We spent 10 days in Siem Reap in Cambodia in early August. People that had been there before thought that was quite a long time and the locals who asked us how long we were there for were also surprised. It turned out to be a good decision as we really felt like we had plenty of time to explore and get to know the place.
Cambodia is a country located in the southern portion of the Indochina peninsula in Southeast Asia. It is 181,035 square kilometres (69,898 square miles) in area, bordered by Thailand to the northwest, Laos to the northeast, Vietnam to the east and the Gulf of Thailand to the southwest.
The sovereign state of Cambodia has a population of over 15 million. The official religion is Theravada Buddhism, practised by approximately 95 percent of the population. Cambodia’s minority groups include Vietnamese, Chinese, Chams and 30 hill tribes. The capital and largest city is Phnom Penh, the political, economic and cultural centre of Cambodia. The kingdom is an elective constitutional monarchy with a monarch, currently Norodom Sihamoni, chosen by the Royal Throne Council as head of state. The head of government is the Prime Minister, currently Hun Sen, the longest serving non-royal leader in Southeast Asia, ruling Cambodia since 1985.
See below for more detail on the History of Cambodia
Siem Reap was little more than a village when French explorers such as Henri Mouhot “re-discovered” Angkor in the 19th century. However, European visitors had visited the temple ruins much earlier, including António da Madalena in 1586″. In 1901, the École française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO) (‘French School of the Far East’) began a long association with Angkor by funding an expedition into Siam to the Bayon. The EFEO took responsibility for clearing and restoring the whole site. In the same year, the first Western tourists arrived in Angkor, a total of about 200 in just three months. Angkor had been “rescued” from the jungle and was assuming its place in the modern world.
With the acquisition of Angkor by the French in 1907 following a Franco-Siamese treaty, Siem Reap began to grow. The Grand Hotel d’Angkor opened in 1929 and the temples of Angkor became one of Asia’s leading draws until the late-1960s, when civil war kept tourists away. In 1975, the population of Siem Reap, like all other Cambodian cities and towns, was driven into the countryside by the communist Khmer Rouge.
Siem Reap’s recent history is coloured by the horror of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. Since Pol Pot‘s death in 1998, however, relative stability and a rejuvenated tourist industry have revived the city and province.
Siem Reap now serves as a small gateway town to the world heritage site of Angkor Wat. In recent years, the city has regularly ranked in the top ten for “Best Destination” lists produced by entities such as TripAdvisor, Wanderlust Magazine, and Travel+Leisure.
The Khmer Rouge
The Khmer Rouge was Cambodia’s ruling party from 1975 to 1979 and was responsible for one of the worst mass killings during the 20th Century.
Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the dreaded Khmer Rouge brought Cambodia back to the old ages by forcing millions of people to leave the city and work on farms in the countryside. The communists believed that cities were tools towards capitalism. So in order to create the ideal communist society, people had to live and work in the rural areas as peasants. Peasants were viewed by the Khmer Rouge as ideal communists for the Cambodian state as they were simple, uneducated and hardworking.
The evacuation of the city was the first of many radical steps taken by the Khmer Rouge. The organization then dictated the life of every Cambodian citizen with rules on religion, money and private ownership. Communications with the outside world were eliminated and family relationships were dismantled. All rights and responsibilities were eradicated as Pol Pot declared the nation to start at “Year Zero”, signifying the end of Cambodia’s 2000-year history. The Khmer Rouge arrested any person suspected of having relations with the former government or foreign affairs. Many of these arrested people were ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Chams, Cambodian Christians and Buddhist monks.
The assassinations occurred in great numbers as it happened everywhere in the country. Most of those who were executed were buried in mass graves. To save on ammunition, executions were commonly done using hammers, spades, axe handles or sharpened bamboo sticks. Many victims were even forced to dig their own graves. The Khmer Rouge killed almost 25% of the country’s population. Almost 2 million people of Cambodia were massacred or died from diseases, starvation, exhaustion and forced labor.
The Khmer Rouge command was finally overthrown in 1979 by the invasion of the Vietnamese troops after many violent border confrontations. In the years that followed, Cambodia went through a process of healing and reopening to the international community. Survivors told their stories as the 1980s Hollywood movie “The Killing Fields” brought the Khmer Rouge victims to worldwide attention.
Exploring Siem Reap
Steve arrived the night before I did as I was coming from Switzerland. He had been picked up by transport arranged by the hotel which was a tuk-tuk Cambodian style – a scooter pulling a chariot. He described it as being picked up in a trailer 😂. He organised some transport for me the next day and I was not quite sure what to expect but actually I loved my chariot and enjoyed cruising around in them for the rest of our stay.
We went into town for some dinner that night to an area called Pub Street – Steve’s idea of heaven. It is an area where two roads meet at an intersection and at 5pm they are closed off to the traffic so it becomes a pedestrian only area. There are lots of bars and restaurants and the atmosphere is very buzzy. The beer in most bars is USD0.50 cents and cocktails are about USD2.50. We had a great dinner and were very impressed with the range of eating options and the reasonable prices. They did fresh spring rolls like they do in Vietnam so I was in heaven.
The next morning we spent relaxing by the pool which was nice. I did some research on cafes and good coffee and The Little Red Fox Espresso came up. We got dropped off in Pub Street and I navigated my way to Hup Guan Street and discovered an area called Kandal Village. The ‘Village’ has a few small businesses, including a few cafes, an Italian trattoria, a silk textile shop, spa, and a handful of boutiques and concept stores. It was so peaceful and I loved the intimacy of all the shops.
