Cambodia: Part 2

The mini-van ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap was a rather uncomfortable affair. The van itself was as comfortable as possible, but the “roads” we traveled were horrendously bumpy. Chris was majorly motion-sick for most of the ride, while I tried unsuccessfully to sleep through the ride. We stopped once at an overpriced restaurant for a break that at least allowed for some fresh air. We made it to Siem Reap by late afternoon and checked into our accommodation, Bliss Villa. We had booked through hostelworld for 2 dorm beds and were expecting a typical hostel, what we got was closer to a hotel. The beds were absolutely massive and incredibly comfortable, the rooms had aircon and ensuite bathrooms, and there was a beautiful pool onsite. Best of all, there was free tea and coffee (and filtered water but that doesn’t keep you from being withdrawing from caffeine) 24 hours a day. For $5 USD a night we were very happy with the quality.

We immediately began to plan and research our time for Siem Reap, we had to make a quick decision on how many days we wanted to visit Angkor Wat and what else we wanted to do in the area. Most pressing was figuring out the options to get to 4000 Islands in Laos, our next destination, as this was a major factor in determining how many days we needed. During our time researching we overheard two sisters from Canada trying to arrange transport to Angkor and offered to split the transport to reduce costs. We opted to visit over 2 days, and by sharing among 4 people it was only $5 dollars a day each for the tuktuk. Happy to have things figured out we headed out to find cheap eats and take a walk down the famous ‘Pub Street.’

We opted for a small corner local eatery at the end of our street that was very busy and cheap. I ordered a mango milkshake and it was one of the best milkshakes I have ever had! The food was decent enough for the price and we were satisfied with our choice.

Next we walked down pub street, a very modern street with many ‘western’ eateries and every establishment advertising $0.50 beer. The streets and restaurants were packed with travelers wearing loose elephant pants and ‘I love _______(insert any SE Asian city)’ singlets. I have never traveled a region in which there was a more predominant “backpacker” outfit than SE Asia. I know the clothing is cheap, but everyone, male or female, is wearing the identical outfit as though it is a requirement. A pack of mindless tourists in this “backpacker” uniform flocking from tourist attraction to tourist attraction is not particularly my idea of a meaningful travel experience, but we are here and going to have to make the best of it.

We stopped in at one pub for a beer and some excellent people watching. Apart from the clothing choices of fellow travelers, I also cannot help notice how young the travelers are. Okay, perhaps it is just that at 27 I am the old one, but there seems to be more 18 year olds than those in their mid-twenites. I am sure it is a whale of a time to be 18 in a land of cheap food, basically free alcohol, and other 18 year olds, but I question their ability to make mature decisions and get the most of the experience (that sentence confirms I am old).

After our beer we headed to bed to rest up for our first day of exploring Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world and one of the wonders of the world. There are many recommendations for how to visit the complex and we opted for a somewhat unusual plan to try and avoid the crowds. We decided our first day we would aim to be at the main temple complex by 1 pm as that is when most people are finished their visit. We would visit the main complex, then continue on the rest of the “mini” tour route, ending the day by watching sunset at one of the smaller temples.

We headed out around noon with the sisters and immediately were questioning our decision to share the tuktuk with them. It appeared they spent most of their time bickering and one of them in particular seemed very high maintenance. Luckily, when we arrived at the temples they suggested visiting on our own and meeting back at the tuktuk at a prearranged time.

We made our way into the main temple complex against the hoardes of people leaving for the day. Our decision appeared to be a good one. We spent an hour and a half at the main complex with a relatively small number of other visitors, and really enjoyed our visit, especially admiring the intricacies of the carvings on the walls. I can’t say we were blown out of the water by the temples (blasphemy to some), but after so many temple visits in the past 5 months we are a bit desensitized. Don’t get me wrong, we enjoyed our visit, but to some people visiting these temples is an almost life-changing experience.

