Everybody loves Thai food, everybody loves Vietnamese food while Malaysian and Singaporean food is a big hit as well. But Cambodian food???? We hadn’t really heard of it, we knew nothing about it and we had no idea what to expect. This is how we felt about Cambodia in general. Of course we knew the basics, Angkor Wat, the Killing Fields and ummm….
Having borders with Thailand, Laos and Vietnam it was a country we undoubtedly had to visit but what to see and what to do was all a bit of a mystery. We entered Cambodia overland from Thailand. A direct bus took us straight from Bangkok and very impressively dropped us at our chosen guesthouse in Siem Reap. Our nerves and fears soon disappeared as we instantly fell in love with Cambodia and were very excited to be able to explore the country.
Over the course of the next 3 weeks we travelled from Siem Reap in the north to Phnom Pehn in the south stopping off in Battembang in the west. Cambodia is a big country and we had to do some long bus trips but with the help of the iPad, plenty of snacks and some great countryside scenery this was in fact no problem. The roads, combined with some cowboy drivers and plenty of livestock also made for some hair raising experiences but as I constantly tell the kids…. it just adds to the experience!!! Predominantly a farming country and having war torn images in our mind we were surprised to see how green and lush the countryside is. There were times when it looked as though we could have been driving through rural NZ but then we would come across huge rice fields and instantly feel like we were in Asia again.
Having left the fun filled, tourist filled, temple filled Siem Reap we got off the regular backpacker trail and headed south west for Battembang. We had heard that there was some unique fun activities worth doing that we knew our kids would love. Ummm… how to explain the Bamboo railway??? Basically you build your little train using what looks like some barbells, put your bamboo pallet on top then drop in a lawn mower engine. You jump on board, the driver starts it up and off you go holding on like hell!!! There is only 1 track so when you meet a train coming in the opposite direction you have to jump off, disassemble your train, take it off the track and wait in the bushes for the other train to pass. I have no idea who has right of way as trains were getting disassembled in each direction. Basically you scream up the track, sometimes reaching 50 KM an hour, for about 30 mins then suddenly come to the end of the track. There is nothing there except some little dusty shacks trying to flog you their souvenirs for the “best price in town.” You jump of your train, dissemble it, turn it around, wait your turn then repeat the whole process back to the other end. It was by far the weirdest, craziest, but funniest thing we had done in a long time and the mummy in me was freaking out but luckily the screams of delight from the kids drowned out my fears!!!
The Killing Cave and the Bat Cave were another fun family activity in Battembang. The small mountain, about a 20 min Tuk Tuk drive out of town, unfortunately has a very dark history. As the name, The Killing Cave, suggests it was used by the Kymer Rouge in the 1970s as a place of torture and death and you can still see evidence of these horrific acts today. At the top the hill there is a large cave which holds a small memorial to honor all those that lost their lifes there. Also dotted throughout the hillside are smaller caves and paths which contain Buddah statues and plenty of monkeys. If you are not keen on visiting the main killing cave then there is still plenty of paths and places to explore all offering amazing views of the surrounding landscape. We happily ran around and explored for a couple of hours before making our way down the hundreds of steps in time for the main event….. The Bat cave!!! The hillside contains a large cave which is home to over 6 million bats. Every night night at dusk, all 6 million of these bats fly out of the cave in formation, often forming huge waves and shapes in the sky. The locals have set up little food stalls and seating so you can sit down, have dinner and wait for the bats to appear. There were probably about 100 tourists there on the night we visited and it has a small carnival atmosphere. We waited for what seemed like hours, but in reality was probably only 15 mins, until the bats started to appear. Slowly at first but it didn’t take long before huge black patterns started appearing in the sky. The kids were super excited. We watched the bats for about 20 mins until it got too dark to see them anymore. Our tuk tuk driver said that it takes about 1 hour for all the bats to leave the cave. The bat cave is a piece of mother nature that is truly fascinating. And although we never saw Batman fly out of the cave, it was such a fun thing to do with the kids. Often now at about 6pm, one of us will comment about how the bats in Battambang are waking up and getting ready to fly!!!
