“See you in Cambodia!” Not something you say to your friends in Los Angeles every day, eh? After many missed connections with American friends during this trip (Apparently folks were convinced Grant would smell funny and Kate’s shower singing wouldn’t have gotten any better as we kept missing people by mere weeks all over the globe) we finally had a visitor! The story of our last “new’ country in Asia, Cambodia, is one of beautiful temples & beaches, tragic history, a laughably corrupt government & one lost ginger who as it turns out has lost his hearing and sense of smell. Glad to have had you along for the ride Gray!
After 4,000 Islands and the Paske Loop in Laos, two of our favorites of the entire trip, excitement was high for another Southeast Asian country. Temples, museums, beaches, and more amazing food, all at great prices…what could possibly go wrong? Well, Kate’s favorite, “Dolla dolla fees, y’all!”. Crossing at a notorious remote land border with Laos we were welcomed into Cambodia with a deluge of $1-5 bribes, all “necessary” to secure our stamps. It seems insignificant, but demanded “made up” pricing as a way of augmenting below subsistence wages for the border officers was a perfect first glimpse into a country consistently ranked in the Top 5 most corrupt in the world. Hey, at least they aren’t Somalia. Right? RIGHT? Give me $5.
With a day to kill in Siem Reap before Gray’s arrival, we set out to locate the important things in life: the weirdest items in the market, best noodle shop, cheap beer, and future hang out areas (bars, we went to find bars). Mission, Accomplished.
Not pictured: The most amazing coconut curry. Grant used the best question a traveler has in a restaurant and asked our 8 year old server for his favorite food. The Cambodian National Dish, a delicious coconut curry with pork & banana leaves called Amok. Kate, always a detractor of curries in general, finally experienced her turning point. Poor Grant never will get a bowl of coconut curry to himself again…
Word association: We say Cambodia, you say, likely, Angkor Wat. For its millenniums of history most people immediately associate Cambodia with the Khmer era temple complex. Wonder of the World, largest religious complex on earth, sight of every adventure movie from your childhood (Indiana Jones, Tomb Raider, and so on), Angkor Wat lies at the top of many a life list and it was on our must-go list from the beginning of trip planning in February. For the previous two months we heard nothing but crazy awesome stories about the glories of the vast complex from backpackers, flashpackers, families, and didyouseriouslyjustpayfivehundredforaroom travelers alike.
Now, we’ve talked about travel truths here before, so let’s drop another. Not living up to expectations is often translated as “man, that sucked”. Reality however is more gray than black and white or “it was amaze-balls, but maybe not ohmygerdmylifewillneverbethesame” (H/T: Mary B). Angkor Wat was indeed awesome, the temples were beautiful, and those banyan trees…whoa. But the selfie stick wielding crowds, the disney-esq lines, and lack of room to truly explore sliced more than a little enjoyment off our time in the temples. Full disclosure, due to a somewhat harried schedule we only spent an evening plus one full day exploring the temples. We strongly suspect additional days visiting the more remote sites would have yielded significantly different feelings. That said, in comparing a day at Angkor to a day at Bagan… there is no comparison.
So after scooping up Gray and catching up for an hour over cold beer we headed off to Angkor Wat for an hour of exploring before sunset and the full day that lie ahead. Traveler life, even B pluses are big wins.
The region of ancient Angkor consists of over a thousand temples of which some are piles of rubble and others magnificent reconstructions. The Khmer Empire built heavily over a period of 300 years, starting in the 10th century. Interestingly a number of temples, including the eponymous Angkor Wat, were originally constructed as Hindu temples and ashrams but gradually transformed into Buddhist religious sites.
Here is our day in pictures; temples, rocks, trees, and avoiding the hoards of bus tourists.
Finished with our day of templing we took to tippling with our favorite travel buddies; Gray in for his visit and our record 5th meetup with our favorite cart-wheeler and her (self-described) idiot husband, Leanne & Ryan from over at ryanandleannesadventure.wordpress.com . From drinks at the infamous Ankor What?! to magically appearing (and not so magically disappearing) bottles of Jameson & Jager the night was long and fruitful. The following morning was rough and unfruitful, but WE didn’t miss our tuk tuk…
Our favorite way to see “real life” in any country is to grab motorbikes and take off into the countryside, so for an authentic G&K travel experience, we loaded up on two bikes and the three of us headed out on Mission Motorbike Day. Busy city streets gave way to green fields and eventually funneled us towards the stilt village of Kompong Pluk. The lake ebbs and flows each year, flooding the streets and giving kids a water park playground.
