Travellers say many things about Cambodia: the people are wonderful, the begging is extreme and that everything is super-cheap even by South East Asia standards. Spoiler: only one of these things is true!
I’m going to take you on a little journey, one that took us just over two weeks to cover from North to South Cambodia. From city living to island life, ‘bum guns’, insect munching, pimped up homes, a dark past and smiley prosperous future. Kicking off with the journey to Cambodia via Delhi and Bangkok and our Cambodian starting point, Siem Reap.
London – Delhi – Bangkok – Siem Reap
‘Happy Independence Day’ the airport staff in Delhi giggled at us – awkward! We all laughed. Lucky history has taught us many things hey! India’s Independence Day is a dry celebration, so no layover beers here! We forced some ‘crunchy chicken’ down us. It was too early for curry, a decision I regret. Christ knows when I’ll next get my hands on some Indian food.
Fast forward eight hours and it’s pink taxi time in Bangkok. You could never be sad travelling in a pink car, although I imagine Peter Stringfellow has a pink car and travelling in that would be pretty soul-destroying. The sky should have been pitch black, but it never really is in a city with so much light. Every skyscraper has its own light display and the brands compete with glowing billboards in the sky. We gazed at the visual displays as we sped along the city highways. The taxi window stickers told us the many banned substances, including Durian. That poor fruit, apparently ‘the King of Fruits’ is banned in so many places for its gross smell.
Dropped off on a main road outside a random-arse hotel we hopped out with our worldly belongings on our backs. Oh, we’re not staying here, we watched our taxi speed-off. We’ve done the travelling thing before, no really we have! We found our hostel on foot, we found the bus station the next morning and the bus tickets booked back in England magically worked!
We sat back, relaxed and enjoyed the Thai countryside by bus before taking on the much fabled Poipet border crossing into Cambodia. To say this border crossing is notorious is an understatement. Allegedly rife with scams, questionable health-checks and mash-up roads. We expected a drama and at the minimum an epic queue. St. Christopher was smiling down upon us and the border crossing was a breeze, the roads smooth and the bus comfy. Even the immigration team were full of smiles, lending us pens for the forms and super efficient. Someone’s obviously done a little online research and realised their border rep was in tatters. Smooth journeys don’t maketh great stories!
With wide eyes we took in rural Cambodia. The houses all on stilts, but the shady space beneath used as garages, living quarters and workshops. The staircases are obviously something the home-owners take great pride in, totally pimped up with chrome bannisters and painted in vibrant reds, greens and blues. Dotted amongst the more rustic houses are insanely luxurious mansions that wouldn’t look out of place in Beverly Hills. Often purple and totally over the top decor, they more often than not had the current government banner outside, ‘The Cambodian People’s Party’. This was our first hint that there’s money within Cambodia.
The bus journey turned into a tuk-tuk journey along the very dusty Siem Reap streets. Being one of the few key traveller stop-offs and main towns the lack of development is surprising. Siem Reap is a city that perhaps exists to service the world renowned Angkor Wat temple complex – made even more famous in the western world by Tombraider, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Street sellers had their mobile kitchens fired up and huge posters advertised crocodile handbags. People looked up and smiled, really genuine smiles as we rattled past on the dust-filled tracks.
Our Mad Monkey Hostel* haven appeared like a mirage on the horizon, we were greeted with welcome drinks and the pool shimmered in the afternoon humidity.
Then after a long journey we were introduced to the ‘Bum Gun’. I could explain but I think this sign says it best.
Now there is local currency in Cambodia, it’s the ‘riel’, but the US dollar is the currency of choice and therefore everything costs at least a dollar. Sounds cheap, I hear ya thinking. Well it’s not – we struggled to eat, drink and well do anything on a typical South-East Asia budget. Nothing costs just one dollar and it’s hard to eat for less than seven-eight dollars. I’m not knocking it as I’m hoping this means Cambodia’s economy is suddenly booming. But it is far more expensive surviving here than neighbouring countries Thailand and Vietnam. Also, there was next to no begging, which is another great sign. I was fully expecting to have humans hanging off my legs at all times, but nope, never, not even once.
So Angkor Wat (Temple City), that’s the reason travellers flock to this dusty city. I don’t want to admit that the tuk-tuk journey there was more fun but … Temples aren’t supposed to be ‘fun’. You’re thinking I’m a heathen. But it was really hot! We dodged the sunrise time-slot as it was cloudy and well 5am didn’t sound ideal. But we should have gone early before the punishing rays started beating down. I did lots of hiding amongst the stone walls and taking really ‘arty’ photos to escape the sun’s force.