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

As the day progressed we visited some of the smaller temples and thoroughly enjoyed exploring them. In my honest (and humble) opinion, they are much more interesting than the main complex. I loved how the smaller temples were being reclaimed by the jungle, trees encompassing large parts of the ruins in an eery way. ‘Tomb Raider’ was filmed at one of smaller ruin sites we visited in the afternoon.

image

image

image

image

image

image

image

We watched the sunset at one of the smaller temples, which was nice but I think it is possible to see it set over the Angkor complex which would have been better.
image

Once the sun set we headed back to our hostel, exhausted from the heat of the day. We had a rest in the wonderfully air-conditioned room before heading out for dinner. As we were walking to the restaurant we heard someone call to us and when we turned we found it to be Camille and Vincent, the couple from Montreal we had met in Phnom Penh! We were delighted to see them and made plans to meet up after dinner.

We headed to their hostel to grab the bottle of whiskey they had and wanted to finish, found a small store for coke and ice, and took to the streets. Our first order of business was to get 30 minute foot massages for a “group” rate of $2 USD each. It was heaven. Later in the night we also tried the fish tank pedicure, in which you put your feet in a tank with fish that eat the dead skin. I really didn’t enjoy this, the fish suck and nibble your feet with their teeth and I found it rather unnerving! My feet felt fabulously smooth after, but I think I rather a good old fashioned pedicure.

We then attempted to find another karaoke bar, or KTV, but were shocked to learn the prices were $15 USD an hour rather than $3 that we had paid in Phnom Penh. Defeated, we headed back to our respective hostels as it was already 2 AM and Chris and I were scheduled to watch the sunrise over Angkor in a few short hours.

With only two hours of sleep, Chris and I dragged ourselves out of bed for 4:30 AM departure to Angkor. We seriously considered skipping it, but we figured we would regret it. I will use one of my lovely cousin Wes’s favorite words to describe the sunrise; acceptable. We managed to snag a spot to sit at the front of the throngs of selfie-stick wielding tourists, but it still detracted from the experience. Happy we made it out of bed for it, but definitely overrated.

image

image

image

As we had already explored the main complex of temples we were able to avoid the hundreds of people by heading out to do the ‘grand’ tour of the smaller temples. Whoever named the temple circuits must have mixed up the names as they are totally nonsensical.

We enjoyed these smaller temples even more than the ones on the previous day, and our favorite part of our entire visit was actually the beautiful lakes surrounding the complex. Thankfully, we were finished our visit by 10:00 am and could head back to bed for a much needed nap.

image

image

image

image

As we walked to dinner that evening Chris spotted a small Sports Bar advertising UFC-194 for the following day at 10:00 am. We were meant to leave but decided to push our departure by a day to be able to take in the fights (I earned major brownie points by encouraging us to stay, but he knows I enjoy watching the fights just as much as he does).

We headed to the bar bright and early at 9:30 to secure seats for the fights. It was bizarre to be there so early, but everyone was fired up for the event. As expected, I was the only girl in attendance. It was great to be able to watch the fights live as we didn’t expect we would be anywhere that would be showing them. After the fights we headed to burger joint to get a break from noodle dishes, and were surprised with how delicious the burgers were. The rest of the day was spent relaxing!

The next day we decided to lounge by the pool, working on our tans, before making the massive trek to 4000 islands the following day. I will cover that saga in my next post!

Overall impression of Cambodia? We really enjoyed our time in the country and think it offers some really valuable travel experiences. We were surprised how modern the two cities we visited were, and how well things are set up for tourists. We wished we could have stayed longer as there are many other places you can visit, especially the beautiful beaches on the coast! Coming towards the end of our trip means we do not have the luxury of endless amounts of time, and we have to prioritize what we see and do. If I had a do-over I would have spent more time in Cambodia before heading to Laos. Alas, you can’t get it right every time!

Cambodia: Part 1

Hey everyone!

This marks my 100th post, can you believe that? Thank you to all my readers for sticking with us for this incredible journey!

We arrived to Cambodia feeling a little unprepared having enjoyed Singapore too much to have done proper research before arriving. This lack of preparation showed its ugly head early as we tried to withdraw money from an ATM at the airport- the only options it gave were for USD. We began to wonder if we hadn’t arrived to another wondrous country that uses USD predominantly, but gives change it its own currency, the Cambodian riel. Zimbabwe used this system and it has to be the most ingenious scam going.

