Last Day in Cambodia

My last day in Cambodia was a tough challenge because we had to make our way back to Phnom Penh. We went to the bus station in Siem Reap and waited for vans to take us to a location big enough for the actual buses to wait for people because the station in the main part of the city doesn’t have streets around it big enough to support the chaos of multiple buses. Once we found our bus, we got our seats and were happy to find it comfortable considering we were going to be on it for almost ten hours. This bus ride was harder for me than the last because I still wasn’t feeling so well, better than the night before, but definitely still sick – never good for a day on a bus. It was relaxing though and felt like a final goodbye to drive through the country and see everything one last time.

On the bus we met a nice guy from Holland who was traveling alone around Southeast Asia and had just come from Thailand. He talked with us a bit and identified with us more than others on the bus because we were really the only other westerners on the bus. When we stopped for a lunch break, we all ate together. I stuck with plain white rice for this meal to keep my stomach at ease. We stopped again a few hours later at the same place we had on our way to Siem Reap – it always feels good to return to familiar places. Though after that stop, the ride seemed to drag on and on as we got more delayed with traffic. I don’t usually mind traffic too much, but after feeling sick on the bus for close to ten hours, I was more than ready to get back on land and have some time to hang out before going to the airport.

Eventually we made it to the station in Phnom Penh and it felt good to be back there too. We took a tuktuk to our hotel – Emily bargained hard with the driver for a low price. We went back to the hotel where we had stayed our other nights in Phnom Penh because although I was going to be leaving, Emily and her friend Alice would stay there that night. The three of us decided to walk to dinner at a cafe we had gone previously. The walk was stressful because a lot of traffic surrounded us in the darkness and crossing roads in those circumstances creates a challenge. The scariest part of the trip happened during this walk when the three of us crossed a less busy road and suddenly a motorbike swerved in front of Emily and me, almost hitting us, and then Alice screamed behind us. My first thought was that she had been hit by the motorbike driver and I turned around nervous to find out what had happened. The driver hadn’t hit her, but he had tried to steal her iPad right out from her hand – the iPad that also held her passport. He had grabbed it, but luckily in the struggle dropped it, causing it to land on the ground in front of her. Unfortunately, the screen did crack some, but nonetheless it wasn’t stolen. Phnom Penh has such an infamous problem with theft, so you have to be careful. Alice said she walked around with her iPad out instead of a purse because she thought not having a purse could make her a less easy target, but maybe not.

We made it to the cafe and had a quick dinner. I barely ate anything because I felt incredibly sick at this point. I was ready to go to bed and sleep it off, but I wasn’t going to be seeing a bed for a long time. We went back to the hotel and I packed up everything one last time as we hung out and joked about things on Facebook that people posted. Emily got us a tuktuk to take me to the airport – the ride felt significantly longer than I had remembered going from the airport to the hotel the night I arrived. We found my airline and I checked in, I was happy to have the premier line because of my status. Emily and I said our goodbyes and hugged before I went to security. We were both sad I was leaving because the trip had been so fantastic for both of us. Because of my status with Star Alliance, I was also able to go into the Asiana lounge, making the airport visit much more enjoyable. I took a nap in there (by accident) because my flight kept getting more and more delayed. Though, eventually some time after midnight I made my way to the gate and was greeted by an airline representative who asked if I was me, I said yes, and he handed me a first class ticket! I love free upgrades!! The more you travel, the more perks you can get from traveling.

Floating Villages

We woke up and put on our new dresses that we purchased at the market the night before ($4 a dress or less) and had breakfast at the hotel. Our tuktuk driver – the one who laughed every time Emily spoke to him in Khmer – picked us up and drove us about half an hour away to the docks where boats exist to take people to view the floating villages.

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We bought our tickets and found a boat – we got the whole big boat to ourselves, and you know I love boats.

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We rode out down a smaller river that opened up to the floating villages and there were houseboats everywhere around us. Unfortunately, our guide on this boat was not the greatest guide in the world, but it worked out because Emily could amaze me with all the facts she knew about the area. Like that during wet season the water is literally a story higher – like over 12 feet.

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Emily also told me how it’s one of the only rivers in the world that actually switches directions every season. People can live in house boats without having to pay any kind of property tax, which is why many people choose to do it. The people who live in the village follow the water, move with it. People have come from many countries to live here, not just Cambodia. They have full communities living on boats – schools, shops, markets. It’s amazing to think about. Schools are divided into Khmer schools, Vietnamese schools, and Islamic schools.

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Weaving our way through all these houseboats, we rode to one of the markets and hopped off the boat. We were greeted by a large hole in the boat that opened up to huge crocodiles! There was a bottom to the area so the crocodiles couldn’t escape into the water.