Kandal Village grew one small business at a time and slowly earned a reputation of being a peaceful place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and tuk-yuk drivers. The business owners got together and voted on a name – they chose Kandal Village because almost all the tuk-tuk drivers were familiar with the name – which means ‘middle’ and it is located behind the old Phsar Kandal which is the Centre Market.
Rather than a website, blog or app, which would be the first step for most place-branders, the group chose an endearingly old-fashioned tool of persuasion to promote the emerging new district – a petite paper brochure featuring all the businesses, which they distributed around Siem Reap. Of course social media has now put it on the digital map.
What I was soon to discover in Siem Reap was that there are a number of socially responsible businesses putting a huge emphasis on the training and well being of their staff who are predominantly young. Over fifty percent of the population in Cambodia is under 22 years old due to the atrocities the people endured in the 1970’s so they are a vital part of the future of the country.
Being a lover of good food and coffee I wanted to visit and support all these places and I wasn’t dissapointed in any of them and was super impressed with the staff who are friendly, speak good english and appear to really want to better themselves. Interestingly enough most of these places were started and are owned by expats who then employ and entrust the Cambodian people to run them – they are the ones promoting the advancement of the young people who are willingly responding.
We engaged in conversations with some of the people we met about the political state of their country and without being too forthcoming there was a definite unfavourable flavour emerging. It is widely known that Cambodia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world and although they have a ‘democratically’ elected Government there are many questions as to the validity of the election process. I don’t have an in-depth knowledge of this but my impressions are that the people are trying very hard to make the most of what they have without too much input or assistance from the Government and that there are a lot of foreign organisations trying their best to help the people to be able to help themselves.
See below for some of these amazing cafes, restaurants and socially conscious organisations making a difference to the lives of the local people in Siem Reap that we visited.
City Tour & Floating Village
On the first night in Pub Street we met a tuk-tuk driver called TukTuk Charlie and he was quite a character. He said he could take us on a city tour one day if we liked and gave us his business card – very professional 😉
We got in contact with him and on Thursday he came to pick us up from the hotel. We passed the small killing field close to the centre of town near the Wat Thmey Temple.
The Wat Thmey Temple is a live monastery where a large Stupa memorial can be found. The stupa has glass sides filled with the skulls and bones of those who died during the Khmer Rouge. These have been diligently gathered by local residents in memory of their families and friends. The Wat Thmei Temple is the spot of one of the terrible killing sites where hundreds of Cambodian civilians were tortured, killed and buried. The mass of bones and skulls at the stupa shows the cruel behavior of the Khmer Rouge at the time.
We also went past the children’s hospital Kantha Bopha, which had been founded by a Swiss paediatrician called Beat Richner. After working in Zurich’s children’s hospital he took up a role with the Swiss Red Cross and travelled to Cambodia just prior to the Khmer Rouge reign in 1975. He returned to Cambodia in 1992 and dedicated the rest of his life to building and running the 5 children’s hospitals that are now in Cambodia where children are treated free of charge.
See below for some more information about a man who can only be described as a hero and humanitarian of the highest order.
We then passed the King Master Statue which is a popular shrine for Cambodians to come and pray and you’ll often see many people praying and cleaning the area. On the other side of the street is a pagoda called Preah Ang Chek.
Opposite this area is the royal residence which is the king’s official residence when he is in town. You might hear some people refer to it as the Royal Palace, but it is a residence and not a palace.
We then headed about 30 minutes out of town to see the floating village. We weren’t quite sure what to expect and when we got there we saw a number of buses and quite a few people. We bought our tickets and headed out to the wharf which was quite chaotic with all these boats. It turned out a friend of Charlie’s worked on one of the boats so we went on that boat and it ended up with just us on the boat with Charlie, the boat owner and his friend. First stop was the bottle store 🤔 which was a shack on the side of the river where the beer was stored in ice.
The boys, including Steve all cracked open a beer as we cruised up the channel filled with very brown and murky water into the Lake. I had everything crossed that the boat was lake worthy 🤞.
We then entered the lake proper which is called Tonlé Sap, Khmer for ‘vast body of fresh water’ and more commonly translated as ‘great lake’. It is a combined lake and river system of major importance to Cambodia. It is in the heart of Cambodia and is home to many floating villages. The area around the Tonle Sap including the province of Siem Reap is part of the greater Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve.
We saw little boats buzzing everywhere – this is how the lake people who live in the floating villages get around. There are schools, shops, cafes (tourist orientated) and even farms located on the lake – just like a village on land only it is on water.
I was talking to my friend Daniel who runs Childs Dream in Thailand after our trip and he was telling me that they have built a high school on the lake along with two boarding houses – one for girls and one for boys. Prior to this there was no high school on the lake meaning unless the lake children went and lived in town they didn’t continue with their higher education. The school has 200 students, some of who travel by boat daily to get there. Those that live too far away can stay in the boarding houses. Childs Dream raised the money to build these facilities but the financial management and daily operations are handled by the Cambodian Government.
For more information about what Childs Dream does in Cambodia check this link out https://childsdream.org/cambodia/
Five provinces circle the area of Tonle Sap Lake. More than three million people inhabit the lake and surrounding banks and 90% of them earn a living by catching fish or are involved in some sort of agriculture.
The Lake is the largest body of fresh (although I would seriously question the term ‘fresh’ 😂) water in South East Asia. It’s dimensions change depending on the monsoon and dry season. During the monsoon season between June and October, the lake is filled by water flowing from the Mekong and is 14 meters in depth with a surface of 10,000 square kilometres . In the dry season from November to May it’s size is 3,000 square kilometers with two meters in depth and the water flows out from the Lake to the Mekong. In the monsoon season the flooded forest surrounding the edge of the lake provides the best shelter for all kinds of spawning fish. The lake has over 300 species of fresh water fish as well as snakes, crocodiles, tortoises, turtles and otters. It also has more than 100 varieties of water birds including storks and pelicans.
