Angkor Wat – Visiting Sacred Spaces

Siem Reap is a city in Northwest Cambodia, and one of the most popular destinations for travelers due to its proximity to one of Southeast Asia’s biggest attractions: Angkor Archaeological Park. The park contains the remains of the world’s largest pre-industrial city in the world, covering approximately 250 square miles.  The temples and other structures were not thought to have been built all at the same time, but the complex is approximated to be about 1,000 years old.

Like most visitors of Southeast Asia, Angkor was one of our top destinations–about 2 million people visit each year.  Our hotel was about 4.5 miles away from the entrance to the complex, so we decided to rent bicycles to get there.  Once we arrived, we had to choose which ticket we wanted.  A one day pass is $20 and a three day pass is $40.  Knowing that one day is not nearly enough to see more than a fraction of the park, we decided to go for the three day pass.

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A screen shot of Angkor on Google Maps.  It’s seriously huge!

We decided to dedicate our first day solely to the park’s most famous temple, Angkor Wat.  Angkor Wat is so famous that many people don’t even know that the park has its own name, they think the whole complex is just called Angkor Wat! Once we reached the front of the temple, we parked our bikes across the street and made our way to the entrance.  It’s really hard to justly describe in words, luckily we took plenty of photos!

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The entrance to the outer wall, within the (man-made!) moat
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The entrance
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Closeup of the outer wall
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Another close up of the outer wall
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Inside the outer wall
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Wall detail in the outer wall
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Once inside the outer wall, we followed the causeway to the central structure
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Lying on either side of the causeway are libraries
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Angkor Wat, the temple proper
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…and some local monkeys hanging out 🙂
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The walls were sculpted into masterful depictions of things like war and work

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There were a lot of repeated patterns in the architecture, like these columns, for example.
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One of the coolest parts is that you don’t get to just walk around and look at it from afar, visitors get to climb up, around, and through the temple.
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A courtyard

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The temple is so impossibly huge that people look tiny when walking around.

Another good thing about the three day pass is that you don’t feel pressured to spend all day temple hopping.  It was insanely hot and the sun just zaps the energy right out of you.  This way, we were able to spend a relaxed afternoon at Angkor Wat and save the rest for the other days.

…and we did just that! Except this time, we were planning on going further than just Angkor Wat so we had to decide what we wanted to do about transport.  You can rent a tuk tuk to take you around for the day, but we ended up deciding to rent electric bicycles instead.  They don’t allow motorbike rentals in Siem Reap, so the electric bike was the next best thing.  Plus, they’re fun and better for the environment (and Siem Reap is pretty polluted.)

There are two popular routes that take visitors to some of the other major and minor temples in the complex called the ‘small circuit’ and the ‘grand circuit.’  We decided to do the small circuit, which is about 10 miles starting at Angkor Wat. The bike ride was an experience in itself.  The scenery was beautiful and the breeze felt great in the heat of the afternoon.

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We followed the road into Angkor Thom which translates to “Great City.”  It was built in the late 12th century, covers about 5.5 square miles and is believed to have housed between 80,000 and 150,000 people. In the center of Angkor Thom lies The Bayon, a well-known Khmer temple decorated with hundreds of faces.  This ended up being one of our favorite sites and we spent quite a while exploring it.

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Entering The Bayon

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After exploring The Bayon, we hopped back on our bikes and moved on to Ta Prohm, another popular temple.  Ta Prohm is one of the temples that was left as it was found, because its merging with the jungle was so impressive and picturesque.  It was also used as a location in the movie, Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie. Ta Prohm was undeniably stunning, but it was crowded with hoards of tourists to the point of discomfort, so we didn’t spend as much time there as we might have liked.

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Riding to Ta Prohm

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We followed the road to Banteay Kdei, which means “Citadel of Chambers.”  It is not entirely known what purpose this temple originally served, but it did house monks at various times up until the 1960s.

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Banteay Kdei

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We were exhausted by the time we neared the end of the circuit, but on our way back home, we spotted a bunch of monkeys on the side of the road and decided to give them a couple of our bananas.  One of them hopped on our bike and started looking at himself in the mirror!  It was funny until he wouldn’t get off…

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We decided to give this guy a little treat.
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Then, he hopped on one of our bikes and started watching himself in the mirror!
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He kept putting his weight on the handlebars and we were afraid he was going to tip the bike over. Joe tried to step in, but he was really difficult to shoo away!

Once we got back into town, we finished the day with dinner on Siem Reap’s Pub Street where all the hip bars and restaurants are.  We had a lot of fun there!

