Reflections on Cambodia & Vietnam

I think it’s time to put a final wrap on our time in Southeast Asia, and what better way to do that than with a ‘reflections’ post!

It’s been 4 months since we hopped a plane from Amsterdam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia (someone needs to step up their blogging speed…) which brings me to my first point.

Double-decker planes would be much cooler if you were in business class.

It was on my lifetime bucket list to fly on a double-decker plane. I’m not really sure why, I think I’m just memorized by the fact that something that large can get off the ground and transport people and cargo thousands of miles. And when I say large, I mean TOO large. Since our trip, it’s been announced that the Airbus A380 will be discontinued. Economy was certainly nice, the legroom a non-issue, and the flight attendants impeccably dressed, but I imagine it would have been an entirely different experience had we been upstairs with full amenities…

But hey, at least I got to see the stairs, right?!

Cambodia has come a long way since the Khmer Rouge,

but they still have a long way to go.

A quick recap, the Khmer Rouge was the name for the communist party, lead by Pol Pot, which ruled from 1975 to 1979. During this time, over 2 million Cambodians died from starvation, disease, or were flat out murdered by the regime.

We learned about this time in Cambodia’s history when we visited the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, but even more impactful was the Killing Cave in Battambang. Our guide lost his parents at the age of 5 to the Khmer Rouge, and told stories of how kids – his friends – were regularly manipulated into giving information about their (or other) families so they could be tracked down and murdered.

Cambodia has gotten back on it’s feet in the years since the Khmer Rouge was defeated, although you can still see the effects of losing an entire generation of people. Especially so, when the majority of those people were the ones who would have passed down knowledge. You see this day to day in the food (traditional recipes don’t exist like they used to), in the education system (undervalued, underpaid, and corrupt), and in the medical system (the “good” doctors are foreign trained).

But Cambodia does take pride in it’s heritage and you can see this in the care and preservation they put into their temples like Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom in Siem Reap (although, money is tight so other countries sponsor this).

Sunrise at Angkor Wat.
The faces of Angkor Thom.
The Japanese government safeguarding the temple until 2022.

And relatedly…

Cambodia may technically be democratic, but it’s very much a one-party system.

As evidenced by the last general election, where the current prime minister won by a landslide, but when you essentially force the competition out of the running that’s to be expected. And the prime minister makes sure you feel the “support” of his party (CPP) at all times. There are signs everywhere reminding you of CPP.

For instance, notice the sign next to the entrance of the night market?

It’s no surprise that such corruption ultimately holds back the re-development of the country and prosperity of the general public.

Interestingly enough, in Vietnam, despite being a communist country, never once did we feel this looming government presence like you did in Cambodia.

and if you were wondering…

No, the ‘American War’ was not held against us as tourists.

Yes, we (as Americans) know it as the Vietnam War, but in Vietnam (go figure) it’s the American War.

We visited the War Remnants Museum when we were in Ho Chi Minh City, which gave us an entirely new perspective on the war – that of the Vietnamese people. We also visited the history museum while we were in Hoi An, which touched on the war in relation to Hoi An and nearby Da Nang. This was also interesting (and kind of like a punch in the gut) to see how proud the Vietnamese were to shoot down American planes/helicopters and capture the pilots.

The seat from a US helicopter shot down in near Cam An village – found in the Hoi An history museum.

Despite the atrocities committed on both sides and the resentment the Vietnamese people could rightly harbor, never once did we feel unwelcome or an attitude of hostility. At the end of the day, two governments fighting in the past should not equate to individual hatred today. People are people, and if you, as a tourist, act with kindness and respect then that’s generally what you get in return.

on a lighter note…

Same same, but different

This phrase turned into the motto of the trip. And in other words, whatever your expectations are while in Cambodia, go ahead and lower them by about 50%.

And honestly, I don’t think that it’s for lack of trying on Cambodia’s part. I think, especially as a Westerner, you expect payment to equal a certain level of the service. So, if you embrace ‘same same, but different’ and change your expectations then you can thoroughly appreciate the experience for what it is!

This was the “light bulb moment” I had in Koh Rong on our boat tour around the island. The day started out not at all how we expected, but we stopped trying to fight it and had a great time.

Driving in Cambodia is my father-in-law’s worst nightmare.

Another motto that emerged on this trip was “embrace the suck”, which was most often used during our road travel in Cambodia. Driving in Cambodia felt like you were in real-life Mario Kart. You slam on the gas to get ahead of everyone else, slam on the brakes to take a corner (avoid a scooter, pedestrian, slow car…), and in the meantime dodge all the bananas (potholes) Bowser keeps throwing at you. It’s not surprising that we ended up on the side of the road on the way to Kampot.

Part of the road on the way to Kampot, Cambodia.

And despite terrible roads (at least in Cambodia)…

Scooters are to Vietnam as bicycles are to Holland

They were everywhere in both countries, but more-so in Vietnam. I never stopped being amazed at the sheer numbers of them. Even their ride-share company, Grab, has an option for you to be picked up in on a scooter.

We had good intentions of renting scooters for a day to explore the surrounding areas, but, to be honest, it was a little overwhelming to think about trying to do that in the cities (since we aren’t experienced scooters) and when we were in Hoi An, Vietnam the weather wasn’t in our favor. Scootin’ in the cold rain wasn’t so appealing. We did have a small scootin’ excursion getting to and from our guest house in Ben Tre, Vietnam – I guess that will have to suffice.

