Everyone warned us to get prepared mentally that South East Asia would throw us into a wild cultural spin.
The crowds, the poverty, the smell, the food.
We were ready for it, we accepted this. Of course South East Asia is very different than the occidental world we live in back home, but oddly enough we didn’t experience the overwhelming feeling we were warned about. Obviously, our past South & Central America overlanding trip had prepared us well for this oriental culture integration. Baby steps darling, baby steps…
The orient always felt like it was a bit of a risky venture with Phil’s severe shellfish and nut allergies. This is something people without allergies do not need to factor in. But with a bit of research, and thanks to Google translate, we felt confident enough to go. With the proper communication tools we could still manage a safe trip and enjoy ourselves fully. We prepared and printed laminated allergy cards, each translated in the 6 foreign languages of the countries we were going to visit. They had visuals of the forbidden food crossed out on them, explaining that any contact with these foods could cause death. Not the actual 100% truth, but from past travel experience, if you don’t include the mention of ‘’death’’, most people will be very aloof about it and disregard the request. On one occasion, a well-spoken local Thai who spoke very good English, confirmed that our translation was too formal and that most locals would not understand its meaning. We then asked if she could record an audio version of the warning, stating the severity of it, in our iPhone. This proved to be the wisest move, since a lot of food vendors and staff at small eateries could barely read anyway. Of course, we carry an Epipen and Benadryl tablets with us at all times.
These laminated allergy cards were real life savers
So we were, leaving Australia behind and heading to South East Asia, finally! We landed in Ho Chi Minh, making Vietnam our first official country in South East Asia. We enjoyed a three-night stay in District 1 at the Saga Hotel, which was conveniently located as we could walk to most of the cities major attractions from our room. After visiting many of the must-do highlights of the city, such as the War Remnants museum, and the Reunification Palace, we then headed North to Cambodia using the Mekong Express bus line service.
No horror story ride here. The bus was on time, clean and relatively new. We were even provided a lunch box with small pastries and a complimentary bottled water for the ride. Free Wi-Fi and a movie was also offered on board. A great deal, considering our 13$ fare. We’d heard stories about the road conditions being awful in Cambodia, but were pleasantly surprised that many had been repaired or redone. The 7-hour ride went fairly smoothly considering all of the farm equipment, animals on the road and loads of tuk tuks with which we shared the road with.
Cambodia, the Land of a Thousand smiles
During our stay in this city, we were situated in the up-and-coming BKK 1 neighborhood of Phnom Penh, we resided at the quaint Home Chic hotel. A few other digital nomads had also elected to stay at this hotel, using it as a work base. It provided decent Wifi, a pool to cool down from the Cambodian heat and was fairly close to amenities and services. A block away, a mini-mart sold essentials such as snack food and wine. 🙂 Our city sector was in full expansion, buzzing with real estate development and condo towers springing up everywhere. This city is filled with many cultural contrasts between modern and traditional lifestyle such as big Range Rover SUVs or a brand new Ferrari next to barefoot Buddhist monks offering blessings to passersby. Cambodia is still a very poor country and many people suffer from famine, so expect to see begging in the streets especially from children. It can be extremely hard to resist the urge to give in by offering a little money, but this actually promotes begging as a culture, so please don’t do it. In fact, children are taken out of school and pushed to walk the streets by parents in order to beg. If you feel the urge to help, offer to pay for a meal, give leftovers, clothes or do buy from them if it’s something they’ve actually made themselves. We always doggy bags our leftovers to donate to needy people on the street.
During our stay in Phnom Penh, we had the opportunity to eat twice at Mok Mony, a great little unpretentious restaurant serving excellent food in BKK1. The espresso ribs are heavenly but what makes Mok Mony truly spectacular is its owner Peter, from Toronto. A man who has a very philanthropic approach to the restaurant business. He sponsored Mony, after she invited him for a meal at her house. She was a local woman who had been pumping gas at a service station. He was so impressed with the meal that he offered her a joint venture, giving her shares in the restaurant and promising to take care of her family. The restaurant has a 100% satisfaction guarantee, or a no pay policy. This encourages tourists to get out of their comfort zone and try Khmer cuisine. So if you order a dish that turns out unsatisfactory, you won’t pay for it, no arguing. These ‘’returned’’ meals and all of the unsold food of the evening are then distributed with bottled water each night to the needy and hungry kids of Phnom Penh. The world needs more people like Peter.
We also make it a point to educate ourselves on the country we visit, to learn about the history and the traditions. We knew Cambodia went through a dark time between 1975 -1979. This is the period in which the Pol Pot and Khmer rouge army carried out a mass genocide, aiming to eliminate all of the educated and intellectually oriented individuals of this country. No trip to Phnom Penh would be complete without visiting the Killing Fields and its S21 prison. This can be grim and hard to witness for some but we strongly recommend it to anyone wanting a better understanding of Cambodia. The Fields are now filled with apple trees, birds and butterflies offering a respectful and peaceful resting place for the victims buried in the numerous mass graves. Audio tours were available at both venues in various languages. Tours are offered from the city to both sites via an air-con bus, a nice alternative to a Tuk-Tuk ride, considering the 20 km distance you need to cover.
