Spring Break in Cambodia Part III

We spent the final two and half days of our trip back in Phnom Penh, but not before a great birthday sendoff in Siem Reap for Carrie. The Shanti Mani once again went above and beyond in its awesome customer service by decorating a swing in balloons for the young birthday girl and giving her a cake.

Birthday cake for breakfast
Birthday cake for breakfast

She was one happy camper!

We then boarded a plane again and headed back to Cambodia’s capital city. Stomach ailments seems to be a recurring theme for this trip, and this day hit me and Olivia, so we stayed back at the hotel while the husband took the other two kids on a culinary adventure. Leading up to this trip, Erin talked a lot about wanting to eat a bug while in Cambodia. Apparently a boy in her class saw a TV show where people in Cambodia ate bugs, which prompted one of her friends to  dare her to eat one. If you know my daughter, you know she’s almost always up for a challenge, especially if it involves food, so a cousin took them to the Central Market in search of bugs.

 

Central Market
Central Market

They saw lots of food at the market, but alas no bugs. This didn’t stop them though. They were on a mission, and they were going to find and eat bugs. Eventually, they found a couple of kids selling all different kinds of deep fried bugs along the river.

Bugs!
Bugs!

Now they had to choose which bugs to consume.

Deep fried crickets
Deep fried crickets seasoned with chili and onions

Erin tells me they chose the crickets because they were the smallest. Knowing they had to document the event, the husband had his cousin videotape it as proof.

Misson accomplished! Erin apparently even asked for seconds.

When that girl likes something she really likes it. Case in point? Her hat that she only took off her head when sleeping.

My girl and her hat
My girl and her hat

After much bargaining and negotiating at one of the many souvenir stands, Grandma Meak bought it for her on our first day in Angkor Wat. She loved that hat, and not only used it as an accessory, but also as a wallet. She kept two Riels (Cambodian currency worth a few cents in American dollars) under it. I’ve got to say, few people can rock a white straw hat like this girl. It works a lot better than using headbands to cover up a botched bang cutting job I did several weeks ago.  She even wore it for her little sister’s birthday party, which her grandparents so generously threw for her.

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Yep, that’s how we roll. Two birthday cakes in one day.

While birthdays are celebrated virtually the same way around the world, other things are vastly different. Take zoos for example. The one we visited in Cambodia was nothing like I have ever seen and neither was our drive. Much of it was a dirt road, or the road was only half paved. It’s amazing to me how rural the country is just a few kilometers outside of Phnom Penh. On the drive to the zoo, my father-in-law explained more of the history and politics as we passed by dozens of garment factories.

The only thing similar to the zoos in the U.S. is that most of animals are caged. Most. Not all.

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Take a good look at that photo. That momma monkey and her baby escaped their cage and no one cared. Part of me thinks they’re not really part of the zoo and set up their home here because they know people will feed them.

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We saw plenty of people feeding the animals through the fences, but there were no signs warning visitors to avoid feeding them snacks. Even when the animals were fenced into enclosures, we got up close and personal.

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No zoom needed get get good shots of the elephant or any other animals at the zoo for that matter.

It also looked like the animals for the most part were in their native elements. There was no sanitizing the zoo. There were animals and that’s it. Well except for the trash. There was lots of trash.

 

But you know what? The animals didn’t seem to care and from the looks of things, neither did the rest of the visitors.

Our final night of vacation ended with a river cruise on the Mekong and Tonle Sap.  I don’t know what it is about being on the water, but it makes everything feel at least a little bit cooler.It also helped that we hopped on the boat at sunset, making for some pretty spectacular photos.


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Even with the illnesses, the long flights, and continuing jet lag three days after we’ve returned, it was all worth it. I’d do this same trip again in a heartbeat. I’m so proud of the kids who embraced their Cambodian culture and hopefully sparked a life long love of international travel.

 

Spring Break in Cambodia Part II

We arrived in  Siem Reap late morning, but didn’t plan on visiting any temples. Given that the husband was still not feeling great, we headed to the hotel, and were able to check in a little early. I love this hotel! Yes, the Shinta Mani has a pool,

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nice clean rooms, and a restaurant with cool outdoor swings,

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but the customer service makes it one of my all time favorite hotels I’ve ever stayed at. 

