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  • Writer's picturevanlafaxine

week 50: cambodia, central thailand

siem reap, cambodia

bill: we flew from chiang mai into siem reap, a city in the north of cambodia, mostly notable for its proximity to angkor wat. siem reap itself is a small city with a bustling downtown core mostly focused on supporting tourism. tourism is one of the major economies of the north of cambodia, and it has still has not recovered from covid, so the local population is still struggling.

Amy: Cambodia was the country that broke my heart. Coming in, we knew it had an extremely dark and extremely recent tragic history. But knowing about what happened versus truly understanding and hearing personal stories...I was woefully unprepared. In a casual conversation with the taxi driver taking us from the airport to our hostel, I commented on how well he spoke English. "I learned it at the orphanage!" he said without missing a beat. He went on to tell us how his parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge when he was a baby. Over the next few days, we heard his story echoed by countless other locals.

bill: holy fucking shit it is hot in cambodia. this is the hottest place i have ever been. it is somehow "only" actually about 34 degrees celsius during the peak of the day, but the humidity is absolutely insane and the near-equatorial sun is fucking intense. there is no breeze. it is true wet-bulb heat. it feels like being inside an oven. the 38 degrees in bangkok has nothing on this. on our way into town, our cab driver was complaining that it is the winter and it is cold by cambodian standards and his baby can't breathe in the cold of the early morning (at 28 degrees), so he has to warm her up. i can't even imagine the summer.

a tuktuk tour of downtown siem reap

bill: it is basically impossible to talk about cambodia without talking about the khmer rouge and the genocide that took place here. between 1970 and 1975 in one of humanity's grimmest moments, in a civil war precipitated by illegal bombing of this neutral country by america during the vietnam war, pol pot and the khmer rouge staged a communist coup that sparked a genocide killing approximately 20-30% of the population of cambodia. estimates range up to about 3 million people. every single person we talked to over the age of 35 was an orphan. there are people missing limbs and blinded by shrapnel all over the place. there are killing fields in every town piled high with skulls. there are still 6 million landmines buried throughout the countryside, ready to kill or maim any person who dares try to farm the arable land, or any child who chases their ball too far into a field. a very, very sad place. the country was set back remarkably development-wise by the rule of the khmer rouge, and is still reeling today. the economy neared collapse, and so the country mostly relies on the usd as its day-to-day for trade, which results in cambodians both being very poor, and goods being very expensive.

Amy: At least the Khmer Rouge were kicked out of power for committing massive war crimes and other atrocities, right? Wrong. Turns out that many of the members of the Khmer Rouge regime essentially shook hands and formed a coalition with the incoming government in the 80s. Many of those responsible went on to hold positions of power in the new government. The international criminal court did investigate what happened here (much later in 2006), but apparently only 3 people were convicted, as most of the leaders had already died. Dark.

we exchanged a bunch of our money for cambodian riel, which ended up being mostly useless

Amy: The most surprising thing about Cambodia was how expensive everything was. There's been some pretty crazy inflation. We were shocked by the average cost of a taxi from the airport: $50. Those are some Canadian prices! We could get an equivalent taxi ride in Vietnam or Thailand for a fraction of that cost. Other things here are expensive too. Our Angkor Wat tickets were $100 each, guided tours were $35 each, a private room in a hostel was $50 per night. The cost of average items for Cambodians is also high - we weren't getting ripped off just because we were tourists. Gas is on par with prices in Canada. Our cab driver pays $25USD every 3 days for baby formula. Things cost A LOT here even though the average salaries are much lower.

bill: as is the rule with poor places and food; cambodian food is absurdly good. cambodia and thailand share a number of cultural pieces, including some traditional foods, but cambodians make them way better. the classic dish here is a yellow curry called "amok", usually with fish, coconut, and egg, maybe some pumpkin and vegetables i had never seen before, like makhua phuang (tiny crunchy green spheres that are quite bitter on the inside). but just so crazy flavourful. food here is expensive too, about on par with japan, dinner will often run around $30cad.

