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15 Jan 2013

The Great Province Run

[Warning: Epic blog post coming up, put the kettle on, make a cuppa and get comfy before reading.]

Typical antics on Cambodia's roads. (NB. The one on the left is even wearing his helmet.)

Having crossed the border to Laos last week and getting our last (for the time being) exit stamps from Cambodia, we have spent two years, three months in the country. With a generous helping of public holidays and work-related travel a frequent occurrence, it wasn't long before we hit on the idea of visiting all of Cambodia's 23 provinces and one city (Phnom Penh). Some of these are harder to reach than others, some are just dusty no-man's-lands and others became regular haunts due to their beauty or the presence of friends living there. As the mission progressed it was fraught with all manner of scheduling challenges and, especially at the end, the coercion of unsuspecting visitors and their itineraries. Here is a run down, in a vague order, of what has come to be known as The Great Province Run.

Phnom Penh (1)

Technically Cambodia's only city and the landing point for both of us back in September 2010. I hated it at first, the apparently lethal traffic, pollution and no sense of direction making me avoid it as much as possible. However, over time, I learned my way around and discovered what a great place Phnom Penh is, the food, the people and the evening atmosphere at the Olympic Stadium as hundreds do their evening exercises. Towards the end I also discovered the joys of getting around by bicycle, something I swore I'd never do. (Sam)

The front of the Royal Palace at sunset, currently the centre of mourning for the recent passing of former King Sihanouk.

Posing beside the exterior wall of the Royal Palace on my birthday last year.

Kandal (2)

Barely even counted as a province, due to its close proximity to Phnom Penh, Kandal is most famous for Cheung Ek or The Killing Fields as it is better known as. A gruesome and emotional place to visit, but necessary to learn and understand about the some of the many terrible deaths at the hands of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. (Gilly)

The memorial stupa at The Killing Fields.

Kampong Cham (3)

Kampong Cham was our home for the first five weeks of being in Cambodia while we had language training, something I was dreading but grew to love quickly.  We spent the mornings learning and the afternoons drinking tea and practising our new words.  It was where we realised we had arrived with the best batch of volunteers and cemented strong friendships. By the end of our language training we were sick of living in a hotel and eager to get to our placements. As a result we didn't go back to Kampong Cham for over a year! (Gilly)

Visiting Wat Nakor in Kampong Cham at our celebration of two years in Cambodia with our batch mates

The epic bike journey on Sam's second day in Cambodia, with Paul, Dave and Ingran.

Kratie (4)

What can we say about Kratie? We loved living there and are fiercely defensive of everything about it. Most tourists don't even spend a full day in Kratie and are often overheard saying there is nothing to see there. However, we know different.  Kratie is a beautiful province right on the Mekong River.  Seeing the Mekong every day for two years has been a privilege and inspired us to want to live somewhere near water in the future.  Having so much time to spend together in our quiet little town has also been amazing and we will miss all the lovely people we met there.  (Gilly)

Old colonial buildings near the market left over from the days of the French. 

A storm approaching on the road to Chhlong during the terrible floods of 2011.

Looking at Kratie town from the island on Christmas Day 2011.

Stung Treng (5)

Thanks to the presence of fellow batch buddy Ingran we took the road North to Stung Treng very quickly. As with Kratie you need to dig a bit deeper to discover this province's gems, one of which is the stretch of river just South of the border with Laos. We did this by boat and kayak just last month and it was one of my personal Cambodian highlights. (Sam)

Paddling on the Mekong in life jacket, shirt and woolly gloves. It's the look!

Serene island beaches littering this wonderful piece of river.

Ratanakiri (6)

In the far North East is perhaps my favourite province, excluding Kratie, of course. The stunning lake won me over at first sight and was one of the reasons we each visited three times. Those whose trips to Cambodia gravitate to the temples of Angkor on the other side really do miss out on the cool hills, waterfalls and amazing pizzas that Ratanakiri has to offer. They also miss out on the opportunity to be adopted into the Tampoon community, as I was after discovering I shared a name with one of their leaders. (Sam)

Yeak Loam lake, fringed by jungle and crystal clear water for swimming - paradise.

Mondulkiri (7)

Mondulkiri lies East of Kratie and despite being only about four hours away, it is notoriously difficult to get to, mainly due to the ridiculously overcrowded and loaded minibuses that take their own sweet time to travel on the extremely good road.  Despite this I've been there three times, though this is largely due to the fact Paul was living there rather than because I love it (though it is very nice, I found it much too cold on all three visits). Sam however, only visited once, and was lucky to tick it off when Ross came to visit in December. (Gilly)

Jumping around overlooking the Sea Forest.

