Our first land border crossing of our trip took place between Vietnam and Cambodia from the small seaside town of Ha Tien. I’d expected it to be a bit dodgy after reading a few stories about the Cambodian mafia and being charged $1 by every border official you come into contact with, but as with most horror stories I’d read – the reality really wasn’t that bad.
We were collected at 6am from our hotel and taken to a tiny travel agent by minibus along with some other travellers, including a scouse couple who’d been in our dorm in Ho Chi Minh – small world. Here we had to hand over passports, a passport sized photo, vaccination cards and 35 US dollars and had to fill out departure cards and provide information of where we’d be staying. We then re-boarded the minibus, leaving our passports at the office, which nobody was that comfortable with. After a short drive we were ushered off the bus with our bags and were left at the side of the road with no instruction of what to do next. We stood for a while with the scouse couple, not knowing whether to laugh at the situation or not. Thankfully after 15 minutes or so a chap arrived on a moped, waved a stack of passports at us and told us to follow him.
We took seats in a run-down building at the border post while the gentleman sorted paperwork with the border officials, though any time anyone else entered they were given priority so the whole process took forever. Once completed, we walked across the no mans land between Vietnam and Cambodia and began the process again on the Cambodian side. We were all done and stamped into Cambodia by 9.30am, so 3 and a half hours in total from door to door, but I’d heard of other people taking 7 hours so we got off lightly.
Another minibus collected us and we had our first experience of Cambodian travel which consists of cramming as many people as possible into a bus, to the extent that they adapt the vehicles with additional seats that fold down to fill the aisle. I unfortunately ended up on one of these seats but Tom offered to swap so, mid-transit, we climbed over each other and I was able to have a snooze on the 2 hour journey to Sihanoukville.
The minibus stopped in Sihanoukville at another travel agent where we bought boat tickets to the small island of Koh Rong Sanloem and then, remembering that there are no ATMs on the island, we both ran up and down the street trying to find a cash machine. Just typical that on this occasion there were multiple machines that were either switched off, or didn’t accept our travel cards, so as a last resort, I cracked out my credit card for the first time on our travels.
Cambodia use a mixture of US dollars and Cambodian Riel, but most things cost at least $1 so Riel is only used for small change – so now carrying a hefty wad of dollars to last us our time on the island, we climbed back aboard and were dropped off at the ferry crossing with only minutes to spare.
The boat was probably a third full and zipped across the sea at a ridiculous speed. We pulled into a wooden jetty at Saracen Bay, jumped the gap (which seemed like at least a metre at the time) and waited as the boatmen literally threw full size suitcases from the boat to another man on the jetty. I wonder how many times luggage (or the guy on the receiving end) has ended up in the sea.
Walking down the jetty, we both began laughing like crazy people. This place was an absolute paradise; the most incredible white sand and clear turquoise water I’d ever seen in my life. Tom had booked our accommodation for this island and after booking it he informed me it was only accessible via a 45 minute jungle trek over a mountain. I could’ve killed him. With no roads or cars on the island, other backpackers were open mouthed when Tom turned down the offer of taxi boats and instead opted for an additional 45 minute walk along the beach to the start of the trek. Again, I could’ve killed him.
So off we went along the beach in the blazing sun, sinking in the soft sand and sweating like pigs as we passed people lazing in hammocks over the sea, frolicking on swings and sunbathing. After 30 minutes my skin was burning and our bags were hurting us so, soaked in sweat, we took a rest at the beautiful Sara Resort beachfront restaurant where we indulged in a pizza, burger and cold beers. Energy boosted and wishing we could just stay here, we reluctantly donned our rucksacks again and navigated our way to the correct jungle path.
At the jungle entrance it was reassuring to read a sign listing all the dangerous animals we may come across including multiple venomous snakes. If bitten by a snake the instructions were to take a photo of it and slowly walk back to the main beach, keeping your heart rate and blood pressure down, then notify someone to get you a speedboat back to the mainland. Not sure I’d be keeping particularly calm in that situation.
Our trek began with a balancing act over a wooden plank to cross a stream and then a dirt track quickly took us into the dense canopy of the jungle. Before long the path started to climb and became more of a scramble over rocks and tree roots. Note: tree roots look uncannily like snakes! With 15kg on my back and 7kg on my front, and in 30 degree heat and humidity, it very quickly became a struggle and I was panting to get more air into my lungs. I’ve done a few climbs before but this was something else. Continuing onwards the path became steeper and turned into huge boulders and we reached a point where ropes had been tied to the trees to help hoist yourself up. Pausing momentarily to catch our breath and make sure each other was ok, we both agreed to carry on and just get it over with. Things became even more difficult when we reached the brow of the mountain and began the descent… we were now essentially rock climbing downhill and hanging onto the ropes for dear life. There were a few times when I wobbled with the weight of my rucksack and if I hadn’t been hanging onto the rope I would’ve slipped and fallen, probably wiping out Tom in the process.
