Our Cambodian wedding photos

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This is such a fun souvenir to make with your friends or family while you’re in Siem Reap. If you have a few hours to spare in your day, you can get Cambodian wedding photos done at several studios around the city. Ladies take about an hour and a half to do makeup and hair Khmer (Cambodian) style.

It’s $15 US for one outfit and $25 US if you choose to dress as an Apsara character (like my friend on the left of the top picture). They don’t do much work on the men but put on the traditional outfit. Be warned, don’t ask to change into several jackets of different colours, because they charge extra for that.

My friends and I went to the studio right across the street of Lucky Mall on Sivatha Road.

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My original face.

My Cambodian face.

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17 most memorable times of 2013

On March 3, 2013, I left my friends, family and jobs to satisfy my curiosity and parts of Asia I’ve never set foot in. I’ve lived in Vancouver, Canada for the 26 of the 28 years I’ve been alive and I felt change was years overdue.

While most people fear change, I have a much bigger fear of not having new experiences after awhile and feeling stagnate. I wanted to take a longer time to travel so my days wouldn’t be rushed and I could have more flexibility have more time to build relationships than simply passing through areas. While I’m very lucky and grateful to have had many unique adventures around North America with fantastic friends, I’ve had the best year of my life in Asia.

I’ve been curious why my friends in Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia have all told me, “Don’t forget us.” I always respond by saying, “How could I ever forget you?!” I wonder if they’ve had people passing through in their lives that they lose touch with their traveling friends.

I initially started this blog to share my experiences with friends and family, but it has evolved to be a living diary of memorable conversations and times I’ve had with the many wonderful people I’ve met. That’s why some of my posts are so long and probably have too much detail that won’t be interesting for some of you to read. My head and heart are often filled with new experiences in a short period of time and it is easy to bury the subtle moments and conversations I’ve had with people. So I write to so that I won’t forget.

These are the most memorable days I’ve had in 2013:

1. Last days with friends, family and colleagues

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My great food-loving and outdoorsy friends in Vancouver, Canada.

I was not expecting the number of going away meals that I had with friends, the university students I worked with, former colleagues and my family. I felt so loved and supported in my journey.

2. Bike ride in Phnom Penh, Harlem Shake and pizza

With Rithy at SmallWorld

I last saw my friend Rithy Thul in 2010 when he led a cross-Cambodia fundraising bike ride. He is an entrepreneur, community-builder and cycling lover.

I went to Phnom Penh the first week I landed in Cambodia to see my friend Rithy Thul, whom I met doing a cross-country cycling fundraiser for the educational NGO PEPY in 2010. I stayed at his enterprise space Small World and in one weekend I:

  • Made pizza with some fantastic university students who had nothing but two gas burners
  • Was part of our version of the Harlem Shake YouTube video
  • Met a couple from Hungary who is cycling around the world (literally!) for their honeymoon
  • Went for a bike ride on the countryside and through train tracks where kids run up to us to say hello
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Learning how to make pizza from scratch. The pizza this student made was better than most pizzas I’ve had in restaurants in Cambodia.

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Sign at Small World

 3. Khmer New Year celebrations

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Enjoying dinner in our friend Tin Tin’s hometown.

Cambodians celebrated Khmer (Cambodian) New Year from April 13-16. I was lucky to spend those days with my friends from Canada, Japan, and America along with Khmer people. One of my closest friends was so generous and flew from Vancouver, Canada to see me for 10 days in Cambodia and we were lucky she just happen to be here during this most festive time in the country.

My friend and I also went to our Khmer friend Tin Tin’s family’s house for dinner about an hour away from Siem Reap. We ate a lovely meal and stayed to dance with his family and the kids in the community.

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Dancing in Tin Tin’s home town.

Of all the festivities, one of the most beautiful memories was when my other friend and I took a tuk tuk late at night to see the Bayon Temple light up at 2:12 a.m. as part of the opening ceremony for Khmer New Year. There were no more than a few hundred Khmer people and we felt like we had the temple all to ourselves as we walked through.

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My friend and I at Bayon temple at 2:30 a.m.

4. Full weekend in Phnom Penh

Taking a swim at Romdeng social enterprise restaurant. We're swimming Khmer style with our clothes on.

Taking a swim at Romdeng social enterprise restaurant. We’re swimming Khmer style with our clothes on.

I went to the city with the perfect girls who were also working in Siem Reap. In one weekend, we:

  • Had breakfast by the riverside
  • Spent the afternoon with our two funny and kind Khmer friends
  • Saw a Khmer play put on by the Cambodia Living Arts, an organization dedicated to reviving and preserving the arts culture after the brutal Khmer Rouge regime killed artists along with other intellectuals
  • Ate at two social enterprises, Romdeng and Daughters of Cambodia and had a beautiful night swim in our clothes at the restaurant
  • Checked out three bars
  • Ended the night dancing

We enjoyed a delicious meal at the Daughters of Cambodia social enterprise cafe.

 5. Days at Golden Temple Villa

My friends at Golden Temple Villa who rushed to get me some lovely gifts when they found out it was my birthday. They gave me a beautiful coffee mug, a bear and beautiful bracelets.

