Louise Denton’s Guide to Cambodia
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Cambodia is a country with so much to offer - fascinating history, friendly locals and stunning scenery, from the most beautiful beaches to majestic mountains – it really does have it all. It’s chaotic and relaxing at the same time; it’s easy yet sometimes challenging; it’s definitely a rewarding adventure and somewhere you’ll never want to leave…
Cambodia is a country packed full of history; some of it ancient and some of it recent, some of it fascinating, but some of it tragic.
So, when did it all start? Well, Cambodia is an old country. There have been artefacts recovered dating back to approximately 6000 BC. However, when travelling around the country this ancient history seems to be left behind, over shadowed by the magnificent Angkor era, and the ancient Angkor temples really are magnificent.
One of the highlights on any trip to Cambodia is exploring the massive temples, including the world famous Angkor Wat.These huge, stone temples were constructed during the reign of the Khmer Empire between the 9th and 13th centuries. This empire was one of the most powerful in South East Asia, thought to be the largest pre-industrial, urban centre in the world.
The Angkor temples were their legacy, demonstrating their wealth and power over the entire region.The first city of Angkor was established around 900 AD, followed by temples, palaces, monasteries and reservoirs. Angkor Wat took 37 years to build and is the world’s largest temple. Angkor Wat is a well-known symbol of Cambodia, featuring on the country's national flag. There is even a beer named ‘Angkor’!
It’s thought the Angkor era ended around 1350 due to the rising of the Thai empires and the impact of the European ‘Black Death’ plague. Luckily for us, their city of ancient temples remain.
Over the next few hundred years, Cambodia was colonised by the French, bombed by the US and occupied by the Japanese during WWII. Then came the ‘Khmer Rouge Regime’, an era that changed Cambodia forever…
The Khmer Rouge was the name given to the ruling Communist party and its followers, holding power from 1975 to 1979. Led by a man named Pol Pot, they believed in social engineering, encouraging absolute self-sufficiency through "living off the land". Pol Pot wanted to create a social utopia, one that lived in ignorant bliss. Through these ideals they forced the entire population from cities to new communities to work as farmers. Conditions were horrendous, people were exhausted, famine was widespread and disease rife.
Anyone who disobeyed, spoke out against the regime or tried to escape was brutally murdered. Not with guns, but often battered to death or hit over the head in order to save bullets. People who were seen as a threat such as intellectuals, doctors, professionals or former politicians were imprisoned, tortured and killed. Even people who wore glasses were condemned.
In four years it’s estimated a third of the population was murdered, some three million people. Being so recent, it’s obvious that the horror of these years is still present in people's minds. When you travel around Cambodia you notice there are very few older people, and of those few, all have tales to tell of how the Khmer Rouge regime affected their family.
The effects are even still on-going. The Khmer Rouge planted millions of landmines around the country to prevent workers from escaping. Up to six million still remain, killing approximately 400 people each year.
There are a few autobiographical accounts that are well worth a read to get a true picture of the Khmer Rouge regime. ‘First They Killed My Father’ by Loung Ung is worth a read, as is ‘Stay Alive, My Son’ by Pin Yathay. It’s also worth visiting the landline museum in Siem Reap, founded by Aki Ra. He is a man who was recruited by the Khmer Rouge child army in 1975 has since dedicated his life to locating, removing and disposing of landmines around Cambodia.
The Vietnamese liberated Cambodia in 1979 and King Sihanouk was reinstated as Cambodia's king. Trials for the former Khmer Rouge leaders are still on-going today. The ghost of the Khmer Rouge still remains…
Politically, although a long way off a Western style democracy, Cambodia is making progress.
Currently (2011), King Norodom Sihamoni is the head of state with Prime Minister Hun Sen of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP). Cambodia's politics are considered corrupt by some Western standards and the CPP have held the office for 23 years, suggesting to oppositions the CPP's ability to intimidate or “buy off" opponents. The voting age is 18.
The main opposition party are considered to be the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP). Other parties include the Human Rights Party, the Norodom Ranarridh Party and the Funcinpec.