The lake is an important commercial resource, providing more than half of the fish consumed in Cambodia. In harmony with the specialized ecosystems, the human occupations at the edges of the lake is similarly distinctive – floating villages, towering stilted houses, huge fish traps, and an economy and way of life deeply intertwined with the lake, the fish, the wildlife and the cycles of rising and falling waters
Charlie and the boat boys were talking about crocodile farms on the lake and I couldn’t quite work out how this worked. Anyway we pulled up next to a floating house / pontoon and went aboard. Charlie took us over to this pen that had about 6 massive crocodiles 🐊 in it – they didn’t look real but when Charlie splashed a bit of water into the pen they were very much alive. The pen next door had about 50 smaller crocodiles 🐊 in it. They breed them for the meat and skin. To be honest I was pretty freaked out! The pens are blocked off under the water but still 😳.
They also had a number of birds in pens – chickens, geese etc… that are also farmed for eating. I was quite happy to get back on the boat and head back to what was still dry land.
Daniel also told me that a few years back they had really bad flooding in Siem Reap and the outer areas – the lake flooded and the crocodiles escaped and were found all over the place, including in town 😳. On the way out to the lake we saw all these houses built on 14 metre high stilts – this is for when the rainy season comes and the lake floods – these houses can only then be reached by boat too.
Charlie took us back to town in the TukTuk with a new appreciation for our lives in NZ on dry land free of crocodiles 😉.
On the Friday night I went to the Phare Circus. More than just a circus, Phare shows are unlike any in the world: dance, theater, original live music and breathtaking circus arts are used to tell uniquely Cambodian stories from recent history, folklore and modern society.
Phare artists are graduates of Phare Ponleu Selpak, an NGO school and professional arts training center in Battambang, Cambodia.
The Phare Ponleu Selpak Arts (PPSA) was founded in 1994 by nine young Cambodian men returning home from a refugee camp after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. At the camp they took drawing classes and found art to be a powerful tool for healing. When they returned home they began offering free drawing classes to street children. Soon they opened a school, eventually offering formal K-12 education and professional arts training in the areas of visual arts (illustration, painting, graphic design, and animation), theater, music, dance, and circus. Today more than 1,200 pupils attend the public school daily and 500 attend the vocational arts training programs. All programs are offered for free.
In 2013, with the aim of financial self-sufficiency, PPSA created Phare Performing Social Enterprise (PPSE) with three missions:
• Create meaningful employment opportunities for Cambodian artists
• Create financially sustainable social businesses that provide a reliable income streams for Phare Ponleu Selpak
• Revitalise the arts sector in Cambodia and promote Cambodian art locally and internationally
PPSE is the parent company of: Phare, The Cambodian Circus.
• Opened in February 2013
• Based in Siem Reap
• Nightly professional shows under a 330-person big top, 365 days a year
• Almost 75% of profit goes directly to PPSA
• Seen by over one hundred thousand people
• In the media: CNN, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, BBC News, AFP, and many more
• Organizers of the Tini Tinou International Circus Festival, the only circus festival in Cambodia
• Oversee Phare Boutique, which sells original paintings, drawings and music CDs from PPSA and local products made by Cambodian NGOs.
The performance I went to was entitled “White Gold” and it was about rice.
‘In the Khmer language, “nourishment” cannot be expressed without the word “rice”. Cambodians are born, live, work and die in the rice fields. Rice is eaten morning, noon and night. Rice represents the richness of Cambodia but also how Cambodia is exploited by the outside world.
“White Gold” begins with a celebration of people’s respect for rice. After damaging his father’s mandala by accident, our leading character finds himself thrown from his village, into a world where rice becomes commerce and hard labor.
As the community’s values shift towards monetary interest, they find themselves plunged into competition, jealousy, greed, self-interest.
“White Gold” follows an individual and his community as they balance the demands of the modern world, community and Buddhist teachings of moderation.’
This was all portrayed through traditional music, dance, acrobatics and painting. It was so cleverly done and I was enraptured for the whole performance – I had a few heart in the mouth moments with some of the acrobatics – amazing!
Check out https://pharecircus.org
Countryside by Scooter
On the Saturday I had booked to do a bicycle tour into the rural villages with Butterfly Tours. Butterfly Tours was set up by a university student wanting to earn a bit of money to fund his education. He now employs other students who take guided tours when they are not studying.
I got picked up from the hotel in a TukTuk and taken to the Butterfly Tours office . When I got there I was the only one booked for the bicycle tour but three people had booked for the scooter tour so they asked me if I wanted to join that. Steve and I had talked a few times about why riding a scooter in these countries without a motorbike licence is not a good idea as you would not be covered by your insurance if something happened. I threw caution to the wind and did it anyway 😮.
We started off on the road with other cars but it wasn’t long and we were riding on dirt lanes in the countryside – what could possibly go wrong!
First stop was the local market – it was very local and I was not enticed to buy anything. There is minimal refrigeration of meat products and the flies are fairly rampant. Our guide Vong pointed out dog meat which is quite commonly consumed by the locals – in fact he said there is very little that the locals do not eat 🤔.
We then went to the rice fields were Vong talked about the cultivation and harvest of rice. These two little girls came to listen in and they were the cutest little buttons – curious but cautious of these strange looking humans all al the same time.
Cambodia lies in the Mekong Peninsula of Southeast Asia, with a total land mass of 178,520 km2, of which about 22% is arable. Much of the country is taken up by a central plain, in the middle of which is the huge freshwater lake Tonle Sap which we visited on Thursday. This plain is the country’s grain basket; it is bounded by mountain ranges in the southwest and northeast.