My friend visiting from Canada and I lived at this lovely guesthouse for a week and we quickly became friends with the staff. After only knowing them for a week, I decided to have a birthday lunch at their restaurant and gave them just two hours notice. In those two hours, they rushed to get me small gifts with personalized notes. One of them even apologized for not having time to get me a small gift on time!

In the months I was in Siem Reap, the staff has always been so generous to let me use their Wi-Fi anytime and offered free tea, coffee and snacks. When I thanked my friend who is the manager there and works so hard all the time, she said, “My whole team must take care of you while you are away from your mummy.”

6. Second birthday abroad

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This is only the second time I’ve celebrated my birthday outside of Canada since I was two years old. My biggest fear was being alone on my birthday and I was just happy to be with one or a few people over dinner. I didn’t tell anyone it was my birthday until someone found out because I didn’t want anyone to feel obligated to do something for me. But when people found out they showed up at the social enterprise Soria Moria to celebrate with me and it was a lovely evening. I appreciated new friends making time to be with me.

7. Week with three Cambodian families for the Pchum Ben festival

Picture of San’s family in the Kampong Cham province.

I had a fantastic time spending Pchum Ben, a two-week religious Cambodian festival honouring ancestors, with three Cambodian families over five days. I first went to the Kampong Cham province to visit one friend’s family during flooding season. We took a five-hour bus ride, an hour and a half boat ride on the Mekong River, and a boat taxi in the flooded villages to get to my friend’s home.

I participated in one pagoda ceremony with them, ate with them and laughed with the family. I love being the only foreigner when I visit places because I know it’s away from the places short-term tourists go.

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The wonderful girls who laughed at my pictures with me at the pagoda.

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Taking the boat taxi to get to San’s home in the flooded village.

I spent two days in Banteay Meanchey and my friends showed me around nice parts of their district, offered to pay for my meals and their family was happy to see me for a second time. My friend’s mom was so busy preparing for the celebration and helping with the daughter’s newborn son. But when they found out I was visiting, she spent a lot of time making my favourite dish Amok fish, which was incredibly sweet.

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My friend’s adorable and smart 6-year-old niece. She is at the top of her class in school and speaks quite a few words in English in the Banteay Meanchey province.

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The wonderful girls who took me around Banteay Meanchey.

8. Meeting students in Sronal Commune, Siem Reap

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These are the high school students who come to practice their English in my friend Seng’s village. He volunteers to teach them English every week.

I was very happy to visit my friend Seng and his students in Sronal District, Siem Reap. He volunteers to teach high school students English several times a week and he said I could visit as a guest because they had never had a foreign visitor before. The students were shy at first but when they warmed up to me, some asked me a lot of questions and laughed at my bad Khmer. One student said, “I am very happy you came to my village. You can see my home next time.” I’m looking forward to seeing them again in March 2014.

9. Spending time with my adopted Khmer family

My Khmer family at Pchum Ben, a religious festival honouring their ancestors. How beautiful is this picture?

My Khmer family at Pchum Ben, a religious festival honouring their ancestors. How beautiful is this picture?

I’ve spent a few months living at my friend’s apartment and have fully integrated with their family, whom I call my own now in Cambodia. My favourite times with them is when we eat together, catch up on the day and just laugh. I was a bad influence and introduced Dexter to my friend who would watch with me when she had time. They often tell me, “We really want you to live in Cambodia, think of how you can start a business. You are never alone, you always have family in Cambodia.” **Tear** I’ve been to Cambodia for two rounds now and it’s hardest to leave them every time.

10. Weekend in Bangkok

Friend that I met semi-randomly who ended up hosting me so generously the whole weekend in Bangkok.

Ploy (right), is the friend that I met semi-randomly who ended up hosting me so generously the whole weekend in Bangkok.

Bangkok is one of those places where you can either have a really crappy time or an amazing time depending where you are and who you’re with. My only plan was to just pass through the city and I was getting so fed up with several things. But within the same day, I ended up meeting a new Thai friend named Ploy and friends from Siem Reap who just happened to in Bangkok for the same weekend. My completely unplanned weekend ended up being filled with a bike ride around the quieter part of Bangkok, the largest market I’ve ever been to, dancing and enjoying the unforgettable view at Banyan Tree Hotel, the second highest skybar in the world.

11. Family reunion in Ratanakiri, Cambodia

A Cambodian family feast.

I was very happy to be invited by a friend to see her family in Ratanakiri, east of Cambodia for a few days. We saw my friend’s family farm that grew longbean, pumpkin and other foods, a beautiful lake, two waterfalls, drank Cambodian rice wine, went for karaoke and danced at a club. And we were the only 6 out of 10 people in the club.

12. Meeting local people in Lombok, Indonesia

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The beautiful kids who hung out with us when we took a break from riding our mottos.

This is one of many recurring times that remind me that the best things happen when they are unplanned. My friend was great at not being so concerned about needing a map to get around and we should just drive around the island and stop whenever we felt like it. We met some of the friendliest people wherever we went, particularly the kids who came up to us to sit, talk and laugh with us in the middle of the farm fields.