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There was another one of these areas full of large fish. We looked in the market and I picked a few more gifts for my friends and family – looking at all the items was awesome. The saleswoman in the market tried to overcharge us hard. Emily overheard her and her manager discussing how much to charge us. Emily translated “this is only worth $8, but charge them $20” – so having a friend who speaks the language totally came in handy everywhere we went.

We left the market boat and stopped at one of the floating Vietnamese schools. Emily and I got off and expored – there were several small classrooms, a kitchen area, and three boats connecting to create this school.

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It is always interesting to see how students learn in another country – and even how different this was from the school in Emily’s village. There were few staff present actually watching the kids.

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Can you imagine having American students learning in this environment – leaping from one boat to another, surrounded by fast moving and deep water – without supervision? It wouldn’t fly with anyone in America, but it’s a different world over here and children are treated more like adults with different expectations.

After riding through more of the villages, we made our way back to the big dock, hopped off the boat, and found our driver.

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He took us back into Siem Reap and dropped us off for some lunch. We went to this cool pizza place that is owned and run by a guy originally from Boston. I’m always amazed by people who can leave their whole world behind and start a business in a completely different part of the world and be successful at it. It’s more impressive to me than most career choices. After this, we decided to walk around town and the markets some more. We picked up our professional photos from the previous day and bought our bus tickets for the next day, going back to Phnom Penh. I wanted to buy some artwork in the markets, this is always a process because the options are just endless beautiful creations. How can you decide? After looking for a long time and with Emily’s help, I decided on three of different sizes that had great colors and images. As a painter myself, I really respect and appreciate other people’s artwork. I didn’t bargain too hard for these because I know how hard they are to create.

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Then we did our favorite thing in the market – another fish foot massage! We were tired and hot, so we just sat there with our feet in the cold water, fish all around our feet and legs (this water went up to our knees) and let the fish do their thing for an hour and a half. I wish we had these in America because I would go so often.

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My legs have never been so smooth 😉P1010133

It was a relaxing way to spend our last afternoon in Siem Reap. After our long experience with the fish, we dried our legs off and walked to find dinner. We ate at the same cafe we had gone to the night before and showed Emily’s friends who work there all the photos we had done the day before. They thought it was awesome to look at and kept coming back over to see the photos. We ended up staying there talking, eating, hanging out, enjoying ourselves until the cafe closed then just headed back over to the market area. Emily wanted to find birthday gifts for her students, but wasn’t able to find what she was looking for so we found a driver and took a tuktuk back to the hotel for some rest because the next day was going to be long and nuts – my last day in Cambodia. Unfortunately, I ended up getting pretty sick that night and sleep wasn’t exactly an option.

Back to Siem Reap

We woke up early because the animals around the house were not about to permit sleeping after 6am. Emily’s dog Ninja burst through the door and surprised me with a very friendly morning kiss all over my face and promptly jumped into bed with us. Emily tries not to encourage him to be in her bed because he’s often not clean and gets fleas regularly. We walked to the market to find something for breakfast and felt lucky to find some deep fried bananas almost immediately that were filling, but delicious. The market was a chaotic, impressive scene. The market contains live fish flopping around, pig heads, animal intestines, meats of all kinds hanging from the ceiling or lying on mats on the ground, fruits not common in other parts of the world, clothes, baskets, toiletries, drinks – all for sale. Shoppers and sellers push through the tight spaces in the maze of the market. I love markets in other countries, just having such a different kind of shopping experience. I was able to meet one of Emily’s friends, a tailor in the village. Younger than both Emily and me, she has a young baby and incredible beauty. She was excited to meet me, even though a little hesitant to practice her English with someone new. The old lady from the day before ran into us again and grabbed me arm and quickly gave me a huge hug and told us again in Khmer how beautiful she thinks we are and that she loves us. It felt good to be welcomed by someone because people in the market area couldn’t stop looking at us. Many of them knew Emily already and as we walked by would ask if I was her sister and say we looked so alike. Every time this happened Emily would shake her head and say no and explain I was her friend (all in Khmer, but I started to learn the routine) and look at me and tell me we look nothing alike we’re both just white. I guess it’s like some Americans thinking all people from other races look the same. To me, this is one of the most important parts of traveling the world – you get taken out of your comfort zone and placed into different perspectives and realities. What could be more humbling?

Once we left the market, I realized how claustrophobic it had felt even though it hadn’t bothered me in the moment. We walked down the main road a little to this open restaurant (3 walls) and sat down at a table. We each got chocolate ovaltine on ice and ate our fried bananas. I know it shouldn’t have kept surprising me, but the prices were so low. For the time we were in her village, we lived on less than $8 – including transportation to get there and back to Siem Reap. The average income for people in Cambodia is $3 a day. Imagine earning less than $5 for an entire’s day labor. And they work hard there. Shocking facts like that exist all of the world and many people already know them, but seeing it and meeting people who actually live it makes it much more real. It’s not just a fact thrown at you by some professor or activist.

