Location: Siem Reap, Banteay Chhmar
Population: 15 million
Fun Fact: There has never been a McDonald's in Cambodia
Tip: If you're thinking of doing a trip to both Vietnam and Cambodia, I recommend keeping Cambodia for last as it's much calmer and quieter than Vietnam. Cambodia's entire population is the same as Saigon's population alone, so you can see why it's a huge difference!
We left Saigon in the afternoon and a very short flight later (45 minutes), we landed in Siem Reap. The first thing I noticed on our drive from the airport to our resort was how much more peaceful this city was compared to Saigon. It was a nice change and a great place for the last leg of our trip. We arrived at Navutu Dreams and were blown away by the beauty and tranquility of it. A resort and wellness retreat was exactly what we needed after Vietnam and we were so sad to be staying only a couple of nights!
That night, we attended a special gala dinner hosted by Mastercard at a traditional Khmer Villa. This was such an incredible experience for so many reasons! The second we got out of the car, we were greeted by dancers in traditional Khmer dress who led us to the villa. We were given a tour of the home (it was completely made out of rosewood) and seated outside in the garden for a very special dinner. The food was so unique to anything I had ever had and between every course was a different traditional Cambodia dance. It was such a treat and we were so honoured to be their guests for the evening!
What a packed day! We woke up early for some sunrise yoga/meditation which I was very grateful for. It was an hour of complete silence and an hour just for myself and my thoughts. It was a great way to start the day!
After breakfast, our photography guide for the day, Eric, picked us up and accompanied us to Angkor Wat. Eric, was the perfect person to take us around because he had been to the temples hundreds of times with other tourists. He really understood the history and was quick to give us fun facts and lesser known details about the temples. The tour lasted basically the whole day (mainly because we took hundreds of photos!) and we didn't even get to see everything - not even close! Although we were only able to see Ta Prohm (built between the mid-12th and early 13th century) and part of Angkor Wat, the temples are definitely the kind of place I would go back to and take 3-4 days to explore and really take my time with. There's just an incredible amount to see and the fact that they have been largely left as they were found makes it all the more interesting.
After hours of exploring and a mini-history lesson, we were taken to a local rural village and taken in for lunch by a lovely elderly couple who cooked us a truly wonderful meal. It was the epitome of traditional Khmer food and hit the spot so well that I ended up napping for a half hour afterwards. It was so good, so simple and so tasty. I was actually very pleasantly surprised with how much I liked the food. It shares some similarities with Thai food which I have trouble eating because it's so spicy, but what I had wasn't spicy at all and just good comfort food. Basically what I'm trying to say is the food is YUMMY.
Also food-related, we went on another Vespa food tour! This one was a bit different from the one we did in Saigon (same company, though) mainly because I tried bugs. That's right. INSECTS. The crickets were genuinely not bad and just tasted like BBQ, but the silkworm and beetle were just not for me. Nope. Won't be able to do those again. The next stall had full-on fried tarantulas and scorpions and that's where I drew the line. We tried a ton of other food too like sea snake jerky, crocodile meet (honestly tastes like chicken), and a ton of fruit I had never heard of before. I highly recommend these food tours as they're such a great way to see the city, mix with the locals and be a bit more adventurous with food. Also the vespas are pretty cool!
On our last day, we explored the ruins of Banteay Chhmar Temple. This place is completely off the beaten path and doesn't get many visitors. The ruins, which date back to the late 12th century, are mostly covered in vines and have similar sculptures depicting military combat similar to the ones in Bayon for anyone who's been.
That evening, we were hosted by a local homestay in a typical Khmer village. I had done this once before in Mexico and loved it. It's such a great way to immerse yourself in the people and culture for a night and it's sort of like a day-in-the-life. The family was so welcoming and genuinely happy to have us there and share their home. One of the highlights for me that night was being able to see the Milky Way for the first time in my life. There's usually way too much light pollution, but here in this little village there was absolutely none. It was incredible to see! I had never seen that many stars in my life!
The next day we left for Saigon and I made my way back home to Montreal. What a packed week! I got to check off two more countries, met some really wonderful people, ate enough food to last me a month, and made memories that will stay with me forever. Thank you so much to ASEAN alliance for sharing this experience with me!