12. Being pulled into a traditional wedding in Lombok

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A traditional wedding ceremony was hosted at our guesthouse. Hundreds of people accompanied the young couple from one part of the village and ended at our guesthouse.

We stayed at Diyah Homestay guesthouse for a few nights and they apologized to all of their guests in advance for all the music and sounds because there was a wedding that was going to happen the next day. They were so kind and shared meals with all of us, invited us to the ceremony and also dressed us up in traditional clothing to be part of the celebration. We stood in line with many other people with a bowl of fruit baskets to offer the bride and groom.

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The awesome mobile wedding band.

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Thanks to our hosts, I was now properly dressed in traditional clothes and makeup for the ceremony.

13. Fun-filled days in Bali

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We visited the Tirta Empul Temple in central Bali. The spring feeds purification baths, pools and fish ponds that flow to the Tukad Pakerisan River. Various sites throughout the region and many other archaeological relics relate to local myths and legends.

I met up with a friend who was living in Bali for a few months and we just met for two days in Siem Reap around August. I took her up on her invite to visit Bali and thanks to her, we saw an endless stream of beautiful landscape, rice patties, temples, traditional dance performances, jungles and night life.

On day 2 in Bali, we went river rafting in the jungle that included a lunch buffet ($25 US for everything), had dinner at a very local restaurant, went to a surfing fundraiser for an NGO, went to a place with beautiful Latin dancers that involved basic lessons, a gay club with awesome ladyboys and one more club before having dinner number 2 at 7-11, which was instant noodles. And yes, this was all in one day.

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One of the seven traditional dance performances we saw in Ubud, Bali. Indonesia’s varied dance styles are made up of beautiful colours, stories and complex rhythms. I’ve never seen a dance like the ones we saw in Ubud.

Rice terraces in Jatiluwih, Bali

14. My unforgettable couch surfing experience in Yogyakarta

Attempting to make curry at Lalha’s home where I stayed for one night.

I met some fantastic university students through couchsurfing.org and were incredible hosts for the few days I was in Yogyakarta. The first night a group of us hung out, I jokingly requested that Ayumita, a wonderful 19-year-old student who sings at hotels weekly, sing a song just for us. So without hesitation, she went up to the live band and sang Rolling in the Deep for us by Adele.

We spent our last hours together at the town square to make our wishes and rode an LED-covered bicycle playing club music.

The next day, I took a motorcycle ride with one of the friends to the famous Borobudur Temples, we cooked curry together at Lalha’s house, went to a local coffee place with great live music, went to the wishing tree at a local park and took a bicycle for a few laps that was lit up and played club music. I regret not staying longer in Yogyakarta with these wonderful new friends, and it’s my lesson that I should just chance it at the airport and not buy a ticket out of the country.

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Why take a two hour bus with a bunch of tourists when you can catch a ride on one of these with a local person who knows where they’re going?

Why go to a club when you can listen to club music while taking a bike ride with friends in these creative works of art?

15. Reuniting with a close friend in Taiwan

I stayed with one of my closest friends Susan for a week in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. The last time we saw each other was when she came to visit me in Cambodia in April. It was my turn to visit and we were very happy to reconnect.

The only reason I came to Taiwan was to see one of my closest friends from Vancouver, who also came to visit me in Cambodia. I spent a week with Susan, which wasn’t long enough, but we saw some beautiful national parks and neighbouring island, drank the best milk tea I’ve ever had, and spent Christmas day with her classmates and mom eating take out food from a restaurant called Yaletown Bistro (a restaurant in Vancouver).

15. My first Cambodian engagement party

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My friend Lida in her beautiful traditional Khmer dress for the first part of the ceremony.

When I came back to Cambodia for a few weeks after Laos, my friend gave me one day notice to come to her engagement party. The next day I went with her by bus and motto to her family’s home for the weekend. I was happy to stay with her family and see everything that was involved with the preparations, including decorating their house, all the food that was cooked, the many colourful fruit baskets for offering and huge sound speakers for the day’s music.

I enjoyed playing games and dancing with the kids in the village the most that weekend. Even when some of the kids didn’t speak English and my Khmer was very limited, they tried to converse and connect and I’m looking forward to seeing them again for the wedding in March 2014.

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My dancing buddies at the wedding. They totally made my weekend.

16. Hiking, pizza hopping, dancing and lantern wishes in Laos

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Our picnic spot by the Mekong River in Luang Prabang.

It was great hanging out with people who live in Luang Prabang and other foreign visitors. We went on small walks, had a picnic by the Mekong River, danced at a club with a dance floor filled with beer kegs used as tables, and went night bowling at the only place in town that opens past midnight.

My Laos friend Tou was very sweet to bring me an extra lantern she had so I could send a wish to the sky and she also gave me a beautiful silver necklace. I told her that was too big a gift to give me and that wasn’t necessary. She said, “No it looks nice on you, please take it. I have many necklaces.”

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The extra lantern Tou brought for me so I could make a wish and send it to the sky.

