Cambodia: Another Day, Another Tuk-Tuk

Phnom Penh

After flying from Krabi to Phnom Penh via KL, we arrive in the afternoon ready for a new country. Per usual in Southeast Asia, we start at the ATM. Strangely, James is prompted to chose either USD or Cambodian riels. We decide to stick with riels.  After checking into our apartment, we head to dinner and try frog spring rolls among other noodle dishes! Once we get the bill, we realize the menu prices are all in USD! It then dawned on us that much of Cambodia must effectively be using US dollars. Too bad, we thought we were getting a deal with the extravagant meal we had purchased.

In desperate need of a “chill” day, we spent our first full day in Cambodia sleeping in and lazing around.  We head to a nearby mall looking for replacement sneakers and the kids spot an arcade.  After much begging, we concede to letting them spend their Christmas money on arcade games all afternoon.  We all had a blast playing classic games like ski ball and ring toss. And, the kids felt the joy of the machines spitting out loads of tickets!

The kids were so excited to play at the arcade all afternoon!

The next day, we hired a tuk-tuk driver to show us around the city.  Little did we know that tuk-tuks would be the theme of Cambodia! We only wish such transportation existed in Charlotte.  How fun would it be to sit in an open-air carriage as a motorbike pulls you all over town?!

The traffic in Phnom Penh is very busy! Almost everywhere we went took 30 to 45 minutes and we were only going a few kilometers! On this day though, we were headed to the Mekong River to ferry over to Silk Island.  We first stopped at a local’s home where the women sat every day spinning and weaving silk.  Their products were beautiful and Manji, Bingo and I all purchased a souvenir scarf! We continued our drive on the island to the community silk shop. There, our guide showed us the entire process of making silk from egg to worm to cocoon to pulling and dying the thread. 

Manji proudly displaying his new silk scarf

We stopped shortly after to have lunch at the Banana Tree Restaurant and then proceeded to the Royal Palace.  Exhausted from the heat, we quickly walked the grounds and headed home to jump in the pool! Our time in Phnom Penh was brief but gave us a great intro to Cambodian life!  

Battambang

We left our apartment at 5:30am and traveled through the quiet streets to the train station.  Desperate for coffee, James and Manji took off to find us some much-needed caffeine.  There were two trains at the station when we arrived, one newer with curtains in the windows and soft seats, the other a short train with open windows and minimal seating. Ours was the smaller one.

The conductor told us to board the train, but we were still waiting for James and Manji.  I quickly sent James a text and told him to “hurry up.”  Apparently, they had the ‘Mr. Bean’ of cappuccinos.  The guy was taking his sweet time making sure every detail was right for our coffee.  James and Manji sprinted back with coffees in hand only to have a dog start chasing them.  They had to slow until they lost the dog, then picked their pace back up to arrive at the train with minutes to spare!

As the train pulled away, we were all staring out the window watching the sunrise.  We rode by ramshackle, makeshift houses, and waved at small children meandering about by their homes. We saw farmers walking Cambodian cows and working in rice fields, and towering temples in the middle of nowhere.  Tired from a 6-hour train ride through the Cambodian countryside, we arrived in Battambang as weary travelers. As we stepped off the train, we were warmly greeted by our tuk-tuk driver Sophorn. 

Messy peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches on the train

By this time, it was stifling hot, and there was a major haze from the burning that had been going on around the area.  We arrived at Lotus Blanc Homestay and were greeted warmly by Sirin. He offered us cold water and showed us to our rooms.  After celebratory smoothies, we tried to stay cool while waiting for lower temperatures after sun down.  Our tuk-tuk driver, returned early in the evening for our first excursion, the killing caves and bat temple. 

Before visiting Cambodia, I didn’t know much about its history.  With all our visits, we try to spend time with the kids beforehand reading books and learning together so we really understand what we’re about to see. 

We’d read about the Khmer Rouge and the genocide that took place. But it’s hard to appreciate the gravity of that time just from a book. Sophorn was able to give us the most valuable lessons of all as he recounted his childhood.  When he was 10 years old, he was taken from his family and forced to move to a camp where he worked in the rice fields for three years.  He recalled a time when he was so hungry that he climbed a coconut tree in the middle of the night. He grabbed a coconut and by the time he shimmied down, a member of the army caught him.  They cut his wrist and then tied him to the coconut tree for the rest of the night.  And he was one of the lucky ones to survive.

As he shared his story you could tell how much pain it causes him to recount what happened.  He said it is hard to talk about, but he wants us to know and understand the history of Cambodia.  We were so grateful that he shared such intimate stories about his life.

After sharing his story, he took us to the killing caves where those that were murdered by the Khmer Rouge were thrown into pits.  Goose was enthralled with every detail that Sophorn had to share. 

