It will be seven years in January since I first left England to live in Cambodia, on and off of course. But it wasn’t until November 2015 that my parents finally came to visit me. And I had to make sure the holiday was worth the wait.
The reason we went to Phnom Penh three times? Because Cambodia’s road network looks like a spider with every highway stemming from the capital and none of them linking up outside of the metropolis.
So let’s start with the temples in Siem Reap. This wasn’t a difficult part of the holiday to make awesome. I mean, it’s Angkor Wat! The ancient structures wow over one million tourists every year and my parents were among them as we wandered through the colossal stone structures. We actually started, rather unorthodoxly, with Ta Prohm. This is my favourite temple and also the one where Tomb Raider was filmed (for about one minute). It’s been left partially to the jungle with giant trees draped over the stones and undergrowth slowly encroaching from all sides. It’s magical.
On to Bayon which is part of Angkor Thom. Basically it’s the one with the big faces everyone knows.
Angkor Wat was our final stop on our first day. It’s just as amazing to me now as it first was almost ten years ago. Unfortunately some health and safety laws have come into play (yes even in Cambodia our fun is ruined) and because of building works we weren’t able to climb to the very top. Still pretty cool though, right?
On our second day we headed out to the Tonle Sap lake where you can visit fishing villages which float on this giant body of water. To be honest, I wouldn’t recommend the experience. I went a few years ago and since then the site has become a money making, tourist extorting, generally unpleasant place to be. The village itself is picturesque but you get constantly asked to donate rice to children who are “orphans”. $50 for a twenty kilo bag of rice! It should cost about $10. And even after I explained that I work at an orphanage, they still tried to get us to donate money. It was pushy, rude, misleading and left us with a sour taste in our mouths. And then to top it off, as soon as we disembarked from the boat, a little girl appeared trying to sell me a ceramic plate with a picture of my own face on! Creepy or what?
The day got better though when we hiked up a stupidly steep hill to a temple and discovered a wonderful view over the Tonle Sap lake. In fact, after a brief meeting I had arranged for my SKOPE project, we returned that evening and watched a glorious sunset.
The final day in Siem Reap took us out to the remote temples: Kbal Spean and Banteay Srey. The former is actually not a temple but carvings in a river bed. Different, beautiful, and rewarding after the 1.5km hike up the hill.
Banter Srey was nicer before it made its way onto the Chinese tourist bus route. It’s a tiny temple made of pink sandstone with the most intricate and beautiful carvings over every inch of it.
On the way back to the city, we stopped at the Landmine Museum where we were lucky enough to arrive at the same time an American worker was starting a tour which was incredibly informative even for someone who’s got a Masters in the subject. That evening we went to the Phare Cambodian Circus – amazing!
I was glad to be leaving Siem Reap, to be honest. I was looking forward to going home and showing my parents a real Cambodian city rather than the tourist centre Siem Reap has become. The weekend in Phnom Penh was touristy too though: Royal Palace, National Museum, Wat Phnom, Riverside, accompanied by several of my favourite restaurants. They only got lost once (well, there was a miscommunication with Tuk Tuk Lady but she was terrified that she’d lost my parents when they didn’t reappear after they went to the Royal Palace!)
Kampot remains my favourite place in Cambodia and we spent three full days in the sleepy riverside town. To be honest there isn’t much to say about our wonderfully relaxing time. Our guesthouse, Greenhouse, was right on the bank of the river and my mum and I swam across at least once a day. We took a countryside tour to see the caves and rice paddies one day before having lunch in Kep, a seaside town famous for its crab. We also hired bicycles and cycled up to an old temple. The hill was incredibly steep but I was really looking forward to going back down … until my front tyre got a flat about thirty seconds into my downhill dash. Ever tried to carry a bicycle upside down on the back of a moto? The Khmers make it look easy – it’s not.
Back up to Phnom Penh and my parents came into work with me (after getting lost in a tuk tuk again the night before). It was great for them to meet some of the kids I teach and also the children at Sovann Komar to whom they’ve donated money several times over the years. They also met my bosses and saw me in action in the classroom. My parents wanted to get presents for the kids and I suggested some world maps. Their geographical knowledge is generally poor (one kid pointed to Canada when I asked them to find Cambodia …) and I am really pushing for them to get a greater understanding of the world and other countries.
I then had to work on Saturday in the provinces (blog upcoming about that) so my parents spent Saturday morning doing the necessary but depressing genocide tour – Toul Sleng detention centre and Choeung Ek killing field. But then I returned and cheered them up with a takeaway and Tomb Raider (it’s obligatory viewing if you’re in Cambodia.)
Our final trip was up to Mondulkiri in the east of the country. I’d not been before so I was really excited. The town itself, Sen Monorom, is nothing special but the main attraction of the area are the elephants. There are several sanctuaries working up there to rescue these majestic beasts from logging work, tourist riding companies, and other industries. We first stayed at Tree Lodge in a wooden bungalow but it was a little too rustic even for me. I mean, the spider in our bathroom was, legs included, the size of my hand. And the frog by my bed was huge too. We moved into a place with a ceiling which connected to the walls which connected to the floor the next day. Not sure how much safer it was though because my mum still managed to trip over a drain and fall down that evening. Funny in hindsight, slightly terrifying at the time when heard clattering noise, turned around and saw her rolling into the road.
Elephants are amazing. I mean, they’re just incredible. We went with a group called the Mondulkiri Project who have four elephants in 30 hectares of forest. Sophie, Princess, Lucky, and Chi Chan (moon in Khmer). We spent the morning feeding them bananas (Princess lived up to her name and insisted we place the food directly into her mouth) and following them as they wandered freely through the jungle.
We then had lunch before heading back down and over a “bridge” to a small waterfall where we were split into two groups so we could wash the elephants! One by one, Princess and Lucky waded into the water and sat down. You then see a rather strange sight of several Westerners in bikinis with scrubbing brushes around these amazing creatures. I washed Lucky with my parents and the whole experience was just spectacular!
And that was it! We headed back to Phnom Penh, spent an afternoon on the silk island, went to Raffles, did some last minute shopping and stocked up for the Christmas Markets I’ve since done for SKOPE (blog coming soon) and we were off back to England where my parents returned home after seven weeks of holiday and I came back after ten months to celebrate Christmas in the cold once more.