I have very unexpectedly fallen in love with Cambodia, and even more unexpectedly Phnom Penh - the capital that everyone told me to get out of as quickly as possible. For some reason, those are the exact places I am drawn to stay longer in the most - because they often have more to offer than just a bunch of tourist attractions. I think if you stay there for more than a night or two, you'll discover a rich culture and a very local feeling. And so I ended up staying in Phnom Penh for close to two weeks instead of the usual two days, and it was still way to short a time. I could easily imagine myself in the shoes of one of the many expats living and working in the capital. But my view of the city definitely didn't start out like that. Arriving three hours late in Phnom Penh, just as it was getting dark, the very first thing I noticed about the city was how, weirdly, the streets seemed to almost be divided into areas. One street would only have rows and rows of pharmacies, while another would solely consist of furniture shops. That seemed like a very impractical business strategy to me. Anyway, I easily got money out of an ATM (US Dollars) and found a tuk-tuk driver that drove me to Billabong hostel. Here I got a SIM card and checked into my dorm. But by the time I crawled into bed, I noticed that my sheets were dotted in small black stains as well as bigger stains that looked like blood smears. And although I did the usual mattress check for signs of bed bugs and found nothing, those stains were enough to make my whole body itch with the thought and so I asked to be moved. They moved me to another room, where my bed once again had the same stains but no other indicators of bed bugs, and checking the other beds in the room I found they all had the same stain. And surely the whole hostel can't be contaminated by bed bugs without a single mention of it in the online reviews. So I ended up sleeping in the bed for one night (although making sure to separate the clothes I had slept in from everything else, keeping my bag on a table away from the bed and thoroughly showering the next morning before putting clean clothes on - just to be sure). The next morning, even though I had paid for two nights, I packed up my bags (my dirty clothes in my hand) and walked to Sla Botique Hostel.
So far my impression of Phnom Penh wasn't great and there was no obvious beauty in the city and buildings when walking around. I went for an amazing brunch at the Backyard Cafe and then took a Grab tuk-tuk (in Cambodia they don't use Grab bikes) to Ppaws (Phnom Penh Animal Welfare Society), about half an hour away from the main tourist area. I had written to five different shelters some days prior, asking if they needed a volunteer, but by the time I boarded the bus to Cambodia none of them had replied and so my initial plan of staying in Phnom Penh for a while seemed like it might need to be changed. Luckily Ppaws replied just before I reached the border of Cambodia and I once again had a plan.
At Ppaws I was greeted by German-Canadian woman, Regine, who showed me around the cat and dog rescue centre and veterinarian clinic. She and all the local staff were lovely and it turned out they unfortunately very rarely got volunteers that weren't veterinarian students.
I took a tuk-tuk to the central market
and afterwards walked through a mall to explore two different sides of local life. In the evening I walked to the night market and then to a local vegetarian restaurant for a cheap and delicious dinner.
The following morning I took a tuk-tuk to Ppaws for my first day of volunteering and started out by walking sweet dog, Mama.
I then socialised with the cats and took out incredibly gentle Bot for a walk.
He got scared of the loud noises of motorbikes, tuk-tuks and houses being built, though, so we mostly just stayed in the playing area for one-on-one time.
I went to a vegan cafe for lunch and then to the Royale Palace and Silver Pagoda, which was a pretty mediocre experience.
On the way back to the hostel I found a local market and bought vegetables to cook for dinner.
On my 4th day in Phnom Penh I was up and out early and got a tuk-tuk to a much more local part of the city, right by the Russian market and only a 30 min walk from Ppaws, where I had found an Airbnb apartment to rent cheaply - technically I was only renting a room, but my host was coincidentally going on holiday for the entire time I was there, meaning I got the entire apartment to myself. Since India, I have not had my own room and I was really starting to crave just having a space that was completely my own for a little while, so the apartment was the perfect opportunity. I've always been staying at hostels and even at the farm I was either sharing a room with Charlotte, Axel or Will.
And over the next eight days, I fell into a nice kind of rhythm. I was up and out by 8.30 am so I could walk to Ppaws and be there around 9 am, where I would socialise with the cats and usually take out Mama and Bot for a walk and one-on-one time (and sometimes Cooper, who pulled a lot on the leash), until quiet time for the animals at 12. That extra care and attention was something the staff rarely had time for themselves and the animals were always so excited when I came.
I quickly developed a very close relationship with Bot in particular, who always just wanted quiet alone time and lots of petting.
I got to know most of the animals and their personalities over the following days. The cats were extremely affectionate and would always huddle around me as soon as I entered their cage, except for a few of the newer ones who were still scared of humans (but on my final day let me pet them). One of the cats loved to crawl and jump and every morning it would be waiting for me, so it could jump on me (I got quite a lot of scratches). Another cat was always the first to settle in on my lap and a sweet three-legged kitten never got tired of being petted and cuddled.
