While it makes us feel a little better to know that Cambodia isn’t really known for its cuisine, we also feel a little guilty. We didn’t really experience a huge variety of outstanding food in Cambodia. Half of the blame falls on us, because we didn’t get out of tourist areas much. The other half was that we actually had some difficulty finding good local food. Other than in areas directly adjacent to markets or inside the markets themselves, it seemed like most of the places we went had almost no street food (compared to Vietnam and Thailand where you are almost tripping over it). We know we missed a ton, and we’re not even sure whether everything below is uniquely Cambodian.
But what we did find was delicious.
So here’s a very small taste of Cambodia. You’ll need some utensils. They’re all ready for you, waiting in their hot water bath.
Donuts with a toffee-like crunchy glaze.
Sach Ko Chomkak – Marinated beef skewers grilled over hot coals, dipped in sweet chili sauce, served with a tangy green papaya and carrot salad. You’re charged by the number of skewers you order but the vegetables are all-you-can-eat and on the house. One of our favorites.
Nyoum Trayong Chaek – Banana blossom salad, really similar to the ones we ate in Thailand.
Everybody goes to the west gate watch the sunrise in front of Angkor Wat.
E-v-e-r-y-b-o-d-y (and their tripods).
But watch the sunrise from Angkor Wat? That requires sneaking around in the dark and paying a small… *cough*… “fee.” Ahem.
Our hearts raced with nervous energy as we entered the 900 year old temple alone, in pitch blackness. At one point, we stepped into a courtyard and paused because we thought we heard monks chanting. (Nope… we had just awakened all the mosquitoes in Cambodia.) Alicia wavered, sure that the instructions that a fellow traveler gave us would get us arrested, but Tony kept us on mission.
We made it up to the third, final, most sacred tier, the Bakan, just in time to hear the jungle come alive with the calls of strange birds and to see the bas reliefs illuminated by the red morning sun.
We looked down at the hundreds of people gathered at the far end of the pond, grateful that we were not among them.
As soon as the sun was up, the guards quickly shooed us back down, presumably to avoid the scrutiny of the people who began filtering into the courtyard who might wonder why the posted opening times didn’t apply to us.
After that great start, we were not too frustrated with the tour groups clogging the pathways through Ta Prohm (a.k.a. the Tomb Raider temple).
We experienced another peaceful (albeit more conventionally achieved) sunrise at Bayon Temple the following morning.
We visited many other ancient Khmer temples around Siem Reap, but those two sunrise experiences were the best.
King Sihanouk’s funeral was going to bring an estimated 1.5 million visitors, including major foreign dignitaries and security forces, to the capital. It sounded like it might be really interesting, or maybe just a huge headache. Since we had already seen the King’s 100 day memorial ceremony, and we were already planning to spend some time down on Cambodia’s coast, we left Phnom Penh and waited it out on a beach near Sihanuokville (a port city named after… guess who).
We waited it out all right. For 13 days. Maybe that was a little excessive…
…but when you’re in a little hut a few meters from warm blue water, all the days start blending together in a good way.
Between the fish tacos at our place, the amok (Khmer curry) and coconut shakes at the cafe next door and the laid back and friendly people around us, there was really no reason to leave.
We read a lot of books. Tony finally conquered this one. (Hi Pete!)
We might have turned a few shades browner.
Warm water, tasty food, plenty of lounge chairs… did we mention there were puppies?
Here is Alicia’s face when she sees a puppy walking towards her.
(This is the puppy.)
The sunsets weren’t too bad either.
So yeah, 13 days on Otres Beach. We finally dragged ourselves away because we knew that the last “big” sightseeing event of our year of traveling was up next. Otherwise, we might still be there.
Goodbye Vietnam, hello Cambodia. First stop: Phnom Penh. It’s Cambodia’s capital city of 2.2 million people and is set on the banks of the Mekong River. Its nickname was “Pearl of Asia.” Wikipedia is careful to note that that nickname was only applicable prior to the 1960s.
We spent several days wandering around Phnom Penh. Haven’t we typed that sentence a hundred times already? ”We spent several days wandering around ___.” Well, we did. Here are some photos from our self-guided non-tours.
In many places throughout the city, we saw shrines and joss sticks burning to former King Norodom Sihanouk, who died in October. Between 1941 to 2004, he was king, sovereign prince (twice each), president and prime minister, all to varying degrees of power and influence throughout Cambodia’s bid for independence from France, the Cold War, the Vietnam War and including two years as a pawn head of state during the Khmer Rouge era. This guy had seen some things.
One night, we were visiting a wat near the Royal Palace and noticed that the road was blocked off and a huge crowd had gathered. Many people were taking photos of this building, which we later learned was the crematorium specifically constructed for the King Father’s upcoming funeral (set for three months after his death).
We walked further, to the square in front of the palace, and found an enormous crowd seated there. News articles we read later said claimed that 20,000 monks were in attendance at this ceremony, which commemorated the 100th day after the King Father’s death.
The ceremony was in Khmer, so we were not able to understand what was happening, but it was very moving to be in that place at sunset along with many thousands of Cambodians who were paying their respects to their much-loved king.
Few visitors to Phnom Penh leave without having visited the former high school now called Tuol Sleng Prison, which turned into a center of interrogation and torture by the Khmer Rouge. It is now a museum, although most of the rooms and cells remain bare, a stark and solemn monument that contrasts unnervingly with the cheerful yellow and white tile floors.
We originally intended to visit the Killing Fields outside of the capital, but we learned that the grounds are now owned and operated by a private, for-profit company. After a solemn afternoon spent staring at mugshots and into the eyes of the victims of Tuol Sleng (which included very young children), we felt that visiting the actual execution and mass burial site would contribute more to vulgar opportunism than to our own education and respect for the dead.
We left the shaded grounds of school-turned-prison-turned-museum and walked back out into the bright, hot sun.
[If you don't know much about what happened in Cambodia that caused the death of 1.7 to 3 million people (depending on who's counting) less than four decades ago, you can read A Brief History of the Khmer Rouge (Time Magazine), or if you like your information packaged as entertainment, you can watch Sam Waterston star in 1984 movie The Killing Fields.]