Cambodia is in the tropical zone, meaning the climate is warm to hot all year round.There are no typical spring, summer, autumn, and winter seasons, but instead they have ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ seasons.
This can sometimes be a bit difficult to get your head around… basically, the dry season is from November - March and the wet season is from June - October.The hottest months are March to May.
It’s typically considered that the dry season is the best time to visit. It’s less humid and therefore cooler. There’s no rain, which means there’s no disruption to tourist activities. However, the wet brings with it wildlife, greenery and higher river levels. It’s generally a time of happiness and optimism amongst rural workers and farmers who need good rain for their crops, especially for their rice!
The seasons and climates differ throughout SE Asia, so don't presume because you'll have good weather in Thailand it will be the same in Cambodia!
November to February are the “cool and dry” months with daily highs of mid-twenties oC. These months are considered the best time of the year to visit. The skies are clear, the days comfortable, but the trees and rivers still green and flowing.
From February the temperatures creep up a bit and from March to May is known as the "hot and dry". At end of the dry season the rivers are at their lowest, which can make boat travel difficult. Road travel is a piece of cake though!
From mid-April the temperature can be uncomfortably hot from the mid to high 30's. The humidity rises, which makes it feel even hotter!
June to August is known as the "hot and wet". The monsoons and rains begin in late May, but they are fairly predictable. The wet season usually brings daily storms or showers in the afternoon with mostly clear mornings. The jungle is lush green, and the showers are cooling. Just buy a poncho like the locals!
September to early November is known as the "cool and wet". The air has been cooled by the months of rain, the humidity released. From September the temperature is still in the mid 30's, but it gradually drops. As the rain ends, the cycle begins again with the best time to visit Cambodia!
Always consult a GP before travel if you think vaccinations might be required.Information and health risks change frequently, so you shouldn't just rely on the net. Your GP or travel clinic will have access to up to date information!
Ensure you’re up to date on all the regular vaccines administered in the UK and other countries. For example TB, Tetanus, etc.
You’ll also need to ensure you’re immunised against Typhoid, Hepatitis A and B, Polio/Diptheria. Depending on your activities and location, you might also need the rabies vaccination and/or Japanese Encephalitis.
Malaria is present in Cambodia, so you’ll need to take anti-malarial drugs and ensure you prevent mosquito bites through using repellent, covering up and sleeping under a mosquito net where necessary. There are other illnesses that are transmitted through mosquitoes aside from malaria, so always make sure you take active steps to prevent bites.
You can't drink the tap water in Cambodia and similarly, take care when buying fresh fruit and veg which may have been washed in un-sanitary water.Bottled water is readily available.
Other bacteria from eating and drinking can also be common. Worms can sometimes be a problem.
It’s likely you’ll suffer "traveller's diarrhoea" when in Cambodia. The different foods that you eat as well as unfamiliar bacteria can cause this, and it’s important to ensure you stay hydrated. I recommend carrying the powder rehydration sachets for this, as I can almost guarantee the food will not agree with you at first!
Actually, the anti-malaria tablets can help with the traveller's diarrhoea. Doxycycline is one anti-malarial option for Cambodia, and it’s also a mild antibiotic and does a good job of killing the nasty bugs in your tummy and keeping your toilet trips normal!
One final, very important thing. Cambodia is still heavily laden with landmines, millions of them. Cambodians are killed or seriously injured every year as a result of hidden mines. ALWAYS stay on well-marked paths.
Cambodian visas are available on arrival for lots of nationalities but expect the price to vary in some instances depending on the country of your passport. The cost should be between US$20 and US$40 for a 30 day tourist visa.
You’ll always need passport photos for the immigration officials to attach to your application. I carry two just to be safe.
From looking at the Cambodian Publications website, it seems you can now get an E-Visa prior to arriving. However, you should beware of fraudulent sites for this service. Personally, I wouldn't bother – it’s very, very easy to obtain a visa on arriving in the country.