We spent the afternoon swimming in the pool, relaxing, and taking naps. As good as the kids have been, the 14 hour time change is pretty brutal. All three girls passed out after swimming, and when it was time to wake them up for dinner, none of them wanted to get up. It took lots of poking and prodding to rouse them out of bed. For dinner, we went to this huge banquet hall that served a buffet dinner (I know! But this time the husband stayed away from any and all raw seafood) and put on a traditional Cambodian dance show. This time it was Erin’s turn to fall asleep at dinner. 

The next morning was our first day to visit the temples.

Welcome to Angkor Wat
Welcome to Angkor Wat

It was also the first day of the Cambodian New Year. We knew it would be busy, but we had no idea just how many people would descend on Siem Reap. We got our first taste when we arrived at Angkor Wat, which is the biggest and best known of the Cambodian ancient temples. It was crowded not just with foreign tourists like us, but also thousands of Cambodians celebrating the 3-day New Year.

Preparing for the New Year Festival at Angkor Wat
Preparing for the New Year Festival at Angkor Wat

At 8:30 a.m. Angkor Wat was already packed with people. Thank goodness for our tour guide who helped us navigate through the masses. The guide peppered us with fantastic history of Angkor Wat, but most of it was lost on the kids, with the exception of Erin who listened with great interest about the wall carvings depicting war scenes.  Olivia may not have been into the history, but she was totally into the photography of Angkor Wat. That meant she didn’t want us taking any pictures of her.

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Angkor Wat wall carving

Two of the 3 girls willingly posed for pictures

 

Or maybe that was just her ‘tweendom coming out. After about 1 1/2 hours at Angkor Wat, the heat was getting to the kids and the husband, and the crowds were getting to me.

We decided to cut the tour short and resume in the afternoon with a stop at Ta Prohm,

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also known as the Tomb Raider temple because it was featured in the Angelina Jolie movie.

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It’s not just famous for the movie, but also for the huge trees and their massive vines that have grown in and around it. It’s interesting to see how much has changed at these temples in just five years. These temples were left untouched for centuries, but now that they have become tourist destinations, the wear and tear has taken its toll, so a big conservation effort is underway to restore them.

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That means removing many of the iconic trees, which if left untouched would cause Ta Prohm to crumble even more than it already has. The renovations also caused many areas that we saw five years ago to be roped off this time around. 

I’ve got to hand it to the husband. He felt terrible and should have stayed back at the hotel, but he didn’t want us to go alone, so he ventured out. In addition to the bad stomach, he had a bad reaction to the antibiotics, causing his glands, tongue and face to swell.  His mom gave him an Alka Seltzer to take for the ride, which in hindsight was probably a mistake. At one point, I looked back at him, and he had his head resting on the back of the seat. He was looking a little green and was groaning a little. I asked if we should pull over and his non-response gave me my answer. The driver quickly pulled over to the side of the road, and husband promptly hurled while his mom rubbed his back. She’s much more nurturing than I am. He said he did feel better, and made it through the tour of Ta Prohm. He opted out for dinner so he could get some peace, quiet, and some rest. When we returned around 8 p.m., he was dead asleep.

The next day, the husband thankfully felt much better, and we took a two hour van ride to Phnom Kulen, which is a mountain region complete with a reclining Budha, a river with lingas (phallic carvings) carved into the river bed, and a beautiful waterfall complete with a flowered swing. We came here five years ago as well, and it was one of the highlights of the trip. This time, not so much. It turns out, we weren’t the only ones with the grand idea to head up to the mountain. Since the Cambodian New Year is a national holiday, literally thousands of other people also ventured up the bumpy dirt road. At least we were in an air-conditioned van. Many people drove mopeds, carrying several people on it. Others packed so tightly into trucks, cars, and vans, it was a wonder they made it up the mountain. I was as awestruck at the number of people as I was at the Reclining Budha,

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and since I was one of the few Westerners at Mount Kulen, people looked at me awestruck.  People pushed and shoved their way to the top of the stairs to see the Reclining Budha,

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which seems the opposite of what you should do when paying respects to a Budha. We finally made it to the top, patted its head,

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and made our way back down. By this time, we were ready to enjoy the river and the waterfall, but the place was far from serene. 