We spent the rest of the morning relaxing at Emily’s home and watched 12 Years a Slave – an excellent movie! We ate lunch on the living room floor with Emily’s host family and enjoyed rice with vegetables, meat, and sauce. I was able to try some new fruits that were interesting and awesome, I wish I could have some now. Then we had to pack up our stuff and say goodbye. We walked down that dirt road to the main road and hitchhiked, waiting for someone going to Siem Reap. One person stopped pretty quickly, but he was only going half the way we needed to go so we kept waiting. A guy in a pickup truck pulled over and offered to take us the whole way and to our hotel, he was kind and helpful getting our stuff in the backseat. Just under an hour, the ride went by quickly, mostly quiet.

We had a few issues once we got back to our hotel – the one we had stayed at before we left. They had put us in a room with one king size bed instead of two queens like we had requested and had our other nights there. Expect the unexpected. Emily and I had been sharing beds in a lot of the hotels, but this was a nicer one and for what we were paying compared to other places and because we would be staying there two more nights, we wanted it to be right. They weren’t able to get us a room with two beds so they said they would bring in a new bed. We decided to go into the city and let them figure that out.

Emily has friends from the Peace Corps who had gone to this store in Siem Reap where you can get professional photo shoots done – like traditional Cambodian style photo shoots. P1010075

We went upstairs and were met by makeup artists. We looked through rows of outfits and picked matching styles with complementing colors and the makeup artists made us up with more makeup than I’ve ever worn in my life! Fake eyelashes and all. I peaked in the mirror and almost didn’t recognize myself. Then they did our hair with braids turned into updos that were gorgeous. I felt like a celebrity or something. They helped dress us, covered us in jewelry, and put us in front of the camera. It was such a huge contrast from earlier in the day.

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We had a fantastic photographer who made us look incredible and posed us like we were in real Cambodia advertisements. We modeled together and separate. The whole process from arriving in the studio to walking out took a few hours. It was amazing and so so much fun! We got a bunch of photos that we’ll always be able to keep and look back on our spectacular trip together.

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Walking around Siem Reap with our fancy hair and makeup, we looked like super models the rest of the day. People looked at us everywhere we went. Because Siem Reap is the main tourist area of Cambodia, for once it wasn’t just Cambodian people looking at us. It was so much fun and exciting.

And we totally acted like grown ups

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We went to a cafe where Emily spends a lot of time when she’s in Siem Reap – all the employees know her, except they didn’t recognize her with all the makeup! Well I mean, I probably wouldn’t have either. We spent most of the evening there and after a great dinner we went to the night markets. I wanted to get some gifts for my family and find some stuff to fill my crazy apartment with. I have stuff from all over the world busting out of every space in my place, it’s starting to look like a fair trade shop. I found beautiful table cloths and bowls to take home and got to practice my bargaining skills. Emily has a friend who works in one of the places in the market, she was so excited about our model appearances.

When we finally made it back to the hotel, ready to crash, we came home to a disappointment – they hadn’t put in the new bed! So we went to the front desk and said something, the guy was genuinely embarrassed and claimed to have sent people to add in the new bed hours ago. We waited in the dark by the pool for the new bed to be added into our room and found this cool dude sitting outside.

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We were happy to wipe off the makeup and remove the fake eyelashes and go right to bed. It had been another crazy, adventurous day!

It Takes a Village

We were excited to sleep in – until 8am, something new! We had another delicious hotel breakfast and packed up and left. We were very short on cash, so we had the tuktuk driver take us to an atm, which ended up being much more of an experience than we had planned for. The first atm declined my card three times with error messages, so we went to a different one down the street. Emily decided to go first, but that machine went through the whole process and even made noise as if it were spitting out the cash, but no money came out. When she checked her account, the amount of money she was supposed to have received was missing from her balance. We had to call the number on the atm, which told us to go to the bank a few blocks away, wait in line for a long time just to be told to call the number on the atm card. We grabbed lunch at somewhere called Peace Cafe, but the lunch wasn’t particularly peaceful as Emily called the number on the card, very stressed about the missing money. It’s less than ideal to be in a country like Cambodia and have money disappear from your bank account. But after a phone call to her American bank, Emily was told that it’ll probably fix itself in a few days – luckily it did!

