Siem Reap and the great temples of Angkor Wat

It has been an extremely full week here in Cambodia.  We have been here a month and it all feels so normal in one way, and yet surreal in another that we are really here in Cambodia, living our dream of doing something different.  Our frantic juggle of full-time paid work and school seems a world away, and yet our days are still a juggle, just different.  Less of the circus juggle, more a slower pace, undirected juggle.  Each day requires stimulation and activities for two young intelligent boys, deliver our volunteer projects, and appease our own intellectual stimulation.  All this in one small room, at times debilitating heat and rain, and a budget so tight it hurts.

Don’t get me wrong, I am so very happy to be here, we all are.  I just want to be honest so you know that there are also down days where we struggle to find our purpose and meet our own needs as adults to have space, peace and pursue our own interests and solo time.  I knew we wouldn’t have much time to ourselves, but I guess I hadn’t contemplated quite how little.  We have been together solidly for a month now, and despite these irritations, fundamentally we each have worked and played so well together and significantly closer and more understanding of each other than ever before


Now, I want to tell you about my boys.  They are amazing.  All three of them!  But, the little ones particularly, are truly amazing.  The speed at which children adapt to something new is phenomenal and I urge all your parents out there to make whatever move you’ve been lusting after, because if you are happy, the children are happy and they will always adjust far quicker than you imagine.   These boys arise to a new day with a smile on their face and have settled into day to day routines faster than their parents.  I realise, however, that they are still new to all this and culture shock is never too far away as we discovered on our border run.

Not once have the boys questioned when we will leave Cambodia, or about their past lives in England or New Zealand, or when they will have playmates and see their friends again. I realise also how these two boys are so fortunate to have each other. They are a massive support, confidente and best friend to each other.  I expect more squabbles will come, but so far so good. Of course there are complaints, they whinge, they hassle and ask for things. Bribery is up and running with their kindles. All day they ask for them, desperate to propel themselves back into many Minecraft worlds they have created.

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Minecraft has become their obsession, their reward, their “other” world and we struggle to divert their energies into more practical tasks and games.  There are benefits of course.   It is collaborative and with WIFI they join each others world in games that suit all levels of creativity, experience and ability.   Minecraft is being added to the school curriculum in the UK and judging by Oscar’s creation of Angkor Wat in Minecraft this evening, I am starting to understand why.


So I was always going to be fascinated to see that we normalise as the weeks go by here in Cambodia.  For sure the simple things, using a hose spray to wash bums after a visit to the toilet, never putting toilet paper down the loos, no hairdryer or make-up,  removing our shoes before we enter a building, rice for every meal and travelling by cycle or tuktuk.  Sure, this is just the way we live now.  Even Oscar can’t help but wave from the back of the cycle to those we pass.  What is more fundamental is how you start to look further and deeper into everything you do and see around you.  As you start to recognise the roads and familiar landmarks, you look further into the doorways, observe more closely interactions between the locals, where are they going, what are they eating, how do they travel, where do they live.This is where it starts to get interesting and you feel you no longer are just a tourist passing by, you are on the journey to understanding a new culture far deeper than would’ve been possible in any other way.  I love the people here – there is always a smile, always a look of kindness and generosity.  They delight in seeing our boys, to squeeze their arms and touch their tousled hair.   At the same time you look deeper into your own interests and reactions to what we are doing.  What we enjoy, what we find easy, where we struggle, what bothers us.  This was exactly what we came here for, a multi-faceted learning journey for us all.


So we have been busy being tourists and being volunteers this week.  We have naturally been led towards those projects where we already have skill and experience, as to the more practical ones.  That’s both good and bad.  Good we are using our natural skill, but computer work isn’t easy when with the boys all the time, and not great exposure for them either.

First up this week was the completion of a new logo for CAD below from my dearest talented friend, Vanessa who has been working for us from her home in Doha, Qatar.


This has been so well received the logo has been used already on some materials.  Thank-you and a big shout out to Vanessa.  Vanessa is now working with us to create a Battambang T-shirt for CAD to use with volunteer students and potentially tourists travelling through.  More updates as we progress on this!

I am still involved with teaching English, teaching a particular class in the CAD 1 centre – this is very much a beginners class and they are absolutely delightful.  Their teacher doesn’t speak much English either but somehow we work well together as a team.


We are working our way through a fairly limited shortlist of tourist attractions here in Battambang.  Last Sunday we ventured out with student run Butterfly Tours taking their half day livelihoods tour through the villages of Battambang.  Armed with our trusty 2 seater bicycles, we headed out into the villages to explore traditional local industries supporting their communities.

