Archive for March, 2012

Bangkok: stepdoor to South East Asia (15.12.11 & 15-17.01.12)

As Bangkok is one of Asia’s main hubs, we have been there several times during our trip to Asia. The 15th of December, after travelling from Ko Phi Phi by night train, we visited Bangkok during the day before taking the night train again to Chiang Mai.

Wat Pho temple

To be honest, the first time in Bangkok we felt quite overwhelmed because of the size of the city, but also because of the heat, which made sightseeing quite strenuous. Besides, we were quite sceptical since during our first visit to the city, a woman tried to rip us off at the Hualampong station (the main train station in Bangkok). Be careful with the women from the “official tourist information office”, they all want to bring you to their agencies!

We spent our first full day in Bangkok sending the first of several packages home (by the way, Bangkok is definitely the cheapest and most reliable place to send a package in the whole Asia), visiting Chinatown from the public bus (the thing that most impressed us from Bangkok’s Chinatown was amount of jewellery shops, all full of Chinese people buying gold!), and the area of Khao San Road and Bangkok’s old town.

We had a good lunch at a local restaurant in Khao San Road, including some delicious Thai smoothies and after lunch, while Iván walked around and looked at the shops, I went to the hair dresser for the first time since I left Europe. The experience was quite nice because the woman who washed and cut my hair was really nice and she even gave me a head and shoulders massage for free!!

Sonso having a hair cut in Khao San Road area

In the afternoon, we visited Wat Pho, the temple which is home to the famous Reclining Buddha, one of the most famed sights of Bangkok. This serene golden Buddha is really huge (46 meters long by 15 meters high) and it is located in a beautiful complex of temples with colourful green, red and yellow small glass decorations. The best part of it all, in our opinion, are the Buddha feet, which apart of being also of colossal size (3 meters high!), are decorated with different images of Buddhist symbols made with pearl incrustations.

The big Reclining Buddha in Wat Pho temple

The feet of the Reclining Buddha are definitely a highlight

After Wat Pho, we had only time enough to get to the train station for our second night train in a row. But we did not leave with sadness, as we knew that we would come back to Bangkok in a month…

Second visit to Bangkok

After spending a month in Laos and Cambodia, we came back to Bangkok the morning of the 15th of January in order to meet our friends Alicia and Gonzalo, whom will join us for our next destination: Myanmar.

We travelled through the night from Siem Reap (in Cambodia), to Bangkok. Despite all the reports about touts, problems at the border, etc, that we had read and heard, the trip was really smooth and we did not have any problem. At the border, the officials stamped our passports and we got onto a ban on the other side. Once in Bangkok, it helped that we had already been in town, since we were able to tell the driver of the ban where we wanted to be dropped off.

We were really excited to meet Ali and Gonzalo. It is not only that they are really good friends, but also, they were the first close friends whom we had met since we left home, more than two months back.

We had agreed on meeting directly in the guesthouse, and according to the plan, Ali and Gonzalo would arrive very early in the morning and they will wait for us there. When we opened the outer door of the small guesthouse, the first thing we saw was Gonzalo!! We were so excited!! Meeting really close friends whom you have not seen for a while in a completely different country is a really cool experience! We run towards him and started hugging-jumping the three of us together. Ali looked through the window and said hello and in a minute we were also greeting her on the cosy courtyard of the guesthouse.

It was really hot and humid in Bangkok (actually, the hottest so far for us), and after a shower we all went to have some fresh smoothies and some food.

Our guesthouse, called Bangkok House Guesthouse, which I had found on the internet, was located in a real Thai neighbourhood and we all really liked it. It was less than 5 minutes from Khao San Road, but far enough to be quiet during the night, something that you appreciate after a few months in Asia.

Our lovely little guesthouse in Bangkok

Once in Khao San Road, we introduced to Ali and Gonzalo the tasty Thai fruit shakes, and they also loved them!! Then we went to have some food, such as spring rolls, papaya salad, green curry and fried (Chinese) vegetables in oyster sauce.

