Beach Bums

In the past week I’ve slept in both an igloo and a treehut. Houses are totally overrated.

Happily, I can now say that our first rather sobering visit to Cambodia is far from my mind and after four nights on the beaches around Sihanoukville, I’m beginning a love affair with this once broken yet beautiful country.

From Con Dao island we flew back to Saigon and took a bus to Phnom Penh. The trip is around US$10 and only takes six hours so it’s not too much of a drag. We stayed one night in the city before our journey to Sihanoukville on the Southern coast of Cambodia. *PP tip* if you’re looking for a decent place to stay then I fully recommend Europe guesthouse. They’re a couple bucks more expensive than most (US$17) but the room was actually clean, not a prostitute in sight and the guys who run the place are super friendly and helpful.  They also booked our bus for the next morning and we had a great trip down- in a vehicle with functioning seatbelts no less!

From the Sihanoukville town centre we paid a tuk tuk (way too much) to take us to Otres beach. I haven’t spent any time in the town centre but would suggest you do the same if you’re in the area (try to get the ride there down to US$5). Otres is fantastic. The laidback vibe is infectious and the beach is truly stunning. We were shocked at the amount of litter on the roadside in Cambodia as the Vietnamese are so vigilant with rubbish collection so it was a welcome surprise to be greeted by a spotless beach lined with pine trees, bars with a view and comfy loungers that you don’t need to spend a fortune to lie on.

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The only down side was the number of jellyfish hanging out in the shallows but after a few (ok, many) attempts that ended in us chickening out, we finally made it past the blobs of terror for a dip. On the note of pests, you’ll also find a few ladies offering massages, fruit or bracelets. One even pointed out that she might need to give me a wax under my arms so they’re multi talented…unfortunately they’re also a bit persistent. Just stick to your ‘No thankyou’s and never agree to their suggestion of “later?” as that qualifies as a promise to buy.Still, the harassment level isn’t bad and doesn’t wreck the chilled out vibe. Apparently on the more popular beaches (Serendipity and Victory) you may need to fight people off with a stick.

When staying at Otres, choose Done Right. Seriously they are the business. This is where we stayed in an igloo.

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The igloos (domes) are eco friendly so that means no hot water (which you don’t really need anyway). Luckily they do come with a mosquito net and are super comfortable. At US$15 a night these are totally worth it but if you’re on a budget you can stay in one of the dorms for just $3!

Done Right fully epitomises the feel of Otres and the staff there are a welcoming family of expats from all over the globe. The restaurant/bar is fantastic too. Headed by Sammy (a Swedish chef and part owner of the guest house), the kitchen serves up Khmer favourites along with a wide selection of comfort food for Westerners. Burgers, PB&J sandwiches and proper breakfasts are some of the highlights.

We lucked in and arrived in time for Sunday ‘family dinner’ – a weekly tradition at Done Right. Every Sunday Sammy comes up with a special meal that he personally prepares and everyone who wants to take part then dines together at a long table (there were around 30 of us that night). It was a really special experience that gave us an insight into the expat community at Otres and made it tempting to stay and become part of the furniture! We were served two types of chilli as it was a cook off between Sammy’s traditional Texan style and a Khmer style prepared by Mum, a friendly Khmer lady who helps run the kitchen and the on site tour office. Both were good but Mum totally won.

Later that night the resident musician Michelle played a beautiful acoustic set before most people headed down to the sister bar Blame Canada on the beach front. All guests get a free beer there on arrival and it’s a great spot to spend the day lounging or night drinking.

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Most people use Otres as a base for exploring the nearby islands. Koh Rong is the most popular and developed island which I was keen to check out but after stumbling on a lesser known option that looked good online we decided to take a chance on Koh Ta Kiev. The place we stayed at is called Ten103 (the coordinates of Koh Ta Kiev) and it is simply put, heaven on earth. For US$13 (return) you can take a one hour boat trip out there from Otres and please if you’re in the area DO IT. This place will not disappoint.

Arriving at Ten103 is an experience in itself. There’s nothing to hint that an island resort is there aside from a few huts peeking out from the tropical rainforest that frames the white sand beaches. It’s hard not to feel an instant sense of tranquillity and the longer you stay, the more relaxed you become.