First up hand-made rice paper, literally hundreds of perfect round circles drying on bamboo racks alongside the roadside.  Finely sliced bananas drying in the sun, followed by the tools and techniques for making Khmer rice noodles.  J and I were persuaded to sit and “enjoy” a bowl of traditional noodles (with various ominous additions) in amongst the locals in the village market, perhaps luckily the boys were not required to partake.


Next up, rice wine.  A staple part of the Cambodian diet, and the cheapest and most popular Cambodian beverage, srah sohl, or rice wine, is produced by fermenting grains of rice and can be ready in as little as 24 hours.  Fascinating to see a local family at work through the entire process.  We finished up with our first micro-sip of this cheap and lethal alcohol which actually I rather liked.


Bamboo rice cakes sold in baskets by the roadside were delicious, and a delicacy of this region of Cambodia.  Grand finale was a tour of the biggest fish paste market in Battambang which left our senses reeling.   Time to complete our 35km round trip and back to base with four numb bums.  We dived straight into the nearest cafe for smoothies and a large draught Cambodia beer.   It was a truly magical morning, to travel by bicycle and witness the daily life of Cambodian villagers at a far slower pace than by TukTuk.



This week saw our first expedition out of Battambang, by bus to Siem Reap with the journey an adventure in itself.  Buses leave Battambang from the outskirts of the city as the streets are too narrow for coaches to travel through the centre.  A tuktuk dropped us to the bus and we loaded a single backpack between us for our 4 day mini-break (impressed myself in travelling light!).

The journey to Siem Reap took around 4 hours with a rest stop half way to enjoy Cambodian street food delights such as crunchy crickets, sweet lychee sodas and the delightful, or not so, durian fruit.  A very brief foray to the hole in the ground toilet (Oscar not impressed) and back on the bus for the remainder of the trip.  We checked into our guest house in the heart of the city, only a couple of minutes walk from Old Market, and the night-time action and cocktails of Pub Street.  The boys were thrilled to see a small swimming pool and were in within seconds.  Incidentally, who’d think that swimming googles would become such a prized possession for us here in Cambodia? We are down to our last 2 with no hope of getting any replacements until a sports shop manifests itself along our travels.

First up on the tourist trail was out to the National Museum to get a sense of the history of Angkor Archaeological Park before our visit at 630am the next day.  We decided against a guide for our Big Day, and instead opted for the fantastic Mr Savuth and his tuktuk whom we had found on the web.  


Up early and excited we were into one of the world’s greatest archaeological sites by 700am and standing face to face with the world’s great city of Angkor Thom and the Bayon temple.

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For each of the four of us, what stood before us truly took our breath away.  What unfolded with the children was really truly magical as Oscar in particular came alive with awe, excitement and inspiration.  We were met by a Buddhist nun who instructed us how to make an offering of incense sticks and worship the Buddah.

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The boys loved every minute of this ethereal world, scrambling over the rocks and ruins, climbing up into towers of Baphuon and marvelling at the majestic carvings along the Terrace of the Elephants.

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We continued to Ta Keo and Ta Prohm and delighted in the fact we were visiting during low season and therefore not subjected to too many large tourist groups.  One of the most striking aspects of our visit was seeing how the park is still inhabited, with many villages, some of whom ancestors are dating back to the Angkor period are scattered throughout the park.

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We worked our days very much around the children.  I wanted them to have fond memories of a visit somewhere so special, so we returned to the hotel by 10am for a long swim and chill out before heading back out at 4pm to see Angkor Wat with hopes of a sundowner.  Despite being caught in a monsoon downpour, Angkor Wat is everything you read about, and more.  We had a day away from the temples and returned again on Saturday to travel a good 45 minutes out to Banteay Srey famous for exquisitely detailed carvings.   We passed many farmers in their rice fields, and witnessed once again village life in amongst these archaeological masterpieces.  Pre Rup temple, followed by Banteay Kdei and a final clamber in amongst the towers.

We were persuaded to stop by the Landmine Museum and indeed a worthwhile visit for it was both eye-opening and tragic.  This is a museum and a home for victims of landmines. The boys were fascinated and asked a million questions, their brains firing on all cylinders trying to get to grips with the horror of these small innocent looking pieces of wood and plastic.  We have had many questions from the boys since, particularly Zachary.  They have produced some scary looking drawings but I think this is a good thing.  It has made them think beyond their own lives, to start to consider the what, the why and the enormity of war.



We had made contact with a couple of NGO’s in Siem Reap who agreed to show us what they are doing for teaching computer skills to children as part of our research in what we can offer back at the CAD computer lab in Battambang.  Our first visit was to Spitler School, incredibly well-run school and foundation which both educates the children and support the wider local community providing road and clean water infrastructure.  We also visited Salariin Kampuchea, running education in computer skills, English and life skills.  These visits were both educational and inspirational – to see how these organisations have grown, what they are achieving but most of all how humble and passionate they are about bringing change to the people of post-war Cambodia.
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The remainder of our trip really was spent absorbing Siem Reap in restaurants, bars, cafes and the infamous Blue Pumpkin Cafe ( for ice-cream.   Chocolate for Zachary (as always), Strawberry and Vanilla for Oscar (as always), coconut shake for Annie and

orange ice-cream for J.