After lunch, we wanted to do some sightseeing and just for the fun of it, we wanted to try a tuk-tuk ride all together. We were already familiar with tuk-tuks, as we had taken them in many Asian countries during our trip, but for Ali and Gonzalo it was a new experience and they wanted to ride one. We negotiated a very cheap deal with one of the drivers and we were having so much fun, that we did not notice that we were been victims of a typical rip off until it was too late. The tuk-tuk driver said that he would drive to a tailor shop first, and that we just had to pretend that we wanted to buy something there. Then they would give him some coupons that he could exchange for gasoline and he would take us to our destination. Of course that was not true. When we arrived to the tailor shop, the staff there looked like a real mafia, and of course we did not look like potential buyers at all. Gonzalo was nice enough to even try a suit, and Alicia and I could not help start laughing very loud as he looked very comical. The boss (or should I say “capo”) of the shop did not think that it was funny at all, and nearly kicked us out of the shop. The tuk-tuk driver was not happy either and he said that we had not tried enough. His intention was bringing us to one tailor shop after another until we eventually bought something or got tired and left. However, we realized that the whole thing was a rip off and left there. For us it was just an anecdote and we even had fun, but for people with limited time during their holidays, I can imagine that it can ruin their day. So be aware, this is a very typical rip off in Bangkok!

When the tuk-tuk left, we did not really know where we were, and it took a while to get oriented. But luckily, we were not so far from Khao San Road, so we could easily walk “home”. On our way, we found a temple with attached food stalls and we spent a while walking around and buying some snacks, all of them beautifully prepared and delicious as Thai food always is!

Thai women cooking Thai pancakes

Once in Khao San Road, and after buying some breakfast for the day after in a supermarket, Ali, Gonzalo and I went to get a feet massage, while Iván decided to go back to the hotel, as he was really tired.

We found a nice looking place to get our massage done. We had already spotted in the afternoon and we really liked the place! It was located on a parallel street to Khao San Road and the massages were given directly on the street, so you could enjoy the massage and still see the life passing through your eyes. Besides, the people getting the massages there seemed all quite happy and relaxed. And best of all, an hour long massage cost only 300 bath (around 6-7 euro)! Ali, Gonzalo and I got a nice masseur each who seat us next to each other on a reclining chair on the street. They first washed our feet in warm water and aromatic herbs and then proceed to start the massage. Well, the whole experience was amazing and we really liked it and enjoyed it! Ali could not stop smiling and saying that the massage was going to be one of the highlights of their trip! To top it all, the three of us had delicious “pad-thai” from a street vendor, before we headed to the hotel, as the day after was going to be tough.

The 16th of January we all had a goal: getting our visas to Myanmar from the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok. In order to be in the embassy before they opened and to start queuing, we woke up quite early and took a ferry to go South of the city.

We really enjoyed the ferry ride and specially the sound of the whistle of the boat attendant, which resembled classical music, every time the ferry approached a stop.

We managed to get to the Myanmar Embassy without getting lost, but there were already many people queuing when we get there (approx. at 8 a.m.), which discouraged us a little. Ali and I went to a photocopy shop nearby, which helps with proceeding all the necessary papers for the visa before the embassy opens, and we got everything ready in less than 10 minutes. All what was left was waiting. When they opened the embassy, we waited our turn to get a number, an then we waited again to deliver all the documents. After only a couple of hours in total, we succeeded in our “Burmese Mission”, our visas applications were accepted and we would just have to wait until 3 p.m. to pick them up.

While we waited, we decided to go to Siam Square, the commercial district of Bangkok, which we had not visited yet. Well, since Alicia, Gonzalo and I are not fun of big shopping malls, we did not like the area so much, but Iván enjoyed them like a baby (Spanish saying) and we went for a walk in the neighbouring university area instead.

Colorful taxis around Siam Square area

After picking up our Myanmar visas (including extra queuing and waiting), we were ready to try one of the highlights of the day: going up to an open-air rooftop cocktail bar in a skyscraper! This is something which none of us had tried and we were really excited. However, until last minute we did not know if it would be possible because our clothes were not the right ones (apparently, there is an strict dress code to go to these bars). However, Gonzalo and Iván could borrow black pants and shoes from the hotel’s reception and for Ali and for me it was ok to come as we were. So, cool! We took the elevator and we went up to the 61st floor!!!!!!!!

