Cambodia Diaries – Dec 2018

While planning for Cambodia, one thing that was on my mind was to do a budget travel. I wanted to do it backpackers way – at least a part of the travel. (Believe me it is a sad feeling when you get out of airport and there is no one in the reception area from the hotel with a board flashing your name on it… but budget travel has its own perks.) We got our travel tickets booked as soon as the thought of visiting Cambodia shaped up. The time to explore the country was limited (9 days) – so I decided to stick to only three well known destinations.

If you want to skip reading about the experience, you can jump straight to the recommendations.

For food options that we tried in Siem Reap – go here.

Destination 1: Phnom Penh (2 days)

The capital city of Cambodia is like many major Asian cities – crowded, polluted, unorganized, open drainages, encroached footpaths and so on – a typical developing world scene. There were a lot of two wheelers with three people on it – good thing was all of them were wearing helmets. The only excitement was that I was in a new city. The idea was to go to our hotel, drop our bags and go out and explore the city. The hotel was not far from the airport and it was in the city center – means less time travelling between places. However, there was a surprise in store for us :). I messed up with the booking dates and the hotel was completely occupied. We immediately booked another hotel (which was not nearby) and went there. We checked in, freshened up and got ready for our touristy activities. Tuk-tuks rides are very convenient in Cambodia. However, you need to negotiate in sign language with most of the tuk-tuk riders unless you are booking it through your hotel. (You end up paying couple of dollars extra in this case any ways). A ride within 10 KM radius should not cost you more than USD 4. As we had limited time in the city, we decided to visit only two things – 1. Tuol Sleng Genocide museum and 2. Royal Palace / Silver Pagoda.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a museum in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, chronicling the Cambodian genocide. The site is a former secondary school which was used as Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime. From 1976 to 1979, an estimated 20,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng (the real number is unknown). You can get the tickets at the ticket counter. Its important to take the audio guide. The stories and the incidents from this place are the epitome of cruelty and inhumanity. It feels very depressing and disturbing after you visit this place and is definitely not a place for squeamish. How human beings can be so inhumane -it’s a living proof of that. I pray for all those who were victims of Khmer Rouge.

After visiting this place, I was not in a mood to go anywhere else, so we decided to sit by Mekong river. It was already dinner time. So we headed to one of the recommended places by most of the travel blogs – Malis (https://www.malis-restaurant.com/phnompenh/). Khmer cuisine tasting platter is a good choice if you happen to visit this place. Try to get a garden table and pre-booking is must. While coming back we negotiated with a tuk-tuk boy (might be 18-19 years old) who kept laughing on how I was acting in the sign language and singing Bollywood songs aloud on the way back to the hotel. (Singing is a great way to connect with people BTW :))

Destination 2: Koh Rong Samloem via Sihanoukville (3 days)

The next day we set off to our second destination. Bus is a convenient option in Cambodia. There are mixed reviews about the safety aspects of road travel. If you are an Indian and have taken bus journeys before, this is pretty much similar. Just try your luck. Fortunately, we got a decent bus driver. After waiting for our 8 o’ clock bus to start for at least an hour – I understood that IST (Indian Standard Time)is pretty common even in Cambodia. Finally we started at around 9:15 AM. I realized then that almost everyone on the bus was a foreigner and mostly backpackers. I think it’s the effect of internet that we tend to go by recommendations. Anyways, it turned out to be a great opportunity to socialize with folks from all over the globe – especially an old couple from Holland. These type of conversations typically include an interrogation session like – where are you from? How many days you are in Cambodia? How long you are travelling for? How many other places you have visited… and boasting on how I have missed something that he/she has covered. It’s fun to understand people’s perspectives though. Even in that journey the lady kept on knitting a crochet throw blanket in the pretext of how cold it is back in Holland during this season (when she is going to be travelling in Asia for most of the winter :P).Bus journeys are also exciting in a way that you get to see a lot of small towns on your way. Small fruit vendors with fruits cut creatively was my favorite part. Mangoes, Pineapples and different local fruits were cut in a very nice and attractive way that I couldn’t help myself from buying yummy mangoes. After reaching Sihanoukville we had almost 2 hours of ferry ride ahead of us to reach our hostel (Mad Monkeys) at Koh Rong Samloem. We changed 3 boats to reach thisplace. This was my second time hostel experience after New Zealand. However,this hostel was more of like a party resort at a very low price :). We booked a private hut for ourselves and checked in. The bar was such that you can jump straight into crystal blue water. A bunch of folks from different continents gave us a warm welcome and for next 3 days we felt like we were there with a big group of friends. I wanted to get into waters as soon as we reached – so we changed and went to enjoy the swings and hammocks in the chest deep water. When it was getting dark – we went to the restaurant for dinner. What happened there should really stay there ;). It really started with simple chatting with folks from different places of the world and ended in a big dance party which lasted till 2 AM. On top of it, after all this we went to swim in the ocean. (Can you believe that first of all I was awake at 2 am and secondof all, swimming in the ocean. (I think the second part is still believable)).But it was all worth it. The sky was full of stars and the ocean was full of glowing planktons – small shiny creatures in the sea. There were sparkles everywhere. I have not seen anything like that in my entire life. Unfortunately, I have no picture to share but only have amazing memories. (Few pictures from the internet can be viewed here). For next 3 days, theroutine remained the same except we did not party that hard but enjoyed serenenature, blue sea, awe-inspiring sunrises and sunsets and met many morebackpackers and got to know about their adventures. If it would not have beenon this hostel, and some plush resort, I highly doubt we would have ever beenable to go into waters at 2 AM.

