Cambodia had always been on my bucket list for places to visit mainly to see the ruins of Angkor Wat and to explore a culture I had been amazed with in National Geographic magazines growing up – think of the women with the gold rings stretching their necks.
So when I saw a cheap last minute flight I jumped on it. 5 days later and I’m stepping off the plane with no map, no itinerary, and a small knapsack full of clothes ready to see what this country is all about. Right away I realized my destination, Siem Reap, is no Disney Land. It’s the second largest city in Cambodia and definitely caters to a tourist crowd for visiting the temples but still has a third world element to it and is somewhat of a backpacker party scene. The first thing I noticed about Siem Reap is the extreme poverty. On the outside it all looks fine, but as a solo traveler I felt more aware of how desperate every one of the Cambodians were for an extra penny. I couldn’t go five feet without getting harassed with someone trying to sell me something.
—I must confess, I didn’t get as many food pics this trip as I would of liked due to the fact that I wasn’t really that comfortable whipping my Iphone out everywhere; especially in the middle of the markets as I kept getting haggled. Plus the second half of my trip I was suffering from heat exhaustion. No excuses next trip though.
As far as food goes in Cambodia, to me it was like a watered down version of Thai food. The way one local explained it to me was that the Cambodians have always been the warriors and fighters throughout history and so they weren’t as focused on food. Fair enough, history would tend to agree. I would also say it’s REALLY tough to compete with Thai food. It could also be because majority of everyone is so poor they tend to cook with less. But nonetheless Cambodia has a number of delightful local dishes such as Fish Amok (coconut curry with fish) and Bai Sach Chrouk (pork and rice) as well as some great French food influences similar to Vietnamese food.
My first night in Siem Reap I wondered the streets to get a feel for the town and then hired a tuk-tuk driver (shoutout to TukTuk Danny!) to show me around for the night. I really wanted to try some of the crazy street food like the scorpions, tarantulas, and other weird insects but I had a big day checking out temples in the morning so played it safe with some Khmer style noodles (Cambodian Pad Thai) from the hostel. It was decent but not mind blowing – what you would expect for hostel food. I did go for a late night banana pancake/crepe thingy on the way back to the hostel which was delightful.
The next day I found a group tour and went to all the main temples. It was one of the hottest days of the year and I survived by drinking mango smoothies all day from the little street vendors. For lunch I had a pineapple fried rice dish that was not bad. It tasted fresh and the place looked clean so I was happy. By 4′ oclock I was on the verge of a heat stroke and caught a ride back early with an Argentinian farmer and Swede girl from my group who I had been hanging out with all day.
After regaining some strength with a nap and shower, I went out to dinner with an American who was motorcycling around Southeast Asia for 3 months all by himself. I thought I was adventurous but dang, this kid had some balls! Turns out he’s a brew master from Michigan so we nerded-out talking beer pretty much the entire dinner. My meal was extremely simple made up of veggies and a Khmer style Chicken – basically the Cambodian version of Thai basil chicken. This was the best meal all trip and gotta say they nailed it!
After dinner and a couple beers down (they were $.50 each!!) I somehow had new life and decided to hit the town. I ended up walking for a bit and stumbled into a French bar away from the main “Pub street” area and hung out way too late into the evening socializing with some French ex-pats discussing all the cool places in the U.S. they had visited that I had never been to! :0
The next day the heat exhaustion really kicked in but I sucked it up and went for round 2 of temples; this time the smaller, less popular ones – Preah Khan was my favorite! After befriending a charming British couple who were on their extended honeymoon and catching the sunset on top of Pre Rup (third wheeling all the way!) I was totally beat and had lost all appetite. No amount of fresh mango smoothies or beers could save me at this point. I ended up trying to eat a Khmer style curry for dinner but couldn’t manage to get it down. The Khmer style curry was similar to a red Thai coconut based curry. It was very tasty but my body wasn’t taking food at that point.
A note about Khmer: Khmer refers to a specific ethnic group and associated culture native to Cambodia. The Khmer people make up the majority of the population and have a long lineage stemming from the great civilizations in the region and are steeped in history and tradition. The Khmer language was the foundation for Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian alphabets.
I settled for a 2 dollar foot massage back in town (amazing, don’t judge!), fell asleep on the massage bed about 10 minutes in, and was back in the hostel by 10pm.
Overall I’d say the Cambodian food was good but I think you really go to Cambodia for the ruins and to experience a vastly different culture. Granted, I don’t think I ate enough of the local dishes to really give a complete assessment, but the temples were by far the highlight of my trip.
Fittingly, my favorite meal from the whole trip was at the Singapore airport right before I departed trying out a Sushi burrito – essentially an oversized sushi roll. I had never had one before and it was sooooo freaking good! It was a true sign that I didn’t need to leave Singapore to find a fantastic meal.