We arrived at Siem Reap and the first thing I wanted to do was find some Cambodian Riel. This turned out to be unnecessary as EVERYWHERE accepted Dollars- I wish I'd realised that before we spent time hunting an ATM that gave local currency. Note to future adventurers: don't bother with this fools errand.
We were saving the temples and Pub Street till our friend Miffles joined us in a few days, so as soon as he arrived the second thing I wanted to do was to see how much it had changed in the ten years since I was last there. I remembered it as being a gated road, guarded with Security with go-go bars everywhere and hungry street kids outside, sniffing glue. 10 years ago, I got told off by a guard for giving the children milk and encouraging the 'rats'. I wasn't sad to see that this had changed, though it was obvious the 'rats' had not gone away, just moved out of sight. The place was unrecognisable.
We all walked up Pub Street and out the other side- it was very BRIGHT and LOUD- not to mention expensive, but the alley next to it had cocktail bars on pull-along carts. Cocktails for $1.50 and you got to choose your YouTube videos on the iPads they supplied, blaring the music out on tiny speakers. Our kids were enraptured and we got a cheap cocktail- a taste of the past for us, being out amongst all the other backpackers, but we kept our feet on the ground and made sure we were home by 9pm before it got too crazy.
We finally got to Temple Day- we decided a one day ticket would be enough for us all. Our guide and driver, Mr San picked up at 4.45am to go and buy the tickets and then set out to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. It was beautiful and atmospheric, but we were hungry. I had wrongly imagined we'd be able to get street food somewhere along the way, but everything seemed to cost $6- a lot of money by Cambodian standards. Why didn't I buy a bag of croissants?! A schoolgirl error.
The temples were a big adventure and we were pleased to have gotten up so early as it got so hot and busy, later on. We correctly brought lots of water, sun screen and took breaks- the sheer number of people at the temples can be overwhelming, let alone with all the walking. We were home by about midday- which had given us 7 hours of exploring.
We loved it all, but our favourite was the 'Tomb Raider' temple, Ta Prohm. The way that Nature worked with the ancient architecture was breathtaking. I could wax lyrical all day about how beautiful and atmospheric the day was but to save me the trouble, we made a film about our day at Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Bayon and Angkor Thom. Please see below.
After Siem Reap we moved on to Phnom Penh, stopping at a roadside cafe for breakfast. The restaurant looked ok- noodle soup all round, but the Eldest asked for plain steamed rice. We realised the bits in it weren't rice husk- but ants. On closer inspection, our noodle soup also had ants floating in it. We pretended to eat up and then made a sharp exit.
I realise that during the Khmer Rouge regime the Khmers necessarily became omnivores- as they were starving. Many locals might not have minded the extra protein, but it was a bridge too far for us. Pringles for breakfast then, not that the children minded.
A friend had recommended a hotel in Phnom Penh. It was run by a British man and his Khmer wife who cooked the best pies since Bristol got Pieminister (sorry, Pieminister, but they were good) we enjoyed flash floods, British food and loads of ex-pats to talk to. The kids enjoyed other children to play with and a swimming pool in their back garden.
We debated whether to take them to the Killing fields or not. We decided S21 Genocide Museum was not for them but as we have been educating them about history, politics, culture... the Khmer Rouge was not something you could ignore when visiting this part of the world.
We decided to go. In the same way we took them to the War remnants Museum in Vietnam, we would go and be available to answer all their questions and hold their hands through the experience.
The boys got it. Their questions came think and fast
"How could it happen?"
"Why did no one do anything?"
"Could it happen again?"
All good questions. The audio guide was incredible, with real-life accounts as added-extras to the explanations of the different areas we walked through.
At one point there were bones, cloth and teeth that had been washed to the surface of the mud since the heavy rains... it brought it home that this was real- a tourist attraction that was not sugar-coated as everything was left, out of respect for the dead. It really brought home the reality of the recent history of the Khmer people and our children found it moving and relevant. This was history in the flesh and we drank it in.
We sadly waved goodbye to Miffles and headed south to an island that sounded unspoilt, with no roads or mains electricity- the opposite of Phnom Penh.
We took a private driver to the backpacker mecca and party town of Sihanookville. From there, there was only one boat that goes onwards to Ko Rong. We chose Coconut Beach as we read that there was phosphorescence at night and it was rumoured to be quiet with crystal clear sea. A 40 minute boat ride would take us to a whole other world.
Coconut beach was heaven- clear turquoise water- yes a few carrier bags floating around, (but this is Asia...) other than that though, heaven. It reminded me of Koh Pah Ngan Bottle Beach, 20 years ago. This place wasn't even in the Lonely Planet guide- we were off the beaten track and being handsomely rewarded.
We ventured up the beach to Coconut Beach Resort and met the owner, a smiley chap called Robbie. He showed the boys magic tricks and offered us a free tent- he'd wake us up if the bioluminescent algae was present and didn't want us to get the kids up if we didn't need to. Bless him, we gratefully declined.
