Tonlé Sap Lake

Two rivers meet at Phnom Penh – the Mekong and the Tonlé Sap. The Tonlé Sap is unusual because the flow of the river changes twice a year. The river empties out into the large freshwater lake many have made their home.

Tonle Sap Lake

We hired a tuk tuk for the day, who picked us up from the hotel and drove us out of Siem Reap towards the lake. Mr. A and I had originally intended on renting bikes and cycling out there, but the rental company weren’t able to supply us with helmets or locks, so if cycling is your thing I’d definitely recommend bringing your own!

The two of us arrived at the lake and were taken to the ticket office of the boat company to buy a ticket for a boat tour. For $20, I found it fairly steep, but it seemed as if one company had a monopoly on the boat tours. As we thought that the steep fee might be due to the fact that these fees may contribute to the preservation costs of the lake, we paid anyway and were given our own boat and guide.

Mr A and I had arrived at Cambodia in the height of the dry season. This meant that the water wasn’t clear, but it was interesting to see the difference in water levels during the rainy season.

Tonle Sap Lake

Tonle Sap Lake

It was a fascinating experience to see all the floating houses on the Tonlé Sap lake. During the rainy season, the residents of the lake move themselves further upstream using little tug boats. You could see residents swimming and jumping from house to house, and there was a real sense of community. A good friend of mine has a houseboat in London, and I wondered how she’d find it with her little boat out on this expansive lake.

Tonle Sap Lake

The white rag at the top of the tree in the photo above is where the river is during the rainy season.

Tonle Sap Lake

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The residents all depend on the river for fish. Our guide informed us that children aren’t allowed  to go to school until they have learned how to swim – which seems sensible, as I’m sure the desire to push classmates into the water is a strong one! The whole experience reminded me of Venice. The lake is so large that you couldn’t see the end, and was more like an inland sea.

Tonle Sap Lake Tonle Sap Lake

Although the lake was stunning to see, and an experience I honestly don’t think should be missed, I have to admit the boat trip wasn’t a pleasant one. When we first arrived on the boat our driver and an English speaking guide seemed friendly enough, and took us around the houses. As the boat trip went on, how ever, things began to take a turn. We were taken to a fish and crocodile farm on a boat, where these crocodiles were kept in a horribly cramped cage. Our guide began insisting that we have a look around the souvenir shop and was extremely insistent that we buy something. This method of selling never works on me, but Mr. A and I had budgeted $25 each for the day – $20 which ended up going on the expensive boat ride and $5 each promised to our tuktuk driver who was waiting for us up on the bank. After we expressed our disinterest in the souvenir shop, our guide then told us we would be going to a community store to buy food for orphans. I am against orphanage tourism, and being marched into buying something was really making me feel uncomfortable. Mr. A and I were forced into the community shop, where the shop assistant were insistent that we buy something for the orphans. The two of us had 100 riel to spare between us, and offered that as a donation but were told the minimum we could spend was $30 on a bag of rice. At this point we had enough, and asked to skip the orphanage tour.

Orphanage tourism is very exploitative and NGOs really advice against supporting this practice. Children are taken out of school in order to be paraded round for the tourists, and are often not orphaned at all. It’s really damaging to communities and unproductive. To make a difference, why not try donating to a charity such as Friends International.

Once back on the boat, things were tense. Mr. A asked if we could take the boat through the houses once more, but our request was ignored. We had originally intended on giving the guides a tip but as we approached the bank they both suggested we give a tip of $10 each. We tried giving them our 100 riel but they refused. It was such a sad way to end such an interesting cultural experience, and was one of the only negative experiences I had in Cambodia.

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It was an experience I don’t think should be missed. For those of you thinking about making the trip, I’d suggest doing research to see whether other boat companies operate on other parts of the lake. If not, prepare to stand your ground.

Dining Out in Siem Reap

Siem Reap, like most of Cambodia, has a lot to offer in terms of cuisine. Thinking back on it, I didn’t have a single bad meal during my stay – I’ve been incredibly lucky. As our trip was short we only ate outside twice – our hotel offered a free foot massage or meal, and we opted for the latter (I’m very ticklish).

We’d been hearing a lot about the Sugar Palm, which is where we went on our first night. The restaurant is raised off of the ground, ‘Khmer-style’, and is very open. It had a great atmosphere and even better food!

The Sugar Palm

The Sugar Palm The Sugar Palm

We had a peruse of the menu while having melon and lychee martinis. It was all very exciting.

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The menu had a selection of Cambodian dishes – for a starter we had a pork and pomelo salad, chicken satay and fishcakes. Having made a similar banana blossom salad the day before I was eager to see how it would compare. The first two dishes were excellent – I didn’t care much for the fishcake, but Mr. A ate my portion so that might just be me.

The Sugar Palm The Sugar Palm

For those of you who don’t know what pomelo is, it’s like a large green grapefruit. The outer layer of each segment is bitter, but if you peel the layer away you get these delicious citrusy tangy sacs inside.