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17. Country bike rides in Cambodia

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I always loved going with friends to bike around the villages and rice fields around Cambodia. I mostly did this in Siem Reap and the last ride I did in 2013 was with my great friend Cho who spent the day leading us around the Angkor Wat area. We stopped by for lunch at his cousin’s wedding in his village.

I know 2014 will be filled with more new connections, unexpected events and more adventures. When we try to swim against the currents, we can only go so far until we realize that there is a path that’s already set out out for us. So it’s best to let go, ride the wave see where we end up.

Riding without a destination in Lombok

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Beautiful ride at 6:00 a.m. from the ferry to Kuta, south of Lombok island.

Riding a motto around Indonesia (where possible) is one of the best ways to explore the islands. Lombok island, which is east of Bali, has been such a nice place to take it easy and explore for a few days.

Driving from the ferry to Kuta, Lombok

Ferry from Bali to Lombok island

Inside the ferry from Bali to Lombok island with TVs to entertain their guess from 1:00 a.m. to 5:30 a.m.

There is a ferry at Padang Bai in the East of Bali that leaves every hour all day and all night to Lombok. Three of us took the 1:00 a.m. ferry to save on accommodation and paid 112,000 rupiahs (about $12 US) with our mottos.

We drove about an hour and a half from the ferry to south of the island in an area called Kuta, which was the most beautiful drive I have done by motto in Asia so far.

Compared to the traffic and countless tourists in Bali, Lombok has much less tourists unless you’re in an area called Senggigi and it is very quiet. The roads are nice and smooth, even in the small villages surprisingly and people aren’t driving at 90 km an hour passing each other.

Riding without a plan

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The wonderful kids who kept us company around their home.

While I was in Cambodia for eight months, I was constantly reminded that the best things happen when my days were unplanned. But sometimes my old habits kick in and I have this recurring urge to make sure I am going the right direction and make as few mistakes as possible. So thankfully for me, I’m constantly with locals, travelers or expats (people from other countries who live in Asia) who are pretty easygoing and remind me to just go with the flow and getting lost is not a bad thing.

In Vancouver, getting lost is often a frustrating experience, but often “getting lost” or not knowing exactly where you are often leads to the most unforgettable experience. In Lombok it’s really hard to actually lose your way completely on this small island. Before we started riding, I asked my friend Natalie if we should get a map but she said “Nah, it’s ok, I usually like to go places without a map and just asking people.”

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These are the first people we met when we stopped for a drink. The man on the left taught us a few words in Bahasa Susak, one of the several languages spoken in Lombok.

We originally planned to just spend the day on one of the other small islands and just make stops as we pleased along the way. We first stopped by a local market and I just drank something just to be around local people. As soon as we sat down, people around us start talking to us, even with the language barrier. Thankfully Natalie can speak some Bahasa.

The usual questions both in Bali and Lombok are, “Where you from? Are you married? Where you go? How long you in Indonesia?” Talking with them was a great way to start the day and we learned a few words in Bahasa Sasak, the indigenous language of the people in Lombok.

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The wonderful people who stopped to ask if we needed directions.

Even on this small island, there are several variations of the language across the island. Most people will at least understand, if not speak, Bahasa Indonesia, which is the common language across the country. When I said, “Bremebe kabar” which means “how are you?” in Bahasa Sasak to people just a few km outside of Kuta, many of them gave me blank stares. I’m pretty sure my pronunciation wasn’t that far off. But when I say the same thing in Kuta, everyone understands me.

Natalie and I guessed that some people speak one version of Sasak and others speak Bahasa in other parts of Lombok. It’s very interesting languages can differ so much just 10 km or less between different areas.
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After 30 minutes, we continued riding around and it was so relaxing and beautiful to just ride through the small roads and a variety of landscape. As we drive, we’re very obvious foreign visitors, people smile and say hello. This genuine and warming greeting reminds me a lot of the people, especially children, in Cambodian villages.

We took a break and sat on what we thought was an empty field with no one in sight. Before we know it, a few kids stared at us and started talking to us. Then just a few minutes later, there were 23 kids who surrounded us, laughed and spoke with us. Natalie spoke with many of them in Bahasa. This was definitely the highlight of my day.The kids were so friendly and funny. Unlike Kuta, the rest of the places we went to don’t have many tourists so people were very curious about us.

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We offered some of our snacks to them and I was surprised that all of them refused. Natalie told me in parts of the islands, when one person says “yes” or “no”, the group usually follows together.

We said goodbye the kids and continued driving around. People both in Lombok and Bali always come up to us as soon as we stop somewhere to ask us where we are going and if we need help. It’s so nice of them. On our way to one of the hills, we asked for directions to a few people and they all crowded around to talk to us because we were in a rural area that few travelers would go to. I could have easily spent the rest of the afternoon with them, they had lovely smiles like most people around the island.

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Another new friend we met.

While the local people in Kuta are very kind, particularly our guesthouse family at Dyah Homestay, they seem to be a bit less sociable than the people who are on the other parts of the island where there are less tourists. People in Kuta aren’t unfriendly at all, they don’t engage as much in conversation with us. Maybe because they are so used to having tourists around, and they may be even sick of them. I don’t think many of the tourists who would come to Lombok care to have a good conversation with the local people. Many just surf, smoke, eat, drink and keep to themselves.