Destination 3: Siem Reap (4 days)

I think this is a more well known destination when it comes to Cambodia. Angkor Wat temples brings Millions of tourists to Siem Reap and to Cambodia and for a good reason. We took a flight from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap and when we landed – yes, we had a person flashing our name on a board. We had one day booked with a hotel called Nita by Vo and it was the epitome of hospitality. Apart from all that jazz aspect of 3+ starred hotels, these folks were really ensuring that we are treated at our best during our stay at this hotel. My motto, however, on this trip was to spend as much time as possible outside the hotel – so as soon as we checked in, we dropped our luggage and went to see the sunset at Pre Rup temple. Before you get in the Angkor wat temple complex you needto buy your tickets in person – you will get a nice ticket with your photo on it – which I think makes a good souvenir from this trip. Pre Rup was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Pre Rup’s extensive laterite and brick give it apleasing reddish tone that is heightened by early morning and late afternoon sunlight. The temple has a square lay-out and two perimeter walls. The sunset from here was really good. Do not leave the temple as soon as the sun sets -stay there to enjoy the amazing drama in the sky and the after colors which are even more exciting than the sun set itself. If you are going there for photography – try your luck. It gets really crowded and its hard to get a clear shot. However, as I said, if you stay there after sun set for 10 – 15 more min(even though the security guard is trying to get you out), there is a chance that you can get a decent picture.

For the second day, we booked a tuk-tuk for the whole day. There are two circuits in Angkor Wat. Short circuit and long circuit. Tuk-tuk is good enough for short circuit. It costs USD 11 to go for a sunrise at Angkor wat temple and USD 20 more for the day trip. Additionally, we got a guide with us to know more about these temple without the hard work of reading about them. (Which I think is great idea – at times the way these guides converts histories into stories is more exciting than reading it off some blog or from books.) In that context, I will not stress on what these temples are about or their history but will share pictures. The first temple that we visited in the morning was Angkor wat – just for sunrise we went to  this temple. Because I had my tripod with me, we went a little early (5:00 AM) to get a decent spot. (A small tip – take a plastic mat with you if you don’t want to stand for a long time or get a coffee from one of the shop guys who will arrange for a mat for you – I chose the second option.) Luckily, I got a front seat 😉 At about 6 AM, the ground was totally filled with tourists. Do not hesitate to get them off your way. (If you have a tripod setup – you get some brownie points).

We were not that lucky to witness a great sunrise but it was not bad either. After the sunrise, instead of visiting Angkor wat temple, I went by my friend’s suggestion to see Ta Prohm and Bayon temples first. (These temples open at 730 AM and are less crowded in the morning than Angkor Wat). TaProhm is also famous for Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider Hollywood movie. Bayon is a temple of smiling faces.

How many faces do you see?

