Note, we have more Cambodia pictures than this, but had a memory card issue, so bear with us. For now, it will be a text-driven blog post.
After all of the fun of Saigon and relaxation in Hoi An, it was time to head to Cambodia. We took the bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh, arriving a day before our friend Steven was to meet us from NYC. It was a particularly romantic Valentine’s Day, spent on a 7 hour bus ride, but all things considered it was pretty painless. We arrived and I stopped by a make-shift floral station where a small army of Cambodian woman were assembling bouquets. After haggling fairly half-heartedly (it seemed a weird thing to get aggressive about) I paid for a bouquet, picked up a bottle of wine, and returned to our hotel. Whitney and I enjoyed the wine on the roof overlooking a glimmering pagoda before heading out to a beautiful candlelit dinner. Where was said dinner? The local burrito place. It was possibly the most satisfying meal I’ve had in years. It’s amazing how delicious Mexican food tastes after a prolonged period of noodles.
The next day was a day of serious highs and lows. First high - We started the day with a nice spa session as a Valentine’s Day gift to each other. Massages, facials, etc. In the land of cheap personal services, this has become a dangerous habit. But always enjoyable. Then we met Steven and proceeded to do the sights of Phnom Penh in a single afternoon (which I promise you is possible). We saw the palace and walked around the grounds which were pretty but hard to tolerate in the sweltering heat with bus loads of tourists.
Then we hit the low - a visit to the Killing Fields. It was one of those experiences that you need to have, but is really tough. My mom always said that she appreciated that my dad made her go visit Auschwitz even though they were on vacation, and I had a similar sentiment here. It’s important to understand the tragedy to understand why the country is how it is today. The memorial itself is well-done and the audio tour is fantastic. It’s peaceful and there is a pervasive theme of healing throughout. All the same, it was hard to stomach in a few places. It’s amazing how much of the country was affected. Every person we talked to in Cambodia had family/friends who “disappeared.” They said it so casually it was terrifying.
After that, we were all in need of something to make us feel better about the world. We decided to have dinner at “Dine in the Dark” the chain of restaurants around the world that employs visually-impaired waiters to serve you in complete darkness. It was a fantastic experience. Our guide, Honey, was lovely and so sweet/considerate. For those of you who haven’t done it before, it’s a really worthwhile experience. I found it very disorienting at first, but then, once you adjust, it’s really peaceful. It made me realize how rarely, even at night, I’m in a room that is total black. Since then, I’ve taken to sleeping with my phone/watch away from the bed and trying to cover up LED lights in the room.
The food itself wasn’t special, but the service was fun and by the end, Honey had told us she was an aspiring singer. We asked her to sing us a song and she obliged. Then, she said it was our turn to sing. Fortunately, we had a late reservation so there weren’t too many other people in the restaurant. However, there was still one other table (who we couldn’t see) who had the rare pleasure of us singing some Disney anthems. Then, since the staff was having fun, they brought out a guitar in the dark. To all of our surprises, the only song the guy knew was “Country Roads”, which we all proceeded to sing at the top of our lungs. Great fun.
The next day we took the bus to Siam Reap. Whitney went to bed early, so Steven and I ventured into town. It’s an extremely backpacker-heavy scene, with a street lit in neon called “Pub Street.” I was offered prostitutes on more occasions than I can count, which is a sad reminder of how big an issue sex tourism remains in Cambodia. Steven and I opted for some good, wholesome fun and got fish pedicures ($1, including a can of beer).
The next day our other friend David flew in and we began what can only be referred to as two-day “Temple-Palooza.” Most people know Angkor Wat, but Angkor has dozens of temples and Angkor Wat just happens to be the largest and most famous. We hired a driver for the day and saw about eight temples. A word of warning to future visitors… it’s REALLY hot. I mean, “peel my shirt off the tuk-tuk” hot. But, we stayed hydrated and Steven acted as our unofficial tour guide. For those who haven’t done his tour of the Egypt wing at the Met in NYC, I highly recommend it. There was intricate carvings, playful monkeys, trees growing out of temples, 7 foot high faces staring at you, and much more. The downside of Siam Reap is that everyone else is there too. Although all the temples were beautiful, the most fun was the rare occasion when we found ourselves alone in a temple and could just scramble all over it.
On the second morning, we woke up at 430a to join the throngs of people to watch sunrise over Angkor Wat. Although some of the jostling for optimal Instagram position was annoying, it was spectacular to see the sun peeking out from between the spires of the world’s largest religious building. We then rounded out the tour with the Tomb Raider temple (no Angelina Jolie spottings though), and a walk through Angkor’s equivalent of Central Park. By the end of it, Steven said it best “If I were in the game ‘The Sims’ right now, my temple bar would be maxed out.” For those of you who are more visually inclined, these are the faces of temple exhaustion.
We headed back to the hotel, lounged in the pool during the afternoon heat, and then went to an amazing dinner.
It was a bit of a shock traveling with people who are only on vacation for 10 days. We were doing things all the time! Whitney and my typical schedule of “wake up, read/drink coffee, see a sight, long lunch, nap, see another sight, dinner, read/drink beer” wasn’t going to cut it. But, we’re still young, so we kept up and had an amazing time.
The last day in Siam Reap, we visited Kompung Phluk, a village on the edge of Tonle Sap, the largest lake in Cambodia. The lake’s water level varies by as much as 12 meters, so the entire town is built on stilts 30 feet in the air. We were there during the dry season, so all the activity of town was taking place on the water’s edge while the homes, schools, religious sites, and even police station stood elevated behind.
It was a cool place to visit, though felt pretty touristy as they paraded you through a few places and then dropped you off in the middle of the lake at a restaurant with no hope of bargaining down the absurd prices. Ah, tourist traps. They’re everywhere and sometimes it gets exhausting trying to fight it. Fortunately, Steven was much better than Whitney or I and proceeded to argue with the waitress and threaten terrible TripAdvisor reviews after she lied about pricing.
So, it was a short stop in Cambodia, but we hit the major sights. We didn’t make it to the beach which is supposed to be a much more low-key beach-scene than Thailand, but you can only do so much. We had a flight to Pakse, Laos and a date with a jungle zip-lining adventure, which we’ll describe in another post.