’, over and over again. Probably because there is so much sadness and desperation in their eyes, but no one saw it. No one saw them as people. No one cared and they were treated like sub humans – but they were people, individuals, with lives and loves and families. And they died needlessly. 

This visit and the trip to the museum in Saigon have brought up a lot of emotion for me about war and conflict and hate in the world, that I will be honest and say I’m really struggling to process. I find it difficult to accept that the world hasn’t learned lessons from awful conflicts past and that innocent lives are still being lost in war. I’m getting upset even writing this and remembering what we saw in Cambodia, and I feel it’s best to leave it there, but please do read up on the history of this country, especially if you plan to visit. For Akriti and I, it gave so much context to the country we saw (more on that in my next post). 

Leaving the city 

After an emotional and sobering day, we decided to go for dinner at a ‘nice’ restaurant. Oskar’s, a super sleek, beautiful, modern bar near our hostel, was literally the most random place we could have ever found in amidst dirty, polluted, developing Phnom Penh and I said to Akriti that I felt like we were having post work drinks in central London. 

We drank good wine and ate amazing tapas style food surrounded by well dressed Westerners – men in suits and women in heels. I felt like a bit of a tit in my Havainas and beach dress to be honest. There must be an expat side to Phnom Penh, but again the clientele appeared to largely be Russian, I’m not sure if there is a large Russian expat community in Phnom Penh like there was in Mui ne… answers on a postcard?! 

And that was our time in Cambodia’s cities over. The next day we headed, with great relief, to the paradise island of Koh Rong. 

Hidden beaches in Uluwatu – and farewell to Bali 

Before I left, I really wanted to get to the Southern tip of Bali, where the most beautiful (and famous beaches) lie. So, Ness and I headed from Ubud to Uluwatu, where we spent a couple of nights staying in a sweet little guesthouse on the hilltop above Padang Padang beach. 


Uluwatu beaches 

Uluwatu is best known for its surf and views.The beaches are by far superior to those in Canggu and Seminyak, which despite their great sunsets, are long stretches of greyish sand and fairly unremarkable water. If you want unspoiled white sand, clear blue water and hidden coves framed by dramatic cliffs (that really reminded me of Mediterranean beaches), head down South pronto. We visited and loved Padang Padang beach, but it’s pretty popular so was busier than our favourite beach Suluban Beach, right under the infamous Single Fin beach bar. You descend what feels like a million rocky steps then access the beach through a slightly hidden and narrow cave (I would like to say I handled this with grace and pragmatism but we all know that’s not true, and Ness had to deal with a fair bit of huffing and puffing from yours truly along the way😂). This and the sudden sweeping arrival of the tide can make it a tricky one to arrive to and leave so it’s not as popular or busy (yet). There are no facilities or luxuries like umbrellas and loungers but it is by far the most beautiful, peaceful and interesting beach in the area and there are still women selling ice boxes of Bintang and grilled corn, what more do you need? 


Fittingly that evening, as I neared the end of my time in Bali, I saw the most beautiful sunset I’ve seen in my life above Uluwatu following a couple of sundowner g&ts at Sigle Fin. The pink and orange sky quite literally blew me away. Sigh. By the way, I can see why Single Fin is so popular. The drinks are good, the atmosphere is great and the views are unreal. I never made it to their legendary Sunday party but from what I saw it’d be a lot of fun. 


A comment on the Uluwatu area generally is that it’s a bit of an odd set up. There’s no real main town or village, it’s just spread along a really long stretch of road where every 500m or so you’ll find a couple of cafes. Public transport is pretty hard to come by so you really need a scooter if you’re there for a while to see it properly – ness and I managed to get a taxi and walk most places as neither of us felt confident navigating the steep roads on a bike but it’s just not that easy to do either of these things. We found some great spots for for food and drink along these roads that being said – including Padang Padang breeze for a Balinese fresh fish BBQ, trendy smoothie bowls, bacon eggs and avocado and dream coffee at Suki Espresso. 

After Uluwatu we had a quick pit stop in Seminyak. I actually didn’t mind it, the shopping was great and the spas were cheap and cheerful. I think its bad rep is slightly unfair and it still retains some Balinese charm.
Farewell to Bali 

After Ness left –  and I lay on my bed crying for two hours – I spent some time in Ubud (all covered on my previous post) and then begrudgingly left Bali in the middle of the night on Monday 6th. 

