Cambodia – Phnom Penh & Battambang & Siem Reap

The drive from Saigon to Phnom Penh took about 8 hours on a comfortable bus equipped with AC and WiFi. Even though we knew the Cambodian visa fee was $30, everyone had to fork over $35 to the bus driver’s assistant. We were reluctant to pay the $5 extortion fee until we were told that the bus would leave us at the border if we couldn’t secure our visas before the rest of the bus did (and the reason for the extra fee was to bump everyone to the front of the line). It was useless to argue as both the bus driver and Cambodian border officials are in on the scam so pay up we did. By early afternoon, we were in a Phnom Penh, the relaxed capital city of Cambodia. Our home for the next few days was the centrally located Nawin Guesthouse – fantastic location but no elevator so boy did we get a workout hiking up and down 6 flights of steep stairs every day. Our first full day was a somber experience as we visited both the killing fields (Choeung Ek) and the genocide museum (Tuol Sleng S-21 prison). Even though we had visited both back in 2004, a revisit was well worth our time because both sites are now equipped with excellent go-at-your-own-pace audio guides. Narrated by survivors of the killing fields, we gained invaluable insight into how the Pol Pot regime rose to power, and how the Khmer Rouge’s devastating policies managed to decimate the Cambodian population from 8 million to 5 million people in the span of only 4 years (1975 – 1979), the worst genocide of the 20th century. The tales of atrocity pierced our souls and weighed heavy on our hearts but a visit to Cambodia cannot be fully appreciated without understanding the utter devastation that the Cambodian people lived through just a couple of decades ago. The rest of our time in Phnom Penh was spent wandering the city in search of good food and drink and we managed to find both, although the touts and tuk tuk drivers were getting on our nerves after only a few days. From PP, we made our way to Battambang via another long bus ride. The tuk tuk drivers in Battambang are smart businessmen – they picked us up from the bus station and drove us to our hotel (Lux Guesthouse) for free, and all they asked in return was for us to consider booking them for a tuk tuk tour for the next day. Robby bargained them down from $10 to $7 a person and deal, everyone was in. The tour was fantastic – our drivers are all young men who have learned English and are eager to share their knowledge of Battambang with us. We squeezed into 3 tuk tuks and zipped off to the bamboo train for our first stop. If ever in Battambang, go to the bamboo train station immediately! Do not skip this unique train ride…there is nothing else in the world quite like it. Loads of fun and completely out of control. It helped that we were the first 3 carts in action so we didn’t have to stop and offload for other oncoming carts. Our crazy drivers got us up to speeds of 20 km/hr which doesn’t sound like much but try it and see for yourself!!!

The rest of our Battambang tour brought us to Wat Sangker, Battambang central market, Kampong Pil swinging bridge, Wat Baydamram’s hanging fruit bats, Wat Banan and the killing caves of Phnom Sampeu (another heart-wrenching remnant from the Khmer Rouge’s brutal regime). At dusk, we sat and watched over half a million bats swarming in formation out of a nearby cave. Tig treated us to a group dinner at Nary’s Kitchen and their fish amok is to die for (try it…you won’t be disappointed). From Battambang we signed up for a boat ride to Siem Reap, and it was a loud, hot, crowded and slow boat ride up the Tonle Sap river. By mid afternoon, we were thrilled to finally be in Siem Reap where we got to link up with Katherine, a friend from the trans-Africa overland trip. She joined us on our Angkor Wat at sunset tour which didn’t pan out since the security guards have been kicking all visitors out promptly at 5:30 pm (a new policy since several disrespectful tourists started disrobing for naked selfies in front of Angkor Wat). The next day was an early one for sunrise at Angkor Wat, followed by a tour of Wat Thom’s Gods & Demons entrance gate, Wat Bayon, the Elephant Terrace, Banteay Srei, and last but not least Ta Prohm. It was a full day tour and we were glad to have squeezed it all in for a day’s sightseeing because that left us a free day to relax and enjoy. Nothing more relaxing that getting an hour long foot massage for next to nothing and stuffing ourselves with burgers and cocktails…bliss! Just like that, a week in Cambodia came to a quick end. We are off to Thailand next and have only a month left of the trip…where does all the time go?