When we were almost done riding after a few hours, Natalie asked me, “Do you still want a map?” And I said, “Hell no! We’ve met the most amazing people just riding around.”

Explore without a destination, you never know who you will meet and the surprising things the world will give you.

Guide for your 3-6 day stay in Siem Reap, Cambodia

I’ve met so many traveler’s in Laos and Thailand who are going to Siem Reap, Cambodia for a few days. I feel overwhelmed when they ask me for recommendations of what to do or where to eat because after spending 8 months in the country, there is much to experience beyond temples and food.

But to save you some hassle and research, here are my recommendations to enjoy the lovely town of Siem Reap, including non-tourist activities short-term visitors would likely not know about. This will be an evolving post, so if you have any must-see suggestions to add to this, please email me at marcokokotravels@gmail.com. All of the costs are in US dollars.

You can click on your section of choice:

ACCOMMODATION

Budget ($10.00 or under per night)

Photos of Happy Guest House, Siem Reap

This photo is courtesy of TripAdvisor

I don’t know anyone who has stayed at the following budget guesthouses but they’ve gotten some decent reviews on TripAdvisor.

Mid-range ($13.00 to $40.00 per night)

Photos of Golden Butterfly Villa, Siem Reap

This photos is courtesy of TripAdvisor

I highly recommend Golden Temple Villa  or their other guesthouse Golden Butterfly. Both buildings are within the same block of each other if you have budget for about $13.00 to $25.00 per night. My friend and I lived at Golden Temple Villa for a week and we ended becoming great friends with the staff. The service is fantastic, people are so friendly and you get the following services for free:

  • Bicycles: You can easily get around the centre of Siem Reap on a bike and this will save you tuk tuk money (tuk tuks are small motor taxis)
  • 30-minute Khmer massage
  • Tea, coffee, bananas and wifi
  • Picnic basket to take with you on your day trip to Angkor Wat (only at Golden Butterfly, not Golden Temple Villa)

While it may seem lame to eat at the restaurant of your guesthouse, I have to say, the food is amazing! For the price of $2.25 or just a bit more per dish, you get good quality, Khmer food with good flavor. I’d save a dinner meal to try your guesthouse dinner. You’ll definitely find me there on a regular basis.

Four and five star hotels ($40+)

This photos is courtesy of TripAdvisor

I have not stayed at these hotels but you can find amazing deals at agoda.com. My friend’s mom stayed at a four-star hotel for $40.00 a night when she booked through Agoda and the regular rate is $120.00.

TRANSPORT

Bicycles

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Cycling around Siem Reap

Bicycles is the second cheapest and easiest way of getting around the small city of Siem Reap next to walking. You can find shops and rent bicycles for as low as $1.00 a day. Some guesthouses may provide you with a free bicycle.

Tuk tuk

If you want to get out of the city, you can hire a tuk tuk off the streets. To get within the kilometer or two costs $1.50 to $2.00. Of course if they know you’re a tourist, they’ll try to charge you more at first, but you can do a friendly barter to a lower price. Rides from the Siem Reap airport to the center of town is $5.00.

To save you some hassle though, you can use one of these two tuk tuk drivers who are also my friends. I used them because they always drove for a good price and very punctual, including days that needed a 5 a.m. call. You can ask the guesthouse to make a call to one of these drivers. I’ve also met with them to tell them I am sending people their way and they can charge a fair price.

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Tin Tin (left) and Somroeun (right).

  • Tin Tin’s contact: 017865255 (Cambodian phone number), sotserm@yahoo.com
  • Somroeun’s phone number: 0977528869 (Cambodian phone number), samoeurn2008@yahoo.com

Of course, if you are happy with the service and have the ability to tip at the end, I would encourage it even it’s not a tipping culture. Please tell them Melissa from Canada says hello when you see them, I’d appreciate that.

DAY ACTIVITIES

Free Sombai tasting

Photo courtesy of Sombai

If you have at least an hour and a half to spare in your day, take the time to treat yourself to a free tasting of Sombai, a rice wine that is produced in Siem Reap. This product integrates local spices, fresh fruits and the talents of Cambodian artists who hand-paint the bottles.

Sombai was developed by a woman named Joelle from my native country, Mauritius, and her husband. They took time to fine-tune the ingredients and the packaging and successfully grew the business. Have a drink and enjoy a conversation with this wonderful couple.

Took book a tasting session, call +855 (0) 95 810 890. You can have them talk to your tuk tuk driver to give you directions for the tasting at their welcoming home just a ten-minute drive outside the city centre.

Get your Cambodian wedding photos done

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You don’t recognize me do you?

If you have a few hours to spare to get your hair and make up done (girls specifically), have fun doing the Cambodian wedding photo shoot. Most of the expats who live in Siem Reap do it, but you can get them done at many studios. Most of the costumes are $15.00 per person and $25.00 if you choose to be an Apsara.

Warning: If you are a guy and doing this shoot, know they charge $5.00 every time you change the jacket.

