Cambodia: Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, the Coast and Beyond (Dec 28, 2015 to Jan 28, 2016)

After almost 7 weeks in chilly Nepal (see previous post), it was time to warm up. So, I took a 10-hour fight to the Kingdom of Cambodia (the country’s official name), a predominantly Buddhist country where Khmer is the official language. Per Wikipedia, Cambodia is a relatively poor country whose economy is largely based on the export of rice, fish, timber, garments and rubber. Its economic depression is likely due to its tortured past. After gaining independence from France in 1953, the country was subjected to extensive bombing by the US from 1969 to 1973 during the Vietnam War (referred to locally as the American War) and as a result, was once one of the most landmined countries in the world. Shortly after the war ended, the country was ruled by the ruthless Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot, who was responsible for the deaths of over 2 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979. Thankfully, the country’s economy is growing and the overall future outlook for its population is positive.

How did I spend one month in Cambodia? Exploring the culture, history, and natural beauty of the country, hanging out with friends, and relaxing, of course!

Getting off the plane in Siem Reap, my chilled bones started to thaw immediately as it was much warmer than it had been in Nepal. The heat felt good at first then just felt… hot. After a short wait at the airport, Mathieu arrived from Paris. We’d had a great time hanging out in Paris (see previous post) and now would spend two weeks together in Cambodia.

Siem Reap is a large modern city (population 174,265) along the Siem Reap River, and is the gateway to the Angkor Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site containing the magnificent remains of the Khmer civilization, including the famous Angkor Wat temple. Per Wikipedia, the Angkor Wat temple complex is the largest religious monument in the world, measuring 1,626,000 sq meters (162.6 hectare). It was originally constructed as a Hindu temple for the Khmer Empire, gradually transforming into a Buddhist temple toward the end of the 12th century. It is a national symbol and appears on the Cambodian flag.

Mathieu and I spent three days exploring the temple area, two days by motorized tuk tuk and one day by bicycle, and still didn’t see all of the temples. While the Angkor Wat temple is magnificent, we both enjoyed the smaller temples more, finding them more elaborately decorated and intimate. Exploring the temples, especially those still partially covered by jungle, I felt like the adventurous Lara Croft from the movie Tomb Raider (no wonder since some scenes were filmed there). It’s amazing how well the intricate carvings covering the temples have endured through the ages. Our final day of exploring the temples fell on New Years Eve, so after a day of bicycling from temple to temple in the hot sun, we spent the warm evening celebrating and dancing in the packed streets with the locals. It was a great way to celebrate the coming of the new year. We ended the night by getting pedicures by tiny flesh-eating fish. After 33 days trekking in Nepal, I definitely needed those tiny fish nibbling on my feet. It tickled!

The next morning, we took a short flight to Phnom Penh, the capitol and largest city in Cambodia (population 1,501,725). From there, we rented a motorbike (Honda Baja Trail 250) and started a 7 day road trip to the coast. Leaving the traffic-ridden, bustling city of Phnom Penh, the well maintained road to the coast felt wide open. We traveled along the Mekong river, passing though several small towns and miles of rice fields as we made our way to the Phnom Da temple, an 11th century cultural historic site. While the site turned out to be unimpressive, overnighting in nearby Takeo (population 39,186) was a fun adventure. While we read that the small town was a tourist destination, it turned out to be a destination primarily for local tourists, meaning for us that there was almost no English spoken or written. Fortunately, since finger pointing and hand gestures constitute a universal language, we were able to get a hotel room, order dinner at a street stall, and buy food at the local market with relative ease. From there, we continued to the coast, staying in Kep (population 40,280), Kampot (population about 40,000), and Otres Beach (about 5km south of Sihanoukville) where we ate delicious fresh grilled seafood (i.e., squid on a stick and whole fish), drank cheap beer, and enjoyed gorgeous sunsets. While these towns were touristy (with lots of locals and foreigners), the vibe was relaxed. While in Kampot, a town whose high quality pepper is exported world wide, we visited Bokor National Park. Unfortunately, the park is being slowly destroyed by deforestation and resort development. However, we were lucky to see a large troop of monkeys along the road, which was the highpoint of our visit to the somewhat depressing park. After a few nights in lovely Otres Beach, we took a boat tour that dropped us off on Koh Ta Kiev Island, a small roadless island with only 5 or 6 small lodges offering bungalows, tents, and hammocks. By day, we explored the tiny jungle island, and by night, we relaxed on the balcony of our tiny, naturally cooled beach front bungalow and watched the sun set over the beautiful clear blue ocean. It was paradise.

On our way back to Phnom Penh, we drove through Kirirom National Park, traveling on a small road through lovely, thick jungle and forest, and through a tiny village where people shouted friendly hellos as we passed. We also visited a large, elaborate pagoda located in the park, having it and the park almost entirely to ourselves. It was a beautiful park and great end to our road trip. Back in the big city, we celebrated Mathieu’s last night in Cambodia enjoying a delicious dinner and a cocktail on the riverfront. After he left to fly home to Paris, I remained in Phnom Penh for the next 12 days. While Phnom Penh just another busy, noisy, traffic-ridden city, it turned out to be a good place for me to spend some extended time relaxing at my hostel, journaling, writing my Nepal post for my blog, watching a few of my favorite TV shows online, hanging out with new friends from my hostel, and visiting the Night Market multiple times for delicious food, especially my favorite, papaya salad. On several evenings, I also joined the large group of local women (and one man) doing aerobics on the riverfront (apparently common in Asia). It was fun to jazzercise to a mix of electronic pop and traditional Cambodian music. Thankfully, my new jazzercise friends helped me learn some of the more complicated dance steps and gave me friendly laughs as I stumbled through parts of the routine.