With our guide, Sophorn

After visiting the killing caves, we walked up to the adjacent temple.  Much to Manji’s dismay, there were A LOT of monkeys and several large ones! Our guide picked up a stick along the way and said, “sometimes the big ones like to bite!” Yikes! After touring the temple, successfully evading the monkeys, we made our way back down so we could cool ourselves down with a drink and wait for the departure of millions of bats!

Envision hundreds of chairs lined up to face a monumental Buddha, waiting for bats to fly out of their cave to begin their nightly feast! We gathered with other tourists and at 6:30pm, millions of bats flew out circling above us and on to find their food.  We only stayed to watch the spectacle for 10 minutes, but our guide said it goes on for half an hour! Sophorn then returned us to our homestay to have a yummy dinner prepared by our host.  We collapsed into bed and perhaps had the best sleep we’ve had in a long time!

The following morning, the kids went down for breakfast before James or me.  Once I made it down, I found the boys chatting with an older man from the UK who was biking through Cambodia and Vietnam.  Apparently, they were swapping travel stories! It’s nice to see the kids gaining the confidence to interact with people of all ages! 

James and I then had breakfast and chatted with our hosts, Sirin and his wife. Sirin told us how he grew up in a small town outside of Siem Reap and that his parents wanted him to quit school when he was 10 so that he could work and provide money for the family.  He believed that education was his ticket to a better life and he ended up working different jobs while paying for school. 

His first job was collecting aluminum cans to sell to a recycler.  He’s subsequently built an amazing little inn that provides jobs for his family and for others in the area. We asked where he got his motivation and he said from seeing and interacting with foreigners.  He knew they were educated and thought that must be the way! We got goosebumps listening to his story and we tried to envision the courage and perseverance it took for him to get to this point.

After breakfast, Sophorn picked us up to ride the bamboo train.  The train is literally a platform made of bamboo that runs along the tracks.  It’s light enough that when you encounter another train you just get off, disassemble it, and move it to the other side.  Back in the day they used a pole to push the train along, but lucky for us it’s a quicker ride now using a small motor.  We took a brief ride through the countryside and stopped to purchase souvenirs from a local Cambodian girl before heading on to our next stop. 

Bamboo train ride

Sophorn took us on a food tour where we tried coconut sticky rice cooked in bamboo, spring rolls with rice paper that we watched being made, and saw a fish fermenting operation. I’ll admit the latter was a bit nauseating!

Learning how to make rice paper

Our final stops for the day were at a Buddhist temple and Wat Ek Phnom Hindu temple. Each temple we’d visited had been partially by the Khmer Rouge and most used as prisons during their reign.  The Hindu temple stone had been removed and used to build a dam to provide water for the Khmer Rouge. 

After, we said our goodbyes to Sophorn and went back to homeschool and retreat from the heat.  Too tired to leave our homestay, we decided to have dinner once again from our lovely hosts.  Goose fell in love with their ramen noodle soup (so much so that he had it for breakfast the next morning!) and we all enjoyed visiting with fellow travelers. The kids especially loved playing with Young Lee and Young Bee, the two sons of the owners.  They spent hours playing soccer in the driveway until it was time for bed.  Goose and Manji even woke early the next morning in hopes to see the two boys before they left for school!

Departing Lotus Blanc Homestay was bittersweet.  They were so kind and hospitable and, similar to Ekas Surf Resort in Lombok, we felt like we were leaving good friends behind.

Siem Reap

We departed Battambang after breakfast and rode three hours to Siem Reap.  We stayed at the Bayon Modern Residence, a major luxury compared to our previous two stays! After checking in, we spent the entire afternoon swimming. That evening, we ventured via tuk-tuk into town and were dropped at a restaurant near Pub Street. 

Siem Reap has a completely different atmosphere compared to our other stops in Cambodia.  Phnom Penh was extremely congested with tall buildings and did not feel pedestrian friendly at all.  Battambang was a much smaller city, more rural, and very quiet.  Made for tourists, Siem Reap would be a good place to stay for a while. It also appeared to have a big expat scene, catering to westerners.  We were thrilled to see some of the western influence after having an intense Cambodian experience for the past five days.

As soon as we made it to Pub Street, the kids saw a fish tank that advertised dead skin removal.  The kids had been wanting to do this for a while having heard about it from friends. So we obliged, and they laughed their heads off as the fish tickled their feet! We enjoyed traditional Khmer fare afterwards and meandered the markets before returning to the hotel via tuk-tuk.

The following morning was Manji’s birthday!!!  Our favorite middle child turned eight and he was so excited to celebrate—and so were we!  Our tuk-tuk driver and guide, Borin, picked us up and took us to the closest donut shop as a treat for Manji (ahh – a taste of home!).  We then rode an hour into the countryside to board a boat and visit the Kampong Phluk floating village.  It was hot and dusty, so much so that he handed us masks for a portion of the ride to the port.  We all had a flashback of COVID times and were a little resistant to putting them on.  Thankfully we did because by the time we arrived our masks were orange!