When arriving in Cambodia, there are a couple of scams I mentioned above which you need to be aware of:
- Don’t believe touts, drivers, other random people, when they say they will help you get a visa. Don’t buy anything or agree to go anywhere with people offering to help with visas. A visa can only be obtained from the officials within the buildings on the border crossing (whether it a land border or at the airport).
- Immigration staff often charge an extra fee for putting the stamp in your passport. You cannot get in to the country without a stamp!
- Immigration staff sometimes like to charge for forms.
It’s not advisable to get angry with the border officials, even if you don't like the extra $1 or $2 they like to pocket from you!
It might sounds scary, or like everyone is out to scam you. They're not, and Cambodia really does have some of the friendliest, kindest people…. Just watch out for insistent touts trying to sell you things.
Cambodia neighbours Thailand to the west and north-west, Laos to the north and Vietnam to the east. The only coastline in the country is in the south.
There are a variety of over-land borders in to Cambodia and a couple of airports. Make sure you have at least six months validity left on your passport.
Arriving by air into either Phnom Penh or Siem Reap is a fairly painless process. UK citizens (amongst other nationalities) can get a visa on arrival which costs $20 and lasts for a month (current as of June 2011). Make sure you have two passport photos with you.
Air Asia fly in to Cambodia and offer very cheap tickets from neighbouring Asian countries, with connections all over the world, including the UK, Australia and now New Zealand.
Jetstar Asia are also reasonably priced and fly into Cambodia from Singapore. Malaysia Airlines, Thai Airways, Vietnam Airlines and Bangkok Airways are some other operators flying in to Cambodia.
And now for the land borders. The two most popular are between Thailand's Aranya Prathet to Cambodia's Poipet, and between Bavet in Cambodia and Moc Bai in Vietnam (and vice versa, for both).
If travelling from Thailand to Cambodia via the Poipet-Aranya Prathet border, avoid the ‘scam bus’ - the tickets are too cheap to be true! Instead, it’s easy to cross the border yourself using public transport. From Bangkok a train can be organised for about $1. It’s best to buy tickets direct from the train station (the day before if you can) as opposed to from a tour agency as there are fake tickets around. I ended up buying tickets from an agent and the scary non-English speaking guard looked like he was going to throw us off the train until he managed to find someone to translate for us - we had been ripped off by about $2!
From the train station, catch a tuk tuk to the border.
There are then a couple of options; either walk to a bus company office (avoid the touts as they offer over inflated prices) or if there are a few of you, pool your cash in to a taxi and arrive in style! A taxi from the border to Siem Reap should be about US$40 and US$30 to Battambang. The buses can be about $10 per person anyway. So, if you can team up with two or three other travellers then it’s worthwhile getting a cab.
The road from the border in to Siem Reap has finally been sealed (it was a dirt road up until about 12 months ago), so it’s a fairly comfortable ride now!
As with all border crossings, you’ll have to go through the processes of exiting one country before entering another. There is nothing different at this border. You’ll walk through one building (departures) and travel through ‘no man's land’, entering Cambodia via a second building.
Try not to get stuck in the border towns – crime is common and they’re quite seedy places to be! Poipet/Aranya-prathet is open from 8am-8pm, but I wouldn't want to cut it too fine with the closing time! From Bangkok you’ll need to get an early train (approx 6am) to save yourself having to spend a night in the border town. Actually crossing the border is a fairly painless process, but there are a couple of things to watch for.
GAPPER TIP – Don’t believe anyone who tries to "sell" you a visa before the border. You don’t need to visit anywhere prior to entering the official border buildings.
A common story you can be told is that the border is the last place you can exchange Thai Baht into Cambodian Riel. IGNORE THIS! It’s not true - there are money changers everywhere. The exchange desk at the border charge extortionately high fees and take a large percentage of the money you’re changing. My friends and I unfortunately fell for this tale and ended up losing a couple of hundred pounds in the exchange process.
Another common scam at this border is that immigration officials will ask for $1 or $2 extra, on top of the US$20 visa fee for getting an entry stamp. An entry stamp is a necessity and you have no way around paying for this if the officials feel like making an extra bit of pocket money on your arrival day. The first time I crossed this border, one backpacker tried to dispute the unnecessary, extra $1 charge. The immigration officials simply refused to let her in to the country! It’s annoying, but thankfully it's only a dollar or two, not ten!
