This is the story of fifteen women coming together to experience a once in a lifetime opportunity to escape the daily grind and drudgery of work and kids and to indulge in a fascinating journey to one of the great countries of south East Asia, Cambodia.
After a relaxing flight we were met at Phnom Penh Airport by our host Visna before transferring to our hotel. As we were to find out, our hotel with its elegant French Colonial style was conveniently located in the riverfront area of the Old City. This put it tantalising close to the Royal Palace with close proximity to a myriad of shops, restaurants and modern bars and everything else the girls wished to sink their teeth into. They found the cocktails exceptional and well within budget and the superb dining even better. If you wished to take the scenic route to explore what is around you, then the local tuk tuk is a great option. Versatile and nimble they are the best and cheapest way to get around.
With much anticipation the girls couldn’t wait to embrace the new day with an early start. I didn’t think it was the smell of the locals doing their morning exercises that brought the girls to life. More so the sights and sounds of the local markets and stalls plying their trade. The purchase and release of a cage full of tiny birds was a spectacle for those hoping for a better life. I think the seller was returning for breakfast and the vigorous massage after that, which loosened them up for the full day ahead.
It was hard to follow that up, but the delicacies of a local Khmer lunch at a place called Lotus Blanc certainly hit the spot. This little local lunchtime hit we found out teaches street children in cooking and waitering, which we were more than happy to support, considering the food was divine.
Our stay also included a folk dancing concert performed by the local poor children and an afternoon cyclo ride. This cyclo ride was particularly entertaining considering each one of our 16 drivers were absolutely toothless. Each smile met with just a wonderful mouthful of gums. Needless to say the gummy bears got the job done while we cruised around the Royal Palace.
Yes we did The Killing Fields and were reminded of those tragic events of torture and displacement by the Khmer Rouge on its people. A blight on the country’s history which will never be forgotten and hoped never repeated. Our sombre mood changed however, when we attended the Russian market, strolling through stalls of fine handcrafted items combined with the smell of chilli and garlic frying. I was salivating, as my nostrils filled with the scent of fragrant herbs and spices.
At dusk, a sunset cruise on Lake Tonle Sap was the fitting end to a marvellous stay in Phnom Penn. As the sun set behind the magnificent temples the girls later tucked into everything from beef carpaccio to fish amok which could be ordered at the magnificent Malis restaurant. A fitting end to three fun packed and historically reminding days in one of Asia’s great cities.
Next stop Sihanoukville, a lazy seaside town offering everything from relaxing to relaxation on the foreshores of the China Sea. Those adventurous enough can do the snorkelling and feed the fish and the other water born activities, however its peaceful ambience and beachside location was its magic. Unspoilt is what you would call it. For how long is yet to be seen, so we were ready to make the most of our days here.
A visit to Ream National Park just 15km east of Sihanoukville, is a must. Pristine, pristine, pristine are the only words that can give it justice. From the mangroves, wildlife and beaches, to its 200 subsistence farmers it is truly a unique ecosystem. As we head out on a small vessel our eyes are continually drawn to the people either prawning by hand, diving for delectable scallops or the magnificent landscape that surrounds this remarkable place.
A day like this wouldn’t be complete without those scallops caught earlier to be included in a seafood buffet fit for a king or in our case queens. The price I will keep a secret, hoping inflation never becomes a word in this part of the world. Needless to say the girls gorged themselves and I was happy to join in with them.
After so many highlights it was with much regret to have to leave Sihanoukville to catch our flight to our next destination Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor Watt. One hour later we were booking into a quaint boutique hotel called the Shinta Mani which also supports in the education and welfare of the city’s poor. It is close to the heart of the city and bustling riverfront.
Not to waste a minute the girls are up early to experience the morning sun on Cambodia’s eighth wonder of the world. Siem Reap since visiting last has reinvented itself and transformed into the heart of Cambodia. It is a place to take in slowly and enjoy the ride. The Angkor Temple Complex is just an awe inspiring series of structures that is hard to define. The intricate carvings and associated Khmer artwork in this archaeological behemoth provides a pictorial history of the empire that ruled here and much of south East Asia over five centuries.
We were blessed to be blessed by monks at one of the pagodas on our arrival, which seemed to spiritually cleanse our group of alcoholic toxins that may have entered our bodies during our trip. Feeling rejuvenated we spent our day amongst these magnificent structures and imperial residences which in some cases appear to be returning to the jungle from whence they came. Large roots from surrounding trees gives this place a real magical experience not matched anywhere else.