A man from the village where Emily works picked us up from the cafe in a huge van full of supplies and two young mothers with their babies. One of the babies was extremely interested in us and couldn’t stop looking and checking us out. Emily warned me that many people in the village don’t speak any English and that she was anticipating needing to do a ton of translating for me. Not many white people go into the village, we were the only two there – many people assumed I was a new Peace Corps volunteer. Emily told me how the only time white people come in is to either volunteer like her for very long periods of time, or to just show up and drop off some donation like computers and then leave very quickly. So the village’s experience with westerners and white people is pretty limited.

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The temperature felt even hotter in the village than it had in Siem Reap. Because the village remains more traditional and conservative, women have to keep their knees and shoulders covered at all times. Emily lives with a host family – their house was way bigger and more modern than I had expected.

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There were animals everywhere – kitties, their dog Ninja, ducks, roosters, lizards, cows. We dropped off our things upstairs then walked to the school where Emily teaches.

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The school reminded me so much of the school I have volunteered at in Ghana (Heritage Academy) – with open windows (no glass) and doorways, concrete walls, small stretch of buildings. I met one of Emily’s co-teachers who is about our age and super sweet. She even gave me a ride on her motor bike!

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We went into her class and they performed traditional Khmer songs for us and danced – so lovely!

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I was in awe by them. The kids were adorable and sweet, but a little shy with me there.

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I was able to meet a few of the teachers and students, all very excited about the “foreigner’s” presence. We ate sweet popcorn sold by local women and talked to the math teacher who spoke English much better than other people in the village. He was curious about where I came from and my life outside that moment.

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We walked to the Wat or Buddhist temple of the village.

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Young monks gathered outside laughing and having fun together. The paintings inside the temple were spectacular, detailing stories of the religion. It felt peaceful to take it all in, standing in front of such beauty with our bare feet on the cold stone floors.

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As we relaxed on the temple steps, some of Emily’s older high school students, total teacher pets, came over to talk to us for the third time since I arrived. Considering how little English is known by adults in the community, their English impressed me. They tried to show off for us with their volleyball skills, which were definitely stronger than mine! Emily says there’s so little to do in the village that many of the high school boys just play every day for hours. I could have been watching a professional game. While we watched, an old woman walking by grabbed my arm and started speaking to me in Khmer. I looked at Emily, unsure what the woman was saying, and she translated that the woman thought I was so beautiful. I was so embarrassed, but said thank you and Emily said thank you in Khmer for both of us.

I got to briefly meet Emily’s younger host siblings, a girl and boy. They weren’t able to talk to me in English, but we could communicate and play in other ways. Emily and I did a lot of walking that day along the dirt roads. We went to a local family’s house where Emily teaches some students English, on top of what they learn in school. She explained that one family had asked for some additional help for their child and then the neighbors and siblings joined too so now she has a mini class. Emily doesn’t get paid for doing extra work like this, she’s a good person and obviously loves to teach and help. I really respect that. During the lesson, Emily had the kids ask me questions in English and then I would ask them questions in English. I think this was excellent practice for them because they often tried speaking in Khmer and tried to get help from Emily, but Emily would just make them figure it out and talk to me. I mentioned to Emily how it seems like a lot of people in Cambodia often talk about me like I’m not there – even in English. Emily tells them that they can ask me themselves when they have question about me, but they still wouldn’t. She told me she’s noticed this too and how people often do that with her and her host family – asking the family questions about her instead of talking directly to her. The kids were embarrassed about their English and being forced to ask me questions, but they were so cute. They asked about my family, my job, my age, and my home. I could tell this wasn’t an easy task for them, but they did a great job!

We went back to Emily’s house for dinner. Her host mom made us noodles while the siblings and her ate snails! We ate dinner on the floor of the living room – there wasn’t much furniture to sit on in the house besides a nice hammock. The sun had set so after dinner we made our way to bed. After another exciting day, I felt very ready to get some sleep.

Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm and the Circus

We were pretty excited to find out our hotel gave free breakfast (not common there) and the breakfast options were amazing, not just typical eggs and toast. I mean yum!

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We had a big adventure making our way to Angkor Wat because after we bought our tickets for a day pass to the temples, our tuktuk broke down about 20 minutes from where we needed to go! Ten other drivers circled around ours – all trying to give advice on how to fix it in Khmer. It was very exciting, although annoying because we had to wait a long time and it’s kind of like going to Disney Land where you want to arrive as early as possible to beat both the crowds and the heat, and this situation prevented that. We eventually got a new driver – who ended up being our driver majority of our time in Siem Reap. We had to memorize the driver’s shirt because there were so many tuktuk drivers at the temples that it was near impossible to spot ours.