Visits during the dry season can result in extreme red dust - always have a face mask handy, Cambodians do.

Kampong Thom (8)

The key word in the definition of The Great Province Run is 'visit'. It isn't sufficient to see a province out of a bus window or as a lunch stop on the way to somewhere else. Kampong Thom, as stated by our friend Dave who was based there, is commonly known as "the toilet stop for those travelling between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap". However, for us, a toilet stop wouldn't be enough and so we were lucky in December 2010 when the annual staff retreat for my workplace, CRDT, took a detour to visit some pre-Angkorian temples that are off the main tourist trail. It was our first encounter with these types of ruins, but not our last... (Sam)

The ruins of Sambor Prei Kuk. (Yes, there is a toilet there too.)

Siem Reap (9)

Due to the temples of Angkor being spread around the vicinity of Siem Reap, it is the most visited place in Cambodia. We visited together at the beginning of our placement and again near the end which allowed us to pick and choose our favourites without feeling 'templed out'.  I also completed my 100km cycle around the main temples after a year of being in country, the amazing sunrise and general views were worth the pain..  While Siem Reap is what Cambodia is best known for, it is actually very different from the Cambodia that we have come to know. (Gilly)

Having fun at Ban Melea

The crumbling temples and jungle effects of Ban Melea made this one a firm favourite for us both.

Kampong Som (10)

Kampong Som is more commonly known as Sihanoukville and is the popular beach party town of Cambodia.  We visited in May, at the start of the rainy season and were hindered from doing many activities by the sudden downpours.  We enjoyed some relaxing afternoons swimming and teaching my friend Birdy, who was visiting, how to play Uno.  (Gilly)

Sun loungers at sunset in Sihanoukville courtesy of Birdy.

The Great Province Run has started to take its toll on Sam...

Kampot (11)

In the south sits Kampot, a popular place to visit and so I've been twice, best known for its pepper though it also seems to produce salt.  A great place to wile away the hours and admire the ramshakle bridge built and rebuilt by various people over the years. (Gilly)

Salt flats on the way to Kep

The afore-mentioned bridge.

Kep (12)

If we had been doing The Great Province Run in 2007 Kep wouldn't have featured as it only became separated from Kampot in December 2008. Also sitting on the coast it is best known for the derelict former seaside homes of the Phnom Penh elite which were abandoned and then ransacked following the Khmer Rouge revolution. Our visit in September 2011 was at the height of the severe rains and we were lucky to be staying at the wonderful Veranda resort where hours pass in a state of severe relaxation. (Sam)

The provincial boundary indicating the official date of separation from Kampot in 2008.

One of the abandoned houses, eerie and intriguing all in one.

Takeo (13)

After our trip to Kampot and Kep we stopped in Takeo for the night on our way back to Phnom Penh. Due to the high waters we couldn't see the ruins that comprise the main tourist attraction but we did take a long walk around the town taking in the lotus-filled lake and their own version of the Independence Monument in Phnom Penh commemorating independence from French rule in 1953. (Sam)

Takeo, and the Independence Monument by night.

Svay Rieng (14) and Prey Veng (15)

Of Svay Rieng the Lonely Planet guidebook says "there is literally nothing to see here". Prey Veng doesn't fare much better and so neither of us even bothered to take out our cameras when we ticked these two off as a road trip on our trusty Honda Dream motorbike. One exception to the 'nothing to see' assessment is the Neak Loam river crossing in Prey Veng, famed for its appearance as a site of illegal American bombing at the start of the film The Killing Fields. We did see that and were impressed with the quality of the road in Svay Rieng which makes a fast beeline to the border with Vietnam. (Sam)

Koh Kong (16)

In sharp contrast with provinces 14 and 15 (above), Koh Kong had lots to see and do and is in my top three favourite provinces.  We spent quite a few relaxing days here visiting waterfalls, secluded islands and enjoying the different, but equally beautiful, scenery on offer thanks to the nearby Cardamon Mountains.(Gilly)

Swimming in the Tatai River - my second visit after coming here a few weeks earlier with Sarah and Will.

Pailin (17)

Pailin used to be part of Battambang and is another recently invented province.  A bit tricky to get to  from Kratie so we solved the problem by visiting it from Koh Kong as both provinces border Thailand.  We popped over to Thailand from Koh Kong (a mere 6km from the town) and enjoyed the comfortable and short journeys to various other towns that eventually got us up to the border near Pailin.  No problems with crossing the borders and in general a very smooth journey - the only hitch was on arriving in Pailin we got in a shared taxi which broke down four times before we even got halfway to Battambang.  Annoyed by the hour and a half journey already taking over two hours we flagged down a passing minibus filled with monks and had a comfortable and quick ride to Battambang for just a few dollars extra.  In keeping with the rules of The Great Province Run, we then moto-ed back to Pailin a few days later to visit a waterfall.  (Gilly)

Sporting his and her kramas and an interesting sock look...

Battambang (18)

A very difficult province to reach from Kratie it was surprising that I managed to visit three times, although two of these were dictated by work for VSO. Battambang has all the creature comforts of places like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap while keeping the rural aspects of places like Kratie within easy reach. If I came back to live in Cambodia I might opt for life here and it's also the inspiration for my favourite Cambodian song. (Sam)

Fishing in action, it's actually a lot easier to get this photo than it looks.

All smiles before the bone-shaking ride on the bamboo train.

Banteay Meanchey (19)

We did this province as an excursion on a hired motorbike from Battambang. We checked out one of Cambodia's many hilltop pagodas at Phnom Touch and had lunch in the capital, Sisophon. With more time we might have made it to some of the province's Angkorian ruins but sometimes The Great Province Run requires pragmatism as well as determination. (Sam)

Another provincial boundary sign showing the year 2004 when Banteay Meanchey was separated from Siem Reap.

Oddar Meanchey (20)

Another relatively new province with not much going on, remote and hard to get to until the recent new road between one of the towns, Anglong Veng and Siem Reap.  Bordering Thailand, it was one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge into the early 1990s.  We spent some time visiting Ta Mok's house, Brother Number 5 of the Khmer Rouge, a senior figure also known as 'the Butcher', which was filled with painted walls of Angkor Wat and maps of Cambodia. (Gilly)

Pol Pot's radio van left in Ta Mok's garden

Preah Vihear (21)

When we arrived in 2010 travel to the temple of Preah Vihear was prohibited by VSO due to the Cambodia-Thailand conflict on the border, centred on the temple itself. That has since eased and what a treat this place it. The temple isn't necessarily remarkable compared to it's Siem Reap cousins, but the views from its location at the top of a huge cliff were definitely worth the hair-raising drive and climb to get there. With just three provinces left the end was now in sight... (Sam)

In the background of this picture is the meeting of Cambodia, Thailand and Laos.

Pursat (22)

I had visited Saahiel here on my way back from Battambang in 2011 and so, at this point, so close to the end, it was necessary to slow my own pace down to allow Gilly to catch up. We took the bus from Phnom Penh, made a tour of the 'ship island' in the middle of the river and had lunch before jumping back on the bus to go back towards Phnom Penh for the last two stops on the run. The ladies in the bus station thought it was quite funny that we got off the bus and immediately bought tickets out again for three hours later. (Sam)

The 'ship island' taken on my first visit in 2011.

Kampong Chhnang (23)

As it's only two hours from Phnom Penh, we saved this province till near the end to combine with Kampong Speu.  I'd been looking forward to Kampong Chhnang and wasn't disappointed.  It reminded us of Kratie and had various nice activities to fill our afternoon and morning with.  Sam also found some unexpectedly good hand-painted signs to add to his collection.  Only one province left now and the excitement (and exhaustion) was building... (Gilly)

A unique way of displaying bananas.

A Vietnamese floating village on the Tonle Sap. 

How cute is this guy? Makes me want to be a vegetarian.

Kampong Speu (24)

Reaching province 24 with two days to spare before leaving Cambodia for good. We climbed the 509 steps to the top of Udong Mountain and were rewarded with the best views I've seen over Cambodia (with the exception of Preah Vihear).  The Great Province Run is complete and we can truly say that in our two years and three months in Cambodia, we have gotten to know the country really well.  It might even have inspired us to start The Great British County Run when we get home! (Gilly)

Phew, the home run was pretty frantic but I can now proudly say that I have visited every province in Cambodia. (At least until they siphon off another one like Kep or Pailin and we have to return to re-validate our badges of honour.) (Sam)

All smiles and feeling pretty proud of our the top of Udong Mountain.

Looking towards Phnom Penh and surveying the extent of our travels.


  1. Great post - although can't believe you didn't say anything about Kompong Som!! ;)

    1. We had some problems with the post publishing and not saving Gilly's words on Kampong Som. This has now been fixed and The Great Province Run is finally done and dusted!

  2. Seriously impressed that you found so much to enjoy in Kg Chhnang! but a fab tour of Cambodia... jealous about Preah Vihear.

    1. All you need to do is book that ticket... PS. We'll be checking in to Murphy villas when the Great British County run gets going. What will that allow us to tick off from those North of the border?