The other most popular land border with international travellers is between Bavet in Cambodia and Moc Bai on the Vietnamese side. Just remember, if you’re using this border to exit Cambodia you’ll need to arrange your Vietnamese visa in advance! A Vietnamese visa can be obtained from numerous hotels and tourism offices in Phnom Penh.
The easiest way to travel over this border is with a bus between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). It takes about six hours, but by Asian standards, that could mean about 10 hours! The comfortable tourist buses costs about US$10, but can be up to US$14.
I didn't have any problems at this border at all… It's quite orderly and easy to get through. If you get a tourist bus, you’re offloaded at the ‘departures’ where you take your passport to be stamped and exit the country. You’ll then collect your baggage form the bus and enter the ‘arrivals’ section, your baggage will likely be scanned (if you’re entering Vietnam) to check you’re not importing anything you shouldn't be!
Your driver should explain the procedures. I've done this border a couple of times (and a few other Vietnamese borders!), and the drivers are usually very helpful. Don't be alarmed if the driver takes your passports, sometimes they like to hand a big pile of passports to the officials to make things quicker (although I'm not sure it really helps!).
There are a LOT of other borders in and out of Cambodia. I can't go through them all as I haven't used them personally.
However, the following are the names of all border crossings into Cambodia:
Crossings with Thailand:
- Aranya-prathet, Thailand / Poipet, Cambodia - as described above.
- Hat Lek, Thailand / Koh Kong, Cambodia
- Chong Jom, Thailand / O'Smach, Oddar Meanchey, Cambodia
- Chong Sa Ngam, Thailand / Anlong Veng, Oddar Meanchey, Cambodia (this is a very remote border crossing)
- Ban Pakard, Thailand / Phsar Prom Pailin, Cambodia
- Ban Laem, Thailand / Daung Lem, Battambang, Cambodia
Crossings with Laos:
- Voeung Kam, Laos / Dom Kralor, Cambodia (transport from the Cambodian side of the border into the country from Laos can be a bit sporadic).
Crossings with Vietnam:
- Moc Bai, Vietnam / Bavet, Cambodia - as described above
- Ving Xuong, Vietnam / Kaam Samnor, Cambodia
- Tinh Bien, Vietnam / Phnom Den, Cambodia
- Xa Mat, Vietnam / Trapeang Phlong, Kampong Cham, Cambodia
- Xa Xia, Vietnam / Prek Chak, Cambodia
Here’s a helpful link for border crossings – ensure you check current updates and conditions:
Cambodia is very easy to travel around as a backpacker. Within a town or city, taxis are everywhere and so are tuk tuks, motos and cyclos. With local transport always, ALWAYS negotiate a price before you get in! Or, with a taxi ensure it has a meter if the driver will not negotiate a price. For the long distance stuff, between destinations you'll probably mostly use buses. There are no trains, but there are local and tourist buses which are very reasonably priced and easy to use. A lot of destinations can also be reached by boat.
Within a town, it’s possible to hire a tuk tuk driver for the day. Tuk tuks are an awesome way to see Cambodia; a tuk tuk is basically a motorbike with a carriage on the back, accommodating up to four people. They have full rain covers which have windows in, so if it does rain you stay dry! Tuk tuk drivers nowadays usually speak a fair amount of English and they can tell you bits and pieces along the way as well. A lot of hotels can hook you up with recommended drivers, or you can just get one from the street - again just negotiate price first.
The going daily rate in Siem Reap for a tuk tuk (e.g. to the Angkor temples) is US$12-US$15 a day. This would be similar in other towns of Cambodia, but of course it depends on how far you’re travelling.
Another alternative for transport around your destination is on a moto. This is basically a small motorbike with a driver, and you sit on the back! Another great way to see the country, and it’s much easier to talk to your guide this way than in a tuk tuk. It's not as comfortable as a tuk tuk and you'll need to make sure you carry a poncho in case of rain (in season). Some roads are inaccessible to tuk tuks because they are in poor condition and tuk tuks cannot navigate the numerous pot holes (e.g. around Battambang).
