Sunday, November 18, 2018

Stationed in Siem Reap

Trip date: January 2018

Like most travellers who come to Cambodia to explore the temples of Angkor, we based ourselves in Siem Reap for 4-days. We arrived via the Giant Ibis bus from Phnom Penh, a 5-hour drive through the Cambodia country. It’s always surprising to me when I travel around countries that don’t have train options or quick domestic flights. So here were were on a tourist bus heading north past really nothing but rickety shack-style homes, on stilts, with dirt yards, a few had a cow in front. I found the scenery fascinating.

The bus had comfortable seats and intermittent wifi. We made a few stops along the way, one was basically a rest stop where we could use the toilets and buy snacks. I grabbed a few cold beers. The next was a roadside restaurant that also seemed specifically there for travelers, serving fine and quick meals.

When we arrived at the bus station in Siem Reap we were met by tuk tuk driver Kong, who fellow blogger Lara from Gran Turismo Travels kindly arranged for us (she can also arrange tours of the area, check out her site!) Since there were four of us, and all with luggage, he ended up hiring an additional tuk tuk in order to get everything to fit.

It was a quick ride to our Airbnb, a 3 bedroom/ 2 bath apartment right on the river that winds through town.

We headed up to the rooftop terrace with some champagne and sausage we had brought with us, for a toast to this new location and to take in the views and the sunset.

We had hired Kong for our entire stay, so each day we would discuss our plans with him, he'd quote us the price and would then be waiting at the agreed upon time. That evening he met us in front of our apartment and we took off for the Elephant Bar in the Raffles Hotel. It was fine, but it wasn’t as nice as the one in Phnom Penh.

Kong was waiting when we came out and he took us to a big night market that was happening right down the street. It was a maze of street food vendors, crafts, and games.

We ordered an assortment of skewers and also some banana crepes, which were similar to the ones I fell in love with in Thailand.

Our next stop was at Asana, which is a really cute restaurant housed in the only remaining Khmer wood house in the area. Unfortunately the drinks were pretty actively bad, I don’t think any of us finished ours. I can't speak for the food.

Just around the corner, Miss Wong was much better. Dark wood and red Chinese decor gives an atmosphere of a speakeasy (or opium den). The manager kindly sat us at a great table straddling the inside and terrace.

We had a couple of rounds of drinks and also some dim sum bites and everything was pretty good.

We weren’t in town much, and after full days at the temples we weren’t up for big nights out, but we found a few good places for drinks and dinner.

We all really liked our drinks at Menaka, a funny speakeasy style bar with big map scrolls as menus. The staff was eager to please but it still felt relaxed and fun.

Downstairs it is a cute little coffee bar & cafe, but none of us tried it so I can't report.

Another friend had raved about The Sugar Palm restaurant and how their traditional dish of fish amok is a bit different. We loved the restaurant and the other dishes we got as well. By far the best restaurant meal we had in Cambodia!

The FCC had also been recommended to me, so one day after the temples we stopped in for a late lunch and some much needed cold beverages. It's a bit worn down but still a fun place to relax and check out the old decor and photos lining the walls. The food was fine, it's more about the history here.

On our last day, after we packed and spent a couple of hours at our rooftop pool, we had a very good lunch at Nest. It looks like it might turn into a bit of a club atmosphere at night, but during the day it was a good choice.

But mainly we ended our big days of exploring the temples with martinis, snacks, and Exploding Kittens around our air conditioned dining table.

Food was just ok in Cambodia. We had better meals in the restaurants vs in Vietnam we thought the street food was better.

We also found some great shopping! Artisans Angkor sells gorgeous and upscale clothing, art, and house decor. I bought some beautiful ceramics as well as a silk pillowcase with a cute little partridge on it.

At Mekong Quilts (which also has a shop in Phnom Penh) I picked up hand-embroidered placemats and napkins for my dining room. I'd highly recommend both shops as they sell from local artists, who in many cases are women.

And of course there is a big fun tourist market filled with scarves, T-shirts, tchotchkes, etc.

Siem Reap isn’t large but in the heat and humidity we were glad to find tuk tuks easy to flag down. We noticed that there were hammocks hung everywhere, entire restaurants where hammocks were hung near tables so you could snooze after eating! Even the tuk tuk drivers had hammocks they would set up for when they waited on customers. That heat makes you sleepy!

Caitlin flew out of SR back to London but Thibault, Forest, and I had to get back to PP for our flight. Kong had arranged a private car and driver for $90 for our 5 hour drive back.

