Trip Report: Cambodia: December 2016

We recently planned a trip to Southeast Asia for a large multi-family group – 11 people in all, ranging from 15 to 52 years old.  We customized our 16-Day Southeast Asia Explorer: Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia trip for these clients.  One of our travelers, Tina C., wrote an amusing account of their incredible trip, and we thought you might like to read her journal, which gives a first-hand account of traveling in Southeast Asia.  Many thanks to Tina C., who agreed to allow us to publish her extensive trip report.  We’re publishing her trip report by country.

Traveler: Tina C.
Travel Dates: December 23-29, 2017
Destination Visited: Cambodia

We set the stage for another bucket list adventure trip with awesome friends in early 2016, with a decision to engage Adventures Within Reach once again.  They had done a fabulous job coordinating our trip to Peru in 2014.  They offer custom tour packages all over the world, with knowledgeable and friendly guides and drivers, and seem to know precisely the experiences that active families will enjoy.  Dan [Crandall], our tour coordinator, had the patience of a saint, as three families changed dates several times, and exchanged a gajillion emails with questions, requests, and important travel and visa information.  Seriously…he was fabulous! . . .

DAY 1 – Phnom Penh, Cambodia (Killing Fields, Khmer Rouge Prison)

Arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, engaged the visa process, and waited for our friends in the small outdoor airport courtyard.  My heart skipped a beat when I saw the crowd of locals, the night sky, felt the humidity, and saw the billboards, tuk tuks and scooters that reminded me I’d entered another world…LOVE.  Roth, our fabulous guide, met us and suggested we get a cool drink while we waited for the others.  So….what’s the first thing to retain about the third world?  Don’t drink the water, ice cubes, or untrustworthy fresh fruit/veg…right?  With my brain on slo-mo, I immediately fetched us all FRUIT SLUSHES from the only open vendor in that small courtyard!  Only after first sips all around, does it dawn on me…HOLY CRAP, IS THIS ICE WATER SAFE???????  Let’s ask ROTH…she said “yes…SHOULD be ok”, rather unconvincingly, I feared. By then the others had arrived and we’d all shared the potentially unsafe slushies…YAY!  Memories of 4.5 days of travelers tummy in Mumbai came gushing back (pun intended).  Aaaaaaand we’re off to a great start…!😂

The hotel had fantastic, large, clean rooms . . . we went to sleep (well…the non-insomniacs did!)…about 32 hours after we’d departed Montreal.  We met for breakfast (and surprisingly good coffee . . . ) which took about 90 minutes to complete due to the VERY PERSONALIZED, BUT ONE-AT-A-TIME SERVICE by the hotel staff!  Roth then met us to begin our tour of Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh.  We took off to see the central market…a large, bustling, everything-edible-including-creepy-crawly-creatures-BBQed-under-the-sun city market where the locals bought their food.  We looooooove visiting third-world city markets, and have seen our share of surprises/smells/visuals in India and Peru.  Pretty early on, we discover a vat of crickets and silkworms, and just-fried tarantulas…yummmm.  When in Rome, yah?  G. has taught us all to EMBRACE THE EXPERIENCE WHEN IT’S OFFERED TO YOU…AS THAT’S WHAT THESE TRIPS ARE ALL ABOUT!  So, I broke off a tarantula leg and bit right in, as did K. and G., whilst C. and R. went straight for the spider CORE…ewwwwww!  I also went for the silkworm (as did G. and others), and was quite revolted by the squishy texture (crunchy is far better-received than squishy in bug cuisine…don’t you agree?).  Finally, we popped entire deep-friiiiiied crickets into open mouths 😳…and that concluded our critter-tasting for the day (and hopefully, a lifetime)!

The markets were super cool as we tasted all kinds of Cambodian specialties, and yummy exotic fruits (thanks to Roth) including jackfruit, lychees, rambutan, and several others I’ve already lost my recollection of!  We wandered through a second city market and soaked in the local scene, including the tastes, smells and visuals of this really cool city.  We ate lunch at a restaurant called FRIENDS, which offers challenged and under-privileged youth an opportunity to learn the service and restaurant trade.  We sampled sticky rice, fish amok, eggplant and various other local specialties.  We then went to one of the killing fields, where 17000 Cambodians were tortured and killed in mass graves by the Khmer Rouge, between 1975-79…a very sobering experience!  Our tour guide’s father and grandparents have vivid memories of the era.  The day ended with a tour of the Khmer Rouge prison in the city of Phnom Penh… :-(.  We walked through the former school, where prisoners were housed, starved and tortured for years…truly unbelievable, particularly given the recency of the events. 😔

Upon return to the hotel, the adults went for a Khmer Traditional Massage at the hotel.  Quite the surprise to us when these young Cambodian women jumped right up onto the table, straddling our largely naked bodies, and pounded away for a good hour!  The guys were especially surprised when they were uhuhmmm “adjusted” accordingly (say whaaaa?).We LOAO later as we contemplated the experience of said massage for three teenage boys (young, attractive Asian beauties offering MASSAGE?)…hahaha!   We decided to eat at the hotel that evening, despite reservations at a resto, as everyone was quite pooped!  I made the huuuuuge mistake of ordering a glass of red wine…as it had likely been opened three months earlier and sat in the hot sun!  Note to staff…WINE IS NOT LIKE WHISKEY!!!  Ewwwww…  All in all, a great first day in Phnom Penh!

