Siem Riep to Battambang (Cambodia)

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Today we got the true Cambodia experience: a bus ride that should have been three hours but turned into six. Not because there was traffic but because the bus company spent 2.5 hours trying to fill their bus with passengers by driving laps of Siem Riep before finally hitti g the highway. It was a farce and one that could have easily been avoided had we booked one of the tourist bus companies online instead of letting our guesthouse book for us. Actually, the tourist bus companies would have been cheaper too because they can fill a bus with tourists instead of the tourists on the local bus subsidising the local passengers’ fares.

The local bus driver was terrible compared with the Mekong Express bus driver we had the other day. The bus swayed and swerved, the driver constantly on the horn. The only good thing is that Paul as I go two sears each so I could lay down and sleep most of the trip.

It’s late afternoon when we arrive in Battambang. Tuk tuk drivers literally run after the bus as it pulls into the depot. They swarm like mosquitoes as the bus turns to park and block the exit. I am first at the door and get bombarded. “We will get our bags first” I say calmly. The drivers step back. A man in yellow shirt claims me as his and waits for Paul to collect our bag (yes, singular). “Where’s the rest of your bags?” the tuk tuk driver asks. Just this.
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He asks $US1 to our guesthouse but other drivers hold signs offering $US0.50 to any guesthouse in Battambang. Our driver, Tony, agrees to $US0.50. Sure, we could have haggled harder like some of the other groups seem to be doing but that seems petty and I think the agreed price is fair (tuk tuks generally cost tourists $US1-$US2 a trip in any city in Cambodia – though I’m sure some haggle harder).
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Our guesthouse is out of town. The gravel road is bumpy but I’m quite looking forward to being outside the city for a change. It’s peaceful, quiet and immediately rural even just this short 1km distance from the centre of town.

Tony offers to take us on a full day sightseeing trip of the surrounding countryside for $US15 tomorrow. I don’t want to commit so ask for his number. Later some internet research shows that most bloggers have paid $20-30 a day for a driver who speaks English so $US15 seems like a good price.
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We eat linner (lunch+dinner) at about 4pm. There was no food on the bus. The restaurant at our guesthouse has delicious and cheap food. Later we will discover they stole the menu from the White Rose restaurant in town. It’s literally a photo copy – haha.
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Battambang city had a pretty riverside centre. There’s waterfront food tents. Women take a aerobics classes in the parks. Lean muscular young men do chin ups and acrobatics on a set of monkey bars (the sort of acrobatics you see on Facebook from time to time). Children play soccer. Couples kick a hacky sack to each other. And old people sit on park benches taking it all in. It’s so pretty even the millions of bugs don’t bother me too much.

A day of culture (Siem Riep, Cambodia)

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The cinema beckoned this morning. We try to go on every country we visit so today was our day for Cambodia. The Platinum Cineplex is modern and relaxing. Tickets cost $US3 each and snacks about the same again. There was a good selection of English language films in 2D and 3D. We chose Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: the story of a young American soldier’s journey with PTSD. It was thoroughly moving and thought-provoking. The quality of the cinema experience here is excellent and the seats far more comfortable than our local cinema at home (though it is being upgraded so that will change). If you are seeking some reprieve from the heat, this is a good option in Siem Riep.
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Down on the river banks preparations are in full swing for the Water Festival. Long boat crews were busy training and practicing in the Siem Riep River. Along the banks marquees were set up with hammocks strung from every tree, post and vehicle. Large woks and barbecues will allow the groups to share meals throughout the festival. It looks like it will be a cracker – though we won’t be here for it.
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We spend the day time hours enjoying town. We eat cupcakes at Bloom: an NGO that provides training, employment and access to healthcare to women. The cupcakes are delicious and pretty. We have our teeth cleaned and scaled at the dentist for $US8 (at home this would cost $100-200 so I haven’t had it done in three years). And we haggle for a few items from the markets. I buy a camping hammock with mosquito net for $US11. And Paul gets a t-shirt seller down from $US6 per shirt to two shirts for $US5.
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But the highlight of the day is our evening excursion to the Phare Circus. Words cannot do justice to this emotionally charged experience. Acrobats, musicians and a painter work the stage, sharing the story of how the war has affected the people of Cambodia and what they are doing to move forward into the future. Even writing about it twelve hours later I feel a lump well up in my throat. Such was the brilliance. The performers, musicians and artists are trained at the Phare School, which provides free education in the arts to Cambodian youth. The storytelling is second to none and I leave looking at the locals in a whole new light. Sure, I had a positive perception of the country and it’s peoples’ resilience but the performance made it more real and emotionally engaging than anything written ever could.

Angkor Wat and Bugs Cafe (Siem Riep, Cambodia)

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There are so many ways to see Angkor Wat. By bicycle. In a tour bus. On foot (more on that later). By tuk tuk. And there’s so many timeframes for a visit. The small tour. The grand tour. One day. Two days. Three days. The options are endless. Fortunately, Keith and Paul from the Golden Gecko have all the right contacts so for $US13 we have a tuk tuk driver for the small tour starting at 8am (we’re not getting up for the sunrise on our holiday).