I feel like I’ve summarised pretty well in my posts while I loved my time in the small part of Indonesia I travelled but, mainly for my benefit, here’s a reminder.

The people 

People in Indonesia are open, kind and warm. They aren’t all out to get something out of you and make money (though of course some are). They believe in karma and treat people as they would want to be treated and this shows in everything they do. They are eager to practice English and will talk the hind legs off you, and they are always, always smiling. The people I met there made my heart want to burst – my driver friend Putu for your honest, kind advice and checking in on me every now and then, Edy in Lombok for taking me into your home, showing me your life and singing to Bob Marley with me on repeat, Irwan in Gili T for your incredible hospitality and looking out for me and looking after me when I was at my lowest point, the pineapple seller who saw my burn, abandoned her wares and went in search of aloe leaf to break and gently help me dress it with (NO PHARMACY, JUST ALOE, she insisted), Made the carpenter from Ubud who believed I would be the next prime minister because I had ‘such a big brain for a woman’ (LOL) and gave me a tiny Buddha from his wood carving shop for free simply because I spent an hour talking to him. I will always, always remember you all in my heart. 


Of course there were my fellow travellers too – I can’t possibly name you all but thank you thank you thank you for sharing your time, advice and experiences with me. Before I came away I genuinely worried that I would not meet anyone on this trip I would gel with but I was proven so very wrong. I truly hope we meet again! 


The scenery 

The sweeping mountains and dense green jungle of Lombok, the endless green rice terraces and dramatic waterfalls of central Bali, the white sand beaches of the Gilis, the breathtaking blue lagoon of Lembongan, the sunsets of Canggu and Uluwatu. I have a whole new appreciation of nature thanks to things I have seen. 


The food  

Ok, there were times when I’d had enough of ride and noodles and banana pancakes but the food in Indonesia is next level. In six weeks I didn’t eat anything I didn’t enjoy. I am in love with sambal and want to eat it with everything. Beef rendang, Nasi and Mie Goreng, crispy suckling pig and piles of steamed Bok Choy, seafood to die for – plus of course all of the amazing trendy health food on offer. And Bintang. I will always love Bintang! 



The ease of travel 

It’s so easy to travel Bali – get a number of a driver and they’ll always be happy to ferry you around for a modest fee. 

That being said, I found the taxi system slightly confusing. There are app based taxi services in Bali. Grab and Uber are abailable but actually illegal and I was never sure if should be using them – in Ubud and Uluwatu there are huge signs saying NO GRAB NO UBER. Bluebird app is cheaper than using private drivers but even they aren’t available or allowed everywhere (despite being the legal taxi firm!). 


The way it made me feel 

There were definite downs but Bali was mostly full of the highest highs. Being alone away from my familiar life and the people in it is not easy for me, neither is not having a routine or a plan. In Bali I started to realise that it’s ok not to have a plan and that things don’t fall apart when you go with the flow. It has been eye opening and wonderful to know that it’s possible and that I can actually even do a trip like this, finding happiness in such simple things. Towards the end of my trip to Bali I found this wonderful sense of calm, contentment and life free from worry which really meant a lot to me, as these are not emotions I often experience at home, and made it especially difficult to leave. 



What next 

I wish I could say I was full of excitement when I boarded my first flight for Vietnam but to be honest, I had a total wobble during my journey over via Kuala Lumpur. I had really really loved Bali, as you can tell, and at that point, felt so rested and so content that I just wanted to go home full of those emotions. I wasn’t prepared for a fresh wave of culture shock and had been warned that Vietnam is a more challenging place to travel (mainly because of its size and the sheer amount to do and see) and that a non box ticker like me might find it difficult to adjust to after slow paced Bali. 

During this wobble, I texted Julia from the airport: ‘Ok, would it really be so bad if I just ended my trip here, came home now and spent the next two months on your sofa cuddling Daisy?’ (Daisy is the dog and her face is so cute it makes me cry). ‘You can’t do that. Off you pop to Vietnam Muhr,’ she replied. And so off I went.

A sense of belonging in Ubud (part one)

This is the first of two posts dedicated to my time in Ubud, which I totally adored.


But first, a weekend in Canggu 

Back on the mainland, I first spent a weekend in Canggu. This time I stayed in a dream, bed bug free hostel that was basically a luxury villa. The guy who owns Waterborn jacked in his corporate life to run a hostel in Bali and he seriously has it down a T – it’s beautiful, clean and oh so comfortable. 