A sea of people
A sea of people

There were people everywhere, along with their trash. At one point, a wooden bridge filled with people popped, and I was convinced it was going to plunge into the water. By some miracle, it didn’t. Knowing that to get to the waterfall, we would have to take a precarious hike, we decided not to push our luck, instead pushing our way through the crowds of people back to our van. There was only one problem. To get to Phnom Kulen, you take a dirt road that goes only one way. We had to wait for the police to stop people from coming up so we could go back down. That was supposed to happen at 12:30, but didn’t happen until 1:30. Then, with the thousands of people all trying to get out one way, it took us two hours to move a quarter of a mile. I’m far from a patient person, but the zen of the Reclining Budha must have had an effect on me because I didn’t lose it. I sat in the back of the van with Erin peeling and eating Kulen fruit, which are kind of like lychee, and have a sweet and sour taste. 

Kulen fruit
Kulen fruit

I’d compare it to a sour gummy bear with a big pit in the middle. By the end of the neverending van ride, I became a master at peeling the fruit and getting all the flesh off the pit. 


The kids wanted to head right back to the hotel after the van ride, but I wanted to check out another temple, Banteay Srei.

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It was just a small detour, and it’s a beautiful temple made out of sandstone well worth seeing. I’m sure when the kids are adults they’ll appreciate us taking them to yet another temple after such a horrific van ride down from the mountain right?

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After surviving the Phnom Kulen adventure, we decided to torture ourselves and the kids even more with a 4:15 a.m. wake-up call so we could see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Hey, everyone’s body clock is so messed up already, we didn’t see any harm in rousing them at o’crack hundred hours. This hotel is so kick-ass in its customer service that even though the restaurant wasn’t open, they set out pastries, coffee and tea, and sent us on our way with to-go breakfasts. The pastries were a god send for us because they placated the kids, and either they were on a sugar rush or so sleep deprived that they didn’t complain about the early morning adventure. Even at 5 a.m. it’s hot here. At least it wasn’t oppressively hot. At least not yet. By this time, we knew we’d have plenty of company at Angkor Wat, even at sunrise, and we were right.

Angkor Wat at Sunrise
Angkor Wat at Sunrise

The place was filled with amateur photographers who lined the moat leading into the temple. This included my budding photographer who’s face lit up as much as the sun did, as she snapped away on her point and shoot camera.

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As early as it was, I’m so glad we did this. It was truly a spectacular sight to see the sun rising up over Angkor Wat.

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We did a little more exploring of Angkor Wat

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and the kids did their best Apsara poses before we headed out.

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By this time, my shirt was soaked with sweat, and it was barely after 7 a.m. 

We still had to see the Bayon, which is a magnificent Buddhist temple filled with the faces of Buddha. IMG_9876

As iconic and beautiful as Angkor Wat is, the Bayon is my favorite.  There’s just something about seeing all those faces from multiple angles that captures my attention.

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Unfortunately it didn’t capture the girls’ attention as much as it did mine, and the only way we got them to pose for pictures was through threats of taking away privileges.

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If the girls would have had their way, we would have ended our temple tour after the Bayon, but I wanted to see a couple more, namely the Terrace of the Elephants and the Baphoun, which recently reopened after renovation. The kids didn’t get too far. They were hot and tired, but I got a closer look at Baphoun.

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After climbing and climbing and climbing I made it to the top.

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Well worth the climb and gallon of sweat that came out of me while trudging up the many steps.

By 9 a.m., we were hot and templed out for the day. I know I’ve written a lot about the heat and humidity, I don’t think I’ve experienced weather this steamy before. Not in Minnesota or Missouri in the Summer. Not even Corpus Christi, Texas. 

Even though this trip to Cambodia has been vastly different from the one five years earlier, it has been unforgettable. The girls have truly embraced their Cambodian culture and even said they would like to live here, although I think Carrie only wants to move here because she thinks she wouldn’t have to go to school. Once we told her she’d have to go to school here too, she was a little less than enthused. 
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Spring Break in Cambodia Part I

We made it! I wasn’t entirely convinced it would happen, when 16 hours before we were set to embark on an 18 hour journey to Cambodia, I came down with the flu. It was awful. I woke up and could barely get out of bed. I had aches. I had pains. I had chills one minute and was drenched in sweat the next. With our flight not leaving San Francisco International Airport until 1:40 a.m. on Thursday morning, I had planned to work on Wednesday. I quickly realized if I had any hope of getting on the plane with the rest of my family, I’d have to call in sick so I could get some potent meds and sleep. The husband took pity on me and not only finished the last-minute packing, but also sat with the three girls on our first leg of our flight from SFO to Taipei. That allowed me to pop a nighttime cold and flu pill and sleep on and off for a good four to five hours. When I woke up, I was far from 100%, but way better than I was when we left our home.