After visiting these two we did the legendary Angkor Wat temple. Its amazing to understand the sequence of events in history. How Hindus built these temples and then they were converted to Buddhist temples andagain to Hindu temples in different centuries. Who ever tried to convert thetemples to their religions, made sure that they try to wipe out the carvings or statues created by the previous religion. These temples are raided by art thieves from different parts of the world and it makes us realize that how shallow human race is and what we can do for money. The next day, we covered one temple from the long circuit – Banteay Srei.

This temple has stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata carved everywhere and it is created by kings advisor -a brahmin and not the king himself. The pink stone used for this temple adds toits beauty. We also visited Mount Kulen (Or Phnom Kulen) a river of thousand shivlingas. Shivlingas are carved everywhere on the river bed which is supposed to be a holy place for Cambodians. (As holy as Ganges in India). The mountain is formed of sandstones which is used in the construction of most of the temples in this region. In the evening we took a food tour with Siem Reap Food Tours (https://www.tripadvisor.in/Attraction_Review-g297390-d7241952-Reviews-Siem_Reap_Food_Tours-Siem_Reap_Siem_Reap_Province.html).We have done so many food tours in different countries and this was one of the best ones for sure. The guide was not only a foodie, but knew everything about the food and the region in general. Apart from amazing food, weird dishes we learnt one more interesting thing about the local restaurants in Siem Reap.Girls representing different bear companies will circle you as soon as you enter a local restaurant. They will try to sell their brand to you in different ways. (Nothing shabby here). If the customer buys their beer they get commission. It was quite entertaining to see this sell. You will not get to see this in any touristy places or on the pub street though.

Here is the list of food we ate –

1st stop: Prahok ktis, a popular ground pork dish seasoned with fermented fish and finished with coconut milk. Sour lemon fish soup, a very typical Cambodian sour soup with galangal, lemongrass, onion, thai basil, mushrooms and fresh fish, Fish Amok, and smoked fish green mango salad. If you want to try other dishes at this restaurant (map) I recommend the Cambodian sour soups and seafood and green peppercorns especially.

2nd stopNom ban chok. Also known as Khmer noodles. A coconut based broth seasoned with fermented fish, turmeric and galangal served on a bed of fresh rice noodles, banana flower cucumber and various herbs and leaves. The method of making rice noodles evolved in Cambodia centuries ago. The tour’s owner Steven has a pop-up in London serving this noodle, with a Facebook and Instagram page you can follow– if you are interested, check out https://www.facebook.com/nombanchokshop/

3rd stop: Ko Dot. Slow roasted Cambodian meat finished on a hot charcoal grill, served with fresh vegetables (banana blossom, cucumber, carrot, frog’s leg herb, sawtooth coriander and long beans) and dteuk prahok, a typical Cambodian dipping sauce for grilled meats made from prahok (fermented fish) to which we added sliced lemongrass, lime juice and some red chili.  

4th stop: Road 60 night market. Family friendly night market outside of town with shopping, carnival and food. Here we ate some barbecued Khmer chicken, stuffed frogs, pork rib and prahok mixed with sour krisang seeds and grilled in a banana leaf. These were served with with those great dipping sauces– salt and pepper with lime juice, green tamarind pounded with chili, and sweet fish sauce with chili and garlic–as well as a variety of in-season tropical fruits (rambutan, mangosteen, langsat, snakefruit and jackfruit).

5th stopBong’heim (literal translation is “mixed sweet things”). A very Asian style dessert using shaved ice, condensed milk and coconut milk served over sticky rice, mango, small cakes and coconut milk custard.

Note -Cambodian locals think that their food is too spicy for foreigners. So most ofthe touristy restaurants serve bland Cambodian food. Try visiting one of theseplaces (especially the 1st one in the mentioned list. You will taste the realflavors of Cambodian food – which are very similar to Indian food and arecompatible with Indian taste pallet.)

The next day, I decided to go for sunrise photography at Srah Srang. My husband wanted to have a relaxing day at pool side followed by a spa so I decided to go on my own. I hired a tuk tuk for the day. Kaka – the tuk tuk driver was alreadythere at 5:30 AM to pick me up. We went straight to Srah Srang (the royal pond). One more crazy person (photographer) was already there with his tripod setup waiting for the changes in the sky for morning colors. I got some real good photographs here. I spent afternoon at local market trying out different things, talking to local people, sometimes in sign language and at times with Kaka’s help.

