I heart Cambodia PART ONE

Mar 12, 2012 by     No Comments    Posted under: Cambodia, Cori's blogs, Where two now?

(By Cori) After lounging on Thai beaches for a while, around mid-December we figured a plan was needed for the upcoming holidays and so we decided to head into Cambodia, where prices were bound to be cheaper even in the high season.

Spoiler alert…we loved Cambodia!! We stayed from December 19 to January 6 and could’ve stayed longer, or long-term for that matter. For a country with such a painful past (and a quite recent one at that), we were overwhelmed by the richness of its history and the warmth of its people. We decided on a basic travel route from Bangkok to Siem Reap, then Battambang, Phnom Penh, Kep and on to Vietnam. But more on that later!  Our border crossing story is below, as well as highlights of our time in the first two stops…a part two post will follow shortly.


Bangkok to Siem Reap: a train ride and border scam

There is always a bit of anxiety associated with border crossings, as you never can be quite sure what to believe about how to get to, across, and away from borders. It usually requires several transportation combinations as well as vigilance to not fall prey to phony money changers, bribe-seeking officials, taxi touts, etc. After 10 months on the road, we were confident about crossing from Thailand to Cambodia and well informed/prepared about what we’d need to do. No matter what, I’ve found that border crossings tend to be associated with long days, longer lines, lots of carbs, a bit of frustration, a bit more inefficiency, and ultimately a sense of “there has to be a better way to do this.” That being said, our experience was fairly smooth but in retrospect, is also a sort of funny and typical travel tale. Read on for a taste of what we consistently seem to go through…

We left our guesthouse in Bangkok early enough that we needed to wake the staff member sleeping on the lobby floor and have her unlock the front gate.  We then hailed a taxi off the street to go to the train station, after insisting that the taxi driver use the meter (as they are technically required to do) instead of randomly charging us a high tourist rate. Arriving early, we quickly stocked up on crucial travel snacks like bread, peanut butter and water at the station’s mini-mart and splurged on some DELICIOUS freshly made waffles for breakfast.  Yum. Like fried dough, but it felt way healthier since it was in a waffle shape. I had two. On the train we were crammed into very hard and very straight-backed chair/benches (2 people facing 2 people) with an open window for fresh/hot air. The ride was about 4 hours, which wasn’t too bad but sitting the way we were our backs were killing us by the time it was over.

When we got off the train several tuk tuk drivers swarmed around us, offering to take us to the border for about $2-$3. We had read warnings in our guidebooks and heard from others that tuk tuks often take foreigners to a ‘false border’ where they try to sell you a Cambodian visa at an inflated price, so we were on guard. But our driver (a young woman) seemed sincere and nice and took us to an official looking building with many staff members in uniforms who were helpfully shuttling us into the office to get a visa. My first red flag was when the man inside immediately gave us forms to fill out for our visa and I asked what about the Thailand exit stamp (since that always comes first) and he looked a bit taken aback and then said if we wanted he would take us there first and then come back for the visa. What?! That made no sense. Then I asked how much the Cambodian visa was and he quoted a ridiculous price so we immediately knew that we were in the middle of a scam so we got up, loudly said no way, and walked out, warning others on the way that this was NOT the official border. Obviously no one tried to stop us or deny that this wasn’t the official exit/entry point.  How annoying. We were especially irritated (and a bit impressed) with how comprehensive and slick the scam was with the official uniforms and all. Still felt like suckers for falling for it after all the warnings. Argh.

So we walked 5 min more down the road and found the correct official Thailand exit post and line to wait in. Some Cambodian guy who ‘looked’ official (baseball cap and some sort of nametag worn around his neck) asked us where we were from and made a big deal out of shouting “AMERICA!! I KNOW SOMEONE IN CALIFORNIA!!! GOOD COUNTRY!!” and then insisted on personally walking us across the street to the Cambodian entry point which was highly unnecessary but he was super friendly and seemed to want to help.  Even so, Brandyn and I wanted to ditch him…friendly people near borders are never to be trusted (see how jaded we’ve become!) and we didn’t want to face an awkward situation where he would ask for a tip for walking us across the street and giving us information we already knew.

Anyway, the entry point officials charged us the correct fee for a visa $20 USD each but then stuck on an extra 200 baht (for themselves presumably). No explanation, just a matter-of-fact “this is the fee” even though it wasn’t documented anywhere in the office. Oh well, nothing we could do so we paid it. Visa in hand we waited in yet another line to get our entry stamp and YAY we were legally in Cambodia.

