Cambodia

Cambodia - Our Route & Numbers

  Alex & Madie’s travel route in Cambodia.

Alex & Madie’s travel route in Cambodia.

Some Final Thoughts

I had no expectations for Cambodia, knowing relatively little about it’s history before touching ground. Immediately after landing, there was a calmness about the country and its local people - soft-spoken and patient, and as we learn later, possessing the kind of humble determination it takes to quietly rebuild and reclaim a nation devastated by a horrific genocide and corrupt political leadership. I’ve never met a population so warm, kind, resilient, yet dying for change.

What we saw in Cambodia was absolutely stunning, from monumental temples to elephants in the wild. But what I cherish most about our short time there was connecting with our local guide Lee, learning about his life, his country, and the collective thoughts and ideals of his generation, the first born after the genocide. There were many things we discovered about the current state of the country that left us distraught and wanting, somehow, to share the gift of freedom we have in America, where there are simple things like free speech, free press, free media (which I’m beginning to feel is a luxury, really). We were there when Lee’s hero, and the hero of many, was assassinated — both a somber and sobering moment, indicative of the arduous path to reform the nation still has ahead.

Despite the current political strife and social inequities, we want to visit again soon. Hopefully in a more peaceful and righteous time, and to see the same warm, kind faces, in a genuinely tranquil state. We are rooting for Cambodia.

On a different, less-serious, less-emotional note, here are some numbers...
 

Numbers from Cambodia

  • Days in Cambodia: 9 days
  • Our daily average cost for lodging and food per person: 78000 KHR ≈ $19.00
  • Cost of a 1.5L water: 2500 KHR ≈ $0.60
  • Cost of a small Angkor beer: 2500 KHR ≈ $0.60 
  • Cost of a young coconut: 6000 KRH ≈ $1.50
  • Cost of an iced coffee with (condensed) milk: 3000 KHR ≈ $0.75
  • Cost of beef lok lak with fries: 24000 KHR ≈ $4.00
  • Cost of a 6-hour express van ride: 48000 KHR ≈ $12.00
     
  • Total time on an airplane: 1 hour
  • Total time on an express van: 18 hours
  • Total time on a tuk-tuk in the Siem Reap & Angkor area: 9 hours
     

How We Got Around

  Alex & Madie’s mode of transportation in Cambodia.

Alex & Madie’s mode of transportation in Cambodia.

Cambodia - Mondulkiri, The Elephants’ Bath

 With the Mondulkiri Project, we spent the day feeding, bathing, and observing six elephants in forests of East Cambodia. This is Sophie, one of the older elephants of the pack, and still active as ever.

With the Mondulkiri Project, we spent the day feeding, bathing, and observing six elephants in forests of East Cambodia. This is Sophie, one of the older elephants of the pack, and still active as ever.

Tame Impala - Elephant

Close to the border with Vietnam, on the far east of Cambodia, is Mondulkiri, a region seldom visited by tourists who can only think of Angkor Wat. That was also our mistake, until we discovered @thenomadiclondoner’s experience with a rescue project for elephants. Madie and I briefly discuss: “Should we try to go?” - “When are we ever going to have a chance to bathe with elephants?” (We had already missed Chiang Mai.)

It’s the Year of Yes after all. 

 The eastern side of Cambodia is so unexpectedly green and lush. Such a change from scenes in Siem Reap.

The eastern side of Cambodia is so unexpectedly green and lush. Such a change from scenes in Siem Reap.

It will take two scary six-hour bus rides, stopping for a night in Phnom Penh, missing the famous Killing Fields, and speeding through the countryside of Cambodia fully exercising the Rule of the Biggest Car on the Road. After weeks in Asia, we were almost used to it, or rather, we knew there wasn’t much we could do but wait and hope we wouldn’t hit anything. This bus at least, has AC and comfortable seats. I dive into my Kindle, munching on rambutans - our new favorite fruit - and fried crickets generously offered by my neighbor.

We get to Sen Monorom, the main town of the region, at night. After a failed attempt to call the guesthouse, the nearby locals help us - as we’ve grown accustomed to in Cambodia. The ride to the Tree Lodge is in the back of a pickup truck, amongst another eight adventurers and their backpacks. I cling loosely to the top of the cabin, my ass falling off the side panel of the truck, feeling the rain on my cheek. We fill up on Khmer curry and settle into our $7 bungalow (with hot water, please). Our sleep is heavy, full of apprehension; I wake up fast, eager to spend time with the gentle giants. Banana & Nutella pancakes later, we get hauled onto another pick-up. I’m half sitting on a colossal amount of bananas in the back - Madie stuck between them and another elephant enthusiast - as we drive through the fields of the scenic Mondulkiri region. We park and each get a large heavy bag to transport down, as we try to follow Mr. Tree as best as we can. 

