After a relaxing 10 days in a little mountain house in Koh Lanta that we shared with 6 cats, and some dreamy blue sky beach days, we bid goodbye to Thailand and made our way to Siem Reap in Cambodia. I’d heard a few bucket list mutterings about Angkor Wat that had stamped it onto the backpacker trail, but not much else, so it was thrilling to be going somewhere new.
I’d also been following a resourceful travel blog and Instagram account, Vegan Food Quest, run by British couple Paul and Caryl, who’d packed in their lives in the UK and been travelling for over 2 years before setting up a base in Siem Reap, where they run a Vegan Villa. So we made sure we timed our trip there to coincide with their availability and booked 4 nights in their villa. It was the first time we hadn’t pre-booked at least a month’s accommodation, and we boarded the plane excited by this uncertainty and flexibility. Somehow though, actually being in a place (as opposed to making plans on a screen), made the decision of whether to stay or move on even harder. In the end we decided that, while Siem Reap has a touristy centre, this centre has an endearing buzz (without a dark edge), and you didn’t need to travel far to get out of it and onto streets full of real life. The people were also generous with their smiles and, since we managed to find decent monthly accommodation deals, we felt it would be a good place to settle into and spend the majority of our 30 day visa. Most foreigners pass through Temple Town in a couple of days, ticking Angkor Wat off their list, but we spent 27 rich days being absorbed by and into it.
Our time in the Vegan Villa was incredibly special – we sat for hours round the kitchen table, bellies full of the softest, eggiest tofu scramble and homemade bread, sharing and laughing about travel and life stories. Paul and Caryl became our first vegan friends, and we met up with them for great food and cheap beers a few times after leaving the comfort of their home and recommendations.
Unfortunately our initial experience with our next host was the antithesis of this. Before leaving the UK we’d had the good sense to consult the trusty Money Saving Expert website and look for the cheapest option for accessing our money abroad. We then opened an account with Norwich & Peterborough, which doesn’t impose any fees for using a debit card internationally, saving us a very significant chunk of change. The only downside is the very low daily withdrawal limit, so you have to remember to draw frequently to cover big payments – something we often forgot to do when out on a tuk-tuk hungrily taking in the new sites and lights and sounds during our first few days in Siem Reap, with minds also cluttered with planning, house hunting and scouting out staples to feed our toddler. We only found and agreed on a new place to stay the afternoon before we moved in and, when we remembered that night that we needed to draw money, we figured that, rather than get a tuk-tuk back into town, we’d sort out dinner for our little one and just draw the following morning, since any reasonable person would accept 50% of the accommodation money upfront, with a promise to pay the balance the following morning. But this was a gross misjudgement – our host, a hard and unforgiving Indian woman, referred to as ‘Madame’ by her depressed looking staff of 2 and the tuk-tuk drivers she used, told us we had to come up with the money by 4pm, or leave. We begged and pleaded, explaining there would be no way we’d walk away after 1 night when we’d paid half the month’s accommodation, and that we’d be losing a lot of money to have to get it by other means immediately, which was of no financial gain to her. But she insisted that there were certain principles of business she lived by and upfront payments was one of them. And, on top of this hard line, she added that we’d have to pay an extra $130 for electricity – an extortionate figure devised by her because she couldn’t separately monitor the usage of each unit, something she’d failed to mention when we’d questioned her about electricity costs when viewing the property. With great effort we managed to negotiate the figure down to $100 – still a ridiculous amount for 24 nights’ usage. But, since she wouldn’t budge on the pre-payment, we had to get a tuk-tuk back to an ATM and pay the exorbitant cash withdrawal fees from our credit card company to get her the remaining 50% she required by 4pm. It left us feeling very glum. And we later discovered the extent of her selfish and deceitful character when the tuk-tuk driver we drove with every day and became good friends with told us that, after promising to pay him at the end of a week, she kept making excuses and didn’t pay him after nearly 2 weeks, before he stopped working for her and gave up on the $48 she owe him. It sickened me that she’d been so clear about her business principles, but had deceived this poor guy out of money he needed to live on and cover the petrol costs he’d outlaid to ferry her round! But we had to put our experience with her into the ‘general human experiences’ box and not the ‘Siem Reap’ or ‘Cambodia’ boxes because she wasn’t even local.