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We first went to Angkor Wat, the most famous of the old temples. It was an amazing site, and knowing it was built in the 12th century made it that much more impressive. The details on the walls with the carvings and the size of it was something that can’t be described. P1000869

We walked and walked and were overwhelmed by what we saw. Well I was probably more overwhelmed since it was Emily’s 7th or 8th time there 🙂

Look at this detail carved into the walls:

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Can you imagine walking up and down such steep steps every day?

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Originally a Hindu temple then transformed into a Buddhist temple, the religious significance is undeniable. Emily told me she saw in the news that some European couple had just been arrested for taking nude photos outside of the temple – so disrespectful. In some sections of the site, you must cover your knees and shoulders and remove hats because they are so sacred.

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The size of these temples were remarkable!P1000893

Such beautiful architecture:P1000915

After a good amount of time, we found our driver and made our way to the next temple. We saw monkeys having sex on the side of the road – totally wild! We made it to Bayon, another temple most known for having giant faces carved into the towers. Historians believe this was built either in the 12th or 13th century, and again the details were amazing. P1000922

Check this temple out!

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Look at this detail:

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People often take photos where they pose to look as though they are kissing these facesP1000944 P1000947

This was my favorite of all the temples, a complicated maze of hallways, stairs, and statues. I shouldn’t have been as surprised by the amount there was to look at. Knowing how long the temple had existed just blew my mind, imagining people that long ago building it and visiting just made it that much more remarkable.

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We walked around to look at other ruins in the area and went to the Elephant Terrace, which is a building with giant elephants carved into the stone, then had lunch under a tent near the ruins. Of course they had real elephants available to ride.

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Ta Prohm – our last temple of the day is famous for having giant trees actually growing into the building over time. P1010023P1010003

It’s also from the 12th or 13th century and is now on the World Heritage List. When new, this site was home to thousands of people and was continued to be expanded and built on until the 15th century. Now it is regularly restored, many sections were blocked off as workers did construction, trying to save the ruins.

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With trees growing in, the buildings are constantly changing and needing repairs.

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Check out the size of this tree!

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After a full day of temple visits, we were exhausted, especially because it turned out to be one of the hottest days during my visit in Cambodia. Emily surprised our driver by asking in Khmer if we could stop at this place to buy tickets for the circus. He couldn’t stop laughing because we had gone the whole day with him and he had no clue she knew how to speak Khmer so well. We grabbed our tickets then went back to the hotel where I promptly passed out. It had certainly been an exhausting day. When I woke up, we made our way back to Pub Street and had dinner at Joe’s To Go, this fun restaurant that also helped kids in Cambodia as well as worked with people who have disabilities.

The Cambodian circus was spectacular! With only a few performers, they created a powerful story with their art and used their bodies to tell it. I had never seen anything like it. IMG_0801IMG_0795

It wasn’t a stereotypical circus with clowns and lions, but more acrobatics and gymnastics. The strength and flexibility of the performers was so impressive – I think I sat with my mouth wide open in shock majority of the show.

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I mean look at this!

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It was absolutely fantastic!

Phnom Penh to Siem Reap

We woke up early in Phnom Penh and walked twenty minutes to this wonderful bakery for breakfast. I am all about desserts and very into baking so seeing everything they had was so exciting!

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We had a filling and sweet meal and even got some snacks to take along for the long bus ride we had to look forward to in a few hours.

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Definitely a delicious start to the morning. On the walk back we encountered some beggars. The city is almost overwhelming with so much going on around you every second, it’s a lot to take in – the scene at bus station was no exception. There were people everywhere, some trying to sell suitcases full of all sorts of things from sunglasses to medical masks (to protect people from dust) to jewelry. Because Emily and I are white girls, we were the first targets of the hopeful salespeople. People pushed by with luggage and packages. Buses came and went as did crowds of people.

I loved seeing this, just how chaotic even the power lines were:

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We used the Capitol bus company for our 9 hour ride to Siem Reap. The bus ride was pretty uneventful except for two stops. The bathroom situation was an adventure with basically toilet bowls on the floor and a bucket of water to clear it out. Lunges definitely came in handy for that kind of low squatting. We also grabbed lunch, which was this crazy spicy curry noodles. The rest of the bus ride we slept, ate snacks, talked, planned, and listened to music. Luckily the buses had interesting music videos from Thailand, South Korea, and Cambodia playing on the TV so we could laugh at the drama within each one.

Some views from the bus:

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As we approached Siem Reap, we asked the driver to stop so we could hop off before we got into the main part of the city because tuktuk drivers overcharge people coming directly off buses at the station. The only problem was that we were then lost. We stood on the side of the dusty road with all our bags, unsure of where our hotel was. Emily waved down a tuktuk driver and asked if he would take us and he laughed and said it was too far – suddenly he was too busy to work. We found a grocery store advertising free wifi but they said it wasn’t working when we asked for the password. The woman working there told us the hotel was close but didn’t know how to get there. This is when the phone number of the hotel would have come in handy, but it wasn’t on our printout receipt, only the address was there. I won’t lie, I was definitely nervous in this moment. Before we got too stressed though, a tuktuk driver pulled over and asked if we needed a ride. He knew exactly where the hotel was and because it was so close, he didn’t even charge us!