Regine and the rest of the staff were all lovely and always smiling at me and soon a Swedish veterinarian student, Salvador, arrived at the clinic and we spoke in Swedish and Danish together, which was nice.
I had caught a cold in Ho Chi Minh, though and so I took off Saturday and Sunday to sleep in and get better. On Saturday I walked to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (the former S21-Prison under the Khmer Rouge) and ended up spending almost three hours there, walking through the school-turned-prison-and-torture-centre, listening to an audio guide of the unimaginable horrors that had taken place there only a few decades ago. It was an indescribable place to walk through, but also a very necessary place to visit, and although I was feeling bleak after the visit it gave me a deep respect for how far the country had come in such a short amount of time.
And that respect turned into outright astonishment after my visit to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields on Sunday. The Killing Fields might have been even more indescribable than the prison, as scrab clothing from the victims still laid scattered around the area, and was it not for the unnatural hills and valleys of the plains and horrific stories told through the audioguide, it would have been a peaceful place.
Now, every time I see a Cambodian over the age of 40, I can't help but be amazed at how smiling, happy and open they seem. And I think those people are really the reason why I like Phnom Penh so much - the locals always smiled so kindly and genuinely at me when I walked by. Whenever I walked the dogs in the local area, grandmothers, mothers, children and men of all ages would smile at me. The local children slowly got used to me and asked me if they could pet Mama one day. And by the end of my time at Ppaws they would always greet me when they walked or cycled by me.
Every day I would walk through a local market to get to and from work, which was my favourite part of the walk, despite the smell and sight of rows and rows of raw meat that made me want to throw up most days.
I usually walked by the Russian market for groceries on my way home and then lazed around in the apartment most of the afternoons.
One night I took a tuk-tuk to the city centre to go to a traditional Cambodian dance show, but both places seemed closed for the season and I instead ended up walking through the pouring rain to a vegan restaurant nearby.
On Monday I walked to the independent movie theatre 'the Flicks' for the 25th-anniversary screening of Shawshank Redemption. It was the cosiest place with a tiny theatre, where you could choose whatever bed-like seat you wanted and settle in for $4.
By the time I had my last day at Ppaws on Thursday the 26th, I had tried out basically all the local vegetarian restaurants in the area, as well as a couple of the Western-style coffee shops and cafes.
I knew the local markets by heart and wanted so badly to be able to adopt most of the animals at Ppaws.
I made sure to take Mama and Cooper for an extra-long walk and give Bot lots of alone time. And when I was walking Mama as the last task of the day an Indian woman, who lived on the same street, asked me why I was walking the dogs. We started talking and Suni, who was incredibly kind, and her husband, Walter, from the US, invited me for tea at their house. And so, after having said my goodbyes to Regine and the rest of the staff at Ppaws - who were amazingly sweet and gave me a T-shirt as a thank you for my help - I sat down for tea with Suni and Walter. They are Christian missionaries, who have lived in Phnom Penh for 15 years, and so the conversation quickly turned to religion. Walter gave me a little book that explained how other religions lie to you and then proceeded to teach me about Christianity for about 45 minutes. He even offered me to pray for forgiveness for my sins right there if I wanted (I declined). And although it was definitely a slightly strange afternoon, Suni and Walter were lovely people and it was a very interesting conversation, to say the least. Suni kindly gave me some muffins to enjoy on my walk home and told me to visit them if I ever came to Phnom Penh again.
I then ended up on quite the search for an open printing shop to print my bus and ferry ticket, since the local holidays had just started that day. When I finally turned on to my own street, defeated after going to seven different closed printing shops, I accidentally found an open one that wasn't on Google Maps - typical.
In the evening I went to the incredible vegan cafe Sacred Lotus cafe and ate an amazing Khmer Green Curry while chatting to a nice girl from New York, who is working in Phnom Penh.
It was weird how, just as I was about to leave the city, I was starting to feel settled in there. But I guess that's not the worst feeling to leave with, feeling like the place still has more to offer.
I was up and out early this morning and got a tuk-tuk to the bus station. At 8 am the bus left Phnom Penh and we arrived at 2 pm in Sihanoukville. I relaxed in a coffee shop until my speedboat left the pier a little past 5 pm and arrived on Koh Rong island about an hour later.
We were only three people getting off at Long Set beach and I walked to Reef on the Beach hostel together with one of them and got checked in.
In my dorm, I met an Israeli guy and after chatting a little I decided to go in the water with him and his two friends to see the fluorescent plankton. It was magical standing in waist-deep water in complete darkness and then being lightened up by thousands of tiny dots.
When I got back out of the water I spotted Mariana (a friend I met on the farm in Thailand and had come here to meet up with) and we spent the rest of the evening talking in hammocks.