The climate is tropical monsoonal; there is a short rainy season, prolonged dry season, and irregular rainfall both from year to year and within years. Most rain falls from May to mid-November. Often, a 10- to 15-day dry spell (called the short dry season) occurs in July or August.
The population in 2011 was 14.3 million. An estimated 66% of the population is dependent on farming. Agriculture made up 36.7% of GDP in 2011. The main agricultural products are rice, rubber, maize (corn), vegetables, cashew, cassava, and silk. Rice is the country’s staple food, providing 65–75% of the population’s energy needs.
Cambodia’s economy has been driven more by other sectors in recent years, particularly garment manufacture, as well as construction and tourism. Oil and mineral deposits hold promise of future major contributions to the country’s GDP.
As a result of food shortages in the late 1970s, many Cambodian farmers were forced to eat their rice seed and traditional varieties were lost. In the 1980s, more than 750 traditional Cambodian rice varieties were reintroduced to the country from its seed bank in the Philippines – a vivid demonstration of the foresight that created the seed bank in the 1960s. With assistance from the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), they were also able to introduce improved rice varieties, better crop management, and extensive training programs, as a result of which Cambodia became self-sufficient in rice in the 1990s for the first time in 30 years.
Rice in Cambodia is grown in four different ecosystems: rainfed lowland, rainfed upland, deepwater, and irrigated. The rice area has been expanding since the 1990s, from about 1.9 million ha in 1995 to 2.8 million ha in 2010. The proportion of rice area under irrigation increased from 15% in 2006 to 25% in 2010.
The rainfed lowlands of Cambodia are bunded fields that are almost completely dependent on local rainfall and runoff for water supply. Rainfed lowland rice is cultivated in all provinces. The largest concentration is around Tonle Sap, the Tonle-Basaac River, and the Mekong River.
The rainfed uplands are unbunded fields that depend entirely on rainfall. They are generally found scattered on rolling lands, some of which are mountainous forested areas. They form only a small proportion of the total rice land in Cambodia.
Deepwater rice is grown in low-lying areas and depressions where maximum water depth can reach more than 3 m. The floodwaters originate from Tonle Sap and the Mekong and Tonle-Basaac rivers and their tributaries.
Next stop was a distillery of sorts where they made rice wine. Srah, or rice wine, is one of Cambodia’s oldest and most traditional alcoholic drinks. It’s been used through the ages in ceremonies and celebrations, as well as medicinally. An apple a day for us in the West is a pre-breakfast shot of rice wine for a Cambodian farmer. And while younger people in the cities may have moved on to beer and whiskey, in the countryside rice wine is still the dominant post-work tipple. They have also been known to give the woman a shot of rice wine after they give birth to warm them up.
Rice wine is produced by mixing boiled rice with a type of yeast called called mae. The mixture is put into clay jars to ferment, then a few days later it’s boiled over a hot fire that is kindled with leftover rice husks. The resulting steam is condensed and cooled, producing an 80 percent spirit that is blended to produce 35 percent rice wine.
Although producing srah is a Cambodian tradition, in recent times home brewers and mass manufacturers have been trying to create higher alcohol per volume (APV) rice wine as quickly as possible by using chemical additives—namely methanol. Methanol poisoning from rice wine has become a problem in the countryside, with hundreds having been hospitalised and dozens dying after imbibing impure or phoney srah over the past four years.
Once the rice has been used to make the wine it is often fed to pigs – rice wine production and pig farming go hand in hand. Most rice wine is produced for personal / family consumption so it is the pig farming that brings in the income – they sell the live pigs for between USD3 and USD4 per kilogram.
We of course had to sample the rice wine which I liken to petrol ⛽️ 😂. They say it is similar to Japanese Sake. Either way it is not for me 😉, I’ll be sticking to the real stuff 🥂🍷 .
We then went to see some traditional basket weaving. We also learnt about how important the palm tree 🌴 is. They use the trunks for beams in houses, the leaves for the roof, the root for medicine and the flower for palm juice.
We also stopped off at a place making clay pottery – they use these moulds that they then put in a big kiln. Interestingly minions figures as well as Angry Birds are popular.
On our way back to the Butterfly Tours office we stopped at a Buddhist Pagoda and while we were there we witnessed a sun halo☀️😇. Halos are rings of light that can encircle the sun or the moon, and they usually occur when a thin layer of cirrus clouds are present in the sky. According to the Weather Channel, Sun Halos are caused by mixed components of chemistry, physics and geometry.
Recall that the atmosphere is a mix of gases, including oxygen, nitrogen and water vapor. At high enough altitudes in the sky, the water vapor condenses and then freezes into ice crystals. As sunlight passes through the ice crystals, the geometry of the crystals cause the light to refract, similar to what happens when light passes through a prism. How cool 😎.
We all made it safely back to the office with no mishaps or incidences 😅.
Cocktail Making Class – Asana
Steve, who doesn’t like cocktails, suggested we go to a cocktail making class so he could learn how to make them for me – how sweet. We saw a flyer advertising a class where they use traditional khmer herbs, spices and infused rice spirits to create cocktails.
The class was held at Asana, Old Wooden House which is the only house still existing in the old market district. The house has been transformed into a bar but it still has a very homely feel – you can go upstairs or sit under the house next to the garden.
We were the only ones booked for the class that evening and our teacher was awesome. She taught us to make a Ginger Mojito which was really nice – Steve even drank his one – his first cocktail ever. He thinks that spirits taste like medicine but the way this cocktail was made, the fresh ingredients were the heroes of the drink.
