Eating and drinking in Cambodia

I didn’t really know what to expect food wise in Cambodia but I was very pleasantly surprised. We were also extremely lucky that despite not being overly cautious we managed not to have any major tummy troubles…or the swirls as someone we met named it! During the first few days I was really nervous about food and the conditions it was prepared in and whether it had been washed in tap water but I soon realised I had to just get over it. A bit like crossing roads it was best to just not look and not think about it too much.

There are a few traditional Cambodian dishes such as amok, Khmer curry and beef lok lak. Amok was my favourite and consists of meat or fish cooked in coconut milk and served in banana leaves. The fresh spring rolls were amazing. In Siem Reap look out for the Khmer Family Restaurant. (There are two or three in the pub street area). This restaurant offers a Khmer curry, amok, spring rolls and rice for two or $15. You can also get a pitcher of beer for $2. BBQ and slightly more unusual meats are also very popular. We ate at the Khmer BBQ restaurant where you got 7 different kinds of meat (pork, squid, chicken, beef, shark, crocodile and shrimp) and unlimited vegetables and noodles and cooked it all yourself on a little BBQ in the middle of your table.

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The best food we ate was probably some we bought at a street stand at the night market in Phnom Penh. After a refreshing cup of sugar cane juice we selected some mystery food from one of the stands that seemed popular. We weren’t entirely sure what we were eating. There were some questionable meat balls and some spring rolls but I don’t really know how to describe anything else.

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Another interesting experience with food was a meal prepared by the Cambodian family that owned one of the hotels we stayed at. They were celebrating the Khmer New Year and invited us to join them. We had already eaten so just had a little taste of a few things they had on the table including whole baby birds. I didn’t know exactly what they were when I was offered them but couldn’t really refuse when the guy who cooked them proudly told me he had made them and they were very nice. Luckily it was only after I’d eaten it that I was told what it was! The sauce it was cooked in was quite strong so it could have been anything really!

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Drinks are Cambodia are incredibly cheap. I don’t think we ever paid more than $1 for a beer and a pitcher of beer was $2. Cocktails were usually $3 but most restaurants/bars seemed to have never ending Happy Hours where drinks including cocktails and spirits and mixers were $1.50. Only wine was expensive. One night we ordered a bottle through force of habit and it was $19. This was more than we paid for most meals in Cambodia!

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Phnom Penh part 2!

We visited Phnom Penh twice and it wasn’t really until our second visit that I started to appreciate the city. This time we stayed at Blue Lime Hotel. This hotel was a bit of a treat as it had a swimming pool. We spent a few lazy hours relaxing by the pool, ordering food and drinks from the hotel bar and dipping in and out of the water.

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We did visit the Royal Palace which was beautiful and had some amazing buildings and gardens but we were extremely hot and bothered and rushed round a bit.

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The things I enjoyed about Phnom Penh were the less touristy things we did. We arranged to meet up with Evan, an American guy we had met in Siem Reap. He lived in the city so was able to show us around a bit. I do enjoy a bit of gym time and Evan had mentioned he was a member of the gym in Phnom Penh so we decided to give it a try! This was an interesting experience that left me barely able to walk for the next two days. The gym we went to was called VIP Sports Centre. There was a gym, aerobics classes, an outdoor swimming pool, a steam room, sauna and even one of those pedicure fish tank things that you could use for free. No thank you! Visitors can go for $4 per visit. The gym was absolutely sweltering as there was no air con. I don’t think I’ve ever sweated so much in my whole life. There weren’t many cardio machines which didn’t really bother me as I like weights but I was pretty much the only women in the gym and was definitely the only female anywhere near the weights. Most people were staring at me the whole time! None of the weights had any numbers on them so I had no idea what I was lifting…hence the extremely painful muscles afterwards! After our sweaty gym session we thought it might be nice to have a little dip in the pool. Cambodian women are incredibly modest and I’d not really considered this and packed my bikini. All the women were in swimming costumes as a minimum. Some wore t-shirts and shorts in the pool. I felt really self conscious and quite quickly went to get changed. I couldn’t work out the etiquette in the changing room! I seemed to be the only one actually getting changed so couldn’t take the lead from anyone else. There were lots of women sitting around in chairs covering in moisturiser and jabbering away in Khmer. I imagined that they would probably be very discreet when changing so awkwardly got changed under my towel whilst desperately trying not to expose myself to the whole room.