Get your Cambodian hair wash

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Most tourists would never know about the relaxing and refreshing Cambodian hair wash while they’re in Siem Reap. After a day at the temples, bike ride or if you simply want an affordable treat for yourself, you can get a wash, head massage and blow dry that lasts 30 minutes. You can bargain for $2, or more if you have a good experience.

I always go to the salon that is on the same small road as Golden Temple Villa. If you’re coming down Sivatha Road towards the roundabout, turn right where the sign says “Golden Temple Villa.” You will see two salons almost side by side on your left side, go to the second salon with the nail polish on display inside the store. You’ll know not to go to the first one anyway because they will try and charge you $5 and no bargain room.

Baray in the Angkor Wat area (best in dry season between December to May)

IMG_3532You can spend the morning or afternoon hanging out at the hammocks and water at Baray and include this trip as part of your temples day around Angkor Wat.

Many local people hangout by the Baray and you can buy drinks, BBQ, fruits and other merchandise in the area. It will of course be a bit more expensive so you can stock up and buy snacks in town and bring it with you. It costs about $1 US dollar for one spot with three hammocks. It’s a great place to see sunset as well.

King Oudayavarman II built this human-made reservoir one to keep water in rainy season and dry season for the farmers and people who llive nearby.

You can share the cost of a tuk tuk to get there or you can rent a bicycle, go straight down National Road 6 (the way towards Thailand) and cycle 14 km to get there. You will make a right turn at a blue sign and go all the way down until you reach the Baray. If you’re not sure of the way, you can ask people along the way and just say, “Baray?”

Landmine Museum

If you can spare at least two hours in your day, I highly recommend visiting the Landmine Museum where you can learn about Cambodia’s inspiring founder Aki Ra and the organization’s work. He is a former child soldier who spent almost 20 years in war. After the war, he has dedicated his life to clearing as many landmines, unexploded bombs and artillery rounds as he could find. He started working alone and diassembled landmines with his own hands and homemade tools, up to an incredible 300 landmines a day.

He was named one of CNN’s Top 10 Heroes in 2010. Not only has he accomplished a lot,  but he is an extremely modest man. I read an article about him in the museum and when the interviewer asked him what he will do once Cambodia is free of landmines, he said, “I will farm.”

You can take a tuk tuk to get to the museum. See the map here and learn more about the Landmine Relief Fund.

Temple Club cooking class on Pub Street

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As much as I try to avoid very touristy spots while I’m staying longer at a place, the Temple Club cooking class was well worth $10.00 when my friend and I went. Over the course of three hours, we walked through the old market, made spring rolls, several curries, soup, sauces and dessert, which was a lot of food! And we got to take the rest home. You can also sign up for the class through Golden Temple Villa or Golden Butterfly in addition to making a reservation at the restaurant.

Free tour of the Silk Farm

Photos of Angkor Silk Farm, Siem Reap

This photo is courtesy of TripAdvisor

You can take a free shuttle bus daily from Artisans D’Angkor that leaves at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. You can go there (on the same small road as Golden Temple Villa) and sign up for a bus ride. The ride is about 7 km away, the tour lasts for about 30 minutes then you can spend some time looking at all of he products made from the traditional methods of weaving. Getting there and back will be about 2 to 2.5 hours.

NIGHT ACTIVITIES

Cambodian Circus

This nightly show is definitely a must-see performance. By going, you’re supporting this generation of artists, all of whom have come from disadvantaged backgrounds, including orphans and former street children. You can pick up tickets at the venue for $15.00 before the show starts at 7:30 p.m. every day.

Road 60: the local hangout
Road 60If you want to get away from the usual tourists spots, you can take a 15-minute tuk tuk ride to get to a popular Cambodian hangout called Road 60. Two big strips of the road are reserved for street vendors, carnival games, rides and BBQ. I love coming here with my Cambodian friends because not many tourists hang out there and it is a place where local people hang out with their friends and family. Road 60 is open from around 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. every night. Click here for more pictures.

Free ladyboy show at the night market

On Monday to Friday, between 8:45 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. the beautiful ladyboys put on a funny show at the Night Market with the rooftop on Sivatha road. It’s the only market with a rooftop on that road. Walk to the end of the market where the stage is and you can get a massage while you enjoy the show.

Free Apsara Show at Temple Club

If you eat dinner at Golden Temple Club, price ranges from $2.50 to $7.00 per dish, you can see a free traditional Apsara dance show that runs from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Rosana ladyboy show

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This is the biggest ladyboy production in the city and a good show with costumes, lip-synching and beautiful ladyboys. The price for this show depends where you get the ticket, it can range from $12.00 to $30.00 depending on the agency or contact.

Clubs and Drinks

You can get in for free at the clubs Hip Hop (just over the bridge on the river) and Temple Club. If you want drinks and shots for $1.00, ask around for a place called Angkor Famous around the Pub Street area.

EATING AND DRINKING FOR GOOD CAUSES

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If you want to eat and drink while helping support valuable social programs, there are a range of options!

