August 8-14, 2015
A few months ago I decided I wanted to spend two weeks traveling and chose Cambodia and Vietnam as my destinations. I booked all my hostels, hotels, and transportation in advance before things got crazy at my job. Not long after I invited my friend, and now roommate, Alex to come with me. She couldn’t go on the whole trip but she could go to Cambodia with me. Visas were applied for and more plans were made. Our trip was around the corner before we knew it.
We were so excited for our trip, but a few days before our flight on Saturday we were told of a super typhoon coming towards Taiwan. This made both of us very nervous. We packed our bags and went to bed, hoping for good weather in the morning. Around 12:00am the typhoon hit Taiwan. The wind was so strong, 55mph, that it was howling and making a lot of noise outside. We got a couple of hours of sleep that night,barely. Waking up at 4:00am, to get ready for our taxi ride at 5:00am, I called the airport and they said our flight was still on time. I was so frustrated I said, “I don’t know if you have looked outside but there is a typhoon happening and I don’t want to drive to the airport if I don’t have to.” Our taxi driver was still willing to drive us and we left at 5:00am for the airport. There were tree branches and debris all over the road. I was super glad I was sitting behind the driver and couldn’t see anything as my hands were already tightened into two white fists. We got to the airport at 7:00am. People were walking around in absolute confusion. When we reached the counter we were informed that the airport was closed until 10:00am. We still proceeded forward and went through security and immigration. We waited in the airport for 11 hours and changed gates three times. When the bus pulled up to our gate and we could board the plane I was so happy.
3.5 hours later and we landed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A short taxi ride later and we arrived at the Lovely Jubbly Hostel. Cambodia was a bit of a culture shock at first. No one wears helmets and it is very dirty. Like most countries similar to Cambodia, its’ history has had a part in its lack of modernity or cleanliness. The Lovely Jubbly was exactly what you would expect from a $7 hostel. The air conditioner in our room was on, but didn’t feel like it was working except for in very brief 5 second intervals. Before we went to bed we reserved a taxi to take us around the city the next day for $50USD. (Everything is priced in USD and Khmer Riel. Often we would get Khmer Riel back as change.) Despite the heat I almost immediately went to sleep.
We woke up in the morning to the hostel workers mistaking us for someone else. The other people in our room had a tour but had mistaken the time. Alex and I got up, got ready, and ordered breakfast.
Our taxi arrived and took us off to our first stop of the day, the S-21 Genocide Museum. This museum was the actual location of the prison. You could walk around the torture rooms and holding cells. There were witness stories and information about how the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot managed to kill thousands of people in a short time. This museum was leaving me on the edge of tears and was extremely humbling.
We continued our sad journey to the Killing Fields (Cheung Ek) located outside of Phnom Penh. When you enter the area they give you an audio tour when you arrive which takes you around the killing fields and explains each part of it. Once again, I was humbled and fighting back tears. Even when Alex and I were talking about it at dinner I wanted to cry thinking of certain parts of the killing fields. It is so hard to comprehend how a group of people can actively follow through with acts of genocide. I said a small prayer for the lost souls of the Pol Pot Regime.
Leaving the fields our taxi driver showed us to a place to eat nearby. We ate delicious food and then went back into Phnom Penh.
Next, our taxi driver took us to the Russian Market. I am not sure why it is called that because it just seemed like a market with lots of touristy things in it; nothing Russian about it. Along with a home goods, bike repair, and food section. We bought some things and then quickly left.
We proceeded to the Royal Palace. After waiting in line awhile we realized we weren’t appropriately dressed. Not wanting to buy the clothes available at the palace we went back to our taxi cab, grabbed some clothes and then went to the nearest cafe and asked if we could use their bathroom. They graciously let us use it and we went back to the palace, bought out ticket, and went in. The palace was beautiful. Almost all of the indoor sections were all prohibited to take pictures.
