A long drive on three busses, a boarder crossing on foot and a service station seafood fried rice later and we arrived in another culture filled, amber city filled with tantalising smells, the sounds of horns and beautiful colours. Cambodia’s former capital, Siem Riep and home to one of the seven wonders of the world: Angkor Wat.
The first night we visited a heritage family, set in the rural countryside and rice fields, the family showed us around their village as the children ran alongside us, the sun set in the distance over miles of countryside and palm trees. Tuk tuks and mopeds zipped in and out of the dirt tracks as we walked past emaciated cattle and small shacks filled with children crammed around one television. Such happiness from people who have so little, their passion to learn English and build a better life for themselves and their families is enough to keep the smiles on their faces, no need for material goods.
They served us a delicious meal of coconut curry, ginger chicken, pork noodles and sticky rice as we sat cross legged on the floor under a tin roof in their garden. We played Duck Duck Goose with the village children before rising at 4am to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat.
Through the pitch black, we trecked through the treacherous landscape, over blocks on a river and fought through crowds for the best view of the temple. Hundreds of people circled the lake in the darkness.
We later visited The Tomb Raider temple and dined on street food at the night markets before a very long bus journey to Cambodia’s capital Phnom Pen. A large, less touristy city of large luxury hotels, a long colourful river and quaint street vendors. We ate at a beautiful family ran restaurant along the river, a friendly young woman ran it who used children as her staff, they were working to improve their English and send money back to their poor families who lived in the villages.
A tuk tuk took us to the Killing Fields. An experience that leaves you truly speechless. Arriving at a large complex, it almost looks like the entrance to a beautiful park. You’re given earphones and a numbered machine which responds to posts throughout. Walking around seeing large graves, cases of bones while hearing horrific scenes of torture such a beautiful race endured only a short time ago was truly a moving experience. The lakes, birds and flowers make it almost feel even eerier, as though nature continues despite the events that took place.
The following days consisted of driving to and staying in the beautiful ocean town of Sihanoukville. Despite its’ touristy nature of souvenir shops and Western restaurants, we still managed to soak up the Cambodian atmosphere by dining on delicious BBQ seafood sat in large cushioned chairs as the ocean lapped around our feet. We walked through the streets where the locals would crouch down with traditional carrying poles, each end filled with burning coals as they cooked tiny squids on slats. Leaving Cambodia, we took a long drive across the border to Vietnam.
I fell in love with Hanoi when I went a few years ago so travelling to the Mekong Delta was a delight for me. Fields of lush greenery, corrugated homes lined along the rivers and colourful temples dotted through the streets. Their designs fascinate me, their huge wooden fishing nets, houses on stilts and small motor propelled wooden boats show true human resilience and intelligence. A race that use their hands, instinct, land-provided materials and intellect to build practical and beautiful structures that stand the test of time far longer than our western appliances and machinery – and all without the use of Google!
The houses that line the embankment of the river are corrugated tin huts raised on wooden stilts, no larger than 10×10 feet, with open doors to the street, one large box television and a hammock inside with families huddled around giggling at the screens as mopeds skid past outside. Vietnam has a large coffee drinking culture and every cafe we sped past had hammocks hanging from the ceilings as alternatives to chairs.
We stayed with a local family on the Mekong Delta, they showed us how to cook traditional Vietnamese pork pancakes. They cooked rice, spring rolls and pumpkin for us before we slept in outdoor huts by the river.
Hi Chi Min city was out next stop. A city lined with tall narrow french buildings and smattered with huge, colourful skyscrapers. Japanese restaurants, Fanny’s French ice cream Parlours, prostitute clubs and brightly lit markets fill this dynamic, coffee fuelled Saigon. The rows of buildings seem to stretch to the sky with bar upon restaurant stacked on top of one another – the higher you look the more seem to appear.
Rooftop bars, trees on top of buildings and as we snuck down an alleyway we stumbled upon a hidden gem, a food court with selections of delicious delicacies in a Japanese Zen garden ambience. Strong, sweet coffee and ginger tea was enjoyed sitting out on the rooftop overlooking the hustling city and racing mopeds.
I walked down the river, climbing over the gates to stand and watch the skyline from the boat dock. Hundreds of families and couples drinking beers, coffees and milk teas while resting in deck chairs along the banks, laughing, playing cards and relaxing. The lack of western drinking aggression, the warm climate and friendly smiles from everyone never fails to make you feel safe and content.
Navigating through more crazy markets, eating delicious homemade passion fruit ice creams and buying cheap souvenirs was the perfect way to say goodbye to a beautiful, dynamic city filled with culture, politics and wonderful food!