  • Green Star restaurant serves mostly Khmer food and was set up to support the Green Gecko Project which works with street children in Siem Reap. The project provides an education, skills, security, and health initiatives for former street children and their families.
  • Joe to Go is one of two businesses run by the NGO The Global Child that works with street children in Cambodia to give them and education and life skills.
  • Sala Bai is a hospitality training school for disadvantaged children from the villages around Siem Reap. They train about 100 students a year on hospitality skills including skills like waiting tables, cooking and housekeeping, Sala Baï has a proud record of finding work for every single one of its 700 graduates.
  • Soria Moria Boutique Hotel won a Condé Nast Traveler award for excellence in social and environmental responsibility. For deals at their restaurant, check on their $3.00 buffet breakfasts in the morning, their $1.00 tapas and drinks on Wednesdays, and 50% off their menu every Thursday. If you’re planning to go on Wednesday, though, call to book a reservation because it gets busy quickly. One of many impressive aspects of Soria Moria is all of their employees come from disadvantaged backgrounds and own 51% of the hotel. 14 of their staff have graduated from college thanks to their scholarship program. Check out more articles from Soria Moria.
  • The Haven is a training restaurant for vulnerable young adults from orphanages and safe shelters, as well as underprivileged young adults from very rural poor areas. The food is delicious and the restaurant has a very homey feel to it.

EATING ON A BUDGET ($1.50 to $3.50)

Brown Rice

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My Cambodian friends opened up this fantastic restaurant that serves a variety of Cambodian and Western dishes as well as great cocktails. Brown Rice is a five-minute bicycle ride from the centre of town. You can tell the tuk tuk driver it is 200 metres after Pannasasra University of Cambodia (or just say PUC) if you are driving from Wat Bo road and it will be on the right side of the road. If the driver still has trouble, he can call one of the restaurants’ numbers for directions: 017886422, 0979064300, 092669645, 017370132. Click here to see the map.

Phai San BBQ

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You can find small Khmer restaurants around the city that have great portions and prices. If you’re close to the centre of town, you can find about 10 of these restaurants side by side by the roundabout of Sivatha road on the same street as Golden Temple Villa.

I keep going back to my friends at Phai San BBQ, the second restaurant on your right if you are walking from Golden Temple Villa to Sivatha road. While I can’t comment on the food of the other places so much, Phai San makes fantastic fruit shakes for $1.00 and mix and match your fruits!

RECOMMENDED RESTAURANTS FOR FOOD BETWEEN $2.00 TO $8.00

La Boulangerie

Photos of La Boulangerie-Cafe, Siem Reap

This photo is courtesy of TripAdvisor

I love going to this café to relax with friends, use wifi and their delicious range of food from panninis, shakes and pizza. My friend Davann is Cambodian and he studied culinary school in France for a few years and returned to Cambodia to open this successful café. He makes fresh pastries for hotels as well with his well-trained bakers.

Mie Café

Photos of Mie Cafe, Siem Reap

This Photo is courtesy of TripAdvisor

This restaurant was started by a Cambodian man who began as a dishwasher. He got a scholarship to study in Switzerland and opened this restaurant with high quality food. I haven’t yet tried the desserts but I hear fantastic things about them.

RECOMMENDED FOR FOOD BETWEEN $5.00 to $25.00

  1. Nest Angkor Cafe Bar
Photos of Nest Angkor Cafe Bar, Siem Reap

This photo is courtesy of TripAdvisor

This has one of the best flavours of all the restaurants I’ve tried in Siem Reap. We tried the lasagna, steak, lobster and it was all good all the time.

Le Malraux

Photos of Le Malraux, Siem Reap

This photo is courtesy of TripAdvisor

The food at this restaurant has great flavour.

Good travel karma?

DSC_0785I don’t believe it too much in superstition but I feel like karma does affect my life quite a bit. Karma is the idea that if you do good to other people, good things will happen to you. If you do bad things, then bad things can come your way. This is an oversimplified version of the concept, but that’s the basic idea.

I can think of many times in my life where if I did or said something that I knew was bad, karma would keep me in check and something bad would happen to me not too long after. Often it would be similar to what I did to someone else.

I feel like good karma has been happening all at once the past two weeks and the timing makes sense because I’ve intentionally tried to help out friends for the sake of it and expect nothing in return in the past month. I believe when we do things without expectation of someone paying us back and do it from our hearts, good things will happen in our lives.

My friends have been extra generous to me in Cambodia, Thailand and now in Bali. They have always been kind since I’ve been in Asia, but the same friends continue to surprise me. My friends’ small restaurant isn’t making a huge profit but because I brought people to their restaurant, they wouldn’t let me pay for my meal. When I arrived in Thailand for the night, my friend not only took time to meet me, but she hung out with me for the night even after having bad food poisoning the day before and still recovering. And now I’m staying at the nicest accommodation I’ve been in since I came to Asia in March and wondering what I’ve done to deserve it. One friend was sweet and said, “You are a genuinely nice person, what you see is a reflection of what you radiate.”

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My Thai friend Poly who was so nice to keep me company in Bangkok before I went to the airport, even after she was really sick the day before! So nice.