05 Sep – After exiting Vietnam, we entered Cambodia at the Bavet border crossing. The bus representative hustled to earn his $5 per passenger commission to handle our visa applications while we were driven to a nearby restaurant to wait it out. It felt really uncomfortable leaving the border without our passports but we were reassured that we would get them “soon”. Since it was lunch time, we got some pork with rice but everyone else decided to hold out until we arrived to Phnom Penh. By 12:30 pm, our passports were good to go so we loaded back onto the bus for the final portion of our journey. Upon arrival in Phnom Penh, we grabbed tuk tuks for the short ride to Nawin Guesthouse, our home for the next few nights. No elevator and we were stuck on the 6th floor so lots of exercise to get to our room! After getting settled in, we were craving burgers so off to the highly rated Rustic Restaurant. Too bad it was closed on a Monday! On our way back to the hotel, we ran into Helen and Ant and the 4 of us decided to check out the Fresh Chilli Restaurant across the street because they had 50 cent draft beers and half price cocktails. After perusing their menu, we were informed that they served free beer with the specials…deal! Once Robby spotted the pool table in the back, it was game over. We called the rest of the gang to join us and enjoyed a night of drinks and pool.

06 Sep – A loud mouthed South Carolina man dominated the scene at breakfast. Robby refused to admit he was from Georgia in fear that the man would engage him in conversation. After breakfast, our group left for a visit to the Killing Fields (Choeung Ek Genocide Center).Even though we visited 12 years ago, it was well worth a revisit. The improvements (audio guides, walking paths, film room) made over the years really enhanced our visit. Visiting this site still jerks the heartstrings! After that, we drove back towards town to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Our tuk tuk drivers took us to a nearby restaurant but one look at the overpriced menu and we decided to give it a miss. Lars joined us in touring Tuol Sleng while the rest of the group decided to eat first, visit afterwards. Since this was a repeat visit for us, we definitely wanted the audio guide which was excellent. Heartbreaking but well worth a few hours of our time. After our visit, we were surprised to discover that Denise decided to skip the museum altogether as she was waiting for us at the restaurant for the ride back to the hotel. Our top priority was getting some burgers for a late lunch so off to the Rustic Restaurant again. This time it was open, and let’s just say that Tripadvisor did not steer us wrong. The burgers were amazing! Even though we love Asian food, after eating noodles and rice for months on end, there is nothing like a greasy burger and fries to shock the system! After our bellies were full, we were keen on a quick city tour so Lars joined us as far as the Central Market where he was on a quest to find a football jersey. Our tour took us from the Central Market to the Raffles Le Royal Hotel and the Grand Post Office. We wanted to check off all the colonial era buildings which didn’t take too long. Our walking tour ended along the waterfront leading to the Throne Hall. Back at the hotel by 7:30 pm, Becky was feeling really sick. A stop at a nearby pharmacy cost us $1 for antibiotics which appeared to work instantly. The gang was in search of fried insects so Robby joined them in their quest for street food. While out and about, they ran into Helen and Ant who had tried to visit Rustic Restaurant for a second time and were told that they had run out of burgers!!! Two unsuccessful visits in a row…poor guys had been tormented by our tales of how yummy the burgers were, ha ha. A night of bar hopping ensued, starting at the Aroma Restaurant (good food and drinks). Then to Garage Bar (highly rated online but completely devoid of customers when visited. When asked to play some music, the unhelpful staff pointed to a laptop and told us to pick our own tunes!), so onward to a no-name street bar for cheap draft beers for the remainder of the night.

07 Sep – After breakfast, we decided to walk around before it got too hot outside. First stop was in front of the National Museum. Since we had been before, we gave it a miss this go around. Then it was on to Wat Ounalom before making our way over to Wat Phnom. We remembered visiting this Wat back in 2004 but it was worth walking over here for a quick look. Robby had been craving coconut juice for days now and finally found a streetside vendor selling coconuts. Happy times. Then we wandered through the Phsar Kandal Market, which is a glimpse of a real Cambodian market. Lots of snakes for sale (eeew), frogs, fish, and various cuts of meat…not for the squeamish though! From here we went to the riverfront and made our way to the Royal Palace for some exterior photos. We had visited the Royal Palace already and neither one of us felt compelled to be repeat visitors so we walked over to the nearby Independence Monument. It was noon at this point and it felt way to hot to be outside exploring so we decided to check out the Aroma Restaurant (everyone had been raving about the food here) for lunch and returned to our room to relax for the afternoon. Just after sunset, we figured we’d check out the nearby night market and of course it started to rain. The night market was OK, not very big but full of vendors selling cheap clothes and a couple of food stalls. It wasn’t as packed as we had expected but that was probably due to the rain. So we decided to join the gang at the Aroma Restaurant where the friendly staff gave us free cocktails. No wonder everyone liked hanging out here! It was a fun place to hang out for our last night in Phnom Penh.