The place was called Vertigo and there was not much doubt why!! It was an incredibly open roof with a 360 view with nearly no fence, handrail or whatsoever!! The view was stunning and the whole city spread to our feet. We got ourselves some drinks which, although they were expensive made an even more wonderful stay. We enjoyed a sunset like very few we had seen before.

Views of Bangkok from the rooftop bar

After this, and when we where replaced at the bar by the Tai “high class” we headed to China town. This is definitely one of to places to visit in the city and probably one the liveliest. Indeed, by the time we were there the Chinese New Year celebration went on and the whole neighbourhood was highly decorated with all kind of reddish hangings and colourful lights that made a delightful atmosphere. As in any other Chinese location everything is pretty much related to food so we decided to try one of the specialties in the area, the curry crab. And wo!! It was good!! We had a wonderful dinner and a perfect end for such an intense day in Bangok.

Bangkok's Chinatown by night

And that was basically our two stays in Bangkok. In the next post we will talk about Myanmar and how to almost lose your flight and survived the stress! I still do not believe we made it!!!

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Cambodian food

As it is almost a tradition now, here is a post about the food in Cambodia: get ready to get hungry!

Our first introduction to Cambodian food was the food that we had in Kratie during the first two days. Among other things, we tried the Cambodian beer, Angkor, that was not that great compared with the national drink in the neighbour country (Beerlao); vegetable spring rolls and “pate” baguette (pate is some kind of flat pork sausage) with vegetables and ummm, shredded papaya in some kind of vinegar sauce, which they put in the sandwich too!

In Kompong Cham, we ate different coconut-based curries which were similar to the ones in Thailand. We are not sure how Cambodian this is, but it was nonetheless delicious!

Once in the capital, we started to get addicted to the refreshing Cambodian ice coffee with milk, which we could not stop drinking during the whole trip!

We also tried the “Phnom Penh” noodles from a street vendor. This type of noodles, as well as much of the Cambodian food, are prepared with a fish paste as a base, and then eaten with small shrimps, vegetables and chillies.

Phnom Pehn noodles

Kep, a town near Kampot, is famous for its crabs, which we saw in the crab market. Unfortunately, we did not have the chance to try them…maybe next time!

Crabs from the crab market in Kep

However, in Kampot we tried different local specialities such as fried fish, fried squid and fried duck, with rice and vegetables. We also got to try all the local spirits, such as rice wine, palm wine and ginger wine with coconut water.

In Siem Reap we tried the “Cambodian barbecue”, which is a “do-it-yourself” kind of meal. The waiter places a metal grill on your table, in which you can cook the fresh meat, seafood, vegetables and noodles which are provided. It is quite laborious, but also entertaining!

Enjoying Cambodian barbacue in Siem Reap

Finally, in a village around Siem Reap (where our tuk-tuk broke down and we had to wait for a while), we tried two different things which we really liked, despite not remembering their names: one was a meal prepared like the Cambodian noodles, that is, with shrimps, vegetables and chillies, but instead of using noodles, using a yellow flour paste cut into small pieces (see picture below).

Cambodian food that we tried in a small village

The other thing was something that the Cambodians eat as a snack or as a dessert, since it is sweet. It is a fried sweet, milky paste, which is eaten hot, so that the paste inside is still liquid. The taste is quite sweet, but the paste also has some vegetables such as spring onions. It sounds weird, but believe us, it was truly delicious!

Woman cooking Cambodian sweet pastries in a village

Siem Reap and the Angkor temples (11-14.01.12)

Our stay in Siem Reap did not have the best of the beginnings…we lost our beloved headlamps in the night bus from Sihanoukville (by the way, there are not such a thing as “sleeping buses” in Cambodia, so do not count on sleeping there even though they sell it like “sleeping bus”). Moreover, when we arrived to the guesthouse that we had pre-booked, we found out that it was claustrophobic and noisy…

Despite the disappointment and our tired bodies, we gathered some strength and went in search of a nicer place to spend the following 4 days. We saw three or more places around the city center, but they deserve the name of “dis-guesthouses” rather than something else…Anyway, almost in despair, while we walked a narrow alley, we luckily found the oasis of Arboretum guesthouse. The first thing that we saw was the relaxing garden, but immediately we were surprised by the classical music coming from the lobby! A little bit intimidated by such a nice setting (usually far away from our budget) we asked about the price. Indeed, it was a little more than what we had paid in most places in Cambodia, but when we met the friendly Irish owner, Ron, and when we saw the lovely room, we immediately decided to stay in Arboretum.

