Rabbits, Rabbit Island, and Paradise in the Gulf of Thailand – From Connemara to Cambodia

If you’ve ever wanted to visit a secluded paradise island….prepare to become very green. Our latest adventure took us to Rabbit Island, just off the coast of Kep in South Western Cambodia.

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We arrived in Kep late the other evening, after a group weekend spent motorbiking, river- cruising, and Mad Monkey-ing it up again, this time in Kampot– I’m one ‘passport’ stamp away from a free t-shirt!!

The next morning, we broke away from the group to spend a few days in Kep, the bus via Kampot leaving The Mad Monkey in true Khmer fashion an entire 45 minutes later than scheduled. We had to get talking to a local American teacher who shared our bus to direct us to our accomodation for the evening, yet as I’ve found since coming out travelling, people are generally so willing to help and show a bit of kindess to those who ask with a smile, and fellow travellers are generally always a safe bet. We’ve also been on the opposite end of this aid, when visitors unfamiliar with an area we have recently travelled have required directions and recommendations, and even local Cambodian people asking for help understanding English translations and signs around us have really just left us feeling quite positive about a lot of day-to-day interactions in the Kampot/Kep area. At the end of the day, I feel if you can help someone else, no matter what the area or nationality, a vast majority of people will go out of their way to do so, and most kindred spirits encountered whilst travelling have also embodied this belief.

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Oasis Guesthouse, Kep

We eventually found our way to The Oasis Guesthouse, a place we’d booked online having had no previous knowledge or recommendations of it, let alone awareness of its facilities. It actually proved not to be too far from
all the main attractions of the small holiday town of Kep – many wealthy Cambodians come here with their families on short vacations from their busy lives in the cities. Sure enough when we eventually found it the beach was full to the brim with young Khmer families, all sitting at intervals along the pathways on thin wooden mats, sharing meals consisting of rice, crabmeat, sugar cane juices and fruits. This huge variety of food is eaten in Cambodia no matter what time of day it is – I still haven’t gotten my head (or stomach) around having rice for breakfast, but it seems to be that anything goes here! I’ve gotten used to the stares at my ghostly white skin by now, the children loving a wave from any Western-skinned person, and always responding to a smile with an even bigger and toothless one (literally everything here contains sugar).

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Kep Beach

True to what the sky had been threatening all day, our arrival was applauded by a downpour of rain, and the bikes available for free from the Oasis Guesthouse we’d taken to explore the town on our first evening getting drenched as we sheltered in a local pop-up night market. It might have been the rain, or it might have been the fact that we were the only Westerners for miles around, but this market was honestly one of the strangest experiences I have had since arriving in Cambodia.

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Pop-up night market
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Rabbits in tutus…?

Everything from pyjamas, to clocks, to sanitary towels and dried bananas, not to mention of course the live mini-rabbits dressed in tutus and on display in an assortment of coloured cages with spindly wheels were available to purchase as casually as you’d stroll into Tesco of a Sunday morning for some milk. Many of the vendors mistook our fascinated pointing and laughing for interest, and I lost count of how many children gleefully waved and laughed as they watched us duck from canopy to canopy to avoid the torrents of water flowing from the roof.

I ended up precuring some free bananas and also a taste of some roasted chestnuts, (delicious) again in a weird out-of-place kind of way reminding me of Christmas. Our cycle home was punctuated by some of the most beautifully odd and silent lightening that seems to accompany the purpling night sky every evening during the end of rainy season here. It was oddly peaceful as we pedalled home through the darkening streets, completely vulnerable yet strangely dominant over our own space upon the road, the only things and belongings we could be sure of resting precariously in the baskets on the front of our bikes.