 The Tree Lodge, owned by Mr. Tree, who also guides the wonderful Mondulkiri Project.

The Tree Lodge, owned by Mr. Tree, who also guides the wonderful Mondulkiri Project.

Before we get to see the elephants, Mr. Tree sits us around for a hearted discourse on this place and his organization’s goals. The Mondulkiri Project is a rescue program, aiming to give elephants a better retirement than transporting tourists or working in the logging industry. No one rides elephants here, not even the guides, called mahouts. The organization also helps protect the surrounding rainforest and the nearby tribal community, the Bunong, providing them with jobs (over 200), healthcare and education. I naively ask if the government is of any help, only to work up Mr. Tree and understand that the Cambodian government not only does not help, but almost often finds a way to get rid of individuals too successful of bringing about change. Mr. Tree’s project is humble, and growing one elephant at a time. 

 “All good things are wild and free.” - Henry David Thoreau

“All good things are wild and free.” - Henry David Thoreau

We walk through the forest, a bunch of bananas in our hands, and wait at a clearing. At the end appears Comvine, a 30-year-old elephant female, walking towards us as my heartbeat quickens. She takes sweet bananas out of our hands and quickly gulps them down, reaching immediately for more. Her trunk, warm and wet, is also nosy and inquisitive, as she searches for the next fruit by smell. We follow her for a while as Mr. Tree explains her past life carrying tourists. The parks in Siem Reap attempted to buy her, as they had bought her mother, but the Mondulkiri Project was able to secure enough funding to purchase her instead.

 The young Comvine of the Mondulkiri Project.

The young Comvine of the Mondulkiri Project.

A quick walk back to the hut, we meet the other elephants: Sophie, Lucky, Happy, Moon and Princess. All female and only one still able to bear calves. (Mr. Tree is still saving up for a male.) We will spend the next hour simply being with them, exchanging looks and feeding them. Some have holes in their ears, a sign of their past lives of logging and carrying heavy equipment. Others have a broken back, often caused by the planks used to take people on elephant rides.

 Elephants are always in search of food, as they are said to eat nearly 20 hours a day!

Elephants are always in search of food, as they are said to eat nearly 20 hours a day!

 Loved watching the different ways our group fed the elephants.

Loved watching the different ways our group fed the elephants.

 Up close and personal.

Up close and personal.

 View from behind.

View from behind.

After a short lunch and nap, we approach a nearby river for the highlight of our day: a bath with the elephants. We all get in the water as Comvine approaches again, guided by a mahout, she dives in the water with us. Her happy ears flap as we do our best to scrub and spray water. We all hover around her, armed with more food and carefully treading the waters to not get our toes smashed by her giant feet. Princess joins us later, doing in the water what even princesses do: poop - thankfully downstream. Happy follows her into the water, leaving quickly as soon as we run out of bananas. We’ll watch the other three (less gentle) elephants bathe themselves at another river nearby.

As the adventure ends, we all head back to the lodge, our heads full of elephants, and our ears slightly bigger. We leave Cambodia a few days later after resting in Phnom Penh, unfortunately missing the Killing Fields (again). We have to rest some days after all.

In only nine days, Cambodia left a big impression on both of us. Angkor was a breathtaking region but the country has a lot more to offer, the majority still unexplored by most travelers - maybe what Indonesia was like 20 years ago. But Cambodia is still bruised from its all too recent history. As we’ve come to understand, there is a lot of work left, especially with attaining a more democratic government. Despite this, the Cambodian people are the gentlest and most hopeful we’ve met, and I’m betting on Mr. Tree. 


Links

  • The Mondulkiri province is the easternmost region of Cambodia. It is a 6-hour drive from Phnom Penh, or a 9 to 10-hour (painful) drive from Siem Reap in an express tourist bus. You can easily find transportation options through your hotel in Cambodia.
  • The Mondulkiri Project is a great non-profit in care for the elephants, the forest and tribal communities. Make sure to book a couple days ahead! We saw a few people get turned away. We were also recommended the Elephant Valley Project by @thenomadiclondoner. Whatever you pick, please be careful of tours or organizations without care for elephants. 
  • We slept at the Tree Lodge in Sen Monorom, starting point for all hikes with the Mondulkiri Project and also a business of Mr. Tree. Food was delicious, bathroom was wild, and beds were awesome (albeit some mice poop on day two - there are warning signs!).