Whilst in Battembang we were extremely lucky to meet up with 2 young, local boys who had set up an organisation where they offer free cycle tours of the town. All the wanted in return was the opportunity to practice conversational English. So heres two 21 year old guys giving up their time, day after day for free in order to gain skills which they can use to better themselves and hopefully in the future provide better incomes for their families. Impressive or what!!! We spent a fantastic day cycling around the villages also stopping off to learn how to make rice paper, sticky rice and banana lollies. We were treated like royalty by all the local children and did so much one handed cycling due to the fact that we were waving and high fiving the locals most of the time. Our guides were absolutely amazing with our kids and we were totally blown away when we returned and they told us that we had cycled over 20 KM, kids included. Although they were happy to offer this activity for free we gave them a donation which we thought they had totally deserved and earned. When you see young kids putting themselves out there and expecting nothing in return you can”t help but want to reward them for being so awesome.
After staying in Battambang for a few extra days so we could make use of our amazing guesthouse pool, we did the long 6 hour bus trip to Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Pehn. My rule of only ever booking accommodation for 1 night at a time really paid off after turning up at possibly the worst guesthouse of our entire trip. No air con, no hot water, just five beds in a tiny concrete cell like room complete with a raging backpackers night club right down stairs. I have no idea how I missed all these details when I made the booking but in true backpacker style we locked the door tightly, snuggled closely together in bed and then made a hasty exit at first light the next morning. Walking half way round the block to a place that some travelling friends had recommended, we settled into what seemed like the Hilton compared to what we had just left. Knowing that we had to stay in Phnom Pehn for at least the next 4 days in order to get our visas for Vietnam processed, we put the bad guesthouse experience behind us and started exploring the city.
Before arriving in Cambodia we had thought long and hard about taking the kids to visit the infamous Choeung Ek killing fields in Phnom Pehn. Whilst in Thailand we had already started preparing the kids for the possible sights they may see in Cambodia. We have talked in length with them about the Khmer Rouge and the evil Pol Pot. They know about the atrocities and the terror that faced the Cambodian people during the war. We take every opportunity to educate the kids on the world, the people, the good, the beautiful, the bad and the evil. So with this in mind we felt they were well prepared and comfortable enough to visit the killing fields. From the moment we arrived, the kids mood changed. The energy of the place demanded respect. We were all given audio head sets which included stories from survivors and also stories from former Khmer Rouge soldiers. The audio directed us through the killing fields whilst also explaining the history and relevance of each place. It was sobering, it was horrific, it was utterly tragic but to be able to pay our deepest respects to the 20,000 souls resting there was a special moment, and I know by the kids behavior that they were showing empathy, love and were learning to be humble for the life that they can lead. The biggest question but hardest to answer was of course…Why??? An answer that the whole of Cambodia is still searching for I’m sure.
Toul Sleng Museum or S-21 as it is more commonly known is a far more confronting piece of Khmer Rouge history. A school located in suburban Phnom Pehn which was used as a place to hold, integrate and torture educated Cambodians during the war. It is now a place of remembrance which holds graphic pictures, torture devices and photos of the victims. Carl visited this place on his own and found it just as horrific as it sounds, but was able to show his respects to the one New Zealand victim who tragically was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As a family, we struggled in Phnom Pehn. The heat, the smell, the filth and the poverty were all overwhelming. I struggled hugely with the large amount of dirty, half naked little children all alone sleeping on the path along the riverbank. My Mummy heart broke many times but unfortunately offering these small kids food did nothing to solve the problem. It was really tough. Talking about this issue with a friend of mine who lives in Phnom Pehn with his family, he said that the authority’s were doing the best they could but unfortunately a lot of parents force their own children onto the streets in the hope they will be given money by tourists and they see this as a way of income. So sad to see but in a country that has seen such devastation it is unacceptable for me to place judgement on anyone.
Cambodia has utterly blown our minds in culture, beauty and charm but it had also shown us the worst parts of humankind. It was an education that our children could never have received from any classroom and as parents we couldn’t have been any prouder with the way they handled backpacking through Cambodia. I think Cambodia is on the brink of being great, being successful and shaking off the shackles of its dark history. We came with such low expectations but left feeling as though we had been treated to a great show, a show that I know we would love to see again one day.