Our beautiful room in Arboretum guesthouse, Siem Reap

After having been in so many guesthouses in Asia, we were positively shock by the attention of Ron from the very beginning. He learnt our names from the start and took care of every detail to make our stay comfortable. We cannot recommend this place and its owner enough!

Once we had managed to rent a couple of bikes and to get a good book about the temples, we headed out of Siem Reap towards the complex of Angkor Wat, a few kilometres north of town.

Family at Angkor Wat temple

Most of the tourists visit Angkor by car or tuk-tuk, but we really liked coming to the temples by bicycle and cycling from temple to temple. The sunrise tours were not exactly easy, because we had to pedal in the darkness with speedy bus tours and tuk-tuks overtaking us. However, once inside the Angkor complex it is really rewarding to be able to visit at your own pace. If you have some experience handling a bike, we would advise you to do it this way at least once, just make yourself visible!!

Little cute child playing around Angkor complex

For those who do not know much about Angkor, it is a complex that contains countless temples, some of which are complexes in themselves. A stay of three days is recommended in order to have time to see all main temples and some of “secondary” ones as well. And of course, in order to have time to make a second visit to the main ones!! Just keep in mind that in any other country, many of the temples here would be a tourist highlight in themselves!

We got ourselves a three days ticket and pedalled our way to the complex. After all the effort finding a nice guest house we only had little more than a few hours in our first day inside the complex. So we decided to skip the big guys (Angkor Wat and Bayon) and visit Ta Prohm that first day.

If Angkor Wat is the most known name of this site, I am pretty sure that Ta Prohn is the image that many people have when they think about these Cambodian temples. The special feature of Ta Prohn is that it has been “taken” by the jungle, or more specifically, by hundreds of years old trees. In fact, most temples looked like this when they were found but this one is kept in these conditions as an example. The atmosphere of this temple is very special and its narrows and endless stone corridors are in contrast with the huge trees breaking down walls and pillars, which make the most iconic images of the temple. Needless to say that it is of obligatory visit while being in Angkor.

The romantic temple of Tha Phrom

Iván in Ta Phrom temple

After Ta Prohn and some lunch at a rather local restaurant (almost sharing the table with some chickens) our day in Angkor was almost done. We just had time to get a nice spot at Phnom Bakheng and enjoy the sunset. It is a nice hike up for about 20 minutes but if you plan to go there for sunset just make sure to start the climb with enough time since it gets really crowded. But still, it does for a reason, and sunset here is beautiful although the views over Angkor Wat were disappointing after reading the guide books. Anyways, it was a nice end to our first day in the complex together with the pleasant bike ride back to the hotel in the refreshing sunset breeze. Then, we enjoyed the super entertaining night live of Siem Reap. We found out that our hotel was located in the perfect place, just next to the night market and all the action of Pub street! Ron recommended us to eat in one of the places with tables on the street and it was so good that we ended up having dinner there every night! This night we tried the Cambodian barbecue, which is very fun to prepare.

Performance of Cambodian traditional dance in Siem Reap

In our second day we decided to go through a process of de-temple rehab before the last two days where we would go back to Angkor. So we visited some known floating villages nearby. It is an amazing experience to see how these people live an absolutely normal live on houses that are no more than floating huts. Even the dogs seem to like it!! It is difficult to avoid the touristy experience here, but still interesting if you want to see it.

Floating village near Siem Reap

We hired a tuk tuk during the whole day, a trip that included visiting other sites such as the silk factory. Again, it was rather interesting to see and learn about how the silk is produce throughout a complex and time demanding process. For a small contribution you will be kindly guided here and invited to the shop, which is only for much bigger budgets than ours.

Women working at silk factory near Siem Reap

As a very fun anecdote, the tuk tuk we had hired broke at some point in the middle of nowhere!! So we had to help the driver pushing it to where a mechanic could fix it. Pushing a tuk tuk through a rural town is a unique experience, since people just freak watching a foreigner working out when he would be supposed to go on it!! Well, and the joke gets epic proportions when all this happens right in front of a whole ongoing wedding…well, just gather some good humour and keep pushing!!