Right now, I’m being so generously hosted by my friend Kathy whom I met in Siem Reap at my friends’ small Khmer restaurant. We just started chatting casually a few months ago, which happens often around Cambodia when you meet travelers and I offered to take her around Siem Reap during the evenings for the few days she was in town since she didn’t know anyone. Before we said goodbye, she said I could visit her while she was in Bali studying for a semester. And me being me, if someone genuinely invites me somewhere, I’m going.

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With my friend Kathy who is kindly hosting me for two weeks in Bali, Indonesia. Getting ready for whitewater rafting, surfer parties, temple exploration, mottos and much more.

She was so nice to pick me up at the airport and ask her housemates if I could stay at their place. I was just planning to get a guesthouse originally. I thought she and the other housemates were staying at a simple shared house. But then I arrive and discover it is a beautiful villa with a pool and outdoor kitchen! Not only that, they have hired staff to wash dishes and clean the rooms every day. Good travel karma?

Of course I offered to pay for my share for the time I’m staying with them but Kathy wouldn’t let me. She barely let me pay for her lunch the first day I arrived. I told her today, “It doesn’t seem like a fair exchange for me to stay here for two weeks when I just took you around for two nights and she said, “Don’t worry about it.”

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The villa’s pool

The generosity people have shown me the past week keeps me motivated to also be generous with other people without expectation of anything in return. When I asked my  friend, “Why are Cambodians so generous?” She simply replied, “It’s in our culture. We like to give from our hearts.” This will motivate me to pay it forward.

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Yep, these are pet ducks. “Who let the ducks out?”

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Outdoor kitchen where I will attempt to make curry next week.

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Living room #1 of 2

“You look fatter”

Sometimes it’s funny to watch Western people look mortified when they are called fat by some Asian people, many of whom are notorious for being very direct when it comes to commenting on people’s weight.

When I came back to Siem Reap, I was walking to the market with a friend and she just turned around to me and said, “You look fatter.” I started laughing and asked, “How can you tell? From my stomach or my face.” And she said, “Your face.”

Just last week, I had the following conversation with my close Khmer friend:

Friend: “Do Westerners not like to be called fat?”

Me: “No”

Friend: “Why?” I laughed.

Me: “When Cambodians say it, it doesn’t mean fat is a bad thing right?”

Friend: “No no no. For Khmer people, it doesn’t mean it’s bad. It can mean they look healthy or eating well. It’s the same as saying healthy.”

Me: “Oh ok. Because in our countries, when someone is called fat, it’s usually negative and associated with people being unhealthy or lazy.”

Being called fat by Cambodians is not meant to be an insult. Small talk conversation also includes asking about your age and if you’re married. It’s funny to me more than anything.

Even before I came to Cambodia, I never really understood why people take age so seriously. Aging is part of life and there is a natural beauty and wisdom that comes along with it. Plus, I know plenty of people in their 50s and 60s who are way more fit than me and people in their 20s that are dumber than some 14-year-olds I’ve met. Age is really just a number and I think there are more important things to worry about than our age.

When tourists get priority over mothers and babies

It was on my adventure bucket list to do zip-lining and I heard decent things about The Gibbon Experience in Huay Xai in northern Laos. So I went up to do the three-day trip that combines trekking, zip-lining and sleeping in the jungle treehouse. Yes, every child’s dream right?

I have A LOT of recommendations that I will send to the company on how to improve the tour and make it more worthwhile for what people pay. But what upset me more was on our truck ride to the jungle, I didn’t notice right away that a mother was sitting with her few-month old baby and young son were sitting outside the truck with strong winds and rain coming soon while three of us foreigners were in the sheltered part of the truck.

While the driver was getting gas, my friend and I asked him to ask the mother if she and her kids wanted to sit inside the truck in Laos. He just said, “No, it may rain, they are ok.” I didn’t believe him, so I turned to the mother and child and gestured, “Do you want to sit inside the truck?” And she immediately nodded her head and went to the back.

The driver looked displeased and said, “It may rain,” and I said, “I’ve been in Siem Reap with flooding, I can handle a little wind and rain. She has a baby who could get sick with this weather.”

What irritated me even more is on the two-hour drive to the jungle, the driver stopped by his village and we learned he himself has a wife with two kids and felt no sympathy for the mother and child in his car or to bother to ask if we can all squeeze in so they wouldn’t be exposed to the cold and rain. My friend also told me while he was seeing his family that the little boy in the car was smiling and playful until the driver yelled at them after the baby took a pee. To me, that’s just karma at it’s best.

When I went to say hi to the mom and the boy, they looked so sad and the boy didn’t want to engage anymore. They looked traumatized from the way the driver spoke to them.

Do tourists usually get priority over locals or was this another example of an aspect of Laos culture where women and their children are not as highly valued?

Unfortunately, I’ve learned in many parts of Laos, in the name of tradition and culture, Laos women do not have as much power in decision-making, especially once they are married. Often once women marry, they stop their education. I was very sad to hear it is still common for children as young as 13 years old to get married.

On an upside though, I have met a few strong women during my two weeks in Luang Prabang and Huay Xai who will be great role models for women of this generation. Change in cultural attitudes will come from within the communities as these women raise their children with the same openness and assertiveness they possess.