Waterborn Hostel

In Canggu I spent my days lazing by the pool and went back to Serenity for a yoga class, feeling a little rusty after not having done any yoga since Lombok. I met Radana, a friend from home in Bali with her boyfriend on holiday, for a dreamy lunch at the Lawn. It was pricey by backpacker standards but they did amazing frozen rose cocktails and had dream beach views. 


I also met some really wonderful people at Waterborn (hiiii Hanna and Lisa 😘) the same kinds of kindred spirit travellers I had met at Captain Coconuts, and had some GREAT dinners and drinks (I covered Canggu food in a previous post but check out Echo Beach fish barbecue and, if you’re dying for a “real” coffee like I was, get yourself to trendy café Crate).


I also got up at 5am one morning to watch the sunrise and it was spectacular, just us and local fisherman (and a couple of keen morning runners) on the beach. 


Being back in Canggu felt super chilled and staying at Waterborn felt like such a luxury. I could quite happily have spent the entire final fortnight of my trip there  but Ubud was waiting!

Initial impressions of Ubud 

I deliberately saved Ubud til last because I had a feeling I’d fall in love with it. Not only is it Eat Pray Love brought to life, but everything about it that I’d read appealed. Set amidst the lush jungle, with waterfalls and rice terraces and countryside cookery schools and coffee plantations only a 10 minutes drive away, and a busy, buzzy centre packed with art galleries and craft shops and yoga schools and spas and amazing restaurants – it sounded like utter perfection.

Putu, my very first Bali driver, picked me up from Canggu and took me to Ubud. I’m going to be honest and say that my heart sank a little when we first drove into Ubud and I was confronted with crazy busy roads, traffic and what seemed to be endless crowds of people. Momentarily, it felt like the magic I had conjured up in my own mind was nowhere to be seen. This can’t be it, I reasoned to myself. And luckily, I was right. 

Yes, Ubud is busy and yes, tourists visit in their throngs (and I am proudly one of them; it always amuses me when backpackers begrudge a place for being touristy when there is clearly a reason they have visited that very place). That scene in Eat Pray Love where Julia Roberts cycles along a deserted, leafy, pedestrianised street to Wayan’s shop? Not sure where it was filmed but it sure as hell wasn’t central Ubud. Ubud’s centre is full of vertical, busy roads with a lot of traffic and a lot of people and a LOT of taxi touts – “TAXI” shouts one man, “no thank you” I sweetly reply, “TAXI” shouts the man sitting next to him as if his cry of taxi would somehow appeal more, “no thankyou” I reply, “TAXI” cries the man a metre further a long… and so the saga continues, everywhere you walk).

 But you know what, once I had gotten used to dodging mopeds and rebutting taxi offers, none of this actually bothered me in the end. Hello, this is Asia – and if I can’t handle Ubud then I sure as hell won’t be able to handle Hanoi. What I quickly learned is that tranquility is everywhere in Ubud. You only need to step away down a side street or through an ornate doorway and you will find temple enclosures, beautiful peaceful gardens and fountains with trickling water. You could spend an entire afternoon peacefully browsing in one of Bali’s art galleries or bookshops – and sometimes, I did. Walk ten minutes along the main road and you will find yourself in peaceful rice paddies as far as the eye can see, with not so much the beep of a moped horn. Incense and offerings are at every turn and while I was there, the Hindu festival and public holiday Galungan was celebrated so ornate decorations adorned the streets, making even the busiest of roads beautiful. 


So, you see where this is going. Within 48 hours I had fallen head over heels for Ubud, and that’s why I stayed there the best part of two weeks.

NB: I did a lot of stuff in in Ubud and have a lot to say, a lot of recommendations and a lot of reflections, so I’m going to split this into two posts. First I’ll cover off where I stayed and what I ate , then I’ll cover off the amazing things i got up to in post two. 

My digs 

I stayed in three different places in Ubud.

Inn Between Hostel

I generally liked this place because Jenn was staying there and I met a couple of cool down to earth Brits. It was really well located and situated down a lovely tree lined path – it had a pretty traditional Balinese exterior, pool and a banana pancake breakfast from the renowned Mama’s Warung was a mere 20,000IDR (£1.20). The room itself was the cheapest I stayed in in Bali, at the equivalent of only £5 a night. However, while the room was clean, it was cramped and the bathroom was damp and smelly. I found myself feeling a bit hostelled out in Ubud, I think sometimes the introvert in me just wants to be alone – fully alone – and that can be difficult in a tiny room. I also find not being able to unpack even some of my things a bit of a pain in the arse. But while I didn’t fully love my stay, I’d certain recommend staying here overall for budget central Ubud accommodation with a pool.