The electric bicycles ended up being perfect because we rented them in the afternoon the second day, so we didn’t have to return them until afternoon the next day.  So when we got up to go to Angkor Wat at sunrise, we didn’t have to pay for another day of transportation which was great.

We woke up at about 5am and groggily got on our bikes to ride to Angkor Wat.  Sunrise is a really popular time for tourists to go, so it was very crowded!  It was kind of funny to see all of the people packed around the lake in front to get the stereotypical shot of the reflection in the water.  We ended up getting some pretty nice pictures in between our yawns!

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Riding through the streets of Siem Reap before sunrise
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Just arriving at Angkor Wat
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People waiting to get their picture of sunrise reflected in the lake. Apparently people get there at like 4am to get the best spot!!
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Sunrise just peeking over the temple
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Funnily enough, the crowds vanished about 3 minutes after the sun made its appearance. We just strolled over a few minutes later and got virtually the exact same shot!

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We had to have the bikes back before 1pm so we decided to spend the morning doing the Grand Circuit to check out some of the temples we hadn’t seen yet.  The first one was The Terrace of the Elephants, a viewing platform for public ceremonies.

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There were pictures of elephants carved into all of the walls
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Elephant sculptures on either side of the entrance

Beyond the Terrace of the Elephants, we explored and climbed the temple, Phimeanakas.

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The walkway leading to Phimeanakas

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The very top
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The view from the top

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Next we rode on to Preah Khan, a lesser known temple that has also been left largely unrestored.  There was a lot of rubble, but the trees growing over the stones were beautiful.  Plus, it was a lot less crowded that Ta Prohm (the Angelina Jolie one.)

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The next temple was Neak Pean, a Buddhist temple built on an artificial island.  It is surrounded by four connecting pools that are believed to represent the four elements.  The temple was originally designed as a sort of hospital, so people were meant to bathe in each of the pools to cure diseases by restoring balance.

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An ornate balustrade
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The middle of Neak Pean

The final temple we visited was Ta Som, another small temple left mostly unrestored.  One of the entrance ways is overgrown by an enormous strangler fig!

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Words really don’t do it justice, but Angkor was beyond breathtaking and we were really glad we decided to invest in a three day pass.  Despite all of our exploring, we barely scratched the surface.  The complex is so huge, it’s impossible to fit it all in in three days (or four, or five, or six, etc…) but we got to see most of the commonly visited temples and a few of the lesser-known, as well.

Definitely a major highlight of backpacking through Southeast Asia!

Koh Rong – Paradise, Plankton, and a Full Moon Party

After a couple of days in Sihanoukville we were ready to get off the main land and head out to the island of Koh Rong.  We bought a ferry ticket at the pier called the “Backpacker Ferry” for a $15 return trip to the island.  We were given a ticket stub for the return ferry and were told we could take it any day we wanted, so there was no obligation to return until we had our fill of the island.

The ferry took about 2 hours and the water was delightfully smooth.  As we made our way across the water we saw hundreds of huge jellyfish the size of dinner plates just under the surface!

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The boat wasn’t crowded at all, a welcome surprise!
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Smooooth sailing!
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Almost there!

As soon as we got off the boat we could tell the vibes on Koh Rong suited us much better than Sihanoukville.  It was significantly cleaner (though still some litter and sewage draining into the ocean, it’s still Cambodia after all) and there were no gross old men or prostitutes.  The water was much cleaner as well.  We found a guesthouse called Three Brothers with private rooms and shared bathrooms for $12, a few steps down the beach.  After we dropped off our backpacks we headed right back out to get some lunch and go exploring.

Joe’s sunburn was really bad.  Like really bad.  We avoided sunbathing for his sake and opted to take a walk up the beach to get our bearings of the island.  Our guesthouse was located on the Southeastern most part of the island called Tui Beach, which is where most of the guesthouses on the island are situated.  We walked up the beach, past all of the bungalows, restaurants, and bars until we got to a more secluded place called Treehouse Bungalows, where all of the bungalows are built up on stilts as tall as trees!

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Joe on Tui Beach
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So much better than Sihanoukville!
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Stopping for a swim on the way there
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One of the treehouse bungalows

Just past the treehouses, the sand ended and there were rocks separating us from the next beach.  We walked around the rocks and found a small, secluded beach with beautiful orange sand.  It was sort of like a private beach for the guests that were staying in the treehouses, but the attached restaurant was open to the public as well.  We stopped there for a margarita and enjoyed the view.

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Beautiful beach by Treehouse Bungalows
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Perfect.

We wanted to walk even further, but the sand ended once more and there were even larger and more numerous rocks and boulders in our path.  To go around them we had to curve around into the jungle and follow a small path that led us to Long Set Beach, complete with beautiful white sand, turquoise waters and hardly any other tourists!

