Our experience and thoughts on Cambodia should be marked with a giant asterisk *opinions formed under extreme heat duress*. We spent six days in Cambodia in the beginning of April. According to Lonely Planet’s website, “April and May spells hot season [in Cambodia], when the mercury hits 40°C and visitors melt.” Spot on, Lonely Planet.
This leads to the inevitable question – why did you plan to visit Cambodia in April?
Good question, reader. Good question. The keyword here is ‘plan’. We weren’t planning on going to Cambodia in April. Our plan was to fly from Nepal to Myanmar (though Myanmar likely would have been just as hot) and eventually make our way to Cambodia by late May or early June. We had our flight to Myanmar booked, lodging reserved, and a route mapped out. We were ready. In fact, we made it through security at KLIA2 airport in Kuala Lumpur and were waiting at the gate for our flight to Yangon when Danielle asked me, “We can get a visa-on-arrival in Myanmar, right?” I’ll spare you the drama – the answer is no. Technically you do get a visa-on-arrival, but we neglected the whole “applying for it ahead of time” thing.
Fast forward 30 hours and we were getting off the plane in Siem Reap, our first stop in Cambodia.
Then, shortly after arriving, we realized Khmer New Year was fast approaching. Khmer New Year is a big deal in Cambodia. The best comparison is Chinese New Year in that businesses shut down for an entire week. Seriously, an entire week (technically the holiday is only three or four days, but many businesses we saw had posted signs indicating their plans to be closed for a week). After our experience in Malaysia (when the whole town shut down for Chinese New Year), we decided we would rather get out of the country before Khmer New Year instead of staying in a city with nothing to do and no where to go.
Combine these two circumstances together and what do you get? 6 days in Cambodia in April. So how was it? Well, it was a whirlwind. A hot whirlwind. We visited Siem Reap, Battambang, and Phnom Penh and skipped the following towns due to our shortened timeframe – Kampot, Koh Krong, Kratie, and Chi Phat (website here). We were *this* close to heading down to Chi Phat for Khmer New Year instead of Vietnam, but in our correspondence with them, we were told they could arrange a visit if we provided a day or two of notice, but most of the community members would be spending the New Year with their family. We didn’t want to be the cause of a guide missing out on family time – “Hey Frank, I know I promised you could have the week off to spend with your family, but it turns out a couple of tourists are heading this way and your services are needed.” – so we decided to move on.
Besides the heat, I will remember Cambodia for two things (one good, one bad):
Tuk-tuks. Cambodia is the land of tuk-tuks. To be fair, most of SE Asia could be called the land of tuk-tuks, but Cambodia is the country I will always associate with tuk-tuks because we spent most of our time in the country in a tuk-tuk. Part of this is because it was too hot to walk. Part of it is because the major sites in Cambodia are located outside of the major cities, or more accurately, outside of the tourist areas. Angkor Wat? Several kilometers outside Siem Reap. Killing caves? Several kilometers outside Battambang. Killing fields? Several kilometers outside Phnom Penh. So if you are planning on visiting Cambodia, get ready for some quality tuk-tuk time.
Pol Pot. If you have never heard of Pol Pot or the Cambodian genocide of the late 1970’s, a quick summary: Pol Pot took over the country in 1975 and attempted to create a utopian, agrarian society by emptying the cities and forcing all Cambodians to work in the fields. Along the way, he made sure to kill any and all threats to his perfect society. Threats being anybody with a college education, those wearing glasses, those who were able to speak a foreign language, and many others. Before he was removed from power and run into exile in 1979, an estimated two million (out of eight million) Cambodians were dead.
Before this trip I knew Cambodia had experienced a genocide in the past, but this was the extent of my knowledge. To remedy this fact, prior to our arrival, I read the book First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung, one young girl’s account of life in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. It is an incredibly difficult story to read but it is important, I think, to understand just how much suffering Pol Pot and his cronies inflicted on the Cambodian people. Even if you have no desire to visit Cambodia, I recommend reading this book, or any of the other survivor accounts out there. It definitely drives home how fortunate we are to have been born in the United States. Or more accurately – how fortunate we are that our parents were born in the United States. Had our parents been born in Cambodia, there is a 25% chance they would have died in the late 1970’s.
