After the painful 36 hours of flying to the other side of the world, I finally landed in the exotic lands of Southeast Asia. With swollen ankles and tired eyes, the Rustic Pathways groups split apart and were welcomed to Phnom Penh by the ironically named Mr. Thai and a young, shy Khmer man named Sokheng.
After resting for the night in a hotel that exceeded my expectations, the group embarked on the first day of the trip to Rabbit Island. A 3 or so hour drive to the coast, followed by a 20 minute boat ride brought us to the quiet, secluded bungalows and beaches of Rabbit Island. The rooms consisted of a mattress and a mosquito net, and the quietness of the whole scene made for a peaceful break from the developed world.
The couple days following we strolled through the French influenced town of Kampot. Massages from the blind and testing of traditional Khmer foods ensued. Just on the outskirts of town is Cambodia's tallest mountain, Bokor Mountain. We rode in open bed trucks to see the developing resort site, but further along the road was a trip into Cambodia's colonial history with a dilapidated French casino and church.
We returned to Phnom Penh after Kampot and this is where we delved into the dark recent history of Cambodia. We visited the S-21 Genocide Museum and The Killing Fields. We saw second hand the terror of the Khmer Rouge. Although the sites were depressing, seeing the rising skyline of Phnom Penh indicates a bright future for the nation in one of the world's fastest growing regions of the world.
The longest drive of the trip brought the group to Mondulkiri -- a remote town in the mountains of Cambodia. However, along the way our group got a taste of the infamous fried tarantulas -- taste a bit like terriyaki beef jerky, so I recommend taking a sample! In Mondulkiri we rode elephants through the trails viewing the less crowded side of Cambodia, and we enjoyed the tranquility of a riverside lunch and a show of elephants cleaning themselves.
A few days later we made our way to Kratie to see the dwindling population of river dolphins. While there were some hectic scenes of bumper boats, we still witnessed these endangered creatures in their homes in the Mekong.
The next stay of the trip was the most meaningful, we built the foundation of a library for an orphanage in Kampong Cham. We worked and played games with the orphans, and they even showed us their English skills by reading children's books. The orphanage is still developing, and Rustic Pathways has really started something special there!
The grand finale of our trip was in Siem Reap. Here we walked into the ancient temples of the Khmer Empire. While Angkor Wat is the most famous, the surrounding temples are just as awe-inspiring and made a fantastic last visit for the trip. After the temples, Mr. Thai took us on a surprise trip to a waterfall in the mountains surrounding Siem Reap. There were few tourists in the area and the beautiful falls also made a nice swimming hole underneath.
All in all, Cambodia: Off the Map helped make summer 2011 easily the best summer of my life. While the sites and food are fun aspects of the country, the wonderful, kind people make it a truly special place that anyone should try to visit!