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Walking through the jungle to Long Set Beach
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Long Set Beach!

After enjoying the beach for a while and making our way back, we ended the night with dinner at a restaurant on the beach called White Rose before heading to bed.

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When we woke up the next morning, we decided to try a place a few doors down called Dream Catcher that boasts the best breakfast on the island.  With options including eggs benedict, french toast, and coconut muesli, it did not disappoint!

Our goal for the day was to trek over to Long Beach on the other side of the island.  We had heard it was one of the top beaches in the world on some list or other, and made for a fine place to watch the sun set as well.  There are no roads or motorized vehicles on Koh Rong, so to get there, our options were to take a taxi boat or a one hour hike through the jungle to the other side.

We decided to hike it and found the sign leading the way.  The trail is not really marked and at some points we weren’t sure which way we were supposed to go, but there was always a friendly local nearby that would point us in the right direction.

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We saw a sign that said “follow the flip flops.” At first we thought it meant the tracks on the path but then we saw this…
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Hiking through the island
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One of the more treacherous parts of the hike!
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It was a fairly difficult hike, but our minds went elsewhere as soon as we set foot on Long Beach.  The water was crystal clear and the sand was squeaky clean–literally!  The sand squeaked under our feet with every step.  We spent the afternoon on the beach and watched the glorious sunset before taking a taxi boat back to the other side of the island.  (It’s not safe to hike at night due to the probability of hurting yourself, in addition to the venomous snakes, spiders, and scorpions that inhabit the island.)

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The beautiful Long Beach

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Amazing sunset on Long Beach
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Glorious
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It just kept getting better

It just so happened that this was the night of the full moon and there was to be a Full Moon Party taking place on Police Beach, a short walk south of the beach where we were staying.  Knowing we weren’t going to be on Koh Phangan for the infamous Full Moon Party in the Thai islands, we decided we might check out Cambodia’s version instead.

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Fire poi on the beach
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The moon!
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Full Moon Party on Koh Rong

We drank gin and tonics while watching people spin fire poi to electronic music on the beach with a few hundred other backpackers.  It was actually really nice hanging out with everyone on the sand.  We even met a guy from Cleveland!  Definitely none of the famed debauchery of Koh Phangan’s Full Moon Party, but probably more enjoyable for us, personally.

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Lots of people but not out of control

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We woke up with the raging hangovers that are to be expected after such an event, but luckily we were in the best possible place for such things.  We walked up to Long Set Beach and strung up our hammocks under some trees by the sand.  Hanging in the shade with a cool breeze on our skin and tranquil ocean waves in our ears had us feeling in top shape.

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We walked even further up Long Set Beach this time and found a place where the water cuts into the island, creating a hot pool
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Doesn’t get much better than this!
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The view from our hammocks
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Not a bad hangover cure!

As we were discussing every possible way to stay on the island permanently, we found ourselves hungry for an early dinner and made our way up to a place called Sky Bar that overlooks the island.  They had a small menu but we had an amazing dinner of gnocchi and vegetables-the perfect end to a perfect day.

We ended the evening on the beach with a couple of chocolate crepes before heading back to our room for the night.

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Having done much of where there is “to do” on Koh Rong, mayhaps we should have left the next day.  But…we just couldn’t resist one more day of paradise.

We intended to do exactly as we had done the day before, but this time when we tried to walk up to Long Set Beach we were stopped by an official looking man in uniform.

“Where are you going?”

“…to the beach?”

Points to various locations. “What part?”

“…just…the beach?”

“I would like to inform you that this beach is closed for 4 months.”

“Er, okay…why is that?”

“I can’t tell you.”

Of course we were disappointed that we couldn’t go to the beach that we wanted, but we were more curious about what the heck that encounter had been about.  At first we wondered if there had been some kind of scandal, but then we remembered that before we even got to the island, we had read that the TV show Survivor was going to be filmed on Koh Rong starting later that month.  Sure enough, when we looked it up, we found an article on a Cambodia news website saying that the crew was already on the island preparing and that there was to be a four month filming schedule.

We were kind of honored to have been on the beach the last day it was open and grateful we had not come any later!  We hung out on the small beach by Treehouse Bungalows instead and enjoyed one of their woodfired pizzas later in the evening.

One thing that we hadn’t done yet during our stay on Koh Rong was visit the phosphorescent plankton.  There is too much light pollution coming off of Tui Beach to see them, so we paid $5 each for a boat to take us to a small island right off of Koh Rong.

