As the holiday season starts to take over, we are finding ourselves slowing down, staying places for longer periods of time (and forgetting to post to the blog). We’ve been busy. Okay, scratch that, I’ve been studying, and Scott has been “busy” watching football and a new show on Netflix. It has felt good to get into a slower rhythm, but we also have moments where we are completely unmotivated and missing home just a little bit. That’s the reality of long-term travel though, not every day is an adventure or new sight, there’s a lot of time in the middle. We are thankful for that time though, having a schedule is nice, and it makes the highs that much higher.
For the last three months we’ve been pretty good at staying in family home-stays or budget air bnbs. There’s been the few splurges like in Bali, but it has been a minute since we’ve stayed in a nice hotel/villa. Scott decided that while we were in Cambodia we would upgrade to a little nicer accommodation because it was so cheap AND it happened to be my birthday. We arrived after an interesting ride in a rickshaw, bit different from a tuk-tuk in that it was a scooter pulling a trailer carriage, to Phka Chan Hotel just on the edge of the busy center of Siem Reap. Our flight was early in, so we dropped our bags, had a refreshing welcome drink (this happens at a lot of places in Asia we’ve found, a cold juice greets you from the beginning of your stay) and walked into town while our room was getting prepared.
Our general go to place when we have time to kill in a city is usually a Starbucks. They always have good WiFi, the drinks are consistent everywhere, it has A/C, and it’s usually decorated for the holidays regardless of where you are during this time of year. The decorations and holiday drinks are especially nice for us when we find that we are missing home just a little bit. We did some research on the area we are in, decided what we were going to do for the rest of the week, and I studied a bit. The weather while we were in Cambodia was perfect, warm and sunny everyday and not too many bugs. We also found that Cambodia was way cheaper than we expected. It may have been the cheapest place we have been, it’s hard to judge, but definitely a good place to be on a budget.
Our room was to be ready mid-afternoon so we headed that way after Starbucks and found an Old Market in the center of town on our way back. The market was pretty standard for Asian markets. We are finally starting to learn that once you see one market, you may have seen them all, or most of them (Bangkok is a bit different) but for the most part they are filled with knock-off EVERYTHING from Nike to Gucci, they’ve got it all and they are ready to haggle. There’s also the typical local food, groceries, fishy smells from the raw fish on the ground being sold to vendors, art, and small souvenirs. We sampled some local noodle soups and desserts, nothing to write home about, but it was cheap and filled us up.
We continued towards our hotel, about a 15-20 minute walk from the center. The one thing that we found incredibly obnoxious about Siem Reap particularly were the taxi/tuktuk/anyone driving a car of tourists around people. It happens everywhere we’ve been to an extent, but here it was over the top. The second you left the comfort of your hotel, the safety of your dinner table, and along your entire walk anywhere, those drivers were there, in your face, asking you if you needed a ride or simply shouting, “Angkor Wat?!” in your face. Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, and the thing to do in Siem Reap, more about that later.
Anyways, this constant badgering for rides confuses me, and is almost always more expensive then going through a convenient app we found called Pass App. The confusing part is, we are usually asked while walking down the road to our destination, if we needed a ride wouldn’t we approach a tuk-tuk and ask? It’s not like I’m going to be walking down the street and all the sudden someone yelling “tuk-tuk” at me will all the sudden remind me, oh yeah Hali, you should be in a tuk-tuk instead of using your two legs to walk 10 minutes (big sarcasm here). Plus, anytime we needed a ride, we went through the app which is great for many reasons: it gives exact GPS from pick-up to drop off so you don’t have to worry about explaining with a language barrier where you are going, the price is set, it is super cheap, and there are drivers everywhere.
Once we were back at our hotel, we really got to take it all in. Our room was towards the back, after you walked past a tropical garden walk-way and the pool. The room itself was massive, minimally decorated (we prefer) with tall ceiling, a massive bed (thank goodness because I’m a bed hog), and a large waterfall like shower with an outdoor tub. A perfect place for a week. The hotel offered a restaurant on-site (we didn’t go, too $$), a spa, and the smallest, hottest little workout room. Most of my working out is body weight so the room worked, and I got extra sweaty in that little hotbox, but it wasn’t up to Scott’s standards, so he went to the gym down the street for $1 a day. Plus they had protein powder and hard boiled eggs (YUCK) Scott was pleased though.
Our days were simple, wake-up, work-out, head into town for some breakfast, go to the pool, take a nap or read, and then back into town for dinner and general entertainment. The famous walking street in Siem Reap is called Pub Street. Which closes down each evening for street vendors, good happy hours, and impromptu performances. The streets are massive, filled with lights, and each bar trying to compete for the best speaker system and happy hour deal combo. We usually went down there to grab a 50 cent beer and people watch.
There were people playing traditional Cambodian music with proceeds going to land mine survivors. Many missing limbs, but strumming along happily. It broke my heart, but caused me to do some more research on the cause. Cambodia has somewhere near 6 million unexploded landmines or some other explosives of the sort. Every year people die or are injured from a mine, and they could honestly be anywhere. There is an effort to discover and disarm the mines by using African rats and other technology, but Cambodian’s still suffer every year. Ravaged by many wars, the land and people are still recovering, but maintain a happy disposition.
