​Cambodia, home of Angkor Wat, jungles, islands, and a sad history

Oct 25th,2018-November 11th, 2018

On October 24th, 2018, I flew from Auckland, New Zealand and touched down Siem Reap, Cambodia the next morning. I joined up with my friend Christina (from California but meet through my college friend Chuck when they were visiting Bali July 2018). I saw that she pulled the same quit-your-job-to -travel thing when I saw when she was travelling through Thailand so we arranged to reunite in Cambodia!

There are several tuk tuks you can flag down or you can also use Grab or Passapp ( like Uber) for the best rates!

Before visiting the temples, I went to the Angkor National Museum get a good overview of the Angkor Wat and descriptions certain Hindu and Buddhist statues.

My friend and I of course wanted to see the famous Angkorwat temple and then realized there are temples scattered in different places that you can visit as part of your entrance ticket. You can purchase a day pass for $37 or a 3 day pass for $62. We purchased a 3 day pass but only used it for 2 plus a sunset. We didn’t want to go far away to the distant temples and we also didn’t want to get temple’d out as they personally start to blur together especially is it is hot outside!

We took a small group tour for the sunrise tour of Angkorwat and woke up at 4am to see the magnificent reflection of the Vishnu dedicated Angkor temple in the water. Later temples were Buddhist or have mixed Hindu and Buddhist elements. Currently, most of Cambodia is Buddhist.

Afterwards, we visited Ta Prom aka the Tomb Raider tour with gigantic trees overgrowing over the temple. The trees rooted looked really cool but it was way to crowded with tourists. It was also super hot during the day!

 

We also visited Bayon within the old city of Angkor Thom which was pretty incredible. The temple had large heads on 4 sides that were supposed to be Buddha heads with a resemblance to a past king of Cambodia. It was one of my favorite temples.

The following day we hired a tuk tuk for $15 USD a day and he took us to Ta Som with cool gigantic tree roots growing over an entrance. We also explored Baphoun within Angkor Thom. Baphoun temple was changed from Hindu to Buddhist and part of the temple was changed to show Buddha reclining. You can really just see a cool Buddha head that looks like giant pixels - also one of my favorite temples.

Nearby was elephant terrace with elephant statues that pop out of the walls.

On our own we caught the sunsets at Phnom Bakheng ( need to get there at least an hr before sunset or you will not be let up to the top of the temple) and the lake Srah Srang which had cool reflections of the water wasnt exactly a sunset point. Another option we did not get to do is watch the sunset at was at Pre Rup temple which is also supposed to be a sight to see!

 

Banteay Srei temple seems like it would a beautiful temple with extremely intricate design but we didn’t want to take the 1 hour trek out there.

The city itself has a lot or restaurants, street markets, cute cafe’s, massage parlors and Pub street with bars and eateries. I scored a cute top for $4USD a sling bag with elephants on it for $3USD, and a nice sarong for $4 USD. You can barging for your tuk tuk rides in addition to stuff you buy in the markets. Food is on around 2-$7 for a main course meal.

On October 29th, 2018, I was picked up from Siem Reap hotel by Phoenix International Foundation and had lunch. Phoenix International Is based out of New York and organizes medical missions, educational projects, and animal conservation abroad. Being Nurse Practitioner I had always wanted to help out with an international medical mission trip and the stars aligned that this one was occurring in Cambodia at the same time I had planned to be there. I heard 1 of their nurse were actually not able to make it last minute as well!

After lunch, we travelled 2 hours north to the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary which is connected to Elephant Nature Park in Chang Mai and other Thai and Laos parks. Owner is Lek and there is a movie called Love and Bananas that recently came out. The Sanctuary was 30 min to the north is the Thailand border. The center also also took care of rescued dogs, cats, gibbons, geese, ducks and monkeys.

On Oct 30th until November 3rd, our medical team ran a clinic a makeshift clinic with pharmacy in the dining hall and first saw employees from the nature park (cooks, farmers, guards). Most did not drink enough water and were a little warm because of the hot weather. There were some field workers that had and overgrowth of tissue over the cornea of the eye called Pterygium that may be due to long term exposure from UV light from the sun.  I found that a number of them had black teeth from chewing betel leaves and tobacco ( also common in India as I had seen months prior) and some had never ever brushed their teeth which led to cavities and abscesses. Many had strings around their waists which was worn to ward off evil spirits. Some complained and anxiety and mild depression. I recalled one woman in her 20s that cut off a mole on her eyebrow on her own because she thought it was ugly and did it for her boyfriend at the time. They had since broken up and she was sad about the breakup. There was also a man who had a cut on his hand and in an attempt to heal it had poured acid on it. It had left a disfiguring scar on this hand that had healed over in that manner.  Another man had a prosthetic leg after he had lost his leg when he stepped on a landmine. I had heard that it is unwise to walk out on a field as there are still uncovered landmines present.