The hotel was way nicer than we expected – our room was beautiful with two big beds and it actually had a real shower with a curtain! We got a ride to Pub Street, the big tourist area in Siem Reap that’s full of restaurants, shops, and markets. We had  a delicious dinner, looked at the old market, walked through the night market, and then got a fish foot massage. The fish massage is basically climbing up and sticking your feet into big tanks of water full of these specific kind of fish that eat your dead skin. The fish nibble away and it tickles like crazy!

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Our feet were incredibly smooth after and felt so good, it was definitely worth the tickling. We sat there for 45 minutes enjoying it.

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Phnom Penh and Cambodian History

We woke up early and went on a final ride around Kep with our driver. Our bus came late so we talked with him for a while about other travels and our plans for the rest of the trip. We had gotten to know each other a bit over the last few days, so when we asked how much we owed him for all the driving, he charged us probably less than half of what we actually owed him. This was very kind and we appreciated it, but as we said goodbye before getting on the bus, I handed him extra money (what we really owed him)  and told him to keep it and thanked him for being so good to us. His eyes actually filled with tears and he gave me a huge hug. It’s amazing how $10 meant so much to him, the cost of a sandwich in America.

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We had a 3-4 hour bus ride back to Phnom Penh. When we arrived, this old French woman who had been on the bus with us was overwhelmed by the chaos of the city, she asked to share our tuktuk. On the way to our hotel she explained that she had come in from Vietnam and had only been along the coast in smaller towns. It’s always impressive to see older people doing such adventurous trips, because they’re certainly not easy. She looked nervous after we left her at our hotel, I’m sure she found her way though. We grabbed lunch at this great cafe called Joma and there I met one of Emily’s Peace Corps friends, Alice. She’s super sweet and it was cool to learn a little about her and hear her experiences in the country.

After lunch, Emily and I spent the afternoon at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields. This was a truly meaningful and important experience. I always feel it’s imperative to learn about the history of a place you visit. What we saw at both of these places was definitely shocking and upsetting. In 1977-1979, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge executed a genocide in Cambodia involving torture, starvation, forced labor, and millions of deaths.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum used to be a high school before being turned into the infamous Security Prison 21 (S-21).

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At the museum, visitors can see photographs of all the victims of the prison – most looked terrified, others angry, some proud. Actually seeing the faces of those men and women, and even children, was so powerful and moving.

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Many of the tiny cells remained built into the classrooms. Standing in the actual rooms where such horrific events took place was intense.

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Not only Cambodian citizens were taken to this prison, a few hundred foreigners who remained in the country after the Khmer Rouge took over also are known to have been imprisoned and killed. Only 12 people out of an estimated 17,000 prisoners actually survived.

The balconies were covered in barbed wire so prisoners weren’t able to jump off and kill themselves. In this photo you can see the gallows where people were hung from upside down from their feet and dunked into the big vases below until they lost consciousness, another form of torture.

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The Killing Fields are sites where over a million people were killed and buried during the genocide period in Cambodia. The place we visited is famous for having the skulls and bones of victims displayed incased in glass from floor to ceiling in a multiple story room. Information about gender, age, and likely cause of death is also available, making it much more real and intense.

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This is the building where the bones are stored.

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At the site, visitors are given headsets and can walk around the land learning about the history and what actually occurred in this peaceful looking place. What effected me most was probably this tree which was discovered to have pieces of brain and bone lodged and smeared onto it.

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Babies were smashed against this tree, often in front of their mothers, and once dead just tossed away. As you walk around, there are signs to watch out for bone.

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Bones and clothing of victims still appear even decades later especially when it rains. A reminder that makes it even more impossible to forget such a tragedy.

It was good to have a long tuktuk ride back into the main part of the city so we could mentally digest everything we had witnessed and learned. We got dropped off at the Independence Monument – a place where many people like to walk around and exercise because it has a lot of grass and sidewalk in such a crowded city.

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We walked from there to the Peace Corps office, a very high security place. We had to walk past guards to enter this street where ambassadors and even the Cambodian Prince are known to live. I wasn’t allowed to go into the office because only volunteers are allowed. We then walked to dinner at this restaurant called Free Bird – a very western hip place. Walking in Phnom Penh is crazy because traffic is so busy, you just have to jump into the road if you need to cross and just hope you make it alive. We had dinner with Alice and it was a great night. When we got back to the room, I had to rinse off because I was covered in dust and dirt.