After some trial and error we found some amazing food in Cambodia. A lot of places we went multiple times while we were there, sometimes twice a day if we could. Some of our most favorite places didn’t have a name and were just a random cart that we had to identify out of the dozens of carts along the river each night. Our first stop in the morning was to the banana lady, a no name cart, with a constant flow of customers. She worked from mid morning til about 16:00, always in the same spot. She sold one thing, fried bananas, but different than we had ever seen. The banana was smashed flat on a plate to the shape of a rectangle, then battered and fried, and battered and fried, and battered and fried. We don’t know how many times she re-battered and re-fried, but we are guessing maybe 5 times. What came out of this process was a crispy brown, rectangle of hot banana deliciousness. The fritter was always boiling hot because they were always fresh as she was feeding a constant line of customers. We would nibble the edges hoping to cool it off just enough to properly eat it. The banana lady only sold that one thing, and she was dang good at it.
After we enjoyed those fritters at least twice daily, in the evening we would come and scope out our two favorite carts (also with no names). The smoothie lady was the first stop, there are probably ten ladies selling smoothies on this one street, but I promise you, hers were the best. Her fruit always looked the most ripe. A cheap, dollar mango smoothie, every time. We have sampled many smoothies throughout Asia, you could say we are almost experts, so we know a good one when we taste it. One of the biggest selling points is coldness, believe it or not, many smoothies we’ve had have been room temp or just a little below that. This smoothie was ice cold, filled with non-watered down mango goodness, a creamy hint of condensed milk, and a touch of sweetness from some sugar water syrup. Best. Smoothies. Ever.
Next, if our smoothie made it the 30 feet down the street, we joined it with our dinner. Another no name cart, run by a sweet family. The guy had been a cook at a nice restaurant previously, wore a chef’s hat and jacket (a bit silly on the street but we liked it), and moved with graceful precision. His wife would hunt down people on the street with their menu and coax them to sit on the side walk on children’s plastic chairs at a small plastic table, while balancing entertaining their small toddler. Her tactic worked, it was always busy. We came there every night for five nights, almost always ordering the same thing. We ordered chicken satay, fried rice, and spring rolls. Everything was delicious, but the satay was something special. The best satay we’ve ever had, coated in an ginger, herb, peanut sauce, skewered fresh in front of you, grilled up, and served with a black pepper lime sauce. It was light, fresh, and satisfying. The chef was constantly in motion, flick pans, dicing fresh veggies, and some how remembering each order as they piled up. The family came to recognize us and even gave us some free food one night. So sweet, and definitely delicious.
When trying to figure out what we wanted to do in Siem Reap (other than Angkor Wat) we were looking for something cost effective, cultural, and sustainable. I had found a show called Phare, that was advertised as Cambodia’s circus. At first, I didn’t like the sound of circus, poorly handled animals, in captivity and a total tourist trap, but this was different. Phare did not involve any animals, the only thing that made it similar to a circus was that it was under a tent. It was composed of professional dancers and acrobats, all put through school with the cost of our tickets. The show changes every few weeks but they work towards telling a story about life challenges in Cambodia, intertwining traditional music, and native tongue. The show itself was incredible, the actors and actress were well trained and seemed happy. Lots of flips, juggling, singing, and dancing. It was a unique hour long experience that I would definitely recommend.
Now, the thing that everyone “has to do” while in Cambodia, Angkor Wat. We held of on going until the end of our time in Siem Reap. Mostly, we were weighing the cost and benefits. The temple is absolutely beautiful, the grounds are pretty well kept, but the cost is almost $40USD a person. It is a total tourist trap with upwards of 10,000 visitors a day all trying to get there before the sunrises to take the prized picture. Of course, we payed for the tickets, woke up before the crack of dawn, blindly walked through ruins and hawkers trying to sell this that and the other thing, to get our Angkor Wat experience. Imagine, hundreds of people at the bottom of a pond, vying for the perfect sunrise picture without anyone else in it… near impossible. Luckily, we are tall, but the experience was completely underwhelming. We went through the temple when it opened and were still underwhelmed. Maybe it was because we had seen many temples, or brilliant architecture in Europe. But it was one of those things you had to do while you’re there, so we did. The crazy part of this all, was later in the day Scott and I looked back at the photos and they look pretty incredible! I’ve never been to a place where the picture is better than reality, so I guess that’s a first.
We continued our easy going Cambodia rhythm and finished up with my 25th birthday there (a quarter of century, woah… guess this trip is my answer to a quarter-life crisis). Scott made my day special. He ran off early in the morning and returned with all sorts of delicious goodies to bring to me in bed. American potato scramble, a fried banana, donuts, a pancake, what more could a girl ask for! Then we went off for the most relaxing (and cheap) couples massage, saw Frozen 2 in theaters at only $2.5 a person, enjoyed authentic Italian pasta for lunch (actually so so good), swam in the pool, Mexican from a California expat for dinner, and drinks with some dancing on Pub Street. A perfect conclusion to a wonderful place!
Now we head off to Vietnam for three weeks, traveling from south to north before meeting up with my parents in Malaysia for the holidays!