Cambodia: 25th May – 2nd June, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
We crossed the Cambodian border by bus; the drive from Ho Cho Minh City to Phnom Penh is approximately nine hours. When we got on, the bus attendants came to everyone asking for passports in preparation for visa approval at the border. We were faced with the travellers number one dilemma: NEVER give your passport to ANYONE. Along with handing our passport over, they also wanted the US$35 to pay for the visa. “Yes, strange man. Please, take my only document of identity and here’s some cash for your trouble!”
We figured that the 37 other people on the bus handed their passports over already; so if we get stranded at least we’re stranded in a group. Two germans didn’t agree with this theory – our visa applications went swimmingly and relatively stress free, whilst they ran around like hairy goats trying to get the process done before the bus was ready to leave.
We got dropped off in Phnom Penh city centre; it was absolutely sweltering. We swore and sweated our way into our giant bags, then began making our way to the hostel using the apple map of the hostel street we loaded using the free wifi on the bus – yes you read that right. We thought “2kms? It’ll be fiiiiine, we don’t need a tuk tuk!”; that was before our 2km walk turning into a sweltering test of endurance. Weighed down by 25kgs of luggage, quite literally dripping with sweat, we made it a point of putting one thonged foot in front of the other until we got to Me Mates Villa hostel; red faced and soggy. It was a delight.
That night we went for dinner at Friends Restaurant, which we’d booked in advance from Ho Chi Minh. Friends Restaurant is a Non-Government Organisation wherein the restaurants are used for training, employment and initiative purposes for “former street youth, marginalised youth and adults”. They have many restaurants (details will be in the “Truthful Tips” section, under Phnom Penh) which basically give street kids training and education, gives people jobs and help provide finance for eduction of underprivileged children. Just fantastic. And the food is absolutely amazing. You are served by a “Teacher” in a blue shirt and a “Student” waiter wearing a yellow shirt. The menu at Friends in Phnom Penh was fusion Asian-Tapas
The next day we went to Connecting Hands, another NGO that helps former sex trafficking victims. The staff were lovely, the cafe was very quaint and the food was really nice. NGO restaurants and cafes is one thing Cambodia does really well. There are lots of them scattered around the country, so if you get a chance, please pop into one of them on your travels.
After breakfast, we hired a Tuk Tuk driver for the day, went to the central market then and Sam and Ashleigh headed for the Phnom Penh Killing fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (formally known as Prison S-21; before that it was a high school). If you hire a Tuk Tuk driver for the day you negotiate a price that mutually suits, then the drivers take you to sites/locations and wait for you until you finish. We paid $22USD/ $28 for the day to be taken from the city centre, to the market, then 40 minuites outside the city, to the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum and back.
“The Killing Fields” are a number of sites scattered around Cambodia which are areas of mass graves of people murdered by the Communist Khmer Rouge regime. I’m not going to go into the Phnom Penh Killing Fields in any detail here. It’s absolutely something a person needs to experience for themselves; the gravity and sorrow of the place, oddly juxtaposed by the innocent peace which nature supplies to the area. We hired audioguides for US$6; Full of background information and survivors stories, they were extremely factual and touching and we cannot recommend them highly enough.
The S21, or Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, is located a back in the city of Phnom Penh and is certainly not for the feint hearted. An absolutely unmissable museum, getting the point of unimaginable horror across in a way of such simple, brutally unvarnished honesty. It’s like nothing you’ll ever see again.
Katia didn’t go to the Killing Fields this time, because she had already been on a previous Cambodian trip. I’s a place you only need to see once in your life; you’re certainly not likely to forget it.
That night we decided to find some much needed levity, and hit up the main bar street for dinner. We wandered into a restaurant called “The Laughing Fat man; formally known as Oh My Buddha”, had some marvellous Fish Amok and Khmer Curry, accompanied by a mojito bucket each.
After some long island iced teas, and various other “Happy Hour” cocktails, (it seems to always be Happy Hour in Cambodian bars) we pottered on back to Me Mates Villa for a solid sleep.