We forged on, deciding to use the USD we converted in Singapore for the time being. We arranged a tuktuk for the unheard price of $9 USD, the flat rate from the airport to the city. We burst out laughing as we arrived at our tuktuk, a chariot compared to the tuktuks from India and Sri Lanka. The drivers hook a carriage to the back of their scooters via a very unsafe looking hitch. I am not convinced we aren’t going to go flying one day when this trusty system becomes unlatched after hitting a pot hole. The upside is they are very roomy and fit our luggage much easier than the previous tuktuks.

image

As we made our way into the city of Phnom Penh I was taken aback by how modern and beautiful it was. I was expecting something more along the lines of Colombo, but it is really a much more impressive city with some really stunning architecture. The dust kicked up from the afternoon traffic detracted from our views and made me consider the value of wearing a mask that I so often scoff at.

We arrived to our hostel and when trying to pay the tuktuk driver with a $20 dollar note he conveniently only had $10 change, the best trick in the book to guarantee an extra dollar fare. We weren’t biting on this as the price was already ludicrous and bummed $9 off the hostel owner. The owner gave us a very interesting and lengthy welcome before showing us to our room. The first thing we did was indulge in $0.75 draft beer, a no-brainer coming from countries where the cheapest we could find bottled beer being $3-4 dollars. We began chatting with another couple over beers and were delighted to find out they were from Montreal.

After chatting for a while we decided we could no longer ignore our stomachs that hadn’t had any food since the airplane meal so we took to the streets to find a good local restaurant to sample our first meal in SE Asia. We walked for a while before finding a spot full of locals, the best sign the food is good, and ordered. I opted for a soup, while Chris went for a beef dish. My soup consisted of lemongrass, kale and pork and was absolutely delicious. Chris also enjoyed his meal and altogether it cost us under $4. We could get used to this. We also discovered our initial gut-feeling about the currency was correct, having a handful of essentially useless Cambodian riel given as change for our $5 USD note.

After dinner we wandered around, stopping in at a pharmacy where I was able to buy more Synthroid over-the-counter as I had run out. Very pleased with being able to re-stock as I require the medication, I was at the same time appalled at how easily accessible it was. It makes me wonder what else I could ask for, and receive, with no questions asked. The ‘pharmacist’ was so pleased with herself when she matched the name of the medication I wrote on a piece of paper with the proper box. If only it were that simple.

We continued our walk before the other couple, Camille and Vincent, suggested we should try and find a karaoke place. We headed back to the hostel to ask for advice and were told to look for places named ‘KTV’ and pay no more than $3 USD an hour. We easily found a place called ‘KTV-666’ and inquired about pricing. Indeed it was $3 USD an hour, beer was $0.75 a can, and we would have our own room to belt out tunes to our hearts content. We went for it and were brought to a room adorned entirely in velvet (even the walls) with couches and a tv. You found a song you wanted to sing in a binder, then used the tv remote to punch in the number, and voila! Karaoke Delight. Chris and I are both awful singers while Camille and Vincent were very good, but it was an absolute blast nonetheless. We screamed at the tv for over 2 hours before calling it quits for the evening.

The next morning our throats ached from all of the “singing” and we were hurting having gone so long with not drinking more than one beer at a time. We decided to have a slow morning, then head out to explore in the afternoon. We gained a new roommate as we were crawling out of the holes we had dug for ourselves and he tagged along for the city exploring. We made it as far as a riverside restaurant with $0.50 beers and spent the rest of the afternoon engaged in conversation about where we were coming from and where we were going. It is always awesome to speak with like-minded travellers and the afternoon passed very enjoyably. We found a local haunt serving soup on our walk back to the hostel before heading to bed as we had a long day planned for the next day.

The next morning we met another Canadian who would be joining us in our tuktuk for a full day of activities. Nick, our roommate, joined us for the first part of the day before needing to catch a bus.