Evan took us to the Night Market. Similar to many markets in Cambodia we found row upon row of stalls selling clothes, jewelry, shoes, sunglasses, watches etc. There was also a big food court area with the usual tiny plastic chairs and tables but also lots of rugs on the floor. We decided to sample some street food. We selected a few things and put them into a basket. The food was then cooked and brought over to us. I have no idea what any of it was but it was so tasty.

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We also sampled some sugar cane juice which is really nice.

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I grew to love Phnom Penh and enjoyed seeing it from a more local viewpoint but it was hard seeing the darker side of the city. When having a drink at a bar we were surrounded by older white men drinking alone apparently waiting to pick up prostitutes. There were also quite a lot of street children begging or trying to sell things. It was nice to eat on the river front but you did not to put up with being constantly approached by both adults and children trying to sell things. I felt very heartless saying no and ignoring the desperation in their voices but knew that buying from them was not the most helpful thing to do.

Koh Rong Samloem

Koh Rong Samloem is an island about 25k from Serendipity Beach Pier. It is smaller and less developed than it’s sister Island, Koh Rong. After our disastrous night at The Fitness Resort we were really looking forward to getting away. We were staying at Sun Island Eco Resorts and they had organised a pick up for us to get the ferry. The boat left from Victory Pier and took 3 hours including a stop to go snorkeling or fishing. When we got onto the boat we were offered pastries and cake which was a nice touch. I had a go at fishing and actually sort of caught a fish! I managed to get quite a big red snapper all the way up out of the water but it wasn’t hooked on properly and it fell off just after it cleared the water. I got further than Dan though so I was pleased!

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Koh Rong Samloem is absolutely beautiful. There are only a handful of small resorts on the island so once the boat trip leaves at 3 the island is really peaceful. All the hotels are just tents/bungalows/tree houses. There are no big buildings at all. We were shown to our tent which had a private bathroom hut next door with P1020745a toilet and shower. The tent itself is under a shelter. There is a sleeping area with a mattress and a lamp and then a porch with a table, chairs, a small mirror and a light bulb attached to a battery.

As we were sorting out our things a little Indian girl from the next tent came up to us holding two tiny baby mice. P1020744

 

She told us she’d found them and we had to look after them! She instructed that she were to get them some milk from the restaurant. Luckily we managed to convince her that she should look after them as she had found them. I didn’t really want two baby mice on my conscience!

 

We spent a very peaceful afternoon relaxing on the beach and then had a little wander through the jungle to the other side of the island to see the sunset. P1020775The bar/restaurant at Sun Island Eco Resorts was good. The fish was amazing. Any fillet was 400g and was fresh that day. They had no real means of storing anything so everything was really fresh. The stay on the island should have been absolute bliss but unfortunately it coincided with the full moon. At around 5pm we could hear music coming from further down the beach. This music got progressively louder throughout the evening. At 10pm a boat arrived from the mainland full of people ready to party all night. The boat left again at 7.15am and the music continued until 8am! Not quite the peaceful night we were expecting! I think the resorts on the island should maybe warn guests when they book if there will be a full moon party that night because I don’t think anyone on that island got any sleep!

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We ‘woke up’ (we hadn’t really been to sleep) at 6am and ventured out and watched the sun rise. The beach was deserted….but we could hear loud music! GRRR!

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The sand was so white!

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Further down the beach we found some rock pools.

 

Sun Island Eco Resorts were really flexible. We hadn’t realised how many hotels wouldn’t be able to take card and didn’t have enough cash. They just let us keep a tab whilst we were there and when we got back to the main land we got cash out and met one of the guys from Sun Island to pay him.