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Next stop, Cambodia!

 

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The girls so far on this trip have proven to be travel warriors. That’s not to say we haven’t had our fair share of whining and fighting, but given the long 18 hour travel journey, the 14 hour time difference, and the oppressive heat and humidity, they have surprised and amazed me at their resilance and all around good attitudes. When we landed at Phnom Penh airport it was 10 a.m. Friday morning, and 8 p.m. California time. The girls and us had no concept of time, but we were all excited to have made it all in one piece. The husband has countless aunts, uncles, and cousins who live here, and many met us at the airport. I tried for a time to remember all their names and how everyone is related, but eventually gave up. From the airport, we went to lunch, and somehow everyone stayed awake and made it through the meal. Then we headed to the hotel and the girls got a second wind and went for a swim. When we came to Cambodia five years ago with Olivia, the time jet lag eventually caught up with her and she never made it through dinner, so we opted to go for the hotel seafood buffet for dinner this time around. Carrie followed in her big sister’s footsteps, and never made it to dinner. She slept in the chair, while the rest of us ate.

Good Night!
Good Night!

The next morning we awoke around 5 a.m., grabbed breakfast, and then headed out to the Royal Palace. 

The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace

 

It was grand and opulent, but unfortunately, some of the more ornate rooms were closed off to the public. It was also hot and humid, and Cambodian custom requires visitors to the Palace to wear sleeves and shorts have to go at least to the knees. I’m not sure if the kids were too jet lagged to complain, but they obliged wearing the long pants without complaint.

All sweat and smiles
All sweat and smiles

 

Feeling hot, hot, hot!
Feeling hot, hot, hot!

We also checked out the Cambodian History Museum, but the kids were less than impressed. They may have had more appreciation for it, if the museum was air conditioned, but the only time any of them perked up, was when Erin saw the weapons room. By this time, the kids were ready to get out of the heat, so we headed to lunch at another relative’s restaurant. Many other family members met us there and our family pretty much took over the entire place. This was about the time the husband started feeling sick. I originally thought I gave him the flu, but nope, it wasn’t the flu. It was food poisoning, likely from eating raw oysters at the seafood buffet one night earlier. At least he made it back to the hotel before feeling the full effects. The poor guy was down for the count, and we were scheduled to get on another plane the next morning for Siem Reap. A doctor who came to check him out wanted to hook him up to an IV filled with fluids and antibiotics, but he opted for oral antibiotics and sleep instead. By morning, he still didn’t feel good, but was well enough to get back on a plane.

Away we go again
Away we go again

We were hoping the worst was over for him and he’d be raring to go when we explored the ancient temples. That’s where we would begin the second phase of our great Cambodian spring break vacation.

Homemade Cambodian Cuisine at its Finest

Having my in-laws in town means I’m eating really well, a little too well. As I write this, my stomach is crying uncle from the four extra helpings I ate at dinner. The original Mamma Meak is one mean cook, and is able to whip up some pretty amazing Cambodian concoctions.

Last night I came home to dinner waiting for me at the table, courtesy of Mamma Meak. The girls happily informed me that they LOVED Grandma Meak’s fresh spring rolls. They’ve had them before, but usually deconstructed them to avoid any green vegetables. This time, they ate the entire roll, six of ’em in the case of Olivia and Erin. The girls know good spring rolls. My mother in-law’s are about the best I’ve had with chicken, shrimp, noodles, lettuce, cucumber, and mint. She also serves them up with hoisin dipping sauce.

That was followed up with Cambodian crepes, also pretty darned delicious. I’ve eaten them plenty of times, but this time Mamma Meak shared the recipe. Rice flour, coconut milk, and water. Once it’s cooked she fills it with minced chicken, shrimp, bean sprouts, onion and garlic. I not only gobbled up a couple of them, but so did the girls. I guess I’m got some crepe making to do once my in-laws leave town.

Tonight, dinner was once again waiting for me when I came home from work. This time, she made fried rice and fried noodles. Her noodles are hands down, my absolute favorite. That’s why I’m so full now.  I don’t know what it is about these noodles, but I can’t stop eating them. I have absolutely no willpower.

There’s already plans in the works to make egg rolls tomorrow. I’ve got some pretty mixed emotions about this. While I love them, they’re definitely not part of the P90X diet. I know I can’t say no to eating one, but the question remains, will I stop at one? The odds are against me.