Travel to Cambodia – Episode 512

categories: asia travel

Travel to Cambodia - the highlights, surprises and difficulties. What to see, do and eat.

This episode of the Amateur Traveler talks about the recent Amateur Traveler trip to Cambodia. 7 of the 9 people who joined me on this trip also join me for the podcast to share the highlights, surprises, and challenges of the trip.


We did an overland tour of Cambodia starting in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, traveling to Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Battambang in Cambodia and then ending in Thailand. This was a trip done with Intrepid Travel, their “Cambodian Traveller” tour.

Angkor Wat and the other temples and ancient ruins from the 800s to the 1400s were the main focus of this trip but there were a lot of other experiences from a Cyclo tour of Phnom Penh to a visit to a Floating Village. We road in tuk-tuks and on a rickety bamboo train. We sampled amok and fresh mango smoothies but also nibbled (some of us) on tarantulas and rats.

We visited the killing fields of Cambodia and the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh as we tried to understand Cambodia’s recent tragic history.

Some of the members of the group had a chance to visit and participate in a water project drilling wells in villages to provide access to fresh drinking water.

We trekked, sweated, and ate our way through this sometimes beautiful and sometimes challenging country.

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Show Notes

Amateur Traveler Cambodia Trip
Chris’s Photos of Cambodia
Two-wheel tractor (Iron Buffalo)
Khmer Rouge
Killing Fields
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Visiting The Killing Fields of Cambodia
Angkor Wat
Angkor Thom
Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider Temple)
Amok (dish)
Battambang Bamboo Train (tripadvisor)
Intrepid Travel Cambodia – Review: Cambodian Traveler

Travel to Cambodia - the highlights, surprises and difficulties. What to see, do and eat.


Chris: Amateur Traveler episode 512. Today the Amateur Traveler talks about majestic temples, floating villages, rickshaw tours and eating all sorts of strange things as we talk about the recent Amateur Traveler trip to Cambodia.

Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I hope you enjoy this different episode of the Amateur Traveler with a host of characters. Let’s talk about Cambodia.

Today’s episode of Amateur Traveler is going to be a little different because we’re going to be talking about the recent Amateur Traveler trip that we went to Cambodia. And like the episode we did last year when we did the Amateur Traveler trip to southern Morocco, I’m going to be using some clips from talking to some of the people, most of the people actually who went with me on that trip.

This was a tour done with listeners of the Amateur Traveler by Intrepid Travel, on their “Cambodian Traveller” tour.

Read more at Intrepid Travel Cambodia – Review: Cambodian Traveler

And basically I ask them three questions, what was the highlight of the trip? What was the biggest surprise? And what kind of warning would you give? We’re going to cut their answers in and amongst some other explanation in terms of where we went.

And just to give you a broad overview, it was a trip to Cambodia but we started in Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon, and then went overland to Cambodia to Phnom Penh up to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat and then down to Battambang, also in Cambodia, and then finished the trip in Bangkok in Thailand.

Before I talk about the trip, I should say that my wife did not go with me on the trip. And she didn’t go because she doesn’t have a real desire to go to Southeast Asia because she pictures it as being hot, humid and chaotic. And it turns out that she is right. Now, we happened to enjoy the trip. But this is what Rob and Erin were saying about the traffic just starting even in Ho Chi Minh City.

Rob: Crossing the streets, particularly in Vietnam and Cambodia is not for the faint of heart. That’s a definite warning. When we first got there for the first of couple days we were there, there with our son who typically is most 12-year-olds, he just walks around with his head in the clouds. I was super nervous for the first couple of days because you’ve really got to be vigilant to not have a problem.

Erin: You just step out in the street and start…you just go.

Rob: You go. You pay attention. And when you have a split second, you better take it.

Chris: I had been warned so much about that especially in Vietnam that it was actually easier than I was expecting.

Erin: Yeah. Watching people do it seemed really scary, but doing it myself, you just have to step out in the traffic and just do it. And it’s not as scary as it looks.

Rob: It was really building up the nerve. And once you did it, you’re like, “Okay, not so bad.” But initially, it seems insane to try to attempt that.

Chris: And just for sake of time, I’m going to skip over the story how while we were still in Vietnam, Rob captured a purse snatcher while he was out on his run. But we want to talk about we did this as a land trip, and it was interesting to see how different the three countries are. And here’s Sarah talking about that.

Sarah: I think the biggest surprise for me was how distinct the three countries were from each other, how much of a difference there was between Vietnam. You definitely had the leftover communist feel where the buildings had that architecture and just the way everybody got around.

And then we go over the border to Cambodia and it’s almost immediately different. Everything is far more agricultural, but at the same time, there are all of these massive temples everywhere with just incredibly ornate architecture on them just scattered throughout the fields. And then crossing again into Thailand, it was a much more modern, bustling city.

Chris: Well, even before we get to the city, now you’re in a four-lane highway with trucks and a variety of crops instead of just going past rice field, after rice field, after rice field, after rice field.

Sarah: Yeah.

Chris: Yeah, it was interesting, especially doing that part by land you noticed it a lot more than I thought you would. Cool.

Sarah: Yeah, especially just how sudden the change was. You cross the border and pretty much immediately everything was different.