With it being a hot day we decided we had seen enough and went to our taxi. Where to go next got a little confusing. We tried to explain that we wouldn’t be going back to the hotel, but instead the bus stop and he took us there as if we wanted to go there right away. We finally got past the confusion and he took us to Wat Phnom, the largest one in Phnom Penh.
Finished with our list of sights our taxi driver dropped us off at our bus station and we said goodbye. We checked on our bus time and then dropped our bags off. We immediately headed for a cafe near the bus stop. The cafe was located right next to the Siem Reap Ferry Dock so we got a clear view of the river. Not wanting to go anywhere else we took our time at the cafe.
We spent 3 hours there and then walked along the river and then sat talking by the river for awhile. Everything seems to be out in the open with no shame in Cambodia. I watched a mom do drugs while her naked child was sitting next to her. Having seen enough Alex and I walked through the Phnom Penh Night Market. We bought a few things and just soaked in the night market culture in Cambodia. With really nothing else to do we went back to our station and waited for our bus, Giant Ibis. Soon enough we were on our overnight bus and just laughing at the absurdity of it like a bunch of amateurs. We were in for an interesting ride, but at least there was air conditioning.
The thankfulness for air conditioning in the sleeper bus was soon changed into complete resentment for it. The driver was driving so crazy and the road was very bumpy. I could hardly sleep. Not to mention that it was freezing and we had just a very thin sheet to use as a “blanket”. I attempted the bathroom twice and it was awful. I was falling all over the place. We finally arrived in Siem Reap at 6:00am. We got in a Tuk Tuk and they took us to our hotel, the Angkor Pal. It was on a back road of another back road. We were way too early to check-in, but they did let us change, eat breakfast, and take a short nap in the chairs in the lobby.
We got a Tuk Tuk to go to Angkor Wat and tour the temples. I always get nervous when I go to see destinations that I have wanted to see for a long time. I get worried that they won’t live up to my expectations. Angkor Wat met and surpassed my expectations. I couldn’t have imagined all the ruins and amazing views we were going to see all day. We saw Angkor Wat first, the largest religious shrine in the world.
We had to buy a 3-day pass, 40USD, before we could enter the area. After Angkor Wat we proceeded to Bayon, the old royal palace.
Our Tuk Tuk driver, Samuth, was so nice. Whenever we got back to the tuk tuk he would hand us cool towels and cold water bottles. At lunch he brought us to a stand where we enjoyed good food.
After lunch the fatigue of the heat and lack of sleep had really settled in. We went and saw another temple, Ta Prohm. This temple was the least restored out of all the temples we had seen that day. Half of it was in ruins and being restored so we couldn’t view it.
We left that temple and found our tuk tuk driver. He asked us if we were done for the day and we said yes. I was grateful that he suggested we move the last temple to the following day. I was so tired I was falling asleep just sitting in the tuk tuk. Samuth drove us back to our hotel and we paid him, 15USD for the whole day, and agreed on a meeting time for the next day. It was finally check-in time so we went up to our room, washed off the grim of the day, and took a nap. After checking some messages on my phone I fell asleep instantly. With a good nap in I got up, put on my swimsuit, and went down to the pool. There, a waiter asked if I wanted to do Happy Hour. I ordered a Pina Colada and let Alex order a Mojito later. Alex eventually joined me by the pool and then we ate dinner at our hotel.
We really just wanted to lay around the rest of the night. We showered and watched TV, enjoying our clean hotel room and clean sheets.
We got a full nights sleep. The best sleep we had gotten thus far. I woke up one time the whole night, yay! We ate breakfast, drank coffee, and then met Samuth at 10:00am for another day of touring the temples. This time we were going to go farther out to see the outer temples: Banteay Kdei, Pre Rup, East Mebon, and Ta Som all in the East Baray area. These temples are some of the oldest temples of all the Angkor Wat temples. The oldest ones were made out of a red stone/clay. The other older temples were not being as quickly restored as the others. You could tell that they were trying to band-aid fix some of the temples with board structures to keep the walls from falling over until they got around to restoring the temple. Even parts of the temple would be restored, but the image was set on the ground instead of in the wall. We looked at temple after temple, but still didn’t get bored. Every temple had details a little different than the last one, and I think we were both really amazed that we were even walking around them centuries after their creation. We put in a full morning of viewing temples and then sat down for lunch.