08 Sep – We left the hotel at 9 to catch the bus to Battambang and the tuk tuk drivers were trying to put nine of us plus all bags in two tuk tuks that are designed carry four people each. Tig was having none if it and made them send one of the tuk tuks back to pick us up. The others all went ahead of us in the two tuk tuks while we waited it out. For our ride we had to stop by two other hotels and pick up two other passengers. In the end, it didn’t matter what time we got picked up because the bus departed at 10 am and we were plenty early. Thankfully, it was a comfortable ride to Battambang with the only complaint that it took way too long to get out of Phnom Penh because our driver kept stopping every few minutes to pick up more passengers, deposit and pick up cargo, etc. Each stop ranged from 10 to 15 minutes, so it took well over an hour just to get out of Phnom Penh. Eventually, the stops became less and less frequent and we were making good progress. It was late afternoon by the time we pulled into Battambang, so the ride took over 7 hours. We were greeted by friendly tuk tuk drivers who offered to take us to our guesthouse for free as they were hustling for our business tomorrow. We were given a sample itinerary for a full day trip and told them we’d talk about it as a group and decide. The Lux Guesthouse was clean but hot, and we discovered that AC was turned “off” because Tig had only paid for fan-only rooms. Due to the heat, that decision quickly got reversed and the AC was turned on…yes! Back down in the lobby, we took a group vote and eventually decided on an itinerary for our day tour tomorrow. Robby bargained down the individual rate from $12 to $7 which wasn’t a bad deal for the drivers since there were 9 of us. 3 tuk tuks agreed to meet us in the morning and they guaranteed we would have a great time. Dinner was at Nary’s Kitchen which was recommended to us and it did not disappoint! The fish amok was divine, as was the coconut fish soup – no wonder they offer cooking classes here. The food is really good! As we were finishing our meal in anticipation of getting dessert nearby, Lars and Tig showed up with the disappointing news that the dessert place was closed for the next two weeks. Boo! What a letdown. They also mentioned that the night market here was really lame with just a few clothing stalls and food shacks and not worth a visit so we decided to give it a miss.

09 Sep – After a nice buffet breakfast at Café HOC (Hope of Children), we met our tuk tuk drivers at 9 am. Our day tour kicked off at the Ta Dumbong Statue, the guardian of Battambang. From there we drove out to the Bamboo train (officially known as “Nori”) for a 7 km ride out to a village. What a thrill! The bamboo train ride was better than expected because we were the first ones to ride that morning and we didn’t have to stop for any oncoming traffic. At the turnaround point, we were given some free time to shop and play with the kids before the 7 km return ride. On the return trip, we saw all the carts going in the opposite direction forced to stop and disassemble…this process was quite interesting because the bamboo train design itself is so simplistic, a bamboo frame sitting on top of two barbell wheels powered by a small engine. It takes about 3 minutes for two drivers working together to disassemble a cart so that the other may pass and we were happy to have experienced the first portion of our ride without interruption. Two huge thumbs up for Battambang’s bamboo train! After our train ride, we drove out to Wat Sangker, where one of our drivers gave us some information about Buddhism. Next we had a quick look at the Central Market and our driver gave us some jackfruit to try. From there the drivers showed us the first street that was built through Battambang (properly named Street 1). Then we we made a stop at the Battambang Provincial Hall and then onward to the Kampong Pil hanging bridge. It felt as if we were zipping through our itinerary but that was fine because everyone was having fun. Next up was Wat Baydamram to see the fruit bats that are cared for by the local monks. Unfortunately our tuk tuk got a flat tire, so rather than waste our time, our tuk tuk driver suggested we squeeze in with our friends for the short ride to Wat Banan. Thus we ended up with one tuk tuk crammed with 6 of us (Denise, Lars, Tig, Gill and us). Before hiking up to Wat Banan, we opted to have lunch at the base. And then we hiked, predictably pouring with sweat by the time we reached the top. A couple of entrepreneurial kids chased us with fans but we declined. They must make a lot of money in tips but not from us, ha. Wat Banan is in decent shape but we knew the Wats at Angkor would put it to shame. It was late afternoon by the time we made our way to Phnom Sampeu, which is known for the “killing caves” that Khmer Rouge used. We paid extra to be driven up and down instead walking the whole way since our tuk tuks couldn’t make the steep journey. Well worth the extra money! Our tuk tuk driver served as our tour guide as he told us about the morbid history of the caves. At the second pagoda we visited there were monkeys all around and our tuk tuk driver urged us to try fried crickets. They weren’t as crispy as we would have wanted…soggy crickets = no bueno. Back at the bottom of Phnom Sampeu, we had a beer and waited at the bat cave for the bats to come out. It was impressive to see how many bats live in the cave because after sunset, over half a million of them streamed out of the cave. It was too dark for photos but we will never forget the sight of thousands of bats flying in formation…very cool! Even though we had negotiated our day trip down to $7 each, we felt the tuk tuk drivers had earned a tip so we kicked in a few extra dollars which made them very happy. Good feelings all around. Tig treated all of us to dinner at Nary’s Kitchen…yay! We still had room for dessert and had to waddle back to the hotel afterwards. Battambang was an unexpected surprise and we were happy to have spent 2 days here.

