I finally broke the three year-long dry spell, and travelled overseas for an incredible couple of weeks in Cambodia.
I missed international travel terribly, and after the restrictions and border closures of the COVID-19 era, I was itching to get out of Australia and go somewhere that’s a world away from the Down Under and West in general. While Cambodia has always been on my travel list, my original plan was to go to Sri Lanka this August, but the worsening economic crisis there made me rethink my plans, so Cambodia in November it was.
This was my eleventh tour with Intrepid Travel, and for the very first time, I was the only one representing Australia, with the rest of the group almost exclusively European, a fun and lovely bunch of people. As always, I appreciated having a local group leader with the insight and knowledge of the country, who even shared some of his personal family history with us; the trip simply wouldn’t have been the same without it.
Earlier this year, I’ve heard so many horror stories about the delayed and lost luggage that I decided to travel light under 7kg, which overall worked out pretty well and might be the way for the future Southeast Asia holidays. I did end up doing heaps of hand washing, because the heat and humidity made you crave at least two showers per day.
Favourite meal: absolutely scrumptious seafood lunch in the southern beach town of Kep, in a restaurant that you probably wouldn’t look twice at if you just walked past it. A special mention goes to our homestay dinner and the amazing beef curry served by our hostess. Generally, I tried to sample as much of the local Khmer food as possible.
Weirdest meal: a stop by the stall selling various deep-fried insects and frogs. I was brave enough to try a deep-fried tarantula and cricket, which were all basically about the crunch. The silk worm on the other hand actually had a distinct, somewhat sweet flavour. Is this the protein of the future? Ehhh I hope not.
Fun math with currency: Cambodia has a dual currency, with the local riel circulating in tandem with the US dollar. The exchange rate is 4,000 riel to the dollar, so your wallet can quickly turn into a total mess.
Angkor Wat and other temples
The world-famous complex of Angkor is of course THE reason for many people to travel to Cambodia, and I’m not an exception; having worked in travel industry for years and seen it countless times in brochures, I was very excited to see it in real life. But before we made it to Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor, we had our ancient temple appetiser while visiting the 6th century ruins of the Hindu temples in Sambor Prei Kuk:
The sunrise at Angkor Wat was the highlight of my entire trip and something that I will never forget. It was a magical, otherworldly experience to see the sky change and the five towers slowly emerge from the darkness; well worth an early rise at 4am.
We spent the rest of the morning and most of the previous day exploring the Angkor Archaeological Park and its most famous sites: the trees of Ta Prohm Temple (made famous by Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider); the elaborate and pretty Banteay Srei a.k.a. the Lady Temple; the labyrinthine Bayon Temple and the impressive bridge to Angkor Thom decorated with statues of demons and gods. In a way, we were lucky to travel to Cambodia at a time when tourism is still in the post-pandemic recovery mode, with lesser crowds at the popular spots.
I’d absolutely love to do a Mekong River cruise one day, which usually board at Kampong Cham, but for now I had to do with the views of the mighty river from the top floor of our hotel, and the riverside walk.
Khmer Rouge and Cambodian genocide
Everywhere we went, we saw the reminders of Cambodia’s dark and brutal past. The most confronting encounter was the infamous Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S21) in Phnom Penh, and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, where nearly 9,000 Khmer Rouge victims have been exhumed. Their remains are now housed inside the stupa on the site. Walking around this peaceful area, with sun shining, birds chirping and roosters crowing, it was hard to imagine the horrific acts committed there all these years ago.
It was a sobering and harrowing excursion to say the least, but these not-so-distant events left such wounds that it’s impossible to get to know the country as it is now without knowing its past.
Floating village at Tonlé Sap Lake
Tonlé Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and a truly impressive sight: you feel like you’re out in the ocean because the other shore is nowhere in sight. It’s also home to several communities, and a boat tour to the floating villages is a very popular activity.
Villages and countryside
Exploring the countryside on bike and visiting locals in their workshops was one of my favourite memories from the Vietnam trip, so I was very happy to do more of the same in Cambodia. Unfortunately I couldn’t join the bike ride, thanks to an infection before my trip that completely messed up my sense of balance; instead I had to follow the rest of the group on a tuk-tuk.
Even so, the day in the countryside was amazing. We visited small cottage industries producing rice wine, rice paper, banana snacks and delicacies, which we of course sampled (though I passed on the snake-flavoured rice wine). My favourite was a popular snack of rice baked inside a bamboo stick. Later in the tour we did another day trip around the lush and green countryside of Kampot, a city in southern Cambodia, which took in the pepper plantation and local seafood market, and finished at the beach.