I’d been debating whether to go to either Cambodia or Vietnam for months, when I went for a drink with a friend in London who had been to both. He suggested going to Cambodia and I always trust his advice, so off I went to Cambodia from Japan, via Bangkok with a nine-hour overnight layover. The Thai lady next to me on the plane, between kindly feeding me rice-based snacks and mini pain au chocolats, asked why I hadn’t booked a place to stay for the night. I must admit that it hadn’t really occurred to me to do so amongst planning everything else for the following weeks. However, as soon as I landed, I remembered just how much I love airports and the time just flew by.
My Mum booked last minute flights to join me in Cambodia. I’d like to think it’s because she missed me terribly and wanted to spend quality time with her wonderful elder daughter, but I did speculate it could be because, after hearing about my travels so far and reading my previous blog posts, she had deemed me incapable of travelling alone. Anyway, I had a day exploring Siem Reap by myself before she arrived and decided to walk to the main part of town. The hotel receptionist seemed quite concerned about this, despite the walk only being 3km and involving one left turn then one right turn. She hurried off and returned with a map and a mobile phone, and said to call her if I couldn’t find my way. I was confused. Is it normal behaviour nowadays to hand guests mobile phones in case they get lost? Or had my reputation for being permanently disorientated preceded me…all the way to Cambodia? Slightly perplexed, but grateful for the help being offered, I accepted the phone and headed into town.
Right in the middle of my walk, one of my flip flops broke. Couldn’t it have chosen a slightly more convenient time to break? Like at home or at the beach, instead of on my first day in a new country when I’d had a maximum of two hours sleep the night before and was walking in the midday sun over scorching hot tarmac covered in sharp rocks and broken glass. Given it was an equal distance to go forward and back, I continued on. After ten minutes, like a mirage in the desert, I saw the sign ‘Havianas’. I gave up trying to explain to the shopkeeper why I’d walked in from the street barefoot with a pained look on my face. It just wasn’t going to happen with the language barrier. Then, to add insult to injury, the Havianas were 50% more expensive than in the UK/Australia, making them quite possibly the only item in the whole of Cambodia being sold at a premium to the Western world. I was so relieved to find the cafe I was targeting for lunch after the flip flop ordeal that I practically ran towards it and bumped into a cactus, becoming impaled with numerous spines.
On the plus side, the cafe, called Vibe Cafe, turned out to be both mine and my Mum’s favourite cafe in the world. Some favourites included the Ritual Bowl with chilli chia jam, salted caramel cheesecake, raw chocolate brownie bites, basil and blueberry smoothie, and chai cashew milk (not the place to go if you’re looking for a local food experience!). Alcoholic drinks are served in the evening and the staff are just so friendly. There is a sister cafe in Phnom Penh, and we booked a hotel largely because it was a 200m walk away from it. Sad but true.
It hadn’t been that long since I‘d last seen my Mum, but I still couldn’t wait to see her. We’d talked on the phone each day prior to her flying out and she cheerfully told me on numerous occasions how light she was packing. To quote: “I’m just bringing a few loose shirts and trousers”. I was expecting her to turn up with a tiny cabin bag, so you can imagine my surprise when she arrived with one of the biggest and heaviest suitcases I have ever seen. It almost crushed a number of Cambodian men over the course of the next two weeks and I had to do my best to stifle my laughter when anyone except us tried to pick it up.
I thought I’d love the Angkor temples of Siem Reap. And I loved them even more than I thought I would. Walking around them feels like you’ve been transported back in time. We were there during rainy season and the temples were fairly quiet. On a few occasions, my Mum and I were the only people in the entire temple. You could walk around most of them freely. There were few areas cordoned off, which was a nice surprise. The scale is just incredible and each temple has its own unique characteristics. Some are covered in giant tree roots (my personal favourite), some have huge turrets, some are flatter, some have statues or pillars outside, some have moats…My Mum and I agreed that the Angkor temples were the most incredible sights we had ever seen.
On our last evening in Siem Reap, we went to see a local social enterprise circus performance called Phare. The performers are graduates of an NGO school and professional arts training centre in Battambang and they tell Cambodian stories via dance, music and doing some quite incredible circus arts. We managed to get tickets two hours before the show started, but they were the last tickets available, so it’s better to book ahead. The performance was amazing, and I would definitely recommend seeing it if possible. The whole event is done very well. There’s a lovely gift shop and good bars/restaurants at the site (we would have gone earlier if we’d known). However, make sure that you read the story summary before you go in – it’s not obvious just from the performance itself.
Siem Reap was the perfect introduction to Cambodia: authentic, friendly people, bustling but not overwhelmingly so, great food and, of course, home to the mind-blowing Angkor temples.