10 Sep – We had an early start to catch our long boat on the Sangker River to Siem Reap. The boat departed just a little after 7 am with a full load of 20 passengers plus gear. The engine was loud, but we had earplugs to drown out the sound, and the views of the river villages made it a tolerable ride. There one stop around 10 am to give everyone a chance to buy some snacks, use the toilet, or smoke a cigarette. But other than that, the boat went non stop. After several hours, we made it along the river to the Tonle Sap Lake, which is quite massive. We hugged along the scrub brush and eventually turned into it and started following a narrow cut through the brush that lead directly to the ferry port. At one point, the engine stalled because vegetation had gotten stuck in the propeller but that was quickly rectified. At the Tonle Sap harbor, we linked up with a tuk tuk driver who is the brother of one of our Battambang tuk tuk drivers. Everyone is trying to hustle to earn a buck in Cambodia! The ride out to our hotel in Siem Reap, the Villa Sok San Square, took under an hour. We were excited at the thought of linking up with one of our TransAfrica buddies, Katherine from the UK. She had flown in the day before and was staying at our hotel so as soon as we arrived, she greeted us in the lobby. Yay, so nice to see her after 5 years! Tig arranged for our group to visit Angkor Wat for sunset so we agreed to meet up at 4:30 pm. After checking into our room, we found out that the AC wasn’t working so we went to reception to change rooms. No way we were going to suffer without AC here! Lunch was at the hotel restaurant where they offered an amazing deal ($2 meal plus a free beer/soda). Katherine and Lars joined us so it was a mini-trans Africa reunion. When our tuk tuks came to pick us up, Tig was cool with Katherine joining us for the next few days…how awesome! We had to pick up our Angkor Wat tickets in order to enter for sunset so we took care of that straight away. Even though Tig had been promised that we could enter the site for sunset, we were allowed just a few minutes before the guards starting pushing us out. Apparently due to horrible tourists who had taken naked selfie pics at Angkor, everyone was being punished because now sun set visitors are forbidden and the staff is strict in chasing everyone out at 5 pm…or at least that was the rumor we heard. On the ride back to the hotel, it started pouring down rain but that didn’t prevent us from a quick dip in the pool with Lars and Gill. Dinner was at Khmer Taste because it had a massive menu combined with cheap drinks and friendly staff. We didn’t have a super late night because the plan was to get up early for sunrise tomorrow morning.