The sense of relief when we reached the beach at the other side was immense. Soaked through and red in the face, we stumbled into the bar/reception area of our accommodation and were met with congratulations from a number of people and the host. Tom and I both likened the experience to the movie The Beach when Leonardo DiCaprio and his two friends cross the sea and jump from a waterfall to find the secluded paradise – everyone on this side of the island had made that same journey and shared a sense of accomplishment.
Our welcome couldn’t have been lovelier. Our host – a rather hippy, barefoot Austrian lady – led us across the sand to our beachfront cabin and invited us for a free cocktail at the bar once we’d enjoyed a swim to cool off. So we did just that!
I was initially furious that the beach had course yellow sand instead of the fine white we’d seen on the other side of the island, and the sea was quite rough instead of calm and serene, but once I’d got myself out of my sulk I would come to realise this bay was so much more special. There were only around 5 premises in the area, 3 of which looked like they’d closed for the season, so the beach was practically all to ourselves. The sea was choppy and you had to jump through a few breakers but it was crystal clear and so warm. And the cherry on top? It isn’t called Sunset Beach for no reason. That evening we sat on the beach, gin and tonic in hand, and watched as the sky turned orange and the sun dipped below the horizon. The jungle trek was (almost) forgotten.
Our hotel – Sunboo Beach Bungalows – was run by an Austrian couple with a young daughter who’d given up city life to live in paradise. The bungalows were there already but they had built a huge bamboo structure which housed a bar, kitchen, bathrooms and a large seating area. The construction was impressive and it was fun to watch their daughter climb the bamboo like Mowgli.
Our bungalow was very basic with only a bed and shelving unit and an outdoor bathroom with a cold shower, a bit of a step-change from our gorgeous suite in Phu Quoc, but it was ok. It was, however, pretty frustrating that there was no privacy – the glass door and both windows had tiny shreds of fabric for curtains which were neither wide enough or long enough to cover even half of the glass. So, being resourceful, I used gaffa tape (I knew it would come in handy) to hang our towels over the gaps.
There was no WiFi or phone signal so we were pretty cut off from the world (kind of worrying if there was any accident/snake bites etc but we did notice the owner carried a walkie talkie around). There was also no air conditioning and electricity was provided by solar power, so we’d been advised not to spend too much time using the power in our room or there’d be nothing left to run our ceiling fan through the night. So we had dinner in the bar (a pizza and a pork schnitzel) and chilled out playing Scrabble for a few hours.
Returning to our bungalow there was a strange smell and I found several poops of some sort on the floor. With absolutely no idea what had left us these little gifts I cleaned them up and looked around the room nervously. With no sign, we climbed into bed, sealing the mosquito net around us, and attempted to sleep. The room was hot and sticky and the ceiling fan did little to cool us down so, paired with the threat of pooping animals and my obsession with being bitten by mosquitos/bed bugs, I barely slept. (It transpired that the poops came from a family of geckos that were living on the beams of our roof. They were huge and shat like nobody’s business but at least they helped get rid of mozzies and spiders.)
Come morning, I lay awake waiting for Tom to stir and after clearing up yet more poop, we went for breakfast in the bar. Breakfast wasn’t included and as we were on a remote island, prices were preeeetty expensive so we shelled out £11 on bacon and eggs and muesli with yoghurt and fruit – both thankfully delicious.
We spent the day down on the beach sunbathing, reading and swimming in the sea. We borrowed snorkels and goggles from the owners and explored a small reef at the end of the bay, seeing so many colourful tropical fish and chasing after them with our GoPro. Snorkelling actually really stresses me out. I only did it for the first time last year on holiday with Tom’s family (#Hollidaysonholiday) and, though I enjoyed it, the taste of salt water just makes me heave and I feel like I’m going to drown, so I opted for holding my breath instead.
We watched another sunset that evening; not quite as impressive as the previous night’s which must have been annoying for the people from Saracen Bay (let’s call them ‘the others’) who’d made the jungle trek especially for it. Cue internal evil laughter. Harking back to The Beach again – remember when Leo and Robert Carlyle’s character go a little bat shit cray? The owners of our resort said they do actually get ‘island fever’ and have to go back to the mainland every now and then to have a break from it all… think mine might have set in already.