Your normal commute in Ho Chi Minh City.

If you’ve seen one market, you’ve seen them all.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t check them out! You can find the typical souvenirs (elephant pants, anyone?) but also less mass produced items. And, it’s a chance to really see how locals shop as there’s generally a meat/produce/food section.

I’m all for the market shopping life (it’s how we primarily shop in the Netherlands), but I did have a hard time with the meat. No refrigeration and out all day…

Oh, and put your negotiating pants on and be prepared to get haggled. It’s just a fact of market life. It can be kind of overwhelming, but you might also end up with a badass shirt for cheap.

Vietnamese food is to die for!

This requires no explanation – just a gallery of deliciousness. My favorite dish? Hands down, Bun Cha – a Hanoian specialty.

The bum gun is a life-saver.

Bum gun?? What is a bum gun??

BOOM. That’s a bum gun!

Not a bidet, but a squirt hose connected to the toilet to uh… clean the boo-tay after well, ya know. Pooping.

I will be the first to admit that this entirely grossed me out and I just could not really see the logistics of it all.

It seemed messy. And wet. I resisted for a long time.

But, when one finds one’s self in some digestive distress the bum gun becomes your best friend on account of the toilet paper can be compared to sandpaper (if it’s even available) and well, there ya go.

Bum gun + Whitney = BFFL

I will freely admit, by the end of the trip, I liked it! I dare say I even miss it back here at home. The boys were such fans that there was a lot of discussion on how to popularize it in America, and the invention of the bum gun addition – a filter of sorts, placed over the top of the spout, that would provide the user with a blast of menthol with the water for a tingly fresh & clean feeling*.

*Patent pending (just kidding).

Bottom line (ha! see what I did there!), bum gun. Try it, you won’t be disappointed.

and finally…

Cambodia & Vietnam are two beautiful countries worth a visit.

I sincerely hope that we are able to go back one day and explore new areas of both.

Temples surrounding Siem Reap, Cambodia.
On the river in Kampot, Cambodia.
Views over Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Riverside in Hoi An, Vietnam.

And, in case you got tired of reading and just scrolled through for the pictures…

You can see our entire trip in video form!

Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3!

See ya later!

Dutch biking skills paying off…

Tot ziens,

Whitney

Koh Rong, Cambodia

Well friends, we’ve made it to our final stop in Cambodia; the beautiful island of Koh Rong!

After two nights at Eden Eco Village just outside of Kampot, we caught another bus to the beach town of Sihanoukville. From here, you can catch a speed ferry and in 45 min you’re on the island!

Now the time has finally come for me to publicly complain about the bus service that was Champa Mekong. Up to this point, all of our domestic travel (excluding the overnight bus) had been with Mekong Express, and despite having a few unforeseen problems which were out of their control, we had a great experience. Because of the time we needed to catch the ferry, we had to forego our beloved Mekong Express for the-bus-company-who-will-not-be-named-twice.

We arrived at the bus station and checked in for our VIP van – which we pre-booked and selected seats – without issue. It’s getting closer and closer to departure time, and we notice that there’s no 12 passenger van anywhere in sight. Only this bigger, maybe 20 person bus which is parked out front. 5 minutes before departure another even larger bus shows up and a whole crew of people pile out and head straight for the person yelling “Sihanoukville! Sihanoukville!” standing directly in front of that 20 person bus.

Can you see where this is going?

There was no VIP van. There was only that damn bus.

And despite our protests – this isn’t what we paid for! – we were told that that was the only bus going and we could either get on or rebook. AND to top it off, because we were fighting for what we purchased, we were the last on the bus. Sis, Terry & Shane ended up in the jumper seats in the aisle for the next 3 hours and I was shoved in the very back seat with a girl who didn’t give two sh*ts about personal space.

Needless to say, we were all ready to get off that bus. Lesson learned -Mekong Express or bust!

Anyway, back to Koh Rong. We had 4 glorious days in a (basically) beachside bungalow.

View from the bungalow.

If those aren’t the faces of two happy campers then I don’t know what is.

We did two main things while in Koh Rong: take a $10 boat tour around the island and dive. Let’s start with the $10 boat tour, which started out sketchy but ended up being a lot of fun!

First off, it took way more effort than expected to find these elusive $10 boat tours. I had read about them online from other blogs but none seemed to give any indication on how you actually go about booking one. The secret? You just walk up to any of the stands in the main area and ask about the $10 boat tour. You will instantly be bombarded with people trying to sell it to you.

When we purchased the tour the night before we were told there would be a max of 15 people, stops for snorkeling, fishing, time at 4k beach (a white sand beach on the other side of the island), swimming with the bioluminescent plankton after dark, dancing (YES – dancing) AND dinner + 2 beers and a whiskey & coke (lol) included.

We ended up on the “Three Brothers” boat tour, and what we got was a max of 25 people, snorkeling with kid-sized masks, one beer, fishing while drinking our whiskey & coke, time at 4k beach, dinner INCLUDING the fish we caught (didn’t see that coming), swimming with the bioluminescent plankton and dancing (it happened!).