11 Sep – Up early for our 5 am departure to visit Angkor Wat for sunrise. Our guide and driver met us at the hotel and we arrived about an hour before sunrise so it was still dark outside. It was surprising to see how many tourists had gathered in the early morning darkness to witness the sunrise. Absolutely bonkers compared to what we experienced a mere 12 years ago! Unfortunately the sunrise sucked. It wasn’t the flaming red version we remembered but more subdued and muted…definitely impacted by the rainy season and cloud cover. After a quick breakfast, our guide gave us a walking tour of Angkor Wat. Compared to our last visit, there now are new walking platforms, signage, roped off areas, and a new wooden staircase linking to the top of Angkor Wat (visiting the top is a lot safer now than it used to be!). After we had our fill of Angkor Wat, we drove onward toward Wat Thom and stopped at the gateway of gods and demons leading to Angkor Thom. After strolling across the bridge, we were driven to Wat Bayon, which is famous for its numerous smiling Buddha faces. What a zoo! The place was packed with mostly Asian tourists, and everyone was walking around taking selfies. Boy were we glad we had visited long ago because those memories are special in comparison to the madness that has descended on this sacred site. Next up was a walk around the Elephant Terrace, followed by a drive out to Banteay Srei (Lady Temple). Its about a half hour drive away from the main complex but well worth the detour because this temple is way more intricate than the other temples in this area. Known locally as the “citadel of the women”, legend has it that women built this temple because it would have been physically impossible for men to have achieved the same level of detail. After Banteay Srei, we had lunch at a tourist restaurant where the prices were not backpacker friendly. But our choices were limited so we sucked it up. We ended the group tour at Ta Prohm temple of Tomb Raider fame. As was the case during our last visit, Ta Prohm complex remains our favorite because it is the most dramatic with overgrown trees over crumbling ruins. After an hour of exploration, we walked back to our van just as the rain let loose for the afternoon…perfect timing! Despite the rain, we had been hot and sweaty all day today so we were insistent on cooling down in the pool. Connie joined us and it felt great to be cold for once today! Since it was still raining hours later, we decided to have dinner at the hotel with Lars and Katherine. Afterwards, we made a dash for the cheap happy hour at Khmer Taste. From there we went to Pub Street and Robby spotted a place that had draft beer for $0.25 so we stopped there for one but that ended up being our last stop. Music was blasting from next door so we had all we needed right where we were….no need to bar hop! Poor Lars suddenly had to bolt to the bathroom as he got sick with something. He tried to stick it out for a few more drinks but we all ended up leaving around 11 pm since Katherine had an early flight in the morning. It was so great catching up with her in Cambodia of all places! Wonder where our next reunion will be?

12 Sep – Since we had enjoyed our evening drinks and food at the Khmer Taste, we figured we’d check it out for breakfast. Afterwards, we wandered around Pub Street to check it out in the daytime. That’s when we discovered Temple Massage’s one hour foot massage special for only $1.50! They were completely packed when we arrived so they told us to come back in 20 minutes and they’d squeeze us in…deal. So we wandered around the market area to kill some time before our massages. And it was awesome. Best foot massage for that price…ever. We got on Messanger and spread the word and Tig decided to join in on the action. Afterwards, we decided to hit a nearby burger joint, Jungle Burger. Mainly because we heard the cocktails were to die for. Generous, strong and delicious, the reviews were spot on. And for under $2? We had a happy afternoon enjoying the drinks and food (blue cheese burger and Khmer pork ribs…both were excellent). Bonus was the décor…the owner is an All Blacks rugby fan so All Blacks paraphernalia was strewn throughout the place. This was a great little find in Siem Reap and we were happy to have the place to ourselves. After lunch, we hit the market again to stock up on snacks (dried mango strips and coconut candy) for the bus ride tomorrow followed by a dip in the pool to cool down afterwards. The afternoon was spent lounging in bed watching the new Tarzan movie. And since we had enjoyed dinner at our hotel so much, we figured why rock the boat? Dinner at the hotel rounded out our relaxing day. Tomorrow we will bid Cambodia goodbye as we cross the border into Thailand. Boy the days are flying by!

13 Sep – Tig told us we had to be at the bus station by 8 am so we were on time but it was well after 9 am by the time the bus actually departed. The bus wasn’t full so we were able to spread out and get comfortable. There was free WiFi onboard as well as a free snack and drinks for the pros. The cons were the freezing cold AC…everyone had to bundle up because it was really, really cold for the duration of the ride! At around 1 pm, we reached the Cambodian border of Poipet where we were efficiently stamped out of the country. In no man’s land, we stopped to buy pork sandwiches from a streetside vendor…fingers crossed we don’t get the shits!

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