In December 2016 I did a 7 day tour of Cambodia with Hanuman Travel, a local travel company. The customised itinerary had a great mix of city, off the beaten track, unusual food, history, politics and my favourite – animals.
- Book with a local travel company like Hanuman Travel for the REAL off the beaten track experience
- Take $30USD and 1 passport photo for your visa
- Do your research about the Khmer Rouge and be mindful that their regime only ended in 1979
- Pack respectful clothing to wear in and around temples
- Pack insect repellent and take malaria tablets 1-2 days before Mondulkiri (and/or other high risk areas on your itinerary)
- Support local NGOs when looking for restaurants and things to do
- You can only withdraw US dollars from ATMs as a foreigner
- Keep small change for things like tips, toilet breaks and tuk tuk journeys
- Expect non-western toilets close to the ground with a bidet spray hose
- Drink only bottled water and have a large one with you at all times – it’s hot!
Thursday – From Vietnam to Cambodia
I said goodbye to my sister at Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) airport after 12 days travelling around Vietnam and 1 hour later arrived in Phnom Penh. I flew with Vietnam Airlines, arranged by local travel company Hanuman Travel. Everything went so smoothly in Vietnam, I knew that Hanuman Travel had us covered for the next 7 days. ‘Us’ being me and my Aussie friend who lives and volunteers in Battambang, Cambodia and has done for the past 5 months.
The Visa process in Cambodia is easier than Vietnam. All you need is $30USD in cash, one passport photo and your passport itself with at least 6 months left before it expires. You’ll be given a white slip of paper upon return of your passport post payment and once you’ve filled this in you can line up for a final check before bursting through to baggage claim.
As I was waiting for my visa a German lady tapped me on the shoulder to see if we could share a taxi together into town. What a great idea! But I knew I had someone from Hanuman Travel waiting for me so politely declined. Sure enough, two guys from Hanuman Travel were waiting for me near the airport exit. The sign had my friend’s name on it instead of mine but hey, common sense. I knew it was for me! They immediately took my bags and led me to the car. I learned that their names were Panha and Ra and as we were stuck behind traffic in the airport carpark, they presented me with a beautiful scarf. A gift from Hanuman Travel.
When we finally made it out of the carpark, the drive was a short 10 minutes to Asia Tune Hotel. I’d been to Cambodia before in 2010 but only to Siem Reap. Phnom Penh was quite different! The buildings outside my car windows were big and impressive and Panha explained that around 3 million people live there. Well, it’s definitely BIGGER than Siem Reap.
My friend had arrived at our accommodation in the afternoon after a LONG local bus trip. Despite her major efforts, it was me who let the team down, opting for room service instead of getting out and exploring Phnom Penh. But it was great to see her! And sleep.
Friday – Royal Palace, Choeung Ek Killing Fields, Tuol Sleng (S21 Prison), National Museum & Sunset Cruise
What a day ahead! First stop – the Royal Palace. This is where the King lives. Sadly he did not marry and after volunteering my single friend, Panha explained that he can only marry other royal blood. The second throne chair has now been taken away. Other areas of the complex of note are the Silver Pagoda where around 5000 silver tiles cover the floor, the emerald Buddha (inside the Silver Pagoda), the pink and yellow flower and vine that only grows at temples (Sala tree or Cannonball tree) and a friendly grey cat with half a tail.
The rain changed our itinerary around slightly so our next stop was lunch at the Lotus Blanc restaurant. It’s an NGO (non-profit organisation without Government support) supporting children from the city’s main garbage dump. How? By training locals in hospitality. The food was excellent and the customer service was outstanding. Recommended. You can even take a tour of the facilities where both schooling and work-life skills are available to the children and youths as a way of escaping the poverty of their lives.
