I made yet another trip to this beautiful country. I cannot seem to get enough of Cambodia. Ever since I left Asia I am craving for it like crazy. So when I had opportunity to take few days of from work, it was an obvious destination. I have plenty of friends there I wanted to see as well. Luckily, my holiday got approved at work rather quickly and I booked my flight immediately. Excitement was growing daily and I impatiently waited for the departure day.
First days in Phnom Penh
I took a flight via Kuala Lumpur, where I spent lovely 12 hours on the airport. Nothing beats dozing of on hard airport floor or really uncomfortable airport seats. Anyway, I landed in Phnom Penh full of energy. Cambodia feels like second home to me since I have been here so many times. Everything I have to do on arrival feels sort of automated and natural. I don't need to think, I just go and take care of stuff I need. Like visa, sim card etc. Soon I get on tuk-tuk and of I go to the hotel. All feels familiar. Heat, humidity, dirt, dust and traffic...yes I am back and I am loving it.
I planed to visit friends in Phnom Penh, visit Cambodian Childrens Fund (CCF) and I scheduled 3 days in Siem Reap. I haven't been there since my first visit to Cambodia in 2009, so I was obviously curious how things changed. I booked a return bus trip to Siem Reap. Giant Ibis bus company was my top pick and I highly recommend them to everybody who wants to make the same trip. They also offer different destinations. Absolutely hassle fee with good service and they are on time. Well worth USD $15 per trip.
Every major thing was booked prior coming to Cambodia. Basically, I planned to stay in Phnom Penh with exception of 3 day trip to Siem Reap. First two days were scheduled in Phnom Penh just to soak in the atmosphere again. I visited all the familiar places. Especially Kandal market, which I visit on every occasion, I am in town. It is just at the doorstep from hotel. There is a very good place to eat as well. It's local, thus very cheap but it has some very tasty khmer food. Cheapest menu item will cost you about USD $2. It's a steal, right? Rain is nowhere to be found even though it's rainy season. There is plenty of dust though. Heat is relentless and good cheap and cold beer is always welcome. Local brew is called Angkor(obviously) and it is quite tasty. And that comes from a no beer person. It seems to be also cheaper here, than water and I am not kidding. Especially during Happy Hour which spans into several hours actually.
The city seems little shaken by recent political developments. Kem Lay, A prominent Cambodian political analyst known for his strong criticism of the Government has been shot dead in the capital, Phnom Penh. In bright daylight. We can speculate who is behind this assassination but people who know a thing or two about current political climate in Cambodia might have a clue. Anyway, I do not want to dig into politics, I just wanted to point out higher number of security personal, police and military as funeral was scheduled during my stay in the town.
Outing with Srey Vy and CCF food program
Of course I had to do my usual outing with Srey Vy. It's been few years since I went to see her first time. She was a little girl back then but now she has grown into a nice young lady. Part of our outing is visiting Kid's City, a venue in Phnom Penh, with various attractions for children but my guess is that next time it won't cut it. Simple because she just grow out of these kid related activities. Young ladies have already different interests. I definitely cannot go wrong taking her out shopping though. They always enjoy it a lot. I say they, because she usually brings her older sister along. It is interesting to watch them walking around Central Market, looking through various clothing and shoe offerings. I guess women are same everywhere in this regard :) After few hours we said our goodbyes and I was ready for another treat. I was about to join CCF food program. CCF facilities are always fun places full of energy. We were about to distribute dinner for the little kids from CCF. I watched them as they lined up to wash their hands and then each of them got a cup of milk. After short game, they were each given a bowl of nutritious porridge with some meat, veggies and some spice. It was fun. Throwback to my army days and duty in the kitchen. This one was so much more satisfying though. Here is so short shaky mobile video.
