Cambodia round up πŸ‡°πŸ‡­

We made only three stops during our 11-day stay in Cambodia. We started by paying a visit to the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, before learning to cook Cambodia’s national dish in Battambang, and finally spending three days exploring the ancient temples of Angkor by bicycle.

Carbon πŸš†

Our travel across Cambodia emitted less carbon than any country we’ve visited since leaving London. This is primarily because Cambodia is a relatively compact country, so we travelled much less distance than than we did elsewhere. We also travelled 98% of the distance by train or coach, which helped keep our footprint small.

We wish we’d recorded from the beginning how far we’d travelled by bicycle – the kilometres are starting to add up!

Cost πŸ’°

Cambodia was the second most affordable country we’ve visited, after Georgia. However, given our relatively short stay in Cambodia, the per-day cost of our visas was pretty high. The tickets to explore the temples of Angkor also seemed relatively expensive when compared to the very affordable food and accommodation costs.

Cats 🐈

We were delighted to find that Khmer people love their cats. As a result, cats were plentiful across Cambodia, and the country has secured third place in the league table. It’s been quite a while since any country has held a candle to Greece and Turkey’s scores last summer, and we thoroughly enjoyed interrupting every other conversation with some casual cat spotting again.

And of course there were a few stand out winners…

πŸ…Most effective hawkers

We made a number of purchases from this store above the market rate, but it was worth it to spend some time with these fourteen (!) cats. I asked the lady running the shop why they had quite so many cats – apparently they are all part of the same family, from grand-parents to grand-children. There were no signs of the cats during the day, but each night they came out to take the cool evening air. They were attracting a lot of attention!

πŸ…Most photogenic cat

Who can blame this chap for cat-napping in the shade given the borderline-oppressive afternoon heat?

πŸ…Pest control employee of the month

We often accuse cats of living rent free in someone else’s home, but this one seemed to be earning his keep as chief of pest control. Just look at the size of that rat!

πŸ…Most casual temple monkey

Okay this one is obviously not a cat, but I always love how proficient monkeys are at stealing from tourists. I mean, why bother foraging from nature when humans walk right past your nose carrying more food than you could ever eat? The chap below had just looted someone’s carrier bag for a bottle of water and had the cap off within seconds, before drinking from it just like a human would.

Culture πŸ‘¨β€πŸ‘©β€πŸ‘§

πŸ’΅ We were really surprised to discover the extent to which US Dollars and Cambodian Riel are used in combination – In many countries, it’s normal for tourism-related activities to be priced in Dollars, but I’ve never been anywhere that used two currencies completely interchangeably. Even if a purchase was priced in Riel, it was perfectly legitimate to pay in Dollars (or vice versa) without even asking first, using the well-known exchange rate of 4,000 Riel to the Dollar. Dollars seemed slightly more common for larger purchases, while Riel were used for fractions of a Dollar. In fact, it was even possible to make payments and receive change using a mix of both currencies in a single transaction, providing us a great opportunity to practise our four-times-table at every purchase.

πŸš™ The wealth gap was on full display in Phnom Penh – There was a strange mix of vehicles on the roads of the capital, with brand new, white SUVs with blacked out windows at one extreme, and mopeds and ancient tuk-tuks at the other, and really not a lot in between.

πŸ§’ The Khmer are a friendly bunch – Everywhere we went (and particularly when cycling around Battambang), kids would smile, wave and shout a “Hello!” as we passed. But it wasn’t even just young children – I remember a lady waving at me as our train departed an interim stop on its route to Battambang as if it were the Titanic leaving to cross an ocean. We loved it, even if our arms started to ache after a while from all the waving.

πŸ‘‘ We’ve never seen so much gold paint before – Thailand is probably a close second, but Cambodia surely must take the crown for the highest annual bill for gold paint of anywhere in the world! Everywhere we looked, there was something painted in a gaudy (but jolly) shade of gold.