The second one we made was called Tamarind Sauce which we used white rum, rice paddy herbs, tamarind juice and kaffir lime leaves – it had a real sweet, sour taste going on and was really nice. Again you could taste the natural ingredients rather than the alcohol so Steve also drank this cocktail.
We could choose what to make for the third cocktail and Steve made one using lemongrass and I made a Sombai Sling which had a lot of different spirits in it including a locally made liqueur called Sombai Galangal (strong ginger) and Tamarind. It was nice but the alcohol taste overpowered the natural flavours.
It was great fun and afterwards we relaxed in the hammocks and chairs they had under the house and enjoyed a few nibbles along with the last cocktail we had made.
We saved Siem Reap’s biggest tourist attraction until last – Angkor Wat – the place most people would associate with Cambodia. We had a private tour arranged through the hotel. It was pretty hot so I had dressed appropriately forgetting that you have to cover your legs and shoulders in the temples. I had to buy some floaty pants and wear one of Steve’s t-shirts which I actually grabbed out of the washing pile. I looked and smelt like a right dag so there are no photos of me 😂. So was I really there 🤔 ?
Anyway despite not looking or smelling the best it was an interesting tour – the construction and detailed artwork or devatas are amazing and especially when you consider the era that it was built in.
Angkor Wat is a temple complex and is the largest religious monument in the world, on a site measuring 162.6 hectares.
Originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu for the Khmer Empire, it was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century. It was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in Yaśodharapura (present-day Angkor), the capital of the Khmer Empire, as his state temple and eventual mausoleum. Breaking from the Shaiva tradition of previous kings, Angkor Wat was instead dedicated to Vishnu. As the best-preserved temple at the site, it is the only one to have remained a significant religious centre since its foundation. The temple is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag, and it is the country’s prime attraction for visitors.
Angkor Wat combines two basic plans of Khmer temple architecture: the temple-mountain and the later galleried temple. It is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology: within a moat more than 5 kilometres long and an outer wall 3.6 kilometres long are three rectangular galleries, each raised above the next. At the centre of the temple stands a quincunx of towers. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west; scholars are divided as to the significance of this. The temple is admired for the grandeur and harmony of the architecture, its extensive bas-reliefs, and for the numerous devatas adorning its walls.
We also visited Angkor Thom which is a lot smaller. I really liked the Bayon Temple which is the temple at the centre of the city, it was a lot more intimate than Angkor Wat.
Angkor Thom (literally: “Great City”), was the last and most enduring capital city of the Khmer empire. It was established in the late twelfth century by King Jayavarman VII. It covers an area of 9 km², within which are located several monuments from earlier eras as well as those established by Jayavarman and his successors. At the centre of the city is Jayavarman’s state temple, the Bayon, with the other major sites clustered around the Victory Square immediately to the north.
The last temple we visited was the Tomb Raider temple, officially known as Ta Prohm.
Dubbed the Tomb Raider temple because it provided the mystical backdrop for the 2001 Hollywood hit starring Angelina Jolie. Constructed in 1186 as one of the first buildings in Jayavarman VII’s grand vision of creating a network of public buildings and structures, Ta Prohm was originally named Rajavihara – monastery of the king – and served as Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university.
Jayavarman VII – who completed Angkor Wat, which was started by Suryavarman II – dedicated the sacred site to his family, with evidence of this found in inscriptions on the temples’ stele. For example, Ta Prohm’s main image represents Prajnaparamita – the personification of wisdom in Mahayana Buddhism – was modelled on the King’s mother.
The stele records also reveal Ta Prohm was home to more than 12,500 people, including 18 high priests and 615 dancers. More than 800,000 people living in surrounding villages provided services and supplies to the temple, which was home to a bounty of treasures that took in gold, pearls and silks.
It also notes there were 102 hospitals in the Kingdom at that time.
After the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century, Ta Prohm was abandoned and left to let nature take her course for centuries. When restoration of the temples started in the early 21st century, then under the direction of the French, experts decided to leave the enchanting, root-entangled temple as it was – swallowed by the jungle.
Extensive conservation and restoration works have taken place in recent years. All around the temple there were areas where the stones from various parts of the temple were laid out and numbered being prepared to be put back together like a jigsaw puzzle. What a painstaking process and one that will take many years. The trees that had grown inside the ruins and become part of the structure were quite incredible.
During our stay in Siem Reap we stayed in a couple of places – the first place was a small hotel called Anachak Angkor Residences which was about ten minutes from town. We treated ourselves for the last four nights at the Anantara which was very nice. It was also about ten minutes from town and they offered a free return TukTuk service.
On our last night at the Anantara we had drinks with an Australian guy and his daughter. They recommended we try this restaurant called Wild which only served Spring Rolls and had a cool outdoor seating arrangement including a treehouse to sit in. You can’t book so we decided to take a TukTuk there and try our luck.
When we arrived there was a group of four and a couple queued. The owner told the group of four it may be a while before they could get in so they left. The next group, a couple, seemed to know the owner and said they would comeback another night which put us to the front of the queue. We were happy to wait. In the meantime a couple of guys queued behind us and were chatting away to us – they asked us if we had come because the place was number one on TripAdvisor. We hadn’t known that so that was pretty cool. We got a spot on the grassy area within ten minutes.
The place is owned and run by a young French couple who left their Parisian life to find more passion and purpose in their lives. All the food and unique cocktails are crafted in house using local products with as much of it being organic as possible. They pay their local Cambodian staff above the standard and they get bonuses based on the profits made. They have a little shop at the back of the restaurant selling items made locally by local families and businesses. All the profits go to a local NGO called Soulcial Trust which supports social inclusion of people with disabilities, through sport.