One of the more nauseating quotes attributed to Pol Pot, according to the S21 museum audio tour, is, “it is better that ten innocent men suffer than one guilty man escape.” In other words, his world view is the antithesis of the legal system we were raised with in the USA. Say what you will about our justice system (I just finished reading Just Mercy so I’m definitely not going to heap praise on the US justice system), but at least 99% of those working in its service would punch you in the mouth if you said this to their face.
Ok, so a quick review. We came to Cambodia after our Myanmar plans fell through. It was April (hot). We only stayed for six days to ensure we were out of the country before Khmer New Year started. Instead of blogging about each of the cities we visited separately, I’m combining them all into one post. As I mentioned above, we visited the following cities:
Siem Reap. Siem Reap is Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is Siem Reap. Like everybody else, we were only in town to see Angkor Wat. The city itself was fine.
Battambang. This is the second largest city in Cambodia, but it was the most relaxed of the three we visited. It had some nice French colonial architecture.
Phnom Penh. This is the capital! We had heard a bunch of negative reviews of Phnom Penh prior to arriving, as such our expectations were quite low. We ended up not hating it – glowing review, I know. The riverfront area was quite nice. Markets were decent. Reality exceeded expectations, so that was nice.
Now, our normal categories…
High level. We flew. We bused.
Detailed. Air Asia, per usual. Kathmandu to Siem Reap (with a 30 hour stop in Kuala Lumpur). Minibuses from Siem Reap to Battambang and Battambang to Phnom Penh.
Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is THE site to see in Cambodia. It is on the currency. It is on the flag. If you know somebody who has gone to Cambodia, you know somebody who has gone to Angkor Wat. One clarifying note – Angkor Wat is just one of the temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park. There are dozens of other temples within the park. I’m not going to spend much time describing Angkor Wat since almost a quarter of the internet is currently devoted to this task but I WILL say the entire Angkor park was much larger than I expected. The ticket prices were higher than I anticipated as well – $40 USD/person for a 3-day pass (or $20 USD/person for 1 day). Then again, Angkor Wat is a textbook example of a product with inelastic demand so they can really name their price.
We spent two days visiting the complex. Not full days, mind you, but maybe 5 or 6 hours each day. Both days we hired a tuk-tuk driver to drive us around from temple to temple. Initially, I wanted to rent two bicycles and get around that way, but this dream wilted in the heat. I still think renting bicycles would be a great way to see Angkor Park.
Phare Circus – Battambang. Website here. A description of the organization behind the circus from its Facebook page is below:
“Phare artists are students and graduates from Phare Ponleu Selpak Artistic Center in Battambang. The association was formed 20 years ago by 8 young men coming home from a refugee camp after the Khmer Rouge regime. They were greatly helped by art therapy and wanted to share this new skill among the poor, socially deprived and troubled youngsters in Battambang. They founded an art school and public school followed to offer free education. A music school and theatre school were next and finally, for the kids who wanted more, the circus school. Today more than 1,200 pupils attend the public school daily and 500 attend the alternative schools. Phare Ponleu Selpak also has extensive outreach programs, trying to help with the problems highlighted in their own tales.”
We thought it was a great way to spend an evening. There were several times throughout the show where the large group of local spectators would burst out in laughter and you could tell the on-stage performers were feeding off of the laughter and altering their performance to get more. The Westerners in the crowd, us included, didn’t always understand the jokes, but we could tell they were having fun and their laughter was contagious! Good cause, good show!
Tuk-Tuk Around Battambang. There are a handful of sites to see in Battambang – killing caves, bamboo railroad, other stuff I’m not remembering. We went to the killing caves (below), but by far our favorite memory of Battambang was our tuk-tuk driver. Yes, we hired him to drive us around, but we spent most of the day parked on the side of the road asking him questions about everything under the sun – weddings, funerals, Khmer New Year traditions, schools, and everything in between. One of our favorite experiences in Cambodia! Bun’s personal website is HERE. His TripAdvisor page is HERE.
Relics of the Khmer Rouge. Killing Caves, Killing Fields, S21 Genocide Museum. Enjoyable is not a word I would use to describe any of these places. The Killing Fields and S21 Museum (both located in Phnom Penh) each have wonderful audio tours, which enhance the (terrible) experience. Both places were tough to see. The Killing Fields are exactly what they sound like – a few non-descript fields that served as execution and mass burial grounds for the Khmer Rouge. The S21 Museum is a former high school-turned-prison-turned-museum. During the Khmer Rouge days, it was the final stop for prisoners before their execution at the killing fields. It was a death sentence unto itself and home to unimaginable torture methods. Similarly, the Killing Caves are a small grouping of caves where, you guessed it, the Khmer Rouge killed other threats to the state.
