I wond’r if you can please turn it down? Exploring temples and upholding the peace in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Following a rather uneventful 6 hour bus journey, we arrived in the tourist hotspot of Siem Reap. As expected we were spoilt for choice when it came to our tuk tuk driver to take us to our hotel; in fact we had no choice at all, it simply came down to who was more desperate to take us! It’s nice to feel wanted.

Rose Apple Boutique Bed and Breakfast pool area
Joella’s hotel booking skills again proved their weight in gold – Rose Apple Boutique Bed and Breakfast was a lovely setup that felt more like a second home, than an 18 bed hotel. The kitchen and restaurant was open plan, with both seamlessly merging into the tranquil swimming pool area outside. All the staff were lovely, and took time to show us round our room and all the communal spaces. Even the owner took time to chat to us on multiple occasions, and being a patriotic Belgian, gave us an update on the Flemish initiative to gain UNESCO world heritage status for their fries.

Day 1 – The Large temple circuit (and Mr Pheach)

Jonny and Mr Pheach tuk tuk driver
The second we were introduced to our designated tuk tuk driver, we were immediately impressed: Mr Pheach was a keen, happy and thoughtful chap, who always went that extra mile. Despite only paying him to drive us round, he made sure to give us a brief introduction to each temple, and led us to a few bonus sights along the way too! He was so good in fact, we appointed him our driver for the all three days worth of templing.

Khmer temple entrance with headless guards
Following a scrumptious breakfast of pancakes then purchasing our tickets, we made our way around the large temple circuit (large in terms of distance). The first few we came to were amazing, and it was difficult to take in their sheer size, design complexity and carving intricacy. The magical atmosphere most likely helped too, as often we were entirely alone in the sometimes cavernous hallways and dense jungles that surrounded them – Indiana Jones eat your heart out! The latter temples began to feel a little similar and got busier as the day went on, but they were still well worth the visit.

Jonny and Joella sitting on Khmer temple ledge

Day 2 – The Small temple circuit (and Pub Street)

Entering Angkor Wat at dawn
I entirely blame FOMO (fear of missing out) on our decision to get up at 4am, in order to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat – the largest religious monument in the world. Despite suggestions from some people [cough, cough Rebecca McLellan] that “it’ll be quieter the earlier you go”, it was in fact tourist central despite being 5.15 in the morning. After arriving, we merged into the eager crowds of approximately 200 – 300 tourists made up from a hotchpotch of nationalities, who were gathering around the moat. Everyone waited patiently for around half an hour, but due to the cloud cover we didn’t actually see anything resembling a ‘sunrise’ – what an anti-climax…

Cambodian Khmer temple
Four hours of temple exploration later, and we were ready for some drinks – Pub Street here we come! I guess you could say Pub St is Siem Reap’s answer to Magaluf – one street dedicated to the act of eating and getting drunk. It was very easy to sink a few $2 cocktails and $0.50 Angkor beers in this melting pot of people, sounds and smells, while we soaked up the electric atmosphere and became masters of the art of people watching. We even managed to find a Scottish themed bar that stocked a variety of excellent single malts, although the place was dead and decor incredibly cheesy.

Siem Reap Pub Street lit up at night

Day 3 – Art galleries (and scorpion eating)

Joella learning about Siem Reap workshops
After two days of hardcore temple touring, we felt the need to take some time out from Cambodia’s past, to enjoy some of the fine craftsmanship happening today. It was really heartwarming and inspiring to discover that many of the craft shops and galleries are run by charities setup to support the children, disabled and land mine victims of Cambodia. Not only were we able to browse through their beautiful creations, but we could also tour some of the workshops and see their creativity in action. Although our backpacks were near bursting already, we couldn’t resist buying a beautiful painting of a temple done by an ex-pupil, turned art teacher.

Worker chiselling in Siem Reap workshop
We finished the day off by trying a few local delicacies, scorpions to be precise. The passionate Frenchman that runs the show was especially surprised by our daring choice, and equally impressed that we finished all four of the crispy critters served up with fried cashew nuts and vegetables. They were edible, but not exactly tasty – at least our jaw and teeth got a good work out from crunching and chewing the claws to pieces.

