It’s generally very easy to travel overland to Cambodia from Vietnam but because I was going to Siem Reap in the North, not Phnom Penh which is closer to the border, I decided to fly (on a vehicle which resembled a tin toy plane with propellers).
My journey from Ho Chi Minh to Siem Reap almost went without a hitch, but on arrival at the airport I was told that even though I was told by my agent my already very expensive flight included luggage, it didn’t. I had to fork out £55 in excess baggage fees even after putting on as many items of my clothing as I could manage and waddling through security like the Michelin man – £55 doesn’t seem like a lot but for the budget conscious backpacker, it is!
At this point I’ll admit my budget was getting seriously tight; after three months of virtually doing what I wanted I was having to watch every penny I spent. I’ve tried really hard to budget carefully for this trip but made a crucial error in not budgeting any contingency/emergency money or researching inter country travel and visa costs and including them in my budget – so after a couple of hospital visits, only one of which I was able to claim back on insurance minus significant excess, funds were running low. Luckily, I only had three and a half weeks left – and I now fully accept that I am going to be flat broke for the first two months of 2018. Hurrah! But hey, I tell myself any initial hardship when I get back will have been totally worth every experience I’ve forked out for on this trip.
Initial reflections on Siem Reap
Money woes aside, I arrived in Siem Reap to a gorgeous sunny day. Now before I get going on my opinions, I wanted to explain that of all the travellers I’ve met Cambodia is the place that has divided the most opinion. Some people flat out hated it, others labelled it boring and others absolutely loved it. I was intrigued to see this country that no one could seem to reach a common ground on.
As we rattled through the streets of Siem Reap on a tuk tuk, I liked what I saw. A small, bustling city with lots of colour and life. Many were surprised I would be spending 5 days in Siem Reap, as most come in and out just to see Angkor Wat and in all honesty there’s not much else to do there besides the market. But as I’ve iterated in previous blog posts,I really like to base myself somewhere. Vietnam had been a whirlwind and I’d been on the go every 3 days so 5 days in one place appealed, and I decided to go there and wait for Akriti, my friend from home who was joining me for a couple of weeks. I really really liked Siem Reap – it was a great place to wander, eat, drink and chill and the locals were so kind and friendly.
It helped that I stayed in the best hostel of my whole entire travels while in Siem Reap, Lub D. While Captain Coconuts was the most aesthetically pleasing to date, Lub D just had everything a backpacker could possibly need to not just be comfortable but feel like you’re really living the high life. After my Vietnam accommodation, I really needed it. The dorm beds were huge and even he top bunks have their own little stairway (not, thank god, a bloody ladder) with a curtain and charging point, light etc. The bathrooms were clean and had hot water and washing machines so you could do your own laundry. There was a travel desk to help with booking tours and bus tickets on to other parts of the country. It wasn’t a party hostel at all but there were loads of social events on that you could take part in – night market visits, pub crawls, cycling to the local village. The restaurant was amazing – I was delighted to find Bircher muesli on offer for breakfast. There was a huge pool area with sunbeds and great music where it was super easy to meet other travellers.
I quickly met Michelle, from Scotland and Sarah and James, an Irish couple, who it was great to while away the day chatting and comparing travel stories with. Hi guys! Michelle and I had an amazing dinner at a restaurant called L’Annexe, which was proper French cuisine. I had my first glass of red wine in months and months and it was wonderful. The French food in Siem Reap is truly fantastic.
I also met up with lovely Rita, who I had met on my Halong Bay cruise, for dinner at a great Cambodian restaurant called Try Me. It was lovely catching up!
A UK Visitor!
Akriti got in touch back in November and said she had some holiday to use and was thinking of travelling to Cambodia in December and would our dates match up. I knew she was a pro at backpacking and would have no qualms about roughing it, spending entire days on buses and taking a more adventurous approach to travel (necessary in Cambodia) while also being one of the most chilled out people I’ve met, so it was an absolute no brainer to meet up and, as you’ll read, we had the best time ever together. I miss you A!
She arrived late afternoon on the 6th and I was ELATED to see her. I love meeting new people but it was so nice to be with one of my own, someone who gets me and will be quiet with me and also doesn’t mind if I have a total emotional breakdown about losing my flip flops then find them under my bag. Akriti’s luggage had been left behind in Bangkok but luckily the airline and hostel cooperated to get it to us that evening. She was pretty exhausted after 20 hours of travel, and we had to be up at 4am to visit Angkor Wat so we chilled at the hostel and went to bed early (not before a mammoth catch up).