If you’re travelling alone the price works out about the same as a tuk tuk. If you’re travelling with others, it can work out as the more expensive option, as you’ll require more than one moto and therefore have to pay each driver as opposed to just one tuk tuk driver.
A lot of hotels and tourist towns will have bike-hire facilities (motorbike and bicycle!). They are reasonably priced, but as always, shop around
Another option is a cyclo. Essentially this is a man (usually) on a bicycle with a seat on the front where you sit and he peddles you around! These are gradually disappearing as motos become the way to get around. Same applies regarding price - negotiate before you agree to anything!
Try and avoid drivers who offer to take you to a shop or hotel other than where you want to go... there are scams around where you’re pretty much forced in to purchasing things so that the driver can get a commission.
Always trust your gut instinct - if you think someone might be trying to take you for a ride, they probably are! Just be polite and walk away, there are plenty of options.
Between Towns (longer distance)
Tourist buses in Cambodia are very similar to the tourist buses throughout SE Asia. They’re comfortable, often have reclining seats or mini-beds, have toilets, air conditioning and usually a TV with movies or Asian pop music. They’re much more comfortable than local buses you might have seen elsewhere in Asia and they’re not overpriced - the locals use them as well as tourists. Prices obviously depend on the length of your journey.
You can usually book tickets from your accommodation and you'll often be picked up to be taken to the bus station. If not, your hotel will be able to recommend an agent to buy tickets from if you're not sure where to go!
A popular way to get from A to B is to get a boat.Phnom Penh to Siem Reap (or vice versa!) is one option, but the waterway isn't particularly interesting. The journey can be over priced for foreigners too. The boat trip between Siem Reap and Battambang is much more interesting (lots of village’s en-route) but it can be slow going. This is seasonal - the water levels have to be high enough so this route is only an option in the wet season and early dry. I highly recommend doing one boat journey, but one is probably enough! It’s generally a lot quicker and more comfortable to go by road. Remember to take a hat/sunscreen as it can get hot!
The currency in Cambodia is Riel (KHR), but just to confuse things they also use US dollars as well. Ensure your notes (especially USD) are crisp and clean, with no rips. The Cambodians are very fussy about their notes, a slight tear or a battered looking note will probably not be accepted.
For small ticket items like bottled water, small souvenirs and street food, it can be better to pay in Riel as opposed to dollars. Most vendors work on a round figure when converting between the two currencies (e.g. 4,000 Riel = $1), so you lose a few Riel with every transaction. So for that bottle of water that might cost 7,000 Riel, but you want to pay with USD, you’ll be charged $2. Sure, it's not much, but it all adds up.
Cambodia is very cheap. It’s cheaper than neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam, but with the rise of tourism and development of the country, prices are also slowly rising. If you’re on a tight budget, i.e. walk a lot instead of using public transport, eating street food, staying in basic accommodation, you can survive on US$15 a day.
If you’re a bit above basic, getting involved in tourist activities, you might spend $25 a day.
Average US$750 a month.
Just to give you an idea on prices….
Accommodation obviously varies depending on standards. A very basic room in a popular area can be as little as $3-$6. A basic room in Cambodia is with a fan (no air conditioning), no TV and cold water (no hot). The more you pay, the more you get. You can "add on" air conditioning, hot water and a satellite TV in nearly all guesthouses and hotels. A basic room with all the extras will be between $12 and $18 a night. For something a bit nicer/newer/cleaner you could pay up to $25. If you WANT to spend $100 a night on a hotel, you can do that too!
Street food in Cambodia is cheap. Starting at 1000 Riel or so for a snack like fresh pineapple or something deep fried! Markets are always cheap options… I've had some of my best Asian food in markets for anything between $1 and $2.50 for a good feed. If you want to eat in a local restaurant you might pay $3-$5 for a meal, and in the tourist restaurants or the posh looking places, you're looking at about $7 and up.
