Here comes another “10 Things…” post. As per usual, this is not meant to be a top 10 list or anything like that, rather it will be 10-ish random things, some good/bad/neutral, that we experienced during our trip in a particular country that we found interesting or unique. Usually we’ll write this post after we leave a country as a way of summarizing our experience.
Only 8 this time! Don’t read too much into it. We already told you it would be 10-ish things…
Believe it or not, the primary currency used in Cambodia is US Dollars! They also have their own currency, the Cambodian Riel (r). $1 USD = ~4,000 r and the two are used interchangeably. For tourist areas, bars, restaurants, taxis, etc. the prices are typically quoted in US Dollars ($) and ATMs dispense Dollars. Payment may be given in either currency, or a combination of the two, and often your change will be given as a mix of both. There are no US Coins in circulation so any change less than $1 will be given in Riel.
2. Pub Street (Siem Reap)
Tourists in Cambodia are an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, you have older (often retired) tourists and their families, who come to Cambodia to experience the Temples of Angkor, photograph interesting flora/fauna, learn about Cambodian culture, and are religious followers of Rick Steves. On the other hand, you have 20-somethings from the UK and Australia who are here on their gap-year and come in search of cheap beer, partying, and beaches. We fall somewhere in the middle, but lean towards the Rick Steves side of the spectrum.
No matter who you are, or where you’re from, somehow everybody ends up on Pub Street in Siem Reap after a long day of exploring the various temples. And we can’t blame em’! Just look how excited this guy is.
Seriously though, the food on Pub Street is overpriced and mediocre, but they do have $0.50 beer happy hours! We would typically get two beers on Pub Street before 7 pm and head elsewhere for dinner, safely back in bed by 9 pm. We didn’t stay up late enough to experience all the “fun” this guy shows in his video.
3. History of the Khmer Rouge
The Khmer Rouge governed Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Led by Pol Pot, the government forced most of the country’s population into rural labor camps for collective farming and committed a genocide targeted at intellectuals, monks, professionals, ethnic minorities (such as Vietnamese and Chinese), and people associated with the previous government. In addition to the deaths from torture and executions, the attempt to transform Cambodia into a self-sufficient, agrarian society resulted in the deaths of many hundreds of thousands of people in labor camps, mostly by starvation and disease. Over those four years, it is estimated that a quarter of the population of Cambodia died, between 1.5 and 2 million people. Yes, you read those numbers correctly.
Traveling in Cambodia forty years later, it is clear that the country is still healing, but it is also remarkable to witness the resilience and recovery. The Khmer Rouge fell less than 10 years before we were born, and the terror of that regime affected every Cambodian alive at that time. So, as you travel, it’s striking to consider that most people older than us lived through that time and still feel the direct effects of the trauma. Most people our age and younger experience the secondary effects of the tragedy, as they have grown up in a country where so much was lost so recently and so many of their loved ones have PTSD and other trauma.
While we were in Phnom Penh, we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which chronicles the Cambodian Genocide. The museum is housed in former school-turned-prison, where it is estimated that nearly 20,000 people were executed. It’s a haunting place that sticks with you. An audio tour leads you through the grounds and prison buildings, describing in detail the history and horrors of the site.
If you are interested in learning more, I (Chiara) recommend reading First They Killed my Father by Loung Ung, which I read while travelling in Cambodia. It’s an autobiographical account of the author’s experience as a young girl during the time of the Khmer Rouge. It is very powerful and sad book that left a big impression on me.
4. Proper Temple Attire
When visiting temples and other sacred sites in Cambodia, it is important to dress modestly and cover your knees and shoulders. Having experienced similar requirements before in other countries, we assumed we understood the rules, and dressed fittingly for our visit to the Royal Palace — or so we thought! Chiara intentionally wore a long dress with a shawl wrapped around her shoulders. However, she was still flagged as a miscreant by the staff for wearing a sleeveless dress under her shawl. Before we were permitted to enter, we were forced to buy a commemorative shirt to cover her shoulders. She was not happy about having to walk around the Palace in a t-shirt-of-shame. On the plus side, we have a souvenir!
5. Angkor… It’s more than just Angkor Wat!
(Visiting the temples of Angkor is an amazing experience, which will be addressed in a separate post. So, consider this a teaser.)
Angkor Wat is one of the most famous monuments in the world, and people flock to see it from all over. The iconic temple is an important national symbol and a point of great pride for Cambodia. The national flag of Cambodia features Angkor Wat (as does the most popular brand of beer).
Built in the first half of the 12th century, Angkor Wat is a well-preserved temple exemplifying the classical Khmer architectural style. It’s even more beautiful in person than can be communicated in a photo!
For most visitors, Angkor Wat is the primary destination, but the surrounding archaeological park actually encompasses 72 temples and hundreds of additional ruins. The ancient city of Angkor was the capital of the Khmer empire, which flourished from the 9th to the 15th centuries.
In other words, after seeing Angkor Wat, there is plenty more exploring to do! We actually most enjoyed visiting the less popular temples, because they were less crowded and it felt more like “exploring”. We bought 3-day passes, and we visited around 10 temples in that time.
6. Good Vegetarian Food (Siem Reap)
During our trip to Siem Reap we were, unintentionally, completely vegetarian. This was because we discovered two amazing vegetarian restaurants early on, and we ate at both of them (one for lunch, one for dinner) every single day. The two restaurants were Yuan Sheng Vegetable Restaurant, which was near our hotel, and Banlle Vegetarian Restaurant which is located a few blocks from Pub Street. Both serve vegetarian Khmer food, delicious and beautifully presented. Yuan Sheng specializes in soups, noodles, and rice with an impressive array of “look-alike” meat options. Banlle is slightly more up-scale in appearance and has a menu full of creative Khmer-fusion and elegant desserts. The best part, they are both quite reasonably priced! Roughly $2-3 per dish for very gourmet and tasty food. You will pay 2-3 times that on Pub Street for bland western food.
Enjoying dinner at Banlle Vegetarian Restaurant
7. Temple Trees
In many of the Temples of Angkor, hundreds of years of abandonment have led to trees literally growing through the stone blocks of the temples. The two most common trees are the silk-cotton ceiba pentandra and the thitpok tetrameles nudiflora. These large trees are very popular photo spots, even though they wreak havoc on the ongoing archaeological restoration.
8. Tuk Tuk Ride Share Apps
App-based rides are quite popular in Cambodia. These days, you can hail a tuk tuk, motorbike, or rickshaw with an app. Grab and PassApp are two popular companies. For more information about getting around Cambodia check out this post.
You can still go up to an idle driver and negotiate for a ride but the app is quite convenient for short trips if you have a smart-phone. We used PassApp a lot in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and had a good experience.
We are now in Vietnam and we will be here for quite a while (~3 weeks). Let us know if you have any suggestions for things to do, or blog posts you would be interested in.