Chris: The other thing we should say is we came at the end of the dry season. If we had gone in the rainy season when we crossed over the border into Thailand, we would’ve seen very green rice fields, but instead we saw very brown rice fields and very dusty. And we noticed a lot more trash as soon as we got on that side.

And then the other thing we didn’t talk about we’ll hear, as mentioned, more people on bikes and things like that, or more people on motorcycles, whole families. But the other thing we saw was the iron buffalo. And the iron buffalo is a particularly Cambodian thing, at least in those three countries.

It is the beginning of mechanization so you can now afford a tractor, but it looks more like a big rototiller, but you can’t afford a truck still. So not only are you using this contraption to plow your fields, but you’re also using it to pull your wagon. And it’s got these great 10-foot long wooden handles. It’s the strangest picture. Go Google “iron buffalo” if you’re not looking at a picture of it here. It’s a fascinating thing.

Brian was struck by something different that we saw along the roadside in Cambodia. What was the biggest surprise with Cambodia?

Brian: Cambodian People’s Party signs at least one every mile.

Chris: Oh, it wasn’t one every mile. It was one like every thousand feet on the highway. I was timing it for a while it to see how often they were. Yeah, this highway brought to you by the Cambodian People’s Party.

Brian: I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.

Chris: Our first stop in Cambodia was the capital of Phnom Penh. And if I was struck by how much trash there was in the countryside, I was struck by what a pretty city Phnom Penh is, with its beautiful French-styled boulevards and such. And we toured it on a cyclo. And a cyclo is like a bicycle rickshaw where you sit in front, and someone sits behind you on a bicycle. And here’s what Rob and Erin had to say about the whole experience of experience Phnom Penh traffic from a cyclo.

Rob: So surprise. The bigger surprise, how courteous people were despite the crazy traffic. They were cutting each other off, there was a lot of chaos going on. People were very courteous in general, but in driving it was really refreshing to see people not getting uptight over how crazy it was, the driving situation.

Chris: I have a video that’s going up of our cyclo tour and it’s just interesting to see the chaos that is weaving around us as various tuk-tuks, and motorbikes, and cars and pedestrians and such are all going by as we are. But yeah, with no incident and no horns. Well, I say no horns honking. The horn is always honking.

Rob: Correct. But not in a rude way. It’s like, “I’m behind you, heads up.”

Erin: And actually when we did the cyclo tour, I liked being in the middle of all that traffic. I thought it was a fun way to experience what was going on around us.

Chris: I had a big, goofy grin on my face the whole time we did that, I’m sure.

Rob: And I was just smiling at people. So there would be girls going by, and I’m smiling like a dumb foreigner, and I’m getting winks and kissy faces because I’m some dumb foreigner smiling at people going by. And it was also really fun that there would be kids going by riding on the motorbikes with their parents, and I’d stick my hand up and they’d give me a high five. It was really fun because you’re within touching distance of all these mass of people just swarming around you as we were riding around. It was fun.

Erin: Yeah. I thought it was a really fun way to see the city.

Chris: We haven’t gotten to Sarah’s highlight of the trip yet. But I was amused by the fact that on the second day, we had only driven to Phnom Penh from Vietnam, just a bus ride basically. And then we had done a bicycle tour, and you declared that night you were coming back on the next Amateur Traveler trip.

Sarah: Yeah, it didn’t take a whole lot.

Chris: And granted, that cyclo rickshaw tour was a lot of fun.

Sarah: It was.

Chris: Yeah. But I think you were not a tough customer, let’s just say that.

Sarah: No. I think I’ve always wanted to travel more than I actually do, and so getting the chance to really get some real travel, not just like to the next state over, but like far across the world travel is definitely a great experience.

Chris: And it’s probably good that we started on such a high note because the next morning was when we went out to The Killing Fields, which was a mass grave for some of the people that were killed by the Khmer Rouge back in the 1970s, and then also to the genocide museum to learn more about that particular very tragic time in Cambodia’s history.

And while most of the people who came on the trip, I think, came to see Angkor Wat, that iconic series of temples up in northern Cambodia, Brian actually came to Cambodia more to see this.

Why did you go to Cambodia? Why was Cambodia appealing?

Brian: I’m interested in history. I’m interested in going there and talking to the people, seeing how what happened in the ’70s affected them. And also wanting to see how it’s developed, how it’s coming along, how they’re recovering. And also it’s a country, and I like to see as many countries as possible. And I’ve been to Thailand three times before this trip, and Cambodia has been on my mind. It’s just it never worked out. So it’s been in the works for years.

Chris: And we’ll actually get back to Brian’s reaction to The Killing Fields. But I want to hear from Dalia. What’s one warning you would give?

Dalia: The first warning is being that Cambodia and especially Phnom Penh was the seat of the ruling power of the Khmer Rouge, you’ll get a lot of history about the Khmer Rouge when you go there. So the only warning that I would give is just prepare yourself to feel a little somber, maybe a little sad, even though objectively you know you’re going to go in here and hear stories about suffering and death and persecution. It has a very dark history.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

But when you went to the genocide museum, the Tuol Sleng, I actually felt a very visceral discomfort when I was there. I mean it kind of took over. It’s not because of the stories that you hear necessarily, but it was very much the way that museum was preserved, it was like an immersion experience. I felt like I was immersed, and if I let my imagination go on me…there was definitely a visceral discomfort. So just be prepared for the stories.