Cambodia - Angkor (or The Temple Overdose)

  Monks at Sras Srang.

Monks at Sras Srang.

The Rolling Stones - Gimme Shelter

We almost went to Laos instead. To Madie’s despair, I hate planning; I prefer a rough trajectory and improvisation over a solid plan (hopefully no one from work is reading this - or maybe they’ll realize that’s what I’ve been doing all along). Our tickets from Bangkok to Vientiane, Laos were purchased as a potential throw-away flight since customs often requires an onward destination. After virtually shredding them to pieces, we prioritize Cambodia and leave Laos to later. Maybe.

What attracted us to Cambodia is Angkor, a region famous for its many temples built during the high days of the Khmer empire, more than 800 years ago. But as soon as we landed, Cambodia felt like so much more. We had read about some of its tumultuous history, but nothing prepared us for the deep emotions we’d feel in Cambodia, high and low.

We land in Siem Reap, settling in a German guesthouse with the best (and only) currywurst in town. The owner’s German roots are apparent, with the most efficient receipt log we’ve seen, best tips, and profoundly nice words for the recent terrors in the US and France. It’s the cheapest room of the house, close to the kitchen and his own room. The owner’s wife, Cambodian, offers us the widest and most sincere smile - while the “No Sex Tourist” sign reminds us of where we are. We venture out for lunch only to be caught by a torrential rain and take shelter at a pharmacy while I eat my necessary ration of Magnum ice cream. We quickly go back to the room, upgrade it with our mosquito nets and turn on both fans to cool down and rest while the rain keeps falling. 

 A common scene around here, and one of our favorites.

A common scene around here, and one of our favorites.

 Riding through the countryside of Cambodia.

Riding through the countryside of Cambodia.

  Warm earth tones color this part of Cambodia.

Warm earth tones color this part of Cambodia.

There is something in the air we don’t quite comprehend yet. We had expected “yet another” South East Asian country with the usual quirks: littered streets, loud rackets, roaming dogs, rough elbows below the belt, cheap food and good deals. But the food is not cheap and deals are hard to find. The streets, albeit not fancy, are well kept and the roads are in good shape. But more fundamentally, we’re taken over by the genuine generosity and good spirit of the Cambodian people. It’s in the peaceful ride to town, in the lasting smile of the random local, in the offered chairs at the pharmacy and in the contagious laugh of our tricycle driver. People help, with nothing expected in return. A truly rare thing in Asia as we’ve come to know. It may be because of a Buddhist culture, of a local economy dependent on tourism, or a violent (and too recent) past. The Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot took over the country in the 70s, and conducted a massive social experiment of communism in the country, resulting in a genocide of around 2 million people, a quarter of the Cambodian population. This country suffered atrocities very few nations know, a mere generation ago. This opens our eyes to our surroundings: a country with a young population, 50% of them are under 22 (have we seen anyone over 50 around?), a country with a deep scar still too fresh. The feeling in the air might be a kind of exhaustion shared by an entire population, simply willing to rest for a little while.

 The best way to get around, and so far, our favorite form of tuk-tuk in SE Asia! (Imagine a small horse carriage attached to a moto.) 

The best way to get around, and so far, our favorite form of tuk-tuk in SE Asia! (Imagine a small horse carriage attached to a moto.) 

 Our friend Lee will be taking us to see the Angkor temples for a few days in this cool ride. 

Our friend Lee will be taking us to see the Angkor temples for a few days in this cool ride. 

We arrange three days of temple visits on a motorized tricycle and meet Lee, our joyful driver. With a clear path to a temple overdose, we trust him for the ride and hope for the best. We’re not disappointed. We leave early every day and explore all the temples we can find, with interludes of long slow rides in flat lands and Lee’s stories. After the introductory small temple and the too-dry Sras Srang, we visit the pink sandstone walls of Banteay Srei, and its detailed carvings already a millennium old. In the heat of the day, we marvel on the old stone among the Chinese tourist bus that just came by, loudly claiming its presence. The gates and face of Ta Som greet us on the way back, giving us shelter from the sun and the many tourists (which I wholeheartedly declare that we are too, just quieter). 

Preah Khan will be the highlight of the day, built in the 12th century to honor the emperor’s father, and after many wars - taken back over by nature. Left largely unrestored, we get to explore its paths until a spectacular end, with a large strangler fig tree (I think?) standing dominantly over the gate. Madie hums the Indiana Jones theme as she will many times over the next days. I choose to be with Lara Croft considering Madie has the perfect outfit.

