ABBA music was blaring as our bus pulled out of Siem Reap headed to Phnom Penh. To be precise it was a bootleg copy of the movie Mamma Mia! that was skipping as the bus sped through the Cambodian countryside. Minus Pierce Brosnan’s laughable singing, it was actually a pretty pleasant drive and a quick lunch break in the middle of the trip made the 4.5 hour trip go by quickly. My colleague and friend in Jakarta, Christi, had lived in Phnom Penh for two years so she gave me a list of places to see. She suggested spending some time at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club. We whiled away a few hours and watched the sky change over the convergence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers.
I really enjoyed the days we spent in Phnom Penh. Things move slower, probably because it is a much smaller capital city than Bangkok and Jakarta. It was easy to walk everywhere and the mix of old colonial buildings was right up my alley. I even got to see a housemate from college who has been teaching in Phnom Penh. It was fun to go out with her and her boyfriend to a less touristy bar and catch up.
Locals hang out and work out next to the river:
We strolled through the laid-back city and did the pretty typical tourist itinerary as well.
Royal Palace: When I am on vacation I like to take it slow. The Royal Palace staff likes to lunch between the hours of 11 and 2, so this meant I had to speed up my morning routine. It was worth seeing the palace with its ornate buildings and gifts from French royalty. Oh and then there’s that gold Buddha decorated with 9,584 diamonds, no photography of course.
Yes, that is me. Yes, that is me holding a deep fried spider. Yes, that is the face of uncertainty, despair, curiosity and peer pressure all rolled into one. Really, I shouldn’t be so apprehensive about a spider, I did drink cobra blood already. Plus, I was the girl in college who was summoned to kill spiders for other people. I had eaten ants before at summer camp during a survival clinic. So I guess spiders were a logical progression? Plus they came on a nice plate with a dipping sauce! When Victor and I heard that insects were part of the menu in Cambodia we were both curious. They are a good source of protein and when anything is fried and seasoned it can’t be half bad, right?
So while we were in Phnom Penh we had dinner at Romdeng (74 Ph 174) and ordered some spiders. To be honest, they didn’t taste like much except for that fried taste you get whenever you deep fry something.
Just when I thought the worst was over, one of the chefs passed by our table and stopped right by me. He had a live spider crawling up his arm and held it towards my face. I shrieked so loud the whole restaurant turned to look and laugh at me. So much for keeping a cool demeanor.
While we traveled by bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, we stopped to have lunch and we walked by many road side stands selling insects of all kinds for snacks:
Alright, I admit it: I put the bugs up top to drag you in. We ate a lot of terrific food while in Cambodia and none of the rest of it involved insects of any sort. Before traveling to Cambodia, I had never been exposed to any Cambodian cuisine. If I had to give a very general description, I would say it has elements of both Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, its neighbors. There were plenty of vegetables and fresh salad dishes, so I was happy for the break from deep fried.
Amok was on my list of Cambodian dishes to try. Amok is a curry dish, usually with fish but I saw many options on menus. The fish is steamed in banana leaves and the curry gets a mousse-like quality. I really enjoyed this:
Siem Reap is a strange town. It really felt like two towns rolled into one. One town for the tourists who like to drink and have a good time and another for all the Cambodians who actually call Siem Reap home. This is about both of those towns rolled into one. Before even arriving in Siem Reap I had heard about the infamous Pub Street — a street lined with bars and restaurants. Victor and I decided to check out the area and it was everything I expected it to be: Menus heralding drink specials, restaurants ranging from Italian to Khmer, and plenty of college-age foreigners looking for a good time.
Mixed into this area are beautiful old buildings and interesting shops, many of which claim that the proceeds from crafts go back to children and other populations in need. As I noted in my previous post, Victor and I had been exposed to the charity side of tourism in Cambodia. I’ve been reading a lot about this lately and I discussed this with a colleague in Jakarta who had worked in Phnom Penh for several years. She told me that Cambodia has become known for the multitude of NGOs that come to work there and that it can be very murky where some of the money goes. She also mentioned a wealthy gated community outside Phnom Penh where many of the NGO directors have large homes. Siem Reap is known for a scam involving kids who ask you to buy them powered milk. They will return the milk and then take the cash. I had read about this in a guide book and then a friend told me about it happening to her. Aid is an extremely complex issue, so no easy answers here.
Victor and I had some dinner on Pub Street, nothing fantastic, and decided to find a cocktail bar that came recommended from the blog Eating Asia, of which I am a big fan. Miss Wong Cocktail Bar (The Lane – Between streets 7 & 8) was a great recommendation, once we finally found it. This trendy little bar is a bit tucked away, but still close enough to it all.
After two days of exploring Angkor Wat, Victor and I were starting to get a bit templed out so we started perusing the brochures at our hotel. We zeroed in on one from Tara Travel: Kompong Khleang Tour. The brochure promised a visit to a fishing village, stilted homes and a flooded forest, plus lunch, transport (car and boat), and guide. So without knowing much about where we were going we decided to go. At 8 a.m. our guide, Sophon, and driver met us at the hotel. It turned out it was going to be a private tour. Sophon spoke terrific English with a hint of an Australian accent. I asked him if he had learned English in Australia and he told me he had never left Cambodia in his life and had learned in school. Sophon was very open with us, answering all of our questions and indulging my desire to sample some street food. He told us how he had lost a sister to the Khmer Rogue and how his lifelong dream is to go back to his village and open a school there.
As we drove out of Siem Reap, we were surrounded by farm fields intermingled with jungle and cows grazing. As we approached Kompong Khleang the dirt road turned red and Sophon showed us a brick making yard that uses the dirt.
While walking, I spotted several long tables covered with small shells. Sophon said this is favorite snack in the area. I could see and smell the salt and spice mix that was mixed in with the shells, but it was too early in the day for me to be craving shellfish:
We weren’t able to see the flooded forest because it wasn’t the right time of year, but after seeing the stilted high homes, it was easy to imagine that all the roads we were walking would be flooded in a few months:
When you live in or travel to Southeast Asia, Angkor Wat is always high on the list of ‘must see’ places. Of course this comes with the caveat that there will be lots of tourists and many people trying to sell you things, but it is still one of the most impressive temple complexes I have ever seen. It’s the world’s largest Hindu temple complex and largest religious complex. Victor and I took an early morning flight from KL directly to Siem Reap, the large town near the temples, on AirAsia. In my early morning (3 a.m.) blur, I checked the folder with my passport photos that I would need to acquire a tourist visa on arrival. I went into an Indonesian-immigration induced panic. Should this happen to you: don’t panic, they make you pay a very reasonable $1 fee at the airport and send you on your way.
After my panic, we arrived at the hotel and headed to an ATM to get Cambodian money. As we packed into the small A/C ATM booth, we watched the machine spit out US dollars at us. This was the only country in SEAsia where I had seen this happen, we only used Cambodian money a few times during our week in country. We hired a tuk-tuk driver, who was with us for the next three days, and set out to start exploring the truly massive temple area. Since so much has been written about Angkor Wat, this is primarily a photo post of our journey (click on photos in montages for enlargements).
It was hot. Really hot. I felt like I was melting while walking around the temples. We stopped and tried some palm juice. It was too sweet for my taste:
I also stopped and bought a hat from a vendor who insisted her name was Angelina Jolie. Scenes from Tomb Raider were filmed at Angkor Wat. Below are shots mostly from the Bayon temple, one of my favorites: