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June 28, 2011 / thenextmeal

“You want Coconut?” – 4 Days in Cambodia (aka Cambodge)

Sorry for the delay in posting about the end of our trip throughout SE Asia.  We spent the past 3 weeks finding an apartment, hanging with our nephew, and catching up with family.  We’re off on our next adventure throughout the coast of California, but didn’t want to miss the opportunity to update our loyal readers on our final seven days in SE Asia, spent in Cambodia and Malaysia.  Happy reading!

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We instantly fell in love with Cambodia.  From the moment we stepped off the plane in Siem Reap, smack dab in the middle of the runway and walked ourselves into the pristine, modern, ridiculously efficient airport (we seriously cleared visa processing, customs, money exchange, baggage claim, and were in a cab within 15 minutes), we knew this place was special.  This sentiment was confirmed when we got into our taxi van with the steering set on the right side of the vehicle, even though the country drives on the right side of the street, and the friendliest and most sincere driver welcomed us to his homeland.


Cambodia is a country fresh out of an on and off again civil war that raged from the mid 1970s to 1997, when the country final found some stability. The unrest began with the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power, led by Pol Pot, in 1975. A genocide of one to three million people left about 1/3 of the population dead either by direct killing or the famines and hardships that were the result of the tyrannical regime’s puzzling laws. In 1978 the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and drove the Khmer Rouge from power, but that marked the start of decades of instability as a virtual stalemate arose as a result of outside nations funding all sides. Peace may have returned, but corruption and poverty remain among the highest in the world here. A nascent, but growing tourism industry coupled with newly discovered offshore fossil fuel deposits will hopefully allow Cambodia to catch up to its neighbors in the region.

Cambodia is very new to tourism, having only opened its doors in 2000, and so far they’re getting it right.  The people here are kind despite such recent genocide, violence, and heartache.  They clearly put others before themselves and care deeply about making sure those who take the time to visit their country have the best and most comfortable stay possible.  This was evidenced by our taxi driver who immediately offered to provide us with a sunrise tour of the temples of Angkor Wat the very next day, beginning at 5 a.m.  Unsure of protocol for this sort of thing (did we need to “book” this tour or just go on spoken word?) we decided to trust our guts and planned to meet him the next morning in his tuk-tuk for an all day tour of the glorious temples.  We’ll get to that in a bit.


Our first day was spent getting our bearings of the town of Siem Reap – the key jumping off point for touring the temples of Angkor.  We began our afternoon with a delicious traditional Cambodian lunch at Butterflies Garden Restaurant, followed by walking through the streets of the town and market. 

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We quickly witnessed the impact of the recent war on Cambodia’s citizens, and the devastation of millions of landmines that have injured so many innocent people, and that sadly still exist throughout the country today.  On the first street in town we saw a man who had lost both of his hands from a landmine accident, and he is now successfully working to sell books and postcards to the town’s tourists.  His story was moving, and sadly so very common for these people.  After purchasing a few postcards and reflecting on what we had learned about this man, we took a stroll through the Old Market, filled with gorgeous silks and the softest t-shirts we had yet to find in SE Asia. 

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The early afternoon suddenly became late afternoon, and not wanting to waste any time, we hopped in a tuk-tuk and headed to Phnom Bakheng, a historic Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva, to experience our first sunset in Angkor.  There we ran into our friend Laura, as well as two Dutch people we had met in our cooking class in Chiang Mai (we continued to run into them throughout our days in Siem Reap…small world!) and headed back to town together after dark to enjoy a nice dinner of local specialties of banana flower salad and “amuk.”  We attempted to go to sleep early in order to be ready to go at our 4:23 a.m. alarm!

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Up and out by 5 a.m. the next day, we were hopeful that our cab driver from the day before would show.  Stepping outside our hotel in dark dusk, we didn’t recognize anyone, but a friendly tuk-tuk driver approached us saying Roy (our cab driver) had sent him and that Roy was so sorry he couldn’t come but he had to drive the taxi to and from the airport.  Choky, our new driver, seemed sweet and friendly and spoke great English so we had no problem with the replacement.  We were soon off in the back of his very comfy tuk-tuk and on our way to Angkor Wat at sunrise. 


There are ruins from more than 1,000 temples in the historic capital of the Khmer empire, Angkor. The most famous of the temples, Angkor Wat, was built in the 12th century and was first Hindu but today is Buddhist. Just like in Thai, the word Wat means temple in Cambodian. Surroundings its compound structure is a large moat and several rock walls. As the sun began to rise we beat the rush of tourists and headed into the temple with just enough sunlight to find our way. The place lives up to the hype; it’s amazing. It wasn’t even 7 o’clock when we finished up and we were already sweating in the 90+ heat. We took a breakfast break to cool off and recharge before setting off on a full day of temple hopping.

