Tag Archives: Cambodia

Week 8: Siem Reap, Cambodia

I started writing this blog post more times than I’d care to admit, and somehow it always sounded terrible when I re-read it. So, I’m going to try something different; a sort of how-to of Siem Reap: the best places to stay, eat, drink, see, and do. Hope you enjoy!

Stay
Due to a number of booking/canceling/moving (it’s a long, boring story, trust me), I ended up staying at three different hostels in Siem Reap. Here’s a run down on each of ‘em.

  • HI Siem Reap- A lovely hostel just on the other side of the river and local art market. Grabbed a $6/night dorm, which included a/c and a private bathroom. Amazing location, fast wi-fi, very helpful staff, and a great breakfast to boot. Would definitely recommend.
  • Garden Villa- Only stayed here one night, and very thankful for that. Though a private double room will only set you back $6, it’s essentially four plywood walls, two beds with nets, and if you’re lucky, a working ceiling fan (we weren’t lucky). If you’re feeling extra cheap, they also offer $1/night dorm beds, but be warned, they are only mattresses (with nets) in a sort of open hut behind the main building. Great if you’re on a budget, terrible if you actually want to sleep. In addition to cheap sleeps, the other major thing Garden Villa has going for it is it’s amazing rooftop bar. This is definitely the place to be in Siem Reap to meet awesome people and throw back a couple of 50 cent beers before hitting the town. They also have some wicked eats.
  • Bliss Villa- Owned by the same people, Bliss Villa is a more expensive, though much more comfortable and clean option. We transferred to Bliss at first light and were delighted to find a double room with a/c, ensuite bathroom AND and tv for only $12 a night- so worth the extra 3 bucks. And because they have the same owners, you can order food from Bliss and they’ll deliver it to you from Garden, which is just down the road. If you have someone to share a room with, definitely stay here.
  • Eat

  • Cafe Central- Located in the center of Siem Reap, this little cafe has some seriously amazing food. It is a little more expensive than eating local fare, but as a splurge I would definitely recommend it. I ordered their fries (up there for some of the best I’ve ever had) and went back the next day for a chicken/pesto/red pepper panini, which was also amazing. If you end up with some extra Riel at the end of your trip, spend it here.
  • Garden Villa- As mentioned above, this hostel has some good eats. For breakfast go for the $2 fruit/yogurt/muesli bowl, it’ll fill you up and make you feel less guilty about eating spring rolls for every other meal. They also have some mean baguette pizzas, which go well with their cheap Angkor draft.
  • Street Vendors- Some of the best food I’ve had in Asia has been from the local street vendors, and this holds true in Siem Reap. Just past Pub Street (more on that later), there is a row of similar ‘restaurants’, serving up all sorts of fried rice, noodles, stir frys, spring rolls, and fruit shakes. It doesn’t matter which one you choose, they’re all really good. And at $1.25 for nearly everything on the menu (prices drop to only a buck after 10pm or so), you can really stuff yourself for hardly anything at all. Make sure you try a lemon shake, which is basically frozen lemonade, and therefore delicious.
  • Drink
    Unsurprisingly, the place to be for good drinks is Pub Street, located right in the middle of backpacker Siem Reap and always bumping once the sun goes down. Here are some gems from this awesome street.

  • Angkor What?- This legendary bar serves up some mean hangovers. We spent a couple of nights enjoying the cheap buckets, rowdy dance floor, and some good ‘ol table dancing. Always a great time.
  • Temple Bar- right across the street from Angkor What? lies another one of Siem Reap’s hotspots. Again with the cheap buckets, but this place has two giant air-con machines right beside the dance floor, giving some much needed relief from the heat (so necessary when dancing for hours on end).
  • Garden Villa- Apparently I really liked this place. It’s with good reason that it’s on my list of drinking places, as I already mentioned the rooftop bar is a great spot. With lots of tables, lights bright enough that you can see each other, and a jukebox that is never too loud that you have to shout, it’s truly the ideal place for some pre-drinks and card games (friends be warned, I’ve learned some amazing, if not cruel new rules for Socialbles). Start your night here, head to Temple and then finish at Angkor What? and a great night is pretty well guaranteed./li>;

