I’ll have to begin by confessing that I have been quite the slacker lately, as I went for over a month without updating the blog. While my traveling has been less frequent lately, I did take a trip to Mumbai to get an introduction to the city and the people that I will be working with in less than a month. From my brief trip there I can say that it will absolutely be an adventure. The city is far less polished than Kuala Lumpur and will offer a number of challenges that I have yet to experience here in KL. But honestly, for those reasons I’m excited about this next chapter. Anyways, more to come on all that in future posts.
About a month ago, my friends Joe and Katie Rice that I befriended at surf school in Bali, sent me an email to say they were going to travel around SE Asia for a month with some of their American friends. They extended the invite to see if I would be interested in joining for part of the journey. I quickly responded that while I didn’t have a month to go around with them, I would love to join them for a leg of their trip in Cambodia. Their plans put them in Siem Reap for the 4th of July weekend and I thought this would be a fun way to celebrate while abroad.
I arrived Friday afternoon after just a two hour flight from Kuala Lumpur. Similar to Bali, Cambodia requires a Visa that can be obtained on arrival, I just needed to bring a photo and 35 USD. The immigration officials had the process down pat, and I was able to get through immigration within about 15 minutes.
Leaving the arrival terminal, I was looking for a driver from the hotel that would be giving me a ride. As I looked through the sea of signs showing an international array of names and hotels, I finally came across a sign for “Even Walker”. Since being abroad, I’ve had my name spelled as Eden, Edan, Seven (a personal favorite), and Even. I’ve stopped fighting it and whenever I see something close to my name I signify that’s me. So traveling under my new alias, Even, I got in the car and headed towards the hotel.
I rented a room at the hotel La Riviere d’ Angkor, which proved to be a very nice place located in the heart of Siem Reap next to the river. The hotel was fairly new, so they were running a promo rate of 65 USD/night. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I love traveling in SE Asia for the quality of hotel you can find for such an affordable price.
After checking in and dropping my stuff off, I headed out to get a feel for the surrounding area. The most widely known social scene within Siem Reap is an area called Pub Street so I decided to head that direction and just walk around. While walking towards Pub Street, I passed through a small alleyway that to my surprise held several small restaurants and dive bars. One of which, was essentially a small shack with colorful Reggae decorations inside and lively music playing over the loud speakers. The place captured my attention as a laid back place that had a very local feel to it, off the beaten path. A couple of the guys inside said hello and invited me in to have a beer. It was still early in the afternoon so I told them that I wasn’t quite ready for that but I would be back later on in the evening to enjoy the Cambodian hospitality.
Soon enough, the alley then opened up into the main area of Pub Street.
It was a collection of bustling shops, restaurants, and indeed pubs. Though one of the things that quickly struck me is I didn’t notice a single commercial chain that have dotted all my destinations through SE Asia. It was really nice to not see a TGIF or a KFC, and this held true through the rest of my explorations through the city. Siem Reap is a truly international destination due to the influx of travelers, but it currently does not have an influx of international chains that seem to erode some of the originality of a city.
After I walked around for a while, I decided I would recharge my batteries and get a massage. For a really good 90 minute massage it cost me 21 USD. It almost felt wrong how cheap it was. One thing I also want to point out is while the Cambodian currency is officially the Riel, within Siem Reap, the only currency that anyone seems to accept is the USD. Pretty much all prices are posted in USD and withdrawals from the ATM are typically in USD.
As the afternoon slowly turned into the evening, I began making my way back to the hotel alongside the river that runs through town. While on this river walk, there were several food stalls that were spaced along the side of the road. These stalls seemed to specialize in one type of food or another and one in particular seemed to draw a large crowd of locals, a good sign. I poked my head into the stall to see the vendor feverishly preparing one sandwich after another to a growing number of locals. I asked him what it was called, and he responded, “Num Pang”. I’m editing out the number of times I attempted to repeat the words, to then only be corrected by him again and again. Signaling that I’d like one to go, I waited my turn as he whittled down the backlog.