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Our first stop after breakfast was the large temple complex of Angkor Thom (“Great City”). The gates and enclosing walls are as intricate as the temples inside with large 4 “faced” towers in the Bayon style at each entrance. Inside the walls are several temples and religious structures including our favorite temple: Bayon. The complex also includes the temple from Tomb Raider. After a few brief stops at small temples we finished our day where we started, at Angkor Wat. After seeing so many temples across SE Asia you might think we were suffering from a “temple overdose”, but that is definitely not the case here. Each temple is unique and amazing in its own right.

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We thought we had seen the most extreme “YOU BUY SOMETHING” harassment in Vietnam, but it was nothing compared to what we experienced in Cambodia.  Outside every temple, little towns of people are set up selling everything from cold beverages to food to endless souvenirs.  Children are the main people doing the selling and they are fearless in approaching foreigners with their cute faces and voices “10 bracelets for one dollar.  Need money for school.”  The children are often the sole providers for the family, who so frequently survive on a dollar a day from the sales of souvenirs to tourists.  Many of these children would really like to be going to school, but if they do go to school then they can’t feed their family.  It’s a horrible cycle and a real tragedy.  Older people approach viciously as well, grabbing your arms trying to physically force you to buy something “cold drink just for you.  You buy scarf with Angkor for you mommy at home.” (Sorry to both of our moms…no Angkor decorated scarves were purchased for you) =) Checkout the video below to see just how aggressive the people get.



After a very long day of touring the most amazing temples we had ever seen, Choky told us that it was best to head back to Angkor Wat mid-day to take photos of the temple during the afternoon light.  It was around 2 p.m. when he dropped us off there and informed us that he had to quickly run back into town to sign some papers for his wife who is in the hospital and would need some “cutting done on her throat.”  In short, we learned that his wife has been in the public Siem Reap hospital for the past 15 days and the doctors now needed his permission to do some “cutting” to remove something from her throat.  We felt, and still feel terrible.  Here we had this nice man driving us around all day, being so kind and sharing everything he knows about the temples, while his wife is alone in the hospital and he has two young boys at home.  We shared our sentiments with Choky, and he said that he was grateful to be working and wanted to make sure we had the best time during our visit to his country.  He explained that he needs the work and is very happy to be with us, and that he felt bad that he wouldn’t be waiting outside the temple for us while we explored, but that he promised to be back within 45 minutes to pick us up.


True to his word, after snapping a few mid-day shots of the temple that attracts so many visitors, Choky was back there waiting for us.  We cannot express enough the kindness we felt by the people of Cambodia throughout our stay, and Choky especially.  The man had a permanent smile on his face, and an even brighter one when he made a stop to buy his three year old son a little toy since he is having trouble sleeping at night without his mom at home.  Truly a wonderful man.  Weeks removed from Siem Reap, we are still thinking about Choky regularly and sending positive energy his way for a speedy recovery for his wife.

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We headed back to the hotel completely exhausted.  The weather in Siem Reap was brutally hot, and the mixture of an early wake up with being in extremely hot, sticky, sweaty conditions all day, left us completely drained.  We headed out to an early dinner of Cambodian BBQ at an outdoor street restaurant. 

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That day was “International Children’s Day,” a holiday in Cambodia, and we had heard the night before that a local orphanage was hosting a traditional dance performance and dinner from 6:30-8:30 p.m.  It was already 7:45 after we finished up dinner, but we decided to pay a visit to the orphanage.  After seeing so many street children, we wanted to see some good that was being done for these kids.


We arrived at the orphanage by 8 p.m. and had missed the show and meal, but were still completely overwhelmed by the kindness of the volunteer who showed us around the dark, dirt floor, home to 35 children.  There is a main room that serves as a dining room, school, and stage for the kids’ weekly Khmer dance performances that raise money for the place.  Off the main room on the left side are 4 other rooms separated by curtains, and filled with beds, in which three children sleep in one bed.  Two of the four rooms have electricity, and the orphanage was thrilled to have recently received a donation of a tin roof to cover the bamboo roof, so no more leakage occurs during rainy days and nights,  In the back of the building is one toilet and bath area, with a pump for water.  Just outside and in the back is a Buddhist temple, where each child spends the first 30 minutes of their day, from 5-5:30 a.m.  From there they eat breakfast, and head to school by 6 a.m.  Back at the orphanage at 11 a.m. they eat some lunch and then learn English and Spanish from two of the onsite volunteers from Spain.  They have playtime in the afternoon, followed by chores, dinner, and bed. We returned inside to the main room filled with happy children.  We were immediately approached by one of the most beautiful little girls, who grabbed Sandra’s hand and brought us over to sit on the stage.  Soon several of the kids were vying for our attention.  From walking on their hands, to showing us how the stage lights make little pieces of paper very warm, they wanted to do everything to keep us happy and playing with them.  Since we arrived late we had to leave pretty shortly after our arrival so the kids could wind down and get to sleep before another early morning.  It was a powerful evening, and one that makes us thank our lucky stars each and every day for the type of life and opportunities we have been afforded.  We hope to one day be able to help at least one child in this nation in some way.