We may as well combine stops 3 and 4 – Tuol Sleng and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. The Tuol Sleng prison, otherwise known as the S21 prison, was a high school used by the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979. Remember the Pol Pot leader you learned about in school? No? Then you’ve got some research to do. The killing fields are the mass graves where those in the prison were transported to and killed. I couldn’t bring myself to take a photo at either place. They are chilling, haunting and sad. The faces of both the victims and the Khmer Rouge in the photos at Tuol Sleng will remain in your mind for the remainder of the day and visit you every so often.
That being said, the remaining 2 survivors (out of 11 survivors) of the prison are AT the prison to this very day, telling their story, answering questions and selling their books for $10USD each. We had the absolute privilege of meeting Chum Mey and Bou Meng. Panha translated for us as we asked Chum Mey questions. We’d seen his cell earlier as we walked through the prison. His message to us was that he was grateful for our visit and our interest in the not so distant history of the Khmer Rouge regime. We of course bought their books as Panha explained they do not receive support from the Government. There are loads of informative interviews online with Chum Mey, including BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-10602689) but please, if you visit, buy their books.
The killing field that we visited had 129 mass graves. Eighty-six of these have been excavated and 8985 bodies exhumed. Here’s some of what we learned:
- over 100 bodies were naked women and children
- 100 of them were headless and dressed in khaki material
- they used a chemical to reduce the smell of the dead and dying bodies
- they used thick, sharp tree bark to cut victims’ throats
- babies were thrown against a particular tree to kill them
- a loudspeaker was used to project the moaning sounds of death
- the site was previously a Chinese cemetery
- this is only one of many killing fields in Cambodia
Sorry. Not much more to get through. In 1979 the killing field was discovered and liberated. The large stupa there houses bones of the deceased, sorted into bone type. You can see where the people were hurt, particularly the holes and cracks in their skulls. A movie was made about the killing fields in 1984 and one of the main actors was murdered in 1996. No evidence of connection to Pol Pot but brrr it’s chilly in here.
If it hasn’t come across your mind yet, just think – 1979 wasn’t that long ago was it? Any locals around us older than 35 must have either directly or indirectly been affected by the Khmer Rouge regime. Our tour guide even had some private stories to share. And more recently, around $200 million US dollars was spent bringing the first of a handful of leaders, Duch, Tuol Sleng prison leader, to justice.
Okay time to lighten the mood. Our next stop was the National Museum, home of so – many – sculptures. My favourites were the sculptures from the Banteay Srei Temple transported from the Angkor region. I saw the temple itself in 2010 during my first visit to Cambodia. Little did I realise parts of it were a replica and the REAL thing was in a museum in Phnom Penh. Or so our local tour guide said. Rewind: Panha and Ra had to drop us off at the door and hand us over to a local tour guide which I think is a great idea to support even more local locals. Not a typo! You’ll learn here that many of the temples and statues stem from Hinduism.
Next! A sunset cruise on the Tonle Sap River with (Australian) wine, cheese and good chat with our tour guide. As a large group raised their glass of bubbly, I noticed the high rise buildings and lights on one side of the river, and the shack houses and darkness on the other. Quite the contrast as the sun disappeared.
Saturday – Deep fried tarantulas, Wat Nokor Temple and Kratie
Would you be game enough to try deep fried tarantulas? We weren’t. There was no chance I was going to touch one let alone put it in my mouth. Nor the crickets but our tour guide eats them and was happy to taste one! You can find them along with scorpions, baby frogs and fruits at Skuon, known as ‘Spiderville’. It was one of the stops on our 6 hour car journey to Kratie and we were happy with a piece of pineapple!
About an hour later we arrived at Wat Nokor Temple in Kampong Cham. It’s an 11th century temple. From the outside it looks similar to other sandstone temples I’ve seen, but inside it certainly has its own identity. As you step through the final sandstone entrance, you’re surrounded by colourful paintings on the walls and ceiling. The temple is a mix of Hinduism and Buddhism. Hindu first and rebuilt later on with a Buddhist stupa. There were people inside that blessed us as they tied a red and yellow cotton bracelet onto our arm. We left them a small donation as you should do too if you agree to allow them to bless you.