But this is really one way to get a window into the psyche, I think, of the people there. And you really appreciate the resilience, what they had to overcome. And it explained a lot in terms of why people eat insects and why…it really is a window into where the country is now and where they’re going, and how the people have really been resilient in overcoming this. So it’s definitely an important history to know, but just be prepared that you might feel a little somber after it.

Chris: Sure. And to put this in context, when you’re at The Killing Fields, you’re seeing a memorial stupa that is basically filled with skulls and other bones from the victims, hundreds of victims. They were killing about 300 people a day, just in this 1 killing field, and there were about 300 in the country, killed about a quarter of the population between the Khmer Rouge and the civil war. And you hear about babies being killed and women.

And then at the genocide museum, you see the cells where the people were kept. You see art that was painted by two of the seven adult survivors, and pictures of the four children that survived this particular prison that was one of many prisons in the city. And Roger put it a little more bluntly. He put it this way:

Roger: I don’t think I was ready for how depressing it was. I wasn’t ready first how somber the first few days were, going through The Killing Fields. And yeah, it was kind of somber.

Chris: And Rob, Erin and I had this conversation:

Well, the one thing, so you had Ashton with you, and we went to that first day in Cambodia to a site that several of us thought was pretty somber, pretty serious. So you were trying to judge what he should see, what he shouldn’t see, when to opt him out and such. Did you want to comment on that at all? I know he was probably the only one who opted out of the museum of genocide before I did. I think I was the next one who went, “Okay, I get the idea.”

Rob: We played it by ear with him. If he felt like he was doing okay, then…it’s important for him to see that and to learn and be sensitive to that and have some perspective. But you also have to remember that he’s a child and there’s some sensitivities there.

Erin: Yeah. When we’re at the museum, we just kept going in room after room. Well, we were there for the first part. But in every room, there was a picture of like a body. And the pictures were kind of grainy, but you could still see what was going. And after a few of those, I just thought, you know, he really doesn’t need to see anymore of those.

And he was kind of upset at that point because when we were at The Killing Fields, there were some detail there that was upsetting to him. It was upsetting to everybody. But just after a few of the rooms, we just decided to sit and wait. We find those enough. Like Rob said, it’s important for him to know what happened. But when you’re 12, you don’t need to know every detail.

Rob: And we went and sat by Chanta on the bench, and he told us the story about his grandfather getting killed by the Khmer Rouge. And he told us how his dad was a soldier and he would come home like once a month to see the family, and then one month he just didn’t come back. So he was telling us the story of his family and how he was affected by what we were there learning about.

And so to get that personal perspective…what’s really scary is this happened all during our lifetime. This wasn’t like 70 or 80 years ago. This was like 30 years ago, which is particularly scary.

Erin: Yeah. Which was particularly one of the biggest surprises to me because I had heard all about it vaguely. I had a sense of what had happened, but to go there and to hear people’s personal experiences and just to see how it had affected everybody, that was a surprise to me.

Chris: I wrote about my experience at The Killing Fields and the takeaway for me was I knew that it was going to be gruesome. I knew that that would be hard. But then I thought we’d be done with it. We’d go to this in the morning, and then we wouldn’t have to worry about it for the rest of our stay there. And just how naive that is, of course. When you lose a quarter of the population between the four years the Khmer Rouge and then the civil war after that, everybody was affected, every family.

Erin: Yeah. It’s sad.

Chris: And then to wrap up this part of the discussion, I want to get back to Brian because remember, this is the reason that he came.

I’m thinking the one thing that affected you more than the trash was the whole Khmer Rouge story. And I think of all the people in the trip, you were probably more frustrated by how incomprehensible it was.

Brian: It is because it’s closer to…like World War II was my grandparents and even maybe my great grandparents. The Cambodia thing, that happened a few years before I was born, and it’s much closer. Like you can meet people, like Philadelphia has a Little Cambodian now, I don’t know if it’s been named yet.

But even in Pennsylvania, for example, you meet Cambodians and every one of them was affected by it. There is no people that weren’t affected by it. I still can’t wrap my head around what they were trying to accomplish and if they actually thought it would work. And you were the one who said to me, “Give it up, Brian. Nobody knows the answer.”

Chris: Well, I did. Well, when you talk about it, the story for everybody else, I think particularly the whole part of…so the Khmer Rouge communists, they take over. And the first day they take over Phnom Penh, they capture the capital, they tell everybody they have to leave. Basically they kick everybody out of the cities, and they’re trying to return to an agrarian society, and they’re feeding everybody on basically a ration that is causing people to starve to death, those people who even got the ration.

And so your whole thing was how do they think that this would work? “Were they insane?” I think is really part of the question that you’re left with, not even just the evil of, and then they killed off intentionally a bunch of people but just, “Why was this a plan?” It was very frustrating.

A lot of us went to see Angkor Wat.

Brian: I was more interested in the history. Eight years ago, I went to Chile because I was interested in what happened in the ’70s and the ’80s there. I was definitely more interested in getting to know the people and hearing their stories than see an Angkor Wat.

