Well. Cambodia is another country with a god awful history (and far too recently for my liking) who hasn’t yet made it out of the negative funk. The Cambodian people vote with a huge majority for a new parliament but politicians being politicians do what they want and Cambodia remains stuck in the past, unable to move forward. It’s such a shame as all the people we met are amazingly friendly with their beautiful smiles and grateful attitudes. I hope that sooner or later someone will care a whole awful lot and be able to help Cambodia get better.
The first day of our Intrepid tour took us from Saigon across the border into Cambodia to Phnom Penh (pronounced Pa-Nom Peng). Our tour guide Thida, was able to teach us lots of Cambodian phrases and history as we went which was an absolute pro for tour travel over self travel. She took us on a guided tuk tuk tour of the city to see the significant monuments (Grandma Penh – founder of the city, Wat Penh – first pagoda of the city, the previous King’s statue and the (French) Independence monument) and out to a great Cambodian restaurant called Touk.
Our second day took us to S-21 (Tuol Sleng Genocide museum) and the Killing Fields, learning more about the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide. We got to meet the 2 remaining survivers of S-21 (there were only 7 out of about 17,000 who were tortured there) and purchased a book on their story. I can’t imagine how hard it is for them to go to that prison every day, an unbearable reminder of what they have seen and experienced there, to teach and inform visitors and the next generation of what happened. It’s a good thing they do though as children don’t even get taught about the Khmer Rouge in schools! The government is attempting to sweep their dirty past under the rug. Here’s hoping the people can achieve change and achieve it soon!
Aside from Cambodia’s awful past, Phnom Penh is also home to the Royal Palace. The revered ‘Silver Pagoda’ was set to be a highlight with more than 5,000 inlaid silver tiles covering the floor (that’s almost 6 tonnes of pure silver!). Turns out almost all of the silver floor is now carpeted over to preserve the tiles! What a let down! The pagoda is also home to some pretty impressive Buddha statues though with one featuring a 25 carat diamond among the 9584 that it is decorated with. The city is also home to the junction of 4 rivers – The Upper Mekong, Lower Mekong, Bassac river & the Tonle Sao river. This makes for a pretty impressive spot to take a sunset cruise. It would seem that maritime rules are about as concrete as the road rules however, with big boats and little boats going left right and centre!
Our tour then took us onto Siem Reap with a stop to reduce the local insect population on the way. We tried tarantula, silk worm, cricket, grasshopper & black beetle. Silk worm and cricket were surprisingly palatable – everything else, not so much. We also went to a local silk farm and watched the entire process – from caterpillar -> cocoon -> transforming the silk cocoons into threaded silk -> turning the silk into scarves! Quite amazing actually. But not nearly as amazing as finding out cashew nuts grow on massive trees with a big red fruit per cashew – mind blown.
Our next stop was at Tonle Sap lake – the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. We caught a boat down the river and into the lake to see a floating village. There are people who live on the lake in straight up houses that float on barrels. They all manage just fine with solar panels and satellite dishes. The boat trip down the river was very cool, passing agricultural areas where I was surprised by the amount of modern(ish) practises they used with large irrigators, tractors and harvesters being seen regularly. Our boat however was using not so modern technology. The steering column was straight out of an old Nissan truck with ropes tied around it that ran down each side of the boat and attached to the rudder at the back. The accelerator consisted of hooking a toe over a different rope and literally giving it the jandal. (It seemed very similar to something my Granddad Frank would have dreamed up!)
Next stop Siem Reap and all of its wonderful temples! We spent a full day touring around and visited 3 temples with a local guide. Angkor Wat was, as expected, mind-blowing! I don’t even really know what to say about it – just look at the photos and put it on your bucket list if it’s not already. We also got to do a sunrise at Angkor Wat (bloody early start) which was something well and truely on my bucket list (not so much on Mark’s believe it or not). Again awesome to see, not quite what I had in mind – picture sun sparking over the tip of the temple – but still awesome. And yes you will be one of what seems like a billion other tourists there so don’t expect it to be deserted like in all the photos you see.
Other temple highlights were Bayon temple, with 4 faces on every pillar and Ta Prohm temple which was the temple used for scenes in the Tomb Raider movies. Ta Prohm has largely been over grown by the jungle which is a great point of difference after seeing temple after temple that are largely the same. A common tourist complaint is that they don’t want to see another bloody temple/pagoda but these ones are definitely worth it.
We were fortunate enough to unknowingly time our visit to Cambodia with Khmer New Years (lunar New Year). Unlike standard New Years celebrations of drinking and more drinking, the Cambodians throw water pistols and talcum powder into the mix. Result: ruined clothes & shoes, talc in every possible crevice of the body, serious hangovers but memories of one hell of a good night! We even randomly ran into a relative of mine that I haven’t seen in years which certainly encouraged the celebrations. What’s more, Siem Reap has an entire street dedicated to drinking which is aptly named ‘Pub Street’, our kind of street.
Our last stop in Cambodia was Battambang – home of the bamboo train! Again not what i expected at all. I’m not sure if you can call something a train just because it runs on railway tracks… Nevertheless it was a great experience and i would highly recommend it. Rumour has it though that it might not run for much longer as there is a new, better railway being built nearby so best you get in quick! In Battambang we also tried Bamboo sticky rice which was blimmin delish! Would highly recommend if you can get your hands on some of that – its made with coconut milk so is really nice and sweet. Also, turns out Khmer New Years is a 3 day celebration. Our tuk tuks got saturated by kids lining the streets with their water pistols, balloons and buckets – such good fun, I wish we had more free time to stop and join in!
The final day of our Intrepid tour was a long day in the bus over the Thai border and on to Bangkok. Flat out travel is very exhausting and everyone was pretty happy to have dinner, a quick walk down Khao San road (attempting to avoid more water fights) and back to the hotel for a couple of quiet drinks and bed.
All in all Cambodia has some great sights and experiences to offer. I really do feel for the people and hope that soon things will get better for them and their country will be able to flourish.
My tips for Cambodia:
- Again. Toilet paper. Take your own everywhere
- Try and time your visit to Siem Reap with Khmer New Years (Our Easter weekend) and invest in a large water pistol
- Border crossings can add hours to a bus trip. Where possible – flying would be easier (although a land border is a novelty for us Kiwi’s)
- Say no to plastic bags! (Our Intrepid bags have that written on them in Engligh and Cambodian. Rubbish is a huge issue which you will see immeadiately)
- Respect the culture and wear appropriate clothing to the temples – covered shoulders and knees
- Make sure you have plenty of water on you at all times – she’s pretty hot out
- Book a tour guide for Angkor Wat – so much history to be learnt