In our third day we woke up very early, and head out to the temple complex at around 5 a.m. Riding your bike in these conditions is very pleasant but it is extremely important to make yourself visible (and we just lost our head lamps!!) Sunrise at Angkor Wat is beautiful, no doubt why tourist crow in front of the water pound at around 5:30 a.m. After sunrise, most groups leave for breakfast.

Angkor Wat just before sunrise

This is actually a terrible mistake since those early hours in the morning are by far the best to visit the temples. It was then when we visited the Angkor Thom’s gate which looked stunning under the early morning light.

Impressive Angkor Thom Gate under beautiful early morning light

Afterwards we wandered around the Terrace of Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King with its hidden carved walls. This was an appetizer before one of the great highlights, Bayon. I consider it now my favourite amongst all temples in Angkor due to the mesmerizing effects of the carved faces and its outstanding magnificence.

The impressive faces of Bayon

Iván doing one of his jumps at Bayon

The 1.2 Km of stone bas-reliefs carved on its walls tell thousand of stories making necessary more than one visit due to its overwhelming list of things to see.

Panel in Bayon temple, ilustrating life in Cambodia

Detail showing Chinese warriors in one panel in Bayon temple

And as if it was not enough, we headed towards the mother of all temples, Angkor Wat. It is very difficult to get an exact approximation of the dimension of the temple, even from inside of its own complex. A first huge entrance only leads into an inner yard dominated by two symmetric libraries and the main building on the back. Here, everything is a matter of size and symmetry. Only when we get closer we start to perceive the magnitude of it, the height of the towers each of them of cathedral size.

And like Bayon, Angkor Wat counts on a collection of bas-reliefs of amazing beauty dealing with both historical and religious motives. 800 meters of bas-reliefs, mostly from the 12th century with such know scenes as the Churning of the Ocean of Milk telling histories is such a detail that you can employ hours there and still find something new.

Monks watching the panel "Churning of the Sea of Milk" in Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is the World’s largest religious building, so visiting this temple requires lots and lots of energy due to their extraordinary dimensions, so enjoying a refreshing beverage looking across the Angkor complex as the sun went down was just a perfect way to end an unforgettable day.

Iván enjoying the sunset at Angkor Wat

Our fourth day was the last in Siem Reap. Again, taking all our chances, we decided to enjoy the sunrise again there, this time at a much less populated Sra Srang. This time was easier to wake up since we hired a tuk tuk because in our planes was to visit Banteay Srei nearly 20 Km away from the complex. Sra Srang, rather than a temple is a terrace overlooking a large water pond with the sun rising on the back. The morning woke up quite cloudy so our hopes were not very high (at least the day before we had an amazing sunrise at Angkor Wat). However, cloudy skies also make beautiful sunrise and sunsets when the sun light reflects on the clouds resulting on a spectacle of epic dimensions.

Sunrise of the second day...not bad!

Quiet Sra Srang shortly after sunrise

After this we enjoyed the quite overlooked Banteay Kdei in the nice early morning hours. A great surprise and very advisable if you have a bit of extra time.

Sonsoles resting at Banteay Kdei

Then, we headed towards Banteay Srei considered to be in the same category as Angkor Wat or Bayon. We really wanted to visit this temple since it contains some of the most invaluable stone carvings in the world and very well preserved. But the smaller scale of the temple coupled to the hordes of Asian tourist groups made it an unpleasant experience. It is advisable to bring binoculars due to the detail of the carvings and the prohibition to get close to some of them. Anyways, the noisy and I-care-about-nothing-but-my-picture kind of tourist made it impossible to enjoy the visit even by their inappropriate behaviour (even in other orders of matter such as encouraging begging by literally giving kilos of candy to the children). Then, back to Angkor and visit Preah Khan after lunch, our last temple just before preparing for another sunset at Phnom Bakheng enjoying the feeling of job well done .

Sonsoles receiving a blessing from one nun in Angkor Preah

That same night we would take a bus that would take us to the Thai border early next morning leaving behind the unique experience of spending a few days at the lively city of Siem Reap.