Like Vietnam, Cambodia had once been a French colony, in Cambodia’s case it was for 90 years. I’m sure there are many negative aspects of that French colonial rule but, similar to Vietnam, one great side effect is the quality of their bread. It truly is fantastic, making it funny how by contrast the former British colonies do not have anywhere near the same quality of bread within their cuisine. The Num Pang, which I found is essentially the word sandwich in Cambodian, is quite similar to a Bahn Mi in Vietnam though I found this even more enjoyable. A fresh baguette is halved, then a layer of roasted pork, some vegetables (fresh and pickled), herbs, and sauce is added and placed into a plastic bag. When I asked the vendor how much, he told me in Riel. I asked him how much in USD and he responded, “50 cents.” I smiled, gave him a dollar, told him to keep the change, and then continued my walk along the river.
The Num Pang was delicious and I had polished it off before I got close to my hotel, which was only about a 5 minute walk away. When I got back, I showered up and then decided to make my way back to experience some of the Siem Reap nightlife.
Headed back out, I decided to stop by the small bar within the alley, that was funny enough named Soul Train. When I got there, a number of people were sitting at the bar so I made my way up and grabbed a seat. Soon enough I had struck up a conversation with the two local Cambodians running the bar and a Swiss expat that was working in Siem Reap for a NGO that was developed to provide access to clean, drinking water within the outlying communities. They provided me with some interesting stories of life around Siem Reap as well as an idea of other organizations that are working in the area and making a difference to the community. As the night progressed, I met an Australian couple that had been vacationing in Siem Reap for over a week and they made some great restaurant suggestions and a bar that I could sample Khmer cocktails at. I also met a beautiful young Cambodian woman, Channa, who was a promoter for a DJ that would be playing later on that night at Soul Train. By about 11, the effects of the week were beginning to catch up with me and I told the group that I needed to grab something to eat. Channa made me promise I would be back that night for the big party, but after leaving, the allure of sleep got the better of me and I had to break that promise. Though I would see her again.
The next morning I had a bicycle tour of the countryside scheduled for 8 am. The tour was through an NGO called Khmer for Khmer Organization which offers both scooter and bicycle tours of the countryside and temples for a suggested donation, which then uses the funds raised from the tours to teach Cambodians English and learn vocational skills such as sewing and scooter repair. I met my tour guide Ploi, a local Cambodian, outside of their repair shop within the city. He introduced himself, fitted me with a helmet and a bike, and then we loaded up our bikes into a Tuk Tuk for a quick ride to the starting point of our 25 km journey through the countryside.
Along the way he explained the origins of the NGO (it was started by a German man and a Cambodian woman just over 5 years ago) and the number of Cambodians they work with in a given year. It is really an impressive organization and I would strongly recommend taking one of their tours if you find yourself in Siem Reap. After about 30 minutes, we unloaded our bikes, strapped on our helmets, and started down a dirt path that forked off the main road.
As we made our way further and further into the countryside and onto smaller and smaller dirt paths, Ploi took me to our first stop which was the ruins of a temple called Prasat Prei, or Forest temple. He told me that due to this being so secluded there would be no other tourists and he delivered on that promise. While neither this temple or the next one we would visit were anywhere near as big as Angkor Wat or the other temples within Angkor Archeaological park, it was great to walk around in these quite remnants of a time long ago, completely unbothered by other spectators.
After spending some time just walking around Prasat Prei, we hopped back on our bikes and headed towards Prasat Banteay Thom which translates to Big Barrack Temple. This temple was built in the late 12th century and evokes a sense of a long gone civilization lost to the jungle. As it was explained to me, the temple was built for the local police force as they were allowed to live there while protecting the adjacent villages. To this day, there is a guard shack located out front that is manned by local police officers to prevent looting of the temples.
I walked through the ruins of a structure that was built by craftsman over 800 years ago, marveling at the skill and ability of the men that built it without any of the machinery and techniques we employ today. As Ploi and I made our way back to the bikes, he pointed out a particular plant that I had not seen before. He called it a Touch Me Not and then told me to touch it. Of course he did. Assuming that it was named so for a reason I was fully expecting for some hidden thorns to reach out and insist on me going away or it giving me a rash akin to Poison Ivy. I was pleasantly surprised by the reaction instead and had to film it.