Cambodia is beginning to realise the potential tourist industry it has, with the world heritage Angkor Temples. The Angkor Temples currently cost $20 for a one day pass, $40 for a 3 day pass and $60 for a 7 day pass. A lot of museums are $1 to $2. Battambang's bamboo train now costs $8 a person (Oct 2010).
A day's bicycle hire will be no more than $5, but usually $2 or $3. A tuk tuk from Phnom Penh airport in to the city should be about US$5. A moto from the bus station in Phnom Penh to your hotel should be no more than $1.
A souvenir, Khmer scarf is about $2 or $3. A t-shirt about $4 or $5 but can be more depending on the quality. Fisherman's pants are about $5 or $6. There are lots of places to swap books, or you can buy pirate copies on the streets for about $5. A lot of souvenirs like postcards, bracelets, Angkor trinkets and key rings can be purchased from children on the streets for about $1. Whether it’s a good thing to buy from them or not, is debatable…
Below is a list of the most popular festivities in Cambodia. At these times, accommodation might be more difficult to come by but the events are a great place to be and experience Khmer culture!
WATER FESTIVAL (October or November)
This is one of Cambodia's largest festivals and takes place on the last full moon of October or early November. People from all over the country flock to the river or Tonle Sap lake to watch races with hundreds of brightly coloured boats. The festival marks the changing flow of the Tonle Sap. It’s to give thanks to the massive Mekong River for providing fish, fertile land and water to the area.
PCHUM BEN (September)
A religious and cultural event for blessing the souls of ancestors and loved ones who have passed away.
KING SIHANOUK'S BIRTHDAY (October 31st)
KHMER NEW YEAR'S DAY (Mid April)
Celebrated at the same time as the Thai New Year's Day as it’s based on an ancient calendar. This marks the end of the harvest season. People decorate their homes and walk the streets with water to bless passers-by.
ANGKOR FESTIVAL (November or December)
A festival of performing arts with Angkor Wat as the backdrop.
ROYAL PLOUGHING DAY (May)
INDEPENDENCE DAY (November 9th)
CHINESE NEW YEAR (January or February)
NATIONAL DAY (January 7th)
Now for the fun bit! What can you see and do in Cambodia?
Phnom Penh is the capital city and Siem Reap is the gateway to the fabulous Angkor Temples.These two towns are the essentials for a whistle-stop tour and can be done in about seven days if you’re pushed for time.
Battambang is Cambodia's second biggest city (Siem Reap is the third) and it’s a chance to see a ‘real’ Khmer city and its people.
Sihanoukville is another popular stop for backpackers and it’s Cambodia's main beach resort area.
If you’re looking to get more "off the beaten track", look in to places like Kratie, the west coast and even the Cardamom mountains.
The capital city is Phnom Penh, in the south eastern region of the country. As capital cities go it’s fairly small with two million people, especially compared with nearby neighbours Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.
Phnom Penh's main sights highlight the differences in Cambodia's history - the good and the bad. Cambodia's rich history and world heritage Angkor temples have recently drawn a lot of attention from world tourists. The number of visitors to Cambodia has increased massively over the last few years. As a result, Cambodia is working hard to upgrade facilities, improve infrastructure, as well as upgrade tourist sites. If you’re visiting the country over the next couple of years, don't be surprised if you see a bit of scaffolding general construction around the place.
The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda is magnificent. On my first visit to the Silver Pagoda I couldn't figure out what all the fuss was about… second time around, I realised the entire floor was made of pure silver tiles! There are lots of mosaics, trinkets, Buddha’s with diamonds and other precious gems. It was US$5 to enter and cameras are allowed. As with lots of other temples in SE Asia, ensure you’re dressed appropriately. Your shoulders must be covered, and bottoms should reach down to the knees. It’s definitely worth a visit, but if you have seen Bangkok's Royal Palace, it’s very similar.
Wat Phnom is a temple on a hill after which the city Phnom Penh is named. It's fairly quiet but a nice place to wonder around. Watch out for the monkeys – some of them have been known to bite!
