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Kep Sunset

I’ve always loved to travel, but since I started working in the travel industry in 2008 (and moved abroad in 2009), it’s definitely become something of a focal point in my life. Whereas before a severe fear of flying overrode any yearning to go abroad, once I started traveling for work I found I just had to suck it up and deal.

Living in Singapore – where virtually every trip requires an international flight – we’re obviously spoiled for nearby destinations to visit and I don’t think I’ll ever come close to exhausting the list. That said, I’ve tried to make it a goal to visit at least one new country each year since I started living and working abroad. By my rough estimate, here are the new places I’ve been in the last few years:

2008: Jamaica
2009: Dominican Republic, Australia, Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos
2010: Indonesia, New Zealand
2011: Vietnam, Qatar
2012: Japan, Hong Kong

Traveling to the Bahamas for work in 2008

The ability to travel has been one of the best parts of living abroad, and seriously every day I pinch myself thinking about how lucky I’ve been to travel and visit all of these new places. What’s more, I truly feel blessed that I’ve been able to return to many of them for repeat visits.

This is one reason I can’t wait for 2013, as I already know I’ll be visiting Nepal for the first time to do a trek with my best friend from home, and am also hoping to visit China and Taiwan for the first time with work. Maybe I’ll finally even make it to Malaysia (the one country within driving distance!).

The hubs and I just returned from spending a wonderful Christmas in Bali, and as 2012 wound down I began to take stock of all the amazing places I went during the year. You know it’s been a rad year of travel when you have to go through your calendar to remember all the trips you took. Since I was horrible about writing blog posts about all these various places, I figured now would be a good time to do a catch-up post. So read on for my favorite beaches, top shopping, and hotel reviews…

January: Phnom Penh & Kep, Cambodia for Chinese New Year

Town

Cambodia is one of my favorite countries that I’ve ever visited, and after two trips to Siem Reap I wanted to see more. I particularly wanted to visit the capital of Phnom Penh to take in the important sites of The Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng S21 Prison.

Other than visiting Auschwitz or Hiroshima I can imagine few places that would be more devastating to see. We actually took an early-morning flight from Singapore to Phnom Penh, got picked up at the airport and went straight to the Killing Fields, which was pretty intense. I’d definitely recommend watching the 1984 movie The Killing Fields for background. It’s really hard to succinctly articulate my feelings here, other than to say it’s heartbreaking to think a country’s leaders could kill millions of their own citizens, and it’s a difficult but crucial part of visiting Cambodia and understanding its people.

Skulls gathered at the Killing Fields, where bone fragments are still being discovered.

Skulls gathered at the Killing Fields, where bone fragments are still being discovered

Phnom Penh itself is a cool little city, with lots of restaurants and bars along the river and beautiful side streets filled with buildings constructed during the French colonial period. I particularly loved Street 240, which is lined with boutiques, cafes and galleries.

Sissowath Quay at dusk

Sissowath Quay at dusk

We also enjoyed the Royal Palace, although it kind of felt like Bangkok’s Grand Palace, just on a smaller scale. That said, Cambodia has a very different relationship and opinion of its royals than the Thais. Multiple guides made reference to the fact that their figurehead King is unmarried and was formerly a ballet instructor in France (wink wink). Wikipedia also informs me that he’s the only reigning monarch in the world who can speak Czech, so there you go, interesting guy!

We had dinner at a lovely place called Romdeng based off strong TripAdvisor reviews. It not only occupies one of those gorgeous aforementioned colonial buildings in a garden setting strung with fairy lights, but the food also happens to be delicious. Best of all, it provides training for former street kids.

Stupa at the Killing Fields

Stupa at the Killing Fields

Thanks to a thoughtful gift card from my parents, we stayed at the Raffles Hotel Le Royal Phnom Penh, which was wonderful. It has a great location within walking distance of everything, but is also a bit set back from the craziness of the river. (It also happens to be across the street from the U.S. Embassy, a disappointingly ugly fortress, per usual). Like the two other Raffles I’ve stayed at (in Singapore and Siem Reap) it has a very classic and elegant ambiance, filled with marble and dark wood antique furniture, but never felt old or dated.

Street across from the Raffles, in front of the U.S. Embassy

Street across from the Raffles, in front of the U.S. Embassy

After a very full day and night in Phnom Penh, we took a 3-hour car ride south to the sleepy seaside town of Kep (pictured at the top of this post). We made it just before theĀ New York Times let the secret out, thankfully. Once upon a time Kep was considered the “Riviera of Southeast Asia” (apparently Jackie Kennedy used to hang out there with the King), and it was where French government officials and the Phnom Penh elite would spend their holiday time. It therefore became a chief target when the Khmer Rouge took over in the 70s, and was virtually shut down. The town is still littered with the burned out frames and elaborate front gates of what must have once been gorgeous seaside villas, now overgrown with vines and tall grass. It’s chilling, but also fascinating.