We got back on our bikes and headed off towards a local village that Ploi wanted me to see. As we were riding along these small dirt pathways, children would run out from underneath their raised houses (the typical Cambodian house is on stilts) waving their hands in the air, smiles on their faces, and shouting “Hello!” I soon came to find out that most Cambodian children are taught three English phrases in primary school and those that I met seemed all to eager to practice. It started off with “Hello!” Upon my response of Hello, it would follow, “Watz yo name?!” I would then tell them, and lastly I would hear, “Where youu frum?” This was all typically done in the span of a few seconds as I would still be on my bike pedaling along and the last answer would generally be shouted back. But I would get the same questions even when I was walking through the village. I found it quite endearing and enjoyed how keen they seemed to be to practice on a foreigner. We passed a small Cambodian school along the way and I wanted to snap a few pictures as the structure was so utterly unlike the schools I was used to.
After the schoolhouse we had one of the longer stretches of the bike journey as we pedaled our way through the country. Later in the day I would have an opportunity to further absorb the country on a quad bike, and while that was very entertaining, I really enjoyed getting the opportunity to absorb the surroundings and the people at a slower, quieter pace. It allowed me to really get a feel for the place. Along the way I stopped to snap some pictures (and also to rest my butt as someone who hadn’t ridden a bike in some time, the seat began to make its presence felt). While stopped I saw a mother and daughter walking their cows, just like we would a dog back in the States, to a small watering patch where the cows could cool off.
Soon enough we arrived at the village. Along the way we passed several villages that were still quite humble by the U.S. standard but several of the houses still had power from adjacent electrical lines. The village we were entering however, was far from paved roads, electrical lines, and running water. As we parked our bikes in the middle of the village I admit that I felt quite self-conscious. I was afraid I would be perceived as some invasive tourist gawking at their living conditions, but Ploi soon convinced me that the people were as keen to see me as I was them. Just a few steps away from our bikes I saw a woman tending over a new flock of ducklings, as curious chickens attempted to examine the ducklings up close (the woman was having none of it.)
Ploi led me through the village, answering any questions I might have. It’s amazing how humble their homes are and all their surroundings but in general how happy or content they seem. When seeing those that have so much less than me, appear so happy, it begs the question of whether or not all the trappings we surround ourselves with actually make us happier.
The traditional Cambodian house is built on stilts to not only provide a cool shaded spot during the warm, tropical days but also as additional storage. Under this first house, I noted a group of small children playing together. As Ploi explained to me, the older siblings are expected to care for the younger ones at a very young age. This includes cooking for the family. Just watching them for a little while it was obvious how the older siblings took on a maternal or paternal disposition towards their younger siblings. I asked if I could take a picture, but they did not speak English. Ploi said that if I took a picture and showed it to them, they would enjoy seeing it and would be willing to take another one. I found that to be true.
Below are some additional pictures capturing some of the sights from this village.
Walking through the village, I noticed a woman sitting on the ground making a large blanket from multiple smaller sheets of plastic. Her daughters buzzed around her, providing a helping hand where needed, and then bringing over a large pot of what appeared to be jelly. Ploi explained to me that it was a jelly made from Palm fruit that one of the girls (who couldn’t have been older than 8 years old) had recently made as a snack for her family.
Ploi said this was a common dish made from the abundance of local Palm fruit and then asked if I would like to try some. I try to say yes to as many experiences as possible over here (within reason) so we borrowed a spoon and I had a taste. It was a refreshing jello like dish with a slightly fruity undertone. I liked it and understood the appeal of eating it on a warm Cambodian afternoon.
As we continued walking through the village I thought it was interesting how often times I would see a small, old CRT black and white TV underneath the house. I asked Ploi how they powered the TV’s and any other electrical devices they may have, and he answered that most houses had a small battery, similar sized to a car battery. For me, the next question was, how do they charge it? He told me to hop on my bike and he would show me.
A quick ride away we arrived at a small, low hanging hut that was emitting a constant roar. An old man was outside tending to his business and as we got closer I noticed a bank of batteries.