On the other side of Phnom Penh's sights are Tuol Sleng Museum (which just sounds evil) and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. A trip to both of these can be combined in to one day, which is probably a good idea so as not to drag the depression out for more than one day!
Tuol Sleng Museum, also known as S-21, was originally a school which was turned in to a prison during the Khmer Rouge regime. 17,000 people were killed at S-21… only seven people got out alive. There are horrifying yet informative displays about the events of the era, including numerous artefacts like weapons and skulls.
Most prisoners from S-21 if not killed in the prison, were killed at Choeung Ek - The Killing Fields. This is essentially a field with numerous mass graves. A small museum with a video display has recently opened. Round trip transport out to the Killing Fields is about US$5.
Most of Phnom Penh's sights can be seen in two days if you’re on a tight schedule.
Siem Reap is Cambodia's third largest town and is the gateway to the Angkor Temples. It’s a very, very popular tourist destination and is well equipped with lots of restaurants, shops, hotels, bars, tuk tuk drivers and a new road to the area.
A lot of people arrive here from Bangkok, in which case you'll probably arrive by taxi or bus. A lot of people arrive by air, or by bus elsewhere in Cambodia. The bus station is only 3km from the centre of town and so it should only cost you $1 - $2 on a tuk tuk or moto to get into Siem Reap. From the airport expect to pay a bit more, about $5 by tuk took.
In Siem Reap itself there is the Angkor Museum, the Cambodian Culture Museum (a bit of a tourist gimmick, but popular with Cambodians) and a War Museum. You can eat some amazing food, learn to cook it in local cooking classes and get fantastic massages whilst contributing to a good cause… The ‘Seeing Hands’ massages are given by blind people. Siem Reap also has some great night markets.
Just outside Siem Reap is the Landmine museum which is well worth a visit. It’s very informative, and heart-warming at the same time. The museum was founded by a man called Aki Ra who was converted by the Khmer Rouge in the seventies as a child soldier. He was forced to lay hundreds of landmines. Since the regime has ended, Aki Ra has dedicated his life to finding and de-activating mines. He has set up an orphanage and small school for landmine victims and amputees, and young people who have been orphaned as a result of landmines. Entry to the museum is $2 or $3, and it’s about 25km outside town, so be prepared for a tuk tuk to cost a bit more than an average daily rate.
Temples of Angkor
The main Angkor temples lie about 4km north of Siem Reap, but the ancient city is large and there are hidden temples dotted all around the region. For a one day pass entry costs US$20, three days cost US$40 and seven days US$60.
There are different ways of getting to the temples. Most people hire a tuk tuk for the day (about US$12), but some people hire a moto (a bit more than a tuk tuk), or [fit] people hire a bicycle. Drivers will be able to recommend the best itineraries, take you to all temples and wait for you whilst you explore. They'll generally take you somewhere for lunch and be able to show you shops or whatever you need!
Even if you only manage one day at the temples, make sure you get your butt out of bed for sunrise at Angkor Wat! It has become a popular "must do" in recent years, but if you make an effort to find your own bit of space to take in the magic, it's something you won't regret doing.
With the large increase in Cambodia's tourism industry, the government have realised they have to make an effort to preserve and protect the temples. The Angkor temples are in the process of being reinforced and a lot of work was underway when I was there last (late 2010).
I personally recommend two days at the temples. I could easily have spent five days there but one day is plenty for some. However many days you choose, the first day will typically consist of the main temples. These are the busiest and the most over-run with Japanese tour buses, which isn't everyone's idea of fun. That's why I would recommend doing a two or three day trip, to explore some lesser known temples and experience the tranquillity, ancient-ness and really get lost without having cameras and elbows in your face. It's not as bad as I am making out, but there are a lot of people there at times and I don't like lots of people!
So, there are three main temples. Angkor Wat - the largest Hindu temple in the world. You can easily spend three, four, five hours exploring the nooks and crannies, admiring the exquisite stone carving and pretending to be a mighty explorer lost in an ancient world.