this is the only beer they have here, it is pretty good, if a little expensive

bill: we are here mostly to see angkor wat, a massive series of hindu and buddhist temples dating back to the 12th century, established by the ancient khmer dynasty. recently proclaimed one of the great wonders of the world, these temples are seriously impressive. built from the top down with blocks of stone weighing many, many tonnes, dragged 70kms by men and elephants. the tempels are up to 65m tall. there is intensely detailed stonework and carvings everywhere, sometimes doling out the history of various hindu mythologies over 1 km long bas reliefs. some of the temples are overgrown with trees that rival the great redwoods in size. there are monkeys running all over. in a truly absurd moment, i will never forget this loose pig that was just running around at the bayon temple biting people. hilarious.

Amy: Angkor Wat has hundreds of temples, but only a few dozen have been cleared out of the jungle (and cleared of landmines), and are safe to visit. We planned to start small and work our way up to the bigger/more famous temples. On our first day, we did a sunset tour of the outskirts of the Angkor complex: Preah Khan, Ta Som, Neak Pean and Pre Rup. Unfortunately, we opted for no tour guide, so we basically just wandered around the temples in the scorching sun with no historical context to orient ourselves. We saw an ok sunset from the last temple, Pre Rup. The next day, I think I had heat exhaustion, so we spent our time in air conditioning, visiting the National Museum to catch up on our ancient Cambodian history.

siem reap downtown is pretty lively - this is "pub street" which should really be called "club street"

bill: one of the main attractions here is to check out the "hero rats" - the bomb-sniffing rats that they are using to clear the countryside of landmines. they use african pouch rats, which are absolutely massive, walking them back and forth across the ground until they smell explosives, marking the place for bomb disposal teams to come in. the rats are extremely well cared for here since they are truly lifesaving heroes - they only work 3 hours per day, they get lots of love and treats, and they even get to retire whenever they get tired of sniffing out bombshells. pretty cool. but also pretty dark that this is even a problem.

kissinger died while we were here, you can thank him for this

Amy: On our final day, we woke up super early to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. It started out cloudy, but the sky gradually cleared and turned pink over the 5 towers. The crowds were absolutely insane, so we found a quiet place to enjoy the view. This time, we opted for a guided tour, so we learned a lot about how the temples were constructed (over 30 years), by whom (a few different kings) and for what purpose (religion!!). Afterwards, we visited a few other temples in the core"small circuit": Bayon (with over 200 faces carved into towers), Ta Keo, Ta Prohm (totally reclaimed by the jungle, with literal trees sprouting from the rock. This is where they filmed Tomb Raider) and Banteay Kdei (a quiet, peaceful temple that was our guide's favourite - it had no crowds).

wow so serene

bill: we wish we had more time in cambodia to check out phnom pehn and koh rong, and to learn more about the country's history, but amy flies home so soon and so we have to head back to thailand. but cambodia was both beautiful and sad, uplifting to see the strength and resilience of the country, but also depressing to see such lovely people subjected to such a harsh reality.

koh samet, thailand

bill: amy has to go back to the cold in 5 days, and so we opted to spend a few days on the beach beforehand. there are lots of beautiful islands in the gulf of thailand, but being that we were on a tight timeline, we opted for koh (island) samet, about 4 hours from bangkok. we got a bungalow right off the beach. the sands are white and fluffy, the water turquoise, palm trees blowing in the light breeze. the temperature is over 30 everyday, the water is as warm as a bathtub and you can just bob in the seawater all day.

Amy: Koh Samet was paradise. We spent our time lazing on beach lounge chairs reading our books, swimming in warm turquoise water, meandering around the rocky coastline, eating delicious Thai food, and playing with beach puppies (!!! I really wanted to take one home). It was so hot, that we spent 90% of our time in the shade, and still got sunburns. Lots of locals vacation here, so the vibe wasn't too touristy. 10/10 vacation.

