Cambodia – an historical journey
Stayed – 14 days
When: 5 March to 18 March
A small country tucked into the heart of South East Asia is between 12 to 13 hours from Sydney via Bangkok, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur and can be traversed with ease. Land travel across the country has been institutionalized into Cambodian travel and tourism. The down fall to this is the appalling roads. Alternatively there is the Mekong Delta which makes its way through the country in a North-South direction and the Tonle Sap River running across from Vietnam in the East to Thailand in the West, meaning water travel is highly accessible and quite popular.
Traffic in Cambodia is busy but slow with many cars and large tuk-tuks, a combination wood/metal carriage complete with roof and two by two facing seats towed by motorbikes, afford up to six passengers unhindered views of the scenery, dominate the roads above that of motorbikes. And the view could be white buffalo towing wood logs in busy traffic, orange clad monks on motorbikes, temples and children playing in the streets or rubbish lined up, piled up or on fire everywhere. We traveled across the Vietnam border and instantly saw the difference in street cleanliness from one checkpoint to the other, later travelling across the Thailand border witnessing an immediate improvement. Rubbish would have to be the biggest problem, a close second would be the lack of public toilets, in this beautiful part of the world but if you speak to locals they simply shrug their shoulders and explain that they may just be used to it.
While there is a lot more to Cambodia than just Phnom Penh and Siem Reap these two destinations have more than enough unique attractions to fill a two week visit.
Medium stay: 9 nights
Accommodation: family room in a hostel near the riverfront of Tonle Sap.
Phnom Penh is the capital in the Kingdom of Cambodia and resembles a major construction zone. Work is going on in every corner of the city, the roads are being improved in every direction, the city junctions are being beautified, major resorts are being constructed and they just opened the countries first modern shopping centre, called AEON Mall in June 2014. On top of all that they are preparing the waterfront area on Diamond Island (Koh Pich) for the construction of a complex set to rival the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. One wonders what it will look like in 10 years.
Our first night stay and you instantly sense that this is a transit city for those heading to Angkor Wat or Laos. Westerners are everywhere and unfortunately, this has influenced the menus here as much as in Vietnam, which is a shame. A short stay could mean visitors miss tasting any Khmer cuisine. Restaurants offer a selection of dishes heavily influenced by neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand. But the national dish, Khmer amok curry, traditionally with fish but we ate it mostly with chicken, is a bright yellow creamy sauce served in a coconut with slices of carrot and basil leaves and just enough heat to make you reach for the napkin, is a stand out dish that should not be missed. As in Vietnam, there is the french influenced street and snack food, meaning plenty of baguettes and croissants.
- National Museum – this large historic building displays many Royal relics but mostly archaeological items from Angkor Wat and its surrounds.
- Royal Palace – a beautiful collection of buildings and stupa’s set amidst immaculate lawns. Lovely way to spend an early morning during opening times 7.30am and 11 am or after the midday heat from 2 pm to 5 pm. There is a miniature sculpture of Angkor Wat in one of the main courtyards, we get the feeling they admire this historical site with unbridled enthusiasm.
- Central Market – set in an art deco building with high ceilings and natural ventilation, it is well spread out, with only the periphery feeling a little tight for comfort. The best market we have visited in Asia.
- The Killing Fields at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center – this somber attraction, for want of a better word, is a pertinent reminder of a terrifying past that no one wants to revisit. The walking audio tour allows visitors to move around the grounds at their own pace and there are plenty of bench seats to allow you to reflect on what it all means. It is extremely confronting and very difficult to explain to children, not surprisingly, such horror and sorrow in one place is difficult to understand for adults.
- Toul Sleng Museum or S21 Prison as it is known – another confronting reminder of a regime out of control. Fear can be felt at the site, you feel physically moved here as much as The Killing Fields because as a visitor you pass silently through each room/cell and look around as your emotions are mirrored on others, looking equally emotionally drained. While we were there some made quick exits to the balcony’s to catch their breath or shed a quiet tear.
Phnom Penh has monuments, a palace and graphic tourist attractions, but none of it outshines the refreshing genuineness of the people. They speak with their eyes and almost plead with you to enjoy your time, stay safe they will gesture or warn you about bag snatchers, this from old lady’s or tuk-tuk drivers or the hotel staff meant that they were serious about ensuring visitor safety.
Short stay: 5 nights
Accommodation: family room in 3 star hotel with a pool.
Siem Reap has a totally different vibe from Phnom Penh. It feels much safer and has an easy slow pace that invites strolling through lanes of seemingly endless markets. In the central area of the city, you will find the Old Market (Psar Chas), the BB Night Market and others claiming to be the ‘original old market‘, which just makes for comical confusion.
Our visit to this tiny city, that seems to have grown in the shadow of the sprawling archaeological wonder that is Angkor Wat and co. was by far the most relaxing visit. The traffic on the main streets is slow and many back lanes have hardly any traffic at all.
- Angkor Wat and co. – Entrance to the Angkor Archaeological Park can be purchased for one day, three days or longer. One little trick is to enter the site after 4.30 pm and purchase a day ticket for the following day. You now are able to enter on the day of purchase before it closes and then come back for a full day. The entire flat dusty site is enormous. After the entrance, the first ruin is Angkor Wat on your right. It is the most famous and recognisable ruin being mostly intact and accessible by a walkway across a moat. The trek to the centre temple is long but not exhaustive, just enough to build some suspense and a whole lot of sweat. And when you thought that was big you move through a large stone archway along a dirt road for such a time that you will think that you are leaving the area before reaching the Bayon, at the centre of Angkor Thom. Thom is Wat’s much larger brother being over four times the size. What awaits you is a dusty but shaded maze of ruin after ruin. If you choose a short journey then your day is over and you need to come back the next day for the remaining sites. But if you are like us and on a budget, then push through dehydration and head along the tracks to the outer sites that are, at times repetitive and then surprising; such as the Ta Som site which you enter through one archway and continue walking through archways until you reach the last one and turn to see it is encased in fig tree roots, truly spectacular. Click here to read about the other sites we visited and the dress code according to Winter.
- The many markets – the stall staff were the best we have encountered, not pushy and more than happy to help us when we asked for directions to merchandise they did not stock.
- Pub Street – we spent St Patrick’s Day at a street party, drinking green beer and listening to live music and still made it into bed by 9 pm. We got the feeling they do this type of entertaining regularly.
Cambodia was excessively hot and dry the entire time, not a storm or heavy shower in site, just light evening rain maybe once or twice. Power outages were regular but most didn’t last long and hot water or any water came and went in Phnom Penh. The city’s we visited catered exceedingly well to tourists, maybe too well, but the people are charming and genuine. The rubbish to one side, pun intended, the country has a uniqueness born out of the hardship of the past and celebration of the past in equal measure.
Shopping: We purchased a few clothes, the singlets with elephants on them are gorgeous and of all things, the girls wanted a multi-coloured hammock. I am sure we will use it one day.
Best experience as voted by the entire family:
- Angkor Wat, without a doubt.
Worst experience as voted by the entire family:
- In Phnom Penh; combine the heat with rubbish and dust and the result was a persistent assault on the senses that forced you to stay inside.
- A few burgers were hard to refuse and our 13-year-old has found a favourite dish of stir fry noodles with chicken, more Chinese than Cambodian, but she finishes them every time.
Would we go back?
No, we did as much as we could, considering the heat and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We felt like we were in holiday mode again due to the peacefulness of Siem Reap and its infectious party atmosphere.