The day started at a shooting range where the guys were keen to shoot things that you would never be able to back in Canada (or Auz). I was a bit apprehensive as I have never shot anything in my life but the extremely friendly army guy working the range convinced me to go half and half on rounds with Chris. Before I go any further and everyone gets up in arms (pun intended) about all of the issues surrounding guns, we did this activity purely for the experience. We are not gun crazed supporters, nor will we be after shooting them. We had the same mindframe engaging in this activity as bungee jumping, or cage diving with the great white sharks; it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Now that we all feel better, I will tell you about the shooting range. It is run by the army and manned by members of the army, so you are supporting the army by being there. A bit of a strange idea, the army benefiting from a tourist attraction, but hey, T.I.C (This is Cambodia). Our favorite travel show, Departures, had visited this range on their episode in Cambodia and it is how we knew it existed. When googling the prices for the different weapons I stumbled on their website where they have videos of people firing RPGs at bamboo huts full of petrol. You should check it out, it is absolutely mental. http://www.cambodiashooting.com/. This activity, as well as thowing or launching a hand grenade, need to be pre-arranged as you must go 1.5 hours out of the city to the army base to fire these. We didn’t have the time or money for these activities, so we stuck with the shooting range. We opted to try our hand at an AK-47, and a belt fed machine gun, the M-57. Having made our choices and paid the $150 USD (thanks santa) for 50 rounds of both, I prepared for a safety briefing. This never came, instead the ever energetic army guy took us into the firing room, handed us army jackets and ear protection, and asked if we wanted to buy coconuts to shoot at. They were the most expensive coconuts we have ever purchased at $2 USD a pop, but they made things much more fun. He then said ‘OKAY WHO IS FIRST!’ in a bit of an unnerving, excited manner. No safety briefing necessary apparently. Chris went first on the AK, the army guy giving him tips and cheering loudly when he hit the coconuts. It was then my turn and I was terrified. The ranger lovingly braced my shoulder from the kickback of the gun and screamed “SHOOT NOW!” I discovered I am quite a good shot, much to Chris’s dismay. The look on the other guys faces was also priceless. The power of the AK was captivating, and horrifying. It is one of the most common weapons of war and terror and thinking of this application after knowing what it feels like to shoot was nauseating. It was a very big adrenaline rush and I have an understanding why people shoot guns as a hobby now.

image

image

image

Next was the M-57, and we let the other guys go first before we had a go. You had to lay on the floor to shoot this beast, and it is powerful. Chris was very good with this, while I struggled a bit as I found it akward due to being smaller than the guys. It was an outrageous experience, when you hit the coconut it caught on fire, becoming a glowing red ball. This was something in a whole other league of crazy, and we were all a bit speechless after. There aren’t eloquent words to describe such an intense (once in a lifetime) experience.

image

image

The rest of the day was dedicated to learning about the history of the Cambodian genocide. It seems strange to go from a shooting range to this, and it was, but usually people do it all in one day as it makes the transport cheaper. Bizarre, I know.

We made our way to the Cheung Ek Killing Field where the price of admission was $6 USD and included an audio guide. The audio guide was so informative, and had many options for further information at each stop if you so chose. Like my posts on visiting Auschwitz and Rwanda, I will not go into detail on our time at the killing fields. It is something you need to learn about and visit for yourself, I do not have the vocabulary to describe the atrocities that occured. It is unimaginable that it was only 36 years ago that the Vietnamese invaded and drove out the Khmer Rouge to liberate the people. It is hard not to look around and think that almost everyone has lived through the genocide, or is affected by it in someway. One book I highly recommend reading to hear one survivors account and to learn more about the genocide is, ‘First they Killed my Father’ by Loung Ung.

After the killing fields we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The site is a former school that was used as a secret prison known as S-21 during the genocide. The prison was used as an interrogation centre where soldiers used horrifying means of torture to coerce prisoners into false confessions naming family, friends, associates etc. who were then in turn arrested. After obtaining these “confessions” the prisoners were executed. Visiting this place of torture was exceedingly difficult. As with visiting Auschwitz and Rwanda, it is important to learn about these awful historical events to prevent history from repeating itself. Having now visited three genocide sites, the similarities are horrifying. It strongly emphasizes the need for education to prevent this repetition of history.

After our heavy day we all took a nap, exhausted from the emotions we experienced. We had dinner, relaxed, and then headed to bed.

The next morning we were picked up at our hostel and brought to the office of the mini-van service we had booked to take us to Siem Reap. I will cover our time there in my next post.