My initial thoughts on Cambodia weren’t great if I’m honest. For some reason, it just wasn’t what I was expecting. A more touristy, westernised playground for drinkers and partiers, but I’m getting distracted. You can read my initial thoughts here – First Impressions of Cambodia for Digital Nomads. But the completely different side to Cambodia is what really hit me.

At that point, I had only really been to Siem Reap, Phnom Penh (for 1 night) and Sihanoukville. It turns out, Cambodia really did save the best till last.

Phnom Penh – the capital.

View of Phnom Penh from a roof top bar
View of Phnom Penh from a rooftop bar

I’ve left Phnom Penh out of this article and there is a reason for this. Unplanned As Always #6 will, in fact, be a lightning walk around Phnom Penh. Besides, this is all about a completely different side to Cambodia I discovered.

I’ve enjoyed the capital of Cambodia, but for different reasons. It’s a capital city so you accept the busy, hustle and bustle. You even forgive it for being westernised.

But mainly, it’s because I had some amazing times there. A couple of great nights out and made new friends that I hope to see again for years to come.

It’s the kind of place you could spend a few months in quite easily, and in fact, I’m contemplating doing just that later this year.

Leaving Sihanoukville.

I was happy to leave Sihanoukville, to be honest. For me, there were just far too many westerners with a vacant glaze over their eyes, off their tits for too many years so far. It’s as if they had forgotten all about the lives they had left behind. Maybe that was their plan all along. I was looking for a completely different side to Cambodia, one without people who seemed lost.

You can hear the party music for miles around, no matter where you are staying. From my room, you could still hear the baseline pumping. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good night out from time to time. In fact, I LOVE a good night out from time to time, but, I like to be able to go home and rest. I don’t enjoy being stalked by the party late at night.

Everywhere in Cambodia, you get asked the standard question by Tuk Tuk drivers. It usually follows a certain pattern, as I mentioned in my first article about Cambodia. But here in Sihanoukville, instead of the usual “Tuk Tuk?” or “Tuk Tuk Tomorrow?” question, most of the drivers were skipping straight to “cocaine?”. It was time to look for a completely different side to Cambodia.

One guy, at 10:45 am, came past me, still tripping, all over the shop, dancing in the road. WTF dude?

The place is littered with KTV (Karaoke/brothels) and Chinese/Vietnamese built casinos to feed the addicted gamblers that aren’t satisfied with just karaoke, sex and drugs!

To be honest, the atmosphere just wasn’t what I was looking for, nor what I want at this stage in my life (wow I sound/feel old right now). I don’t know what I was looking for exactly, but I was hoping to discover a completely different side to Cambodia.

So it was time to get out of there and move on.

Otres Beach, 1 and 2.

Sunset dinner for 1 - Otres 2 Beach - Whites Resort Hotel
Sunset dinner for 1 – Otres 2 Beach – Whites Resort Hotel

Otres 1 and Otres 2 beaches are so much nicer than the larger (far too touristy) Sihanoukville.

Otres 1 has a great party feel to it but without the more sordid and dirty side of Sihanoukville. The beach bars and restaurants along the front are great places to sit down, grab some food and some beers, but without having teams of people completely off their face around you.

As I was walking around I saw a sign for a “water park” on the beach. Thinking this was a bit strange, I thought I would find out what it was all about. It’s basically an inflatable jungle gym in the sea. Not quite the water park that I was hoping for, but still, a nice environment to be in.

Everyone seems pretty relaxed, or massively relaxed compared to the makeshift, cheaper, wannabe Magaluf that is Sihanoukville.

Otres Beach 1, Cambodia - Sunset!
Otres Beach 1, Cambodia – Sunset!

Music is playing, not blaring in the bars and that’s something I like now. It’s nice to be able to chat with people when in a bar, rather than have your ears start bleeding.

Otres 2 is even quieter, and to be fair my favourite of the places I’ve visited along this coastline. It has lovely beach restaurants and bars, not as many as Otres 1, but it’s a quiet, clean and great place to be able to chill out for a bit. I was finally starting to discover a completely different side to Cambodia.

You can still grab a drink, eat great food, sit and enjoy the white sand beaches, just with fewer people around and no one acting drunk and disorderly (at least not when I was there).

At this point, I was starting to enjoy Cambodia a lot more. Next, it’s time to go and visit an island.

Koh Ta Kiev – Paradise on earth and NO WiFi!

Kactus Hotel in Koh Ta Kiev
Arriving at Kactus Hotel in Koh Ta Kiev

I went to the Kactus hotel on the recommendation of a friend from Phnom Penh. In fact, it was possibly the BEST recommendation I’ve had on this trip so far. He was going to be there that weekend with a friend of his and I always think a recommendation is backed up when someone actually uses the hotel too.

This place is bliss. There really isn’t a better way to describe it!

No WiFi, no electricity and no phone signal on the island. BLISS!

It’s tropical, it’s beautiful and it’s out of the way. There are only a few resorts on the island and all of them are desert island type resorts, which means, limited electricity run through generators, next to no phone signal in most parts of the island and no wifi. This was the completely different side to Cambodia I’d been looking for so badly.

At Kactus, where I was staying, there were only about 25 people spending the weekend there. What’s nice is when you take away wifi, phones, and general distractions, it turns out people can still be sociable. People talk and interact!

The island is a perfect Digital Detox!

The Bar at Kactus Hotel - Koh Ta Kiev
The Bar at Kactus Hotel – Koh Ta Kiev

What is a Digital Detox? A paradise away from the world, even if it only lasted 3 days for me.

Not being connected to the “real” world is a great way to get some time to yourself, to gather your thoughts and to help you plan out what’s next. Don’t worry, it’s not like you’re lost on an island trying to survive.