A boy came to our table saying that he collects different currencies, showing us a Vietnamese bill, and was wondering if we had any money from different countries. I said I had Taiwanese money, but he didn’t seem too thrilled about it. I gave him 61NT and he went on his way. Of course, fifteen minutes later another child came along asking the same thing. It took all my endurance to not give in again. I’m a sucker for the kids, but I know that is why their parents have them beg. Finished with lunch we went to our last couple of temples.
It started to rain and I swear it made walking around the temples that much cooler. Around 3:00pm we finished up our temple viewing for the day.
We got back to the hotel and with no small bills to pay Samuth we promised to pay him the next day. Alex spent the afternoon napping while I read my book and called a tour guide for a tour we were going on on Thursday. Once Alex woke up we got ready and walked to the Angkor Night Market.
We went on a little shopping spree buying gifts, buying some stuff for our apartment, and buying some things for ourselves. I decided to be brave and ordered a Durian (stinky fruit) shake and Alex ordered a Passion Fruit shake. I knew what to expect drinking the shake but Alex didn’t. I got such a good laugh from her face! Haha, poor Alex!
With a not-so-delicious Durian shake experience we ventured to find food. We stopped at a place that served Khmer BBQ and .50cent draft beers. The BBQ was good and we didn’t have any problem making the food ourselves once we figured out what we needed to do. Before we left the night market we stopped and got banana, chocolate crepes for 1USD. When we were walking home I stopped to buy some water and discovered the store had Reeses Nut Bars, something that I can’t get in Taiwan (it tasted so good!). I immediately bought Alex and I one. We got back to the hotel and spent the rest of the night relaxing.
Wednesday was our last temple tour day. We got up and ate breakfast and then got in the tuk tuk at 10:00am. Samuth was going to take us to the farthest temple area that was available on his tour. On our way to the first temple we stopped at two places. The first was the home of an old woman that makes homemade incense sticks for temples. We had Samuth translate some questions for us. We found out that the woman had been making them since she was a little girl. We bought a packet of incense sticks for 2USD. The next shop we stopped at was a rice noodle maker home. The family was making rice noodles for wholesale. It was actually super cool to watch as each family member had a process in making handmade rice noodles, although I felt like we were intruding on their home and business. Both homes had no electricity, so everything was made without machinery.
We headed way past Angkor Wat and stopped at Banteay Samre, an old temple that has many ruins around it. We couldn’t even walk all the way around the temple because so many parts of the roof had fallen in.
We continued on our way and stopped at the Landmine Museum, 5USD. This museum was about the life of one man who had been captured and made a child soldier of the Khmer Rouge for Pol Pot. He had been taught how to plant landmines for the rouge. When he was released and allowed to be free he created a NGO where he went out and unarmed landmines and UXOs by hand with a stick and pliers with his wife and a small team of people. This man is crazy and awesome at the same time. He also created a school that helps orphaned and handicapped children that have been affected by the mines exploding in their families’ fields or when they were playing outside their homes. I had been in a similar museum in Laos and done a presentation and project on UXOs in college, so this was making me flashback and reflect on how much war affects the innocent. I didn’t have any extra cash on me to donate so I bought a bracelet from their shop.
This museum was very sobering and made me very quiet during lunch.
After lunch we went to our last temple, and one that we had read was the most beautifully detailed out of all the Angkor temples. It was drizzling as we were walking around Banteay Srei and just so beautiful.
Walking away from the last temple was bittersweet. I wish we could have stayed in Siem Reap longer and kept exploring all of the temples around the area. Back at the tuk tuk we took a picture with Samuth and then Alex went and took a picture of a water buffalo, or just made it really mad (haha).