We spent the rest of the day just getting lost in the surprisingly flat, but still beautiful Cambodian countryside.
After a very dirty ride back into Siem Reap we were off to Phnom Penh on an overnight bus. Without a doubt this overnight trip was the least memorable (in the best way possible). A big thank you goes out to the Giant Ibis bus company!
The city of Phnom Penh is unfortunately known for theft, prostitution, and The Killing Fields of Pol Pot. Luckily for us, we only had to experience one (well, maybe ask Gray about how he improved his Jenga skills in town…). A fellow traveler from Austria was a victim of the infamous motorbike theft so many locals warned us about (seriously, we were warned by the very first local we met at breakfast). Her cross body bag containing her phone, passport, and money was snatched, and when instructed by her embassy to file a police report the officer demanded $20 to file the report in return (see: tion, corrupt in your Cambodia guidebook). She was able to get a temporary passport for her return trip home, but at that point Cambodia was ruined for her. This isn’t at all an uncommon experience, especially for all-female travel groups in Cambodia.
For us, we experienced Phnom Penh in a better light: we cruised an interesting local market, were blessed by a Buddhist monk in the tiniest temple we’ve ever been in, strolled along the Royal Palace, appreciated a well done national museum, and witnessed the leisurely mid morning lull of a hardworking group ← sarcasm font.
We finished off Phnom Penh by visiting the site that brought us there in the first place, The Killing Fields. Travel tip: Before heading off to any sort of socially or ethically complicated museum or site, pop on YouTube and find a good documentary on the topic. This gives a good foundation of commonly accepted information on the subject prior to being inundated with dense content at the museum. The night prior to our Killing Fields visit we watched a couple different documentaries that explained the political climate of Cambodia during the civil war (1970-1975) and afterwards during the Khmer Rouge.
We visited both the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center, site of a killing field and home to the main memorial and museum, and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21), a school used by the Khmer Rouge to imprison those that opposed the regime. Choeung Ek is a powerful site with the best audio tour to date. It provided powerful imagery while inviting you in to hear heartbreaking stories of survivors and of those killed. Not wanting to disrespect those who died at each location, we only took a couple of choice pictures. The one below is of a prayer house at Choeung Ek.
When you stop to think about it, everyone in Cambodia over the age of 36 experienced the Khmer Rouge in some way. From the woman on 15th Street who made the best noodle soup to your favorite hotelier in Siem Reap to the Buddhist that blessed you in that lovely tiny temple. Every single one of them had a personal experience of the 1970s. That they survived is a miracle to itself, that they’re a largely happy and bright people defies understanding. If traveling the world doesn’t make you appreciate what you have and where you’re from, you aren’t human.
Knowing full well this day would be overflowing with heavy material and depressing history, we made arrangements to self medicate post-visit. Off to Kingdom Breweries we went! The staff at Kingdom graciously accommodated us during a non tour time to see the tap room, chat with the brew master, drink a couple local favorites, and actually have a tour! Funny enough, Gray had never gone on a brewery tour before (which is pretty hard to avoid in Southern California, but he’s talented like that).
Our final Cambodian stop took us to the shores of Otres Beach three hours south of Phnom Penh near Sihanoukville. Originally planned as just a stopover until we made it out to one of the islands, we ended up staying there for the remainder of our time in Cambodia. Gorgeous sandy beaches, quiet nights, cheap beer, and fun food—it was the beachy paradise we’d been searching for since Dahab.
We read that travelers tend to go straight to Sihanoukville and either stay put or venture out to an island via ferry. When we arrived in Sihanoukville we realized pretty quickly that it shared family with Khao San Road in Bangkok (read—young backpacker crowd with far too much sobriety on their hands). Luckily Grant & Gray had both read about a stretch just a few kilometers away where quiet white sand beaches mix with inexpensive accommodations and delicious food. Hello $15 beach bungalows!
For the next 5 days the daily agenda included a snorkeling island adventure, swimming, reading, sunbathing, and drinking a ridiculous amount of fruit shakes (you thought it was going to say beer, didn’t you? Ok, there was some of that too).
It’s amazing how fast five days of doing nothing goes. Otres Beach just may be the lay-about’s ideal vacation spot. The 5th day of beach time was lovely, but we were ready to be back in our second home, Bangkok, with its quickly approaching Loi Krathong festival. We had no idea the advertised 16 hour trip would turn into 26 ridiculous hours. More on that next time!