I will start with some basic tourist information, so you can get prepared without making my same mistakes.
- Cambodia is part of Indochina together with those states that are between Asia and China: Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand.
- There are two well-defined seasons, the dry one where it never rains and the cows are very thin and the pools of the extra-luxury hotels are filled with salt water, and the rainy season where does not stop never the rain, the jungle is repopulated with animals and life resumes. In both seasons it’s fucking hot, it’s very humid and everyone sweats copiously.
- Your hair will be disgusting for the whole holiday. If you have curly hair like me you will look like a wet sheep, if you have a fringe I just laugh thinking about it. Bring lot of hairpins, trust me.
- As I told you, you’ll sweat. Throw tons of t-shirts in your suitcase because the reuse of the same using the renowned technique of sniffing under the armpit that leads to the conclusion “this is still good” here does not work, I assure you. On the other hand, there are wonderful laundries that wash, dry and irons even the socks for the modest sum of 1 US dollar per kilo in 24 hours.
- It’s hot, by now you should have understand that. Too bad that in all the temples it is necessary to cover the legs and shoulders, they are quite strict in this. If like me you have the brilliant idea to bring only shorts and tank tops then the first leg of your journey will be the beautiful and huge local market that for sure is fun and cheap, but then you tell me what will you do with 12 pairs of trousers with green elephants, yellow birds, multi-colored stylized temples and orange peacocks? Also remember to bring white shirts to match them because the Goonies T-shirt worn with Indian Guru pants is not very fashionable.
- Do not forget your underwear, but who ever forgets them, will you ask? I did. I do not know how I forgot them. When I prepare my suitcase for Italy, it is the first thing that I put in, all my lingerie with various colors and fabrics to wear depending on the dress. And yet I forgot all of them, including bras. So in my expedition to the local market for the purchase of trousers I went in search of Cambodian underwear. I was extremely happy indeed! “I’m getting something super sexy full of lace, an exaggerated stuff like in the movie Raise the Red Lantern or something like this!” I naively thought. At the first shop the enthusiasm abandoned me, at the twelfth I felt like crying. In the midst of shiny big underpants that electrocute yourself just to look at them and lace bras with the high end up to the navel this is what I could buy … The rest had colors that I did not even know existed, forget the white and black, here rocks the color tra su de ciuc (red wine vomit in Milanese dialect). The bra I bought makes my tits oval and hard like Wonder Woman, you wear it and you get superpowers, I could shoot the Khmer Rouge from the nipples or stuff the empty space between my skin and the super stiff cup with kilos of cocaine and become a billionaire drug dealer. I’m not sure which one to pick. The panties can only be found in the unique Cambodian size, not very big, however, my beautiful panettone of the third measure feels a bit compressed here inside. So please, no malicious comments on my outfit in the photos that will follow.
SIEM REAP CITY
Siem Reap is a small city northwest of Cambodia on the edge of Angkor, the ancient capital of the Khmer empire where all the temples and ruins of this extraordinary civilization are concentrated. What is not understood by the tour guides are usually the dimensions, the distances and how to move or reach certain places. Here it’s very simple, everything is a tuk-tuk ride distance: temples, market, restaurants, entertainment. The tuk-tuk driver usually offers you a “lease” for the whole week: 10 dollars half day and 15 dollars all day, they pick you up at the hotel, they become mini tour guides, give you smiles and also offers trips on their own initiative! Going around in tuk-tuk you will notice hung up in every shaded corner hammocks with some guy lying down to rest and relax. Anyone is hanging around with the portable hammock and as soon as it is possible to hang it, they sprawl over it. There are even “hammock bars” where there is a thatched roof and tables just the right range to have a customer to rock without mess up everything that is on top.
There are many elementary schools to visit, usually they are not a typical tourist destination but I always let myself be taken there. I go there to make my girls understand how lucky they are and also for myself because in the smile and in the eyes of children there is the real joy of a population. So arm yourself with hairpins, pencils, balls and dolls and go to school. Usually the lessons are interrupted, the teachers chat and the children, who do not speak a word of English, magically play with yours in the playground, they give you a lot of high five and smiles enough for a whole year.