Why was the boat so crowded? Turns out, another company sold tickets the night before and then at the last minute decided not to go, so they transferred those people to the Three Brothers tour. Guess who those people were…

Ya – we (along with a few others) were the reason for the overcrowding.

*shrugs*

Once the boat got on its way we could spread out a little and it didn’t feel so cramped.

So, we were off to a different start, but as I mentioned before if you expect about 50% less than what you imagine then Cambodia will never disappoint you. From that point on, we just went with the flow and ended up having a great time. There were a few other small issues along the way, but we just soaked them up as part of the day!

Back on the boat after snorkeling.
Sis attempting to catch a fish while drinking her whiskey & coke.
Terry caught 4 fish!
(Poor) Little Mermaid reenactment on 4k beach.

I like to call this next series “Hold me like those girls on Instagram”.

Very freshly caught fish for dinner. Oddly enough, Terry wasn’t a fan.

Not pictured is the bioluminescence on account of it being – ya know – pitch black water. Which, I would like to give a little shout out to Shane here because he loves to dive but he has an irrational fear of open water, or should I say open water in which he can’t see what’s around. But, with a little peer pressure and #YOBO (you only ‘Bode’ once) chanting, he jumped in, long enough to see the plankton and call it a day.

Also not pictured were the two adorable brothers who were the co-captains to their dad and grandpa that day and were THRILLED when we gave them a pack of Oreos and a can of Pringles as a “tip” for helping out.

Sissys at 4k beach.

Next up, for Shane & I at least, diving!

We had planned to dive two days, but since Shane was recovering from his Kampot sickness, we were only able to go once. We haven’t been in over a year, so we had a one-day refresher course which made for a nice, relaxing day of diving, but man – what a tease! Diving is just the greatest.

Awkward family photo?

I will say, Shane did push his limits a little here with his recovery time. For those non-divers, you really shouldn’t dive if you’ve had respiratory or sinus problems because it makes it hard or even impossible to equalize pressure as you go under. Shane felt good again, but you know how it is after a cold, things are still just a little bit off. All was OK until after the 2nd dive when he about gave the guide a heart attack. He must have popped a blood vessel in his nose because it started bleeding and was collecting in the bottom of his mask. That, mixed with a little water, and he looked like Carrie when he took his mask off at the surface.

So, uh – lesson learned.

Other than that, our time in Koh Rong was spent playing on the beach and

OH!

We almost adopted a cat.

The first morning, we picked a random, cheap place for breakfast, and a cat and her kitten came up to the table. This wasn’t really anything new because there are (sadly) strays everywhere. This lil’ missy though, hopped right up into Shane’s lap, and where mama went – baby followed.

Naturally, our kitty loving heart-strings were pulled. Shane ate breakfast with both of them in his lap (because how to do you even say no?). By day 2, she was named Xena (after the warrior princess) and by day 3 we were Googling how to get her out of Cambodia and back to the Netherlands. Turns out, since Cambodia is a “high-risk” country for rabies it’s a 3-month process. Had it only been a 1-month wait (like it was for Meatball) I’m pretty sure Shane and Xena would have had an Airbnb in Phnom Penh until she could fly. Alas, we left our warrior princess in Koh Rong, but during our short time with her, she got all the breakfast snuggles and hotdog pieces a kitty could want.

Waiting not so patiently for her hotdog.

Koh Rong was the type of place that just grew on you. Despite this island being my idea, I was a little bit nervous about coming because I had started to read about how it was a “backpackers paradise”, but not in a good way. Yes, there was a party every night on the main beach, but we stayed far enough down that it wasn’t really an issue. And you could very easily find parts of the island where there was no trace of the party mentality. The longer we stayed, the less I wanted to leave and, to be honest, the more I wish we had stayed on some of the other, even more remote beaches. All in all, I’d say Koh Rong has something for everyone.

And, if you ever find yourself in Koh Rong, you should wander down one of the alleys to find Sigi and his delicious authentic Thai food! He’s a delightfully sarcastic one-man show, cooking staples from his home-county while he sings to Shania Twain. We went there twice.

And you should definitely follow up any meal with a $1 shake. Blended fruit + milk (or not) makes for the most delicious treat.

Koh Rong felt like a relaxing retreat after the (fun) but hectic first 10 days of the trip. It was nice to dive & spend some time in the sun.

Especially since the 36 hours after leaving Koh Rong would be spent traveling to our next destination…

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam!

Tot ziens,

Whitney

Eden Eco Village: Kampot, Cambodia

Our stay at Eden Eco Village was one of the things I was most looking forward to on this trip.

Like a lot of other highly-anticipated things, this one didn’t live up to my expectations, and to no fault of Eden. Let’s see, where do I begin.

Oh yes, this will do.

If you remember from my last post, on our way to Phnom Penh we ended up with a flat tire. After leaving our friends the night before, we took another VIP van with Mekong Express to the town of Kampot. I would like to reiterate that this was in no way a reflection of the service we received from Mekong Express. When your “highway” looks like this, then there’s bound to be a mishap…

Turns out, “highway” number 4 from Phnom Penh to Kampot is quite possibly the worst road I’ve ever been on in my life. First, driving in Cambodia is nerve-racking, to say the least. The first rule of driving in Cambodia is “there are no rules”. Theoretically, it seems that the driving rules are similar to those in America or Europe, but instead of you know, staying in a line of traffic, it’s “gun-it-until-you-reach-a-slower-object (car, scooter, pedestrian)-slam-on-breaks-swerve-and-keep-going”.

