Choum Reap Sor Friends,
Stepping out on to the tarmac in Siem Reap, Sam and I simply looked up at the sun and enjoyed the heat. It had been 15 rain-soaked days in Vietnam since we last saw the sun, and Cambodia promised to bring lots of sunshine. After all, this was the land of… the land of… well, frankly, we didn’t know. Outside of its famous temples, we didn’t have any items on our bucket list, we didn’t know what the food was like, and we didn’t know much about the culture. We did; however, know that a bunch of travelers we’ve come across rank Cambodia amongst their favorite countries, so we gave it a shot!
We also (quite wrongly) assumed it would be cheap.
Sam: Patrick do you have cash for our temple passes?
Patrick: Yeah I brought $40 – should be more than enough to cover us for the day.
Ticket Attendant: That’ll be $128 total. Will you be paying by cash or card?
Patrick: …Card, as it turns out. Thank you.
Siem Reap is ground zero for temples. Besides being next door to Angkor Wat, the largest religious site on Earth, Siem Reap is within a stones throw of dozens of temples – each one unique, and each just incredibly massive! If you are a history nut, art fanatic, architecture enthusiast, or just really love crowds of selfie-stick wielding, cargo-pants-wearing, 3rd-degree sunburning tourists, there’s few places you’ll enjoy more than Siem Reap. Unfortunately, Sam and I are none of those things. Two days of temple tours was more than enough for us. Not to say we didn’t enjoy our time there – the temples really are spectacular and not to be missed – but maybe, just this once, they are best enjoyed from the comfort of your couch by watching a documentary on the Discovery Channel. But just note that you’ll miss out on living out your childhood (read: adult) fantasy of being Indiana Jones and finding the Lost Ark.
It wouldn’t be our travel blog without a quick rant, so here it goes! One pet-peeve we have while traveling is this obsession with “authenticity.” A lot of the people we’ve met abroad are on the search for the “authentic experience,” or in other words, what a country was like prior to modernization. A constant complaint we hear is “so and so wasn’t authentic enough. It was too touristy.” In truth, especially with cities, the authentic experience of the locals is eating at the chain pizza place, shopping at the mall and grocery store, and commuting by car or moped. No-one travels to New York City with hopes to find people working in sweatshops circa 1845, so why try to travel to a developing country in hopes that they are still in pre-development? The reality is that authenticity often just looks like severe poverty.
Take our experience in Siem Reap for example: Sam had not had pizza for nearly 4 days, and things were getting scary as we didn’t know what would happen on Day 5 (it’s never been tested). Craving some ‘American style’ pizza, we ventured past the tourist filled “Cambodian” restaurants to the local Pizza Company (think rip-off Pizza Hut). The two-story pizza chain was packed, and I mean PACKED, with local Cambodians – and zero tourists in sight. Why? Because they like pizza just like any other human. Sure they eat authentic Khmer food now and then, just like we do with burgers and hotdogs, but like everywhere else, they are moving to a more diverse lifestyle, and we shouldn’t be trying to inhibit this. They also were amazed at how much pizza Sam could eat.
But I digress. In search of more sun and fewer crowds, we headed south to the island of Koh Rong. To reach Koh Rong, most people opt to pay $15 for a speedboat that takes 45 minutes, but luckily our hotel managed to pre-book a $25 ticket on a boat that does the same trip in only 2 hours!
Famously a backpacker party island, we were careful to select a hotel far away from the party scene, so we could practice being old in peace and quite. I promised Sam we would take a break from our on-the-go lifestyle, so the first full day on the island was devoted to relaxation. Namely, relaxing as we conquered a four hour (two if you don’t get lost) hike across the island and back to go snorkeling!
One of the reasons we headed to Koh Rong was to check out the Cambodia underwater scene. On arrival to the island, we chatted with the dive shop (read: bartender) and received the best sales pitch: “Are you sure you want to go diving? I’m not gonna lie to you – it’s not the best in Asia. You’re really not gonna see much, maybe some shrimp if we are lucky. But if you really want to go, I’m happy to take you.”
But fear not readers, I’m not about to launch into several paragraphs about diving. You’ve had several blogs without mention of underwater wonders, and this will be yet another. No, the sales pitch did not deter us – it’s just that the boat never left the dock due to weather – weather that stuck around through our departure day.