At 7pm, we waded in waist deep water out to the boat along with about 15 other people.  We were all crammed in the boat and once we were all on board, they started handing out goggle masks.  When we had signed up for the boat ride we figured we would just be riding out to the island and looking at the plankton from the boat or shore or something, but when they handed us the masks we wondered if maybe we were supposed to stick our faces in the water…?

It took maybe 15 minutes to get to the small island but we stopped about 20 or 30 feet away from it.  Once the boat stopped, we were instructed to just jump off the boat and into the water!  Luckily we had been wearing our swim suits but several other passengers were not…they really aren’t clear about this when you buy the ticket!

Anyway, everyone was looking at each other wondering who was going to jump in first.  Finally someone did and when they hit the water, we could see a million green glowing lights all around their body.  That was enough encouragement for the rest of us and a few minutes later we were all in the water splashing around and watching the plankton.  It looked like our bodies were engulfed in a magical green aura and they got even brighter if you swam down deep.

Ten or fifteen minutes later, once the magic wore off and were all starting to get cold, we climbed back onto the boat and went back to shore.  We ended the night with dinner at a bizarre but delicious Italian/Reggae restaurant for our last night on Koh Rong.

We both agreed that it was our favorite place we had been on our entire trip so far and it was veeeeery difficult to leave!  We had also read that there are plans in the making by a huge investment company called Royal Group to turn Koh Rong into an “eco resort island” which means it might not be a backpacker paradise for long–hopefully the development is done responsibly.

In short, Koh Rong was very choice, and a high highlight of our trip through Cambodia!

The Royal Palace and National Museum

The lasts sites on our list to check off while in Phnom Penh were the National Museum and the Royal Palace.

After getting breakfast, we walked to the Royal Palace only to find out that it was closed until 2pm.  To kill some time, we stumbled upon the OunaLom Pagoda nearby and decided to check it out.

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The entrance to OunaLom Pagoda
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No chaos in the pagoda
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Inside the pagoda

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The gate from the inside with the river in the background
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An example of the fractal architecture in the pagoda

We still had an hour or so to kill before 2pm, so we found a cozy place near the river to hang out and have a couple of drinks before heading back to the National Museum.

The National Museum was really cool and houses one of the largest collections of Khmer art in the world.  Unfortunately, photography was forbidden, but we really enjoyed exploring the museum and looking at all of the sculptures and statues.

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The path leading to the museum

Once we were finished with the National Museum, we moved on to the Royal Palace which is right next door.  The Kings of Cambodia have resided in the Royal Palace since the 1860s (with the exception of the reign of the Khmer Rouge.)

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Jojo in front of the Throne Hall
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The gardens
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The Throne Hall from the front
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The Moonlight Pavillion (a stage for traditional Khmer dance)

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The steps of the Throne Hall
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Walking toward the Phochani Pavillion (a dance hall)

There were also some parts of the Royal Palace (mostly inside) where photography was forbidden, but we got some shots of the gorgeous architecture and surrounding gardens.

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More gardens

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Architectural detail
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A detailed gate that we loved!

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By the time we were finished, it was late afternoon as we made our way to find a place to have dinner.  We ended up choosing a restaurant called Friends, a training restaurant for former street kids to work in the hospitality industry.  Not only was it for a good cause, the food was excellent!  It was tapas-style and we got sundried tomato hummus wontons, zucchini cheddar fritters, and braised pork quesadillas.  Yum!

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Walking outside the gates of the Royal Palace
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Some people feeding pigeons in the gardens of the Royal Palace
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The streets of Phnom Penh
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Dalmations?

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The next morning Joe was hankering for french toast, so we wandered the streets until we found somewhere promising, a place called Jay’s Diner.  As the name would suggest, it was an American style diner with all of the breakfast options that can be hard to find in Cambodia, including good french toast!

After our bellies were full of sugary delicious breakfast foods, we discussed how we wanted to spend the day.  We had seen all of the major sites to be seen in Phnom Penh, but we had to stay an extra day because we were waiting to get our visas for Thailand.

You can’t get a visa on arrival in Thailand like you can in Laos and Cambodia, so we had to arrange it ahead of time.  When we first arrived in Phnom Penh, we asked our guesthouse if they could arrange it for us, but they said they needed proof of onward travel (meaning a flight ticket) out of Thailand, which we didn’t have.  They told us we could just book a flight and then not actually take it, but we weren’t exactly keen on spending a bunch of money on flight tickets that we didn’t actually need.

In hopes of getting a second opinion, we ventured over to Lucky! Lucky! Motorcycles Shop, where they offer a well-known and well-loved visa service to travelers and expats.  The conversation went sort of like this:

“Hello, we need two 60-day Thai tourist visas.”