This style driving, combined with a case of the “Irish flu” from the night before, a pot-hole riddled “highway” and 30°C (86°F) temps made for a fun ride. And if you’re Shane, who came down with the actual flu… well. Tie him up and throw him in a river because he was dead. (Sorry Marsha, we didn’t tell you this at the time…)

What was wrong with the van? We hit a pothole so big that it knocked the spare tire loose from underneath and we were dragging it. After about 30 minutes it was successfully reattached and we were on our way again.

Stuck and not quite sure for how long…

A 3-hour trip turned into a 5-hour trip, but regardless we made it to Kampot. I can’t say this enough. The road was so bad at one point I looked at the GPS, it said we were about 30km (18mi) away. Think of a normal highway, you’d be there in 15 min? We still had 1 HOUR of travel time left.

Phomn Penh to Kampot.

Eden Eco Village was located about 5km (3mi) outside the city of Kampot. Our instructions to get there: “Take a tuk-tuk across the new bridge and down the dirt road until you see the signs.”

Hm. Ok then.

To our somewhat delight, this worked!

We showed the tuk-tuk driver and he knew exactly where to go. Over a newer looking bridge and down a dirt road until we saw the signs for Eden. That part was delightful. What was not so delightful was the dirt road itself, which was red mud, puddles, and potholes the entire trip pushing Shane to the edge of vomit.

I was most excited about this place because we were staying in a bungalow on the side of the river where you could literally jump off your bungalow porch and swim!

Remember how I said Shane was on the edge of vomit?

The only thing he did off the edge of our bungalow was puke. Multiple times. Poor guy.

The view from our bungalow. At least he had easy puke access, right?

My idyllic time at Eden was off to a great start. A sick husband was not something I (or he) anticipated.

We only had two nights here, which was and wasn’t enough time. I think if Shane had been healthy then we would have loved to stay longer. But with him sick, and the relenting heat (and – sorry Eden, my only true complaint) weak fans in the bungalow it wasn’t as magical as I had imagined it to be.

But, as we would come to learn by the end of our time in Cambodia, having expectations is your first mistake. Better to just experience things for what they are.

On our only full day, I knew I wanted to swim in the river and I wanted to do something active. We had been mostly touring cities, so now that we were actually out in the countryside I wanted to see it. Eden provided (for free) bicycles and a list of activities in the area so I forced Sis to go on a hike with me. The boys, not up for an athletic adventure, stayed behind while Sis and I went out to tackle White Mountain.

Following what I would refer to as “country boy” directions – “turn left on the road by the school that goes through the two overhanging trees towards a chainlink fence” – we had a lovely ride through the surrounding local village.

And back through the village when we missed the turn.

And for another time when we missed the turn again.

Third time’s a charm though and we found the path towards the chainlink fence all the while getting waved at by the friendliest children on their way to school.

Biking through the village.
On the right path now! White Mountain straight ahead.
“Park the bikes on the side of the ‘nicer’ road and take the path up.”

Our directions described the hike as “short but strenuous with a little bit of scrambling”.

That description was 100% accurate as Sis and I were gasping for air by the time we reached the top. The view was worth it though.

A successful hike required an afternoon dip in the river!

Tubes provided!

Keeping with the theme, this wasn’t as relaxing as expected, cause you know… river currents! HAH! It was refreshingly cool but MAN did you have to work to stay in front of the bungalows! Something about that flowing river…

Dear Eden, I suggest ropes with a carabiner to attach you to your bungalow for worry-free floating..

And that about wrapped our time at Eden and in the Kampot area.

As I said before, I was so excited to come here but because of the road, it did feel very isolated. It’s definitely the type of place you go to enjoy nature and just relax with no agenda. I mean look at this bungalow!

But, being isolated when one of your group is sick made me a little nervous. And, to top it off, we discovered during our time in Eden that Terry picked up a foot parasite (sorry Terr Bear if you didn’t want this on the blog!). No worries, it turns out they are quite common – even in America – and he could have gotten it anywhere. He took it in stride, even named it Riley, and it was cured with a bumpy ride on the back of a random guys scooter to the “good” hospital for medicine.

If you have the chance to visit Eden Eco Village though, I would definitely do it. The bungalows are beautiful, they are (as the name suggests) eco-friendly by using solar power and reusing where possible. And they work very closely with the local community, giving them jobs and teaching English along the way. And I cannot say this loud enough, but THE FOOD! Ah, it was so amazing. I mean look at this salad!

All the food was made to order and literally, nothing was bad. I think we might have tried the entire menu. If you go, don’t skip the coconut milkshakes!

Morning view from our bungalow.
Just for you, Mom!
Sunset at Eden.

So, while it seemed like nothing went quite right in the two days since our group of 6 became a group of 4, all in all, our time in Kampot was too short.

We headed out the next day for our final stop in Cambodia,

the island of Koh Rong!

More to come soon!