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Tourist info, Kep!
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Gingers love the shade

Siang the tuk-tuk driver from the day before met us as scheduled outside the guesthouse the following morning, his two young daughters giggling as we re-entered the vehicle and greeted them with a familiar smile – it seems they travel around his work with him during the day, taking travellers and locals alike from A to B. Siang helped us book tickets for the boat out to Rabbit Island, and arranged to pick us up from the same shop as the day before after lunch. This left us with a morning to explore Kep and also to relax on the sands of the first beach I’ve encountered since coming out here!! It was hot and terrifyingly dangerous for gingers (burn potential was seriously high here, and I’m proud of how I managed to avoid it!), but I stayed in the shade and read a book, finally finding a mangostein fruit (out of season) at a stall along the road after weeks of fruitless searching for one in the city (pun entirely intended).

It was as we sat along this low stone wall under the minimal shade available from extremely naked looking trees that a local man enlisted our help understanding a YouTube video of the son of Cambodia’s Prime Minister talking on a TV news station. An Australian interviewer was asking him (in English) about his father’s rule and whether or not he would consider ‘continuing on the mantle’ when his turn came. The man we met had excellent English, far better than many other locals we’ve encountered, yet he informed us he’d learnt it all from the internet, and I found it fascinating to even consider the fact that although he was doing his utmost to make himself aware of his country’s political situation and be knowledgeable of their current affairs, the language barrier presented by the government themselves was preventing the majority of its’ citizens from understanding what their leaders’ incentives are.

Our fascinating conversation was cut short as the tuk-tuk driver pulled up, a gobbledeegook gesture and nodding towards his phone and the tuk tuk supposedly suggesting that Siang had been held up, and that this new driver was to take us to the port. Actually getting used to leaping blindly over the language barrier of communication that is required to successfully secure a seat in a tuk-tuk here, we hopped in and hoped for the best.

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A local lady views her fleet…
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Rabbit Island one side, Vietnam on the other…

As we neared the port for the crossing to Rabbit Island, ‘ferry’ being too strong a word I feel for the long-boats used to cross the 30-minute distance from the mainland, the smell of the sea did it’s salty dance up around us again, and I relished the cool spray of the waves as they jostled between the boats we clambered into. A few minutes’ confusion again as the local ferry drivers laughed and joked amongst themselves, presumably at us – a small group of white people not having a clue what they were saying and yet entrusting them with their lives on fairly old and dodgy-looking wooden boats – and we were off, the small green lump of foliage in the distance slowly becoming greener and larger as our proximity neared. Phu Quoc in Vietnam was visible off to our right, Cambodia behind us, and Rabbit Island up ahead. The Gulf of Thailand expanded off ahead of us between the various chunks of land, and the boat sped ahead, spraying us with fresh salty water and shielding us from the preying and sneaky rays of the sun by providing a cool breeze that would easily fool a rookie ginger under its’ gaze – I’d brought my scarf to cover up just in case this happened!!

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Stepping on to the Island…
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Mystery fish

Stepping off the boat and onto Rabbit Island was honestly one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve been on a secluded island before, Samuka Island in the middle of Lake Victoria, Africa, yet this was something entirely different. All along the narrow strip of beach below the palm trees and in amongst the secluded beachhuts with hammocks stood individual huts and houses on stilts at least a metre or so off the ground. unnamed-90Each wooden dwelling had been carefully constructed plank by plank and thatched daintily from above – as we wandered further down the sands we saw a group of islanders re-thatching an older looking hut, and I was struck by just how delicate and impermanent everything around me was. Each couple of huts was interrupted with a local ‘restaurant’, or kind of makeshift kitchen where noodles, rice, and various fish or fruit-based dishes were being served, along with several Western options. I eagerly ordered a portion of ‘grilled fish’ at one, my fairly legitimate question of ‘what kind of fish?’ falling on deaf and language-barriered Khmer ears as the waiter smiled and shook his head as if it was the most normal response ever– a reaction I’ve become accustomed to receiving on posing any sort of question here.
Accepting that I was about to receive a nameless and mystery plate of seafood, I settled back and took in my surroundings again, several hens clucking around and clearing up the crumbs atop the table next to us.

