Good, Bad and Cambodia

Blurb

I want to say I liked Cambodia and maybe it is controversial to say the opposite but I didn’t enjoy staying in Cambodia. In comparison to other South East Asian countries and other places I have visited in the world, unfortunately I don’t think I will be visiting anytime soon. I want to talk about what was good and what was bad but don’t let it put you off visiting!

However the overall experience wasn’t bad, I met some cool people and hopefully lifelong friends. The highlights for me were visiting Angkor Wat and staying in Phnom Penh, both cities having alot to offer in terms of sightseeing and understanding Cambodian culture and history.

What was good?

The rooms

A lot of the backpacker hostels were well priced and the standard of room and facility were pretty good. If you are on a tight budget you can probably find a room for $2 but for decent mixed dorm you may spend between $3-5 and for a guesthouse you may pay $5-8 a night. I didn’t stay in any hotels on this occasion but I have heard they are very luxurious and good value for money.

The Amok

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Fish Amok, Beef lok lak and banana sago pudding

I found the food too sweet for my liking and probably because Cambodian recipes feature alot of sugar in their food. One thing I found with the food was that it was very similar to Chinese/ Cantonese food such as fried rice/noodles/ skewered meats. However being Chinese, I thought the food wasn’t spectacular.

BUT! Their national dish, fish amok which is a fragrant fish curry is delicious. Whenever I saw this on a menu, I had to try it and compare it with the other amok curry I had. I even attended a cooking class in Battambang (Nary’s Kitchen) and tried my hand at cooking some traditional Cambodian food. Yes, we cooked fish amok and not to blow my own trumphet, it was probably the best amok I had. This was probably because it was super fresh and prepared/steamed/eaten out of a banana leaf.

Angkor Wat

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I enjoyed going to Angkor wat, it is a UNESCO recognised site and is over 1000 years old. The national museum combined with Angkor wat really made my trip to Siem Reap memorable. I booked a tour for $12 and I would highly recommend you do a tour rather than going by yourself as you will understand what Angkor Wat is, how it changed and what the relief carvings on the wall mean. Unfortunately a lot of travellers will go to Angkor wat without any prior knowledge, so it may detract from the awesomeness of the temple.

One thing that may put people off from doing this is probably because the entrance ticket is so high now. I read that a 2-3 years ago that the entry fee for Angkor wat was $20 but this year it increased (2018) to a whopping $37 (£28.50!!). I have never been to any other heritage site or landmark that cost that much. I would say that visiting the Angkor Wat should be done during your travel to Cambodia as the story behind it and the architecture of it is amazing but the price is extortionate. I met alot of tourists and travelers who even said it was not worth the fee!

Unfortunately I have heard that the price will keep going up and I have a feeling this will detract a lot of tourists from going.

Floating Village

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Floating house – truly amazing

There were a few floating villages you can visit in Siem Reap and I decided to visit Kampung Phluk. I read that some of the other floating villages had become too touristy and this one was the least tourist hit spot. I booked a tour with my hostel for $16 as I decided against going to the village myself and getting a boat ride across the floating village myself as the cost of renting a scooter would have been around $13 then boat ride of $20. I had read a lot of blogs and accounts saying that they were charged extortionate amounts to take a boat ride and didn’t really have much of a bargaining chip as it was either take the boat or ride back sucker!

Be safe guys, $16 for a tour and boat ride is a good price, when you compare it to the Angkor Wat entry fee! That $37 entry fee will forever be etched onto my brain!

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Me and Seiya riding through a mangrove forest

Pub Street

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Quiet now but mayhem later

You really can’t miss it, it is similar to Patong walking street in Phuket and is basically a party strip. Fortunately I met a cool traveller from Japan called Seiya and we went for a few drinks down Pub street. It didn’t turn into the Hangover but we had a good time with another traveller, hitting up a reggae bar, playing beer pong and sloshing back the 50 cent beers.

Yes people, even if you aren’t into the party scene (like me), walk down Pub street and just soak in the atmosphere while vendors offer you tuk tuk rides and “Cambodian massage from sexy girl”. Being an upstanding citizen, I just wanted on by scouting for more beer.

Battambang

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Bamboo train

A quiet town near the Western border between Cambodia and Thailand which has plenty to do. I would recommend a visit here because it is much cheaper to do activities here and there are much fewer tourists. From what I saw, tourists tended to flock to Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Koh Rong.