    See

  • Angkor Wat- No trip to Siem Reap is complete without an excursion to the most famous temples in the world. Passes are available for 1, 3, or 7 days and will set you back $20, $40 or $60, respectively. Unless you are a serious temple and/or history buff, I would highly recommend going for the 1-day pass. The trick with this one is to pay for it after 5pm, enjoy sunset at Angkor Wat and then return the next morning for sunrise and a whole day of temple exploration. I only covered the short route (which contains the biggest and most famous temples), but it still took me until mid afternoon (with a 5am start) to get my fill. Some temples worth note are Terrace of the Elephants, Bayon, Ta Prohm, Ta Keo, Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Seriously cool day, though like most people I would definitely consider myself templed-out by the end of it.
  • Land Mine Museum- This is a little museum out by Angkor that was put together by an amazing man by the name of Aki Ra. Born in Cambodia, Aki Ra was recruited by the Khmer Rouge as a child soldier when he was only 10 years old, his primary job planting land mines. He was then taken by the Vietnamese army and forced to fight against the Khmer Regime for a number of years. Once the fighting stopped, Aki Ra felt so guilty about the mines he had buried that he started looking for them and deactivating them, using nothing bus a shovel and a pair of pliers. The museum houses thousands of deactivated mines, information about the war and it’s effect on Cambodia. I was lucky and got to watch a video about Aki Ra and his unorthodox method of finding and deactivating mines. Incredibly he was never injured during this period, though in 2007 he was forced to change to the internationally approved method, which means destroying the mine where it lies. I chose to do this before my sunset trip out to Angkor, and would highly recommend doing the same. Aki Ra’s story is truly inspirational and seriously eye-opening.
  • Crocodile Farm- If you have a bit of time to kill, a trip out to the Crocodile Farm is a cheap way to spend an afternoon. After grabbing a half hour tuk tuk outside of the city we found ourselves face to face with pits of real live crocs. When I say face to face, I really mean standing on makeshift bridges overlooking the pits, but it was a little sketch and it felt like one wrong move and we could have been face to face. Highlights include handling baby crocs, watching some full grown monsters writhe and snap their jaws when fish were thrown in their pool, and Derek getting accosted by the local monkey. They also have some really nice croc skin products for sale, but it’s hella expensive, and not for backpackers./li>;

    Do

  • Volunteer- One of the main reasons for going to Siem Reap was to volunteer at a local orphanage and school where friends have been in the past. They’re called Savong Orphanage Center and Savong’s School, started and run by an extremely generous man named (surprise) Savong. Derek and I planned on spending mornings with the kids at the orphanage (reading, playing games, and just interacting), before we’d head over to the school in the afternoon to teach English. I will admit, it was a little disorganized getting a ride out to SOC in the mornings, but by the third day we seemed to have found a system that worked, even if it was a little inefficient. Teaching English was such an interesting and rewarding experience, though because we were thrown in with absolutely no instruction, assistance or guidance, it was a bit frustrating at times too. There were some really bright kids who really wanted to learn (and graciously repeated the words I wrote on the board- that’s how you teach right?!), but there were also some younger kids who, didn’t understand (or more probable, chose to ignore) me every time I told them to stop punching each other, pulling each others pants down, running around, and sit down. My class was a little more rambunctious than Derek’s; he got the older (read: better behaved) group, while I taught kids whose ages went from 4-7 years. The thing I really got out of the whole week was how much the kids loved having us around- regardless of our teaching ability, the language barrier or their attention span in the classroom. The second we showed up, the kids would run over with giant smiles, almost fight for the chance to hold our hands (those who didn’t grab a hand would grab a bit or arm or shirt) and pepper us with all kinds of questions. It was a very cool experience, and though volunteering isn’t for everyone I would highly recommend it. Keep an open mind and remember how much of an impact you’re making for these kids just by showing up.
  • If you have any questions about Siem Reap, or feel like I haven’t done justice to any of the above sections, please feel free to let me know!

    Until next time, dear readers!

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    Week 7: Sihanoukville, Bamboo Island & Phnom Phen, Cambodia

    Due to some last minute friends and a couple of pre dinner beers, I made the wise decision to postpone my previously booked bus out of Vietnam by a day. Ordinarily, there wouldn’t have been any trouble with this change in plans, but the extra night in Saigon meant that I would now be leaving at 11:30 pm on the 17th- the day my visa was supposed to run out. No real issues at the border, I just had to pay an extra $5 because I was a day late. Totally worth it though; met some seriously cool people that night and have happily crossed paths with them in Cambodia as well.

    Speaking of Cambodia… After an hour long stop in the capital of Phnom Phen, I switched buses and was off to the beach town of Sihanoukville in the south. I’ve found over here that I never have to look far to meet fellow Canadians (we’re everywhere!), and lo and behold, I’d barely sat down when four lovely people sat down as well- all toting packs with Canada flag patches. Introductions took place and I found out that they were all from Nanaimo- they were surprised that I actually knew where that was. One uneventful bus ride later we found ourselves in Sihanoukville and headed directly for a recommended hostel called Monkey Republic. Sadly MR was fully booked, so we settled for a dorm room at the nearby Utopia hostel. It was one of the grubbier hostels I’ve been to, though to be fair, we didn’t spend much time sleeping in that room- nightlife was calling! Managed to move into Monkey Republic the next morning and was delighted to see that their dorms contained actual bunk beds (Utopia provided gym-type mats on a wooden floor). Cannot say enough good things about the food there either- almost wished I could have stayed longer to try more on their menu, it was that good! While we’re on the topic of food, don’t miss the fish and chips from the stand just outside of Utopia, they’re seriously amazing.