Chris: I don’t want to say it bugged you more, but it was harder for you to come to grips with, “I just don’t get it.” And I’m at the same way as you. I don’t get it. I don’t understand how anyone could think that way.

Brian: Right. Because other dictatorships, maybe you knew what they were trying to do. You may not have agreed with it, but on some level, it made sense. But this one didn’t.

Chris: And again, that’s just the morning of the second day. But it did take a lot of the emphasis there at the beginning of the trip. But we’re going to move on because we did move on. We had a wonderful cruise on the river in Phnom Penh, a dinner cruise, looking at the sunset. And then we drove up towards Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat. On the way, we stopped at an interesting spot called “the spider market,” which came up in the conversation when I asked Dalia her highlights.

Well, what was the highlight of the trip for you?

Dalia: That’s a good question because the whole trip felt like one highlight after the other for me. Everything was new. I mean everything that we saw and experienced was nothing I had experienced before. So I was like going…

Chris: And I was sure you would say running into me in the airport before we even got to the Customs, but…

Dalia: That was, I have to say, the first highlight. So I knew it was off to a good start. Yeah. You know, I’m like running through my mind. I’m like…of course Angkor Wat and that the Hindu temples, I think that was a primary feature of the entire trip. And you can tell that everything was kind of building in up to that, and the activities that were surrounding it. So that’s definitely up there, but if you’re…we want to talk about the spider market and see the buffet.

Chris: The spider market where we have a picture of Dalia with a tarantula on her and not looking comfortable, I have to say.

Dalia: No. No. And the amount of emotions that I experienced in that first initial minute, just between being a little grossed out and intrigued by the way the presentation of the buffet, as I like to call it, and just trying to make sense out of it. So that will never leave me, I think, until the day that I die.

Chris: And we also stopped to see a silk-making production on the way up. I had seen that before so that doesn’t make my highlight real, it doesn’t make anybody else’s. And then we did stop, and this didn’t make anybody else’s list, at a floating village out on the large lake that is in Cambodia lake that changes to be five times larger in the rainy season. So you have houses up on stilts.

And we took these boats out to an area that is not the usual tourist floating village, and so we were going through the poorer part of the villages. And I thought it was a fascinating place. There’s a video that will come up this week on that experience so you can see what that looked like.

And then we finally got to Angkor Wat. And Angkor Wat is amazing just because of its scale. Basically within a 20×20 kilometer region, there’s over 300 temples from the 800s to the 1400s.

And one of these areas, Angkor Thom, which is an ancient city, was probably one of the largest cities in the world in the 1400s before it was abandoned. It’s three kilometers by three kilometers and it includes within it the Bayon temple, which is a famous-looking temple with all the faces on it. But that was a highlight of the trip, and it was the reason why a lot of us went.

Erin had an interesting experience when we went back to Angkor Wat the second day. And we went back at a very early time in the morning to see the sunrise over the temple with a lot of other tourists.

Erin: When we went to see Angkor Wat in the morning, we got there super early to watch the sunrise. Ashton, my son, he really wanted to go inside because he was tired of standing around, waiting.

Chris: There was a lot of standing around, waiting for that sunrise.

Erin: There were a lot of people outside. And so we ran in and while everyone was still outside. And there were a few people in there, mostly monks. It felt like we had the place to ourselves.

Chris: And didn’t even know it was open to go in, honestly.

Rob: It opened at 5:00, I think.

Erin: No, it opened at 6:00. And so the sun wasn’t fully up yet. So we we’re just running around everywhere inside, and we got to watch the sun rise up over the building from inside. And it was really cool. It’s magical, with monks in there, and the incense, and the sun coming up, and hardly any other tourists around. So it was really a neat experience.

Chris: Interesting. I think I was a little surprised, Angkor Wat, especially when we came in the first time and we came in kind of the back way and didn’t pass all the vendors and such. There were just a few vendors there. I was expecting bigger crowds than we saw. But it’s so big. And there’s so many temples. And even though they get a lot of tourism, you spread that out over Angkor Thom, and Angkor Wat and all the other things, it was more pastoral and park-like than I expected.

Erin: Yeah. I thought so, too.

Chris: Later on, when we were in Bangkok, we had a chance to go on our last day, we had a free day to Ayutthaya, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some old abandoned temples in the old capital city of Thailand.

And I don’t remember who made the comment, I think it may have been Dalia, when she looked at what it was that we would see there, and she went, “Oh, it’s like Angkor Wat, but smaller.” And I feel that’s kind of the experience after you’ve been to Angkor Wat is that so many of the other ruins of other things in the world are going to be, “Oh, it’s like Angkor Wat, but smaller.” This is going to be what everything else is measured against.

We had two days to visit the temples at Angkor Wat. And the fourth temple we visited was Sarah’s favorite. What was the highlight of the trip for you?

Sarah: For me personally I think Ta Prohm, the jungle temple. It was my favorite because it was that one that I grew up seeing pictures of, and it was just that nature and mankind thing. Because I just spent so much time looking at pictures of it, and I thought, “Wow, what an amazing place to visit,” and then finally being there. That was the most surreal experience for me.