Most of us do not get to pick our superpowers, and I am no exception. My superpower is predicting who is going to get seasick on any given vessel. On our two hour boat ride back from Koh Rong, my sea-sickness-sense was on full alert. The boat leaving the island was delayed four hours to let the enormous seas subside (which they didn’t), and when it finally did leave, it probably shouldn’t have. It was apparent from the onset that this was going to be a vomit-comet journey back to the mainland – the kind of trip you read about on the news the next day: “Overloaded Tourist Boat Sinks in Rough Water Off of Cambodia – ‘no life jackets were onboard’, says only survivor.”
To help pass the time, I informed Sam of whom I believed the first two victims of seasickness would be – the girl in the far back corner, and… regrettably, the women sitting directly across from me at our table of six. I was correct on both accounts.
Phanon Fhen. Pennon Pen. Falong Flem. No matter how we’d say it, it was wrong. Undeterred, we headed to the capital of Cambodia: Phnom Penh. While we have a bad track record of avoiding culture and history in our travels, Cambodia holds a history we couldn’t ignore: the Khmer Rouge genocide carried out from 1975-1979, in which more than 25% of Cambodia‘s population was killed. This isn’t so much history as it is recent events – our parents were teenagers while this was going on. Walking around the streets of Cambodia, you walk past locals who lived through this – taxi drivers, business owners, cashiers – everyone alive today in Cambodia was arguably impacted by the genocide in some way. We were told that you can’t understand this country without understanding its scar.
We headed both to the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide and Choeng Ek Killing Fields to invest in learning the lessons of the past. Both museums are unnerving – not only because of atrocities committed inside their walls, but also because of how easily dis-information and fear can be used as weapons to divide a country and turn neighbors on each other. How extremist beliefs, rhetoric, and policies that ignore the value of a human life can quickly mutate into crimes against humanity. But hey, good thing that’s all ancient history, right??
Obviously there are no pictures for this section.
On our last night in Cambodia, we wanted to do something special to celebrate another country checked off our list – so we dropped some cash on a dinner river cruise, complete with live music, BBQ, dancing, and who knows what else. We certainly do not know what else… because we got on the wrong boat. The boat we boarded was another cruise by a different company, which we only learned after setting sail. The company kindly explained our mistake to us, and also kindly asked us to fork over the ticket price for their boat as well.
Cambodia wraps up our time in the heart of South East Asia (covering Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia) and since this place is at the top of many of our friends’ travel bucket lists, I’ll offer a frank opinion on traveling here: for me, it came up short of (perhaps impossible) expectations. I don’t mean this to deter people from traveling here, just to know what they are getting into. Compelling travel blogs and well-composed photography often work to hide ugly truths that become self-evident on arrival.
Most of South East Asia is packed with people, which means you never feel like you’re exploring somewhere as much as you’re going on a series of canned activities and paying for each one. Not to mention, you’ll be on these activities with scores of other tourists. Getting out on your own can be difficult, if not impossible at times. Just walking around can be a challenge, since most of your time will be spent dodging mopeds and fighting away an endless stream of people trying to sell you stuff. There is always some awful smell assaulting you – sanitation and trash disposal often just means pouring everything into the nearest stream. Plastic is endemic – it covers every roadside and beach. Animals are few and far between – don’t expect to see wild elephants, tigers, drop bears, or really wild anything except rats. Reefs are similar – many have been dynamited or are still recovering from recent typhoons and bleaching events, and visibility isn’t anything to write home about. The air has a chewable quality to it, and smog often covers up what would otherwise be incredible views and sunsets. And some of us hit our head every time we walk through a doorway.
If you can deal with all of that, you’ll find amazing food, welcoming people, stunning architecture, rich history, and thrilling scenery. And it’s all extremely cheap. Just know what you’re buying.
Extending our Honeymoon to Singapore!
Patrick & Samantha
Updated Travel Stats:
Days Abroad: 180
Flights Taken: 32 (includes connections)
Miles Traveled: 31,795
Bags Lost: 1
Flights Delayed: 3
Countries Visited: 10 (minimum stay of 48 hours)
Dives Logged on this Trip: 91 (still 91)
Temples Seen: Too many…