It was an experience, made even more interesting by the fact that our driver spoke zero English. It took us a while to communicate that we wanted to stop at a convenience store to grab beers and snacks. The car was an older sedan style car and for whatever reason there were mosquitos inside of it! We spent the first few hours spraying bug spray in the car and swatting at the hungry fuckers!

Again, the landscape was fascinating to me. The poverty of the country is shocking. Not because the people don’t work hard, but because of the government and lingering results from wars and coups.

At one point we had to stop for a herd of water buffalo crossing the road.

Another time we let our driver know that we needed to stop for a toilet and he found a gas station of sorts. We didn’t feel comfortable leaving him alone with the car full of all our stuff so Thibault stayed while we went. The bathroom was a cinderblock room with no light and a water filled cistern used for flushing the toilet. Also there was a large frog on the wall ledge watching while I peed. That’s a first. When we warned Thibault about the peeping frog he elected to go around the side of the building.

We finally made it to Phnom Penh airport. I snuck Forest into the Business Class lounge with me where we had wine and foot massages. Then we met Thibault for a cocktail before flying on to Seoul. After that car ride we deserved some big cold martinis!


We had different flights into Korea but met up in the airport where Forest and I booked into the spa for 70 minute full body and foot massages. They were great but it cost us $144 which in Asia is like a million dollars!

We said goodbye and I headed to the Business Class lounge to wait for my flight. Originally I had planned to take one of the free city tours that the airport hosts but it was only 33F outside and I didnt even have a jacket with me so it would have been pretty uncomfortable. If you have a long layover I'd totally check it out though.

I was very happy to be in business class on my flight home, it was an absolutely fantastic trip, but I was tired and the comforts of the lay-flat bed and champagne were welcome!

All Siem Reap photos here.

Other posts from this trip:
Ten Things To Do in Ho Chi Minh City: Part One
Ten Things To Do in Ho Chi Minh City: Part Two
Cruising the Mekong River

Sailing Away; Vietnam to Cambodia
Ringing in 2018 Phnom Penh Style
Wat a First Day
Temples Take Two





Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Temples Take Two

Trip date: January 2018


Just like the day before, Kong was waiting outside our Airbnb in the morning, ready to take us back out to the temples. I can't stress enough how great it was to have such a reliable driver who was friendly, interested in sharing info on the region, and also spoke English. My #1 tip in this area, hire a driver the first night and if you like them, book them the entire time!

Today's trip, although it would be a shorter day, would cost us $30 as we were going further outside the Angkor area. To start though, Kong drove us to the village of Preah Dak for a traditional breakfast of num banh chok or Khmer noodles. These homemade rice noodles are served with either a fish broth or chicken curry style sauce. It's a simple dish until Kong showed us all the herbs and chili options and how to build our noodles to our tastes. It was a great way to start the day!

Banteay Srei is 20-miles from Siem Reap, which doesn't sound too bad but when you are in a tuk tuk it takes a while. No worries as the countryside was pretty and it wasn't too hot yet. The temple dates from AD 1000 and is a shrine to the Hindu god Shiva.

When they refer to this temple as a little jewel, they aren't kidding. The carvings are absolutely amazing! And the sandstone sculptures are a slightly pink color. It was also only discovered in 1914! It was absolutely beautiful and there weren't too many people visiting. A favorite of all of ours.

Another thing about Banteay Srei is that you can take the trails that lead around the area for a gorgeous walk. It's a really nice area to explore.


From here Kong drove us to Pre Rup, which is right on the road and super easy to explore. It's small, just 5 lotus-shaped towers, and you climb straight up the front steps to the top.
This site dates from 962 and was widely thought to have been a crematorium. It was another really interesting site. They are all so different from each other!


Our final temple was the well known Ta Prohm, or Tomb Raider Temple. The temple is famous for the aptly named Strangler Fig trees, which have wrapped themselves around and over various structures at the site. It's pretty amazing, it was also the most crowded of the temples we visited.

There's a lot of preservation going on, including bracing up roots of trees so they don't topple entire buildings!

Of course the temple is also known as a location shoot for the movie Tomb Raider, we couldn't pass up having a photo in front of the famous doorway!

I had read about the animal carvings throughout the complex, including one of a dinosaur! We didn't leave until we found it (no small feat)!
And with that we finished our 8 (out of 70 in the area) temple tour!