Chris: And for those who don’t know, we’re talking about something they call the Tomb Raider temple for reasons that it was in the movie, Tomb Raider. Yeah, that was pretty interesting that they decided not to finish excavating that temple, but left it with these great big trees growing through it in the walls broken down and such. It was very interesting.

Sarah: Yes.

Chris: I thought it was good that we saw that one last, too, because it made it stand out more. Where if we’d seen one of the other ones last, it would have been like, “Yeah, another temple.”

Sarah: That’s true. Yeah, it was definitely an interesting take on it. It was an interesting way to see the temple as it was or closer to as it was when they first rediscovered the city and they started visiting it again.

Chris: The other thing that a number of the people in the group had a chance to do, not me because I slept through it in part, was go out to a village with our guide, Chanta, who has a charity where they’re digging wells and villages because he grew up out on these rural villages, and they seldom have clean water.

It was unusual that we didn’t have an actual charity project that we visited for Intrepid on this trip. It’s the first time I’ve been on an Intrepid trip where we didn’t, but we did because of our guide who was involved in this. And this is what Dalia had to say about that experience.

Dalia: I would have to say that I really, really enjoyed an outing that we did when we went out to the village and met some of the farmers there and their families, just meeting the people face to face and really, really getting to know them on a personal level. And that was really, really nice. That was really, really touching for me because they’ve lived a hard life and they continued to live a hard life. But just to see they’re such beautiful people and so sweet. Any small thing really made them happy. I’ll never forget that. I think that made a mark on me.

So if I ever think about Cambodia, one of the first things that pop into my mind is that scene of me being with the kids, and with our friends that were with us on the tour, and just meeting them, and bringing them treats and them being thrilled to be around us and with us. That was really fun.

Chris: And here’s what Rob and Erin said about it.

Rob: The family highlights since we were there with Ashton, our son, who’s 12, going to the village and participating in the water project that Chanta is involved with, and being able to be there and see the water fountain they’d installed to have fresh water for that village, which really affected hundreds of people. And then to meet a lot of those kids and to interact with them, it was really a cool experience just to see how…

These people are on the verge of starvation, and they don’t even have access to clean water. And what blew me away is they’re still doing almost everything on an open fire. Forget electricity. They’re on an open fire for almost all of their energy and cooking needs.

And so it was really cool to be able to see where they were getting their water prior, which was from these holes in the ground that animals were drinking out of and all sorts of waste was washing into. And they would just dump a bucket in there, and pull the bucket out and drink straight out of the bucket.

Erin: And the holes are really deep and narrow, which is so dangerous because they have all these kids walking around.

Rob: Running around.

Erin: Yeah, on the uneven ground. And the kids would go up and they’d put the bucket and I’d just…yeah.

Chris: As a mother, you are cringing.

Erin: I was cringing. I was thinking, how many kids have fallen in this hole and how do you get the kids out?

Rob: One experience we had there that was really fun was our son Ashton who’s 12 is extraordinarily tall for a 12-year-old in the U.S., which put him taller than the average person in these countries where we visited. So he’s a blonde-haired kid that’s 12 and super skinny and tall, and people stared at him anyways.

But when we went to this village, there were kids that were his own age that he was quite a bit bigger than, but they were trying to engage him. And even though there was a language barrier, they wanted to have a race with him, a running race. And so they all lined up, and Chanta organized it, and then they said go, and there was like this little course that they ran. And so they wanted to race our son in this running race. It was fun to watch them, him interact with these kids and…

Erin: Yeah. It was cute too because all the parents in the village were cheering on the kids, and they’re all laughing, and everyone was having fun.

Rob: That was really cool.

Erin: It was fun, yeah. That was a great experience. Another experience with the kids in the village is we took them little baguettes and cans of sweetened condensed milk, which chances are that their favorite treat is they’d tear off a little piece of the bread and they dip it in sweetened condensed milk.

So the parents had all the kids line up and we passed out their little baguette, and they were all so cute. They were all so excited about it, they put their hands together, and they say thank you before they would even take the bread. It was just really sweet how happy they were.

Rob: You know, kids on the verge of starvation that are waiting for everybody to get their baguette and waiting for the milk to be poured to dip, they were polite, and they were just these sweet little kids. So it was really awesome to be there.

Erin: Yeah. So we had a good experience. Yeah, that was really fun.

Chris: I was sorry I missed that outing because one of the things we try and emphasize on Amateur Traveler is connecting with the cultures, and that that can be sometimes a much more rewarding experience, even then seeing something amazing like and Angkor Wat.

We also had a lot of just littler experiences, especially as we’re up and Siem Reap. Siem Reap is very used to tourism, 10 years ago it had 5 hotels, and now it has 185 hotels. So quite ready for tourism. A fun city to just walk around or to just people-watch, as Erin and Rob found out.

Rob: Another thing that I really liked was, and this was in Vietnam and Cambodia, and less so in Thailand, but you would see so many people on one motorbike. So a little, tiny motor scooter, and you’ve got a grandma, a dad, a mom, a kid, sometimes a baby. You’ve got multi-generational transportation on a little, tiny motorbike. And it was really fun because you would see them and smile at them and they’d all wave back at you. And so that was fun to see, everybody buzz around on their little motorbikes.

Erin: Yeah, it was fun.