As I walked towards the roar inside the hut, I found an old diesel generator purring away and connected to the row of batteries. The old man tending to all this was in essence the neighborhood engineer.
In addition to the generator he had a rice shucking machine (I’ll be honest in that I’m not entirely sure that is its correct name) which separated the rice from its thin shell or casing. The local farmers would bring their batteries here for charging and their rice for shucking.
Ploi then picked up a simple but effective scale the farmers would use to measure the weight of their crop right before sale.
We soon got back on our bikes and headed along. A short ways away, riding along the trails, I heard up ahead the recorded repetition of a Cambodian voice. As we got closer we noticed a woman on a motor bike (impressive as these were just backwoods skinny dirt trails) with a large tray on the back of her scooter. She was selling fresh, small clams. Ploi asked if I wanted to try one, and I said of course. They were coated in a spicy, sweet, slightly fishy sauce and were all together delicious. We enjoyed our sample and then she made her way on ahead of us.
At this time it was getting close to lunch time, so we began heading towards our lunch spot. Prior to getting there we passed a small hut with a woman underneath making brooms. I was impressed how she took the palm fronds and then painstakingly dried them out, shredded them apart, then fashioned them together to make an impressive and functional broom.
Soon enough we arrived at our lunch spot, which was a small roadside store that agreed to also serve us lunch. It was just what I wanted, something with a very local vibe.
The store was run by an elderly couple whose son and daughter-in-law were visiting for a few days from the countryside as they needed to take their young son to the hospital in Siem Reap. None of them spoke English, so with Ploi as my translator I answered many of the questions they were keen to ask. I thoroughly enjoyed their curiosity as they asked about everything from the meaning of a particular English phrase to my occupation. After about 20 minutes or so, lunch arrived and it was a simple noodle dish with vegetables and a fried egg on top, but it hit the spot.
After lunch we headed out again and made our way to a buddhist temple that had been under construction for over seven years. Ploi told me that all the work was being performed by monks that lived around the temple. They would take local donations then use those donations for food and building supplies, slowly working on the temple. The structure was covered with old bamboo scaffolding that had been placed there when it was first under construction and in many places was in bad shape. It seemed obvious that the donations had slowed, and the incomplete state of the structure was starkly contrasted by the completed and ornate roof.
I was seriously impressed that a group of monks, not traditionally trained in construction had been able to accomplish so much. After we took some time walking around the temple and made our way back to the bikes, Ploi stated the tree we were parked under was a mango tree. Skeptical about this claim as I didn’t see any fruit, Ploi then pointed to a spot in the tree, saying, “Right there.” He was pointing to a cluster of leaves and I was about to tell him that even if a mango was in there, he didn’t need to get it as it appeared covered in ants. That was until I realized he was pointing at the ants. He then grabbed one of the red tree ants and said that these were quite tasty as they provided a sour taste if you licked their butts. I immediately assumed he was attempting to fool a dumb, Western tourist until he licked the ant’s behind. He then grabbed one for me, I pinched it with my fingers and licked. Immediately a sour taste like a lemon hit my tongue, followed by a small, spicy sensation. I was surprised and impressed.
Ploi told me that these ants are often served with beef and vegetables in a tradition Cambodian dish to provide seasoning to the meal. After tasting it first hand, I was hoping I would get an opportunity to try the dish as I believe it would have been delicious. As a side note, they do sting so you have to grab them, lick them, and then be done with them if you don’t want too many bites.
Our next stop was West Baray, which is a large man made reservoir to the West of Angkor Wat. It is 7.8 by 2.1 kilometers and was all man made, starting in the 11th century. Something this large, knowing that it was all excavated by hand, made it that much more impressive. To this day, the reservoir serves as a major food source to the local fishermen.
We soon continued on to our pick-up point which was located just on the side of West Baray. It was a popular spot among locals as “restaurants,” which were essentially covered areas with hammocks underneath, allowed local families to rent a space and enjoy the view and each others company for a day. The families would either bring their own food or order something from one of the many food vendors in the area.
This was our last stop of the day and after enjoying the view we made our way back to our waiting tuk tuk.