I’m always a bit nervous about the sea but it was so warm and lovely that even these little guys didn’t put me off too much. P1020825

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sihanoukville…Serendipity Beach

After an emotional couple of days in the capital we were looking forward to a bit of relaxation in Sihanoukville, Cambodia’s beach resort. The timing of this worked out perfectly as we headed to Sihanouk during the Khmer New Year. This meant everywhere was a lot busier so we had to be a bit more organised and book our transport and accommodation in advance but apparently all the cities are empty during this time as everyone goes to be with their families. A lot of Khmer families take a holiday to Sihanouk during this time so it had quite a nice local feel to it. This time we used the Mekong Express for the journey. They were brilliant. The minivan had amazing air conditioning and was spacious. They didn’t insist on filling up the aisles the bags or additional fold out seats! Also, the journey only took 3 and a half hours!

We had researched Sihanoukville before we went and read about several different areas and beaches. Our first hotel was The Fitness Resort near Victory Beach. After a drive around Sihanoukville dropping other travellers off at their hotels we soon realised that Serendipity Beach was the place to be. The bus drivers couldn’t find our hotel and had to leave us with a local tuk tuk driver…who also didn’t know where it was. Eventually, after a lot of driving round and after a call to the hotel we found it. It was in the middle of nowhere and not in a particularly nice area. We booked the Fitness Resort because we thought it might be cool to do a bit of gym work but the gym equipment was very outdated and occupied by sweaty topless bodybuilders. As we settled into our bungalow I had a bit of a strop and suggested trying to find somewhere else to stay but Dan was his ever positive self. He looked at the map and suggested we took a walk to find Victory Beach. We set out down the road and within a few minutes the heavens opened and it absolutely poured. We hadn’t gone far but it was the sort of rain that soaked you within a minute so we turned back. The walking plan was abandoned so we decided to get a tuk tuk back to the Serendipity Beach area.

We spent the whole afternoon and evening at the beach. There is a bar/restaurant on Serendipity Beach Road called So where a lot of travellers seem to go. They have books and games so we spent a few hours whilst it was overcast eating lunch and playing scrabble. By mid afternoon the sun was back out and the sky was blue so we headed to the beach. There was also a great seafood restaurant next door. There are also restaurants and bars lining the beach. The first few you come to are quite touristy but as you get further down the beach there was a much more local feel. As usual there were lots of people selling street food including a lot of squid/shrimps on sticks. IMG_4504

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We had an absolutely terrible night’s sleep at The Fitness Resort. The bungalow was absolutely boiling, full of mosquitoes and the lights gave up! The owner brought us some things to burn to deter the mosquitoes that filled the room with smoke so all our stuff smelt of bonfire smoke for the rest of the trip. As if this wasn’t enough, there were rats running around in the roof and around the outside of the bungalow!

We also stayed at Coolabah which is by Serendipity Beach. This hotel is great. A bit pricier than some of the other options but it was really nice to have air con, a fridge and even blackout curtains!

Has anyone stayed in any of the other resorts in Sihanouk?

 

Phnom Penh…mixed emotions.

Despite my absolute undying love for Siem Reap we had to move on so we boarded our minivan to make the 7 hour trip to Phnom Penh. Unfortunately this journey in an overcrowded, poorly air conditioned minivan on bumpy dusty…roads (roads is quite a generous term for the tracks we drove down) with a mad driver was made even worse by the fact that Dan beat Mr Lucky at pool 5 times the previous night which was quite a cause for celebration. The beer was definitely flowing and the sleep definitely was not so we weren’t feeling too bright and breezy when we got up at 6am to get the bus. The journey genuinely was terrifying. The lady next to me kept bursting into tears! If you are going to travel around Cambodia try to use the Mekong Express. Our journeys with them were so much better.

I find Phnom Penh a strange city and it took me a while to grow to like it. Everything is very spread out. There doesn’t seem to be one main area to go and in typical Cambodian style there are no proper pavements and walking anywhere does involve narrowly avoiding being run over by bikes and tuk tuks! We tried to explore a little and realised that most of the restaurants and bars are down on the river front. This area is also heavily populated with children and adults begging and trying to sell you things. Some even come into restaurants if no one from the restaurant shoos from away quickly enough!