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We were offered the option to go visit the fishing village, trek through the rainforest or kayak but as the owner Joel put it – the most popular option at Ten103 is to do nothing. I was right at home.

There are a few accommodation options available. US$7 will get you a hammock (with mosquito net) under the stars or you can choose between the $20, $25 or $35 per night treehouses. The $25 huts have hammocks and more space than the $20 option and the $35 hut has its own toilet. Joel originally built the one with the private loo (and best view) for himself but after deciding he prefers the hammock lifestyle, now offers it up to guests.

We chose the $20 option and were stoked with it. As a child I always wanted to sleep in my treehut so it was something of a dream come true – aside from the creepy crawlies. We were lucky enough to evade most creatures of the night but others we met received some colourful visitors of the long, green and scaled variety. There was also talk of someone seeing a scorpion but I chose to ignore that. Don’t let that put you off though, it really just adds to the feeling of being in the thick of the jungle! The staff are also very attentive and will happily (seriously, they enjoy it) shoo unwelcome guests away for you.

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The treehuts provide what must be one of the best views in the world to wake up to. All of them are set facing the ocean so as the sun rises, so do you (well, a little later perhaps). With the sounds of the rainforest behind you and the lapping of the waves ahead of you it truly is a unique sensory experience.

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Speaking of senses, taste is one that will be completely satisfied at Ten103. Joel also happens to be a superb chef. The menu may be small but it manages to strike the perfect balance between Khmer classics for those new to Cambodia and Western treats to satisfy long term travellers cravings. Prices may be a little higher than on the mainland but Joel ensures that all his ingredients are sourced fresh from the market each day and the preparation more than makes up for an extra buck here or there.

The culinary highlight is without a doubt the daily dinner special. Each morning Joel decides what he feels like cooking and writes it up on the board. The price is set at around $9 which you quickly realise is an amazing deal when Michelin star quality fare arrives in front of you at 7.30 (the time that each special is served).

Here are a couple of the dinners we were treated to and they tasted as good as they sound.

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Joel is always thinking of ways to improve the resort and the menu is no exception. Apparently a sandwich selection is in the works which is great news after tasting the fresh bread that he prepares daily. We were lucky enough to have leftover pork belly sammies one lunch and it was hands down the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten.

Maybe it’s because the food is so good that time at Ten103 seems to revolve around meal times…or maybe it’s because in between meals you’re typically doing nothing at all. It’s bliss. I finished a book in two days, lounging on the shaded deck covered in comfy cushions (Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby – recommended holiday reading by the way).

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The evenings are spent around the bar yarning and drinking as the sun goes down. The staff there are all great value and have loads of classic stories about life on the island.

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There’s also a great swimming beach about a minute’s walk from the bar/deck area. It’s pretty much guaranteed that you’ll be one of just a handful of people there and you certainly won’t find anyone trying to sell you anything. Virtually every time I went there I was the only one in the water!

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We had an unforgettable experience down there when we went swimming at night. I’m not sure why but when the timing’s right, plankton swim in close to the shore and light up like fireflies as you move through them in the dark. I had one of those ‘wow’ moments thinking how lucky I was to be in such a beautiful and unique part of the world.

There’s also a beach on the other side of the island nicknamed the Naked beach because it literally is just sand and sea. No boats and no people in sight – especially not of the hairy, naked European kind as you’d think the name implies. We didn’t make it out there for a number of reasons a) sheer laziness on day one and two, b) a nasty termite swarm blocking the path on day three and c) bad weather on our final day. The rain was well timed as I think we may never have left otherwise.

It’s not just what’s on the island that makes it special though, it’s also what’s not there that makes the experience that much better. No WIFI, no running water and no power (aside from a few hours at night provided by a generator) = no worries. Even if it’s a cliché, you really do feel away from it all here.

I feel like Koh Ta Kiev has been a really well kept secret that people are slowly starting to spread rumours about. All I can say is believe the rumours and go before the inevitable development ensues. Already a French company has bought the neighbouring island and plans to turn it into a full blown resort complete with casino and all the trimmings. In saying that though, I’ve got no doubt that Joel and his awesome team will still find a way to keep the Ten103 experience unique, relaxing and authentic. It truly is a holiday that will feed your soul – and your belly as it turns out.

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