DAY 2 – Koh Dach (Bike Tour & Silk-Weaving Family Shop)

. . . I was going to be in my ultimate HAPPY PLACE today…and on Christmas Day yet…in our tour of Koh Dach, an island off the mainland ON…WAIT FOR IT…BIKES!  SERIOUSLY?  Cycling in rural Cambodia, with young village children running up to us on dirt roads to say “Hellloooooo!” and offer high-fives???  Could T. BE any happier?  I think not…:-)! . . .  We got ourselves all set up with HIGH-QUALITY mountain bikes . . . 

We took off by ferry to the island, where we began our journey on dirt roads, through small villages, huts, stalls, and occasionally highly elaborate homes that we speculated were owned by traffickers!  IT WAS SOOOO FLIPPING COOL!  O.  M.  G.!!!!!!!!!  I was exhilarated riding along, as young children ran up to our bikes with big happy smiles and bare feet, to say hi and slap our hands.  It was absolutely surreal!  I couldn’t have been happier on Christmas Day . . .

The best part of the day was our discovery of a small school, where we heard some amplified rock music, and discovered a few teens jamming.  G. (bless his heart for taking the initiative) got them to invite K. and R. up on stage to play a tune.  UNFLIPPINGBELIEVABLE!  Here we were, in the middle of a rural village in CAMBODIA, listening to our sons play for the local community…WHAAAAA?!!!  Too freakin’ cool, man…I was on a cloud…proud Mommy…:-).

We stopped for snacks at a silk-weaving family’s shop, enjoyed fresh fruits and water…and I  purchased some lovely scarves.  Continued our journey with a slight detour by the guide in a very wet, muddy patch of road. . . . 

The afternoon saw lunch in a restaurant back in Phnom Penh, followed by a brief tour through a museum.  We ended the day SPECTACULARLY with Cambodian massage for all!  Roth took us to a spa in the city, and the five guys and three girls were separated into two rooms, and offered an oil massage on low beds, with tiny little towels!  Quite the novelty for the three teenage boys, and as well for the Dads, as they (the adult men) were stripped down for the experience!  LOL…when in Cambodia…:-).  The exhilaration continued when we tried to walk back to our hotel in the evening traffic.  O. M. G. !!!!  We were on SPEED, weaving our way through dense, insane, scooter/car/tuk tuk/pedestrian traffic, with the city’s utter lack of road rules, respect, or order!  It was an absolutely BRILLIANT EXPERIENCE…only rivaled by the stress of crossing the street in India, and a definite highlight for all of us!  Looooooove the crazy intensity of this city!  We grabbed dinner at the BBQ place next door, renouncing reservations at The Ambassador’s Club, as the traffic was simply not conducive to getting there easily.

DAY 3 – Siem Reap (Night Market)

After breakfast (several for boys!), we took off for the airport, with a pit stop at a local shop to purchase high-quality Buddha statues.  We were heading to Siem Reap for three nights, and the most spectacular resort of the entire trip…Shinta Mani. . . .  We were served so kindly by the staff, enjoyed their glorious pool and grounds, and its ideal location so close to the action downtown, during our 2.5 day visit to Siem Reap.  After settling in, we all gravitated to lounge chairs around the large pool and courtyard, cocktails and appetizers in hand…and BOB WAS DEFINITELY MY UNCLE!  HAPPY Mama I was…:-).  Took off on foot towards the night market seeking a dinner venue, weaving between vendors and their stalls selling their touristy wares, tuk tuks, scooters, and loads of other pedestrians.  The town was lit up (probably not just for holiday season), active, and had a fun beat.  We sat on the balcony of the second story of a resto, with a view of the night market, and laughed as the power went out every half hour during our meal.  They were using ALL THE ELECTRICITY at the night market! . . . 

DAY 4 – Siem Reap (Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, & Bayon)

Up today BEFORE the crack of dawn, to meet Damveeth for a visit to Siem Reap’s Jewel…Angkor Wat as the sun rose behind it.  We sat on the wall of a nearby canal and essentially, observed the day get brighter in a cloudy sky…so much for the hues of the morning sun (and our reason for a 4:30 am alarm!). A tour of this 7th Wonder (on some list, somewhere) began with another SPECTACK (said weeth a FAHRENCH ACCCENT) show…watching a few tourists play foolishly with their fate as they chose to feed the local monkeys (can you spell DUMBASS (DA)?)!  These little wild beasts are SAVVVYYYYY at grabbing your bag of food, and will TAUNT you with their aggression if you dare come near…yet DA after DA choose to do so…???

We toured, we climbed, we photoed, and WE SWEAT…oh my, what a scorcher today! . . .  Angkor Wat, built in the 15th century, was very cool, and the premiere reason why people visit Siem Reap. . . . 