During this time, I also visited Choeung Ek, the best known of Cambodia’s sites referred to as “killing fields.” Per Wikipedia, under the Khmer Rouge, urban dwellers were forced to move to the countryside to work on collective farms and forced labor projects. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, mass graves containing 8,895 bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek. Many of the dead were former political prisoners who were kept at the nearby prison known as S21. It’s mind boggling to think that in just over 4 years, the Khmer Rouge was responsible for the deaths of 25 percent of the Cambodian population (over 2 million people) as a result of the combined effects of executions, strenuous working conditions, malnutrition and poor medical care. As we left the killing field, a friend pointed out that we rarely saw  Cambodians over about 60. And now we understood the reason. Needless to say, it was a very educational but emotional day.

After staying in the same place for a bit, which I really needed, I finally left Phnom Penh and took a 10 hour bus northeast to Kratie (population 318,523) located on the Mekong River to see the Irrawaddy dolphins. Per http://www.worldwildlife.org, the Irrawaddy is an oceanic species found in coastal areas in South and Southeast Asia, and in three rivers: the Ayeyarwady (Myanmar), the Mahakam (Indonesian Borneo) and the Mekong. The Mekong River Irrawaddy dolphins inhabit a 118-mile stretch of the river between Cambodia and Laos and are scarce, with only about 78 and 91 individuals estimated to still exist. In Kratie, I rented a bicycle (a beat up cruiser) and rode the paved but bumpy road along the Mekong River, passing through small villages where numerous friendly locals shouted hello as I rode by, to get to the part of the river where a small subpopulation of dolphins reside. After only 10 minutes on the boat, I saw them, a group of 3 or 4 of these critically endangered dolphins (see my photo album for video). After that, I was treated to repeated sightings of various groups for the duration of the 45-minute boat ride. I’d read that this subpopulation is threatened by a new dam proposed on the Mekong River in Laos, so I felt extra lucky to see them. After, I decided to ride a bit further to visit the Mekong Turtle Conservation Center to see another endangered species, the Cantor’s giant soft shell turtle, a freshwater turtle formerly found throughout Asia. The small facility, located at the 100 Pillar Pagoda,  was opened by Conservation International in 2011 and is supported by the Cambodian Fisheries Administration and the Monks of the 100 Pillar Pagoda. The center operates a successful community-based education and headstart program releasing baby Cantor’s turtles into the local section of the Mekong River. There was only one baby Cantor’s there at the time, but it was worth the ride to see the funny looking little critter. By the time I got home, I’d ridden almost 45 mi (72 km) on my beat up cruiser but my sore butt was worth seeing dolphins, turtles, a beautiful stretch of the river, and saying hello to dozens of friendly locals.

From Kratie, I took a 4 hour bus to Banlung (population 17,000) to see what the area further north looked like and to visit Yeak Laom Volcanic Lake, a 700,000 year old volcanic crater lake within a protected area. Per Wikipedia, the lake itself, as well as the surrounding areas, are considered sacred by the local tribal minorities. At my hostel, I met Femke (Holland) who invited me to join her on a scooter ride to some nearby waterfalls and to the lake. So, I jumped on the back of the tiny scooter she’d rented and we cautiously made our way on the rutted dirt road to a tiny, unimpressive waterfall. The surrounding area was a bit depressing too as almost all of the forest for as far as the eye could see had been replaced by rubber trees as part of a huge plantation. Oh well, we had fun getting there. Thankfully the road to the crater lake was paved, the area around the lake was still forested, and the lake was a much more impressive sight. We spent a nice afternoon swimming and relaxing by the lake, meeting up with others from our hostel. Back at the hostel, Norman (a Banlung native who worked at the hostel) and a few of his friends introduced us to the local rice wine, distilled in someones house in Banlung and bottled in plastic water bottles. Along with several rounds of Cambodian beer, we emptied one water bottle of the stuff, which was surprisingly smooth, fairly quickly. I snuck off to bed as the second bottle was making its way around the table. And thank goodness because I felt OK on the bus ride back to Kratie, which is more than I can say for a few of my hostel mates on my bus. Ha!! It was a fun party night and a great way to end my time in Cambodia. After a night in Kratie, I took a bus to my next destination:  Vietnam.

Despite being subjected to horrific atrocities only about 35 years ago, Cambodian people were very friendly and most spoke at least some English and were eager to practice with travelers. My experience in Cambodia was educational, interesting, and fun and was made even more memorable by the people (Cambodians and fellow travelers) with whom I shared it, especially Mathieu.

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/XaL1QE9o6rWeAQ8T7 

Enjoy!

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Angkor Wat Temple.

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Celebrating with Mathieu and the locals. Happy New Year in Siem Reap!

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With Mathieu. Born to be wild!

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Pagoda in Kirirom National Park.

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Koh Ta Kiev Island.

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Picnic with Mathieu at Otres Beach.

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At the Night Market in Phnom Penh with friends.

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Baby Cantor`s turtle.

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Enjoying rice wine with friends in Banlung.

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Sunset on the Mekong River in Kratie.

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