The following day we took a leisurely stroll through the old market familiarising ourselves with the culinary delights that Cambodian food has to offer. From fragrant spices and vegetables, to long slippery eels and slithering snakes. If you are looking for something a little more savoury with added crunch, you can always opt for a packet of crickets or spiders to munch on. The girls couldn’t quite bring themselves to enjoying these invertebrates from the insect kingdom. Perhaps they were spoilt for choice during our booked cooking class and the traditional food they were set to prepare.
The class started with the preparation of rice paper rolls which can be made with seafood, pork or chicken. A great, healthy and flavoursome starter, very delicate with fresh herbs and vermicelli noodles, dipped into homemade fish sauce with garlic and chilli – sensational. Once the girls grew in confidence they then tackled a traditional Khmer dish, the seafood amok. This is a deliciously spicy seafood curry with the added sweetness of coconut cream. For desert came fried banana, palm sugar and coconut cream, just to finish us off.
The girls took to the afternoon bike ride with gusto, probably more so those that had done the morning cooking class. Again we were able to view the Angkor temples whilst riding through the surrounding countryside taking in the rice paddies and villages as we went. Because of our packed itinerary our ox cart ride was waiting to carry our tired legs away around a local village and to once again enjoy the natural beauty of the Cambodian countryside. But wait we weren’t done yet.
There still being some daylight left we drove to Tomle Sap Lake where we boarded a riverboat before sunset to visit the floating and stilted fishing villages. Life here is ruled by monsoonal rain and water based agriculture as Tomle Sap is one of the world’s most productive bodies of fresh water. This diverse ecosystem attracts spawning fish in the flooded forest surrounding the lake as well as a myriad of birds and people who have settled here. It felt like a fascinating journey into the past of this great lake and its inhabitants. A great way to finish and I’m sure a totally exhausted bunch of girls with cherished memories to boot.
Well that’s all folks. What a fascinating journey it has been. We certainly covered everything possibly imaginable in our short stay and still came out wanting more. Our Cambodian adventure would not have been as hilarious if not for those involved. As with any journey involving 15 girls, logistics can prove to be a nightmare, however in this case it was fun and all-consuming and ran. I know our presence there has aided in some way to the disadvantaged children and given us a great insight into their world. To this, I’m sure all of us are eternally grateful. Until next time and the next great journey, it’s been a pleasure to embrace Cambodia.
CAMBODIAN TRAVEL TIPS
You will need a passport photo and $30 USD for your visa which will be processed on arrival.
Best currency to take is USD – most have decided on cash, $20 denominations or less is best. Perhaps some small $1 for tipping etc.
You shouldn’t need too much money. To be honest I feel that around $40 – $50 per day and living in Cambodia is very cheap. There will be some things to buy but they will not be expensive items.
A two round prong electric adaptor will be required and I’d suggest a double adaptor or power board to charge up all those electronic toys!
Climate will be hot, so loose clothes (and not too many). You will need to have covered shoulders and knees when visiting temples. Sarongs or scarves are a good idea.
Comfortable shoes for walking and climbing steps of the temples.
Take your family’s unused clothing, school books, crayons if you have a spare space in your baggage – everyone is very appreciative, especially those in the country. If you do have a few kilos spare please visit the “Pack for a Purpose” website www.packforapurpose.org.
For those who want to communicate between your group or txt home – sim cards can be purchased and used in phones which are unlocked. Or you can buy a Nokia (simple style about $30 for new one or $15-$20 for second-hand, long life battery, when clients fly home donate this mobile to school teacher or Shinta Mani Foundation). Using local SIM, clients can contact each other and also call to Australia 7 cent only, please visit link http://www.smart.com.kh/en/promotion/5-cents-5-countries.
That $1 tip buys a million dollar smile – it feels wonderful in Cambodia when you blow their mind because you paid $3 for the 15 minute journey instead of $2.
Talk to the hotel staff. Chances are they work 60hours a week on split shifts for poor wages, but feel pride in their lovely new uniform. It beats sorting rubbish at the dump. They know everything in the local area, will recommend where to go, where not to go, where the locals eat. Every morning they will look for you at breakfast to say hi. It is lovely to chat and race and wealth dissolve away leaving people who share and have fun.
Be friendly, smile heaps, show interest and you will come home with the best memories you can imagine. Treat people well, and they will want to make you happy.
Ask me for my complete Cambodia Travel guide…