On our way back to Siem Reap we stopped and looked at rice fields, more specifically of rice farmers cutting their ripe rice plants.
Back at our hotel we paid Samuth and thanked him for being so good to us for the last three days. It was drizzling outside so we couldn’t lay out in the sun and tan. We spent the afternoon in our hotel room reading and figuring out details for leaving Cambodia. Eventually we went to dinner. We got two draft beers, garlic bread, samosas, and two dishes for 10.50USD. It’s prices like that that you can’t beat in Cambodia. We were enjoying our food and laughing at the music from the 90’s that the bar across the street was blaring. On the way home I bought Mango Steen, a popular Southeast Asian fruit, and back at the hotel I introduced Alex to the fruit.
Our last full day in Cambodia was a light one. We had a planned tour in the morning. They picked us up at our hotel by tuk tuk and took us towards Tonle Sap Lake, the largest lake in Cambodia and Southeast Asia. The ride of was like off-roading tuk tuk style and very dusty. I was grateful when we finally arrived at the lake, but very curious about what was in-store for us. I went to the bathroom in an ant-infested stall and then grabbed my ticket from the tour guide. We proceeded to climb into what looked like a reliable, yet rickety, boat. We started boating towards the open lake area. This was by far the most interesting part because we were boating past floating villages. Our tour guide told us that most of the villagers were Vietnamese immigrants and are fisher-people. They have floating churches and schools, but the schools only go up to Elementary school and if the kids want to continue school they have to do it on-land, so most of the kids stop their education after they finish elementary school. The tour guide took us out into an open area of the lake and gave us some facts about the lake. Then we boated over to a floating village market. This is where my interest in the tour immediately stopped. Almost all of the floating village is made of boats and boarded planks. Some of the boards are very old and warped and desperately need to be replaced. When stepping off of our boat onto the floating market boat I stepped on one of the boards and my left foot went right through the floor. It scrapped up the sides of my leg and instantly bruised. I held back tears when everyone was asking me if I was okay. I wanted to get off of that boat and get off of the lake, but couldn’t. Our tour guide showed us the crocodile and fish farm that the villagers have. It pretty much sounded like they practically starved both animals. Then we got a higher view of the lake and the village.
Once we were done looking at things we got back on the boat and headed back to the original boating dock. I don’t know how our boat driver managed to get the boat through all the reeds in the water, but he did! Back in the tuk tuks we drove to a Buddhist monastery. One of the more decorative ones I have seen in awhile. Our tour guide showed us where the monks receive offerings from the Cambodian villagers and also where the Buddhist cemetery was. Throughout this part it was really interesting to hear about the information the tour guide had about the country of Cambodia and the past kings and current king.
We finished at the monastery and headed back towards Siem Reap, stopping at a Cambodian day market to get snacks of a banana treat and sugar cane juice.
They dropped us back off at our hotel and we thanked him for a good morning, although I was still resentful about my leg that was throbbing in pain. We lounged around a bit and then went to lunch. I dropped off 3kg (about 6lbs) of clothes at a washing place. Then we ate lunch.
It was a lot of food and they still gave us a free fruit platter! After lunch we went back to our hotel to lounge by the pool the rest of the afternoon. We hadn’t really gotten to do much of that since we got to Cambodia because of the weather. Whenever we got back from touring temples it was either drizzling, raining, or really cloudy. Now we had a whole afternoon of sunshine and heat. I ran errands after our pool venture was over and then we ate our last dinner at the hotel.
It was a bittersweet moment for me. I had had a good week in Cambodia and got to experience it with Alex. Cambodia had unearthed something in me that I hadn’t really thought about in-depth since I went to Laos in 2013, extreme gratefulness. On the surface Cambodia looks poor, dirty, and a bit crazy and disorganized, but underneath all the rubbish you can sense the richness of spirit and determination that Cambodians have. Thank you Cambodia, for touching my heart in ways that I haven’t even comprehended yet.