There were many pregnant women present there that saw their babies for the first time on the portable ultrasound which was amazing to see the excitement in there faces. Many young adorable children also came to the clinic!

Most of the patients we saw were poor historians and did not know their medical problems/ medicines which was quite challenging. We luckily had wonderful translators to help us communicate with the villagers and also give is some insight into their cultural beliefs, habits, and barriers to healthcare access. They were all very grateful to being seen at the clinic as they otherwise most would rarely be able to access medical care.

One morning, one of the other volunteers and I went on a 1.5 hrs elephant walk with Di-Poh, a female elephant ( 60 years old who was saved by the logging industry). Had two mahoots ( elephant whispers) and guide who had us walk in front of the elephant. We could not touch the elephant. Watched her eat a lot of grasses, etc and there was a banana tree that was chopped down for it to eat. It would also listen to the mahoots to change directions stopped when we stopped. There were 2 other elephants in the sanctuary as well which I would say hello to in the mornings before breakfast.

The Sanctuary also had cute little rescued kittens and bigger dogs that were hanging around the dining area. There were other rowdy dogs within fencing near our bungalows, baby monkeys and grown up Gibbons and Macaque, and geese. There was a garden and banana jackfruit trees growing all over the property.

Another morning, we visited a nearby elementary school called Adong Bei Primary of Oddor Meanchey Province.


It was their first day of school and they had a big ceremony. Phoenix International

Foundation partnered up with Tiny Labs which developed educational materials. Two teachers from the Philippines came to teach the teachers how to make water filtration devices out of materials including plastic bottles and carbon, how to make soap, and how to use a small microscope that could attach to a cellphone. They then observed the teachers teach this material to their students. At the ceremony, we were honored by the principal ( director) and monk for our help with their school and village. We were asked to pass out new school supplies to kids.


During the break, we learned a Cambodian dance style with the teachers and students and our volunteer Jully taught them how to dance meringue! I taught some of the students Yoga in one of the classrooms and one of the mothers was helping her baby perform the moves as a well! It was a fun sight to see as they did not know English so they were copying what I was doing.


My birthday just so happened to be during this time and the team surprised me with a cake they got from the village and some gifts. We celebrated with some wine and beer after another day in the clinic. What a memorable birthday which was surrounded with new friends in the middle of the jungle!


The medical mission trip was very rewarding and we had the extra bonuses of being at an animal sanctuary and also helping out a local school. The accommodations were bungalows with cold water bucket showers a d gravity toilets. I shared the bungalow with the founder Sam and fellow volunteer Jully and we had our own twin beds with mosquito nets that inevitably would still let in small bugs that were sharing the bed with us! There was clean water that was filtered and  power generator that would only be on at night. I definitely will not miss the cold water showers and bugs everywhere but it was do-able for a short period.


After our clinic week was over we headed back to Siem Reap where we got to have nice warm showers in a modern bathroom and I took a night bus  to Sihanoukville.


Sihanoukville 

I took the Giant Ibis Sleeper bus from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville to meet my friends Priya and Pedro who I met through Yoga training in Bali in July and August 2018. The sleeper bus had bunk beds which the bottom bunk was actually all the way on the floor unlike other bunks I had been in where it is about a 2 feet off the floor. I felt kinda of closed in and in an awkward place being on the bottom bunk but them my claustrophobia went away and luckily people were not walking around during the bus ride.  There was AC and and wifi available so that was nice. Next time I will pick a top single bunk. Another strange thing was that one side had single bunks and the other side had full size bunks (2 people each). If you are not riding with someone you know it can be a bit strange to sleep in the same bed as a stranger! Keep this in mind when booking.


Sihanoukville is a beach town in the south east part of Cambodia. It has many casinos and seems to have a lot of buildings built by the Chinese. It was quite an eye sore town as there were many pot holes (made for an adventurous tuk tuk ride) and trash everywhere. It was also quite dusty. I heard that people go straight to the islands near by and that is what we did! My friends had stayed one night there and a cool place called House of Wisdom, Home of Flow where there were tons of toys available for fire dancing and people playing with fire at night. I was sad to have missed this. I did hear that it was not the most comfortable accommodations though.


Priya (Colombian living in Paris), Pedro (Spaniard living in Bali), their new friend Chin Chin (from China )scooted out of Sihanoukville quickly and booked a roundtrip ticket to Koh Rong Sanloem. What is convenient is that you can book your departure time later on and also only pay $5 if you want to transfer to another island. We met Priya’s friend Morgan (from France) on the island as well.