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Hammocks ❤

Couples on holiday, singletons come to find a bit of respite from the madness of the mainlands, and then the random day-trippers like ourselves were dotted around the sparsely populated beach – although there seemed to be a fair few people around, I would not describe it as being ‘packed’ or ‘touristy’ in any way. It was peaceful, calm, and just…..chilled. I felt more at ease here than I have in weeks. There are huts every 100 metres or so where local Khmer women sit and wait for someone to place themselves in front of them for a massage. There are fresh coconuts ready to drink and eat off the branch. The fish had literally been caught mere few hours before it was served to me. There was no one yelling ‘tuk-tuk??” in our ears every couple of steps. There were no motorbikes. Just pure sand, sun, beach, hammocks……bliss. Nobody comes to Rabbit Island with the intention of anything but to relax, chill, and take in some beautiful beautiful scenery from the Gulf of Thailand whilst doing so.

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I’ve got a loverly bunch of coconuts….diddleedeee

I would happily retire tomorrow from my non-existant job and live happily ever after on Rabbit Island, but our ferry had been booked back to the mainland for 4pm, and we reluctantly picked our way through the discarded coconut shells and sea shells alike to meet our boat driver back at the dock. Clutching a mini can of Angkor beer, he expertly pushed off from the jetty with one hand and steered us back out to sea, the unchanged perfection of the island slowly getting smaller and smaller as the sun lowered closer to the horizon. Time to go back to reality.

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Longboats

Our tuk-tuk driver arranged the tickets for us out to the Island from a local company with an office situated in the main square of Kep, and we travelled Kampot – Kep with Giant Ibis transport. The tuk-tuk man we were lucky enough to get talking to right where the bus had dropped us off – again, it pays to be friendly to the locals and make acquaintences! It saved us a lot of painful negotiation and frustration having a set driver planned!

Oasis Guesthouse is a family-run compound of twenty or so wooden cabins just outside the centre of Kep, situated in a beautiful garden with so much greenery it’s difficult to see between cabins! We never found out what kind of creature walked over our roof several times every night but I remain convinced it was a large ape of some sort – apparantly the surrounding forestry is home to more than just birds!

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Did someone say Damien Dempsey…?? #AlmightyLove

Useful Links:

Oasis Guesthouse Kep
Giant Ibis Transport 

Bokor Biking and Fireflies – From Connemara to Cambodia

Bokor Biking and Fireflies

As I tentatively tugged the right handlebar of the heavy 2-wheeler towards me, I felt a surge of power and heard the grumble of the engine cut through the silence of the morning like the sudden snores of a drunkard sleeping with his mouth open after a particularly heavy night out. It was a feeling of power within my grasp that I’d never quite encountered before, and as I pulled back further and further on the throttle, gradually releasing more and more power and feeling giddy at the speed I was gaining, I couldn’t help but smile.
I’m free!!!
I took ten to fifteen minutes before leaving to circle the grounds of the yard, just to get to grips with the controls, but by the time it came to leave and follow our guide through the narrow streets of Kampot and up toward the shadow of the lonely Bokor Mountain (I couldn’t help but compare it to ‘The Lonely Mountain’ from The Hobbit!) I was raring to go, and more confident than I’d ever thought would be possible for me on such a vehicle.

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Motorbiking up Bokor Mountain

We rented the motorbikes from The Mad Monkey Kampot’s own rental company who, as we learned the hard way, are NOT great at negotiating group prices and /or tour guides. Eventually, after almost an hour discussing prices and trying to keep ‘cool hearts’, we were sorted with our bikes and two ‘guides’. Terrified as I was of losing my balance on the motorbike and causing a pile-up on the narrow and steep uphill climb to the peak of Bokor Mountain, I persevered and was gladly rewarded with a stable confidence after a few minutes of initial terror. We were informed on the way that we’d have to stop and pay for fuel refills ourselves, which we did begrudgingly, yet also got free rice crackers to keep us going on the way. As we drove further and further out of town towards the countryside and the beckoning heights of Bokor Mountain, I actually grew to really enjoy the biking, and made sure to get use of the 24 hours I’d rented it for by taking short trips to and from the shops and breakfast the next morning! It wasn’t for everyone, however, as the prospects of riding a motorbike in Cambodia after witnessing the madness of Phnom Penh understandably put us off somewhat. We managed to get through the entire trip with no major incidents, a massive downpour of rain drenching us to the bone as we passed through a cloud on the way down the mountain being the worst of it, only to emerge just as suddenly to heat and sunshine on the other side which dried us off almost immediately.