Chris: One morning I got up and walked. Straight down from our hotel, there was a market, and I have a picture of a man who had bought a washing machine who was getting home on his motorbike. It’s just somewhat smaller, but…

Erin: Well, when we rented the most motorcycle, we tried to run with Rob and Ashton and me and we did not fit because we’re big Americans.

Rob: Yeah. I mean the three of us did not fit on a motorbike that they were getting people on.

Erin: Yeah. Too big.

Chris: Brian did one of the optional tours, and he was the only one who did, which was a cooking class, and happened to be one of his highlights from the entire experience.

Brian: The cooking class I took when I went off on my own in Siem Reap, and the amok I made, which I had already tried the first night we got there. But discovering something new to eat was probably the highlight.

Chris: Well, and you’re all about the food, so I am not too surprised that it was an amok, although I’m going to ask you to explain what an amok is.

Brian: Okay. I actually, in my kitchen here, I have the ingredients to it which were part of the cooking class. So it’s coconut-based, and it’s usually fish, chicken, usually people put rice in it. And it’s in coconut leaves.

Chris: Okay. And when you say coconut-based, traditionally in Cambodia we saw it typically served in a coconut even.

Brian: That happens, too. When I had it, it was served in leaves so I ate it that way. And it was also served in coconut. But that’s probably the one thing that I ate more than once in Cambodia.

Chris: And in general, I’d say we ate well on this trip for very little money. Sometimes meals would only be three to five dollars. And we also drank well.

Rob: Another thing that we really loved and other people may have mentioned this is mangoes were in season, and the mango smoothies were awesome. And at roughly, what, 75 cents, a buck a piece, whatever they were, those were fantastic.

Erin: Yeah, we had multiple…

Rob: We’d have multiple smoothies everyday.

Erin: Everyday, yeah.

Chris: It might be a buck-and-a-half or two bucks in the restaurant, or a buck at the roadside cart.

Erin: Yeah. Which is perfect. They were so good.

Brian: And compared to my sugarcane experience, I didn’t get sick from, I didn’t get sick from street vendors here.

Chris: But I don’t think anybody got sick except for some heat aftereffects, and Ashton running with the kids in the village, for instance, was one of the times. But we didn’t get anybody with stomach effects that I heard of.

Brian: Yeah. This was a great trip.

Chris: Which was surprising because we were eating a lot of local fruit and a lot of local things. And in fact, before we talk about some of the weirder things we ate on this trip, Dalia actually had an interesting interaction with our smoothie lady, with somebody who ran one of the smoothie carts in Siem Reap that we’ve been back to multiple times.

Dalia: What surprised me, I’ve never been to Asia before so a lot of it was eye-opening on many fronts, as I said before. But I think one of the things that always intrigued me or that caught my attention was seeing what people were wearing in the heat that we were experiencing.

So if it’s like it was 105 degrees almost everyday, high humidity, and the first thing that I remember seeing was people in their masks, wearing masks over their face. They were wearing scarves, they were wearing sweaters and sweat shirts, heavy clothing that you would wear in the fall or something. It was crazy for me. I didn’t know what to make of it. So finally we had the opportunity to ask one of the vendors, she made fruit shakes. And we asked one of the vendors…

Chris: Oh, our favorite fruit shake vendor in Siem Reap, okay.

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Dalia: Yes, exactly. So we asked her and said, “Why all this cover up?” because maybe you wear cotton long sleeves, there’s million ways to cover your skin, but not have all that heavy clothing on. And she said, “Well, one, we don’t want to necessarily get brown.” So they’re protecting themselves from getting colored by the sun.”And two, it keeps our body cool.”

So of course, we looked at her as if she had two heads. How could you be cool in such warm clothing? And she was like, “Well, feel my skin.” So she rolled up her sleeves, and indeed we touched her skin, it’s a lot cooler than our skin. “And so that’s how we deal with the heat.” And so it’s an oxymoron, the warmer it is, dress heavier. Between the gloves and the socks and the masks and the hats, mean they really fought the sun really hard.

Chris: It’s not like you’re a stranger to warm weather, having spent some time in Egypt.

Dalia: Yes.

Chris: But theirs is a different approach.

Dalia: Completely different. Back in Egypt, people would wear cotton, bright clothing for the most part, and usually light, anything airy. But I saw in New York, I live in New York, so I saw in New York in mid-December in terms of clothing and what people were wearing. So it was really, really interesting. So that was a big surprise for me.

Chris: Not everything we were served was quite as appetizing as smoothies.

Rob: Another surprise was our last night together when we were having dinner in Bangkok. And we had just experienced the day or two before, people eating roadside barbecued rat, which I think kind of lowered our inhibitions because when I saw the rats eating off the table in the restaurant next to us as kind of dining mates, it didn’t really turn me off or freak me out that much.

Erin: Yeah, it didn’t faze us. It’s was just like, “Oh, huh, rats.”

Rob: Yeah, rats eating at the restaurant right next to us, one of those last nights. But to watch our son sit there and nosh on a rat was really pretty disgusting.

Chris: And tarantulas and water bugs.

Rob: And he thought that they were fantastic. He thought they were tasty. And he thought it was just such an awesome experience.

Erin: Yeah, he ate a lot of gross things. He ate crickets and…

Chris: He was fearless. No inhibitions whatsoever.