According to the innkeeper where we stayed, the area wasn’t stable until about 2001, but it’s quietly become a somewhat popular stop for backpackers, as it’s in between party spots like Sihanoukville and Phu Quoc, in Vietnam (the border is only about 15km away, and you can actually see Phu Quoc from the shore).

A view of Phu Quoc at sunset

A view of Phu Quoc at sunset

There aren’t any big hotels or resorts, mainly guesthouses and rustic bungalows. Most places don’t have great websites and in practical terms this means it can be tough figuring out what the places will be like, particularly if they only have a few TripAdvisor reviews. We stayed at a place called Villa Romonea, based mostly on a recommendation in Conde Nast Traveler. It was one of the last villas built before the Khmer Rouge took power, and was one of the few that was spared because officials chose to use it as a fish warehouse.

Villa Romonea Pool

Villa Romonea Pool

The seafront setting is amazing – I spent hours reading by the pool and swinging in a hammock – and the breakfasts were delicious (the innkeeper is French and brings in fantastic breads and cheeses from Phnom Penh), but we were kind of disappointed by the accommodation. Our room felt more like a dorm than a hotel room, and the bathroom felt like something out of an apartment built in the early 90s (cheap plastic fixtures, ugly tile, etc.). The room was actually so small I couldn’t get a full shot of it with my camera!

The villa only has 6 rooms and is basically an open house with a communal kitchen, living room and pool area. I think it would be fun to go with a group and rent out the whole place (not to mention we would have preferred a sea-view room to our room, which was basically in the driveway), but for us it was kind of a drag because the other rooms were filled with French families that had 10 kids between them, making it difficult to enjoy quiet time by the pool. If I go back I think I’d like to try one of the low-key eco-lodges instead. Kep is obviously lousy with fantastic sunset views, though it was hard to argue with the one from Villa Romonea’s pool:

Romonea Pool Sunset

And I definitely would love to go back to Kep. The sleepy vibe is amazing, particularly in contrast to Singapore, and the town has outstanding cuisine since it’s famous both for its crabs and the nearby pepper-producing town of Kampot. There were a few low-key bars built on wooden stilts along the water, where locals and visitors mix while enjoying $1 beers or a game of pool.

Toucan Bar near the crab market

Toucan Bar near the crab market

On our last day we came across a bar called Kep Rock Cafe; hilariously they had big screen TVs and a bunch of local expats flocked in to watch the Australian Open on ESPN. I only wish I’d known about this the day before when I made futile attempts to watch the Patriots play in the AFC Championship via Slingbox on the villa Wi-Fi. Pro-tip to anyone wanting to watch sports while in Kep: go to the Kep Rock Cafe!

Boats on the way to Rabbit Island

Boats on the way to Rabbit Island

The town is also abutted by a national park, and next time I’d love to visit nearby Bokor Mountain. We took a day trip out to Rabbit Island, which was ok but kind of overrun with backpackers (I felt so old!), and the beach wasn’t that great. There are $5 bungalows there for those who want a bit of jungle life; just remember that there’s no electricity at night!

Rabbit Island bungalows

Rabbit Island bungalows

From what I’ve gathered there are gorgeous white sand beaches just east of town (and the islands of Koh Rong and Song Saa aren’t too terribly far away, either), but once again Kep is the kind of place where you’ll be happy to just swing in a hammock and look out at the sea.

View of Kep and its mountains from Rabbit Island

View of Kep and its mountains from Rabbit Island

Our trip lasted four days, and I came away as enchanted by Cambodia as ever. The people are so kind and gentle, and the atmosphere (particularly on those somewhat desolate stretches of road between the major towns) seems to at once hint at the country’s troubled past and indicate a fresh burst of optimism for the future. There are mountains, and meadows filled with cows, and schoolkids piled onto bicycles, and countless Buddhist monasteries, and banana trees, and food stalls, and open-air shacks alongside shiny new houses (literally, a lot of houses have gold reflective windows!). Each time I leave Cambodia, I find myself looking forward to the next time I’ll return.

For more info, I recommend checking out the Cambodia section of Travelfish, which is curated by a friend of a friend and features some really unique insights (and lively writing!).

Per usual I’ve written more than I planned. I was initially hoping to cover the months of January-June in this post but clearly that is not going to happen! Next up: Hanoi, Australia and Bangkok.

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