The ticket office is a grand building midway between town and the temple complex. Each person needs to purchase their own ticket because it has a photo on it. This means tour groups line up at the ticket office along with independent travelers. Don’t follow the crowds here; we found three empty counters by walking past the crowds. $US20 buys a one day pass.
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The temples are amazing!!!! I don’t know the name of the specific ones we went to. I could look up a map but it doesn’t matter. This is a place to experience. Our tuk tuk driver tells us the names and some indie but I don’t hold it in my head. I just walk, look, experience and feel the place.
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You could pay a guide and learn all the official stories of the temples. I’m sure you’ll learn something that way. Tour guides abound in uniform. I have heard they have to study for two years and speak at least two languages before being allowed to work at the temples. And if you’re into the history of this place they’re probably a good option. For us though, we just wander and enjoy.
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It’s relatively quiet at the first temples we visit. But by the time we’re at Angkor Wat proper the sunrise tour buses have arrived and it’s hectic. So we call it a day without going too far into the Angkor Wat temple. We’ve enjoyed the rest and the people in large tour groups are a bit obnoxious – they crowd whole passages and scowl if you dare excuse yourself to walk through. They’ve obviously paid small fortunes for their race through the key sites of South East Asia so don’t have time for riff raff.
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I wonder what the local children must think of the foreigners flocking to their playground.
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I don’t often give tips about places but these are mine for Angkor Wat:

(1) Cover your shoulders. This is a religious site. One American woman was arguing with security at Bayon temple and trying to use the small map as a shoulder cover. She looked like an ignorant fool and was in a total flap. Unlike some other similar sites, there are no shawls or robes available here so dress appropriately to avoid embarrassment.

(2) Come early before the tour buses turn up. The temple complex is incredibly peaceful during the first couple of hours after opening. We didn’t do sunrise and didn’t feel like we missed anything – except the crowds.

(3) It’s a big complex and Cambodia is a hot country. The people we saw walking looked exhausted. Many will walk 10-20km with most being along roadways through the forest connecting the temples. I’m sure it’s pleasant for some but if it’s about saving some dollars remember, you probably paid a few hundred for your airfares to get here and you’ll spend just as much on water staying hydrated as we spent on our tuk tuk (which included cold water).
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After a glorious afternoon nap we took my cousin and her partner to Bugs Cafe. The French owner explained the concept and helped us select some food. We opted for the large tasting platter and some deserts. Bugs Cafe is a place where insects are used as protein in “regular” foods. Far from being outrageous, th dishes are delicious and we quickly forgot the taboos around eating this high protein, low fat and environmentally friendly food group. I am sold on the idea of bugs becoming a staple partnod our diets to reduce our reliance on larger meat producing animals (no, I have interest in becoming g vegetarian).

A foot massage and walk rounded out our day and we were tucked up asleep in bed by midnight.

Siem Riep & Lake Tonle Sap (Cambodia)

One of our hosts from Golden Gecko Villa needs to walk into town for supplies so we walk together. Keith is from Brisbane but now lives here in Siem Riep and he shows us around the small city centre. There’s many businesses here owned by Australians, including cafes, bars, hair dressing salons and tourist operations. The walk fixes us a good lay of the land. It’s thanks to Keith that I learn there’s a Singaporean dentist in town who charges just $US8 for a clean and scale – a procedure that will require you to withdraw about $AU200 from your bank account at home. So guess where I’m going tomorrow afternoon.
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We part ways at the old market. You can buy all the usual touristy items here. Buddhas, t-shirts, sarongs, prints of paintings and jewellery. And, as with the rest of South East Asia, the vendors aren’t shy about encouraging you to buy. The t-shirt vendors all proudly announced that they had shirts in our sizes. The Buddha statue sellers all insisted their statues were the best price. The jewellery shops all tried to persuade us everything was the genuine article. We wanted to buy some paintings so used this visit as a recce. Prices would start at $US50 or $US35 depending on the size of the piece. Showing interest the promising to return tomorrow would instantly bring the price down to $US30 or $US20. Walking away made it cheaper again ($US25 and $US15 respectively). I’m sure we could have haggled a price but we weren’t yet sure of what we wanted to choose so no purchases were made (later they will be though).
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There’s also a smallish food section at the Old Market. Animals in all states of butchery sit on benches waiting for a buyer. Pork, chicken and still twitching fish seem to be the staple here. Fruit and vegetables abound, providing colour to the meat market. You can even buy fresh honecomb, complete with buzzing bees.