Lost Paradise (with sandflies) (08-10.01.12)

After our great time in Kampot experiencing the “real” Cambodia, we headed to the southern center of the touristic action, Sihanoukville. At Olly’s place in Kampot, we had met a nice Dutch fellow traveller who told us about an incredible beautiful unspoiled beach in an island south from the coast. She said that even after exploring all Thailand she could say that this was the most beautiful beach she ever saw…so we decided to give it a try.

Koh-Rong is situated south from the Cambodian coast, a three hours trip by boat. Since Cambodia has not developed much yet their touristic attractions, except from Siem Reap due to obvious reasons, Koh-Rong is pretty much unspoiled. Travel agencies would arrange trips to the south-eastern part of the island, where you can find a number of nice guest houses and a beautiful beach. Here is where the only town in the island is located, so is it is still interesting to see how their daily live goes on as for decades ago.

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Fishing village in Koh-Rong south-eastern part

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Local boy having fun with the sand in the village

But the real treasure of the island is the southwest coast. Here, you can only get by means of a slow fishing boat specifically arranged by the almost only guest house in the area, Broken Heart Guest House. Our expectations were built very high and even more after meeting a Russian couple that was sharing with us the boat. It was the second time for him at the island and he could not wait to come back!!

After nearly 3 hours of bouncy travelling we got a first glance of the island. The town appears on the horizon easily noticeable thanks to the typical smoke columns coming out from the houses. Here, only the regularly scheduled boat would stop. We would continue along the coast to the other side of the island, and after a long turn around it with absolutely no sign of human presence, we came face to face with the most perfect white sand beach we had ever seen!!! It stretched 7 km along a coat only inhabited by palm trees and thousand of the cuties sand crabs!!! The sand was so white and the water so shallow that the sea glowed on a perfect emerald green.

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Julia and Alexander, the Russian couple who shared the paradise experience with us

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Paradise beach at Koh-Rong

The boat could not get too close to the shore so the staff of the guest house (few spacious bungalows perched on a hill over one of the beach ends) came to pick us up on some sort of big bucket!!! It ras so fun!!! I could not wait to try the water so I just jump in. Just imagine your perfect beach, well, I am sure you have now in mind something that looks pretty close to how this beach looked like.

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We loved the sand crabs at Koh-Rong beach!!

We got a simple but big bungalow overlooking the sea. The bungalow was only accessed by a footpath surrounded by the tropical jungle, which was really cool, but also full of all kind forest creatures!

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Our bungalow in Koh-Rong (the wide angle makes it seem much bigger than what it was!!)

The staff of our guesthouse (as we said, the only one in this part of the island) will definitely not win any sympathy context and the food was just ok and overpriced (so bring drinks and snacks to the island!!), but the restaurant and the bar were nice places to relax and enjoy the beautiful surroundings. Besides, we had a lot of fun with the Russian couple who came with us in the boat, our “naked-neighbours” as we called each other because we all liked to enjoy the beach naked in this paradise (and we could, since we were more or less the only people on the beach!).

We enjoyed the beach as much as we could, and even at night when the full moon and the perfect beach together made such a beautiful scene that it made it an impossible task to capture with our camera. The next days we enjoyed the amazing beach, all there just for us. Have you seen the movie “The Blue Lagoon”?? We felt the same, the dream of every traveller, to find a paradise on earth and to have it for you.

However, this island was not only pros. There should be sign with big bold letters saying “be aware of the sand flies”. We did not even know what sand flies were before coming here. It was only after the Dutch girl who recommended us coming to Koh Rong told us about the sand flies, that we started getting to know these tiny horrible creatures. They are smaller than mosquitoes and since they are white, they camouflage pretty well on these beaches sand. You do not feel the bite either, but after a few days, the bites start to itch and the annoying itchy feeling can last several weeks! That was the reason why we were “forced” to spend all our time in the transparent waters :o)

Regarding the sand flies, we think that they were probably put there by God himself just to remind us that there is only one paradise…but if you get along with them, Koh-Rong will always be that place you think of when people mention heaven from now on.

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Lovely little girl from the village who was playing with us and even made a drawing of us!