Tot ziens,

Whitney

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Our last stop as a group of 6 was the capitol of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.

When we first arrived, it took us ~7 hours on an overnight bus to get from Phom Penh to Siem Reap. The drive time from Battambang back to the capitol city was supposedly 5 hours so we opted for a daytime drive. I say supposedly because we would come to learn that whatever the stated travel time is, go ahead and add one hour to that.

After our fantastic day tour of Battambang, we caught a 7am VIP van with Mekong Express and we were on our way…. for about 3 hours.

…tire troubles.

Yep, that’s the tread almost completely off the tire.

It goes without saying, but this had to be fixed before we could keep going. So, everyone hopped out of the van and headed across the street for a bathroom and some snacks while our (poor) driver frantically tried to figure out where he could have the tire repaired. For some reason, Sis and I came back to the van. Maybe I was coming to take this picture? I don’t really remember. What I do remember is the driver telling Sis to get in the van and Sis telling me to get in the van.

Door closes and off we go.

…and they never saw Whitney & Kelsey again.

Ok – not true. What we figure is our driver didn’t want to take off with all our luggage and no witnesses, which I appreciate. Had we spoke Cambodian, I’m sure this would have been communicated. All part of the adventure, right?

We ended up at the tire repair place and 15 min later we were back in action!

The tire repair shop. You’ll notice that we (two white girls) were as much of a novelty here as the repair shop was to us.

We picked up the rest of the van crew, and we were off again! Turns out, Shane & Terry passed the time by discussing how they were going to break the news to our dad that they lost us. *shrugs*

The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful, with only one complaint: no karaoke! If your van is going to advertise karaoke on the outside, which it did, then you better give a girl some tunes!

#sorrynotsorry Michelle. Blame your husband.

Another squishy luggage-packed tuk-tuk ride took us to the hotel.

Hotel views.

Now, I will preface this next statement with this: Phnom Penh is a huge city, and we really only explored within 15-20 min. walking distance from our hotel. With this in mind, Phnom Penh was probably my least favorite city on the whole trip.

Before we came, I had heard from others about the “rawness” of Phnom Penh. There was poverty, prostitution, beggars, people with missing limbs on the streets. I will say, that none of those things are the reason why I didn’t care for Phnom Penh. Honestly, I think you can find all of those things in any major city across the world if you look hard (sometimes not even hard) enough. I just didn’t feel like Phnom Penh had any character.

If you consider the history of the country and the fact that only 40ish years ago Phnom Penh was essentially emptied of its inhabitants when they were sent to the rice fields, it makes more sense. The Khmer Rouge did an excellent job at wiping away Cambodian culture.

I will say, I never felt unsafe in Phnom Penh. There are definitely nice places to stay (like our beautiful hotel), and good places to eat and drink. We had a great few days here so I certainly don’t think the city was ‘bad’, but when we left for our next destination after 3 nights, I was ok to go.

One thing I was not ok to leave was the cat cafe we stumbled upon on our first night!

See that naked, perfectly posed cutie in the back? His name is Steamed Chicken. (hah!)

On a more serious note, we came to Phnom Penh with one main goal: visiting the killing fields.

As I mentioned in the Battambang post, there are killing fields and killing caves scattered throughout the country. These serve as mass graves for the millions of people murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Choeung Ek is the closest to Phnom Penh, ~15km (9mi) outside of the city and is thought to be the largest in the country.

Once an orchard, this field turned into a holding cell and killing area. People were brought here in trucks, held in wooden buildings until the time, and shortly after arrival killed. Most of the killings were by blunt force trauma with various items, or stabbing, as bullets were expensive to come by so they weren’t to be “wasted”. Anywhere from 15 – 300 people were brought at one time. One of the most harrowing accounts (from the audio guide – highly recommended) was the story of the music. In general, music was banned under the Khmer Rouge regime, but here they played loud music to drown out the screams of the victims.

Today, you can walk through the fields. Some mass graves have been blocked off with fencing, but most are just seen as depressions in the ground. To this day, bones, clothing, and other items can be found in the area.

Depressions in the ground are what remains of the mass graves.
Children were killed along side their parents to prevent future revolutions.

Now, the fields are home to a stupa (a type of memorial, in Buddhism) which houses the bones of those killed here. Those found have been analyzed by archeologists to determine the relative age and, based on the skull damage, with which tool they were murdered. They are arranged accordingly inside the stupa. A memorial ceremony is held here each year on May 9th to commemorate those who lost their lives.

The killing fields, like the killing cave, were definitely not an easy thing to visit, but the history of these places should be learned and remembered.

Our other main Phnom Pehn tourist attraction was the Royal Palace.

The Royal Palace at night.

Lucky for us, we could literally see it from our hotel!

The Royal Palace is actually more of a Royal Palace compound. There are multiple buildings within the gates; the image above is the main pavilion where the King would address the public.

Inside the walls, there are a number of buildings which are used for state visits (dinners, ceremonies etc.), office spaces, Royal stupas (memorials to the royal families throughout history) and even the Royal residence of the King.

Other than that, we spent the rest of our time in Phnom Penh just soaking up our last days together!

