Our first real stop in South-East Asia was Cambodia – and a real hit! We loved this country with its violent and outrageous recent past and were stunned as most people by the incredible, honest friendliness of its people. It was a great contrast to South America in terms of food, travel, culture – so our 4. month of continuous traveling was still filled with many new impressions and did not feel like “more of the same”.
Before we get into the blog post, we would like to recommend a very informative book on Cambodia that we both read when being here: Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land by Pulitzer Prize winner Joel Brinkley. The book describes Cambodia’s recent history from around the time of the Pol Pot’s claim to power all the way to the early 21st century.
We found the book very interesting, as it gave us a better understanding of why Cambodia is in the place it currently is, how the politics and power struggles of the country have played out over the past decades and what role the international community played in this. (For a couple of years, Cambodia was placed under direct UN administration.) The book describes where Cambodia is along its development in topics such as health care, education, the fight against corruption, resource exploitation and so on. While the book was interesting to read, it was also tough to bear. Joel Brinkley chronicles in great detail the various instances of corruption and thievery that has been and is being conducted by Cambodia’s leaders. Whatever public finances and institutions are left after corruption takes its toll is being mismanaged: there are no visions or sensible development plans being put forward by the political parties. The main talking points are still: build bridges, roads, and water supply – the same things the Angkor Kings had already supplied to their people about 1,000 years ago! And there seems to be only little change on the way. It took about 15 years (from the early 1990s to the late 2000s) for the government to pass an anti-corruption law (which then turned out to be the weakest thing they could get away with.) It’s incredible: along the roads of this still very poor country you can find one Lexus car after the other and you just have to wonder where all this money came from. There can hardly be a legitimate salary in Cambodia that would allow to buy such a car.
We both really enjoyed visiting Cambodia and this book gave us a great insight into what happens away from the tourist sites and (admittedly) well managed spots like Angkor Wat. It is sad and upsetting to see how this country is being held captive by bad politicians and the decreasing interest of former and current donor nations. For many, Cambodia is simply not “important” enough to really put any serious efforts in any more. Other countries and areas of the globe have taken over the world’s attention and interest in Cambodia’s development (and forcing it to fight corruption) is thus less important to the donor nations again.
Our 10-day itinerary
We only had 10 days to spare but still made sure to get a bit of a rounded feeling for the country. While the beaches and islands in the south are highly recommended in any guide book, we left that part out as we were anyways heading toward 3+ weeks of island beach life in Nusa Lembongan, Indonesia…. 🙂
- Phnom Penh: arrival and museums – 1 day
- Battambang: countryside natural beauty and authentic Cambodia, incl. cooking classes, temples, Khmer Rouge killing sites – 3 days
- Siem Reap: Angkor Wat temples, more temples, Angkor again – and a lot of great food – 5 days
Phnom Penh: Capital city on the rise
Having com from a 3-day stay in Singapore, we perceived Phnom Penh as quite chaotic and somewhat typical for a lot of large Asian cities quite dirty. We had booked a nice hotel in the center and immediately started our tour the next morning. We had a really good time at the National Museum where we learned a lot about the Angkor empire, saw artifacts and used the audio guide to also dive deeper into Hindu mythology. Cambodia is still predominantly Hindu with some Buddhist influences and, consequently, there are dozens of different gods being depicted in statues, in sill carvings, etc.We then decided to check out options to continue our journey further into the countryside and got a bus to Battambang in the afternoon. This gave us enough time still to visit the second museum on our list: Tuol Sleng school-turned-prison from Khmer Rouge times. Visiting this memorial site is absolutely recommended even though it is at times hard to bear looking at the torture instruments and pictures of dead bodies. The Khmer Rouge used this one prison to slaughter ~20,000 Cambodians between 1975-1978 with only a handful surviving when the Vietnamese invaded Phnom Penh in 1979. As with other dreadful places like the concentration camps, it always makes one wonder how humans can do such inconceivably brutal and inhumane harm to others – even more so when they are not a foreign enemy but a neighbor, fellow co-worker, childhood friend… Visiting this site motivated us to learn more about Cambodia’s past and bought the aforementioned book.
We then left the capital – having barely arrived in this country full of mysteries.
Charming Battambang: authentic Cambodian cuisine and quiet rural life
We arrived on the evening of our second day – and immediately learned that things worked a lot more slowly in Battambang. There was no tuk tuk where the bus dropped us of and so we walked. Again, we had a really nice hotel run by a French-Cambodian couple. They had a great folder with activities to do in the area and we were inspired for our 3 days here:
- River walk and Buddhist temples
- Evening circus performance
- Cooking class
- Bat caves and Khmer Rouge killing site
- City walk and blind massage
What we loved about Battambang was the very simple and authentic touch. The city is quite walkable and if it gets too hot one can always get a tuk tuk for 1 USD to anywhere. The railway which was supposed to be up and running since 2017 still looks a lot like “work in progress” 🙂
Battambang – Day 1
The first day was an exploration of “downtown Battambang” where we saw ongoing preparations at the temples for a Buddhist holiday – and planned to be back in the evening when the candles would be lit!