Unsurprisingly, our friendly California-loving-official-looking guy was outside waiting for us and led us to a free shuttle bus to go to the bus station (again, unnecessary because the bus was like 50 feet away and its existence wasn’t exactly a secret). Arriving at the bus station our new friend was chatting away about where to change our Thai baht to US dollars (the currency used in Cambodia), and other helpful tidbits.  To get to Siem Reap our options were to pay $9 each for a bus that would take 4 hours, or pay $12 each for a taxi that would take 2 hours, would leave immediately, and would take us directly to our hotel. Yep, we chose the taxi. We met a nice Australian man and his daughter when we were in one of the lines so we decided to share a taxi with them. When our departure was imminent, our helper (who turned out to be a volunteer at the border who helps tourists get oriented) asked for a tip and when Brandyn gave him a dollar he literally was over the moon. We felt a little bit like jerks for trying to get rid of him earlier and thinking he was trying to con us.  This was our first official introduction to the genuine warmth of the Cambodian people.


Siem Reap: awe-inspiring ancient ruins meet a touristy backpacker haven

We stayed in Siem Reap for 4 nights and really enjoyed our experience. It has a pretty developed tourist infrastructure due to the fact that EVERYONE comes here and uses the town as a base to explore the nearby Angkor temples. Yeah, its touristy…lots of people selling souvenirs in the streets, night markets, “Pub Street” which is filled with bars and restaurants, tuk tuk drivers asking to drive you somewhere every second…but who cares? It was a nice and comfortable base to explore the area and introduce us to Cambodia. Highlights of our stay there include:

The temples of Angkor: So this is the reason everyone goes to Siem Reap. To paraphrase Lonely Planet, Wikipedia and a few other websites, Angkor (which means city) was the capital of the powerful Khmer empire from the 9th to 13th century and ruled a huge territory. Hundreds of temples were built during this time. They were (are) architectural masterpieces and there is immense Cambodian pride in these ruins. The one you may have heard of is Angkor Wat, the principal temple which is HUGE and is like a labyrinth with beautiful towers and it is nearly impossible to believe it was built by hand. Wow. But my favorite was Bayon, which has enormous stone faces on its towers. It also was one of the temples we visited early in the day so we were practically alone crawling all around the temple and exploring. I also loved Ta Prohm which had big old trees that had grown up and over and through the ruins. We had a LONG day of temple viewing – from sunrise to 1pm and after 8 hours of traipsing through temple after temple we started to get cranky and HOT. But they were super impressive and nothing we have seen since (in terms of ruins) even comes close.

Meeting Sam, our tuk tuk driver: We met Sam on our first night in Siem Reap when we were feasting on fresh shrimp spring rolls and 50 cent draft beers at an outdoor restaurant. He was sitting on his tuk tuk waiting for customers and struck up a conversation with us. He was clearly super proud of Cambodia and of his town and told us about Siem Reap and about the temples. He then, unexpectedly, started talking about the Khmer Rouge and how his family was impacted by their terrible regime. How his mother’s family was separated and his aunts are in France but they lost contact and now have no idea where they are or how to find them. He was matter-of-fact, super sincere and seemed to genuinely want to share information about Cambodia with us. Also, he had just about the best wide grin I’d ever seen. We were happy to spend the night chatting with him and then asked him to be our tuk tuk driver to explore the Angkor temples the following day.

Fish foot massage: Okay, so this is a kinda silly Cambodian memory since it could’ve happened in any other country I suppose. What’s the fish foot massage? A big tank filled with tiny fish (like fat goldfish sized) and cushioned benches around the tank where you sit and dangle your feet in and let the fish eat your dead skin. Sounds fun, right? Our feet were disgusting after so much sandal-wearing on dusty roads and we were in serious need of some foot treatment so after dinner one night when we were walking back to our guesthouse we finally said YES to one of the kids on the street trying to get our business at the massage place. The first second putting your foot in the water is a bit weird since you don’t know quite what to expect and then the fish just swarm around you and start nibbling! It felt ticklish for sure, but once you got over that it felt like tiny, rough (sandpaper rough), pinches and it didn’t feel bad or good. It just was. It was fun to watch them though and to see what part of your foot they went for (seemed to prefer toes, not so much into the calluses on our heels). Half hour massage for $3 and lots of fun pictures was a pretty decent way to end our night.