Jonny eating a scorpion in Siem Reap Cambodia

Day 4 – Banteay Srei (and policing the waterfall)

Not wanting to lose out on our third and last day’s worth of temple access left on our pass, we set off on a marathon tuk tuk ride to Banteay Srei – ‘The Women’s temple’. After an hour’s worth of tuk tuking, we arrived and were immediately uber disappointed by how touristy the place was, especially given that many people had told us it tends to be less busy than other temples given it’s distance from Siem Reap. Unlike the other temples, here there was a huge dedicated car park already full with dozens of coaches, and even a holding-pen at the entrance for when it got too busy. We quickly sped round and moved on to see the waterfalls and carvings atop of a nearby hill.

Khmer waterfall carvings

Joella walking up Elephant path
After climbing said hill, we reached the summit to find a small tranquil stream surrounded by an assortment of ancient Khmer carvings that then led to a waterfall below. Despite there being a handful of tourists about, it was relatively peaceful. Or at least it was, until a disinterested teenager started blaring some angry hip-hop from his phone, while a tour guide was talking to his group. At first I thought perhaps it was a mistake; his headphones had come out, or perhaps maybe it was his ringtone. But no, it continued, and with my blood boiling and no one else saying anything (not even the tour guide), I couldn’t hold back from shouting over at him. Following a few awkward glances from people at me, then at him, he proceeded to turn it down; and my risk of heart seizure evaporated with the noise. 

No matter who you are, Siem Reap and its surroundings definitely deserve their place in everyone’s bucket list. This is thanks to achieving a fine balance in offerings, an almost juxtaposition in fact; between the central party atmosphere downtown and breathtaking ancient temples surrounding it. 

I wond’r why there’s pork in my porridge? Three days in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Our base in Phnom Penh: Manor House, was an absolute delight. Being a true boutique hotel it had just 12 spacious and clean rooms, of which most were empty, meaning we got a great personal service for the entirety of our stay. Not only was Manor House walking distance (for the brave) to all the main sites, my number one priority in life was also met; their food was top notch 🙂

For breakfast I opted to dive head first into Khmer cuisine, by trying their version of ‘porridge’, which is better described as rice and pork soup. Although a little odd to have first thing, is was bursting with flavour and did “give me energy for the day” as the menu promised. Just as well seeing our first day proved to be suitably cram packed, despite being a little jet lagged: We were off to immerse ourselves in ancient Cambodian history at their National Museum.

Jonny eating Khmer porridge
Day 1 – The National Museum of Cambodia

Fortunately we opted to go with the optional audio guide as part of our visit, as there was little to no information available on signage throughout the museum. A number of pieces were beautiful and it was interesting to hear the stories behind them, although there was a distinct lack of variety. There’s only so long one can remain interested, when repeatedly browsing through the same statutes of Hindu Gods over and over again. 

National museum of Cambodia
At least I was able to provide a bit of light hearted entertainment: by begrudgingly accepting a flower from a women seeking donations, then placing it back in the vase where it came from and pretending to pray in the process, to the bewilderment of everyone around us!

Day 2 – The Killing Fields and Genocide Museum

Our second day was to be a rather somber affair, as we visited both the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum, commonly referred to as S21. Again we opted to pay extra for the audio guide, which was brilliantly narrated together with witness accounts. 

Bracelets of hope at Cambodia Killing Fields
Corridor at Genocide Museum S21
Although it was difficult to learn about the sickening acts of torture and murder carried out under Pol Pott’s Khmer Rouge regime; we recognise the importance of remembering what happened, in an attempt to avoid it reoccurring again in the future.

Day 3 – The Russian Market

We decided to spend our third and final day pottering about in the Russian Market. As expected it was heaving with Cambodian trinkets, high quality knock off goods and lots of edible delights. We had no choice but to grow accustomed to a barrage of “Hey lady, hey mister, t-shirt two dollars”, every time we turned a corner. 

Despite our patience growing thin, Joella successfully purchased some brightly coloured trousers and skirt, with the help of my epic bartering skills (my Scottishness shone through). Pulled pork bao, fries and cocktails by the poolside kept us happy for the rest of the afternoon. 