Before our visit to Cambodia I knew a little about the Khmer Rouge and what had happened in the 1970s. I only found out about it recently and was quite shocked at how I been blissfully unaware of the atrocities that had taken place. In a strange way I was looking forward to visiting Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide and Choeung Ek (the killing fields) as I wanted to learn more about the history of Cambodia and what the motivation behind the genocide was. To do this we got a tuk tuk driver for the day for $20. We had been advised to go to Tuol Sleng first as it puts what you see at the Killing Fields in context. Before 1976 it was a  used to be a High School but  it was taken over by the Khmer Rouge and turned into a prison known as S21. It is now a museum about the events of the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-79. It is worth mentioning that this was not a prison for criminals but for anyone who was suspected of being against the regime. Everything has been left as it was found including beds, cells and even blood on the floor. We were going to go round without a guide but realised there wasn’t much information up and we wanted to find out more. Our guide only survived the Khmer Rouge regime because she fled to Vietnam with her mother when Phnom Penh was invaded but her brother, sister and father were killed.We learnt that Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge wanted to create a new society and take Cambodia back to ‘Year Zero’. With ideologies based on communism he emptied cities, abolished money, private  property and religion and sent everyone out to labour in the fields. Anyone who was seen to be intellectual was killed including teachers, doctors, artists, musicians, those who spoke a foreign language and even those who wore glasses. Many died through starvation but thousands of people were interrogated, tortured and killed at s21. Of the 14,000 people that were held there only 7 survived. 2 are still alive today! You can still see the cells that prisoners were kept in and some of the torture devices used. Perhaps the most haunting rooms are rooms where photos are displayed of all the victims but also the members of the Khmer Rouge some as young as 14. It was horrific to think anyone could carry out such horrific acts but testimonies explained that they joined up for fear of their own and their families lives. Some were brain washed and believed they would have a better life.

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We then got back in the tuk tuk and went to The Killing Fields. The site of Choeung Ek Genocide Centre is 15k from the city centre. The road was narrow and winding and went through lots of tiny villages. When the truck took prisoners from S21 to the Killing Fields to be executed victims were blindfolded and told they were being taken to a new home to avoid any attempted escapes. We were given an audio guide which led us around the site stopping at various points. Prisoners were brutally murdered and thrown into mass graves. They were not shot but were attacked with farming tools in order to save bullets. The Khmer Rouge believed it was important to kill the whole family so there was no one left to seek revenge. Babies were slung against trees and thrown straight into the pits. Loud revolutionary songs were played to drown out the screaming. The slogan of the Khmer Rouge was

“To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss”.

Now the site of the Killing Fields is a memorial centre and is a peaceful respectful place where you are encouraged to be quiet. You can see the massed graves and to this day bone fragments and bits of cloth come up to the surface when it rains. There are display cases of bones that have been found with extra piles that have been found more recently piled up on top of the cases. In the centre of the site there is a huge memorial for all those who lost their lives. It is filled with skulls caterogised by age, gender and how they were killed. I didn’t quite know how to feel as we drove away in our tuk tuk. It felt strange to change the subject and talk about or do anything else. It is quite scary how many people are completely unaware that this all happened. Pol Pot died naturally in 1998. Some of the other leaders were brought to trial in the last few years. From what I can find out it seems that only two are still alive and they are still waiting for a verdict in their trial!

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Poverty Tourism

One of the stranger experiences and perhaps a visit I slightly regret was a trip to Tongle Sap to see the floating village Chong Khneas. There is a population of 3 million living around or on the lake and there are several floating villages. At 15k away, Chong Kneas is the closest to Siem Reap and also the best one to go to during the dry season. We had seen some interesting views about Chong Khneas on trip advisor and other travel forums where people claimed it was a tourist trap but after a bit of debate and a chat with Mr Lucky at Angkor Secret Garden Hotel we decided to go and see for ourselves.