My Tuk Tuk Ride

In the late afternoon I had a photography tour booked for myself. My instructor from Angkorwat photo tours, picked me up from the hotel and we headed toward lake Tonle Sap – countryside – around 25 KM away from Siem Reap. We stopped at few pagodas on our wayand I learnt some interesting techniques from him. We ended our day with sunset photography near Tonle Sap lake.

A beautiful evening at Tonle Sap Lake

Post that, my husband and I went for a dinnerat a restaurant called Haven. (Haven is a great training restaurant that helps disadvantaged Cambodian youth get jobs in the hospitality industry (and the service is great!). Theyserve inexpensive (and hygienic) Cambodian food in a beautifully restoredCambodian wooden house and attached garden.)

The next day we took a cooking class at countryside. Learning tocook Cambodian delicacies was a great way to end our trip. Our chef (aCambodian old lady) and her assistant made sure that we know what we are doing.We cooked cambodian pumpkin custard, rice rolls and Fish Amok. After ourcooking class we headed straight to Siem Reap airport. Ideally, holidays should never end. 🙂

Recommendations

Few recommendationsshared by our food tour guide –

Cambodian Restaurants:

Cuisine Wat DamnakCuisineWat Damnak is the best restaurant in Cambodia. The chef is French and has lived in Cambodia for more than a decade and makes modern Khmer dishes using only local ingredients. The flavors are all Cambodianbut he uses French technique (ie doesn’t leave the bones in the chicken).The menu changes every week, and is five or six courses. Dinner only, Tuesday through Saturday, and an advance reservation is almost always required.

Mie CafeMie Cafe ‘s chef,Pola, is Cambodian but studied cooking in Switzerland. He is a really nice guyand great chef who cooks Cambodian/Western fusion. There are some Western dishes on the menu but most are Cambodian or Asian and are really good. If you have time, try their multi-course Cambodian tasting menu. Reservation recommended but not always required.

HavenHaven is a great training restaurant that helps disadvantaged Cambodian youth get jobs inthe hospitality industry (and the service is great!). They serve inexpensive(and hygienic) Cambodian food in a beautifully restored Cambodian woodenhouse and attached garden.

SpoonsSpoons is a new training restaurant, also working with at-risk Cambodian young people. The menu is full of authentic Cambodian flavors with a creative twist.

RohattRohatt is more traditionally Cambodian food, sort of high-end homestyle cooking. The food isdelicious and  very authentic. This is a good place to try if you’relooking to explore Cambodian cuisine after your tour.

Other restaurants:

Bang Bang – This cafe and bakery offers Siem Reap’s best sourdough bread, bagels, and gourmet cakes. Great for a morning coffee and bagel with cream cheese!

The Republic – For excellent burgers, salads, and veggie options, plus local food products, head to The Republic. On weekends they have live music and sangria specials.

Maybe Later – We used to be jealous of Sihanoukville because they had way better Mexican food, but now Maybe Later has come to Siem Reap! Big portions, funky decor, and tasty salsas.

Bars:

111 East – This bar and art gallery on the Wat Damnak roundabout is one of our favorite places in town to have a drink.

The Republic – Beautiful indoor/outdoor space serving fusion cocktails, South American cuisine, and live jazz and funk.

Miss Wong – Best cocktails in town, and a very nice atmosphere.

Picasso Bar is also nice, and a good place to chat with strangers.

Long’s Bar – Hip but not too hip, has boozy ice-cream floats and a nice wine and cocktail list.

Activities:

Somlor Kakor Cooking Class –  Sela and his wife run wonderful cooking classes at their home and restaurant. Not like the usual tourist cooking class; the dishes are totally authentic. Recommended!

Angkor Wat PuttMiniaturegolf with tiny replica Angkorian temples. Openearly morning until 10 p.m. A fun activity when you need a break from the temples.

Lemongrass SpaLemongrass is mid-range spa in town, great massages.

Frangipani Spa – If you’re looking for something a bit more luxurious, Frangipani is the place to go for massages and spa treatments.

Sombai Sombai does free tastings of their 8 types of rice wine every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Shopping:

Trunkh and Kandal Village:  town Trunkh is located in Kandal Village. There are also a bunch of cool little boutique stores as well as Little RedFox, which has the best coffee in town. If you like shopping it’s worth going there.

Angkor Handicraft Association: There’s a great handicrafts market on Road 60 called AHA where everything is locally made.G