I met some amazing youngsters who oversaw the whole "operation diner". A young lady probably age of 12-13 walked around like a commander in chief, making sure everything is going smoothly. She checked on me as well as I filled the bowls with porridge. With smile and confidence she glanced on me saying "Good job Richard" and then turned her attention to other matters. It feels strange to hear that from 12 year old :) But it is also great to see that kids, who were living in unimaginable conditions just short time ago, are taking responsibility and helping out to turn the fortune of these kids around. Good example of this is Srey Mom, now in her 20's. Firs few year of her lives we really bad by any measure. After all, let's hear her story from her in this video. All in al it was an awesome and enjoyable day.
In Siem Reap
Siem Reap got much busier, than it was 6 years ago. That time, already a center of tourism, it still felt like a sleepy town. These days streets are bustling and full of life. Of course the Angkor temples are the main reason visitors come here and for most of the population this attraction and subsequently tourist dollar is the sole source of income. There are lot more paved roads in the area, some centres have parking lots and restaurants built around them. Especially area around Banteay Srei temple. I remember the dusty road leading to it. Now, there is a huge paved parking lot, tourist and information boutiques and restaurants. I think it takes little bit away from the charm and mystique of the temples. Number of visitors is staggering. There is a need to keep the environment intact. With all those cars, busses and tuk-tuks coming in, the parking lot makes sense. Sadly, most people came here to use the temples as a background for selfies. I doubt they even had a look at the beauty of the temple carvings. It is sad. What is even more disturbing though, is total disrespect of some tourists towards local people, environment and the temples. If there is a huge sign on the temple prohibiting touching carvings, nobody should touch them. That's common sense, right? But no, some people don't respect the sign, even though it is also printed in their mother tongue. Almost always, these troublemakers come from one particular country. Sorry for rant, but it makes me furious.
When it comes to photography in Angkor area, it is really challenging these days. There is always somebody in a way. Of course the temple is not mine, so I have to patiently wait, till the visitors leave the view. More often the not, it mean waiting minutes till all the selfies are shot. On top of that, sunlight is incredibly harsh except very early morning. Dynamic range between the lit areas and shadows, is extreme. If you are crazy enough to haul a tripod in this heat, you can bracket the exposure and combine them later in post. You can of course do it handheld, if you can be steady enough. Since the temples are mostly set in the jungle, infrared (IR) photography actually makes a good sense in this case. Harsh sun is great for IR, also trees around temples give lot of opportunity to get those whiteish glowing leaves. I used IR filter, which forced me to take long exposure. That solves another problem. Moving people will disappear from the shot. Of course for this the tripod is also needed but for example a Joby Gorillapod, might often do the trick and it is much lighter. Really the most beautiful lights happens from 5am till 7am. Anything after that is just too harsh. And then of course sunset is nice too at the cost of more people around temples. Although morning hours are crowded in Angkor Wat, other temples might be completely empty. My advice is to do your usual Angkor Wat sunrise on the first day. Then, on following days try to convince your tuk-tuk driver to have an early start the following day and visit the other temples as early as possible. Some of them might be closed for entry but still you can take plenty of reasonable shots outside.
Pub street in Siem Reap is the tourist hub. I do not fancy it too much. I also stayed of the city center in small guesthouse further away from buzz. There is a place in town I like. It is the Preah Ang Chek Preah Ang Chorm Shrine. Similarly as in Phnom Penh's Preah Ang Dorngkeu, people come here to burn incense sticks and say their prayers. It is a nice spiritual place.
I also reserved one morning to visit floating village at Tonle Sap. Initially, I tried to convince my tuk-tuk driver to hook me up with some real fisherman and go out fishing to the lake, but it was not successful. Instead I got standard really overpriced boat trip around village. I paid USD $30 for boat for 2 hours. Since I was only one on the boat, I covered the price myself, but it is a huge rip off. My advice to anybody is to skip this trip. I was alone because I went early. As I came back from the boat trip (which didn't even take full 2 hrs), I was meeting hordes of people going on the same trip. And on top of $30 the boat guys asked for tip. I do not mind tipping people, but in this case it was totally undeserved. Don't do this trip. Unless you really want to see it. And in that case, as early as possible Account for about 40min tuk-tuk drive from Siem Reap to the banks of Tonle Sap lake.