Erin: …tarantulas…yeah, he just went for it.

Rob: That was a lot of fun.

Erin: That was a surprise.

Rob: It was also fun at that market. The little kids that peddled their wares to foreigners, they could speak English actually pretty well for kids, and they were really interested in Ashton. And so they were interacting, they were talking. And there was one of the little girls that was advising him on what tasted the best, what type of bug he should be eating. And it was really cute, the interactions the kids had there while Ashton’s eating insects.

Chris: Speaking of eating insects, what kind of warning would you give?

Rob: Here’s the deal. If you go with the cricket or if you go with something with an exoskeleton, there’s less meat, and there’s less substance you have to swallow, but the texture is really terrible. And so you’re not eating very much, but the texture is really bad. When they were eating more of like a mammal like a rat, or a snake, they were chewier and there was more meat, and they said it tasted much better. But mentally I couldn’t get over that. I wasn’t going to do that. I just ate a cricket and that was the extent of my food adventure.

Chris: I meant warnings in general, but that was a good one.

Rob: Excuse me.

Erin: Sorry.

Rob: I would say whenever you’re somewhere…Chanta said it very well. he said, “In Cambodia, everything is on the menu.” Which means when you’re eating something and you’re unaware what it is, you either want to clarify what it is so you know what you’re eating…

Chris: Or don’t clarify.

Rob: …with ignorant bliss. If it tastes okay, go with it.

Chris: Well, he did tell us that VIP meat, for instance, was something that we might want to know that that meant dog.

Erin: Oh, yeah. I heard that.

Rob: Well, yeah, I’m glad that I went light on meat during this trip because I probably saved myself some of that.

Chris: When I got home and I told my wife these stories, she did not feel left out that she had not been there, even though we were having a good time. Some other people reacted similarly to these sort of dining experiences.

Now, there was a moment while you were eating rat, I believe, when I looked over at your wife, and she had a look on her face, she had a look on her face, and I said, “Roger, she has that look on her face that says, ‘We could’ve going to Hawaii.'” And she turned to me and she said one word, she said, “Europe.”

Roger: Yeah. Man, I told you, she’s a Russian history major, and I’ve never taken her to Russia. So that’s a little embarrassing.

Chris: And there were times on the trip you mentioned the heat. You came down with heatstroke one day.

Roger: Oh, it was hot.

Chris: It was quite warm. There was even before…I remember when we were in Bangkok and it was 102 going to 111, 2 days later. Yeah, I think we all knew that it was going to be hot, but it did zap your strength a bit, too.

Roger: Definitely.

Chris: And then you were right. There were times there that it was dirty and there were times that it was dusty, and you’re in Angkor and you just smell the smoke in the air and stuff like that. It wasn’t like it was an easy trip, although I thought it was a good trip.

Roger: It was a good trip. I only packed five shirts, and I know one day I changed my shirt four times. I just sweat so much.

Chris: Yeah, I get the salt stripes on the shirts. But it’s interesting that it was in the middle of one of those probably the hottest day we had there, when we’re in Battambang and we’re at the market where they sell barbecued rat. That Roger had hit one of his highlight moments.

Roger: I loved Angkor Wat. I love the ruins. Definitely the highlight, there was a time we were between Siem Reap and Battambang, I think. It was when we had a blowout on the tire. We stopped at the place where you could eat the rats or the snakes. That wasn’t the highlight, That wasn’t the highlight .

But I laid down in one of those hammocks, and it wasn’t particularly beautiful there. It was hot, and I wasn’t that comfortable. But as I laid in the hammock down there and watched the people in the same area, I just kind of felt like I was getting a feel for what the typical Cambodian lived like. So that was probably one of the more interesting parts of the trip, I thought.

Chris: And then later in Battambang, we did go to a bat cave at sunset and we rode on the bamboo train. And it’s hard to explain what that is without seeing it, but it’s a small, I want to say improvised railroad system that runs on the old tracks, these really light cars that almost look like they have go-kart motors. There will be a video up soon that will give you some idea what that’s like. It was fun.

And then went on to Thailand the next day where most of us did a couple of the days in Thailand. But as we’ve got to wrap this up, here’s some of the closing comments from people. Dalia had this warning and practical tip.

Dalia: I was one of the lucky ones that brought some cash with me. And I know a lot of my friends who were with us on the tour were depending on ATMs. Now, there are ATMs in every corner.

Chris: Yeah, I was that one. I was like, “They’ve never failed me before.” Four in a row gave me no cash.

Dalia: So Chris would come back with stories about how he went to this ATM, and this ATM, and this ATM. So I would say just if you’re going to go visit Cambodia, I would definitely bring some cash.

Chris: Well, unfortunately the U.S. currency, because they do take dollars, so it’s not like it’s that difficult to get. Like I couldn’t have gotten U.S. dollars at the ATM here, but yeah.

Dalia: Exactly. Exactly.

Chris: Yeah, I was betting about one quarter of the ATMs I went to gave me money. It was enough, one quarter turned out to be enough, but…

Dalia: Without the stress though. It was a little bit stressing.

Chris: Yeah, only because Roger loaned me $100 there for a while.

Dalia: Oh, there you go. And plus it was 100 degrees outside. So like going from ATM to ATM, I’m sure that wasn’t fun.