Angkor Wat, Things to Know Before You Go
Admittedly, the main reason we chose to visit Cambodia was to witness Angkor Wat. Amazing pictures from magazines and the internet filled our heads about these these majestic temples, offering stunning views as the sun rises or sets. The images of overgrown trees lured us, as we couldn’t wait to explore this famed archeological park. From reading other travel information, we’d already settled on a 3-day pass. Our picture taking gear was charged, cleaned and ready to capture all of the marvels of these ruins. We hired a certified guide for our first day visit of Angkor Wat, Bayon and Angkor Tom to get a better understanding of the engravings and their meanings. We thought we had planned it all but what we didn’t plan for was our actual timeframe, as in travel period and timing. It was awful. We were smack in the middle of the Chinese New Year, an important holiday which doubled the number of tourists on these sacred premises. It was heartbreaking to see the temples packed as if we were at Disneyworld. Forget taking amazing pictures, it was hard enough to get a frame without a selfie-stick protruding into it.
Chinese New Year crowds – plan accordingly
Nonetheless, the sites were still incredible and made for worth while visits. We then decided to escape the crowds by booking a cab ride to situated about 80 km away from Siem Riep to visit Bantyea Srei and Beng Mealea. Rice fields and pepper tree plantations lined the countryside making the journey peaceful and relaxing. Do try to get to these sites early to avoid the buses that also do this off-the-beaten-track circuit. Leaving at 8:30 am still wasn’t early enough. Both sites gave a small respite from the crowds hounding the main sites and we found them both beautiful and different. For more detailed information about Angkor Wat park and its many temples, we found that Travel Fish had extensive data on each sites to be visited.
Siem Reap, affordable and fun
This touristy town was our home base for a week and our lodging accommodations at Mekong Angkor Palace Inn (pic above) and it proved perfect for our stay. Affordable, clean, good Wi-Fi and again offering a pool. The location was a mere ten minutes’ walk away from Pub Street and also offered mini-marts and many restaurants along the way. We liked being close by, yet far enough from the crazy hustle and bustle of Pub Street, the main drag of pubs and restaurants. Cambodia is still a very affordable destination for the thrifty traveller, a place where one can grab a 4$ meal and a 50¢ beer in town at a restaurant. In the mood for wine, a 10$ bottle of decent wine awaits you at the local store! If your budget allows it, try Le Malraux for a delightful amok entrée, a local dish that’s done to perfection. The tuna steak was also high on the list, done just right. We indulged at Tell and Café Indochine and highly recommend them both, taking in consideration the quality and quantity of the food. For pizza be advised that Happy or Herb Pizza literally means that some ‘’weed’’ will be part of the recipe. This insight was shared with us many days after eating such a pizza and no, we did not feel anything special from eating it 🙂 Actually the best pizza we had during our Asian travels was at Little Italy, which can be found in one of Pub Streets alleyways.
Battambang, Last but Not Least
This was our last destination in this amazing country, a small detour we planned in order to meet up with Phil’s high school friend’s sister named Isabelle. She was a fellow Quebecer now living full time in Cambodia doing humanitarian aid at Crossing, working with orphans and homeless children. We had never met her, except via Facebook, but she generously opened her doors to us in her humble traditional Cambodian-style home, which made for a wonderful experience. We got to see and understand the real struggles of everyday life of local people. She shared stories of children losing their parents to sickness, of survival on the streets and of society turning its back on them. But on the other side of the harshness and reality, Isabelle had arranged for us a fun city tour with a private tuk-tuk driver just for us, her favourite one in town, Pena. He took us around the ‘’tourist’’ circuit. We had him all to ourselves for the duration of our stay, he waited for us during our multiple stops and also served as a translator if need be. We got to see the Killing Caves and a million bats leaving a cave at dusk plus a ’’food tour’’ that included bamboo sticky rice, rice paper, rice wine and fish paste making.
Pena, our tuk-tuk driver during our ”food tour”
Another fun activity in Battambang is riding the bamboo train, basically a wood platform with a bamboo mat atop, set on removable train wheels. Tourists get to ride this platform at 50 km an hour in one direction for about 20 minutes, crossing fields with grazing cows and going over small bridges along the way. You can view our video and get a better idea of what this experience was like by viewing the video here.
Cambodia is much more than just Angkor Wat.
This country filled our hearts with hope for humanity. For a nation to have suffered such turmoil in recent years and yet to be so welcoming to visitors is indeed inspiring. We didn’t feel any self-pity, quite to the contrary, we received heartfelt generosity from the Cambodian people, who are always eager to help and smiling no matter what. It is not difficult to understand why they call this place ”the land of a thousand smiles”.