The main street is called Pub Street, runs along one side of the market where you can buy everything: clothes, shoes, fruit, meat, fish, gifts and obviously underpants. This is the liveliest area of the city full of restaurants and bars, massage centers ($ 5 for an hour) and unfortunately, many beggars without arms or legs who, abandoned to themselves by the government after the terrible revolution against the Khmer regime, they cannot help but rely on the good heart of tourists.
ANGKOR AND THE TEMPLES
Angkor, the ancient capital of the great Khmer empire, is without a shadow of doubt one of the most incredible wonders of the world and a site of great archaeological importance. Inside the densest jungle, in the warm and lazy plains of northwestern Cambodia, its venerable temples transport the visitor into a mysterious, fascinating past of grandeur and glory. (Quote Guide Mondadori)
I couldn’t define it better. Truly a magical and grandiose place. The archaeological sites there are thirteen, fortunately you can buy the ticket for three days, because it is hot, you walk a lot and the children do not give a shit about seeing the ruins of the twelfth century so we have visited only three of the thirteen archaeological sites, those of greater importance in size and majesty.
ANGKOR WAT: is the largest religious complex in the world. Its plan is based on a mandala and in the middle stands a temple of 5 towers in the shape of a lotus flower bud. On the walls of the temple are often depicted the Hindu gods, moments of life, war and the wonderful Apsara dancers of which I will speak moreover.
ANGKOR THOM: This is an ancient city surrounded by 8-meter-high walls with 5 entrance doors. At the center rises the Bayon, pyramid-shaped temple-mountain that climbs on three levels and is made up of 54 towers and 200 enormous and enigmatic stone faces that make this one of the most incredible places I’ve ever been.
TA PROHM: this is my favorite among all. Evocative, mysterious and magical place. It was a Buddhist monastery built in the heart of the Cambodian jungle. The restoration of this archaeological site is slow compared to the rest because the jungle has been taking over the human creation and the roots of the banana trees, figs and all the other plants have stifled the buildings giving this area a magical film atmosphere futurist (here are some scenes of Lara Croft: Tomb Rider). Unmissable.
FOOD (of course!)
As a food lover an essential part of my holiday is to try the local delicacies. Just remember that water, fruit, vegetables and food here are teeming with Cambodian bacteria and your intestine has been designed, planned and built in the US. I would suggest the use of fleets of lactic ferments to avoid spending a holiday in the Cambodian public bathrooms, which I assure you are not a nice place to stay at all.
Here are some of the typical local dishes.
Khmer Amok: spicy curry with coconut milk and Noni leaves (local plant with beneficial/magical properties), snakehead murrel (a fish that looks like a snake with a big head) and tofu served with a tamarind sauce and rice. Very good.
Khmer Lok Lak: meat strips or sautéed chicken with kampot pepper, tomato, onion, celery and lettuce served with spicy sauce and rice. Maybe it was the dry season and the cows are thin, but the meat was chewy and not very tasty. Go for the fish!
Khmer Curry: spicy curry with coconut milk, chicken or tofu of your choice, served with the usual tamarind sauce and rice.
K’damm mrek Kep: Kep pepper crab with garlic sauce and stir-fried vegetables. Good, if the crab had not been empty! I tried to complain but three different waiters assured me that the peculiarity of this renowned dish of Cambodian cuisine lies in the surprise of turning the crab and finding it empty!
Bok l’hong: spicy salad with papaya, basil, peanuts, tomato and small fish, very tasty and delicious. Excellent also in the version with mango and banana leaves.
For those who do not know them, I always suggest to try the Morning Glory, Indochinese vegetables with a unique flavor cooked with garlic, the classic rice with pineapple (which does not sting the tongue and is not bitter like the one we import in Italy) and the small bananas super sweet. Yummy.
For the brave you can have a snack with spiders, roaches and scorpions roasted, if you do not feel then I recommend the ice cream of Fifty5, I never had a good ice cream like this outside Italy, creamy and full of flavour, trust me, I have the Master of ice cream eaters.