🍚 Khmer cuisine was a beautiful fusion of familiar cuisines – We were interested to learn that many Cambodian dishes bore many similarities to their neighbours in Vietnam and Thailand. Maybe this shouldn’t have been too surprising, given that the Khmer Empire covered large chunks of both of these countries for many centuries. Either way, we had a delicious 11 days!

Fish Amok, Cambodia’s national dish

Beyond Cambodia, our journey continued west into Thailand, home to some of the spiciest food in the world πŸ₯΅

πŸŒ„ Sunrise at Angkor Wat (but without the crowds)

As one of the finalists for the seven wonders of the modern world, the temples of Angkor are a proper bucket-list experience. On top of this, Angkor Wat also makes an appearance in Age of Empires (one of my favourite video games). I was really excited to see it with my own eyes, and managed to convince Sara into a three-day itinerary of temple exploration.

Angkor Wat, the symbol of Cambodia

However, temple fatigue is real thing. The Angkor park is huge – it contains literally hundreds of temples, and the afternoon heat and sun certainly aren’t the ideal conditions to be climbing temple steps. Our strategy was to pace ourselves, make use of the cooler mornings, and gradually work up the highlights (which we saved for day three).

Almost everyone gets around the Angkor park by tuk-tuk. The distances are just too great to walk, and for some reason, tourists aren’t allowed to hire motorbikes in Siem Reap. But of course neither of these are really our style, so instead we opted to hire a couple of city bikes to get around. Thank goodness these bikes were in good condition and the going was relatively flat, because we covered nearly 100 km on them over the next three days.

Day 1: The Roluos temples (30 km cycled)

We started well off the beaten path with a visit to the Roluos group of temples, located 13 km east of Siem Reap (where we were staying). The route to these temples goes along the main road between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, so it was probably the least relaxing cycle of our stay.

I judged it safe to take a photo once we’d turned off the main road 😬

This group consists of a trio of temples; Bakong, Preah Ko, and Lolei. These are the oldest in the Angkor area, with each temple being completed between 879 and 893 AD.

Despite the slight slog of a journey, arriving at the temples was immensely rewarding. Not only did we have each temple to ourselves for at least some of the time, but we were also the only ones brave (or stupid) enough to have attempted the journey on bicycles. In fact, there were about ten times as many children cycling to and from school (past the temples) as there were tourists. I did wonder what it must be like growing up cycling past ancient temples on your school commute – let’s just say it was a bit of a contrast to the bus I used to take to my primary school in Eltham.

Day 2: The grand circuit (40 km cycled)

On our second day we upped the temple tempo with a lap around the “grand circuit” road. We left the hotel shortly after sunrise and powered through the first 13 km to Ta Prohm temple. This temple had been abandoned for so long that it had been gradually reclaimed by nature, with trees literally growing straight out of a few towers, while some walls have become so entangled with roots that I’m pretty sure they’re now holding up what’s left of the wall.

This temple also featured in the 2001 movie Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie, and it’s not hard to see why this location was selected.

Next, we cycled 10 km through dense forest to reach Neak Pean, a small temple located right in the middle of a massive rectangular lake, connected to the lake shore via a long and sunbaked boardwalk. The temple itself was beautifully serene, and rather confusingly set in a mini-lake within an island in the centre of the larger lake.

Just 2 km along the grand circuit road is Preah Khan, yet another stunning temple. Unbeknownst to us, we approached this temple from the lesser-used East Entrance, and were confused by just how few fellow tourists were about. We’d later realise that this is actually a great strategy to explore temples while also avoiding the largest tour groups!

Unlike Ta Promh (the Tomb Raider temple), Preah Khan has been extensively restored, allowing visitors to get a feeling for how the temple must have felt in its prime. The video below shows me walking only half of the temple’s length, so you can imagine how much more there was to see!

We rounded off the day with a cycle through Ankor Thom – the 9 kmΒ² final capital of the Khmer empire. This involved passing through one of the four giant gates in the city walls.

Please excuse the wobbly camera – I couldn’t change gear while filming!