Uma Capung Mas Villa and Cottages
Ness, one of my oldest and best friends in the whole world now living in Brisbane, came out to see me for 5 days and it was amazing (more on that next post). We ventured out of town in search of more tranquil accommodation and stayed in the beautiful Uma Capung Mas Villa – we felt like the only people staying there and most days had the huge infinity pool overlooking jungle trees to ourselves. Wayan, our host, was an absolute delight. Our room, at £27 a night, was spacious and clean but the highlight was breakfast on the terrace overlooking the rice paddies (and drinking an Aussie red wine that Ness kindly brought over me overlooking the same view at sunset)! 

Bale Bali House 

I spent my last three days here and it was utterly delightful. My favourite type of Balinese accommodation is the traditional homestay, I just love seeing families going about their daily lives. This one was so so pretty, and as previously it was a luxury having my own room and bathroom and little terrace area even if it was at the steeper end of my budget (£14 a night). It was only 5/10 minutes walk from my two favourite Ubud streets Jl Hanoman and Jl Gootama (GREAT name).  

Food in Ubud 

Ok, I don’t even know where to start with this because food in Ubud is utterly brilliant. I’ve tried to narrow it down to my favourites:

Cafes 

Clear Cafe has to be seen to be believed. It is utterly beautiful. I totally fell in love with it and ate there a few times for brunch, always spending hours and hours there – their Buddha Bowl with grilled veg avocado and tofu and their jamu juice was excellent.

Cafe Pomegranate and Sari Organic are both bohemian cafes a short wander off the main road and through the rice fields – Ness introduced me to them as she’d been with her family in May. We only had drinks and nibbles at the former and a cup of excellent Balinese tea at the latter but it’s worth going for the views and tranquility (and lack of wifi!) alone. 

Warungs 

Ubud has no shortage of really good, cheap warungs and traditional restaurants. Mamas Warung do great pork belly and rice (and if you’re lucky you get to meet the delightful Mama herself!), while I sampled my cheapest and most delicious Mie Goreng for 20,000 at Don Biu Warung. Try Hongalia for amazing home made egg noodle and dumpling soup and the popular restaurant Bebek Bengil, where you must order their world famous a crispy roast duck, steamed rice, vegetables and sambal. I’m going to be controversial and say I’ve has better duck in Chinatown in London but it’s still totally worth a visit.

Restaurants (and an Eat Pray Love encounter) 

Jenn and I were craving a pizza so went to Buonasera on Jl Gootama. The pizzas were REALLY good – think huge woodfired pizzas piled high with speck, salty ricotta and rocket – but what really made the visit was the company. We met Pedro at Buonasera, a Brazilian (we guessed in his sixties) who had been travelling for 40 years for his import export trade. He was the most fascinatingly interesting man I think I’ve ever met. We talked about how Ubud had changed since Eat Pray Love, although he hasn’t read the book or watched the film, he said. ‘I was shocked when Jose first said it was him in the movie’ he remarked flippantly. Woah woah woah, Jose is the real name of Felipe, THE Brazilian who helps Liz keep her balance in Bali at the end of the book. Turns out Pedro and Jose/Felipe were old friends, mainly from being in the same trade and being part of the same expat community in Ubud. I tried to keep it cool but naturally ended up grilling him and loved how totally nonplussed and non braggy he was – almost bemused by my fascination and interest. 
Other higher priced, more western eateries I enjoyed I visited with my friend Lisa from Canggu were ambient eatery Kismet, who had a huge cocktail menu, and Watercress, where we ate insane tuna sashimi. I thoroughly recommend both but neither are for the budget traveler! 

Next on the blog: a cookery course, a dream spa day and an unexpected naked man…!

A tale of two islands, part two – Gili Trawangan

The final leg of my Bali and Lombok island hopping adventure took me a short trip across the sea from Gili Air to Gili Trawangan. The biggest of the archipelago of three Gilis, Gili T has made a name for itself as the livelier island and the place backpackers go to party (over the course of my 5 days there I saw a very beautiful island that is far from ‘just a party island’, more on that later).


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