 

Koh Rong Sanloem

Koh Rong island quieter than Koh Rong (has a big party area). We stayed at M’Pay at the northern part of Koh Rong Sanloem which has more affordable accommodations but the main beach by the port was quite dirty. Luckily a short walk down the beach there is a nicer clean bean and a 45 minute walk down the coast and through a bit of a jungle hike on a hill you can reach more pristine beaches with a pier and then finally clear beach.  The sand was soft and lovely, the beach was clean, and the water was clear and perfect temperature to go in for a dip! There is also a another area in the middle of the island with a long strip of beach but I heard there basically they were all resorts. We enjoyed daily meditation and yoga on the beach, smoothies, and $2 rice and noodle dishes. I really felt that we captured the slow island life during our stay.


One of days on the island, we took a private boat ride ($10 each person) to the west side of Koh Rong Sanloem. We did some snorkeling and saw some coral/ reefs but they were seemed to be affected by coral bleaching and were quite blah in color. There were some fish but really not that impressive. We saw to beautiful lazy beach and stopped at sunset beach for some food and am amazing sunset while swimming the warm waters.

Sooner or later we had to get back to reality (Chin Chin has left early to go to Chiang Mai) and we took a ferry back to Sihanoukville, met up with Morgan and Priya’s friend Ben ( from England) and went to the Vietnamese Embassy and got a rushed Vietnam Visa as we heard that the embassy may be closed once we got to Phnom Penh. I also had a mix up with my debit cards as an ATM ate by debit card and I was insisted on the bank to return it to me ASAP as I was leaving that day. I later realized that I had put my in my old debit card into the ATM that I had identified as having fraud as since I had noticed fraudulent activity on my online account. The ATM was trying to prevent further fraud on the account so it ate it. I no longer needed to retrieve the card as I had the new on in my possession. Note to self -destroy the old cards so you don’t get confused with them, and it would be a good idea to have back up cash/debit card in case something happens to my cards!

We really did not want to stay in Sihanoukville anymore and it was too late to catch a bus the river town of Kampot (2 -3 hours away) so we searched to a private car to take us.  We asked a tuk tuk driver if he knew of a driver to take us to Kampot and he took us to someone he knew. We packed in 4 people into the back of the old sedan, and had 1 friend in the front and the driver and paid $10 each person. Part of the way through the journey, a tire got flat because of the horrible pot hole filled road. We were out in the middle of now where with a flat tire. The driver called his friend to pick us up. We paid the first driver who gave some of the money to the second driver and stated we did not have to pay anymore.

The funny thing ( not funny haha but funny because it was a weird situation) was that there were already 3 people in the 5 seater car before the 5 of us got in. We had zero options at that point so we crammed 4 people in back and 4 people in from of a little sedan. Never have I seen 2 people in the drivers seat before. After an uncomfortable 2 hours later, one of the passengers got off and was trying to pay less than he agreed to ( $5 instead of $12) since our group added on. If he had negotiated this with us when we first got on then maybe we could have agreed on something but this was quite a shady thing he was trying to do (it’s not the cost that is the issue, it’s the principle  damn it!). After spoke to him calmly, he agreed to pay the original price to the driver. The second driver then proceeded to ask us for more money for the ride even though the first driver said we did not have to pay more. We refused and told the second driver and then he did not bother us more about getting more money from us.


Kampot 

After an extremely long day, we arrived the High Tide Hostel that was right next to the beautiful Kampot river. It was dark out, and Pedro went ahead to ask the hostel if they had space for us. The rest of us unloaded the bags from the car and the driver left. Pedro came back to to look for the car and apparently had left a small crossbody bag that contained his passport, wallet, and medicine! It was a black bag and was at the foot of the driver’s seat and the rest of us had no idea it was there. Pedro and Ben borrowed a motorcycle to try to rush after the driver and get the back but he was long gone. Since it was an unofficial driver and we did not get any contact information (except I had a picture of the old car including the license place of the first car) we could not track him down!


After an understandable freakout period, we were all thinking of ways we can try to get him a new passport. We found out he had to go to the French Embassy in Phnom Penh and the only representative from Spain in Cambodia did not have much power regarding passports. They required a police report stating the passport was missing. Pedro and I tried to go that evening but they stated we needed to come back in the morning ( according to the poor translation of google translate).  We went back in the morning and they were very slow to help us and luckily I could facebook messenger call an excellent Cambodian/English Translator Theara (pronounced Tiara) I had met at the medical volunteer mission I participated in and he served as our translator with the police. The police then referred us to the immigration police who tried to see if he could get money from us to write the report. 