Rabbit Island

We woke up early and met our tuktuk driver to go to the harbor. We walked down a dock to where a bunch of green boats waited to take people to Rabbit Island – about a half hour away from the mainland. Our boat was full of these little shrimp crawly things.

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It felt so good to have the wind blowing on us and early sun shining as we sailed. I really love being on boats and wish I knew more about them and could have such experiences more often.

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We arrived at Rabbit Island and jumped off our boat into the warm sand – so exciting! There were already tourists, but not too many because the island isn’t that big of a place. We walked to the end of the restaurants to find the owner of the set of bungalows where she had stayed last time she visited and reserve one. He informed us he didn’t have any available and we were extremely disappointed because we wanted to stay over night, but then he spotted a young French couple who were actually leaving in a few hours! We got our bungalow after all!

Small, but perfect for sharing – especially considering Emily and I used to live together.

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The island is paradise on Earth. So beautiful with palm trees, hammocks, sunshine, light waves. We couldn’t wait to take a hike around the entire island. Emily told me how many changes had been made to the island in just a few months. The first portion of our walk included going by construction sites where they tore down the foliage and large trees, burned in, and cleared land most likely to build more tourist-related things. It’s sad because people visit the island for the beauty and closeness to nature, but as more tourists come, more space needs to be made, which takes away from the reason people come in the first place.

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After we got past the construction, we had almost two full hours of nature until we got back to where we started. There were incredible beaches and a few local people’s homes spread out occasionally. The hike wasn’t particularly easy as we got cut up from branches and rocks. At one point the tide was too high to walk the path, forcing us to walk in the water barefoot over sharp rocks while trying to keep our clothes dry.

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Once we got back to the main part of the island, we enjoyed a big lunch of noodles and spent a few hours lying on the beach and cooling off in the warm water. New boats kept bringing more people, but it never felt crowded. We had a few friends though:

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We found hammocks next to each other and watched the sunset – extremely relaxing and beautiful. I mean look at this!!

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The night was super cool because we walked to the end of a small dock and looked for glowing algae in the water – one of the most unique aspects of this island. We sat on the dock, waiting and waiting and kept thinking we saw lights in the water but weren’t entirely sure. As it got darker though, all of a sudden there was no denying the glowing. Emily jumped in the water and algae glowed all around her, some looked like little fireflies, others bright blue projections – absolutely incredible! I’ve travelled a lot, but I’ve never seen anything like it before. We couldn’t stop watching the mesmerizing water for the longest time. Eventually we had a late dinner on the beach and stayed up talking for hours. The whole island experience was amazingly relaxing and enjoyable.

Phnom Penh to Kampot to Kep

My first full day in Cambodia was wild. By the end of the day I felt like I had been here for a week.

Emily and I woke up early and took a tuktuk to a small bus company connected to a gas station.

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Definitely rode around Cambodia in style!

The ride over was intense. I got my first real experience of the chaos of Phnom Penh. There were other tuktuks, motor bikes, cars, and buses everywhere. Like literally everywhere. We stopped at a light for a moment and within seconds were completely surrounded by tons of motor bikes and other vehicles. Talk about culture shock from sleepy Buffalo to this. I made sure to hold onto my bags tight because the city is infamous for theft. The traffic is insane but it works. Traditional traffic rules don’t seem to apply. People go when they go, merge when they want, cross without warning. It’s fun to be part of it. Definitely a thrill.

We took a small van to a town called Kampot. A bunch of people crammed in, but it was comfortable regardless, fast, inexpensive, air conditioned, and had free wifi. That made the 3 hours go by quickly. The scenery on the way impressed me with its beauty. In Kampot, the transportation we wanted to take to our destination wasn’t leaving for a long time so we walked and found another nearby called Anna tours.

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We had enough time to find a great lunch place. We were both hungry considering breakfast had been a very substantial package of starbursts 😉 The cafe was very cool because people with various disabilities and mainly deaf people work there. A lot of places in Cambodia work to help people who have various disabilities, which is awesome. All over the cafe everything was labeled as ‘epic’ which stood for ‘every person counts’ – a wonderful message. So we ate well and walked back to the bus station.

On our way to Kep we took a big bus that made stops all over the place picking up random people on the side of the road who hitchhiked. As foreigners, tuktuk drivers bombarded us when we got off the bus in Kep. The driver we picked was great and we ended up using him our whole stay there.

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We stayed at Kep lodge, a very nice small hotel just a little ways from the beach. Slightly more expensive than some places, but worth it. Being extremely private, tucked in the forest, it felt perfect for relaxing. Greeted with iced tea and smiles, i felt right at home from the start of our stay. Our room looked amazing.