I bet you’re wondering what a stupa is. Well, it is known to house the remains and relics of Buddhists. If your family has enough money, they can pay for a stupa to house your ashes after cremation. Panha explained that it’s about $5000USD for a small stupa. The stupa at THIS temple however has a large Buddha statue inside and a whole lot of bats that you can hear – and smell.
We drove into Kratie and Panha dropped us off at a restaurant and guesthouse with a mix of Khmer and western food. Robyn and I shared a pizza, something I hadn’t eaten for a while! It was pretty good. Our hotel called Oudom Sambath was just around the corner so we checked in, had a rest then crossed the road to watch the sunset from the water’s edge. Unfortunately the sun was behind the clouds so we were cheated!
Our first impression of Kratie was that it was extremely clean. Both the streets and the water. We even noticed a local man picking up two plastic bottles from the sidewalk and putting them into the bin. SO different to other areas of Cambodia. As we walked around the streets, local kids said hello to us and we saw two lots of aerobics classes within 50 metres of each other along the water.
We tried Angkor beer at the Jasmine Boat Restaurant along the water and spring rolls at the Tokae Restaurant. Both have interesting views. One of the fishing boats passing by with no lights and the other of a busy local butcher in a back street selling meat every few minutes.
Sunday – Irrawaddy Dolphins
After breakfast we travelled to Kampi to board a local boat and cruise out onto the Mekong River to see the Irrawaddy dolphins. Unfortunately there’s not many of them left and they’re scared of people from the days they were hunted by local fishermen. We were lucky enough to spot them quite a few times during our 1 hour on the boat. Like other dolphins they swim together but as they come out of the water, you can see that their head and nose is much more round than any other dolphin.
During our car journey we stopped at a tall and impressive new landmark to symbolise the relationship between Cambodia and Vietnam. If you know about the Khmer Rouge, you probably also know that it was the Vietnamese that achieved victory over them. One of the carvings on the memorial site symbolises this with the fallen Khmer Rouge, identified by the scarves around their neck.
As we passed through the forest, forest also passed us by. Logging is a big problem here. Every now and then a van or motorbike stacked high with timber went past. It’s illegal but not being stopped. Well at least it wasn’t that day. At a police check point on the side of the road, we saw a man on a motorbike with timber piled high on the back, hand over money to the police officer.
After about 4 hours in the car, we were happy about arriving at Oeun Sakona Hotel in Sen Monorom. We checked in then set out on an adventure to explore the local area. At first we stayed close to the hotel, exploring the nearby streets and having a look inside local shops. My friend was searching for deodorant without whitening agent in it. A harder task than you would imagine! Then after a cake stop at Hefalump Cafe, we found more cafes along a dirt road in the other direction. We walked past local homes, kids playing ball games, stray animals (or wandering pets!) and had to hide behind a tree in someone’s front yard as a herd of water buffalo were heading in our direction! They were tethered though and had people with them. A bit further up the road we admitted to ourselves that we were now lost and asked someone for directions back to the main street. The first few people we asked didn’t speak English but they found someone for us who did.
It was free time for both us and our tour guides though our guides wanted us to have a good time. So, they asked if they could drive us to a good local restaurant for dinner as it was too far and dark for us to walk. It is called the Nature Lodge Eco-Tourism Resort and Training Centre and it had a mix of local and western food. The food WAS really good and it was in such a setting that it made you feel like you were dining in a treehouse. There was also a black cat roaming around and along the wooden beams in the open ceiling. He stopped by us for a pat. About an hour later our guide and driver picked us up to drop us safely back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep.
Monday – Climbing Bou Sra Waterfall
Today’s adventure was climbing a waterfall. A flowing waterfall. Lucky it was a warm enough day in one of the cooler months of the year. Even if we didn’t slip every now and then and get our legs wet, the spray from the waterfall did the rest. Tip – take your swimmers. You can swim at the bottom of the waterfall. With swimmers on you can also climb the rocks without worrying about falling in! Panha our guide explained to us that lots of families camp there during the summer. I can see why! Except the toilets. I recommend pre-holiday squats and lunges to get your legs ready.