We had overwhelmingly good experiences with the Cambodian people we came into contact with, who were full of welcoming smiles and, for the most part gentle, almost submissive, in character. Having had experience battling the pushy and often gruff and grumpy tuk-tuk drivers and market vendors in Bangkok, cheerful encounters with polite and happy people, who immediately accepted our decline of their services, was refreshing and endearing.
Somewhat at odds with this experience though, we were woken at 5am after the first night in our new home to the sound of chanting and tinny music bellowing through loud speakers, directly into our brains. As the noise continued throughout the day, we consulted Google and discovered it must had been coming from a Cambodian wedding, which we dreaded to learn last 3 days.
That feeling of tranquility when there is suddenly no loudspeaker blaring out unfathomably loud and tinny music, and the fog in your mind lifts, is unbeatable. I now understand why music can be used as a torturous interrogation tactic! I even dreamt about the luxury of not having to feel the music consuming every part of my mind, only to be crudely woken at 5am the next morning to more tinny music (at which point we quickly finalised our plans for activities away from home)!
Somewhere along the line Cambodian weddings adopted the bizarre and pretty socially inconsiderate practice of noise pollution to broadcast their wedding ceremonies to the entire community. Yes, they play traditional Khmer music for they most part (until the afternoon and evening party, when techno and thumping beats tend to kick in), but the use of CDs and loud speakers cannot be a longstanding tradition, since they haven’t long existed, so it’s definitely evolved (to use the word loosely) to what it is today. I have no idea how our little tot managed to fall asleep for her daytime naps, or eventually give in to sleep at night, when she might as well have had her bed on the stage at a live concert! Unfortunately the long day time nap and lack of car for us to do ‘sleeping road trips’ (something we did in Thailand on the days we had no electricity and so no aircon on the island) meant we had to be subjected to mental music abuse as the tempo increased for the afternoon party. We must have had the poor fortune of staying near a wedding venue during the start of Wedding Season (once rainy season has wrapped up), and so had to endure a few 3-day broadcasts.
Loud speakers are well used in Cambodia – if it wasn’t wedding music blaring from 5:00 until 23:00, we’d be woken at 6:00 with chanting and more tinny music for another ceremony of sorts. The isolated mornings we woke up to the peaceful sound of birds and silence, distorted music too-full-of-techno-beats-for-a-morning would kick in by 7:00, just as the angle grinders and hammers for the resort being built at the neighbouring property chimed it. One morning Gareth climbed a tree along the dividing wall and saw 3 young builders had set up a boom box pointing directly at our tot’s room, music on at full force. To be fair, he managed to sign communicate that we had a baby sleeping and they turned it off for about an hour – that morning, at least.
You have to try very hard to escape the noise and dust from building work outside of the centre of Siem Reap, as it literally grows in front of your eyes, with all sorts of new houses and apartments springing up. While I’m sure those who came here before tourism started making it’s mark would feel lucky, we felt privileged to get the opportunity to see it in its current state – even in spite of our auditory experiences. Hipster coffee shops, (often veggie or at least vegan friendly) funky eateries, and bars are balanced out by more raw local shops, market stalls and restaurants with red plastic tables and chairs.
One afternoon we sat at Beep Beep Bar, a local bar where our draft beers were painstakingly poured from a makeshift keg in a cooler box, and where a jolly lady stood feeding sticks of sugarcane through a press 3 times each to make fresh juice for passing patrons. On either side of us were street food vendors, one selling the blackest barbecued fish and meats we’d ever seen, and the other selling nom heng, a glorious little snack of delicately sweet sesame coated pastry, briefly deep fried, giving it a slightly crispy outer and pillowy soft inner. If you could get the grumpy ladies to listen and accept your order (sometimes needing the help of a friendly fellow customer), at one shop along you could buy epic nom ga chai, deep fried rice dumplings stuffed with greens and chives, and served with a perfectly spicy chilli sauce – the pinnacle of street food, whether you’re vegan or not!
The river literally lights up at night, with colourful lights tracing the shapes of the bridges, and night markets on either side burst into life. Ambling through the traffic on the back of a tuk-tuk, past the bright, lively and very touristy Pub Street area (selling $0.50 draft beer) is great fun! While at times I might have been close to hating it in the early mornings, I loved Siem Reap while leaving the hustle and bustle of the centre, and bouncing along through pot holes on the back of a tuk-tuk, past roadside market stalls and street food vendors, with delighted squeals from children chasing each other outside little shops at the front of people’s houses, selling not much more than water, beer, small sachets of washing powder and coconuts, a cow or 2 grazing on the overgrown verges that led to a grimy little river, containing the odd person fishing in his underwear.