“Okay, do you have flight ticket out of Thailand?”

“Uh, no.”

“…okay…do you have a bank account statement?”

“Yes…?”

“Are both of your names on it?”

“Oh…no.”

Sigh. “Okay, I can help you.”

I don’t know what kind of connections these people have or what kind of strings they are pulling, but we handed over our passports and $110 and were told to come back three days later to get our passports and visas.

So here we were, three days later waiting to pick up our passports, only we were told that they wouldn’t be ready until late afternoon.  So we had an entire day to kill with nothing particular to do and no particular desires.

Having been quite a while since the last time we had gone out drinking, lounging around sipping frozen cocktails was starting to sound pretty appealing while we walked through the scorching, smoggy streets of Phnom Penh.  So, we headed to a local bar/hostel called Top Banana that has a bar on the balcony and ordered ourselves some fruity deliciousness.  On the blackboard behind the bar was a giant scoreboard with 50 or 60 countries on it and a number next to each country.  Across the top said something like “Banana Bomb Challenge.”  Naturally, Australia was in first place with 200 and America (‘MURICA) was in second with 164.  A banana bomb is a shot of tequila, chased with a shot of banana liqueur dropped into a glass of red bull.  Nothing makes you want to purchase something you don’t actually want more than proving your country’s superiority in the ability to binge drink.   …’Murica’s score was higher before we left.

After working up an appetite at Top Banana, we headed to Cocina Cartel, a burrito restaurant with a menu and set-up eerily identical to Chipotle.  Joe has been complaining about wanting Chipotle for 2 months now, so we obviously jumped at the opportunity as soon as we found out about its existence.  The food was good, although they didn’t know how to properly wrap a burrito.  We forgave them, though.

At last it was finally time to pick up our passports.  As we walked to the motorcycle shop we braced ourselves for rejection or some other issue that would further stall us in getting our visas.  Fortunately, we were given our passports back with two 60 day Thai visas, no questions asked!

We called it an early night in preparation for our 7am pick up to Kampot.  We loved Phnom Penh in all its gritty goodness.

2/26

Breakfast: $8.50

Water: $0.50

Beers: $5

National Museum: $10

Royal Palace: $13

Friends: $19.50

Water: $0.50

Accommodation: $16

2/26 Total Spent: $73 USD

2/27

Jay’s Diner: $8.50

Top Banana: $15.50

Cocina Cartel: $16

Waters: $1

Accommodation: $16

2/27 Total Spent: $57 USD

The Killing Fields – Cambodia’s Painful History

Following the Cambodian Civil War, Cambodia was reigned by the Communist Party of Kampuchea, known as the Khmer Rouge, from 1975 to 1979.  “The Killing Fields” refer to the various sites around Cambodia, where over 1 million people were brutally killed and buried by their own government during that time period.

Choeung Ek, a short ride out of Phnom Penh, is the most well-known of the aforementioned sites, where visitors can learn about Cambodia’s horrific past and view remnants of the mass genocide.

When we arrived at the entrance to Choeung Ek, we were each given headphones and an audio tour that would guide us around the memorial.  It included stories of victims of the Khmer Rouge and even an account of a former guard talking about what it was like to serve the Khmer Rouge and participate in the genocide.  It was deeply disturbing to listen to, but a part of Cambodia’s history that needs to be remembered and acknowledged by visitors.  The audio tour went into chilling details, and I’ve included photos of the signage for those interested in learning more about how things worked at Choeung Ek:

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All the prisoners could hear was the loud music and a loud generator running that drowned out the sounds of people dying.

Although the offices and buildings have been torn down, the graves, huge pits in the ground, are scattered all over the area.  They have been fenced off and covered with roofs for protection and visitors cover them in friendship bracelets to honor the victims.

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A mass grave full of friendship bracelets

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Children were swung by their feet and dashed against this tree. When it was first discovered, there were still remnants of blood and brain on the tree.

As we walked through the grounds we were warned by signs to avoid stepping on the scraps of clothing and bones that are still resurfacing today.

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A sign pointing out fragments of bone and teeth found on the ground
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And sign warning to not step on bone. The clothing on the ground is from a victim.

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Bones that have surfaced on the path

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The audio tour ended with the memorial stupa that sits in the very center, filled with over 5,000 human skulls of victims, including children.  The skulls were marked with colored dots that matched a key explaining how the victim in question was killed.

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The stupa in the center of the memorial
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The key explaining the manner of death of each victim, as evidenced by their skulls

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To continue our education of Cambodia’s grisly history, we moved on to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the former security prison known as S-21.  Before it was converted into a prison, the site was actually a high school.  When the Khmer Rouge came into power they closed all schools (and pretty much everything else) because school was ‘unimportant.’  People were torn from their homes, jobs, schools, and even hospitals, regardless of their age or condition, and forced to work in the fields.  The prison also served as an execution center and saw as many as 20,000 prisoners killed.