Perhaps you’ve noticed in some of the pictures, but we’ve all been carrying fanny packs this trip – or FP for short. The FP idea started a few months ago in the SEA 2018 group chat – what’s everyone bringing? How much are you packing? What kind of bag are you taking? I, in passing, mentioned that Shane picked up an FP in the store (he says as a joke) but the idea was quickly vetoed by me. Ya know, nerd alert!

Fast forward to the first night of the trip.

Steve & Michelle – “We have a surprise for you!”

Sis & Terry – “Us too!”

THEY BOTH HAD FANNYS FOR THE GROUP!!

Sis & Terry found their fannys during their first stop in Koh Lanta, Thailand. They became our day-to-day packs.

Shane modeling his daytime FP in the tuk-tuk.

Steve & Michelle picked out each fanny to match everyone’s personality and these became our “Party Packs”. Which leads me to my next photo.

Terry WON the party pack game.

This picture was taken at dinner on our last night together. It was so realistic looking that the waitress COULD NOT look Terry in the eyes and just giggled every time she came to the table.

So – I would like to publicly say… I was wrong. Fanny packs are awesome and actually very practical travel accessories! It’s a great way to carry all your valuables, safely in a crowd.

We did manage to take some nice photos on our last night out, which ended in spontaneous karaoke at a non-karaoke bar and a handful of new friends.

Terry’s song choice you might wonder? A song that knows no global limits. Billy Ray Cyrus – Achy Breaky Heart.

And with that, our time in Phnom Penh and as a group of 6 was over. The next morning, with sad hearts (and slight hangovers) we said goodbye to Steve & Michelle.

Thanks for the memories, friends!

#YOBO (you only ‘bode once)

Next up, our foursome heads to Kampot, Cambodia!

Tot Ziens,

Whitney

Video: Southeast Asia 2018/19 – Part 1

One year, six months, and thirteen days. That’s how long it’s been since I (Shane) have written a blog post.

Why such a long break? Well, mostly I blame it on writing my PhD thesis – it consumed my life for the better part of two years. But I also blame it on us buying a GoPro. A couple years ago, I filmed us snowboarding in the Alps and then later compiled the footage into a mash-up of our trip. I enjoyed this enough that it more-or-less became a thing: Whitney blogged and I made videos. Granted, this doesn’t account for countless trips/posts without a video…but that’s not the point. The videos are just a fun way to relive the trip – our own version of ‘home movies’, if you will.

So this is how it went, until another faithful snowboarding trip last year, when I managed to lose essentially every electronic device we own. No more GoPro. No more videos.

That is, until now! For those following along, you know Whitney has been chronicling our recent trip to Southeast Asia (with lots more to come!). For this trip, I once again had my (new) GoPro in hand and we did our best to film it all. Now, my task is to condense four weeks of travel into a few videos; the first of which is now complete!

Obviously, there is more to come – I still have two more weeks of travel, corresponding to 25gb of footage! I’m still figuring out my new video editing software (Adobe Premiere Pro, for those interested), so the coming video(s) will (hopefully) improve. In the meantime, stay tuned for more posts from Whitney!

Until next time,

Shane

Battambang, Cambodia

Battambang was one of my favorite days from our entire trip.

Views over the Battambang countryside.

Battambang is both a province and a city located about 3 hours west of Siem Reap.

Battambang city is the third largest city in Cambodia in terms of population size, but this isn’t what necessarily drove me to want to visit. When planning the trip, I found the Battambang Dream Bungalows and that was that. I needed to stay there. Luckily, there were no protests from the rest of the crew.

We were able to travel there by bus using the company Mekong Express. I would highly recommend them for getting around Cambodia if that is of interest to anyone. All the busses/vans we took with them were clean, you could book ahead online and reserve your seat, there was a bathroom break halfway, and they gave you a bottle of water for the journey. And despite a few mishaps which were out of their control (more on that later), they were more reliable and had nicer staff than the other company were forced to use later on.

“Small-bladder Sis” was excited for the bathroom break.

We arrived in Battambang city at night and had to take a tuk-tuk about 8km outside of the city to reach the bungalows. 2 tuk-tuks, 6 people, and luggage made for a squishy yet entertaining ride.

Despite our heavy load, the scooter managed to make it to the bungalows and we were greeted by the owners. We came here with no real plans; during dinner, the owner asked if we would like information about a tour the next day so we jumped at the opportunity! As I said at the start, this ended up being one of everyone’s favorite days from our entire trip.

The next morning we woke up to beautiful views of the rice paddies and the non-stop party music from a nearby wedding. I say non-stop because it started at 3am and went for a literal 24 hours. Apparently, wealthy Cambodians have a 3 DAY long party. Your average person, only one full day. Anyway, two tuk-tuks came to pick us up and off we go! First stop… bamboo sticky rice! Shane was thrilled.

View over the rice paddies from bungalow property.
Our chariots for the day.
We’re most attractive when we eat.

Since we told our guide we had sticky rice before we only stopped for a quick snack and went on to our next stop: rice paper! This was insanely cool and just really makes you appreciate the hard work that goes into food preparation. It’s so easy to be detached from where food comes from, but when you see a chicken outside that is probably someone’s dinner, or in the case of the rice paper, you realize someone sat for hours to make these, it really starts to put things into perspective.

