Colorful Cambodia: More than Angkor Wat

skyline of angkor wat main entrance

Tearing ourselves away from Laos, we headed to Cambodia. A long travel day got us to Siem Reap, where luckily our hotel was just off the very fun and very diverse Pub Street- where the draft beers are 50 cents, all day and all night. I’m not ashamed to say we ate at a Mexican restaurant. In Cambodia. And it was pretty good.

The next day, we hired a tuk tuk driver to take us to the Angkor Wat temple, as well as two others, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm (yes, that’s the one from Tomb Raider). We tried to stay out of the way of the huge Chinese tour groups, and avoided getting scammed by the “free” guides and guidebook sellers. The huge, falling down temples are really beautiful…..and big. Truly, a sight to see.

After a couple of days in Siem Reap on our own, we rejoined our Stray bus compatriots and went to Battambang, where we rode the Bamboo Train. It used to go from Cambodia to Bangkok, but is no longer in use except for a few kilometers used for tourism. The locals make these square bamboo pallets, and place them on top of two axels and add a small motor. If two pallets “collide”, one party simply gets off the tracks and picks up their “train”, letting the other party pass. At the end of the track we stopped in a small village for a cold beer and some barbecued mouse, which really doesn’t have all that much meat on it…

After the train, six of us wanted to go see the bats leave their cave at dusk, while the others went to a local market. It was pretty cool seeing 3+ million bats streaming out of their cave. They fly up to 200 km away and then return about 8 hours later. They eat a lot of insects every night!

Later we rejoined our group at a homestay, where we had the best fish amok! It’s fish pieces baked in a bamboo leaf, in a coconut milk and Khmer spice broth. Really good. We learned a little about the family who own the house, and what life is like for them in the village, and how they got started in tourism and turning their barn into a homestay area. It’s nice to think that we are helping many members of local families with our tourism dollars.

Then it was a brief stop in Uodong, then two nights in Sihanoukville, a beach town, pretty much catering to mass tourism (not too much local culture there). Good food, a decent bottle of wine, some beach time.

We went to Kampot, and hopped off the bus there for three days, to see our old friend Dave, who I used to teach with. Kampot is a nice little river town, not too overrun with tourists, with a small but growing expat community of people who have found the perfect place to run out their senior years on less than $700 a month. Hmmm, good chance we’ll be back to Kampot one day.

After Kampot, we spent one night on the tiny island of Koh Tansay, in a bungalow that only had electricity from 6pm to 9 pm. 13 bungalows, one restaurant, one massage pavilion with five pallets…. Well that’s all I needed for the 20 hours we were there. A very relaxing and romantic way to spend Valentine’s with my sweetheart (and ten other Stray bussers).

Our last stop in Cambodia is Pnom Penh. On the way into town, we visited the Killing Fields. Chris and I bought the audio guides, which were pretty interesting, although sad. Then we went to S21, one of the Khmer Rouge’s security prisons, where they tortured and killed thousands of intellectuals, teachers, doctors, dissidents, basically anyone who might challenge the 1975-1979 vision of a communist Cambodia. Horribly, the place used to be a school before the schools were shut down.

To end on a more positive note, we went to a cultural dance show in Pnom Penh, sponsored by an organization called Cambodian Living Arts, which was really good! They performed about a dozen folk dances and blessing songs and had beautiful costumes.  They all seemed to be enjoying themselves and we were happy to see the arts thriving in Cambodia- a minor miracle, considering 90% of their artists were killed 35 years ago.

All in all, a very interesting country to come to, well worth a visit if you’re in the area.  And now we are crossing the border into Vietnam……..

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