Since our drivers’ licences weren’t valid in Cambodia, we couldn’t hire a car like we had in Thailand and Malaysia, and instead made our way around on the back of a tuk-tuk. Taking life at tuk-tuk pace (without having to navigate both roads and different driving customs), and with a breeze in our faces, was refreshing. But it took me a while to relax. I’d taken and loved them years ago in Bangkok, but that was in my pre-becoming a paranoid parent days, before having developed an engrained need to have my tot firmly strapped into a car seat. So I clutched tightly onto this precious little bundle on every single journey, said many a silent prayer, and hoped like mad that we were right in thinking that the pace enforced by the state of the roads and dense traffic meant she was safe enough on our laps or wedged between us.
And then there was the stopping off to shop for groceries while someone waited in the heat for as long as you needed that didn’t sit right with me. Perhaps my upbringing in Africa (which I now look back on with a certain amount of guilt and shame because of how, for too long, I was oblivious to my privileged situation in relation to the poorer people I came into contact with, cleaning our house and working other menial jobs expected of them), and then having since lived away from such obvious class distinctions for 13 years in the UK, makes me feel uncomfortable when I’m in a situation where it feels as though I may be lording my privilege over others.
But having one driver, Borey, who we called whenever we needed to get somewhere, and hanging out and chatting with him while we waited for take-away orders to be cooked, or before bidding him goodbye when he dropped us home, meant we got to make a good friend and, through broken English, learn a great deal about real Cambodian life and culture. Not only did our tot develop a strong affinity for riding on tuk-tuks, but she also adored Borey, as he did her. By the end of our trip she’d opt to stay with him while we popped into a shop on the way home, and he’d jump in the back with her and they’d chatter away.
The main destinations Borey escorted us to were restaurants. Siem Reap is heaven for vegans! We were so glad to have had nearly a month to eat, eat, eat our way through the list of recommended restaurants Paul and Caryl gave us in their Vegan Villa, and a few others we discovered ourselves, as well as drop back past our favourites more than once. When you’ve been living in Asia for 5 months, despite loving Asian flavours, you feel like you’ve won the lottery to have your pick of cuisines from around the world when you want a break from rice and noodles! We devoured falafels, spicy Indian curries, an epic Israeli stew, various veggie burgers, a Swiss rosti with a creamy coconut mushroom sauce to die for, proper Neapolitan style thin-based pizzas with perfect tomato sauce, and then amazing Khmer stir-fries with their famous Kampot black pepper, or gooey, umami flavoured aubergine. And one of the all-time highlights of our travels was the BBQ straw mushroom skewers from Vitking House. These delicacies, mega meaty in both texture and taste (without any hint of mushroom), are one of the best things we have ever eaten in our lives! We were desperate to learn what magic went into transforming unpeeled straw mushrooms into food of the gods, as we’re sure that, not only could we make good money selling them in the west, but this secret formula would have vegans proudly skipping to barbecues, without any sense of missing out. With language barriers firmly in place though, we had to settle for eating as many skewers as we possibly could! Our lunch treat (and the packed lunches we took on our temple visits) involved stripping them off of their skewers and stuffing then onto crusty baguettes, with the crunchy pickled veg and loads of super spicy chilli sauce they came with, crisp lettuce and juicy tomato slices. Give up the search for the best sandwich you will ever eat!
Other than the offering of meatless-meaty mushroom skewers, I wouldn’t say Cambodian food is my favourite South East Asian cuisine, as not only is it typically meat heavy, but it tends to lack the addition of chilli and balance of flavours of other cuisines, such as Thai. Still, we had some memorable local food at a few restaurants, including Khmer Grill, Haven and My Little Cafe, and then there were so many other restaurants to sample that we ate more foreign food in 1 month than we have in the last 4 (and were too satiated to feel traveler’s guilt about it).
We were lucky enough to be in Cambodia during their annual water festival, when rowing teams race boats on the river, stalls selling all sorts, from kids’ toys, to farm equipment, to street food, set up on the roads along the riverside, and hoards of families, with excited kids tugging on helium balloon characters, amble along. Together with our new friends, Paul and Caryl, we melted our way through the festivities in the baking sun, until we got to a seating area, where we spent a few merry hours in the middle of hundreds of local people, drinking cheap Angkor beers and, for once, actually enjoying the music booming from the customary loudspeakers, even when the bangs from the fireworks raised the tempo to a somewhat manic level – I guess being part of the party made the experience very different.