Rice paper is made by first soaking the rice overnight in water, then it’s ground and the water filtered out through a cloth. The remaining mixture is put in small batches on a heated plate, covered with a metal lid to cook (long enough to get one going on the 2nd hot plate), then it’s removed and draped over the wooden (rotating) sticks. The 2nd person lays out the rice paper to dry on the bamboo sheet and when it’s full it goes into the sun for a few hours. Then, ta-daaa! Rice paper for delicious spring rolls (for example)!

We were also able to see how rice wine was made. Long story short, a lot of rice, heat, fermentation, wine! But don’t let “wine” fool you, this is no wine. This is 80 proof rice liquor, and to sweeten the deal it’s seasoned with cobra.

Yes, like the snake (poor buddy).

But, when in Rome Cambodia, right?!

Can’t say the cobra wine will become a staple in our house, but I think I (oddly enough) liked it a little better than the mango version.

Mango (right) and cobra (left) rice wine.

Now that we’ve been properly liquored up, it was time to head to the famous Bamboo Train! I had done some internet stalking before the trip, so I knew exactly what the Bamboo Train looked like and I was THRILLED to try it! As for everyone else, I’m not sure they really knew what to expect.

I mean, did you expect the Bamboo Train to be a bamboo platform with a motor on the back?

Ready for our ride on the Bamboo Train!

A quick history:

Back during French colonial times, a national railway system was built, but it was shut down during the Khmer Rouge. In the 1980s, after the civil war ended, the people of Cambodia used what was left of the tracks and spare abandoned parts from the war to create the Bamboo Train. It provided a quick way for locals to travel between villages through the countryside. I say quick because this bad boy can go up to 50 km/h (30mph)!

What’s this like, you ask? Click here to see for yourself!

As you might notice, there’s only one track but it goes in both directions! Soooo, what happens if you run into someone on your way? Everyone gets off one train, it’s taken apart, the 2nd train passes, the first train is put back together, and off you go again!

Shane and Terry assisted in the dismantling.
Starting up the train…

I will warn, even though our guide insisted that this train was “used by the locals!” it was certainly a tourist trap. Once upon a time it was used by the locals, but the only people we saw on the train were clearly tourists, and the train stops in a small village full of shops with t-shirts, drinks, and small children trying to sell you things. We came home with a lot of bracelets…

Is it touristy? Definitely.

Is it worth the $5 round trip ticket? Hell yeah!

So grab a beer before you board and enjoy the ride!

Next up, lunch! Yes, all this happened before lunch. It was a busy day. We requested somewhere local and authentic for lunch so our drivers took us to a lovely spot on the river, which also happened to back up to our after-lunch destination: Banan Temple.

Banan Temple was cool, but what I remember most about Banan Temple was the stairs… 376 to be exact.

Towards the top…

After the temple we went to our final destination, which was actually a 2 part event and probably the most impactful; partly due to history and partly due to nature.

Part 1: The Killing Cave

Yes, it’s exactly as the name suggests.

I don’t know if this was for immaturity and lack of caring about history or if this isn’t really taught in American schools, but I honestly don’t remember learning about the Khmer Rouge. None of us did. (Any high school history teachers want to comment?). My parents certainly remember it since they lived through it in the news, but we were very much nieve.

In case you’re like us and know very little – the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia between 1975 – 1979. The communist movement came to Cambodia, similar to Vietnam, as they tried to free themselves of French colonization. In 1975 the communist regime, the Khmer Rouge, and their leader, Pol Pot, took over Phnom Penh (the capital) to officially begin their reign.

In an effort to make a ‘classless’ society, almost everyone from the city was sent out to the agricultural areas to work where if people didn’t die from the journey, they died from the hard labor, poor living conditions, and starvation.

Additionally, to make this “ideal” society, they stripped away all freedoms. No school, no gatherings, no religions, if you can think of it – it was most likely taken away. On top of it, all educated people were killed. Doctors, teachers, if you wore glasses – all were murdered. All in all, approximately 2 million people were killed during this 4-year time frame.

Which brings us to the killing cave.

There are many killing caves and killing fields, where mass murders took place, all throughout the country. This one, Phnom Sampeau, is located about 11km (7mi) outside of Battambang city. You had to visit with a guide, and as it turns out, our guide (and tuk-tuk driver) lived through the Khmer Rouge regime. He was separated from his parents at the age of 5 and never saw them again.

The picture above can’t even do it justice, but this was a deep cave. Here, men and women were brought to the opening of the cave at the top and hit in the back of the neck to push them through the hole and into the cave. If you were lucky, you died from the blow to the neck or from the fall. If you were unlucky, you survived the fall but had no escape. Our guide told us how people who survived the fall would essentially lay there, waiting to die while other bodies fell on top of them.

Absolutely unspeakable and completely unimaginable.

And while this wasn’t the most upbeat part of our day, it was certainly worthwhile to visit and necessary to learn. It really helps you understand the country as it is today.

Not the killing cave, but another nearby with a better hight perspective.

Part 2: The Bats!

Nearby to the killing cave is yet another cave, but with a little nicer story. This particular cave houses over 3 million bats! Every night about sunset the bats fly out to forage. This has become such a spectacle, that tourists and locals alike grab a drink and a snack, and line the streets to watch the bats leave the cave. It takes over an hour, by the way, for the cave to completely empty.

