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

Home Is Where The Hostel Is – From Connemara to Cambodia

‘To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the most pleasant sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure” – Freya Stark

It’s funny sometimes how it takes longer than anticipated to truly feel at ease in a new place. I’ve come to the conclusion that some places simply may never feel like home – the school floor upon which we slept in Uganda, for example, or the layover area of Helsinki airport.
But really, when it comes down to it, what even is home? We adapt to our present situations, and continue to beat onwards regardless of what came before or what is coming next. Right now I am here, and I have finally begun to adjust to the fact that Cambodia is currently my temporary home, and boy is life here more difficult than I had expected!

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Local children wave as they see us pass..

It may sound extreme, but I honestly believe that the past two weeks have been some of the most testing of my life, with as many ups and downs as there are staircases to climb to each lesson and each floor within our new schools and homes (that’s a lot!). At first, I didn’t know whether or not I’d stick it. Hell, I still change my mind every couple of hours, and from what I’ve heard from the other interns, many of their stories are similar. In general though, things have finally, finally reached a kind of level enough field where we can live within our means and support ourselves to some extent within this crazy country. For me anyway I think it took longer than I expected for the initial buzz of travelling and being in a new place, with new people, completely alone and self-sufficient to wear off, and I hadn’t honestly taken much of the teaching element of things into consideration.

 Luckily I have a bit of teaching experience to stand behind me, and so I wasn’t relying too much on things to be organised for me – I work well on my feet, ‘winging it’ and adapting to unpredictable situations having been a large part of my previous work (grá mo chroí Coláiste Lurgan!!). This is where the main problem lies in Cambodia and with the LoveTEFL programme in particular – the teachers and schools here really had no idea what to expect from us, nor us them. This combination led to several extremely frustrating days of half-teaching, half-observing, being thrown into teacherless classes with no prior knowledge of what had been taught, nor what level of understanding the kids had of English – trial and error was literally the only method we could have used, the mistakes we made seeming even more humiliating due to our total ignorance to even the way the schooldays were laid out, and what the children see when they looked to us – we are only the second pair of Western interns to ever work at this particular branch of NYIS (New York International School).

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Our humble Cambodian kitchenette

Our school accomodation and wifi situation has (thankfully) finally been remedied somewhat, and we’ve rearranged our limited kitchen appliances to form a kind of kitchenette area, using some of the tables and chairs from the classrooms as a base. This now means that we can at least stock up our own fridge and prepare some meals at home, although these are still limited to foods that are either microwavable or toastable. Eating out was acceptable for the first week or so, but I feel if we are to truly adapt to living in this city instead of being tourists and properly settle in, it’s simply not sustainable! (Not to mention it being expensive). I don’t think the LoveTEFL organisation took into consideration that some of us are on quite tight travel budgets, and cannot afford to be eating out as regularly as seems to be required – the lack of basic appliances for cooking is testament to this. Also, the fact that there was minimal access to internet until this week was extremely frustrating, especially given the fact we are expected to be planning lessons during the evenings – it just didn’t make sense!

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Chandelier in a tuk tuk

All things aside, overall it seems to have finally taken a turn for the better, or at least levelled out somewhat, the actual teaching element of the programme for me proving actually kind of enjoyable and rewarding when the kids respond and succeed in class. I’ve taught one class the same story in three different accents, and both they and their teachers seem hugely appreciative of the exposure to different pronunciations and intonations of words! Sometimes I think we forget that even our presence here in the schools for the Khmer children is effective in their learning. For them to be exposed to other cultures, languages, and identities is as important as it is for them to be attending school in the first place. It opens their eyes to the world and presents them with knowledge they might use to help themselves in the future, language being the key to any sort of communication, be it on an academic, emotional, or spiritual level.

What it was for us as kids to walk down the street – our countries being far more multicultural and multi-denominational in population, is similar now to what we are providing by our presence in the schools, many of them functioning on extremely limited resources and funding.
I don’t want to speak too soon or jinx things, but I am finally feeling somewhat more at ease here, and useful during the schoolday!

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Lovely Jubbly Villa Hostel

 Our weekend was spent in the Lovely Jubbly Villa hostel in Phnom Penh, a quieter and more relaxed spot than the Mad Monkey of last weekend, although we did go out anyway for Halloween and watch the Rugby World Cup final in the Aussie XL bar not too far away. On Saturday myself and one of the other interns booked a tour with Nature Cambodia to visit The Killing Fields Tuol Sleng Genocide museum, and see the surrounding villages via quad bike – something I’ll admit I was really excited to try!

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Quad Biking with Nature Cambodia
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Orange, Green and Blue

It was a good mix of a serious versus fun afternoon, as the sombre content of The Killing Fields was made up for by the exhilaration of the orange dirt tracks our guide Johnny took us around on the quad bikes. At one point it felt like freedom was the orange, blue and green hues that surrounded us on all angles, and we returned to our tuk-tuks feeling like we’d gotten our money’s worth. It’s worth mentioning here that this tour was extremely well organised, and from each pickup, drop off and switch over to another element of the tour it flowed seamlessly – one of the first times since arriving to Cambodia that something has actually seemed to work out without a hitch!

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Main Memorial Building at The Killing Fields in Choeung Ek museum – over 8,000 people lost their lives in this small area

It was sobering to think of the tragedies which occurred at Choeung Ek, but I feel it was a necessary insight into the country’s history which left us more aware and appreciative of the successes of the country today, and how far it has come to escape the Khmer Rouge regime.

We made our way back to the hostel, ready to leave the haunting images of the fields behind and sample the yummy food and drinks menus that really added to the Lovely Jubbly experience, along with the pool, with the prices proving a lot more affordable than those at the Mad Monkey. We even started to find our way around the city a bit as we made our way on foot to and from several places – something that I myself had been hesitant to try until then. Next weekend we’ve booked a stay at the sister branch of the Mad Monkey in Kampot which is a couple of hours outside the city –a break from Phnom Penh that I personally am really looking forward to!