We got back into town around 3 pm, which gave me enough time to shower and then make my way over to Joe and Katie’s hostel as they had just arrived. We were meeting at 4 pm to take quad bike tours around the countryside and catch a Cambodian sunset.
I arrived at their hostel just after 4 and was greeted warmly by Joe and Katie. It’s amazing how with some people, when you first meet them, you just click. Joe and Katie were those people and I’m truly grateful I’ve met them and befriended them in my travels. The introductions then quickly followed with their American friends that were traveling through SE Asia with them. After the intros we all hopped in waiting tuk tuk’s that would take us to the quad bike tour place. After signing our lives away and taking a quick check-out course, we were on our way.
After riding around for about 45 minutes, the guides asked us if we wanted to check out a gun range that was manned by Cambodian ex-military. Thinking this was a fitting thing to do on America’s Independence Day we went to check it out, and wow was I impressed. For only 410 USD (I’m being slightly sarcastic) you could fire a RPG. A RPG! The closest I had come to this was with my friend Ted at the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot in KY, but they definitely didn’t have an RPG on the menu.
Sadly, none of us opted for the RPG, but Joe and his friend did enjoy a few rounds from what I recall was an M60. Anyways, it was a bad mamma jamma.
Having felt that we appropriately represented America on her birthday from abroad, we saddled up and kept riding.
We made our way to the last stop to witness a truly spectacular Cambodian sunset.
After the sunset we made our way back into town. We all needed a shower before we went back out to enjoy the Siem Reap nightlife.
After we had showered up, we all met at a bar on Pub Street called Angkor What?! We had a few drinks, soaking in the active nightlife that began to unfold. By this time we were all getting hungry so we had a short walk over to a restaurant called Genevieve’s that was suggested to me by the Swiss NGO worker the other night. The restaurant offered some delicious Cambodian food, as I opted to go with the Cambodian Red Curry.
When dinner had wrapped up, the women were ready to call it a night and the men wanted a nightcap. At my suggestion, I took the guys to Soul Train to introduce them to the bar I had enjoyed on my first night. I was also hoping to run into Channa from the night before. Luckily enough she was there and I was able to get her to forget about the previous night’s slight, though the bartenders made sure to bring it up as well. Anyways, we hung out at Soul Train and the bar next door for some time before heading back to Pub Street for some dancing. As the night grew late, my compatriots began to peel off and head back. As a last stop, Channa and I went to a favorite spot of hers called the X Bar, which among many features had a half-pipe skateboard ramp on the roof. Yep, only in Cambodia.
We soon retired for the evening and I’ll admit it was a late one.
The initial plan was to meet the rest of the crew at their hostel for a 4:50 am trip to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. I missed that. When I woke up later I showered and grabbed something to eat, then arranged for a tuk tuk to take me and Channa to go check out the temples. I called the tuk tuk driver that had driven me yesterday for the bike cruise and he was soon at my place. We picked up Channa then made our way to Angkor Wat. Our timing was just right, because most of the other tourist were taking lunch so we were able to explore the main temple with relatively few crowds. At the entrance, we grabbed a tour guide (Siem Reap takes their tour guiding very seriously and only licensed tour guides can offer their services) to show us around the complex. As the knowledgeable guide proceeded to tell us about the place I was surprised to find out the complex was created by a young king to in essence serve as his summer escape during the rainy season.
The rainy season was important, because he had four large pools built into the center of the complex that would fill up with rain water and serve as a main source of entertainment for him and his concubines.
As we walked around within the temple, the tour guide painted a vivid picture of what the place would have looked like when first completed in the 12th century. Wood floors would have adorned much of the grounds with delicate red and gold curtains lining many of the passageways providing separation between the King’s quarters and everyone else’s.
Standing at the top of the complex, absorbing the views and a cool breeze that swept through the royalty’s quarters we waited out the sudden downpour. When the rain subsided, we made our way back to our waiting tuk tuk.
Our next stop was Angkor Thom which contained several temples within it. We did not have a tour guide to visit these next temples so I don’t have much to offer in the way of history, but can say they were beautiful. The craftsmanship and sense of awe that each evoked as you walked through them was incredible. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.