This was where cycling really came into its own, as it afforded us incredible views of the ancient constructions and also gave us the option to pause at any point to savour the views.

And just as we were starting to run out of steam, we caught our first glimpse of Angkor Wat. The afternoon sun had cast a golden glow over its many towers, and it would have been rude not to stop to catch our breath.

Day 3: Angkor Wat at sunrise (24 km cycled)

We left our hotel at 5:20am and cycled through the night to reach Angkor Wat before dawn. Sunrise at this temple is a big deal and features on almost every itinerary, and we’d read some pretty disappointed tales about just how crowded it can get. So while thousands of people jostled for position outside the west gate, we doubled down on our strategy of heading to the “wrong” gate and approached from the east. We passed through the temple gate at 6.02am, just as the cicadas abruptly broke out into song and the first light appeared in the sky, and within seconds the chorus was nearly deafening.

Exploring the empty temple in the pre-dawn light was absolutely breathtaking, and we did our best to enjoy the moment as well as snap a few photos. We genuinely couldn’t believe that we had one of the world’s busiest sights all to ourselves.

After a half-lap of the temple, we emerged opposite the west gate, and could see hoards of fellow visitors heading up through the main entrance directly towards us.

We made an abrupt about-turn, and with sunrise imminent, made a beeline for a perch protruding from the north side of the temple that we’d scoped out as a good spot.

Here, we tucked into our breakfast boxes of hard-boiled eggs, bread and marmalade as the sun rose. It’s not often we get up before sunrise (let alone arrive at our destination!) but my goodness was it worth it.

10 points if you can spot our breakfast companion

We spent the rest of the morning exploring the other temples within Angkor Thom. At its centre is Bayon temple, a huge (if slightly bizarre) temple featuring 216 giant faces which apparently resembled the king who had ordered the temple’s construction. Many of the faces aren’t immediately apparent following roughly 800 years of weathering, but it’s one of those situations where the more you look, the more you find peering back at you from the rock.

Finally, we deployed what little energy we had left to climb the (incredibly steep) steps of Baphuon temple. In addition to offering great views from its top level, this temple also has an interesting backstory of relatively recent history. In the 1960s, it was painstakingly disassembled for restoration, block by block, and meticulously catalogued to allow it to be reassembled again. However, the Khmer Rouge regime who took power in 1970s did not approve of such activity, and destroyed the records. This left behind one of the world’s largest (and heaviest!) jigsaw puzzles, which has since only been partially completed. The thousands of stone blocks that still cover the area surrounding the temple are evidence of how much work still remains. It slightly reminds me of the handful of screws that I often have left over after taking something apart and putting it back together again, though I guess I don’t have such a good excuse.

While our stay in Siem Reap was longer than we’ve stayed anywhere for months now, I’m so glad we had the time to do it some justice. And with that, our somewhat brief foray into Cambodia was over already, as we boarded an 8.5-hour bus to Bangkok, the beating heart of Thailand.

Learning to cook Cambodia’s national dish in Battambang

We got up bright and early to catch the daily train from Phnom Penh to Battambang, departing at 6.40am. Oli had booked our tickets online the previous day and carefully selected our seats from the hundreds available, but when we eventually found our train (by some fluke) on an un-numbered platform at Phnom Penh’s central station, it had only three tiny carriages and no seat numbers, so our seat reservations didn’t mean a thing. We did read this might happen! No matter, we found a spot and settled down for the journey across Cambodia.

We had no real idea how long it might take, because Oli had looked everywhere and couldn’t find an official arrival time (only an estimate from our fave Man in Seat 61). I suppose no one can complain it’s late if there’s no indication when it will arrive! In the end, it was a scenic (if rather bumpy and dusty) six-hour journey through some beautiful small villages and rural areas.

Our guidebook had described Battambang as an ‘elegant riverside town’, so we were a bit surprised to discover just how dusty it was. For the next couple of days, we never quite managed to shift the dust we’d acquired from the open windows of the train, but actually, we really liked the town’s architecture and its super-relaxed vibe. In fact, I was really surprised to discover (when fact-checking this post) that it’s Cambodia’s third largest city – I would never have guessed!