The nice thing about Battambang was that it wasn’t too big a town but it had a lot of nice features like multiple art galleries, interesting things to do and cheap food.

What I would recommend in Battambang

  1. Bamboo train: so much fun and costs only $5 – some people I talked to, said that they got charged $10 but you have to be firm and tell them it is only $5 (as shown at their desk!)
  2. Killing Cave: a sad but informative look into how the Khmer rouge killed the innocent Cambodian people. The cave is close to Phnom Samou pagoda and nature cave along the same hill. However discourage any unofficial tour guides from “showing you” where the cave is as they will ask for money, also tour police will also ask if you have a ticket – tell them you purchased one at the entrance as I was conned out of $1 (tragic I know). It wasn’t much but it was just annoying that even local authorities would try and get money out of you. However a ticket to enter the caves cost $3 but you will have to hike up the hill to get to them unless you have scooter to go up.
  3. Well of Shadows: this is a monastery but also a memorial site to those murdered in the Killing fields. There is a monument depicting the events that occurred in Battambang and bones of the victims placed within the monument.
  4. Night Market and riverfront: the river front was really nice and relaxed. It was a great way to unwind and walk off food from the night market. If you are looking for cheap Cambodian food ($1.75) then this is the place to go to.
  5. Chinese Noodle Restaurant: Ok so I went to this Chinese noodle restaurant next to an art gallery about 4 or 5 times during my stay and the food was so good. I know it isn’t really Cambodian food but for $1.75 you could get fried noodles/ noodle soup/ dumplings etc and the food was home-made – even the noodles are hand pulled.
  6. Cooking class of Nary’s Kitchen: I really enjoyed this and the best thing about the class was that it was $10 and you eat all the food you cook. Don’t eat breakfast guys. The class starts with a tour around the local market and shows you how fresh the ingredients really are, market vendors are skinning live frogs, killing live chicken and you can see fish jumping out of buckets.

Toot runs you through the starter which is a vegetable spring roll and then Nary shows you how to cook two dishes – fish amok and beef lok lak. Both were extremely delicious and the best fish amok I had! Probably because they were cooked with these beautiful hands!

Kampot and Colonial Casino

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Eery.

I actually have a funny story behind this visit. When I was in Sihanoukville, I met a cool Australian guy called Tristan in my hostel and we decided rather than to chill in Sihanoukville we would head out to Kampot and explore.

We rented $4 scooters and then shot off to Kampot, the ride was quite long, and the number of potholes was silly. If you want to go to Kampot then I would recommend just staying there for a few days rather than riding there like we did.

We picked up two hitch-hikers along the way who turned out to be a bit intoxicated but we were trying to be good citizens! After praying to the giant durian roundabout we decided we would head to the national park and Bokor hill station.

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A thing of beauty

When we arrived at the top of Bokor hill, we took in the view and let the fog pass over us. As we carried on riding through, a giant mammoth building stood in front of us. To our surprise, someone decided to put a casino and hotel on top of the mountain! It was quite eery and creepy. So we decided to park up and go inside.

The casino looked very modern but there was literally no one inside but one of the perks of being a tourist was that everyone thinks you’re staying at the hotel. So we were abit naughty, we ate some of the buffet food and then used their swimming pool and sauna room. I know, probably going to hell! But it was worth it!

The story behind the actual hotel casino is that it used to be an old French building that was built when they occupied the area. The French soldiers would go to the hotel to escape the Cambodian setting and relax.

The story doesn’t end here though. As we rode back from the casino to Sihanoukville, I found the road became really bumpy and I asked Tristan whether he thought the road was a bit lumpy or if it was just me. It turns out that my back tyre was completely flat as the whole outer wall of the tyre had exploded and my front tyre was as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Yeah, that’s why the bikes were $4.

Moral of the story, check your bikes – coming from having owned a 600cc motorbike, I am used to checking a bike if it has any issues, I should’ve known better!

Phnom Penh

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Chum Mey was a survivor from S21, his book gave a first person account of what it was like inside

Some people I chatted to said that they didn’t really like Phnom penh. However I was the complete opposite, I thought it was the best thing about Cambodia. It felt like Bangkok but definitely felt much safer. Which sites you ask?