Seeing the algae depended a lot on the conditions- and 4am was our best bet once the moon had passed over the bay.
The food at the restaurant was definitely not the best, but the atmosphere was incredible. He set off paper lanterns into the sky and set up a campfire on the beach for his guests.
Later on, I woke the boys up to an immense amount of grumbles. Pre-dawn adventures weren't welcome- you'd have thought I was waking them up for work or something.
We met Robbie in the water at the agreed time, slightly worried about swimming in the dead of night- but it turns out, we had nothing to worry about.
Robbie was already in the water with his other guests, so we tentatively stepped in, hoping (irrationally) not to walk into a stray bit of rubbish. The boys were scared and so were we a bit- but after he called us over and swooped his t-shirt into the water we could watch the sparkles drip back into the sea.
With Robbie's snorkel mask we could look under water and see the fireworks all around when we moved our arms and legs. Tipping the sea water over ourselves, we were covered in sparkles! It was truly magical and then we looked up. The sky was even more magnificent.
The Milky Way was visible- even in the Outback we hadn't been able to see this. The boys forgave me for making them get up at 3.30am and we crawled back to bed, feeling like we had just lived a dream.
There was a Khmer village just a fifteen minute walk over the hill which is where we needed to go to get fishing supplies. The boys, especially the Eldest became obsessed with fishing- all the locals were helping him and even gave him a fish if he didn't manage to catch any. The restaurant fried them up for us at the end of the day- and who doesn't love fish and chips- especially if you catch the fish yourself?
It turns out that our six days in heaven went by very quickly with all the swimming, kayaking, fishing and floating about on inner tubes that we crammed in. THIS was what we were looking for- and we found it surprisingly, in Cambodia. Nothing would spoil our buzz- not even a 26 hour bus journey. Honest.
Where we stayed:
The Villa, Siem Reap. 26 GBP per night for a huge family room with 2 bedrooms and lounge area, also a pool.
3 Mangos Hotel and Sports bar. Phnom Penh. 23 GBP per night. Very family friendly and full of expats to talk to. Not our usual place to stay but amazing British food (pies! Handmade glorious pies! real chips! yum) and lots of English-speaking children to play with, our children loved it. We had a chance to kick back a bit too and practise our pool on the free table- everyone was a winner.
Bunnan Bungalow, Coconut Beach, Koh Rong. 23 GBP per night. Kayak hire and fishing right in front of the place and the best food on the beach.
What we did:
Angkor Wat and surrounding temples- the price went up just before we got there! The new price for a one day pass is 28.50 GBP per adult and child over 12 years old. It is worth bringing a copy of passports as this is officially required to get the child rate.
We used a tuk tuk driver called Mr Sansok San- please message me if you want his contact details. He was always where he said he would be and was tireless in carting us around.
Cambodian War Museum, Siem Reap, 3.80 GBP entrance and you get taken around by a guide which you need to tip. We went twice the boys loved it so much. The first time we had a landmine survivor who was very interesting and very open about his experiences.
The second time, a young person whose parents survived the Khmer Rouge. He was not allowed to learn about politics and told us that the recent Khmer Rouge history is not allowed to be taught in schools. Both interesting in very different ways.
Donate Blood at Angkor Hospital for Children. They need it AND you get a free T-shirt.
Angkor Night Market great for tourist tat and souvenirs and cocktails from a cart. We found it all overpriced but enjoyed the spectacle.
Pub Street- the bars were so expensive, loud, garishly bright and a bit seedy, but the carts in 'Pub Street Alley' were fun.
Artisans Angkor, Siem Reap- a silk farm where we went to learn about the process. Our guide turned out to be quite rude so we didn't really learn very much. Still, it was good to see the silk worms and the dying and weaving process.
S21- Tuol Slueng Genocide Museum 3.50 GBP entrance. Mike went whilst I stayed with the children as I had been before.
The Killing Fields, Cheung Ek, Phnom Penh. 3.50 GBP entrance with excellent audio guide. Atmospheric, beautiful and really showed what life must have been life for the Prisoners. There were still bones and clothing coming up from the ground as the rains had washed them up. Startling but also important to see, we felt.
Kayak hire- 3.50 GBP per day form Bunnan Bungalow (see above)
How we got around:
Tuk Tuk were cheap and always available. We took a private car from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh for about 61 GBP which, split between 5 people, it worked out ok.
Private driver to Sihanookville from Phnom Penh 50 GBP.
Buva Sea Cambodia take you directly to Koh Rong Coconut beach 5 times a day. 7 GBP each per person each way.
What we ate:
The food in Cambodia was much nicer than I remembered. We all loved the fish Amok- a coconut stew served in a banana leaf- fragrant and mild and delicious, served with rice..
Fruit was sold everywhere as was noodle soup, spring rolls and fried rice. The Khmer red curry wasn't too spicy so keeping everyone happy was easy, thank goodness.