We had a delicious lunch at Chanrey Tree back in town (and a chance to cool off).  Afterward,  we headed back out to see more temples and structures, including Angkor Thom and Bayon…walked through, climbed up and sweat sommore. . . . The wooded areas that surrounded the temples and parks were beautiful, and we got to see more monkeys, as well as the animals they were teasing/photographing…hahaha (I kill myself…😂).  As we boarded the van to return to our oasis, despite only ONE DAY of touring, we were all TEMPLED-OUT!  I suppose one Buddha/peaked roof/stone carving starts looking like them all, yah?  Honestly, they were very impressive structures, and pre-dated Angkor Wat by 500 years…ALWAYS very cool to stand in places of previous civilizations and imagine their lifestyles.  Learned about how they carved the stone and transported large palettes to create the walls and foundations of these massive structures…pretty cool. . . .

When we returned to the hotel (yessssssss!), G. took off via tuk tuk for another massage . . . , the boys went off for treats and pool time, and the girls went for cocktails in the bar…G. also embraced his favorite treat…napping!  We decided to eat dinner at the hotel tonight, as we’d had a long day starting at dawn! 

DAY 5 – Tonle Sap Lake (Kampong Kleang & Visit to House on Stilts)

Today we set off on a long bus ride to the village of Kampong Kleang, a rural fishing village on Tonle Sap Lake.  We stopped midway to sample sticky rice and beans in Bamboo cooked over a charcoal grill, and met three local Mommies and their infants…too sweet 💕.  The ride was fabulous as we got to see the countryside and the homes, shacks, and stalls that lined the road.  We arrived at the village and walked around a little, prior to boarding our boat for a ride down the river.  WOW!  What a spectacular, moving, experience!  All the homes lining the shore were on stilts as the rainy season raises the water level substantially and families must move most of their outdoor belongings to higher, dryer land. We boated for about an hour, and saw school children run up the steps of their home on stilts, all smartly dressed in uniform and carrying backpacks, removing their shoes outside.  We rode all the way up to the larger lake and saw the floating village, whereby only boats could access the homes.  Super cool and reminiscent of the floating villages in Iquitos, Peru we had visited two years prior.  We were hosted by a LOVELY family in their home on stilts, for cool drinks and snacks.  The father spoke English and shared that he was an IT major from Siem Reap, but married and opened a homestay for travelers to the region, with his wife and in-laws.  K. and I enjoyed their 8-month-old infant son in giggles and cuddles during our short visit, whilst the three boys took to their hammocks for a little lie-down (cuz their lives are so EXHAUSTING)!  The host had set up the internet for the community!  It was surreal to be there, particularly in the home of a local family…to be treated so kindly and to share our common humanity. Super cool!  Afterward, we walked through the tiny village, saying hi to the local children and observing their lifestyle, fishing paraphernalia and basically, life on the dirt road of this small village during dry season.  DEFINITELY A FAVORITE AND MEMORABLE EXPERIENCE FOR ALL OF US! 

We swapped our lunch in Siem Reap for dinner, at Viroth’s restaurant, as we weren’t going to make it back on time, and FINALLY FELT A HUNGER PANG!  This could be named the ARE-YOU-FREAKING-KIDDDING-ME-WE’RE-EATING-AGAN-TOUR?!!!  Damveeth took us to another set of ruins (it’s truly all a blur as I write this now), for a sunset experience.  We climbed to the top and found hoards of tourists all waiting for nightfall behind a large tree that would surely block the view that few would have had, anyway. G. remarked that we’d watch the sky grow darker at 5:45 (sundown) and at 5:46 clamor to climb down with hundreds of tourists in the heat…SUPER FUNNNNN!  So we opted to IMAGINE said sunset over said temple instead, and headed back for some downtime before dinner.  Yay…we be dem smartr toursits!  Lovely dinner out at a nice resto, followed by some good times exploring the night markets, the local scene of street parties, and called it a night.  Love this town!

DAY 6 – Siem Reap

. . . We then took another walk around town, shopping for souvenirs and having another FIRST TRAVEL EXPERIENCE!  Ever had your feet eaten by fish for a pedicure?  WE DID!  Ewwwwww…I never thought I could do it, and indeed it is initially HIGHLY DISTURBING, but we all sat around a roadside tub while hundreds of small fish ate the dead skin off our feet, legs and (if you desired) hands!  FREAKYYYYYY!!!!!  But yet another WHEN IN ROME moment, so we had to!  Returned to fetch our 1kg for $2 laundry, packed, and I went for a manicure to deal with my dry hands. 

O.  M. G….Can we return to Cambodia just for the MANIs???  What an awesomely pampering treat!  Got served lemongrass tea, a gentle exfoliation in flower water, then was said to LIE DOWN WHILST CUSHIONS WERE PLACED IN STRATEGIC POINTS FOR UTTER RELAXATION, HANDS WERE MANICURED AND THEN HEAD AND BACK WERE MASSAAAAAAAAGED…ALL OVER 90 MINUTES and $18!  Simply…WOW.  😌

[If what you’ve read appeals to you, you should check out our 7-Day Cambodia Tour or our Cambodia Tours.  To read more about Tina C.’s group trip, follow the links below:

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