Walking through the prison, many of the cells have been preserved and look the same as they did when they were in use.  The most luxurious cells were large rooms with a metal bed and a ‘case for excrement.’  The floors above were tiny cubicles made from brick or wood with nothing but shackles and a box.

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Walking the halls of S-21
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Doors to the cells
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An example of one of the large ground floor cells
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Shackles and excrement boxes
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Each cell has a large photograph of a victim that was imprisoned in a similar room.

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At first, many of the prisoners were associates of the previous regime, but later the party started turning on its own people out of paranoia.  Prisoners were heinously tortured until they confessed to the crimes they were accused of and even forced to condemn their own family members (who were then captured and imprisoned as well.)

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Brick cells
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The cramped conditions of the brick cells
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Chum Mey’s cell. One of only a handful of people to survive S-21
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The wooden cells
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The wooden cells were even smaller than the brick ones

Prisoners were subject to all kinds of horrific torture tactics and some of them were used for medical experimentation.  All of this was for the purpose of getting a confession out of the prisoners, and the guards were strictly forbidden from killing them before getting a confession.  Extreme measures, like daily body searches and electric barbed wire, were taken to prevent prisoners from committing suicide.

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Barbed wire along the walls

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There were also very strict rules enforced on prisoners.  If they so much as took a sip of water without asking a guard first, they would get a severe beating.  There are only a few known survivors out of the ~17,000 people imprisoned.

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Frightening prison rules posted outside in the yard

After walking through the cells, we went into the display of photographs of all of the prisoners that included many women and children.  There were also graphic photographs of victims being tortured and the devices used were also on display.

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Every prisoner was photographed upon arrival at the prisoner, including all of these children

Visiting S-21 and Choeung Ek was a disturbing reminder of the horrors of humanity, but it was important for us to educate ourselves on Cambodia’s history.  Despite being such a horrific event, it doesn’t seem to be something most people know many details about, and we were grateful to have had the opportunity to learn more about what happened here and why.

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Something to consider

Breakfast: $7

Tuk Tuk: $15

Choeung Ek Entrance: $12

Tuol Sleng Entrance: $6

Dinner: $10

Top Banana: $2.50

Accommodation: $16

Total Spending: $68.50

Phnom Penh – Exploring the Capital

After recovering from a stint of food poisoning in Kratie, we were ready to head down to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.  We were given two options: a 4-5 hour minibus where we would have to share seats with other passengers for $7 each, or a 7-8 hour full sized bus with our own seats for $10 each.  In the end, we opted for cheaper and shorter and went with the minibus.

We were picked up around 8am and made it to Phnom Penh by the afternoon.  As usual, we were mobbed by a pack of tuk tuk drivers offering us rides.  One of them conned us into a ride to a hotel that he promised would be $5.  “If you book a room, the ride is $1, if not it is $3.”  Convinced we would probably take the $5 room, we agreed.  When we got there, however, the cheapest rooms they had were $10, not $5.  Maybe he meant $5 each or maybe he’s just a dick, who knows.  Also, the room was pretty horrible, and that’s saying something coming from us.  We refused the room and paid the driver his $3, then decided to walk to a nearby hostel instead.

The hostel was full, and by then we were tired and sweaty from lugging around our packs, and we needed to sit down and eat before we started maiming each other.  After a quick lunch (and the first real meal we had since we were sick) Joe suggested that he go find a room for us while I sat with the backpacks.  A few minutes later he came back and we carried our stuff to the hotel he found.  For $16 a night, we had a huge suite with air conditioning and a kitchen!  Not the cheapest accommodation, but a good deal for what we got.

By then it was already late afternoon, so we decided to just take a walk and explore the area.  We walked over to the riverside area where there are a lot of trendy hotels and restaurant.  We didn’t realize how developed Phnom Penh would be, nor that there would be so many world class restaurants!  Apparently Phnom Penh is an up and coming “foodie” city.

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Exploring the streets of Phnom Penh
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Cambodian men playing with a shuttlecock
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Hanging out by the river

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We caught a nice sunset behind the Royal Palace and the city lit up as the sun went down.  The traffic was also insane, just as bad as the big cities in Vietnam.  Except in Vietnam it seemed organized where the traffic in Phnom Penh was more like survival of the fittest.  Sometimes it seemed like people actually wanted to run us over.