We then relaxed in and beside our hotel’s pool until we got ready to look at the temples and see the local circus. I had read about the circus in the great bi-monthly Swiss long story magazine REPORTAGEN. It felt a bit unreal to visit an event that I had read ~20 pages about 🙂 the performance was a lot of fun and the cause was great! Street children and adolescents from poor families get the opportunity in this school to learn any of three arts: graphic, music, and performance. They learn for 3 years and then graduate into first an internship and often employment afterwards. Great concept to support!
We then went into a really nice restaurant and even had to wait as all tables were occupied. It was worth it though as the meals were really delicious! On the way home we visited the temples again which were now brightly lit with the candles, it was so nice!
Battambang – Day 2
We started the morning with our breakfast routine at the hotel: fried vegetable noodles and tea for me, omelette and baguette with cheese for Bertram 🙂 we then went into town again and roamed around a bit drinking coffee and getting our laundry done 🙂 Then it was time for our relax session at the hotel’s natural pool again 🙂
Battambang – Day 3
This day started earliest of them all: we had a Cambodian cooking class from 09:00-12:00 and it was just great! We were 6 students and Li was a great instructor. We first set out to the local market to buy a couple of ingredients and visited the “coconut cow” – a machine that shreds the coconut flesh to extract the coconut milk.
Back at the “Coconut LyLy” restaurant each pair got a cooker, utensils and a stone mortar and we got going with our four courses – all in vegan/veggie option:
- green mango salad
- taro-carrot spring rolls
- traditional “amok” dish with mushrooms
- coconut-lime dessert
The best thing about Khmer cuisine are the flavors: it’s not too spiced but rather emphasizes the abundant flavors of different herbs (e.g., lemongrass, coriander), roots (e.g., kurkuma, ginger), and spices (e.g., kampot pepper, chili). Also great for me is that a lot of dishes are vegetarian/vegan 🙂 and if not: most can be modified and as portions are often cooked separately, one can even vary the ingredients person by person.
Cooking was fun and quite easy – also due to our great instructor Lim Ly whose wife came home during the session with their 1-day-old son 🙂 – but most importantly: we loved the results 🙂 my favorite: the taro-carrot spring rolls with a pepper-sugar spice mix, Bertram’s one was mushroom “amok” which is made with ground lemongrass and lime leaves as well as coconut.
Afterwards, we had a massage. The specialty: the massage was performed by blind people and, thus, helps them to make a living. Again we thought it a great social enterprise for these handicapped people who likely cannot work in many other professions. We looked a bit like hospital patients in our massage gowns 🙂
In the late afternoon, we went for another tour in a tuk tuk: South of Battambang is a temple on a mountain whose caves are also full of bats 🦇 We loved the drive with the tuk tuk which – similarly to biking – gives one a better connection with the country and its people when slowly passing by.
Before we waited for them to come out at dusk, we climbed the mountain for the temple and the view of the plains. Many monkeys roamed the area – allowing us to take monkey selfies :-). We briefly saw another horrific place of the Khmer Rouge regime: a killing cave into which hundreds of still unidentifiable die persons had been thrown after having been killed.
The bats were quite an event: 20 minutes of bats flying out of the caves by the hundreds while screeching bat sounds 🙂 – see the video in our FindPenguins post.
Siem Reap: Meeting of the Angkor Empire with modern city life
Having enjoyed the quiet life in Battambang, we came to Siem Reap to find a hipster metropolis 🙂 the traffic is insane – with some scary cargo trucks going about – and the number of tourists is huge!
As the other thousands of tourists, we were really interested to see the Angkor temples which the kings of Angkor built as of 800 AD. We got ourselves the 3-day pass which one can use for 3 entrances within a 10 day period. Thus definitely helps to avoid “temple fatigue” if one were to visit temples, temples, and more temples 3 days in a row… We started the first day on bikes to the central area of Angkor, visiting ~10 temples and palaces before getting to the highlight of Angkor Wat.It’s absolutely worth it to rent bikes as one is 100% flexible where to go and the roads are flat and in good shape. Okay, maybe the bridge was challenging 😉… temples, …
Our second day of temples took us to the beautiful, somewhat miniature temple of made from red bricks. Its carvings are more beautiful and better preserved than Angkor’s so it is a great addition to the main attractions. Additionally, we loved that the temple was set into a park/landscape that mimicked the original setting with rice paddies. Finally, the temple featured a great information and documentary center where we learned about the meaning of a lot of the depicted scenes of the carvings.
… and more temples 🙂
The last day of temples brought us back to Angkor, however, to the Grand Tour circling the outer edges to the north and east. We were on our 1-USD-rental bikes again and had a lot of fun – especially biking along paths like the old city walk completely on our own without any other tourists 🙂 “Auf eigene Faust” still holds true as our favorite motto.
Big city Life in Siem Reap
Apart from visiting the temples, we had a really good time in Siem Reap due to its great restaurants, interesting nightlife, and ultimately also our great hotel. Here are a couple of impressions with the fish spa still being the most unique experience 🙂
Phnom Penh – Last day
Back in Phnom Penh we only had one evening to spend. We found a great roof top bar (suggestion by Bertram’s friend Liz) and then got ourselves ready for our next adventure: Indonesia!
Cambodia was a great experience and we have to admit that it’s true what they say: once you come and spend some time, Cambodia will steal your heart – luckily we left happy and eager to come back and not heartbroken…