When we hopped on the boat, we took off down a tributary off of Tonle Sap lake and watched as we passed rows of men in the river up to their necks fishing.  The water was dirty and brown and to me, fishing or swimming in that water seems so unappealing, but for them, it is a necessity.  We continued down the river and eventually got out to walk a portion of the town.  During wet season the entire area is under water and kids take boats to get to school.  However, during dry season everyone was meandering about, working or playing. 

On our way to the floating village

After arriving, a lady asked us to purchase school supplies to deliver to a local school that provides English classes for kids.  We readily accepted the opportunity and headed to the school where we passed out pads of paper and pencils.  They were appreciative, but I think more grateful of the time we spent with them just chatting so they could practice their English. 

Manji and Goose went into the classroom and talked to each of the students as they asked “how old are you?,” “where are you from?,” and “what grade are you in?”  They are clearly working very hard and after their one-hour English class each day, they head to primary school for the rest of the day. We said our goodbyes to the kids and headed down the street to stop at a local shop to buy dried fish. Borin loved it. I’ll have to take his word for the uses of it because that flavor stuck with me the rest of the day, which wasn’t a good thing! 

Manji helping these sweet kids practice their English

We then headed on to eat lunch at a floating restaurant that housed its own crocodile farm! The crocs were huge, and the kids were a little worried that they might visit us during our boat ride!  After full tummies, we headed out on the boat once again. 

We spent the ride talking with our children about their thoughts on the level of poverty we’d just seen in the village.  There have been many, many times on this trip where we realize how blessed we are to live where we live, explaining to our children how not all kids have the privilege of education.  A lot of kids here work or beg on the streets to provide for their families.  The guides we’ve had and the hotel owners we’ve interacted with all realize that education is the key to having a more successful career in Cambodia, but still, it is not enough to where they could ever leave the country. 

We spent the second part of our day at the APOPO rat center where we learned about the rats that detect the undetonated land mines.  This amazing organization trains rats to smell TNT and then professionals safely remove the hazards.  We had the chance to watch a demonstration of what these rats can do and the kids even held one named Glenn.  We were all in awe that these scary looking creatures are such heroes (and they are, in fact, called HEROrats)! They are pretty cute once you see them up close and know what good they are doing!

Goose with HEROrat, Glenn

As we said our goodbyes to Borin that afternoon, Manji was eager to get on with his birthday celebration! We swam at the pool and received the kindest surprise from the staff at Bayon with tiramisu for the kids and a “Happy Birthday” serenade! That evening, we made our way back to Pub Street for Italian at CrepeItaly and some shopping among the markets.  Manji received some elephant pants from us as his birthday present and he now truly looks like a bohemian traveler! What a fun day celebrating our favorite 8-year-old!!

The next day we woke ready to take on Angkor Wat! I kept telling James how surreal it was that we were going to see the famous temple in person! We met our tuk-tuk and tour guide and headed out for the day right after breakfast.  Angkor Wat is within an entire major complex of temples.  We only saw a fraction of the temples in the area, which was plenty good for us. 

The family at Angkor Wat

Our guide, Sothea, walked us through the history of Angkor Wat. It started as a Hindu temple, but is now considered Buddhist.  Interestingly, the religions are closely related, with Hindus believing Buddha is the 8th reincarnation of the Hindu god, Vishnu. 

Goose walked with our guide the entire time asking questions and taking it all in.  We even visited a monastery beside the temple where a dozen kids Goose’s age were sitting.  Our guide informed us that some families send their kids to the monastery to get an education or to earn money.  For me, it is a sobering realization that this is a necessity for some families here.

As the kids slowly began to melt, we did a quick walk through the elephant temple and were on to lunch at an air-con restaurant. After, we went to Ta Prohm Temple, famous for it’s use as the setting for Tomb Raider.  This temple was everyone’s favorite, especially the trees that had overtaken the stones! We meandered through the temple, just enjoying the scenery, made prettier by the golden glow of the sunlight.  It was a fulfilling day of temple history and we rewarded ourselves once again with a swim that afternoon.  Our final night we spent, again, on Pub Street at an Indian restaurant called Royal Indian.  Bingo and I visited the store next door for a $2 massage and then met the boys for gelato.  It was the cherry on top of an amazing time in Cambodia!

Some final thoughts on Cambodia. First, it’s not the most comfortable place to travel.  It’s hot and the air quality is terrible from the fires used to rejuvenate farmland.  It’s still recovering from the civil war that ended in the 90s. And so many are impacted by the hidden landmines.  It is a very poor country and we realized the catch-22 when speaking with guide at Angkor Wat. He said most people don’t have enough money to afford to leave for a better life. It’s a very sad reality for us to comprehend but makes us so grateful for our home and the mobility we have.    

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