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We settled in then took our tuktuk to a nearby pepper plantation, about a 40 minute drive, giving us time to really see the area. When we heard pepper plantation, both Emily and I imagined vegetable peppers like green and red peppers, but this was a plantation where ground pepper was grown, as in salt and pepper (90s rap anyone?). We felt pretty dumb for not knowing that. They gave us a tour of the plantation and showed us how they grow different forms of peppers -very interesting to witness and learn about.

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The plantation was beautiful and they grew many other plants and fruits.

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Kep is famous in Cambodia for its pepper so it was worth seeing while we were there.

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Our tuktuk ride home was entertaining. Guys driving by blew kisses at us and Emily explained how often she gets proposed to here. We drove by an ice cream truck tuktuk, which made me laugh a lot. It played music from Pocahontas as its melody.

We drove by wild monkeys sitting by the side of the road – so cool! I love to see animals!

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We ate dinner at the hotel, it was delicious and filling. After dinner I felt exhausted from jetlag and went straight to bed, we had another early and exciting morning ahead of us.

Flying to Cambodia

I made it to Cambodia! It has been such an incredible trip so far and I have so much to share with you! Let me start with my experience getting here 🙂

The trip over was long, especially doing it alone, but it was exciting. After driving to LAX and returning my rental car, I had three planes to ride on my journey, Los Angeles to San Fransisco to Seoul to Phnom Penh. The first flight was short. I slept through from the safety demonstration until the wheels touched the ground- getting up at 3am tends to have that affect on me. I made my way to the international terminal in San Fransisco and all of a sudden this feeling rushed over me because the trip was getting real. I found this small japanese restaurant and had a delicious lunch even if it was only 8am. It was interesting to people watch there and see what kinds of people were in the terminal, it definitely had a higher Asian population than other terminals of the airport, and a lot of white middle aged businessmen, and a few young guys traveling alone getting ready to explore like I was. I was super lucky on the plane to get two open seats next to me, always a fantastic perk especially on a 12 hour flight! I watched a few movies and tried to sleep as much as I could, but unfortunately wasn’t able to much considering how long the flight was. I flew with United and sat in economy plus, it was interesting how few women were in that section of the plane, only 5 out of 70. That made me feel kind of cool. Having status with an airline really makes a difference with traveling. I felt ready to take on the next step when we touched down in Seoul despite how tired I was. The airport was really neat – super crowded, huge, clean, tons of shopping places.

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I had to take a cramped train to another terminal and go through security again, then walked a long way to find my new gate. I was happy to have free wifi there because my layover was a few hours. The gate area felt super comfortable, spacious, well designed, full of windows. I sat comfortably there and even found some amazing chocolate ice cream. I’m kind of an ice cream fanatic (maybe that’s an understatement). As the gate began to fill up with more people making their way to Cambodia, a guy named Vince sat next to me asking why I was going there and about my story. He was born in Cambodia but lives in LA now. He was kind enough to give me lots of advice, even some I didn’t need, but it helped me relax and smile a little. It’s always nice when a stranger is kind or cares – gives me some faith in people or something. He was glad to hear I wasn’t going by myself and said I would get overwhelmed by people when I arrived as a blonde girl – he wasn’t wrong, traveling alone or not.

The flight to Phnom Penh was with Asiana airlines and it was truly great. It was about 5.5 hours, but I slept on and off majority of it. I was surrounded by this American group traveling together with college students and some middle aged group leaders. The students looked a little nervous and struggled filling out the immigration forms, which made me glad to have so much experience with traveling because those forms can be confusing at times.

The next two hours were nuts. We arrived late close to midnight. There were lots of crowds and lines of people and it was often unclear where to go amongst the chaos. I had filed for a visa in advance and was happy to avoid a very long and slow moving line to receive one, but passport control was easy enough. I grabbed my suitcase and went through the final step of immigration and took a deep breath because I made it to Cambodia! It’s always important to stop and remember where you are and how amazing it is. I felt very relieved to find Emily quickly, she was waiting towards the front of a ton of people. It felt good to see a familiar face after such a long journey. We found a tuktuk and made our way to the hotel. It was after 1am so not much traffic existed. My first impression was wow what a city. Definitely dirty and dusty, lots of trash everywhere. We passed strip clubs and homeless people, a woman digging through trash, and tons of closed shops. I was so excited to be there though. We stayed at the skypark guesthouse, which is cheap and close to many places in the city. Emily says the peace corps puts the volunteers up there often when they have meetings or reason to be in the city. The room had two big beds, fresh towels, air conditioning, and a clean bathroom – all a relief after the long trip. We both went straight to sleep because we were going to start an adventure together first thing in the morning.