We enjoyed dinner at our resort again – amazing gnocchi bolognese – and I spent the evening writing a blog post and Tom read a book. With the lack of WiFi and the calm jazz music emanating from the bar, Tom said he felt the most relaxed he’d ever felt. It was actually really nice not being on our phones the whole time and we were finally able to switch off from all the crap we’re plugged into via social media etc. What wasn’t nice though was that the power ran out that night so we had the sweatiest sleep ever without a fan.
Following our enjoyment at the lack of WiFi, it was rather annoying then that we needed to access WiFi to arrange our departure from the island, so the next morning we had another amazing breakfast of pancakes, packed a bag, and set off to cross the mountain back to ‘the other side’. The trek was so much easier without our big rucksacks but still pretty tough on the steep sections and we were immediately attacked by mosquitos. We headed for the Sara Resort where we’d had lunch previously and made use of their WiFi to book transport and a hostel for Phnom Penh. Contradictory to our feelings about our side of the island, we decided we didn’t want to have to do the trek early in the morning and get straight onto a boat so I enquired at the Sara Resort for a room and managed to negotiate a price of $26 including breakfast (cheaper than on Booking.com), which wasn’t too dissimilar to what we’d been spending at Sunboo when you factored in food.
Whilst sat in the bar, huge black clouds rolled in and the wind got up. The hotel staff began to lower rain covers and then, to everyone’s amazement, 5 twisters or ‘water spouts’ emerged on the horizon out at sea. We all scrambled to the front of the bar to get a look and the owners (two English guys) said they’d only ever seen them once before and the biggest storm ever followed close behind. Great. Thankfully the twisters dissipated after a while and it didn’t rain for too long so we had a little swim and a relax on the beach before making our way back over the mountain, rewarding ourselves with a beer and a wine on the beach.
That evening, along with 6 or 7 other guests, we were very kindly invited to join the birthday celebrations of the owner with their friends and staff. We were treated to amazing free barbeque food and free drinks all night, including the best frozen margaritas ever. Tom enjoyed these a lot and at around 1am I helped him stumble back to our bungalow in the dark.
Waking to the sound of torrential rain and realising I’d hung my clothes outside to dry, I jumped out of bed to find a river now flowing by our bungalow. I grabbed our clothes from the line but noticed my bikini was chilling in the river, so stepped out into the rain momentarily and retrieved it. Just one second in the rain and I was absolutely soaked through; hair drenched. Tom seemed pretty confused by my appearance when I woke him up and, noticing it was 6am, we tried to go back to sleep, crossing our fingers the rain would ease off.
We packed our things, covered our bags in waterproofs and checked out, tipping $15 for the amazing hospitality the previous night. The rain was still battering down but we couldn’t hang about all day so, saying goodbye to those we’d met in the bar, we braved the mountain. We were immediately up against it… the initial rock climb had been converted into a fully flowing waterfall. Gritting our teeth, we hung onto the ropes for our lives and pulled ourselves up. The rocks were so slippery and you couldn’t see where you were putting your feet so we went carefully. The rain had also brought with it hordes of mosquitos and my legs were covered in them. Trying to bat them off without falling was useless; we got absolutely destroyed and huge red lumps appeared on our legs instantly. As if that wasn’t bad enough, we both jumped out of our skins when the most almighty bang and flash of light came out of nowhere. We were now right in the middle of a thunder storm. Tom said “Are you meant to avoid trees in a thunder storm?”. Hmmm.
Itching like a bitch and amazed to still be alive, we finally arrived at Sara Resort and the owner welcomed us with a free pint of cold draught beer each. The dream! Our bags were carried to our room which was gorgeous – modern décor, clean, a huge comfy bed and no gecko crap. I felt like we were back in civilisation. We cooled off in the sea and then, with the rain still coming down, we showered and chilled in the bar, treating ourselves to some yummy chickens strips as a reward.
That evening we dined at Sara and shared amazing chili nachos, a pizza and profiteroles. So naughty of us! We waited up for our friends Manveer and Jess to get home from work in the UK and enjoyed catching up with them on FaceTime, sharing our near death experience story.
After a breakfast of bacon and eggs we were thrilled to get a free boat transfer from the hotel to the pier meaning we didn’t have to do the 45min walk down the beach (wish we’d blagged one of these when we arrived). The weather was still rubbish which resulted in a vomit worthy sea crossing. The journey took 2 hours as it stopped off at other islands to collect passengers and after managing not to be sick I was so glad to get back onto dry land.
Though our accommodation was basic at Sunboo and the jungle trek to get to it was treacherous to say the least, our stay there was incredible and will probably be one of our stand out moments from our whole trip.
Next stop… Phnom Penh!
See ya later, Sophie x