tiny, tiny crab

papaya salad

bill: i love spicy food, but over the course of this trip there has only been one food that has truly kicked my ass; the 5/5 level "cluckin' hot" nashville hot chicken sandwich at hattie b's. mexico - meh, texas - nothing. both these places talk a big game, but i think it is all hollow machismo. but thai food is just casually really hot. baseline is american 5/5. it so perfectly walks the line between really, really spicy and not so spicy that you have to stop eating. the endorphins are flowing at maximum capacity. it also doesn't really grow, all the spice is right there up front. so, so good. usually people think "oh i don't want a spicy curry, i'll just get a salad" but the green papaya salad is usually the hottest thing on the menu by far. and this is the second thing that truly kicked my ass this year.

bill: every bangkokian has their favourite getaway, and we had heard a lot of good things about some of the other local spots (rayong, koh chang), but koh samet turned out to be a perfect paradise, easily these best beach getaway of the whole trip.


bill: the big city. bangkok is basically the developing world's new york city. it is massive. it is hot. it is loud. it is crowded. it smells like the grey water tank in the van. there are people from all over the world living here. there is everything you could ever want here, and lots more. did i mention it is hot here? like 38 degrees with the humidex. not as hot as cambodia, but stickier and sweatier. i sweat through my shirt in 20 minutes. amy only has 36 hours here, so we opted to get some food and see the main sights.

Amy: Our first night, we watched an amazing sunset from a rooftop bar overlooking the city. I ordered a (very expensive) passionfruit cocktail, and we soaked in the sprawling Bangkok views from 40 stories up. Per tradition, we opted to do a free walking tour the next first morning. Unfortunately, this was our worst tour yet...our guide only talked about where we could find malls, and we walked past all the major temples and sights without so much as an explanation. Oh well. After a quick lunch, we explored the Grand Palace, the official Royal residence built in the 16th century. It's huge - we wandered around many bedazzled buildings, halls, temples and pavilions, which are interspersed with open lawns and courtyards. My favourite part: manicured trees - it felt like we were in the Queen of Hearts' garden in Alice in Wonderland.

pants are mandatory in all sacred places, hence the breezy elephant pants, vendors sell these outside of all of the temples for about $4 to all the people not insane enough to already be wearing pants in the bangkok heat

michelin star crab curry

bill: like chiang mai, bangkok is a fairly developed and modern city. there are giant skyscrapers stretching as far as the eye can see. there are all the amenities one could need, gigantic shopping malls, natural wine bars, and fancy restaurants. there is a massive china town bustling with life and miles of street food. gyms, parks, running trails. excellent food. there is an extremely charming contrast of old and new, modern and historic. it is no wonder that so many people from all over the world come to live here. a very beautiful and comfortable place.

bill: we went to check out the imperial palace, which was probably the coolest of the temples we have visited, absurdly complex architecture, intricately bedazzled and bejewed, even housing a buddha state made entirely of emerald. in the afternoon we toured the wat arun, the temple of the dawn, a buddhist temple that is one of the famous landmarks of the city, less bedazzled and more of a tiled pastiche, but equally intricate and beautiful.

Amy: Wat Arun ended up being one of my favourite temples. It had a really distinct triangular silhouette, and symmetrical geometric patterns inlaid with intricate mosaic-work and broken pottery. It was especially beautiful to watch the giant blazing red sun set behind the temple from the other side of the river.

love me a monk with an iphone

amy finally got her mango sticky rice, a popular dessert here

"egg-wrapped" pad thai

in the evening we took a long boat down the chao phraya river to the wang lang market then watched the sun set over the wat arun. a good last day.

bill: at 0400 in the morning, we got up and drove to the bangkok airport to say goodbye. amy is heading home, the trip is officially over for her. sad times. she has to go back to work in january, but being that i am currently unemployed, i am staying to continue travelling until my need for money supersedes my need to not be cold. this is a bill only blog now (you can expect the next few posts to come out much quicker lol)

Amy: I'm thankful Bill came to the airport to see me off despite the ungodly hour. It was an emotional goodbye - the end of 12 months of travel together. The end of our dream trip. The end of the most amazing, memorable year of our lives. The road ends here for me, but Bill will continue on, having enough adventures for the both of us. It's not goodbye, but see you soon! xoxo

here is this week's video:




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