We had a couple of different types of spring rolls each and they were delicious. I tried the fresh ones which were a take on a burrata salad with a basil oil for dipping – OMG they were so good. I couldn’t resist trying the dessert option too of a deep fried, chocolate filled spring roll – pretty damn good!
We interacted with the French couple who were lovely and very accomodating to everyone in what was quite a busy environment. They said it took them a while to find the perfect spot for the restaurant as they wanted an outside area where people could dine in a picnic type environment. They do also have table seating on an outdoor terrace. It was very unique, simple and delicious 😋. A great way to spend our last night in Siem Reap.
History of Cambodia
In 802 AD, Jayavarman II declared himself king, uniting the warring Khmer princes of Chenla under the name “Kambuja”. This marked the beginning of the Khmer Empire, which flourished for over 600 years, allowing successive kings to control and exert influence over much of Southeast Asia and accumulate immense power and wealth. The Indianised kingdom facilitated the spread of first Hinduism and then Buddhism to much of Southeast Asia and undertook many religious infrastructural projects throughout the region, including the construction of more than 1,000 temples and monuments in Angkor alone. Angkor Wat is the most famous of these structures and is designated as a World Heritage Site.
After the fall of Angkor to Ayutthaya in the 15th century, a reduced and weakened Cambodia was then ruled as a vassal state by its neighbours. In 1863, Cambodia became a protectorate of France, which doubled the size of the country by reclaiming the north and west from Thailand.
Cambodia gained independence in 1953. The Vietnam War extended into the country with the US bombing of Cambodia from 1969 until 1973. Following the Cambodian coup of 1970 which installed the right-wing pro-US Khmer Republic, the deposed king gave his support to his former enemies, the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge emerged as a major power, taking Phnom Penh in 1975 and later carrying out the Cambodian genocide from 1975 until 1979, when they were ousted by Vietnam and the Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea, supported by the Soviet Union, in the Cambodian–Vietnamese War.
Following the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, Cambodia was governed briefly by a United Nations mission (1992–93). The UN withdrew after holding elections in which around 90 percent of the registered voters cast ballots. The 1997 factional fighting resulted in the ousting of the government by Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party, who remain in power as of 2019.
Cambodia is a member of the United Nations since 1955, ASEAN, the East Asia Summit, the WTO, the Non-Aligned Movement and La Francophonie. According to several foreign organisations, the country has widespread poverty, pervasive corruption, lack of political freedoms, low human development and a high rate of hunger. Cambodia has been described by Human Rights Watch‘s Southeast Asian Director, David Roberts, as a “relatively authoritarian coalition via a superficial democracy”. Constitutionally a multi-party liberal democracy, the country is effectively governed under one-party rule as of 2018.
While per capita income remains low compared to most neighboring countries, Cambodia has one of the fastest growing economies in Asia, with growth averaging 7.6 percent over the last decade. Agriculture remains the dominant economic sector, with strong growth in textiles, construction, garments and tourism leading to increased foreign investment and international trade. The US World Justice Project‘s 2015 Rule of Law Index ranked Cambodia 76 out of 102 countries, similar to other countries in the region.
Cafes, restaurants and socially conscious organisations
The Little Red Fox Espresso
The Little Red Fox Espresso deserves it’s reputation as making the best coffee in Siem Reap – I would go as far as saying it makes the best coffee ever! It was so good as was the food and service. It is owned by a couple of Australian guys who have a social conscience in both how they treat people and the environment being one of the first cafes in Siem Reap to take noticeable action towards lowering its daily carbon footprint and sharing the knowledge on how to go green and clean with their team and the community.
This is their vision:
Our vision here at The Little Red Fox Espresso is one that always looks into the future for our team. Training and support in our workplace is of integral importance. We endeavour to guide our team members in many aspects of life. Hospitality skills, English skills, general world knowledge, health and hygiene, savings plans, personal development, environmental improvement This is of the utmost importance for creating a future for someone that is stable, able and full of self confidence.
HAVEN is a non-religious social enterprise and a training restaurant for vulnerable young adults from orphanages* and safe shelters, as well as underprivileged young adults from very rural poor areas. By teaching these young people quality work skills as well as important life skills, we support thesm in their transition from institution to real world as well as giving them a chance to step out of the poverty cycle.
We first opened in 2011 in the Old Market area in Siem Reap‘s town center. During the four years at our first location we could accept a total of 25 disadvantaged young adults to do the vocational training.
With the increasing demand for training places, but with lease prices skyrocketing in the center, we moved our HAVEN Training Restaurant to a bigger, more special and more beautiful new space in the Wat Damnak area in December 2015. Here we can take in and train more students, create more secure jobs for employees and welcome more guests.
HAVEN is run by 2 dedicated Swiss people, 1 Cambodian Head Chef and around 20 wonderful employees (the HAVEN Family). These are all beautiful people either acting as teachers & mentors, helping us train the trainees or making sure everything runs smoothly in the restaurant.
Each year we take in around 15 trainees, who we train and teach on a daily basis.
In addition to the work training and the life skills workshops we also take financial responsibility of all our trainees and provide them with protected and guided shared housing, meals, medical care and a monthly training allowance. Furthermore we offer them English and computer lessons.
Marum is another vocational training restaurant giving marginalised and at risk youth a chance to learn basic life and work skills. It is run by an organisation called Friends International.
Siem Reap, the home of Angkor Wat, is the center of the tourism industry in Cambodia. With the number of tourists rising at an average of 15% a year, this status has led to Siem Reap being a driver of the Cambodian economy. However, increases in wealth have not been equitable throughout the province, and many marginalized children are forced into risky situations in order earn income for their families, including working on the streets in tourist areas. This exposes children to a variety of dangers such as sickness, drug use and exploitation by locals and tourists.