Last gem, the local beer is very good and costs a dollar. If you take the Angkor beer in a can you watch the tongue when you rip it, if you find a stamp with a green R you have won a free beer!
CHARITY AND POVERTY
Cambodia is one of the poorest places I’ve ever been. People are smiling and kind, but you feel also despair and abandonment. The government makes money and keeps it, people depend entirely on tourism. But here I found many activities started using money taken by humanitarian associations that over time have become socially useful and economically autonomous. Example are two restaurants: Haven and Spoons. The first comes from a Swiss couple, who came on holiday in Cambodia and fell in love with the place and decided to stay for seven months as volunteers in an orphanage. They realized that these children growing up would have no chance of education and work, so back in Europe they started together with the Dragonfly association to raise enough money to open this place that is a restaurant, but above all a school where children from orphanages and rural poor areas are educated in the hospitality industry. Over all, here I ate the best food of the whole holiday, try it for yourself.
Spoons works the same way, the association behind this restaurant is American, Michael the manager super nice and friendly, was very kind and fun in introducing the school for chefs and restaurateurs created in 2012. The numbers of this school are clearly growth by increasing the average salary of these children by 30% and of which some (47%) continued their studies after this one-year experience.
Lastly, the local artisans school where children learn to carve stone, wood, to create inlaid silver-covered boxes, to decorate ceramics, to create jewels, to spin silk. Obviously I bought everything, my house now looks like a Buddhist temple!
THE FLOATING VILLAGE
Chong kneas is a village on the riverside of the Tonlé Sap lake. I correct myself, it is not on its banks but on its waters. The village floats on immense rafts, the school floats, the temple floats and also the pub, the market, the church, the vegetable garden, the farm, the hen-house. If you lack sugar to go and ask the neighbour you have to go by boat. The water of the lake goes from being yellowish and half a meter in the dry season to 12 meters deep and blue crystalline in the rainy season. The whole village lives on fishing, except that there are no fish anymore. During the rains many people die. Orphaned children are living in the school, cared by three volunteer women from the village, even the teachers are obviously unpaid volunteers. These children never run. There is no place that allows them to run, if you have children you can understand the scale of the news. Now they live only with money that come from tourists and from what they can produce by themselves on the rafts (a little). So go visit this incredible village, buy rice for the school, lightly give all the dollars you have in your pocket and be grateful to run and ride a bike. Even just for this.
I left the fun part last to get you to the end! Absolutely go see the Cambodian circus, in a red-hot tent crammed to the improbable number of people, these guys make numbers that not even cirque du soleil do. Good, funny and astonishing.
If it’s raining or you have kids, the Eye trick museum is always fun, this in Siem Reap is the biggest I’ve ever been. Prepare the camera and be ready to play the part!!
Angkor zip line is an eco-park built in the heart of the jungle (the only place where you do not arrive with the tuk-tuk). Walking on sky bridges and flying over the zip line you cross the jungle from one thousand year old tree to another at a height that varies from 30 to 40 meters depending on the plant. Super fun! Not recommended if you suffer from vertigo.
It is said that the Apsara dancers are half-women and half-goddesses, of a beauty and an enchanting grace, their sensual dance moves hormones that even Shakira with her hip hypnotic movement can’t manage to do. Mmmmhhh, let’s talk about it. First of all, the music is a ring of bells and xylophone with a whimpering voice that looks like a rosary, as pleasant as the scratch of nails on the blackboard. A complaint to beat your head against the wall. And then they move their hands, feet and head, keeping the body completely still from the neck to the pelvis. How can a dance that does not move the pelvis be sexy? Not a shake of the ass, not a move of the boobs, nothing. In most dear friends, they stuff their asses. You got it right. They are filled with foam to make a faux-ass. The revenge of us with the natural dumb-ass. Let’s get out and shake it around with pride, knowing that a part of the world envies it, they stuff pants to make it big and does not even know how to move it! And remember that even if someone finds them sexy, once undressed they wear the Cambodian underwear!