After our starters we both ordered a meat dish with basil – I had beef, Mr. A had chicken. It was topped off with ground peanuts, something I’ll definitely be incorporating into my dishes in the future. I especially love it in salad, and gives it extra protein.

The Sugar Palm The Sugar Palm

The Sugar Palm was a definite winner, and had a relaxed atmosphere. There were quite a few families with children in the restaurant, and gave the Sugar Palm a very different vibe from our next recommendation, Asana.

Asana

Asana was recommended to us by the hotel, and is right on Pub Street. Again, it’s another ‘khmer-style’ raised bar, but this time down a little alleyway.

Asana

It was fun going in, it felt rather like a clubhouse – the seats were made of bags of rice, and the decor was really fun.

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Mr A. and I split some delicious spring rolls and dumplings for our starter. In my opinion, that was the highlight of the meal, as they were really delicious. I washed mine down with a very gingery cocktail.

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I ordered the Khmer chicken curry. The flavours were a bit too strong for me – perhaps a bit too coconutty and too much anise. I stole a few bites of Mr. As Bo Bhun, a beef noodle dish with vegetables and spring rolls and it was absolutely incredible. I had serious food envy.

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Asana had an in-house pianist playing lounge music and had a really sophisticated vibe. I enjoyed both places – but I suggest the former for big family gatherings, or for a get together of friends. Asana is definitely more suited for something more romantic.

Angkor Wat and Siem Reap

The fact that Angkor Wat doesn’t seem to be included on any ‘wonders of the world’ list really shocks me. Angkor Wat, meaning ‘temple city’ in Khmer is a 12th century temple complex located in Siem Reap province. It is the largest religious monument in the world – originally a Hindu temple, it became a Buddhist during the 13th century.

We got the (very bumpy) seven hour coach down from Phnom Penh, and were taken by car to our hotel, the Memoire d’Angkor.  We arrived just in time for dinner, and made plans to get up at 4.30 the next morning in order to be at Angkor Wat for sunrise. The hotel staff were really helpful, arranging our tuktuk temple tour and packing us a breakfast of banana bread, croissants and fruit. Our tuktuk driver cost $10 for the morning, and took us round the temples, waiting for us to re-emerge once we’d explored each one. For those wary of waking up at the crack of dawn – I really recommend it. It looks stunning, and you get to miss the afternoon heat (and crowds!).

Angkor Wat at Sunrise

We pulled up to the ticket office around 4.50am, where there was already a sizeable queue. Tickets cost $20 a day for the site, and there’s no swapping tickets as each one has your face printed on it (and yes, they do check at the temples). Once we were sat down in the grounds and waiting for the sun to rise, I was feeling a mixture of emotions. I was completely in awe at the sight in front of me, as well as being completely furious that no one else had followed the dress code. I was sat there in trousers and an elbow-length top while the girl directly in front of me had on denim hotpants and a lace tank top with a coloured bra visible underneath. I was annoyed that someone would be so inconsiderate, while wishing I was wearing her outfit. I was looking a real treat,  looking and feeling sweaty and generally unpleasant in front of my boyfriend while she was looking fresh and comfortable in front of hers!

Once the sun had risen, we went into the temple and had a wander around. The very top doesn’t open until 8.30, but there was so much to see – enough intricate wall carvings, statues and roofs to keep us entertained for hours.

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Once the upstairs had opened a queue began forming. Denim hotpants and her boyfriend (who attempted to cover his exposed shoulders by swaddling himself up in a towel like a mummy, or a giant baby) weren’t allowed up. So I wasn’t suffering for nothing after all!

Unfortunately for hotpants, the view was worth the wait. The way back down the steep steps, however, was mildly horrific for me as I can’t stand heights. I scooted down on my butt, much to the dismay of Mr A and the crowd behind me.

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Angkor Wat Angkor Wat

Oh – and the place is crawling with monkeys, too!

Monkey Angkor Wat

We found our tuktuk driver who showed us round the other temples, including Angkor Thom (with all the faces), Ta Phrom (with all the trees) and some of the smaller ones like Ta Keo.

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It was one of the most incredible days I’ve ever had, and I am so glad we made it in time to see the sunrise. The only vaguely negative experience I had during my time at the temples involved the tour groups. Maybe this feeling has always been inside of me, or maybe some change took place while I was in Cambodia, but I have developed a pure, unadulterated hatred for tour groups. After the incident at the Killing Fields, large tour groups weren’t doing themselves any favours in my book. The tour groups would barge into cordoned off areas to take pictures of themselves, standing on and touching centuries-old carvings and stone. It drove me mad, and by 12 o’clock I was becoming grumpy due to their behaviour, combined with the excessive heat and feeling of hunger. So after a seven hour stretch at Angkor Wat, we got our tuktuk back to the hotel where we spent the rest of the day relaxing by the pool.

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Even though I felt I’d packed a lot into my morning, I’ll definitely be going to Angkor Wat again. There is something like 28 temples to see, and I’m excited to head back again one day, to see everything I missed the first time.