On the drive back to Sen Monorom, we stopped at a minority village to learn about them and their way of life. They were friendly and a young girl sent forward by her mother accepted a few US dollars each from us to be there and to help support them. The kids had just come back from school with their backpacks on. No idea where their school is. The houses are basic and made from natural materials. There were chickens and puppies roaming around. While they were poor, living such a simple life and their interaction with one another as a family was somehow refreshing to see. I was left wondering if in fact they were the rich.
Another stop along the way was a coffee plantation. The smell of the coffee at the restaurant here was intense and delicious. We didn’t stop at the restaurant though, instead we walked through the endless coffee bean plants until we arrived at a pile of coffee beans at the top of the hill. I thought they were cast-offs and picked up a few beans to throw at my travel buddy and tour guides. I soon realised after seeing their stressed faces that these coffee beans were there for a purpose. To dry in the sun. Learning: don’t expect the coffee beans to have any sort of boundary to keep visitors out. We even saw a dog wandering through another bed of drying coffee beans in a different area of the plantation!
Afterwards our guides wanted to show off their local knowledge by driving us to the top of a mountain to see the view of Mondulkiri. The sign says ‘I love Mondulkiri’ and the view is spectacular. There is also a buddhist temple on this mountain and buddhists ready to bless you if you’ll let them. Tip: give them a tip.
Our late lunch at the Cinnamon Cafe and Bakery at which I had a delicious slice of pumpkin pie meant that we had a late dinner. We’d walked past Chili on the Rocks restaurant and bar a few times so it was time to try the food there. Both swayed by what the person at the table next to us was having, we ordered the pork schnitzel. It was a good choice. In our short time there we made ourselves a new friend and protector, the resident dog from the restaurant next door. Every time someone walked towards our direction he barked at them!
Tuesday – Elephant Valley Project
This was my favourite day of the whole tour. The Elephant Valley Project. You can visit for a day experience, stay in their accommodation overnight or even volunteer for months like the English volunteer we met there that day. The day visit departs from Hefalump Cafe where like us, you can enjoy breakfast beforehand. The day experience was popular and we had a full mini bus for our journey to see the elephants.
I wrote all about the experience here. Long story short, we were able to get close enough to hear them communicate and see them walk, graze and bathe without compromising their natural habitat or routine. They’re not fully wild elephants though sadly and it is more like a holiday here from their working lives, some for longer than others.
As our bus returned to Hefalump Cafe, Panha and Ra were there waiting for us. Before the sun disappeared, they drove us back to the top of the mountain for a glimpse of the beautiful sunset colours over Mondulkiri before darkness set in.
Wednesday – Back to Phnom Penh
Back in the car for our return journey to Phnom Penh. Last day of the tour! How sad. But also how exciting to have another opportunity to explore Phnom Penh, feeling more awake the second time around.
After we said bye to our tour guide and driver, we set out to explore Phnom Penh. A great lunch spot is The Shop along Street 240. Yum. For the evening, we walked to the FCC restaurant from the Asia Tune hotel. FCC stands for Foreign Correspondents Club and in the past was the place to be if you were a journalist. It has a great view of the Tonle Sap river and was full of people on a Wednesday night, always a good sign about what they have to offer. They were right too. The cocktails were good and we treated ourselves to a tasty western meal. Even tastier when you’ve had enough of Asian food for a while!
There was a tuk tuk outside and after negotiating a price with him, he took us to Bassac Lane where there are a bunch of funky bars to explore. If you peek inside each one you’ll get a sense of their individual vibe with their impressive interior designs. Don’t expect to meet too many locals here though we did meet a Cambodian-American guy who was a monk for 7 months! We certainly had an interesting chat.
Thursday – Drive to Battambang
After an extremely delicious breakfast at Enso Cafe in Phnom Penh, it was time for our drive to Battambang where my travel buddy lives. For the next 7 days she will be my tour guide. That means Christmas in Cambodia!