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This is so unlike me

Til’ then….keep on tuk-tuk’in!

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View of the sun setting over Phnom Penh from the roof of our school

Useful links

Lovely Jubbly Hostel Website / Facebook / Trip Advisor
Nature Cambodia Website
Tso Sleung Museum on Trip Advisor
Aussie XL Bar Website / Facebook / Twitter
The Mad Monkey Hostel / Facebook / Twitter / Trip Advisor
LoveTEFL Internships 

Koh Dach Moments, Cambodian Yoga, and the Mad Monkey Hostel

When travelling with a group, it is always easy for arguments to arise regarding preferred activities or ways to spend a free weekend. After a busy first week working in a Phnom Penh, our TEFL group however, seemed to all be on the same page when it came to organising some downtime.

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Koh Dach Island

After a group dinner at a local BBQ restaurant, we were shepharded on to Dusk til’ Dawn, or the Rooftop Reggae Bar Phnom Penh  as it’s more commonly known– exactly what it says on the tin, and a phnomenal way (pun intended) to really relax for the first time together and experience great music, views, and our first taste of the nightlife of the city. Curfews at 9pm during the week don’t exactly allow for more than a rebellious tipple on the riverside before racing back to accomodation before the security guards fall asleep, but I feel this restriction allows us to make the most of the weekends, and in a way this week it feels like we’re actually settling into a (somewhat) normal working routine.

The delicious cocktails at the Reggae Bar were exactly what was needed by all after a tough week, and after a bit of chatting and dancing we proceeded to hop the nearest                            tuk-tuk to check in to our accomodation for the next 3 nights.

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The Mad Monkey hostel in Phnom Penh is one of the primary spots in the city for backpackers, with honestly probably the cleanest shower facilities and tastiest restaurant menu I’ve seen since arriving in Asia. Shared dorms, every nationality imaginable wandering around the reception area and rec room, and likeminded working-travellers just chilling for the weekend, it really allowed us to feel like we were finally taking a break and allowed us to revert to ‘traveller-mode’ again.

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Mad Monkey Hostel Phnom Penh

The popularity and widespread reputation of the Mad Monkey for Western backpackers and travellers such as ourselves really showed as I ran into a girl I know from college back home in Ireland whilst trying to find my way up the windy and confusing staircases one night. The rooms are very strangely laid out, but it’s fun trying to find each one if you don’t mind a bit of trial-and-error – and the artwork around the walls is brilliant to look at too if you do get lost!

There are nightly beer-olympic style games in the ‘Rooftop Sunset Bar’, and plenty of other bars, nightclubs, and Western-style restaurants around within walking and tuk-tuk distance that also appealed to us. I was particularly excited to see the Costa Coffee, and directly opposite it stood a large branch of Domino’s Pizza!

The staff were excellent, the menus were yummy and nicely varied (albeit slightly pricey), and the rooms were spotless, well-cleaned and spacious. We were particularly happy when they didn’t seem to mind us hanging around in the resturant area for hours on the Sunday, I’m sure they’ll be sick of seeing our faces before the end of our stay in Cambodia!

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The ‘Healthy Monkey’ fruit & granola option : )

Only a 5 minute walk up the road from the Mad Monkey, I was thrilled to find the Nataraj Yoga Hub Cambodia, where I attended classes both mornings of our stay. Both the Ashtanga and the Regular Flow classes I attended were great,  and the open-terraced balcony looked out over a beautiful courtyard garden.

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I didn’t mind paying the rather pricey drop-in rate of $9 in order to get a proper class or two in though – self- practice is great, but difficult to accommodate regularly whilst travelling and staying in shared lodgings.

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Koh Dach Island

Our Saturday was spent cycling the length of Koh Dach Island, or ‘The Silk Island’ as it is known to the locals. This beautiful, quiet and picturesque length of land was exactly the break we needed from the madness of both the city of Phnom Penh and the backpackers’ hostel, and we were treated to a visit to the house and workshop of a local lady who showed us exactly how she wove and made the silk products, one long scarf she told us taking ‘three to five days’ to complete. The ferry out from Phnom Penh port cost a mere 500 Riel, (the equivalent of $0.25), and it took us smoothly over the Mekong River to dock silently at the other side, alongside a haul of dusty motorbikes and one or two old cars which drove straight off the boat and onwards to their island destinations as soon as we thumped gently into the bank.

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Silk weaving on Mekong Island

We rented bikes for $2.50 for the day from Phnom Penh Bicycle, which meant we had the island to ourselves to explore. I’d definitely recommend the bike rather than the motorbikes – much quieter, more peaceful, and really helps you feel like part of the island as you pedal forwards over the barely-used dust tracks and pathways.

It was so tranquil and relaxing to traverse the dust tracks and wave at the excited local children who saw us as we passed, the palm trees, strange bone-thin cows and local vendors giving us a true insight into what life here is really like. As we continued on and found ourselves immersed in beautiful countryside, greenery and blue skies, I really had several glorious moments of smiling peacefully and thinking;

‘This is why we travel’.

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After a long afternoon we stopped for refreshment at a French Hotel/Pizza place  where the fresh stonebaked veggie pizza was honestly the most deliciously mouth-watering thing I have ever tasted! Rooms there go for $70 dollars a night between 6-7 people, which we worked out would cost us about $12-$15 each to share for a weekend. Definitely returning here some weekend soon, because it was literally paradise on earth – and there was a pool!!

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Useful Links:
Dusk Til’ Dawn on Facebook
The Mad Monkey Website 
The Mad Monkey on Facebook