Naturally, we followed suit!

Better cover your beer or you might get an unexpected treat…

This was probably one of the coolest natural phenomenon (can I call it that?) that I’ve ever seen.

And with that, our tour of Battambang was complete! The day was long and jam-packed but worth every second.

With our fantastic tour guides / tuk-tuk drivers!

Next stop on the trip (and our final stop as a group of 6)

Phnom Penh!

Tot ziens,

Whitney

Kompong Khleang, Cambodia

Our time to Siem Reap wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, the Tonle Sap!

Using Siem Reap as home base, we were able to take a half day tour of one of the floating villages located on the Tonle Sap lake. It sounds obvious, but one thing Shane and I try our best to do when we travel is to support the local economy. We try to stay in hotels, eat at restaurants, and use guides from the local community to make sure that our tourism dollars are actually supporting the place we’re visiting. Of course, this can’t always be done – lack of reliable information, budgets, etc. – but, generally speaking, finding a local tour guide is easy to do.

Accessible from Siem Reap, there are 4 main floating villages. In doing tour research, I found out that the closest village, Chong Kneas, is basically a tourist trap and essentially none of your money goes back to the locals. Scratch that one off the list.

I ended up settling on the furthest village (~55km; 35mi), Kompong Khleang, because of a “Community First” tour I found online. I really liked it because a person who actually lives (or in our case, grew up in) the village is the one who gives the tour, and all the money paid goes back into the village itself – to the school, to their clean water project, and of course to pay the guides. I also especially liked it because the tour included stops for snacks. Boy, do I love snacks!

So, as I mentioned before, our guide grew up in Kompong Khleang and he was eager to take us to his village. We were picked up at the hotel in the morning and headed off to our first stop – bamboo sticky rice!

Bamboo sticky rice cooking.

Rice, beans, sugar, coconut & coconut milk mixed together and is placed inside a piece of bamboo. It’s cooked over a wood fire for a few hours and presto-chango! A warm delicious treat! To get the rice back out, you kind of squish the bamboo with your hands and then you can peel it like a banana.

Group shot with our sticky rice!

Our next snack stop was more than just eating snacks. We actually got to see how the snacks were made! We tried doughnuts (see Sis pic above), ginger cakes – which tasted exactly nothing like ginger – and ice cream cones made from rice and sesame seeds.

Terry trying his hand at ginger cakes. Ginger cakes because they LOOK like ginger, not taste like it!
Time-lapse ice cream cone making (nonstop from 6am – 2pm every day.) Thanks for the video, Sis!

Now that we were sufficiently sugared up, we made our way to the lake. As I mentioned before, the Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. We happened to be there during the dry season (Nov. – May). During this time the lake is about 3000 sq. km (1150 sq. miles) and only about 2m (6.5ft) deep. During the rainy season the lake grows. I mean REALLY grows – to 10,000 sq. km (3850 sq. miles) and a max depth around 14m (45ft.).

Kompong Khleang is actually a stilted village. In the dry season you can see this, but in the wet season when the lake swells, the houses appear to float. Despite being stilted, we needed a boat to get around. So, we hopped in and headed to the Bridge of Life school, which is supported by the tour.

I would just like to take a moment to discuss this boat. Now, don’t get me wrong, never did we feel unsafe on the boat, but when you start noticing how said boat functions you can’t help but laugh and be amazed all at the same time. If you look at the above picture, straight down the middle to the back. That container? The fuel. The rudders? Connected with rope. Gas pedal like a foot pump. Hey, it got us from A to B and back again, but we were definitely not expecting it!

Anyway, back to the Bridge of Life school. We arrived when school was in session so we got to watch the last few minutes of school with the cutest kindergarten-aged kids in their matching school uniforms sing their closing day songs. Out of respect for the kids and their families, we didn’t take pictures of them, but I can show you their one-roomed schoolhouse precariously perched on stilts with floorboards I wasn’t entirely sure would hold all 6 of us adults.

The Bridge of Life school.
Inside the school.

Do you want to know what’s really cool? In America, we have school busses. In Kompong Khleang they have school BOATS! The kids who live further away are picked up and taken home in a school-boat! This really serves two purposes – it assures the kids will make it to school and it allows the parents to not lose income by taking time off to bring the kids.

On top of having school boats, this school is extra adorable. Ya know why? See the ramp going up to the school? One side has slats, for walking up. The other side is smooth, and it’s hard to tell in the picture, but the wood is extra smooth – shiny even. It’s for the kids to slide down when they leave! We got to watch this happen and they all loved it!

Terry and Steve trying out the slide.

Outside of teaching, the school does other things for the community as well. They have a sewing school (a useful trade) in the front of the building as well as their own water filter to provide free clean drinking water (and encourage reusing water bottles).

After the school, we walked around the village for a little bit then it was back on the boat for some more touring!

Kompong Khleang Village. During the wet season this would all be under water.
We passed truly floating villages on our tour.

After a few hours on the lake, we headed back to land and back to Siem Reap. Since we were home by early afternoon, we spent a happy afternoon by the pool and followed it up with the night market and infamous Pub Street!

And with that, our quick time in Siem Reap was up.

Next up, Battambang!

Tot Ziens,

Whitney