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Sunset over the Royal Palace

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We’d heard it said that Phnom Penh was seedy and we saw the truth of that right away.  There were more beggars on the streets than anywhere we had been previously and lots of neglected looking children.  At one point we passed a public bench where a woman sat huffing a can of glue or something, while her naked infant lay next to her watching us walk by with the dead looking eyes.  It was really disturbing and reminded us of the reality of life in Cambodia for some people.

Cambodia, and Phnom Penh in particular, also has a pretty notorious sex industry and is apparently a hotspot for pedophiles from all over.  There are lots of gross old white men hanging out with young Cambodians girls everywhere…it’s kind of hard to miss.  Tourists can also visit orphanages, but there are a couple of organizations trying to spread awareness about the truth of such places.  Apparently many of the children there have at least one living parent and are being exploited for the purpose of making money.  These are just a couple of the ugly truths of present life in Cambodia, but it has gotten and continues to get better.

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The streets of Phnom Penh at night

Despite its dark parts, Phnom Penh is also really hip.  It’s pretty huge and there is a lot of cool street art.  The people are pretty nice too, though they hustle you for tuk tuks and other things a lot more than in Laos.  The children are also the friendliest we have met so far in our travels.  It seemed like we heard little voices shouting “Hello! Hello!” at us from every angle.  Sometimes we couldn’t even tell where it was coming from!  And they have the biggest, most heart melting smiles you’ll ever see.  There’s nothing cuter than a beaming, two year old baby with no pants or shoes on, chasing you down the street to wave and say hello.

Kratie – Dolphin Watching and Food Poisoning

Kratie is a small rivertown in the northeast region of Cambodia.  It is not a huge tourist destination, but makes for a good stopping point when crossing the border from Laos to the capital of Phnom Penh.  Kratie is perhaps most known for the Irrawaddy River dolphins that hang out in the Kampi village, about 9 or 10 miles north of the town.

After getting used to using Vietnamese Dong and Laotian Kip, it was sort of a strange transition to Cambodia’s de facto currency: the US dollar.  When you go to an ATM in Cambodia, the money that comes out is US currency.  However, coins are not used or accepted, so anything under $1 is paid for with Cambodian Riel.  $1 is equal to 4,000riel, so 1,000riel is used in place of a quarter, etc.  Weird!

After getting up and having breakfast, we headed into town for a short exploration of the area.  We walked through the streets, found a market, and were practically stampeded by a group of kids that were SO excited to shake our hands and say hello to us.  Every single one of them asked, “Hello, what is your name?”  Never mind that they all knew our names after the first one asked, it was their turn to ask that they were waiting for!  Perhaps the most polite group of 9 year olds ever!

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Exploring the streets of Kratie
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Jojo in front of Kratie’s riverside
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Adorable Cambodian children excited to have their picture taken
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A market we stumbled upon
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Workers on bamboo scaffolding
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A sculpture in the middle of a roundabout in town

Given all the hype about these rare, aforementioned dolphins, we decided it might be worth checking out during our short stay in the area. A $10 tuk tuk and 20 minutes later, we were in Kampi and paying the ridiculous $9/ticket fee to enter the dolphin watching area.  Once we had forked over the cash, we were pointed around a building and down some steps to the boat area.  Somehow we lucked into our own private boat that took us out onto the river.

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Walking to board a boat
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On the boat in search of Irrawaddy dolphins

It was hot, humid, and full of bugs, but we could see the dolphins before we even got on the boat.  We rowed out quietly to the area where they seemed to be most concentrated, and watched for them to surface.

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Spotted!

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It’s estimated that there are only about 80 Irrawaddy dolphins left in the Mekong, and only about 15-20 of them inhabit this stretch of river.  Our boatman paddled us along, trying to anticipate where they would surface so we could get as close as possible.  Irrawaddy dolphins are very shy, but a couple times they came up right next to our boat!

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Irrawaddy dolphins are small and dark gray. Their dorsal fins are closer to their tales than their heads and their beaks are blunted in comparison to a bottlenose dolphin

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We watched the dolphins for about an hour before we turned back for the shore and got back on our tuk tuk to town.

When we got back to our hotel, it was evident that something was not right.  We had both been feeling queasy all day and it wasn’t letting up.  We decided to spend the evening resting, but it turned into a sleepless night of unrelenting torture.  To make matters worse, we had a 5+ hour mini-bus to catch the next morning at 7am into Phnom Penh.  Noooo.

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The alarm went off 6am.

“…I can’t.”

The idea of being packed into a mini bus (the woman at reception was honest with us that we would be sharing seats with other passengers) for five hours on Cambodian roads was unbearable.  We cancelled the bus ticket and spent literally all day in bed.  We knew we would probably get sick at some point on this trip, and we were grateful that it hadn’t happened until this point, but that didn’t make it any better.