I highly recommend renting a bicycle and explore the area on your own. I know it is no fun to cycle long distances in the heat but you might be rewarded. One day after coming back from temples, I hired a bicycle, picked a random road out of the city and I cycled few kilometres. Once I was far behind the city, I turned and left the main road. Again, this was not planned, it was at totally random spot. My gut feeling told me, it might lead me somewhere. Guided purely by feeling and intuition, I followed the red dirt road. It didn't disappoint me. I ended up in this beautiful, undisturbed, picturesque village. Smaller and bigger traditional Khmer houses were scattered along the road surrounded by green rice paddies. Every house had some sort of domestic animals. And there were nice and smiling people. As I was passing by, I often heard "hello" so I replied back. In Khmer language.
I cannot stress enough the importance, or rather advantages of learing few basic phrases in local language, wherever you go. Basic greetings, counting to ten, asking "how are you" etc. It makes a WORLD of difference. Trust me on this. Everybody can learn 10 or so words. The smiles, the surprise on their faces, it is definitely worth it. People get much more relaxed, talkative. Especially those that are not so exposed to foreigners, like people in this particular village. I really enjoyed just to sit down and observe their life. I saw men working in paddies, herding water buffaloes, mothers attending to kids, kids playing in the field. They were curious enough to come to me. And they were willing to be photographed. After I showed them the picture at the back of the camera, they bursted into loud genuine laughter and they wanted more. People make and break the country and these village people are beautiful. Despite difficulties they have to go through in their daily life, they are still smiling. I love this country.
Back to Phnom Penh
My stay at Siem Reap was short, but full of nice moments. It was time to get back to the capital. I took a night bus (with Giant Ibis again), which was pretty good. It is a sleeper bus so I could stretch my legs and have good few hours sleep. I think, this was one of the very few occasions of me sleeping in a vehicle, because usually I cannot sleep in any. Be it car, bus or plane. Arriving to Phnom Penh about 7am morning made me worry I have to wait till noon for my hotel room. Luckily my booked room wasn't occupied and they allowed early checkin. Shower and few more hours of sleep and I was reborn.
Next day I decided to visit Oudong, the ancient capital of Cambodia. I have been there few years back and I thought it would be nice to visit it again. It takes about 2hrs by tuk-tuk as it is located about 50km from Phnom Penh. Road is bumpy and very dusty. So tuk-tuk is for those more adventurous. I's rather recommend a taxi. Not much has changed in Oudong since my last visit. The temple on the hill is the same and unchanged, but countryside around has some more industrial developments. There is number of food stalls on the foothill where you can buy refreshments ranging from western beverages to local khmer specialities like roasted cockroaches. As always, people are kind and smiling.
Last day I met few of my friends. It is always great to catch up with them. I went to visit my friend Ratny and her 1 month old gorgeous son Harry. I posted few pictures in the previous post. One of my favourite places is Riverside. Usually I spend lot of time here, just hanging around. There is always something interesting going on. People walking, running, exercising dancing or just having a picnic. You name it. Often, I bump into somebody, who just want to chat. It's great. I like to spend time around Preah Ang Dorngkeu Shrine near Royal Palace. People come here to pray and there are plenty of photographic opportunities.
The day of departure is always little sad. There are few friends I didn't have chance to catch up with. But holiday is over and I have to fly off. I hate leaving this country. Who knows when I can visit again. The only thing I am sure of, I will come back. So long Cambodia. You delivered. You always do.
Hope you like the attached photos. I tried to make some sort of selection as it doesn't make sense to show all. Photographs are taken by Fujifilm X100S and Fujifilm X-T1 coupled with 14mm, 56mm and 50-14mm lenses, developed in Lightroom and Silver Efex Pro.