The drive to the village was fascinating in itself. We passed many very rural villages where houses were built on stilts. As it was the dry season there was no water to be seen but they must have been built on the banks of a river.

We arrived in what felt like the middle of nowhere next to the Mekong River and went into the only building. At the ticket desk there were no prices up. We were asked to pay $30 each for a tour. We knew this was too much as we had been advised it should be $20 each. Fortunately Mr Lucky had arranged for the tuk tuk driver to accompany us on the whole tour so he could help us out in this kind of situation. We explained that $30 each was too much and walked away. Our driver went and spoke to the vendors and immediately came back saying it was fine to pay $20 each.

We went down to the dock and were shown to a rather ancient wooden boat. The first boat we went on wouldn’t start so we had to clamber across onto another one. No health and safety here! On board was a driver, a tour guide, just the two of us and our trusty tuk tuk driver. As soon as we sat down our guide started to talk to us about the village we would be visiting. He told us he used to live there himself and that his family still lived there. We learnt a little about life in the village and how 90% of the population make money from fishing. During the 7k trip down the river to the lake the guide started to drip feed us with information about how there were not enough fish for people to make a living and how the school in the village has a lot of orphans who don’t have enough to eat. This was something that was mentioned in the reviews of the trip online. He explained that we would visit the school and afterwards we could go to the market to buy food for the school if we wanted to.

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The village was amazing. It really is an entire village floating in the middle of a lake. There are houses, a restaurant, a catholic church, a police station, hospital and school. It did feel a little strange as we drove around looking at people going about their lives. Then, we were taken to the school. I really wish we had just said no and gone back at that point. We arrived at the school and I thought maybe we would just have a quick look and move on but we were encouraged to get out of the boat and go inside. The first room was a small hall and the kitchen. Our guide insisted upon showing us the kitchen and reminding us that the children didn’t have enough to eat. We then saw three classrooms where children were attempting to learn. In the first classroom some children were sitting at desks without anything in front of them whilst others were colouring in pictures. The second classroom had no teacher inside and the children weren’t doing anything. There was some maths on the board that was far too difficult for the age of the children in the classroom. In the third classroom the children were reciting some Vietnamese on the board. I felt so uncomfortable. The guide kept saying we could take photos but it just felt really weird. It seemed like the school was just for show.

When we got back into the boat the guide asked if we would like to buy some food for the children. We went to the market which wasn’t actually the main food market for the village but seemed just like someone’s house with a pile of giant bags of rice, some water and some sweets. Unfortunately we had read about how this is a scam. They charge $30-50 for a bag of rice calling it a donation. You can drop off the rice to the school but according to information online the rice would then be returned and the money wouldn’t benefit the children at all. Obviously I don’t know this for a fact but we decided that if we are going to donate we would do it in a way we were sure would benefit children in Cambodia.

This experience led me to think a lot about poverty tourism in Cambodia.  It was so sad to feel that the school was almost like a pretend school set up to get cash from tourists. I do realise that we only saw a snapshot of what was going on but it didn’t seem like the children were learning at all. As a teacher myself I asked quite a lot of questions at the school about education that no one seemed to be able to answer. I hope that I’m wrong but this was just the impression that I got. Unfortunately this seemed to be a bit of a theme everywhere in Cambodia. Children are used to generate money for adults in a variety of ways. We were approached in the street by a teenage girl with a baby. She begged us to go with her to a shop to buy some milk for the baby. Sadly this is not what it seems. The ‘milk scam’ is warned about in many tourist guides. Once you have bought the milk the girl would return it and split the money between her and the shop. Children are used everywhere to beg or sell items meaning that many don’t and probably never will go to school. Where does that leave them in the future?