The bar had plenty of cold beers and cocktails! This is still important even during a digital detox.

The food was amazing. Seriously, considering you are on an island and resources are limited, they do absolute wonders when it comes to mealtimes.

Each day for lunch and dinner you were given a choice of two dishes. But we’re talking seriously good choices.

Baracuda Steak with Kampot Pepper Sauce in Kactus Koh Ta Kiev
Baracuda Steak with Kampot Pepper Sauce in Kactus Koh Ta Kiev

Whole Red Snapper grilled, Spinach and Cauliflower Pie, Lemongrass soup – that was all just one dinner!

Barracuda steak, with Kampot pepper sauce, steamed leaks and gratin of potatoes with nutmeg, yeah, again, just one dinner. You’re getting the point right?

We’re talking ridiculously good food, on an island that doesn’t have running water.

Well done to the team in Kactus, because that’s really impressive.

No running water?

My Bungalow - Kactus Koh Ta Kiev
My Bungalow – Kactus Koh Ta Kiev

Yes, that’s right no running water. So that means you shower with a bucket. A fun experience, and definitely one that helps you wake up in the morning.

Your days there will be spent eating, drinking, swimming, lounging around in hammocks and best of all, meeting and chatting with great people.

We even had a game of Jenga one evening (with Gin & Tonics of course!)

A completely different side to Cambodia

My friend who recommended the place has become a bit of a regular on the island, to the point where has been 3 times in 6 weeks for the weekend. He’s developed a bit of a routine for the island life, and I thought I would share it with you:

  • 09:30 – Breakfast in the morning.
  • 10:30 – A walk through the rain forest, to the main beach area, where the “day tourists” come in.
  • 12:00 – Back to Kactus in time to order lunch.
  • 12:00-13:00 – Pre-lunch – 3 Gin and Tonics.
  • 13:00 – Lunch.
  • 14:00 – Hammock to read, followed by a siesta.
  • 16:45 – It’s slightly less hot, so down to the beach, chill out and swim.
  • 17:45 – Bucket shower, whilst there is still some daylight.
  • 18:30 – Sunset & Pre Dinner drinks – 4 Gin and Tonics (pre-dinner)
  • 19:00 – Order dinner.
  • 20:00 – Dinner
  • 21:00 – Post-dinner drinks – till you’re tired and want to go to bed!

Now that’s the way to live on an island. We repeated this routine and by the time I left, I felt great!

On Monday morning, it was time to leave the island, and that was hard to do. I could have done with another few days to enjoy the peace and quiet. The relaxing life, eating, drinking and reading (I finished a whole book that weekend).

To Kampot, where the pepper comes from!

The lake in Kampot, on the way to the Pepper Plantations

I didn’t know how famous the area was for pepper until I got there. Other than having tried a Kampot pepper sauce in Kactus, I didn’t know the size or number of the pepper plantations that were actually active in the local area.

Kampot is on the river, it’s about 100km further down the coast than Otres beaches. It’s easy enough to get to. Buses run regularly, or you can simply get a private car if there are a few of you. Cost is about $30 for the car.

It’s quiet and tranquil, unlike any other “mainland” place I had been to so far. There is less traffic, it’s less noisy, it even feels cleaner than all the other places I had been to.

The architecture still has the old colonial french style buildings intermixed with newer buildings that aren’t quite so pretty to look at.

People are laid back, there’s less of a westernised/tourist feel to the place and it just felt nicer.

La Plantation - Pepper Plantation Fields Coverd From Sun
La Plantation – Pepper Plantation Fields Covered From the Sun

One day I rented a scooter to head up to La Plantation, an organic pepper farm where you get to tour and see how they grow, pick and sort the pepper grains.

Considering this is a fairly “new” market, the stats are quite impressive:

“In 2015, the region produced 60 tons of Kampot pepper, of which 70 percent was exported, mostly to the EU, the United States and Japan.”

Pepper growing on the vine - La Plantation Pepper Plantation Kampot
Pepper growing on the vine – La Plantation Pepper Plantation Kampot

Spoiler alert: The red pepper grains are picked first as they ripen, and they are picked by hand, individually. That’s a crazy amount of work.

From there I headed up to Starling Ridge, it’s another plantation, but these guys have added in a resort for people to rent bungalows and spend some time there. It’s about 3 km further along the dirt tracks than La Plantation, but it’s worth the extra bit of travel

The resort goes up the hill, the plantation is the first thing you drive through, then as you snake your way up, you come across the bungalows, different sizes to suit all needs, and eventually, you reach the top of the hill.

WOW! They have an infinity pool, overlooking the whole of the local area, all the way down to the shore. The picture does it more justice than my words ever could.

A completely different side to Cambodia - Infinity Pool Overlooking the pepper plantation
The Infinity Pool at Starling Ridge Pepper Plantation Kampot

Thanks to this, my thoughts on Cambodia changed!

After the hustle and bustle of Siem Reap, with it’s Starbucks, Costa Coffee and even a Hard Rock Cafe, then the party zone, fuelled by alcohol, drugs and gambling of Sihanoukville, I was pleasantly shocked to find these places and it changed everything about my visit to Cambodia.

The next time I come back here, I will skip Siem Reap (other than the temples), Sihanoukville and head straight for Otres, with a view to stay down that way, head to Koh Ta Kiev again and enjoy the hills over Kampot.

Cambodia is a truly beautiful and inspiring country when you know where to look.

Chris Bruno
Chris Bruno

I’m Chris Bruno, Founder and CEO of Social INK, a community-driven, social-first, digital marketing agency. I'm also the host of the All About Digital Marketing podcast. I'm passionate about marketing, travel, food and continual development.

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