 On the left, two giant silk-cotton trees overtake the southern towers of Preah Khan.

On the left, two giant silk-cotton trees overtake the southern towers of Preah Khan.

 Wooden bridges built over the heaps of destruction at Beng Mealea. 

Wooden bridges built over the heaps of destruction at Beng Mealea. 

The following day starts with a two-hour tricycle ride through the flat land. The heat and sun slap us in the face, but we’re quickly recovered by the sight of farm lands, yelling children and young girls on bicycles. Houses on stilts and rice fields surround us as we drive in the hot air of the countryside. We get to Beng Mealea and traverse the temple, unfortunately swarmed a few minutes before by the unwanted bus. We marvel at the breathtaking surroundings and the strong selfie game all around us. Third place to the Chinese grandmas clumsily posing on a liana brance one after the other. Second place to the forced picture with the white baby. Grand prize: the solo middle-age male traveler with a camera stand, running to his photo site many times for the perfect picture.

But it’s time to get back to the ride and the next temples, in Roluos. We climb the high steps and rest alone at the top. Smiles are there, and despite the heat, we get to hold hands - knowing how precious our time here is. As we get to the tricycle, Lee tells us of Kem Ley, national activist and hero of many, who just died, shot at a gas station. Lee’s unbreakable joy left, and a deep sadness set in. Not all is well in Cambodia, rated 150 out of 168 on the corruption index - many activists have died, with suspect actions from the government. Kem Ley strongly criticized the Prime Minister a few days before he was shot (his death was condemned by the US and UN, requiring full investigation). Rain breaks as soon as we get back to the hotel. Good, Madie and I have a lot more reading to do to even attempt to understand this country. Hopefully, the $5 Korean BBQ dinner will help.

 One of 216 smiling stone faces at the Bayon Temple in Angkor, Cambodia.

One of 216 smiling stone faces at the Bayon Temple in Angkor, Cambodia.

On our last day of visits, we go through the many faces of Bayon, high temples, heat, pools and park, and start to overdose. Another torrential rain starts as we onboard for the next ride, cooling us off and bringing smiles to our face. I get to hold Madie’s hand again as we drive slowly through the downpour. We take advantage of it and sit for an hour in the shelter of the tricycle with Lee, talking about his past life, his girlfriend, and the country. He looks young, but he’s already been through many adventures, from being a monk for seven years, selling fruits in Thailand as an illegal immigrant, to here in Siem Reap as a driver, making money for his family and girlfriend, both a day of travel away. His sadness receded and is replaced by the laugh we know. Lee, as many people here, stays hopeful.

 Finding shelter at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Finding shelter at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

As the rain recedes, we step out the tricycle and finally make our way to the most famous temple of the area, Angkor Wat. As soon as we step onto the stone bridge, the rain doubles up and gets us smiling under our ponchos. Three mischevious kids run around and jump off the 8-meter-high bridge to the river below, quickly climbing back up to go at it again. The rain, as it turns out, is a blessing; we see the complex as few have seen: not overcrowded with people. As we adventure inside, monks also run by to take shelter - as I remember they also live on the premises. At the center, Angkor Wat shows all its magnificence, built 800 years ago, as if it was carved from a single stone - the perfect high of our overdose. At last, we get back to the guesthouse, washed out and saddened to say goodbye to Lee.

 Angkor Wat was the finale of our three days of temple-hopping in Siem Reap. We were both awestruck in front of this grand monument - the largest religious site in the world.

Angkor Wat was the finale of our three days of temple-hopping in Siem Reap. We were both awestruck in front of this grand monument - the largest religious site in the world.

The next day, we head to the other side of Cambodia, aboard a crazy bus ride (which we’re now used to) to Mondulkiri, a refuge for elephants.

 

Links

  • Siem Reap is the main gateway for the Angkor region. It is easy to fly from Thailand or Vietnam, or take a 6h bus ride from Phnom Penh.
  • The Angkor region has many many many temples. Most notably, and not to be missed:
    • Angkor Wat, the postcard one (just make sure it’s rainy as hell if you want a good photo)
    • Bayon, with its many faces
    • Preah Khan, my personal favorite - for full Indiana Jones and Lara Croft feels (with a dash of Uncharted)
    • Banteay Srei, one of the oldest, with unique pink sandstones and carvings
    • Ta Prohm, for the awesome strangling tree picture
    • Beng Mealea, a little bit further but well worth the trip
  • We stayed at Schein Guesthouse and highly recommend it! Delicious and filling breakfast, and the best currywurst of our trip so far!