Unfortunately we ended up exiting on the opposite side of the complex from where Kong was waiting for us, and it is a very large area with no easy way to cut back. So we negotiated with another tuk tuk to take us over to the other side and found Kong who had cold beers waiting for us, just what we needed after a hot, sweaty jungle adventure!

I saw so much more than I expected in the Angkor area. An absolutely fantastic bucket list adventure!

All photos from the Angkor area temples here.

Other posts from this trip:
Ten Things To Do in Ho Chi Minh City: Part One
Ten Things To Do in Ho Chi Minh City: Part Two
Cruising the Mekong River

Sailing Away; Vietnam to Cambodia
Ringing in 2018 Phnom Penh Style
Wat a First Day
Stationed in Siem Reap

Friday, November 9, 2018

Wat A First Day

Trip date: January 2018

When Angkor Wat is the least interesting thing you see in a day, you know it's been a good day!

Don't misunderstand, the entire day was amazing! But we saw other temples that we loved even more than Angkor Wat, which I think is really saying something about the area!

Our private tuk tuk driver, Kong picked us up in Siem Reap for our first day exploring the temples of Angkor, the ancient capital of the Khmer people. He would drive us around all day for $20 (total, not each!) as well as give us tips at each temple, and have cold beers/water waiting for us when we returned.

We stopped at the ticket office for our 3-day pass ($62) and then drove straight out to Angkor Wat. We hired a guide at the site for $6 each, but ultimately he had limited information to share, and was extremely long winded about it, which was tough in the heat.

It's undeniable that the Khmer architecture and sculpture at this temple, dating from AD 1080, is shockingly impressive. It is just also the largest and most trafficked, which can take away some of the mystique. It was incredible to see this bucket-list site!

This area actually is home to around 70 temples of varying sizes, Angkor Wat is obviously the most well known, but we were excited to explore some of the others as well. Kong took us to a nice little noodle place for lunch, the restaurants are in palapa type buildings, and then we took off for Preah Khan. 
Walking from the parking area near the lake to the temple of Preah Khan, we had many little children trying to sell us an assortment of things for "just $1!". It was hard not to just give them $1 but education is free in the country and we all really felt that handouts like this deter families from getting their little ones into school. Hopefully, so that they can use an education to do something other than hawk souvenirs. Things to think about while in third-world countries...

We passed some gorgeous relics on our walk, and passed over a bridge where the river was clear and beautiful on one side, murky and spooky on the other, before entering the temple grounds.

There were hardly any people at the site which was amazing. There are trees growing over buildings, they look like they are grasping them with their roots. And the apsaras, which line the Hall of Dancers, were gorgeous!
This is what we had come for! Crumbling temples with amazing bas-relief, in the middle of the jungle! We all loved this stop! An absolute must in my opinion.

It was a really short drive over to Preah Neak Pean where we had an easy walk across the reservoir to a grouping of ponds. This monument sits in the middle of the largest pond with coiled snakes at its base.

When we finished walked around, we found Kong and drove into the entrance of Angkor Thom.
This was the last capital of the Khmer empire, and is a large complex with four entrance gates. There are a variety of sites to explore here, similar to Angkor Wat, including the Terrace of Elephants.
But the most well known, and incredible site in Angkor Thom is The Bayon. A temple which rises up with 54 towers, all with huge smiling stone faces! Truly an incredible sight!
You can climb up and around the towers, into small turrets, and past walls of intricate carvings. Awesome. We were suppose to check it out pretty quickly, as we still had one more stop! But we all loved it so we ended up being a little late in getting a good spot at Phnom Bakheng for sunset.

Once Kong dropped us off at the trail we had a bit of a walk up to the top of the hill, and we didn't take the elephants as others did, but the views were lovely. One thing to note is that there are no bare shoulders or knees allowed at any temple sites. When we started to walk up the hill, there were "spotters" who sent people back. You can buy scarves and paros but make sure you have them with you!

Only a small number of people are allowed at a time on the temple, which looks out over Angkor Wat and the lake Tonlé Sap, so sunset is prime time. And although we didn't get a spot at the top, it was still a very pretty way to end the (very full) day.

All photos from the Angkor area temples here.

Other posts from this trip:
Ten Things To Do in Ho Chi Minh City: Part One
Ten Things To Do in Ho Chi Minh City: Part Two
Cruising the Mekong River

Sailing Away; Vietnam to Cambodia
Ringing in 2018 Phnom Penh Style
Temples Take Two
Stationed in Siem Reap

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Ringing in 2018 Phnom Penh Style

Trip date: December 2017


Dec 31, 2017 we checked into the beautiful Pavillon Hotel, a recommendation from a friend, and a great one at that. We entered the gate off the busy road into a lush and tranquil garden with two beautiful pools, a spa, a restaurant, and bar.