Akriti and I work together at a charity in London, so naturally spent our first few hours talking about work and because I always need to know everything about everything I asked a million questions, but we decided after that to put a ban on intense work chat as neither of us particularly wanted to focus on it. But let’s say I’m feeling more than prepared and positive about my return to the office!
Let’s talk temples. I’m a huge fan. There’s something so beautiful, calming and spiritual and awe-inducing about a good temple. Many travellers you meet in Asia talk of being templed out, and I have felt the same at times, but was so so excited to see Angkor Wat (which for some reason I can’t say without going Angkor WHAT?! Lols). I’d been waiting for years and years to make it there and it really didn’t disappoint.
We booked a tuk tuk driver for about $16USD for the day (everything in Cambodia is paid for in US dollars), and then an additional $37 for entry to the temple site. Many people take a three day pass as its impossible to see all the temples in one day, and you can actually cycle around rather than use a tuk tuk if you have the time or inclination. We only had a day, so got a tuk tuk and chose the route with the main attractions on it – Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Phrom (the tomb raider temple, probs my favourite).
We were up at 4am to make the sunrise at Angkor Wat. It was truly truly beautiful and worth the early start to see the sun slowly rising above the silhouette of the temple, with the orange and pink hue tinged sky reflecting in the water. However there’s no denying that the huge volume of crowds, which we were of course part of, jostling, waving their cameras around in your face and in front of the view do at times detract from the beauty. Below is the side you don’t see on Instagram!
After sunrise was finished, we wandered around Angkor Wat. It truly is beautiful. The temple complex is the largest of its kind in the world, and dates back to the 12th century, and is now a UNESCO World Herotage Site. we stopped off at numerous temples, some small and others more majestic, including beautiful Bayon, which is richly decorated and the official state temple, and Ta Phrom, now best known for it’s starring role in Tomb Raider. It was my favourite by a mile, I found it so atmospheric and beautiful with the towering trees climbing out of ruins.
If anyone is planning to visit Angkor Wat I recommend our driver Mr Seng (google Mr Seng Siem Reap and you’ll find him). He was really sweet and helpful. He isn’t a tour guide but as we were on a budget we were happy to just do our own thing wandering around the temples. The whole site is just really beautiful and leafy and a great place to spend a day – or several!
A night on Pub St
After a power nap at our hotel, we headed out for the evening in Siem Reap. The town is buzzing at night because of the market and token boozy backpacker street – aptly named Pub Street. We ate Amok for dinner (Cambodian curry, similar to Thai but doesn’t pack quite the same punch), shopped for souvenirs, then went for a 2 dollar foot massage at a street massage shop – the foot bit was most pleasant but at the end they turned us over and started cracking our backs and pummelling our shoulders which is ALWAYS fun in full view of an entire street. Akriti’s massage was most definitely done by a very dolled up lady boy. I’m not insinuating that every lady boy is a prostitute, but There’s definitely some obvious sex tourism present in Cambodia – though not quite the same level as Thailand, I can see it going that way.
Then we hit the booze. We were both ready to meet some other like minded backpackers and have fun, and I imagined it being a similar vibe to Hanoi’s beer street. How wrong we were!
We had a GREAT night because we were together and laughed about everything, but Pub St on a Wednesday attracted some real characters. From the old Indian guy who approached Akriti and asked how much she charged for a night (the outrage!!!), to the 7ft tall South American giant who literally threw me around the dance floor to Despacito against my will (I love Despacito more than life but I have my own set of carefully crafted moves that don’t involve your overactive hips or crotch thank you very much mate), to the weird starey men who just sat on bar stools and bore holes into the back of our heads for hours, then felt it appropriate to whisper in our ears that they’d been watching us, it was all just a bit TOO weird.
Nevertheless, we were out til 3am with our new friend Ria, a young girl from Mumbai who was taking full advantage of being away from home and her conservative upbringing for the first time by chain smoking and drinking margaritas, which of course in the name of personal development we supported. We woke up the next day with sore heads, which was ideal when we had a 6 hour bus journey to Cambodia’s capital, Phnomh Penh.
Neither of us were looking forward to Phnom Penh. All I’d heard from everyone I had met was that it was an unpleasant, unsafe city. So many people I know had bad encounters there – bags ripped or cut off them, mobiles snatched, knifepoint robbings and women being harassed on the street. We were both nervous about visiting but we’re glad to be together and staying in a well rated hostel in an ok part of the city. We were uber sensible and locked everything we could manage in our safe in the room – we didn’t take phones or purses or bags out with us at all. I simply did the old money in the bra trick. And we felt absolutely fine and had absolutely no hassle – so i guess we were lucky but being sensible helped.