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Even The Buddha needs a bit of work sometimes!

Seeing the giant statue on top of the mountain clearly having some work done made me laugh and ironically made me think of how even The Buddha needs some TLC sometimes! I felt balanced and controlled at the summit, and proud of the fact that I’d made it up so far with only a minor burn from the exhaust pipe on my left leg to show as signs of battle.

In Kampot we ate in local restaurants The Rusty Keyhole, Veronica’s, and of course The Mad Monkey’s own yummy bar area at varying intervals. The Rusty Keyhole proved a popular favourite amongst our party, yet also quite small – they had no room for us at dinner, and so we were forced to make a booking for the following morning for breakfast!

On the final evening we all booked a private boat for a sunset tour up the river in Kampot – The ‘Fireflies’ tour which lived up to it’s name as we stopped at several points along the way to observe and catch the fireflies which lit up the shrubbery along the banks in a Christmas-tree like display of twinkling and shimmering. The old man and his son who steered and moored the boat were amazing guides, pointing out and explaining all points of interest and even giving us basic Khmer lessons – my day was MADE to discover that ‘nom’ in Khmer means ‘cake’! I was so thrilled to discover that literally saying ‘nom nom nom’ means ‘cake cake cake’ in Cambodian that I didn’t stop saying it all night!

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River-cruising in Kampot

The good company and beautiful scenery brought a lazy close to a busy day as the sun set behind the Elephant Mountains, the fireflies providing a trail of fairy lights to lead us home. This tranquility and festive atmosphere kind of made me think of home briefly and how everyone will be gearing up for Christmas in the next few weeks, and my mind was filled both with contentment at the proximity of the holidays on my return, and with a strange emptiness that I am not there to experience the build-up this year – often the best part of any major holiday. It only took a blink or two however and a glance around at my present surroundings to shake these thoughts from my head and focus on the amazing opportunities and experiences that are currently within my reach.

We enjoyed good food in Veronica’s, a glass of wine or two drooping the eyelids of weary travellers’ eyes like the slow ebb of a tide not yet sure if it’s on it’s way in or out to shore. It was expensive enough in comparison to some of the local food places, but it was a nice way to mark the end of a fun weekend. There was a pool party in full swing on our return to The Mad Monkey, but I stayed only for one more before calling it a night, if it could be called that with the music playing late into the night….One thing The Mad Monkey is not is being a place for catching up on lost sleep!

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Waterfall – another stop on the Bokor Mountain trail

Tours to the summit of Bokor Mountain in The Elephany Mountains and motorbike rentals are available at various places throughout the village of Kampot, though ours was organised exclusively through The Mad Monkey’s own operators at reception, which was easier seeing as there was a large group of us. It worked out at $6 each per bike, and a further $3.50 for the Fireflies cruise (group rate for a private boat).

The Giant Ibis Bus company to/from Phnom Penh worked out the most affordable form of transport, and worked out at $8 one –way for all passengers. (Most Cambodian bus companies charge extra for ‘foreigners’, but Giant Ibis have regularized all fees, hurrahh for equality!!) Buses leave

Phnom Penh – Kampot: 8:00 a.m, 2:45 p.m.
Kampot – Phnom Penh: 8:30 a.m., 2:45 p.m.

Useful Links:

Mad Monkey Website
Mad Monkey Kampot Facebook
Rusty Keyhole
Veronica’s
Bokor Mountain Tours (With Mad Monkey Kampot)
Fireflies Tour Kampot
Giant Ibis Transport