The day was pure agony, but around 5pm we assembled some sort of energy and got ourselves into town to try to eat something.  It was that point where we had no semblance of an appetite, but the weakness of hunger was only increasing our misery.  Afraid to eat at the hotel restaurant again, we decided to play it safe and try a well known restaurant in town called Red Sun Falling.

It was a perfectly pleasant place, but even just reading the menu items was near enough to induce dry heaving.  We ended up sharing a bowl of noodle soup, which was enough to fill our bellies without making us sick again.

We went to bed super early that night, and were thankfully able to get a bit more rest before getting on the bus the next morning.

It certainly wan’t a pleasant experience, but it could have been worse.  We avoided the hotel restaurant the next morning as well (and ate some Oreos for breakfast, just to be safe.)  And yes, we DID make it onto the bus this time!

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Breakfast: $10

Tuk Tuk to Kampi: $10

Boat: $18

Tip: $1

Water: $1

Dinner: $5.50

Accommodation: $5

2/21 Total Spent: $50.50 USD

2/22

Sandwich: $4.50

Water: $1

Water: $1

Water: $1

Red Sun Falling: $3.75

Accommodation: $5

2/22 Total Spent: $16.25 USD

Crossing the Border – Don Det, Laos to Kratie, Cambodia

We only had one more day left on our Laos visas, so it was time to move on…to Cambodia!

We booked a package ticket from Don Det to Kratie, which included the boat ride from Don Det to Ban Nakasang, the bus to the Cambodian border, and then another bus to Kratie, a tiny town in Northeastern Cambodia.

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The route

We woke up and walked to the beach where the boat was to pick us up at approximately 8am.  It showed up around 8:30 and took us across the river to the bus station.

Once at the bus station, this schmancy looking guy, naming himself our ‘guide,’ gave us the required border crossing documents to fill out.  He then asked us to give him our passports, the documents, and $40 to get all of our visas for us.  Cambodia visas only cost $35, but then there’s the stamping fee scam of $1 by both sides, and the bribe to get through without a passport photo (which neither of us had.)  Even if we had refused the guy and tried to go through on our own, it probably would have worked out to be about the same price or only a dollar or two less, so we decided the convenience was worth it.

The process of everyone filling out the documents and giving them to the guy took forever, and then we sat around waiting for a long time.  No one ever seems to tell you what you’re waiting for, but you have no choice, so you just wait.

Finally, we were instructed to board the bus that would take us to the border crossing.  Despite being very close to the border already, the condition of the road wasn’t great so it still took about an hour to get there.

Once we got to the border, we got off the bus and sat around waiting for our ‘guide’ to get out visas for us, which took at least another hour.  Eventually we were instructed to walk across the border (you can’t be driven) where we were stopped for this ridiculous “health check” scam.  Basically it was this plastic gun looking thing that they pointed about 3 inches from our necks, pressed a button, then it made a little beeping sound.  What this was allegedly ‘checking’ for, we had no idea, but it cost an additional $1 (included in the $40 we gave the ‘guide.’)

Once on the other side of the border, we waited to receive our visas and then had to wait for the handful of pioneers that decided to cross on their own, instead of paying the guide. When they finally made it over, they revealed that they had saved $3 by doing it on their own.

Finally, after more mysterious waiting, it was time for us to get on the last bus to our final destination.

As expected, the roads were horrendous and it took about 5 more hours to get to Kratie, making our journey a total of approximately 9 hours from Don Det.

We got off at the bus station, happy that we decided to stop in Kratie instead of going straight away to Pnom Penh, which is another 6 to 8 hours away-and where most everyone else on the bus was going.

We had no idea where to go once we got to Kratie, so we just started asking tuk tuk drivers to take us to a guesthouse.  Luckily, we found one who offered us a free ride to River Dolphin Hotel and promised us a $5 room.

We hopped on the tuk tuk and drove about 5 minutes out of town to the hotel, where we were greeted with glasses of orange juice and moist, minted towels (Jojo is convinced they were merely soaked in mouthwash, but whatever, it felt fancy.)  We were lead to our $5 room as promised, and were pleased to find that it was way nicer than any of the $10 rooms we had stayed in Laos!

We had dinner at the hotel restaurant before retiring back to our room, happy to have finally made it to Cambodia and ready to start our journey through the country!

Snacks: 30,000kip

Bus Package: 380,000kip

Lunch: $5 USD

2-Cambodia Visas: $84 USD

Dinner: $10.25 USD

Accommodation: $5 USD

Total Spent: $154.71 USD