Silk farm tour: One day we visited Artisans d’Angkor, an artisan vocational training institution, that was originally founded to support and promote Khmer art and culture, and provide jobs to rural youth who were interested in traditional crafts. The grounds are filled with workshops where you can see the artisans in action with their wood carvings, stonework, silk painting, and other crafts. The showroom was GORGEOUS and filled with beautiful textiles and statues and amazingly beautiful and high quality art, nothing of which was appropriate to buy on our backpacker budget. They offered a free shuttle bus to a nearby silk farm where they make their silk for their products. I jumped at the opportunity, leaving Brandyn behind since he had zero interest. Long story short, I was blown away by the tour. The guide walked us through the whole silk making process which was incredibly interesting and gave me an even deeper appreciation for the work that goes into making natural-dyed handwoven silk products. I know that cloth doesn’t come out of thin air, but to actually see the process is eye-opening. I saw silk worms, and learned that they are fed mulberry tree leaves and then spin (silk) cocoons and then are put in the sun to dry out and then the cocoons are put in hot water and strands are pulled off the cocoons with some contraption to make thread and then they are dyed and then woven into gorgeous scarves, shirts, etc. It is such a manual and detail-oriented process and watching the men and women working in the silk factory was just amazing.  Seeing a finished product in the showroom and knowing it started with an ugly worm making its cocoon was a great souvenir for me to take with me.

Discovering fish amok: This is a classic Cambodian dish that we randomly ordered one night in a Khmer restaurant, figuring we had to try it, and it was, happily, DELICIOUS! Fish amok is made from chunks of white fish (or you can get prawns or chicken instead) that are cooked with coconut milk, kaffir lime, chilies, galangal (like ginger) lemongrass, and a few other things and then served in a bowl made of banana leaves. The taste is rich and creamy and so good and unlike any combination of flavors I’ve ever had. Such a great find.

Battambang: a boat ride and a Christmas celebration

You can get to Battambang from Siem Reap by bus (4 hours) or by boat (8 hours). We chose the boat. AHHHH! WHYYY?? Well, it was supposed to be a very scenic ride through narrow waterways and floating villages so we thought it would be interesting. Brandyn is much more into boats than I am, I tend to get bored of them after an hour, but I figured it wasn’t too big of a deal. We had heard that the boats uphold ZERO international safety standards so I was a bit nervous about overcrowding and drowning and those fun things, but we made it through okay. It actually was an okay ride. Good points – passing through floating villages, literally boats and structures that were houses and schools and stores and waving at the little kids along the way. Oh, and the little baby sitting next to us was super cute. Bad points – the hard wooden benches we were sitting on, our proximity to the engine so the noise and smell was overpowering, the man near us that had not one, but TWO seizures while on the boat so we had to helplessly watch his wife and other locals try to revive him by scratching him with their nails and then rubbing tiger balm in the cuts.

Arriving in Battambang we met a nice tuk tuk driver who spoke excellent English.  (“Call me Tea like the drink” he said when we asked what his name was, but I think its spelled Ty). He took us to Lux Guesthouse, a Cambodian owned/run place that had large, lovely rooms for only $11 a night. Yay! We immediately liked the vibe in Battambang. Though its Cambodia’s second largest city it has the feel of a sleepy little town.  There were lots of restaurants around and everything within walking distance, so we felt comfortable.

What did we do in Battambang? A lot centered around things we saw while with Ty, who on two separate days rode us around in his tuk tuk to local places of interest, made all the more interesting by his commentary and explanations, and the beautiful countryside filled with rice paddies, and small villages with houses on stilts. Notable standouts include…

Riding the bamboo train: This literally was a bamboo platform with a small engine on it that runs along the railroad tracks and can quickly be stopped and dismantled and moved if a real train is coming (or another bamboo train) from the opposite direction. Apparently it was ingeniously invented by locals to get to places faster while using existing train track infrastructure. Riding on it was SO FAST so bumpy, even though we were only going like 30 km/hr it felt faster since we were so close to the rails, and each break in the tracks made it feel like we were going to go flying off into the nearby rice paddies.

Learning how rice paper and rice noodles are made: Ty stopped the tuk tuk at a few seemingly random houses that he knew of where the families made rice paper and rice noodles. So cool to see in person how they make the foods we’ve been eating nearly every day and it was yet another reminder of how important rice is to the lives of Cambodians. Rice paper is made from a ground rice/water mixture that is the consistency of thin pancake batter that is spread in a thin circle onto a piece of fabric stretched tight over a boiling water pot, and then once cooked (just a few seconds) is quickly taken off and placed onto a woven bamboo rack and left to dry. It dries hard and with a neat criss-cross pattern, but then you just dip it in water quickly to get it to be soft again (like if you want to make spring rolls). Rice noodles are similar. The rice dough is pressed through some ancient looking lever machine and comes out in spaghetti-ish shapes and then are quickly put in cool water.