The reason tourists visit is that it’s a gateway to the genocide museums and memorials which we felt we had to see to really gain a true understanding of Cambodia, and I think any traveller considering bypassing it should re think. Keep your wits about you and you will be fine, it would be a crime to visit Cambodia and not visit these sites and learn its history in my opinion.
Our day started badly when our bus left without us. For the first time on this whole trip, I lost my shit at someone. It’s funny how when you really tell someone off you shock yourself SLASH realise you really sound like your mother when she was bollocking you for bunking off school when you were 17/being mean to your sisters/turning up to work at her restaurant drunk that one time.
I’d just had enough of general SE Asian indifference when things go wrong and her non bothered shrug and ‘you just go tomorrow, is no problem’ made me see red. IT BLOODY WELL IS A PROBLEM, I AM A PAYING CUSTOMER I heard myself bellow AND I WILL BE ON A BUS TO PHNOM PENH TODAY AND YOU WILL MAKE IT HAPPEN.
My rant had absolutely ZERO effect and she did nothing to help us but luckily the guy at our hostel was not indifferent, he was mortified, and managed to get us a last minute spot on a new bus. Alas this was not the big air conditioned coach with reclining seats wifi and air con we had initially booked, but we were piled into the back of a tiny mini bus with no leg room. At least it did the job and got us there – we finally arrived in Phnom Penh late that night, shattered and both regretting our alcohol consumption the previous evening.
The Killing Fields and S21
It’s hard for me to find the words to write about what I saw and heard here. It doesn’t feel appropriate to describe it in detail, simply because it was so awful, so raw, so unimaginable and so horrific. I didn’t take a single picture.
But I want to ask anyone reading this – did you know what happened here in the 70s? Because I had a vague idea but absolutely NO idea of the level of devastation Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime inflicted. I’d ask all of you to read up on what happened and understand how awful and defining it was for this small, humble country. Please see here: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-10684399
The Killing Fields were the Cambodian genocide’s equivalent of concentration camps, while S21 was a school turned war prison where innocent civilians were taken, tortured and killed for ABSOLUTELY NO VALID REASON. Two of the things that could get you imprisoned or murdered, for example, were wearing glasses or having an education. It’s unthinkable. These dictators, specifically Pol Pot and his maddened ideology, are utterly unthinkable.
A quarter of the entire population (2 million of 8 million) of this country was killed between 1975 and 1979. And this happened just 40 years ago! It wasn’t reported in Western media because the West, of course, had no fucking interest in it because it didn’t involve oil or land or money or anything they could claim from getting involved. It was also largely overshadowed by the Vietnam war and closed borders made accurate reporting difficult in any case.
In S21, I found myself standing in one spot for a long time, staring into the eyes of a young Cambodian man on his mug shot picture on the wall, in the room he was found tortured and dead in after the coup when the prison was abandoned, with tears uncontrollably running down my face. I really don’t know why, and appreciate this may sound a bit weird, but the only words that came to my mind were ‘I see you’, over and over again. Probably because there is so much sadness and desperation in their eyes, but no one saw it. No one saw them as people. No one cared and they were treated like sub humans – but they were people, individuals, with lives and loves and families. And they died needlessly.
This visit and the trip to the museum in Saigon have brought up a lot of emotion for me about war and conflict and hate in the world, that I will be honest and say I’m really struggling to process. I find it difficult to accept that the world hasn’t learned lessons from awful conflicts past and that innocent lives are still being lost in war. I’m getting upset even writing this and remembering what we saw in Cambodia, and I feel it’s best to leave it there, but please do read up on the history of this country, especially if you plan to visit. For Akriti and I, it gave so much context to the country we saw (more on that in my next post).
Leaving the city
After an emotional and sobering day, we decided to go for dinner at a ‘nice’ restaurant. Oskar’s, a super sleek, beautiful, modern bar near our hostel, was literally the most random place we could have ever found in amidst dirty, polluted, developing Phnom Penh and I said to Akriti that I felt like we were having post work drinks in central London.
We drank good wine and ate amazing tapas style food surrounded by well dressed Westerners – men in suits and women in heels. I felt like a bit of a tit in my Havainas and beach dress to be honest. There must be an expat side to Phnom Penh, but again the clientele appeared to largely be Russian, I’m not sure if there is a large Russian expat community in Phnom Penh like there was in Mui ne… answers on a postcard?!
And that was our time in Cambodia’s cities over. The next day we headed, with great relief, to the paradise island of Koh Rong.