A much more serene, but just as scorching hot, experience was visiting the ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat. Since I live my life compelled to follow the “if you’re gonna do it; do it properly” mantra, we had no option but to do the sunrise trip. Walking up the ancient paved path towards Angkor Wat in the dark was exhilarating, despite the hoards of others doing the same thing. There are so many spread out viewing areas that, once we found a spot to plonk ourselves down on, with the Angkor Wat temple spread out in the distance, and a patch of grass for our tot to run around on, we didn’t feel as though there were people right on top of us. And it was easy to block them out as we oohed and aahed and snapped away as the sky changed shades of orange and pink, while sipping our take-away coffees and munching our homemade marmite rolls.
Some people opt not to explore Angkor Wat immediately and head to other temples after sunrise, and then go back when the light for photos is better and the dawn crowds have dissipated. But we knew we had a finite window of opportunity for temple exploring with a two year old. So, once the sky was blue, we meandered into the Angkor Wat temple and wandered round with the crowds. It was incredible to take in both it’s imposing grandeur and it’s intricate detail when your eyes focused in on any single point.
We then did what’s referred to as the short tour, stopping off at 5 more temples within the complex, which weren’t quite as busy. Walking through ancient structures made up of massive stone blocks, and some delicately carved columns and entrance ways at Ta Prohm; seeing enchanting faces looming from the pillars set against a brilliant blue sky backdrop at Bayon; and casting your eyes over lines of elephants and people engaged in historical activities literally coming out of the bricks at the Terrace of Elephants is truly awe-inspiring.
On another day we decided to pay the small fortune to be driven a couple of hours out of Siem Reap to visit Beng Mealea, otherwise known as the Jungle Temple. The drive itself was a rich experience (along Route 66), passing rice paddies, and ponds full of waterlilies, or raised houses (some new and brick; others old and wooden), with harvested rice drying on sheets outside, and pairs of thin white cows reluctantly chewing on the leftover rice plants. The odd house has a shop in the front room, and patches of road are lined by street vendors, mostly all selling exactly the same thing: krolan (a slightly sweet and more salty street food snack of rice and red beans stuffed into bamboo, with a straw plug, and cooked on a fire). Loads of young kids play on the side of the road, and slightly older ones work the fields, or get carted somewhere on what our driver, with a chuckle, referred to as ‘Japanese Buffalo’ (seemingly homemade contraptions consisting of an engine, Harley Davidson-esqu handlebars, and a trailer, and which didn’t exude a strong sense of roadworthiness).
Beng Mealea was mesmerisingly magical! We were strangely lucky enough to visit in the pouring rain, when no one else wanted to explore, so literally had the temple ruins to ourselves. You couldn’t take more than a couple of steps without being compelled to take a photo, as it was so enchanting, with piles of massive sandstone bricks softened by emerald green moss in front of partially intact walls and pillars, entwined with ravenous jungle. The experience of feeling as though you were both part of a fantasy film, yet walking through history, was incredibly unique, and left us silent and introspective for most the journey home.
After a couple of busy weeks exploring temples and treating our tastebuds, we spent much of our last week hanging out with Borey, our tuk-tuk driver, as we invited him to join in on our family activities, like rice wine tasting and playing mini golf. He also took us on a tour of the countryside just outside Siem Reap and, mid-way through, we sat out on a bamboo deck (donated by monks for people to take time out of their busy lives and soak up some peace and tranquility, while gazing out across the electric green rice paddies), and we had a little picnic together. That green and those times are etched into the Special Memories compartment in my mind. We also took him out for a meal on our last night, and were all very sad to bid our goodbyes. In the 5 months we’d been travelling we hadn’t spent so much time with any other person, and he and our tot in particular had developed a very sincere bond, with little daily routines and conversations that will leave a void as we move on. He noted that he’ll miss our family chatter behind him while driving, and being treated like a friend for the first time by customers. And we will genuinely miss his ever-present smile and innocent, kind heart, as well as hearing “let’s go” as he kick started his moto and the breeze tickled our faces.
Travelling always comes with goodbyes, but most the time it’s to rich experiences, special places, and favourite foods. This time the leaving was more agonising because of the connections we’d made with new friends, who we may never cross paths with again, but who have tattooed their mark on our journey.