We were greeted with cold towels and refreshing juice before being shown to our rooms. Caitlin and I had a big suite with a king sized bed outfitted with mosquito netting. All the spaces were fantastic!

We were waiting to hear if our friend James was going to be able to come into the country and join us for the New Year's Eve celebrations. We decided to spend the afternoon at the pool with a few bottles of wine, sunning and swimming. It was about 5pm before he texted that Cambodian officials would not accept his passport, as he was 3 days short of having a full 6 months left before expiration. This was a huge bummer! James ended up flying home while we got ready for the evening's festivities.
We started with champagne on Forest and Thibault's balcony and then had a few drinks at our hotel bar which was having live entertainment.

Unlike in Vietnam, here there were many tuk tuks for getting around town, so we all piled into one and set out for Wat Botum Park and the nearby Independence Monument. It was already busy with street vendors and people getting ready for the firework show.
We had dinner at Malis which had a special $60 tasting menu for NYE including wine pairings.  Our 4-course meal was good with a nice shrimp and pork salad, soup with tamarind, roasted quail, and banana ice cream. Our main disappointment was that there was a lovely outside courtyard dining area but we were only able to sit inside.

After dinner we joined the revelers back out at the park for fireworks. We weren't really expecting much but it was a pretty good show! Happy 2018!!!
Breakfast was included with our room reservations so we all met outside at the hotel restaurant the next morning. There were fresh breads, fruits, eggs, and fried rice. It was all delicious!

Caitlin and I spent the morning exploring the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda complex . The grounds are absolutely beautiful and even though there are many resemblances to the Grand Palace in Bangkok, it is much smaller and more intimate.

Besides the temples, there are various exhibits depicting everything from royal history, uniforms, musical instruments, and palanquins.
We had a great time exploring, and it wasn't busy at all which was nice. It was however extremely hot so when we were finished we headed back to our hotel with our pool in mind. Walking back we passed lots of street vendors setting up for lunch. We also passed what seemed like an entire street lined with tables of meat drying out under the sun!

It was so nice to have lunch in the shade of the trees and next to the pool. And my spring rolls and spicy herb salad we both delicious!

Besides breakfast, our reservation also came with complimentary foot and back massages at the hotel spa, so that is where I headed next! Absolutely a fantastic day; sightseeing, swimming, spa'ing!

In the evening we did a bar crawl around town. First up was a tuk tuk to the Elephant Bar at the Raffles Hotel.

The bar is gorgeous and the drink list was really fun. They have 30+ gins, which is a very big selection for SE Asia, but sadly they were out of the Raffles Gin made for them by Sip Smith. I made survived anyway!

From here we walked past the American Embassy, decorated with Christmas lights, and Wat Phnom, the highest point in this very flat city. The wat was closed for the night be we could still explore the grounds (for a fee).
While Caitlin and Forest headed off to our next cocktail stop, Thibault and I walked past street vendors selling shellfish, grilled frogs, steamed buns, noodles, etc. We decided on bao and noodles :)
We met the girls at Chinese House, which had both a very cool inside space as well as a great outdoor space with tables, couches, and a Budha. We chose to have our drinks outside!
Our last stop of the evening was also the most Western in style. Le Boutier has a really interesting cocktail menu that tells stories about Cambodian music, the family the bar is named after, favorite locals, etc. It's fun and playful and most importantly serves great drinks.


We took our drinks upstairs and sat at the open windows, watching the scenes on the street below. Some guys hanging out with their friend who had a food cart. A stray dog, hoping for scraps. A young boy, barefoot and pantless, taking a piss in a puddle on the street.
The next morning we boarded a tourist bus for our 5 hour drive to Siem Reap. I loved watching all the activity in the streets as we drove out of town!

All photos from Phnom Penh here


Other posts from this trip:

Ten Things To Do in Ho Chi Minh City: Part One
Ten Things To Do in Ho Chi Minh City: Part Two
Cruising the Mekong River

Sailing Away; Vietnam to Cambodia
Wat a First Day
Temples Take Two
Stationed in Siem Reap

Stationed in Siem Reap

Trip date: January 2018 Like most travellers who come to Cambodia to explore the temples of Angkor, we based ourselves in Siem Reap for 4-...

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