The next day we hit the temple circuit again with Choky, this time getting out closer to 9 a.m.  Phew.  Choky’s wife’s “cutting” was scheduled for the next day or day after, and we still felt awful about his being away from her, but had conflicting notions that we were very happy that we could at least be providing him with funds necessary to support his family.


We started our day at Banteay Srei, a small, redstone Hindu temple. The intense red color and amazing carvings make this a must see even though it is a bit north of the rest of the temples.

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In the middle of our temple explorations, we decided to pay a visit to the Landmine Museum.  The years of internal fighting and neighboring conflict left much of Cambodia covered in landmines and unexploded ordinances. Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge and Cambodian solder, learned of the horrors of kids and farmers maiming or killing themselves accidently. An expert in mines and bombs he began digging them up and diffusing them. Mines often do not kill their victims as they are designed to injure instead because an injured soldier is always more expensive and resource intensive than a deceased soldier. Today Aki Ra has an NGO dedicated to ridding Cambodia of all mines. His museum helps educate the public and raise money for his cause. The museum doubles as an orphanage and school for 35 children all taken in by Aki Ra who have been impacted or injured as a result of landmines and the war.  We were once again so moved and brought to tears reading the stories of these children and young adults who have lost limbs, eyes, and so much more due to landmine accidents. 

During our walk through the exhibition of removed landmines, we were greeted by Bill.  Bill is from California, and about two years ago, after a few years of working with Aki Ra to make the Landmine Museum what it is today, he and his wife Jill picked up their life in Palm Springs and moved to Siem Reap to permanently help Aki Ra and these children.  Bill showed us around the museum and explained so much about landmines, and the impact of the U.S. (amongst other nations) carpet bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the 70s, leaving millions of undiscovered landmines that are still ready to blow at the slightest touch.  Listening to him speak and his devotion to this cause and the education of the children who are at the museum’s orphanage especially moved us so much again (Sandra was choking back tears during our entire 1.5 hour visit). Like the night before, this experience confirmed that there are such good people out there doing amazing things for the world.

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We continued the day with additional temple visits, as well as a stop to see how palm sugar is made.  At the palm sugar stop, we caught a glimpse into what local life is really like.  A little boy snoozed in a comfy hammock and kids played hopscotch while their mothers made palm sugar and sold local crafts. After a great day, we sadly said goodbye to Choky who said he’d be back to pick us up in two days to take us to the airport. 

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We finished our day with visits to Preah Khan, Ta Prohm, and Baksei Chamkrong – all amazing temples. After another emotional, hot, sticky, dehydration filled day, we welcomed a nice needed rest and then went to town for a combo of Cambodian and Western food (veg food options were pretty limited, so Sandra welcomed a delicious, hot pizza).  We again met up with our friend Laura and swapped stories from our long days of temple visits.  We called it an early night…the heat really did a number on Sandra!

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The next day was free.  We slept in, ate a very leisurely breakfast provided at our amazing hotel: Frangipani Villa Hotel, and hit the town for last minute souvenir shopping.  Again, so hot and sticky, we were in search of a cool drink, and stumbled upon “Joe-to-Go.”  All funds from Joe-to-Go go to The Global Child, a school that provides former street children with $1 per day to attend school, so they are able to fulfill their dream of education while still being able to feed their families.  A boutique upstairs also provides all funds to this amazing school made up of 13 girls and 13 boys from the streets of Cambodia.  Sandra supported the school through the purchase of a couple very cute dresses.  Our cold beverages and snack were delicious and we found ourselves back there for lunch…and again after dinner.  Needless to say we loved it there, and loved the cause, and hope to contribute to it beyond just our one day shopping and eating extravaganza.

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Our last day in Siem Reap was a relaxing one, and one that rounded out our overall experience in this amazing country.  We spent the day with kind, local people eager to talk to us about our culture and home, while sharing stories of theirs.  We gave back to an incredible cause just by eating and buying a few simple items.  We simply enjoyed our surroundings.  A perfect way to end our perfect few days. 

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The next day we were up early for our flight out of Cambodia.  We were so excited to see Choky again, but it turns out that he sent Roy in his place.  This was of course okay too, though we had hoped to say goodbye to Choky in person.  Roy promised to pass along our “goodbyes” and was so glad we had such a great experience with his “funniest friend.”  A great time we had indeed.


And then we were off…to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for our last 2 days on the other side of the world.  That came really fast!


Until then,



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