Kaliyan Mith (“Good Friends” in Khmer) fully utilizes the Friends model of social business, social support, and public mobilization to build the futures of children and families. Responding to the problems of predatory tourism, child abuse, lack of access to education, and youth employment, the program assisted 11,412 children, youth and caregivers in 2017.
Also falling under the Friends International model is the Friends ‘n’ Stuff shopping experience.
“Founded in Phnom Penh in 2005, Friends ‘n’ Stuff is an ethical lifestyle brand that is rooted in and inspired by Southeast Asia. Our contemporary, playful designs delight customers so we can help empower families.
We proudly pioneered upcycled fashion in Cambodia and built a reputation as one of the region’s leading socially-conscious brands. Every Friends ‘n’ Stuff purchase creates a positive social impact, as all profit is reinvested into the lifesaving programs of Friends-International. We provide training, a stable income, social support, and employment assistance to parents in need.”
I really enjoyed my lunch here and visited the Friends ‘n’ Stuff shop at the restaurant which had so many cool things recycled from all manner of recycled material. I could have gone crazy 😜 😉.
Smateria design and make bags and accessories from recycled materials. I visited their shop and was so taken with the funky and functional bags – again I could have gone crazy 😜 but managed to engage the self control and ‘tight-arse’ Accountant mindset 😂. I am now, however, the proud owner of a very cool handbag made from recycled fishing net and car tyres 💗.
Smateria’s journey begins when founders Jennifer Morellato and Elisa Lion met in Cambodia, sharing a passion for creativity, sustainability, and business. After prototyping their first bags with upcycled and recycled materials, they took the entrepreneurial plunge to transform their ideas into a thriving social enterprise.
Bags and accessories that fuse together fashion, playfulness and social consciousness.
Our passion lies in taking unusual materials and crafting them into innovative and fashionable bags and accessories, using recycled materials wherever possible. We do this to stretch the boundaries of a material’s usability, quashing the idea that fabrics and materials can only be used for specific purposes.
We couldn’t be happier with where this journey has taken us so far. Since beginning in a small garage space in Cambodia 2006, we now have several shops across Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, online stores and distributors that continue to spread our style worldwide.
At Smateria our passions go beyond creating unusual designs. We have a clear mission to employ Cambodian workers in a fair and sustainable way, where employees are treated well and priority is given to the employment of women and mothers.
Over 80% of our current employees are women, and we challenge the glass ceiling by ensuring all our staff have equal opportunities to grow and develop within their roles. We offer a free childcare centre on site, and all our staff receive benefits such as English lessons, double maternity and family support leave, health insurance, savings accounts, and training to develop their skills and careers. All our employees are given paid holiday leave which they must take, so we can ensure they can see their families, take rest, and have a healthy work-life balance. It is our mission to create a safe, happy workplace where Cambodian women are given space to thrive.
Our workshops are made safer for our employees by following the leading standards for luminosity, space per employee, and ergonomics. They also receive professional training on fire safety, have regular electrical audits, and professional training to balance health and work.
“Common Grounds is not only about freshly brewed coffee, a selection of pastries and tasty sandwiches as well as delicious soups of the day – it’s also about people. You don’t have to be a socially responsible traveller to enjoy a freshly brewed cappuccino, a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup combo or some of the local Khmer dishes, but the team at Common Grounds also aim to promote ’micro-enterprise development’, giving locals a working chance and create income that helps to sustain the Children’s Home in Siem Reap Common Grounds serves as a vocational training center, teaching English and computer skills and provides housing for long and short-term volunteers and staff.. If you bring your own laptop, there is also free wireless Internet and, as a whole, we believe Common Grounds is a good choice whether you’re looking for a healthy breakfast, lunch or dinner.” Lonely Planet Magazine
New Leaf Cafe
My keyboard journey of all things good in Siem Reap lead me to the claim that the New Leaf Cafe did the best Espresso Martini in town plus some pretty good food. They donate a share of their profits to various local charities helping local people and are always striving to improve their environmental impact.
Georgina and Ian, first met in January 2013 whilst volunteering at a school in Siem Reap. They shared a common desire – to build a sustainable business that provides charities with much needed funding & support. They chose to establish a social enterprise cafe/restaurant in the heart of Siem Reap. The concept appealed to them as a way in which to give back: creating jobs, sourcing locally / sustainably and generating profits that are donated to charities focused on education.
As a social enterprise, New Leaf has implemented numerous environmentally friendly initiatives and adopted fair employment practices; including a living wage, profit share, regular training and providing career development opportunities.
New Leaf opened its doors in July 2013 and within 3 months made its first cash donation. Since then New Leaf has donated over $40,000 and 2,000 books.
New Leaf’s vision is to support education in Siem Reap province, through profits generated by being a high quality dining experience that offers a “taste of Cambodia”.
Known for its superb coffee and a distinctly inner city vibe, the Hive is a bustling social hub for expats and tourists alike. Since its conception in 2013, this Australian owned, locally managed café has cemented itself as a Siem Reap favourite. If you’re a coffee lover, a brunch goer, a juice detoxer, early diner or simply looking for a touch of home, The Hive awaits.
Cafe .9 by Lynley
We went to Cafe .9 by Lynley a couple of times for the delicious Schnitzel Sandwhich with green salad and home made potato salad. The cafe is located in Kandal Village and I highly recommend it if you’re looking for some yummy, flavourful home cooking 😋.