  1. S21 – Tuol Suol Genocide museum: this tragic site is where prisoners of the khmer rouge were taken, tortured and forced to work. The museum offers an insight into what happened inside the prison and really shows you how deprived the human race is. Cambodians killing other Cambodians. It is a place you must visit and the entrance fee with audio guide is only $8.
  2. Killing Fields: Another site from the Khmer rouge uprising, the site is comprised of a large pagoda memorial and museum. The entrance fee is $6 with audioguide and tells you about how the prisoners were taken to the field and killed en masse.
  3. Night Market and Riverfront: The river-front was peaceful and you can even take a boat across the harbour. The night market is situated across the river and was a nice way to spend the evening. Any item of fake goods can be found and if you’re peckish, there’s food too.
  4. Red Light District: I know what you’re thinking but it wasn’t my idea and I only walked down it. Tristan said he found the area really interesting and so we went just to walk down the street and have a few beers. He wasn’t wrong, the area is literally a street filled with seedy bars and blacked out windows. Women sit in groups at the front of the bars and will literally call you out to come have join them, not my thing but I’m not judging. Just give them a cheesy wave and smile, it’ll make your day.

 

What I didn’t like

Price

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Beef lok lak – $5

Cambodia was expensive, had it not been for the accommodation prices. The cost of food adds up, generally if you eat out in Cambodia it will cost about $4-6 without a beverage. If you eat out 3x a day then that can add up to $15-25 (£11-19) a day! It is still cheap but the value for money wasn’t great I found. If you compare this to Vietnam then 3 meals out can equate to £3-8 depending on where you eat.

However if you look hard enough then you can find some decent street food or local restaurants that will charge less than $2 and the food is actually better than the tourist hotspots.

Sihanoukville

I didn’t want to go to Koh Rong but I did want to go to the coast and see whether Sihanoukville was a nice coastal town. Unfortunately I didn’t like it.

The city was very crowded and literally is a casino city, the amount of casinos was ridiculous and they’re only on planning to build more! I stayed near Otres beach which was nicer as you look out to the ocean but there wasn’t much to do there. A few of the locals said that Sihanoukville has changed dramatically to accommodate mainland Chinese tourists.

Buses

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Disco bus

I remember taking the bus from Battambang to Sihanoukville and it was truly horrendous. The night bus really interesting as it was a reclined seat with a cut out for your legs (so you can sit comfortably) but there was a 5 hour wait at the station in Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville and no one really explained what was going on! It turned out also that there were not enough seats on the 6.30am bus to Sihanoukville as the vendors didn’t inform the office there we were booked on!

Safe to stay when the bus arrived finally at 7.40am that it was a free for all and people were even given plastic seats to sit in the aisle as the bus was over capacity.

However, maybe not all the buses are like this but I hope I’m right.

Crossing the border

I decided I needed a change from Cambodia so I booked a ticket to 4000 island on the Lao-Cambodia border. I thought I would mention it as it was a funny experience.

I had heard rumours that when you cross the Cambodian-Lao border you have to pay an unofficial toll to both the Cambodian and then Lao side – the stories are true.

Once you reach the border, you will have to pay a $2 visa processing fee – which is basically a cheap bribe for the tourist border official to stamp your passport then when you get to the Lao office, you pay $1 during peak times and then $2 processing fee and the visa fee on top. They won’t give you a receipt, so you know it’s all dodgy.

They even spelt my name wrong and when I went back to show them, they got a tipex pen and blotted out the error. I wasn’t sure whether tipex pens still existed!

For travelers who had bought their own motorbikes, you will have to pay a higher fee to allow your motorbike to cross the border ($20).

Tips

1. Make a visit to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh then consider moving onwards. Alot of people went to Lao or Bangkok from Cambodia. However if you are visiting Cambodia for a holiday then consider visiting Lao or Thailand too as you may find two weeks in Cambodia abit much.

2. Bring US dollars, everyone accepts it! Cambodians will take US dollars and give you back change in US dollars and their currency (Riel). The riel will be counted as small change. If you don’t use all your US dollars then you can exchange it in your next destination or keep it for your next trip.

3. ATMs distribute US dollars up to usually $400, just use a reliable ATM!

4. Book a tour, they are generally well organised and pretty good value for money. However if you just want to visit a site in your own time then you can rent a scooter but just check it over and preferably a shop which deals only in scooter rentals as it is more likely they maintain their bikes rather than focusing on selling tours or food.

5. I would recommend spending one week visiting Siem Reap and Phnom penh then spend another week visiting an adjacent country if you are on a 2 week holiday.

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