Our next day in Phnom Penh was spent meeting our new mate Saurom the Tuk Tuk driver, who the ferried us to the gargantuan Russian Market. We wandered around for a while then purchased our hands-down best investment yet:
The weather was seriously sweltering. We meandered from stall to stall, fanning ourselves and came to realisation that a Market Experience is just so different when you aren’t actually planning on buying anything. Because we a) are on a budget and b) don’t physically want to carry anything that is not strictly necessary, it really puts a different perspective on the way you approach markets and shopping centres. Our main purchases are honestly just different foods from the specific region; usually much more rewarding that a tacky souvenir elephant that we’d just have to lug around in our packs, and would probably accidentally break before we can send it home.
After the market, Saurom took us to the water front where we said goodbye, then proceeded to get lunch and fro-yo, biding our time until the night bus to Siem Reap.
We arrived at the bus stop, got told to get on, and watched as one man took our bags and slid them under the bus, and another man slid the out the other side and leaned them on the road. This is when Sam gets all up in his grill “why is he taking our bags out? What is he doing with our bags? Are they going to go back under the bus?” “Him: “It’s fine, it’s fine, get on, get on.” Sam: “Well, it’s not fine. Thats everything I own in there! All of my worldly possessions”. And then we see Old Mate on the other side of the bus slide them all into a spearer compartment, and the guy on our side just laughs as we climb the stairs.
We booked the night bus expecting it to be the same format as the night buses we took throughout Vietnam; Katia and Ash booked two bottom seats whilst Sam booked the seat above Katia.
Or so we thought.
Turns out the Cambodian night buses have double bed and single bed options; as opposed to single, reclinable seats.
Katia and Ash shared a nice cosy double; whilst Sam was above sharing with a random old guy wearing flow orange pants. It was an all round interesting night. Note to selves: Always extensively google you transport options! If you’re travelling in odd numbers, you can book single beds as well.
We got to Siem Reap at about 5 am; arrived at our hostel, One Stop, and proceeded to go to sleep on their breakfast benches. All of us woke up to the sound of plates and cutlery, surrounded by people eating omlettes and muesli.
We spent Siem Reap swanning around night markets, and visiting Angkor, a UNESCO World Heritage site, spanning 400 square kilometres, containing a multitude of temples and constructions. We decided to do the sunrise ticket, where you arrive at the Angkor Wat grounds, and watch the sun rise over the temples five towers, as it is mirrored on the lake in front. Unfortunately we didn’t quite get the sunrise experience we wanted, due to cloud cover, but it was still absolutely beautiful.
Please note; if you are wanting to do a sunrise/sunset entrance, this is the busiest time of day for ticket lines. Sunrise is approximately 6am. Everyone arrives at the ticket booths at about 5.30. If you want to miss the lines, try to get there a little earlier. As said, we visited Angkor Wat (possibly the most famous temple in the park), Bayon Temple, or the Temple of Four Faces, Ta Promh, a temple now overrun with the roots of giant trees (also where Tomb Raider was filmed) and Prasat Kravan, the smallest structure we visited comprising of pink stone archways.
We chose a one day pass to Angkor, but with the amount of temples, shrines and structures within the grounds, it is quite easy to imagine how one could use a 3 day or even 7 day pass in the grounds. You can hire bikes and make your way around at your own pace, or hire a tuk tuk driver for the day, and arrange which temples you would like to see (we paid US$18/ $24 for the three of us for a return trip for sunrise and four temples). Make sure you bring plenty of water with you; it can get absolutely sweltering. There are also several vendors at each temple site, if you need to buy food or water. We stopped in at Sister Srey Cafe for lunch after Angkor Wat and enjoyed delicious burgers, smoothies and even a chocolate milkshake. Just the type of lunch we needed after our sweltering morning of temples. That afternoon was taken up by going through our phones and cameras and wondering why on earth we took 101 photos of the same temple. Literally its the same angle and lighting, why do i need so many photos?
That night, we saw some renditions of traditional Apsara Cambodian music dance at Temple restaurant; located on Pub Street…
…went to the night market again to buy singlets because we were too damn hot, and just pottered around Siem Reap. The next day was spent more or less the same way before we boarded yet another bus to take us to Bangkok, Thailand.
But more about that later!