If I were to do it again, I would skip the Killing Caves. There is a temple close to the killing caves that Danielle and I enjoyed, but the killing caves themselves seem to have turned the corner from a “place to remember and respect those who were killed” to a “place to get money from tourists”. I felt awkward and uncomfortable here. To be fair, I felt uncomfortable at the Killing Fields and S21 Museum, but that was because of all of the atrocities committed there. I felt uncomfortable at the Killing Caves because we were asked for money four times to “help build a Buddha statue” and death that occurred in the caves seemed like more of a footnote.
Two runs. We ran once in Siem Reap and once in Phnom Penh. Both cities had nice riverfront areas where you could get a run in. We had some dog issues in Siem Reap and by ‘dog issues’ I mean dogs trying to eat us for dinner, but nothing a rock or two couldn’t handle. Stava data HERE and HERE.
Yoga. Siem Reap Hostel had a yoga room you could use so we took advantage of the opportunity to practice our newly obtained yoga skillz (see: Yoga retreat in Pokhara).
Expensive and mediocre. Not exactly the foodie capital of SE Asia. There were four exceptions to the ‘mediocre’ label – smoothies, Amok, bamboo sticky rice, and Kinyei Cafe.
Smoothies. The smoothie game in Cambodia was strong. You could find fresh fruit (MANGO PLEASE) smoothies in every town for $1 USD.
Amok. This is a dish unique to Cambodia. It differed from city to city and restaurant to restaurant, but we always enjoyed it. Coconut based broth, fish (or chicken), spice, and veggies all served with a side of rice.
Bamboo Sticky Rice. Bamboo sticky rice is simple and delicious. Take rice, add in coconut milk and black beans. Put mixture into a section of bamboo. Stop it up and cook over a fire. Wait for it to cool, then peel back the bamboo shell and eat.
Kinyei Café. They serve food here, but it wasn’t worth the price. Their coffee, however, is fantastic. There is a framed certificate behind the counter indicating one of their baristas won the ‘Best Barista in Cambodia’ honor in 2015. While I cannot vouch for the rigor of the Cambodian Barista Competition, I can vouch that this place can make a mean latte.
Siem Reap Hostel. We stayed here based on a recommendation from a friend. Nice place. It has great, open-air (see: non air-con) common rooms and a small pool. The yoga room was a nice touch.
Royal Battambang Hotel. Cheap for a private room. Not much else I remember about it.
Happy House Hostel (Phnom Penh). We had a private room. It smelled like citrus.
Mango Smoothies. All day, everyday.
Bun the tuk-tuk driver. Highly recommend.
Killing Fields and S21 Museum. Terrible places, but worth a visit.
Heat. There were times when I started to wonder how much hotter it needed to be before I started cooking…like a turkey in an oven.
Killing Caves. “Welcome to the Killing Caves. Bad stuff happened here. Can I have five dollars?”
USD is king. Fun fact: ATMs in Cambodia dispense USD. Large denomination USD at that – Benjamin Franklins y’all! Go figure, the only time I’ve received $100 bills out of an ATM is in Cambodia. The Cambodian currency – riel – is still used for small purchases at a 4,000 Riel to 1 USD exchange rate. The actual Riel rate varies above and below the 4,000 to 1 mark. Right now, for instance, the actual exchange rate is 4,035 to 1. I read there are people who try to take advantage of this potential arbitrage opportunity when there are large fluctuations in the market exchange rate, but I didn’t try it out myself.
If you’re wondering why USD is the currency of choice in Cambodia, look no further than the Khmer Rouge. One of Pol Pot’s many ideas in the 1970’s was to get rid of currency and banks. All of that money you had yesterday? Worthless. If this happened to me, I would definitely be putting my money in a strong, foreign currency after Pol Pot was driven from power. Then again, if I was living in Cambodia during the 1970’s, I likely would have been executed for having a college education.
Budget Update. Only spending six days in a country is not a budget friendly way to travel. Below is a look at how much we spent in Cambodia compared with the previous four countries we visited. One note – I removed our flight from Kuala Lumpur to Siem Reap from the calculation since most people wouldn’t be in this situation. As you can see, Cambodia was quite expensive as far as backpacker destinations go, especially when you don’t average it out over multiple of days of doing inexpensive things (like exploring towns, etc.).