    Spent the next couple days doing more or less the same thing: eating, beaching, relaxing and drinking. Sihanoukville is known as a beach and party town, and who were we to argue with that? Serendipity is the main beach and is nice enough, but I would highly suggest grabbing a tuktuk and heading over to Otris Beach. Fewer people, fewer restaurants, fewer bits of garbage bobbing in the ocean, and most importantly, fewer locals trying to sell you things. Not 5 minutes would go by on the main beach without someone coming over to you with an ‘amazing’ offer. Sunglasses are the SEAsia staple, but there were also ladies offering everything from massage to hair removal, and kids making and selling friendship bracelets. I somehow got swindled into buying bracelets by a lovely young male entrepreneur who told me his name was Nicki Minaj (he serenaded me while he made my bracelet). Basically, if you want hustle and bustle go to Serendipity, but otherwise Otris is the place to be.

    During a more memorable night we decided to enter a quiz competition that was raising money for a local woman who had just lost her husband and was due to give birth any day. For those of you who have seen me play Cranium, you know much I love these things. Plus, it was for a great cause! We formed a team and sat down ready to win (for those of you who have seen me play Cranium, you also know how competitive I get with these things). Alas, with a team of four Canadian 20-something’s, we didn’t win. The questions were hard! A couple of examples: Approximately how many grains are in a 20 pound sack of rice? What is a group of monkeys called? List 4 countries that border the Black Sea. Didn’t get those three, but I did know that the iPhone was first released in 2007 and that Rudiyard Kipling wrote The Jungle Book. I think we ended up in fourth…

    Just one more thing to mention before moving onto Bamboo Island: while walking down a dim path (actually on my way to buy a ticket to the Island), saw a black thing move across the way ahead of me. Initially thought it was a gecko, given how plentiful they are in Asia, but then I realized it was moving much too slow, and was far too dark to be a lizard. I’m kind of making this into a big deal (which it’s not), but when I looked closer I saw that it was a huge black scorpion! Maybe four or five inches and shiny black. Sadly I didn’t have my camera on me, you’ll just have to take my word for it!

    Okay, Bamboo Island. It takes just over an hour by longboat to reach this little piece of paradise, and although the boat ride is not the more comfortable mode of transport, it’s definitely worth suffering through. There was a little bit of confusion when we arrived as to where we would be staying (do not stay on the same side that you get dropped off on!!), but after walking 15 minutes across the island we settled into a lovely $3/night dorm. Pretty much all there is is a large open hut that the kitchen/bar is run out of, a handful of bungalows, and our dorm hut. The island only gets electricity from 6pm to midnight, and forget about wi-fi! It was a nice feeling to totally disconnect for a bit. I only had one night there, but I can definitely see how it would be easy to get stuck in the incredibly relaxed vibe of the place. In fact, the islands unofficial motto is “one more day”, a saying that nearly every person visiting says on a daily basis. The staff is made up of a handful of westerners who ended up staying for weeks at a time, repeating the motto and eventually landing a job. Spent an amazing afternoon alternating between laying on the beach, lounging in a hammock, and ‘swimming’ in the ocean (more like bobbing with the surf). Before I knew it it was time for me to head back to reality and onto a bus to Phnom Phen.

    I arrived in the capital at midnight and somewhat scrambled to find a hostel that was open and still accepting people. I’d heard great things about Mad Monkey, Top Banana, and Mini Banana, but no luck, everyone had gone to sleep. Ended up at 19 Happy House, which wound up being a pretty solid hostel. I got up early the next morning to apply for a Thai Visa when the guy who owns the hostel, Alex, said he could do it for me. Happily agreed and then jumped in a tuktuk with three Brits to see the ‘sights’. As some of you may already know, the sights in Phnom Phen are rather dark and depressing- they serve as reminders of the period between 1975 and 1977 where the Khmer Rouge was in control. The Khmer Rouge was an extreme political party that wiped out 2 million Cambodians- in a country of 8 million people. The two places worth visiting are the S21 Prison and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge turned a school into a prison and torture centre called S21. It has since been turned into a museum and memorial, where you can walk through the buildings and see the former classrooms. It is a chilling feeling walking through a room that has a blackboard on the wall and a wire bed used for torture in the middle of the floor. There were also a lot of displays and information about the victims and the Khmer Rouge. After a somber hour perusing the four buildings we headed off to the infamous killing fields. The fields have an excellent audio tour to accompany your walk around the grounds, and I would highly recommend that you take advantage of it. Apart from the numerous mass graves throughout the center, the must see is the massive memorial stupa that houses 17 shelves of skulls and bones that have been recovered from the fields. Listening to the stories and descriptions of what happened right beneath your feet was an interesting, if not disturbing experience.

    Having seen pretty much all there is to see in Phnom Phen on my first day, I didn’t have a whole lot to do until my visa was supposed to be ready three days later. Managed to check out the Russian market as well as the Grand Palace, though both are more of the same of what I’ve seen so far in Asia. Not to sound ungrateful or anything! Ended Phnom Phen in much the same way as I ended Saigon, and stayed an extra day after I missed my 630am bus (betcha can’t guess how that one happened). Onto Siem Reap!

    PS. Genie pants are my new favourite thing ever

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