Our last stop was Ta Prohm, which is perhaps most recently known for serving as a backdrop in the film Tomb Raider. I haven’t seen the film, but I trust Wikipedia. This temple was one of the more scenic places as the beauty of man’s creation contrasted against the power of nature’s desire to conquer all.
After spending over an hour walking through the grounds of Ta Prohm, we made our way back to the tuk tuk. Along the way, the skies opened up and it began to pour. Huddled under our umbrella we gradually made our way back. When we got there, Tah, our driver, had unrolled the canvas sidings to the tuk tuk and we quickly got inside. The pounding rain beat against the canvas as we whipped our way back towards Siem Reap. As we sat together in the back of the tuk tuk, cozily pressed together, I knew it was a moment I would remember for a long time.
When we got back into town, we dried off and then cleaned up. Channa and I had a quiet dinner on the roof of the hotel overlooking the river and then made our way over to a show called, Phare, the Cambodian Circus that had been highly recommended. We met the rest of the group there and then went in the small circus tent to watch the performance. The show was a mixture of traditional Cambodian story-telling, theater, cirque de soleil like acrobatics, and just general spectacle. The show is performed by all Cambodians and like so many things in Siem Reap, is tied to an NGO that provides Arts Education to local, needy Cambodians. It turned out to be a wonderful show and I’d strongly recommend it to anyone that gets to Siem Reap.
After the show, we all decided to head back out to the Siem Reap nightlife. While walking around Pub Street, we noticed a food stall that was offering some non-traditional fare by most standards. it was a stall devoted to bugs. Now I’ll confess that I had been aware of these stalls within SE Asia and had committed myself to trying at least one item from a cart the first time I came across one. So when the opportunity presented itself I couldn’t pass it up. Despite Channa’s chiding’s, I was not willing to tackle the tarantula and decided to try some cricket.
I’ll admit the cricket was actually quite tasty. It was fried and seasoned such that it almost tasted like a flavored Fritos chip. I’ll also say that the second one I had (yes, I had two) was nowhere near as tasty. When I told Channa that the second one wasn’t anywhere near as good, she could smell my breath and told me that I had probably eaten an old one as the turnover on that cart wasn’t always the best. So note to all you potential bug eaters, just remember, go fresh.
The next day, I decided that I wanted to take a Cambodian cooking class as I had become quickly impressed with the Cambodian dishes I had tried such as Lok Lak, Amok, and Cambodian Red curry. There is certainly a strong similarity to both Thai and Vietnamese cuisine, but it also can stand on its own merits. Although Channa didn’t have as much to learn as I did, she agreed to go.
When we arrived at this small hotel, way on the outskirts of town, we met our fellow cooking class attendees; a British couple, an American, and a Filipino woman. Our chef introduced herself and then told us how prior to each cooking class they donate some food supplies to a local family, and they wanted us to join along in the presentation.
After presenting our gift to the family, we headed back to the kitchen. The next three hours proved to be a thorough education in Cambodian cooking. I was more than once accused of cheating as I brought someone who already knew their way around Cambodian cuisine, and I acknowledged the truth.
We made Cambodian Red Curry with chicken, fish cakes on sugar cane sticks, and a rice pancake for dessert. All were delicious and I have the recipes with me, so I’m eager to test my new skills on guests that come to visit.
Afterwards, we made our way back into town and we walked around one of the several markets that Siem Reap has to offer. One of which had a substantial fish market in the center of it.
That evening we went and enjoyed cocktails at a place called Asana, which is in a traditional Cambodian style house and serves drinks made with local Cambodian herbs. It was a really laid back place with excellent, unique drinks. Afterwards, we had a nice dinner and then went to the X Bar to play a few games of pool (which out of five games I won three, no big deal). As a night cap, we visited a small noodle stand to have a final meal.
There were several of these noodle stalls located along the river walk and this was a great way to end my first trip to Siem Reap. It was just the right balance of sweet, savory, and sour.
The next morning I had to take the early flight back to Kuala Lumpur, but this was a special weekend. It was fantastic meeting up with new/old friends and making a new one. Definitely a place I will visit again.