Tourist visas for Cambodia are only issued for 30 days at a time, and other than a very expensive strange extension system in-country, the norm is to exit and re-enter the country on the same day.  We decided to tackle this en route back from Siem Reap to Battambang, taking what they call a private taxi for the 2 1/2 journey to Poipet on the Thai border.  These roads are seriously not the greatest, and having navigated potholes, mopeds, carts and bicycles at speed, Zachary finally performed with his travel sickness.  I forget to mention we had a friend with us, Bopha.  Bopha served us at Genevieve’s in Siem Reap a few nights before where we had dinner sheltering from a torrential thunderstorm.  I learnt that night she hadn’t seen her beautiful 20-month old daughter for 2 months, the norm for so many here in Cambodia as the young strive to support their families, leaving young children in the care of grandparents, aunts and friends.  I also learnt her family lived on the road to Poipet, and her day off was Sunday.. exactly the day and where we were heading.   Bopha accepted our offer of a free ride in our taxi to spend the day with her family – she was  almost in tears with thanks and gratitude, and in return we had the honour of sharing a couple of hours with such a wonderful, sweet lady teaching us a few more Khmer words.  I so hope our paths cross again one day.

Poipet is grim.  A city known for scam-artists and lawlessness.  We witnessed large military vehicles collecting the thousands of Cambodian legal and illegal workers deported from Thailand by the new military government.  An estimated 25000 crossing the border in one day alone, and in reality there is not enough transport and a growing humanitarian crisis as deported workers await transport to their prospective provinces.

Within an hour and a half or so we had exited Cambodia, entered Thailand, exited Thailand and entered Cambodia.  Many appeared to be doing the same, and vice versa from Thailand.  A strange half mile or so of smelly, dirty and dusty no mans land.  Large concrete seedy casinos where Thais gamble in Cambodia without having to go through immigration.  Stacks of cheap cigarettes and an assortment of duty-free alcohol which was more expensive than the local store in Battambang.  We made it through fairly seamlessly, far too many forms and photographs, and another round of $80 on visa fees into Cambodia – I couldn’t help thinking this to be a crazy system.  We were passed over to a new taxi driver with minus zero English skill, a dodgy, beyond old Toyota Camry, and the driving speed of Eitan Senna.  It was horrendous.  How J was able to keep his eyes open looking through the front windscreen I’ll never know.  A dodgy moment as the driver tried to pile in another paying Cambodian passenger.  When we refused he tried to sit her next to him in the driver seat.  No.  No way.  We made it clear we wouldn’t be paying him, never mind the fact this wasn’t safe for us at the speed he drove.  I swear he then drove even faster and it was truly crazy.  Within minutes of arriving back to our room in Battambang, we broke into our emergency mini 5 cl vodka.  Down in one.

Next up, Week 5.


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9 Responses

  1. Jenny Wilson says:

    LOVE your writing Annie – you make it all so vivid xxx looks like you really are making the most of it!

    • leggini says:

      Thank you Jenny! It’s amazing how you feel you haven’t done much in a week then by writing a blog you realise how much we really have. Love you 5 x

  2. Amazing stuff Annie – when I had a sabbatical from TRA back in the day, we went for a month’s Tour de France, 4 weeks that were mainly just Rachel and I and the girls (then aged 5 & 2). Not really comparable with your experience in many ways, but the ‘enforced’ time with only ourselves was fantastic. Late in the trip we met some friends who came out to spend a few days with us, and we actually wanted them to leave…! It will be “interesting” for you all to return, whenever that may be.

    But for now, I’m thrilled for you that you’re getting so much from this experience (as am I in reading your blog). Inspiring…

  3. Jilly Cook says:

    Annie! This is quite the most fantastic description of your visit to Angkor Wat! I really felt as if I was there,it was all so vivid… You will never forget this experience. Love you xxxxxxx

  4. Amazing! Wonderful to read all about it – you guys are having such an amazing, memories-for-life time. Tough cookies!! Love to you all! x

  5. Bailey says:

    Oh Annie, this brings back so many memories of my week in Cambodia that I loved so much. You are a fabulous writer, everything springs to life with your words. An amazing experience for you, J and the boys. You’re incredibly brave and inspiring. I miss you! bx

  6. sharonp755 says:

    What an amazing adventure for you and your boys and I love your blog Annie. xx