Visiting the Killing Caves: This was a solemn experience, but a very important one in terms of introducing us to the terrors of the Khmer Rouge and helping us slowly begin to see what the country had been through. Ty took us to a hill called Phnom Sampeau which we climbed up and first admired several temples (as well as fed bananas to some hungry and friendly monkeys). The hill is also the home of the killing caves, where thousands of innocent Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge. It was extremely gruesome, people were brought to the top of the caves, and then bludgeoned to death or had their throats slit and were pushed down the skylight into a deep cave. A few memorials were set up, with skulls and bones displayed in glass cases, and there were still some small pieces of bone and clothing in the area. So horrible to think about and just standing there and picturing the atrocities that had occurred there literally made our stomachs turn. Barbaric. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that all of this had happened after I had been born. Did my parents know about it? Did the world know?  This was just the beginning lesson to a lot of education about the Khmer Rouge during our time in Cambodia.

Seeing an amazing acrobatic performance: So we wanted to go to this “circus” in Battambang that I think is misnamed/mismarketed. The actual Cambodian name is Phare Ponleu Selpak and it is an NGO that helps disadvantaged Cambodian youth learn a range of artistic skills such as painting, acrobatics, theater, music, etc. as well as traditional educational subjects. The organization is quite renowned and has sent several of its students on to Cirque du Soleil. They put on performances a few times a week to raise money for the organization (and hone their skills) and the one we went to blew us away!! Not exactly the dancing bear circus that the name suggests. The performers were ages 16-24 and so talented…there was a 3-student band providing a musical background to a high-energy, well choreographed acrobatics show. These kids were juggling, balancing, and doing crazy acrobatics literally just like Cirque de Soleil. Great showmanship and just fantastic entertainment.  After a tiring and mentally exhausting day at the Killing Caves, it was quite a contrast and very inspiring to see young Cambodians with so much energy and talent and clearly living life to the fullest.

Taking a cooking class: On Christmas morning we took a cooking class offered at a nearby restaurant called “The Smokin’ Pot”. There were 8 of us in total and we first went with the chef to the local market to buy fresh ingredients, which was such fun. The market is run by women, all of whom have small stalls on the inside or designated areas on the ground outside where they squat and sell their wares. The chef explained all of the ingredients (some of which didn’t look the way I had pictured them – like lemongrass), and we got to see him bargaining with all of the women for what he wanted. Definitely an experience! We got back to the restaurant and were quickly put to work chopping veggies, grinding spices and such in a giant mortar and pestle and then we moved on to individual work stations/stoves to cook up (and eat) three yummy dishes. We made fish amok, and two other spicy ones that I forget the names of but will remember soon enough since they gave us a recipe book which I sent home.  After our disastrous cooking ‘class’ in India we finally felt redeemed, and got a little bit excited about future dinner parties once we get back to Brooklyn.

Exchanging ‘secret Santa’ gifts: Since it was Christmas after all, we decided to do our own version of “secret Santa” and gave ourselves a $5 and 30 minute limit to buy each other a Christmas gift which wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Battambang isn’t a very tourist-oriented town so there weren’t any souvenir shops and the dozens of hardware, electronics and clothing stores didn’t quite have anything appropriate. FINALLY I found a small handicrafts place and bought a pair of bamboo wood chopsticks (which we had been admiring in several restaurants), a loofah made of Cambodian natural products (Brandyn loves them), and then as a final touch, I bought an Angry Birds keychain from a street vendor (we’ve become obsessed with the game on this trip). I was pretty happy with myself! I got back to the hotel and Brandyn was grinning, saying that he got a great gift for me but it wouldn’t be ready for him to pick up until 5pm. Hmmmmm. So that night we went to happy hour at a nearby restaurant and began the gift exchange. I had wrapped my gifts in plastic bags (classy) and Brandyn loved them. Yay! Then he handed me his gift, wrapped in his scarf. It was rectangular and hard…I had no idea what it could be. Then I took off the scarf and saw the back of a picture frame. Oh cool, I thought, he bought some art! I flipped the frame around and couldn’t believe it…I was staring at a professional totally air-brushed photo of Brandyn wearing his bright red Kingfisher beer muscle shirt, doing a double thumbs-up, and standing in front of a wrought iron balcony with fake smoke all around. At the bottom of the photo were the words “Merry Christ Mas 2011 Battambang Cambodia”. LOVED IT!!! We had been passing by tons of photo shops in Cambodia and all of them had these ridiculously posed and overly airbrushed photos of couples and individuals in front of outrageous backgrounds. Like a senior high school photo gone wrong. So Brandyn had played along and gotten a portrait and although it was all really was a big joke to him, he and the staff at the photo store had taken it very seriously  and took about 30 shots of him. Brandyn doesn’t want me to post a big picture of him but I DO have a digital copy so if you want to see it let me know and I’ll share it.

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