Joella trying on skirt at Russian Market
Although we found Phnom Penh intense at times; we soon warmed to it’s contradictory vibe – hectic yet chilled out, and not to mention the friendly and courteous people that live there. 

Next stop, Siem Reap!

I wond’r why the monk especially wanted to sit next to me? – Our journey from London, UK to Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Following a lovely send off by Joella’s family the previous two evenings, we were now getting up at the crack of dawn to make our escape. Mike, Joella’s dad took us to Brentwood where James then drove us all the way to Heathrow – thanks guys, best chauffeurs ever!

Joella, Jonny and James at airport
As we tearilly kissed the UK soil goodbye, our minds soon turned to the marathon journey ahead of us:

  • 3 separate flights
  • 2 stop overs
  • 6 time zones
  • 21 hours of travel

From London to Abu Dhabi our flight was uneventful, although Joella would probably argue I was a tad overexcited about being in an A380 for the first time. We watched as many films as we could possibly manage, in amongst the usual juggling of tiny dishes while trying to eat aeroplane food, without getting it on ourselves or elbowing our fellow passengers in the process. 

A380 flying
Our second flight begun with a stand-off between me and a monk, probably not how you want to start a flight.

I intended to sit in the window seat, with Joella in the middle, and the aisle seat taken by one of many monks on our flight. Apparently the monk didn’t want to sit next to Joella, and instead was keen for me to be his neighbour. At first I laughed it off and tried to sit down, but then a lady in front of us also got involved and offered me some stern words in a language I’m not currently fluent in. At this point we decided to keep the peace, and sit in accordance with the Monk’s wishes, this must surely be good karma or something. We later learned that monks are not allowed to ever be in close proximity to women. (Picture of monk below for illustrative purposes only)

Cool monk on plane
Rather than getting any food in Abu Dhabi, we’d decided to save our money and wait to eat on the plane. It was only once we were boarded that a horrible thought struck me – it was 11.30 pm local time and 2.30 at our destination, there may not be any food for some time – nooooo! The next half an hour could easily have seen me arrested by an Air Marshall based on how I was acting: I kept looking up and down the aisles, tracking all the air hostesses movements in an attempt to see if they were preparing food. At one point I was caught intently staring, as a number of passengers were being handed what I thought were the special dietary meals, they were actually the children’s colouring in books. Joella laughed, I felt even more distressed. Fortunately we were fed shortly after, and I managed to avoid any further suspicious behaviour.

Our last stop over, in Bangkok, was relatively straight forward, and we managed to successfully source our boarding passes for our next flight. Although our intentions to really embrace the local cultures on our adventures came to an abrupt end before we’d even got to our destination, as we stopped in past Starbucks for some coffees.

After a short 90 minute flight from Bangkok, we’d finally arrived at our destination: Cambodia’s world famous capital – Phnom Penh. Being completely honest, we’d never heard of this place before planning our adventure, but are now glad to say we’re now slightly more worldly and slightly less ignorant! 

The last leg of our journey required us to acquire a tuk tuk (technically they’re called remorques in Cambodia and consist of a moped attached to a separate carriage), to take us to our hotel. After reading Lonely Planet in amongst other research, we were expecting this task to involve long queues in the blistering heat, fighting away potential pickpockets while trying to negotiate a fair price for the ride with unruly drivers trying to rip us off. Thankfully the reality was a lot easier; a friendly chap asked if we wanted a tuktuk while we were in the soothing air-con of the airport, told us it was a flat fee of $9 as confirmed by all the signage, and even carried our bags for us.

We found our first ever tuk tuk ride to be as thrilling and dangerous, as at least I had hoped for. There are next to no obvious road rules, and drivers happily drive up and down whichever side of the road they like, paying no attention to traffic lights or road signs. The air was awash with petrol fumes, while our ears were buzzing to the sounds of the constant horns blaring all around us. But despite all this, we soon felt relatively safe, thanks to the slow speeds and general courteous nature of all the drivers – possibly more so than the UK! After 30 minutes of twisting our necks in every direction to take in as much of our surrounding as we possibly could, we arrived safely at our hotel.

Tuk tuk in Phnom Penh Cambodia