Pedro and I took a CT transportation van which was quite comfortable but was also late. The rest stayed back in Kampot. There was a lot of of traffic for a section of the trip with cars, scooters, and pedestrians we believe was because of a public holiday. We finally got to Phnom Penh and the French Embassy.  Basically Pedro needed to wait a few days to get a letter allowing him to either go back to Spain and wait for a passport to be made or go to the nearest Spanish Embassy being in Bangkok, Thailand and wait 3 weeks there. During the waiting game, I was able to lend him money and his family from Spain transferred money into my account, his friend Hayden from Bali flew to cambodia for a few hours to give him his medication we could not find in Cambodia, we set him up with a new smart phone/wallet/and crossbody bag. During the waiting game, we met up my friend Layla ( from California ) who I met while she was visiting Bali with my college friend Chuck in July 2018. We also did some sightseeing as described as below and had some good food as some nice restaurants.


Phnom Penh

Royal Palace ($10~1 hr)

An ornate palace with Buddhist and Hindu elements.You can see a mini Angkor wat and a small museum where you see pictures of the King’s coronation. Saw this in about an hour. You have to be modestly dressed such as shoulders and knees covered. I barely got in as my dress sleeves only covered 3/4 of my shoulders! Palace was okay looking but perhaps I am comparing it to the the wrong things-such as the super ornate Wat Po in Bangkok or the Palace of Versailles in France.


Wat Phnom (free!)

An artificial hill with the highest buddhist temple in the city with stupas and a large clock. I was asked to pay $1USD by some person that was nearby but then learned from a friend that I did not need to pay. You win some you lose some.



La Baccac Lane

Cute little modern looking shops, trendy little bars including a western themed bar. Would want to come back here if I felt like having a night out on the town. 


The Tuol Sleng Geonocide /S21

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is the site of the former Security 21 Prison. It was where Cambodians with education suh as Teachers, doctors, politicians were sent to prisons such as S21 .  Tortured to try to get confessions out of them for crimes they may have not committed and then sent to the Killing Fields. I did not visit S21 or the Killing Fields as I am starting to believe there there really good and bad energies and if there places out there with bad energy these sites would have them


Killing Fields

Did not see but learned that they are outside of Phnom Penh and was a place where the communist Khmer Rouge tortured and killed about 1/4 of their population (an estimated 1.5-3 million Cambodians) from 1975 to 1979. Torture methods included pulling people’s fingernails and pouring alcohol over the fresh wound, water boarding, and cruel medical experiments. Medical experiments included draining a person’s blood completely to see how long it takes for them to die and removing people’s organs without anesthesia. People who were targeted were people with high education who may potentially be a threat to the Khmer Rouge lead by Pol Pot.  People that are currently 40 years or older would have been around during this horrible genocide and likely would know someone that had been killed by the Khmer Rouge. I just learned that just recently on November 16th, 2018, the UN convicted leaders of the Khmer Rouge with crimes against humanity for the genocide of their own people. 



As Pedro was set up with all the resources he needed (including some of my fav travel apps - maps.me for off line maps, google translate, skype for calls to almost any international number), Priya, Ben and I went to start our Vietnam adventure.

 

On November 11th, 2018, we took the Khainam bus from Phnom Penh, Vietnam to Ho Chi Men (Saigon), Vietnam for 7 hours. Cost $13 USD and they checked our passports/ visas before boarding the bus.  We had gotten our Vietnam Visas in Sihanoukville and paid $50 USD ($10 same day fee). We could have gotten a visa online for $25 but we wanted to start our Vietnam journey before the 3 business day waiting period. We had air conditioning and reclining seats so it was a pretty comfy ride. We crossed the Cambodian / Vietnam border via the Moc Bai landport and had to get off the bus to get our luggage X-rayed and get our visa’s checked. We then got back on the bus on the Vietnam side! I couldn’t believe we finally made it to Vietnam!

 

 

Cambodia tips :

Khmer (pronounced Ka- mai) is also a term for used for Cambodia.

Can use Grab or Passapp for get scooter/ tuk tuk/ car drivers. Much cheaper than bargaining with local Tuk Tuk drivers.

People drive on the right side!

Be careful with your belongings. I heard of stories of people stealing purses right off of you while riding a tuk tuk.

Arkun = thank you

Both US dollar and Cambodian Riel is used.

4000 Riel = $1 Hostels cost about $3-5 a night

A nice hotel in Siem Reap can cost $24-45/ night.


Food is about $2 for a main course.


Food-Amok, mostly like a fish curry but can be vegetarian

-Fried rice and fried noodles

-Khmer noodle soup

-lak lak -beef strips

Claudia Wong