Chris: Right. Exactly.

Dalia: But you lucked out at the end, so that was good.

Chris: And the trick there, I did eventually figure out, is look for an international bank. And also that it’s easier in Siem Reap. We had much less problems in Siem Reap than we did in Phnom Penh or Battambang because, again, they’re just more used to tourism.

Brian had this warning.

Brian: Don’t wear nice shoes. Don’t wear dress shoes. And be prepared to go to the laundromat.

Chris: Okay. Why is that?

Brian: Well, every night, I had to go back to the hotel and clean my shoes because there’s a lot of construction going on there. The situation with picking up the trash is kind of iffy because it was explained by our guide that the government is only allowing one company to do the trash hauling, and they get to it when they feel like it. So there’s just a lot of dirt and a lot of trash in the streets, so don’t wear your nice shoes.

Chris: And Roger added this warning.

Roger: It’s fun. I guess another warning would be remember that you’re still in a communist country or in a dictatorship there. Just remember the guides saying, “It wouldn’t be that smart to answer your questions while we’re standing right here.”

Chris: Sarah added this warning.

Sarah: Heat kills camera batteries.

Chris: That’s right.

Sarah: Bring a spare and keep your camera well-insulated whenever you can because it will die.

Chris: It did come back. But there was a while there you thought you were not going to have a camera for the rest of the trip.

Sarah: It did come back after it had a chance to cool down a little bit. For a couple hours there, it was a little touch and go.

Chris: Anything else that people should know before they go to Cambodia?

Sarah: I definitely think it’s worth having a tour guide or a group tour because I can’t imagine really doing that on my own and getting nearly as much out of it. It was just really nice having that whole group camaraderie, and then also having people to take care of all of the fiddly stuff, so we could just have fun.

Chris: Well, and we have to say we did have a nice guide.

Sarah: We did. He was the best.

Chris: And I didn’t mention, and we’ve talked about our guide a little bit in passing, but we really did have a wonderful guide. And we did this trip with Intrepid, Intrepid Travels. In fact, you can see that particular trip that we did by going to In fact, if you want to book the trip from there, I will actually get credit for it, so that would be terrific.

But it was a great trip. We would recommend it. But on every Intrepid trip I’ve done so far, we’ve had wonderful guides, so that for me was not surprising.

And then we’re going to give Brian the second last word. Anything else that you would tell people before they go to Cambodia?

Brian: Go. Just don’t expect it to be Thailand. Thailand is a little more developed. Cambodia really shows you what war does to a country.

Chris: And then for the last words, I’m going to turn it over to Erin and Rob.

Rob: One thing that I would say is that going to Cambodia, it’s not a particularly relaxing vacation. You’re not going there for pleasure. You’re not going there for kind of a laid-back beach vacation. But it was meaningful to us on a lot of levels. A lot of the interactions we had with locals, the interactions we had with the tour guide, and meeting real people, just instead of being shuttled around, really talking to people.

Erin: And learning the history, I think. There’s a lot of history, the recent history, and like going to Angkor Wat and learning about that was really interesting.

Rob: We really enjoyed it. And we’ve had two fantastic experiences now on these Amateur Traveler trips in Morocco and now here. And I like it because it’s more authentic. Some of the traveling that we do, it’s more of like a pleasure trip, or it’s a little nicer, do you know what I mean?

Chris: Me too. Mm-hmm.

Rob: It’s nicer hotels, it’s nicer accommodations. I like getting kind of in the grit of the local scene, and we definitely get that on these trips. So we’ve had fantastic experiences on both of the trips we’ve taken through you, which truthfully, been really happy about.

Chris: I don’t think there’s a lot more to say after that. All of my pictures are online, and there will be a link to those in the show notes. So if you want to check out all the pictures that were in the enhanced version of this plus many, many more, take a look at that. And also, I’ll put a link in there to the trip that we took in case you were interested after doing this.

We possibly have just completely scared you away from the Amateur Traveler trips, but if we haven’t, go to to join the private Facebook community where we, in fact, will be voting soon on where to go next.

I feel like this whole episode has been an update from the Amateur Traveler community, and so we’re just going to end this show here. If you have any questions. send an e-mail to host at, or better yet leave a comment on this episode at If you want to help people discover the Amateur Traveler, you can go to iTunes or your favorite podcatcher and give us a rating or a review. And as always, thanks so much for listening.

Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.

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Chris Christensen

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast. He has been a travel creator since 2005 and has won awards including being named the "Best Independent Travel Journalist" by Travel+Leisure Magazine.

One Response to “Travel to Cambodia – Episode 512”

Sam Oppenheim


Agree completely with everything! I went in 2008, Loved it! Really well done episode, I like how everyone got edited in with comments. I’m jealous and would love to go on a trip (but I know it will be years before I either leave my kids home or can afford 4 travelers on a guided tour). Nothing to add to the itinerary, just that backpackers should know you can go to Cambodia by air or land from Thailand, Vietnam, or Laos, and when I went Laos and Vietnam needed special permits, but Cambodia and Thailand were Visa on arrival for USA Passport holders. Also, I haven’t been but some guidebooks are hawking Island / beach getaways on the south of Cambodia.

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