When we finally hit Cambodia we were pretty keen to wander off the tourist trail. Thailand was awesome (we certainly lived it up for the Half Moon Party on the islands), but it was time to take a step back from the easy travel life and jump into something a little more challenging. Backpacking in Cambodia certainly gave us that, and we loved it! No more easy vegetarian tofu meals or cruisey transit options, it was time to pull up our socks (or fasten our flip-flops) and get back to what we do best! Backpacking!
Stepping into Cambodia kind of felt like we were stepping into Thailand 20 years ago, or maybe even more. This was mostly an observation, but there’s a little comparison to go off as I first backpacked this region in 2006. Even since that time Thailand has steadily continued to develop their tourism trade, while Cambodia feels very much the same as where I last left it.
From the moment we started backpacking in Cambodia we knew it was going to be different. We swapped a friendly train driver for a couple of dodgy transport moguls who literally fought for our business. Seriously, one dude who was trying to undercut his companion learned the hard way with a swift kick in the back and a flurry of punches. The man who eventually secured our business was super friendly and a good guy. On the way back to Siem Reap he stopped past his mother’s roadside food stand so we could purchase some beers, before giving her a quick kiss and taking off again.
We made it to Siem Reap safely, but were immediately confronted with the same one-sided scene that we were trying to escape in Bangkok. The city was dotted with tacky weed pizza shops, seedy bars, and a gritty and slightly depressing nightlife of boozy backpackers and prostitution. Needless to say we enjoyed a couple of nights out with some new friends, but after a while it felt like the hordes of tourists (ourselves included) were squeezing the last drops of life out of whatever local culture was left.
Visiting the ancient city of Angkor was an experience like no other (even better the second time round for me), but it’s obvious the small town of Siem Reap has strictly evolved around the tourism demand. Everyday BUS LOADS of tourists arrive at the scene, ready to wear down the stones and extend their selfie-sticks like they’re going out of fashion. Actually, were they ever in fashion? Regardless, the temples are amazing and should not be missed if you’re around Cambodia! After a couple of days on site we were ready to hit the road. We couldn’t wait to get out into the fresh air of North-eastern Cambodia, surrounded by lush forests and streaming waterfalls.
We found exactly that in the quiet and extremely underrated town of Banlung in the Ratanakiri Province. A $5USD a night private room between the two, with some cheap and easy vegetarian noodles, saw us set up for the good part of a week. We rented a scooter for $6USD a day and explored the nearby waterfalls (Cha Ong Katieng, and Kah Chhang) and small villages. We went all the way out to Veun Sai to find some of the famous indigenous cemeteries, but without a local guide we were out of luck. The countryside was stunning, but unfortunately there’s also a lot of deforestation stripping away the landscapes and natural habitats. Dense fields of trees and shrubbery are being swiftly replaced with rubber and palm oil plantations, which is a real bummer because it’s destroying the local eco-systems and the territory of indigenous inhabitants.
Aside from that disappointing aspect, the countryside is still pretty unique. During the day the harsh sun beats down hard on the parched ground, which kicks up a swirling cloud of red every time a motorbike zooms by. If you go out on the bike for a day wear some old clothes. After a long days ride you come back covered in rich red earth, which is hard to wash out. It’s a pain, but better than being there in the wet season as sludges of mud gather when the rains set in. The days are hot, but you can take refuge at the Yeak Laom Volcanic Lake. A picture perfect backdrop lines the lake from whichever point you look at it. There are plenty of little coves and spots to string up a hammocks and swing lazily in the shade as the sun blares above. For a nice treat pack an afternoon lunch and stick around as the sun sets over the crater.
The small city of Banlung doesn’t have a lot of activities, but that’s not really the reason why you travel there. It’s not a well known spot while backpacking in Cambodia, and only has a handful of nice accommodations and restaurants. Rather, it’s an escape from the monotony of the backpacking trail and it can be exactly what you need to hit the reset button. Even though Siem Reap is fun, everybody needs a break sometimes.