When we first arrived we saw a campaign poster with the slogan “children are not tourist attractions’. I have seen orphanages described as Cambodia’s booming new industry. In Cambodia the numbers of orphans has halved but the number of orphanages has doubled. 75% of children in Cambodian orphanages are not orphans at all. They are children who have been recruited with a promise of better education and care. However, sadly children are put at risk due to inadequate care and no child protection guidelines leaving them open to neglect and abuse. Some orphanages welcome visitors in with no background checks and information at all. You could ask a tuk tuk driver to take you to an orphanage and pay $15 to volunteer for the day. Orphanages are kept in dilapidated conditions in order to inspire more donations.

I hope this post doesn’t sound heartless because all of this breaks my heart. Every time a small child tried to sell me something I desperately wanted to give them money but I know this won’t help them in the long run. Now we are back we are thinking about what we can do to really help and make a difference. Check out this website for more information about volunteer tourism and what we can do to help!

http://www.thinkchildsafe.org/thinkbeforevisiting/

The obligatory Angkor Temples post!

So…the obligatory post about the temples. Needless to say they are pretty amazing and this post will be pretty photo heavy! We arrived at our hotel in Siem Reap (The Angkor Secret Garden) thinking that we would just chill out ready for a day at the temples the following day. However, Mr Lucky, the hotel manager informed us that if we went to the temples after 5pm that evening we could watch the sunset over Phnom Bakheng and our ticket would be valid the next day. We decided this would be fun! The tuk tuk driver who had picked us up from the airport returned and drove us around 8k to the site of the temples. As we drove through the site we caught glimpses of temples in the distance and saw monkeys scurrying across the road. We pulled in and our driver explained we needed to walk up the hill to see the temple. You could hitch a ride on an elImageephant for $20 each but we opted to use our own legs. The walk was shaded and not too long.

At the top we climbed some seriously steep steps to reach the temple. We had to wait around an hour for the sun to set. It was quite crowded but there were a few places to sit. The stones were so hot that we actually burnt our bums! Once the sun started to set it was completely worth the wait. Our camera was misbehaving…or we are just rubbish at taking photos but we did get a few good shots.

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The next day we got up at 4.45am ready to meet our trusty tuk tuk driver at 5am. The hotel packed us up a breakfast. We ordered it the night before. I had a banana pancake and Dan had an omelet. They even gave us iced coffee and tea in plastic bags. This was a little tricky to carry on the bumpy tuk tuk ride. Even thought it was 5am  lots of people were already up preparing food and setting up stands in the street.  We arrived near Angkor Wat and made our way to the temple in the dark. It got light really quickly but there was a bit of a wait for the sun to rise. There were masses of people selling things such as scarfs, baggy trousers (the uniform of Siem Reap), guide books, postcards and drinks. We chatted to a lady called Anna who had a cold drinks stand. She was amazing and told us exactly where to stand to get the best view. She actually followed us and insisted on making sure we had the perfect spot!   P1020183 P1020193 P1020200 P1020209

After the sun had risen we wandered around Angkor Wat. I think this is my favourite temple.

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Our tuk tuk driver waited patiently for us all this time and when we had finished at Angkor Wat we found him and he drove us to the Angkor Thom complex. Angkor Thom means Great City and consists a many different temples with two big entraceway gates. I absolutely loved Bayon. This temple had many faces of Budha carved into the stone.

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The final temple we saw was Ta Prohm. This is temple where tomb raider was filmed. It is quite different to some of others because it is surrounded by jungle. There are lots of huge trees with sprawling roots within the temple.

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A day walking round the temples is HOT and it is important that women have their knees and shoulders covered. I looked like a complete loon but I wore a sports top with wicking material and baggy patterned trousers. I may have looked a bit silly but I was so much more comfortable. Also, don’t wear flipflops. There are lot of really steep steps and I saw a lot of people in flipflops really struggling!

Nothing can really prepare you for the masses of young children trying to sell you things. They tend to go round in little groups and approach tourists with baskets of things to sell such as postcards, bracelets and fans. It was really heart breaking hearing the desperation in their voices as they called “1 dollar, please Sir’. Some of them would even get hold of your arm. Buying anything from them is really discouraged as it encourages them to keep begging and keep out of school.

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