Oh, Cambodia, our first dive into Southeast Asia and it felt like the adventure was truly underway. Hot and dusty like Africa, but the air was heavier. Folks had a sweetness and gentleness mingled with a delicate layer of sorrow. I heard some stories. Grandfathers whisked away in the night by the Khmer Rouge, gone. Families deprived of rice and children starving. I wimped out. We did not visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (Security Prison 21) or the Killing Fields.
We spent a night in Phnom Penh with its ’60s style French colonial architecture. It was chaotic, and grimy with motos darting everywhere, sometimes three or more to a seat, with no such thing as helmets.
Arriving just after a rainstorm, the entrance to the charming Pavilion hotel was flooded. We watched our driver take off his shiny patent loafers and socks and wade through ankle-deep water as he wrestled with our heavy duffle bags.
The next day we hired another driver to take us on the 3.5-hour drive north to Siem Reap, near the fabled Angkor Wat temple complex, glad to see some of the countryside along the way. However, we did not partake of the roadside snacks.
Siem Reap is a hustler of a town intent on servicing all the Angkor Wat tourists on the cheap. There is decadent, tacky, Pub Street, with its lineup of food carts (can someone tell me what is with the banana pancakes?), tourist tat made in Thailand, noisy bars, and constant echoes of “Tuk-tuk sir?” sometimes followed by “Pot? Tablets? Cocaine? Heroin? Girlfriend?”
We rented an apartment for a month and enjoyed the cheap but tasty food at Pot and Pan, and the more upscale Viroth’s, and fell in love with the sweet staff at social enterprise, Haven. We saw silkworm cultivation and silk weaving, and visited the social enterprise venture Artisans Angkor to see locally made stone carving, ceramics, jewellery, and silk clothing. We watched the monks on their early morning rounds in the neighbourhood collecting alms and bestowing blessings, and heard them chanting in the nearby monastery for what seemed like hours at a time.
We could walk or take a tuk-tuk everywhere, but you could also buy from vendors doing the rounds, selling everything off the side or back of bicycles or motos or customized carts. The drone of Khmer on a recorded loop (okay, to me it sounded like, “wa wa wa waaah wa waaah”), or several squeezes of a squeaky toy announced their arrival. At first, I thought it was a dog frantically looking for someone to play tug of war with his favourite chew toy.
It was rainy on the day we went to the Angkor Wat temple complex, all grey and brooding. We also visited the site of Banteay Srei, the 10th century “pink temple” dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva the Destroyer–stunning, small, and much quieter than the Angkor Wat complex. However, this was May, so thankfully it was relatively quiet everywhere. Don’t go in high season folks, or you’ll lose an eye. The hordes of “chicken tourists”–as our guy Mr. Khen called them–descend by the busload. If it isn’t a selfie stick, it’s an umbrella that will poke you, or at the least, ruin any chances of a good photo.
It was the first time I saw monks in their natural habitat, so to speak, and I was mesmerized by the contrast of bright saffron robes against the dark grey stones, but I felt intrusive taking photos. I did channel my inner tomb raider when I saw the giant fig trees strangling the structures of Ta Prohm temple, the “jungle temple.” Sadly, I had to make do without the Angelina bod though.
Kampot and Kep
After Siem Reap we headed south to Kampot, intending to find a place to rent long-term there, but no. We didn’t really enjoy the vibe in Kampot, and couldn’t find a nice place. Okay, we probably needed more time to look, but we saw too many walking train wrecks, so we took a pass. We also wanted to be close to the sea again, so we headed to the quiet holiday town of Kep, the “crab capital” and old vacation spot for the elite. Abandoned, burned out mansions from the ’60s still sit there behind locked gates.
Outside Kep we found a charming duplex house, newly built, situated among the rice paddies and farm animals. Because we were out of the city, we rented a moto and had fun zipping into town, balancing groceries on our knees and stuffing bottles inside the seat. But it rained. A lot. We got stuck in the mud. And chased by an angry cow. It was hilarious and a bit scary–motos don’t go that fast you know.
Who knew it would be so difficult to make a good cup of coffee in Cambodia? Why else would we be lugging around our stainless steel, double-walled coffee press if not to fill it with good ground coffee? The norm turned out to be Nes-crap-é, as I started calling it. Instant. In restaurants, it was super sweet iced coffee, thick with condensed milk. We took a tuk-tuk the 15 km from Kep to Kampot just to buy fresh ground coffee at Café Espresso Kampot, a cool spot that channels Portland or Seattle coffee culture, but apparently they’re from Australia.
A week into our stay we realized that our landlady’s relatives would be regular weekend visitors to the other half of the duplex – all three or four families at once. I was disappointed with myself and my western habits, and my reliance on personal space and privacy. I couldn’t cope. That development, combined with smoke from burning refuse and wet wood wafting over to us, AND a problem with faulty, stinky drainage drove us away before a whole month was up. Shaun couldn’t breathe. Too bad really, it was nice. And it was only $300 a month.
We almost forgot that we came to Kep to be near the ocean. We took an extremely disappointing boat trip to Rabbit Island that just made us sad, what with bad weather and such dilapidated, scruffy facilities on the island. It was time to move on, so we planned our escape. But before we left, we discovered Kep Coffee Cafe, a delightful little hole-in-the-wall, with real coffee and cinnamon buns to die for, and other home-cooked food with a Mexican flavour, of all things. And a tussle of ginger kittens underfoot for a furry creature fix.
So, on we went, south to the Sihanoukville area: Otres Village near Otres Beach. By this time it was late July, still quiet season and still rainy. It was very quiet, almost eerily so, and it seemed many businesses weren’t open. Sok Sabay resort became our head office for two weeks, and it rained most of the time, so we just worked.
I wanted to like the beach there, but it was oddly disappointing. The water seemed colourless, and the sand was a dirty brown. I’m pretty picky though, and this was the rainy season after all. By this time my enthusiasm for Cambodia was waning. We were just holing up and spending as little as possible before heading to Bali. It was a spur-of-the moment decision to go there, even for us. Air Asia flights were cheap as chips, and Bali was another one of those dream destinations that I never thought I’d get to visit. But we were about to blow the budget compared to Cambodia so we were preparing ourselves. And hoping for more sun.