The town is known for having Cambodia’s best-preserved French colonial architecture and traditional shophouses, so we spent some time following an excellent walking tour of the area (or, more accurately, Oli navigated and read out the information while I pointed out the buildings and tried not to yawn – it was HOT and I hadn’t had coffee!)

We also hired bikes for a day so that we could explore a bit further afield, and took a lovely 25km roundtrip cycle along the river and to Ek Phnom Pagoda, a half-ruined temple. This was a great warm up for our upcoming visit to Angkor Wat!

While we were there, we saw a group of monks in orange robes working by hand to clear overgrown plants from around the temple. I’m not sure if they had plans to put more of the huge stone blocks that were strewn around the site back together or whether they were simply taking care of it as it stood, but either way, it looked like incredibly hot work.

In the same area, we also explored a modern temple, which had incredibly colourful painted scenes on every surface of the interior. Our guidebook suggested skipping this in favour of the ruined temple hidden behind, but I really liked it here – we’ve visited an awful lot of historic temples recently and it was nice to see where people actually worship today. Not to mention that I am easily impressed by brightly-coloured things!

Just next door, we spotted a giant Buddha statue. The first time I went to visit one of these (in Hong Kong), I assumed that they were really unusual, but actually, it turns out they are everywhere, hidden in the most unexpected of places! It always makes us smile that they all hold some kind of record for being the largest, with lots and lots of qualifications (e.g. the one in Hong Kong is the largest seated bronze Buddha in the world – it’s not the largest Buddha, or the largest seated Buddha, or even the largest bronze Buddha, but when you put them all together…)

Our final activity in Battambang was a first for us on this trip: we took a cooking class. It’s been quite some time since we stayed anywhere with a full kitchen so we haven’t cooked since maybe Almaty (actually that’s not quite true, we had kitchens in many of our Korean Airbnbs, but with the weird quirk that you weren’t actually allowed to cook in them)! Anyway, we decided that as we enjoyed eating the local food so much, perhaps we should learn to make some of it.

Our first stop was the local market, which was buzzing in the early morning. We bought some of the ingredients we would need for our class, including the coconut milk required for our main course. I found this part really interesting – we saw the dedicated machine that compresses the fresh coconuts to produce the rich, creamy coconut milk and deposits it into a clear plastic bag. I’ve never had coconut milk as fresh as this! But what really got me were the huge sacks of dessicated coconut that are left over from this process. Chef LyLy laughed as he asked us whether we use this as an ingredient at home (obviously, he already knew that the answer was yes) – in Cambodia, this is used as chicken food!

Unfortunately, I was really messy from eating the delicious coconut sticky rice that we’d been given as breakfast, so I didn’t manage to get any photos of the cool coconut machine. But you can have a photo of my breakfast, instead…

Coconut sticky rice with mango, banana and beans, wrapped in a banana leaf

Next, it was back to the cookery school to get started on our four dishes. We were making Fish Amok, which is a coconut milk and white fish curry steamed in a banana leaf bowl. It is milder than a Thai curry (Cambodian food has very little spice), with a slightly different fragrance and an unusual moussey texture, but equally delicious. Fish Amok is Cambodia’s national dish, and Oli has been eating it almost daily so now considers himself a bit of a connoisseur. To accompany this, we made a green mango salad with a tangy dressing and fried carrot and taro spring rolls with a dipping sauce. Finally, pudding was the restaurant’s own speciality, a coconut dessert akin to a Panna Cotta.

The jury is out on whether we’ll ever actually make this food at home – if previous cookery classes we’ve taken are anything to go by, then probably not! But it was a fun way to spend a morning, and we got an absolutely delicous lunch out of it.

This concluded our time in lovely Battambang, so we boarded an eastbound bus to Siem Reap, the gateway to the mighty Angkor Wat.