Later in the day, after we’ve paid $US12 each for a 2 hour massage, we are picked up from our guesthouse by a minibus that will take us on a grand adventure.
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Lake Tonle Sap is only a short drive from Siem Riep. A small ten-seater long boat will take us from the edge of a canal all the way into the lake and onto a bigger boat (the Tara) for sunset dinner and drinks. It sounds all very contrived but the execution of this adventure is quite good.
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I’m the first to sit on the front of the boat but am soon joined by most of my traveling companions. There’s a cool wind blowing in my face and the sights of floating villages all around.
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These villages are home to stateless Vietnamese people. There’s a history on Wikipedia that explains the circumstances of how this group of people ended up on the lake. So I’m not going to focus on that. There are also Khmer villages on the lake but we don’t go to those on this trip.
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What I can tell you is that everything we do on land, they do on the water. From growing vegetables and chickens to going to school. From playing pool or snooker in a bar to selling goods in shops. You name it, the residents of the floating village do it.
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The children even paddle their boats home from school. Some day dreaming. Some taking responsibility for younger siblings. And others bouncing their boats in the waves.
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Out on the lake proper we take in the first colours of sunset. It’s always stunning to watch the lowering of the sun reflect on a large body of water. And it’s so peaceful to sit here after the hustle and bustle of Siem Riep town.
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Drinks and food are provided on the big boat. It’s nestled between the tree tops with a stunning view to the west and south. Our small group sit together sharing a meal, talking about our various experiences. What more could anyone ask for.
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With the setting of the sun light bulbs start to turn on at the houses around us. Bare yellow bulbs both attract bugs and shimmer prettily on the black water. I feel sad to leave the big boat (but happy to get a reprieve from the mosquitoes).

Slowly and in darkness we return to the bus. I dangle my legs over the side (but not into the water), wishing we could just do this all night long – potter around the black lake with stars shining above.
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Back in Siem Riep the Pub Street is an assault on our senses. Particularly after the lake. Bars compete to play their music the loudest. Stalls line the street selling cocktails and beer. Tuk tuk drivers offer lifts. And Westerners give the locals a terrible idea of what our countries and cultures are like. This is travel at its worst. And it happens here every night. If you’ve not been here you can’t imagine it. Nightmares are preferable to time spent on Siem Riep’s Pub Street; possibly one of the most culturally damaging experiences. Not to the culture of local people but to the reputation and culture of all Caucasian people. I mean, this is all some Cambodian people will ever experience of our cultures so no wonder the more conservative might believe our cultures are depraved or immoral.

Phnom Penh to Siem Riep (Cambodia)

A mini bus from Mekong Express arrives just before 6:45am. It’s a battered and bruised van but the aircon is cranking and the driver negotiates the traffic slowly. We do loops of the city collecting other passengers headed to Siem Riep on the 7:30am bus.
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There are a few choices when traveling between Phnom Penh and Siem Riep. I won’t bore you with lists of bus companies and prices because other websites already do this. At first we think about booking online but there’s booking fees and the need to print a ticket so we just ask our guesthouse to do it. Arun, the manager of Feliz Hostel and Cafe booked us on the Mekong Express yesterday without charging commission. That’s exactly the kind of quality service that we’ve come to notice from this modern new accommodation. And that’s how, despite lots of research, we came to travel Mekong Express instead of other bus lines.
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At $US13 the bus ride is comfortable, safe and efficient. There’s only 40 passengers, each with allocated seating, individual aircon vents and curtains to block the sun of you desire. An English-speaking guide ensures all passengers are comfortable and provides basic information about the duration of the trip and the midway rest stop.
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We leave Phnom Penh’s noisy streets behind and rural Cambodia comes into view.
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It’s quiet by comparison from the windows of the bus. There’s no congestion and chaos. Just small houses on stilts amidst rice paddies, cattle and ever encroaching jungle plants.
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The road is relatively empty the whole way to Siem Riep save the onslaught of hundreds of children cycling home for lunch around midday. I last saw this a couple of years ago on Java but there it was like a sea of white headscarves while here the children’s heads are all bare.

I slept most of the bus trip so the six hours passes quite quickly. By 1:30pm we’re jolted from the airco out into the harsh hot Siem Riep air. Our guesthouse is 400m (1/4 mile) from the bus station so we decide to walk. Poor Paul is a puddle of sweat by the time we arrive and falls into a snooze on the bed. I think it’s a sensible choice so I join him to rest out the midday heat.
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Our guesthouse, the Golden Gecko, is close enough to the city centre to walk (10 minutes) or to take a cheap tuk tuk ride ($US2). It’s run by two Australian men and is clean and comfortable with an inviting swimming pool.
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My cousin from Holland and her partner live here in Siem Riep so we catch up. I haven’t seen her in some years and it’s the first time we’ve met each other’s respective partners. They head off to work for a few hours and we walk into town for a foot massage ($US6/hour). Relaxed we enjoy the trees and lights reflecting on the Siem Riep River.
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We join my cousin to eat at Nest. This is a fine dining experience that is ridiculously affordable. I eat a braised pork belly and quail egg starter followed by fish amok (a traditional Khmer dish) while Paul takes a garden vegetable soup followed by roast duck breast with potatoes. There’s a great selection of wines but Paul and I don’t drink so we stick with fresh juices. It’s an absolutely lovely introduction to Siem Riep where we will stay for the next four nights.