Originally built by Cambodian rulers (Khmer Empire) for Hindu worship, they were later converted to Buddhist temples in the late 12th Century. It’s a little confusing without this knowledge as within the temple walls you’ll see various gods and markings from both religions carved in the walls. One of the first western visitors was a Portuguese monk in 1538 and he reported back. But the temples weren’t to reach fame until a French explorer discovered them in the 19th century. Then Lara Croft stumbled upon them and you know what happens next.
Don’t try and walk it or bike it, take a tuk-tuk. the total temple complex is 402 acres (HUGE) and did I mention it’s hot?! Well in August it is.
Ta Prohm, the Tombraider temple, now we’re talking. Anything where nature has taken over and the trees become mightier than the buildings I’m down with. I have never seen such beautiful trees and yep I touched them, hugged them and tried to steal some of their thousands of years of wisdom. Only the main temple survived due to its moat, nature is reclaiming the rest. Unesco and various countries are investing in many of the temples redevelopment but in the past it hasn’t been done well. There’s a lot to be said for letting something age in the way it’s supposed to.
The super-fancy luxury hotels are creeping ever-closer to the temple grounds. All seemingly foreign-owned and you have to hope they’ve paid a fair price for this land and created jobs for locals. The not so budget travellers never have to venture into Siem Reap or even see the surrounding areas as the complex of ancient temples, once a city in itself, is on their doorstep.
What to get up to at night? ’Pub Street’ is a thing in Siem Reap. It does what it says on the tin and unless should only be viewed ironically. Or indeed if you’re a fan of cheap booze and dancing on tables. I vaguely remember when these were both hobbies. We sat in a quieter pub – ’Angkor What?’ (yep, that’s not a typo) and listened to at least four sound systems competing with each other in a dramatic concoction of trance and euro-pop. I wonder how many others were watching the revelry as some kind of voyeuristic experiment – or that’s what we’re all telling ourselves!
So temples – tick! Western debauchery – tick! C’mon Siem Reap what else have you got. Bug-eating, insect-munching, spider-sucking. According to the seemingly knowledgeable and super passionate french chef at the Bugs Cafe – locals turned to eating insects during Cambodia’s poorest (and absolutely terrifying period).
Not totally a novelty dinner it was clear how much thought had gone into the insect filled grub! (great pun). I think Matthew’s ‘Trip-Advisor’ review says it best, so here it is:
“We started with the scorpion & green mango salad. Scorpions do not taste nice, I never try to let an opinion become a fact but we both genuinely can’t see anyone liking them (and all members of staff Eastern and Western we spoke to don’t like them!)…..to most this is not a shock and honestly we tried but they have both a texture and flavour this is as indescribable as it is unpalatable. We were pleased to have ordered the dish however as the accompanying salad was required to help wash down the joys to follow.
“As per our host’s recommendation we finished with the Bug Platter, which consisted of a tarantula donut, a mixed ant sweet pastry, a cricket & silk worm stir fry and a skewer of roasted whole scorpion, tarantula & crickets. Most surprisingly tarantula not only tastes very nice but has 3 distinct and varied flavour profiles to each of its parts. The legs as my lady best described “Mmm tastes like chips”, they are crunchy and have almost a smokey tinge. The main head/body is delicious and reminds you of well seasoned white crab meat. The abdomen is not for everyone’s taste I am sure but as a lover of both black pudding and liver it was more than edible but enjoyable.
“Ants are already becoming genuine gastronomy ever since some insanely brilliant Scandinavian chefs started to serve them in what has since become the very best restaurant in the world. They have a sweetness which add to a dish and are too small to have the off putting crunch to a shell that other bugs share.”
We ate at so many great restaurants, so if you’re visiting check these places out: Lilypop Restaurant (for the best Amok curry), The Hive (for brekkie, lunch and wholesome goodness) and The Little Red Fox Espresso (for coffee of course).
So Cambodia’s full of bug-eating, smiley people, with super clean asses. No really the people are wonderful, so welcoming and genuinely humble and smiley. I’ve never thought of Cambodia as being off the beaten track as it’s definitely part of South East Asia’s backpacker trail and ‘The Golden Triangle’. But, in some ways the well-trodden path doesn’t seem to be quite as well-trodden as its neighbours. Tourism isn’t yet plentiful and therefore the locals haven’t got tourist fatigue yet.
Football is massive here and you’ll see most kids sporting an iffy replica shirt. The plug sockets take UK plugs – weird huh! And most importantly you can buy both cheese and wine – thanks to the French influence we’re guessing – merci bien! The Amok curry is a delicious coconut treat and the word for thank you is ‘arkoun’ definitely not Amok, that’s the curry remember and will confuse people greatly!
In the next post we head to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, for a look into Cambodia’s recent dark past.
*Accommodation provided by the awesome Mad Monkey Hostels – go check em out.