There are two ways to get to Battambang from Siem Reap: 1) bus on reliable roads, 5 to 6 hours or 2) boat on less than reliable waterways, 5 to 10 hours. We chose the boat option, having read that the journey along Tonle Sap Lake is the best water trip in Cambodia, where beautiful scenery and active floating villages accompany you most of the way.
First the Bugs
Curious, Dan struck up a conversation with a table of people enjoying their late afternoon snack of bugs and sugar cane juice near the river in Battambang. After inviting us to sit with them, he received a proper – and unexpected – lesson in art of bug eating. Step 1: remove the wings and legs. Step 2: pop them into his mouth, Step 3: chew a long, long while, Step 4: chase them with a healthy gulp of sugar cane juice. Step 5: Pray your digestive system approves of this curious new protein.
Spending a day on the back of a motorbike going around the villages and sites near Battambang is one of the best ways to take in Cambodia’s countryside while getting a bit of an adrenaline kick. This trip proved one of our personal travel hightlights in Southeast Asia.
While visiting Battambang, we hired motorbike drivers for a day to take us through the surrounding countryside. Our day with them yielded an authentic look at Cambodian country life. Our drivers also shared glimpses of their own personal stories with us. Their stories were typical of many Cambodians and serve as a collective memory of a country that lost half its population during the rule of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. While the scores of smiling children we encountered throughout the day still bring smiles to our faces, the day underscored how thankful we are for the fortunate lives we've had until now.
There's no better way to comprehend a cuisine than to learn how to cook it for yourself. To that end, we signed up for a Cambodian cooking course with Smoking Pot Restaurant (yes, clever naming) to learn some of the tricks and ingredients behind the Cambodian dishes we had been eating. Along the way, we also picked up some more Cambodian history.
Like 99% of the tourists who come to Siem Reap, we came to see the temples of Angkor and became cogs in the Angkor tourist processing machine – arranging transport, buying a 3-day pass, and temple hopping.
We had heard beforehand of the spiritual nature of the temples and the beauty of their engravings. We had no idea of the scale of the complex and did not fully fathom the number of tourists we'd share it with.
Much of what the visitor to Siem Reap sees are streets filled with restaurants, hotels, spas and other services geared towards foreign tourists. There is another side to life here, however, one that is neither shiny nor prosperous.
Our bus from Phnom Penh was met by a driver proudly holding a sign saying “Ganiel.” From the moment we got into the car, the driver started his selling pitch as the perfect guide and driver to the Angkor temples. Maps circulated like popcorn inside the car as the excitement level in his voice rose audibly.
In contrast to its sunshine and smiles, Cambodia's recent history under the control of the Khmer Rouge is nothing short of horrific.
https://photos.uncorneredmarket.com/Asia/Cambodia/Phnom-Penh/i-w7LcdvtTuol Sleng Genocide Museum – Phnom Penh
Tuol Sleng, originally a high school in downtown Phnom Penh, was transformed into Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge between 1975-1979. It's estimated that close to 20,000 people were imprisoned here; only seven are known to have survived.
During out first night in Phnom Penh, two bank guards shared their dinner with us after we showed curiosity in what they were eating. They invited us to take a few bites, told us the name of the dish in Khmer, and indicated how much we should pay for the dish to avoid being ripped off. Not quite what we were expected from a city from which we heard reports of “dark and dangerous.”