Maybe Later serves California style Mexican food. The primary mission of the Maybe Later family is to help rebuild the creative community that once thrived in Cambodia, before it was intentionally and savagely destroyed in the recent past. Our present focus is on developing young creative talent interested in the genre of “street art” stemming from the late 1970’s and 1980’s American hip hop, breakdancing, skateboarding, and surfing cultures. We believe in the unique power of this public domain art form to transform the energy of communities and entire cities, hence the choice to transform our entire building into a skeleton with paint. We also know that a properly funded and organised street art scene in any city provides children and young adults with a healthy way to grow and express themselves, while reducing the allure of dangerous drugs and other harmful addictions.
Our secondary mission is to demonstrate, by example, that a profitable hospitality business serving a tourism-driven market can be achieved with little or zero destructive environmental impact. To this end we have partnered with @PICUPS.KH (Plastic Initiative Cambodia) to help eliminate single-use plastic from Cambodia and the World at large. Everything we use is made from plant based organic compounds that will fully bio-degrade in 30 to 180 days in the right composting environment.
They had a very cool cocktail menu with some amusing descriptions:
Maybe Later – it’s been said the path to Hell is paved with good intentions. So to Hell with all the things you intended to accomplish today, and quite possibly tomorrow, once you make this choice. Vodka, white rum, gin, fresh pineapple juice and orange fruit juice, finished with cranberry (be careful with these, very strong drink).
Yoga Pants Dropper – now that you’re properly stretched, calm, and meditated….. you’re craving something healthy but also a little naughty because you realise there’s only 1 day left of this epic vacation you’ve spent cleansing your body and mind. So order one of these, ask for the wi-fi password, and get your ‘right swipe’ on before it’s too late. Bacardi silver rum, fresh pineapple, fresh lime, fresh kale, soda.
Kulen Mountain Cooler – the first sip of this refreshment is like taking a cool bath under a gushing waterfall in the jungle on a sweltering hot day. Finishing the third one is like doing the exact same thing, with a naked stranger. Bombay sapphire gin, fresh water melon, fresh cucumber, palm sugar, soda.
Beat Richner & the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospitals
Beat Richner (13 March 1947 – 9 September 2018) was a Swiss pediatrician, cellist and founder of children’s hospitals in Cambodia. He created the Kantha Bopha Foundation in Zurich in 1992 and became its head. Until his death in 2018, Beat and another expatriate oversaw and ran the predominantly Cambodian-manned hospitals. As both a cellist and a medical doctor, Richner was known by patients, audiences, and donors as “Beatocello”.
After receiving his medical degree in 1973, Dr Richner specialized in pediatric care at the Zurich Children’s Hospital. Following this, working for the Swiss Red Cross, he was sent to Cambodia where he worked at the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital in Phnom Penh in 1974 and 1975. The hospital is named in memory of HRH Samdach Preah Ang Mechas Norodom Kantha Bopha (1948–1952), who was the daughter of King Norodom Sihanouk and died at a very young age. When the Khmer Rouge overran Cambodia, Richner was forced to return to Switzerland where he continued his work at the Zurich Children’s Hospital.
In the process of pursuing his medical career and an interest in music and entertainment, Dr. Richner developed the character of “Beatocello”, an artistic and comedic clown who played the cello. Along with this persona, Richner also published many children’s books based on “Beatocello”.
In December 1991 Richner returned to Cambodia and saw the devastation that had taken place following the ensuing conflicts with the Khmer Rouge and Vietnam. He was asked to re-open and re-build Kantha Bopha by the Cambodian government. Creating the Kantha Bopha Foundation in March 1992, Richner officially returned to Cambodia to begin reconstruction and Kantha Bopha was reopened in November 1992. Since then, the foundation has funded the expansion of Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospitals to include five hospitals in total.
As “Beatocello”, Richner performed free concerts at the Jayavarman VII hospital in Siem Reap on Thursday and Saturday nights, during the high season. The evenings included songs, played on his cello, and talks on the health crisis in Cambodia. He asked the young tourists for blood, the older tourists for money, and the ones in between for both.
Richner and his work in Cambodia were also the subject of six documentary films by Georges Gachot: Bach at the Pagoda (1997), And the Beat Goes On (1999), Depardieu goes for Beatocello (2002), Money or Blood (2004), “15 Years of Kantha Bopha” (2007), “Beatocello’s Umbrella” (2012) . In 2006, the documentary “Dr Beat and The Passive Genocide of Children” by Australian film maker Janine Hosking was produced.
Prior to his death, of the 2400 Kantha Bopha staff members, Dr. Richner alongside the head pathologist Dr. Denis Laurent, were the only expatriate staff members employed at the hospitals.
Richner waged war on the large aid agencies, claiming that their policies of poor health care for poor people in poor countries are both illogical and immoral.
Richner was named “Swiss of the Year” in 2002.
He died of a serious illness on 9 September 2018 aged 71.
The five children’s hospitals built by Richner and the Kantha Bopha Foundation are located in Cambodia’s major cities. All of the hospitals provide treatment free of charge.
The Kantha Bopha hospitals treat half a million children per year free of charge. Approx 100,000 seriously ill children are admitted. Japanese encephalitis, malaria, dengue fever and typhoid are common, often exacerbated by the presence of TB. TB is the number one killer. Mortality rate is an astonishingly low 1%. Richner says that over 80% of all paediatric health care in Cambodia is provided by his hospitals.
The hospitals are primarily funded by donations from individuals in Switzerland. Operational expense in 2006 were in the order of US$17m. Since the Foundation started in 1991, it has reportedly raised US$370 million.
In addition to medical care, the hospitals also provide an International Postgraduate Course. The Kantha Bopha Academy for Pediatrics was started in 2009. The program includes lectures and courses on general pediatrics, infectology, immunology and diagnostic imaging. The course program also includes an introduction into the organization and management of a children’s hospital and maternity facilities in a poor tropical country.