Angkor Thom and inside, the Faces of Bayon, are amazing! Giant Buddha faces made from dozens of huge stone blocks stare at you from every direction whilst walking around. There are some cool bridges with stone guards and elaborate entrances in to Angkor Thom as well. It was a large ancient city in its day, with a population of up to one million people.
Ta Prohm is where Tomb Raider was filmed and as such is very popular. There are fascinating old trees growing over the stones, so much so that parts of the temple have collapsed and lots of reinforcement work is taking place to support the walls. This temple is magical, a stereotypical "lost world"… a fantastic place. If you can, try and meander off the pathways a bit to escape the crowds.
A good place to watch sunset is from Phnom Bakheng. It does get very busy, but it’s worth watching the sun set over Angkor Wat, from afar. You can ride an elephant up to the top of the hill which is kinda fun!
Some other highlights include the Terrace of the Elephants, which is a stone wall decorated with elaborate carvings. The Terrace of the Leper King is nearby and worth a gander too.
For further days, my favourite temple was Ta Som, which is a smaller and less crowded version of Ta Prohm. Preah Khan is also worth a look; it's one of the largest temple complexes at Angkor and is thought to have once been a university. There are others which are highly recommended including Banteay Srei and the Rulous Temples.
It’s not uncommon to experience "temple fatigue"… don't feel guilty about it! You don't have to see every temple. Or if you do want to see more, It’s worth buying a seven day pass so that you can do four or more days at the temples, but have a day or two off in between! Personally, I could spend a week there exploring, but I would have to have a few afternoons off as it does get tiring.
Battambang is pronounced "battam-bong", and is Cambodia's third largest city but fairly undiscovered by tourists. Less than 5% of Siem Reap's visitors make it to Battambang, despite how close it is.
In the right season (when there has been enough rain!), you can travel between Siem Reap and Battambang by slow boat. It’s slow, but the trip is worth it to see how the rural Khmer people live: houses on stilts, villages on the river, floating markets, green rice paddies and fishermen. It's a fascinating way of life and a leisurely way to see it. Just make sure you take sunscreen, plenty of water and a good book!
Battambang itself has lots of French style buildings and a few temples. There is not masses to see here; the highlights are in the boat trip getting to Battambang and the chance to see a real Cambodian city,especially the surrounding countryside.
Battambang's surrounds are beautiful. I recommend hiring a moto driver for the day and get him to take you to the main attractions. I've visited Battambang twice and stayed in Royal Hotel both times, which I highly recommend.
The hotel can organise a moto driver for you who’ll speak English and be able to show you around. They’re proud of their country and proud of its beauty.
Battambang is a major rice growing region amongst other fruits, and moto drivers are full of knowledge on the local region and what it has to offer.
As a part of a day trip, you can visit Phnom Sampeau, which is another temple utilised by the Khmer Rouge with the nearby ‘Killing Caves"’ Phnom Banan is another stop, a temple on a hill with amazing views.
You can also take a ride on the bamboo train. The train has only recently ceased operation to the general public (early 2010), and is now only open to tourists. Riding on the train costs about US$8 for a return trip (approx one hour), and it’s easy to see why it’s now closed! The train lines are rickety and uneven, and you’re riding on a piece of flimsy bamboo mounted loosely on to the wheels. The novelty is that there is only one track, so if someone comes in the other direction, one cart must disembark and dismantle their train to let the other through. In the days when this train was up and running fully, locals who lived outside the town rode the train into Battambang to purchase supplies, anything from fruit and veg, live animals, motorbikes… When two trains met, the train with the least to unload disembarked, dismantled their train and allowed the more fully-loaded to pass!
Some touts will try and persuade you to hire a tuk tuk for a tour around the countryside. If you can, try and get a moto - a lot of the roads are narrow and littered with large pot holes, which a tuk tuk would struggle to navigate.
There is one more thing you should do in Battambang and that is eat ‘Fish Amok’ (or indeed, any type of Amok) at a restaurant called "Smokin' Pot". The "restaurant" is basic, and doesn't have the best decor… In fact, it's just a few tables and chairs outside a house. Don't be put off by the appearance of the place; the food is lovely, traditional Khmer food. You can do cooking classes here which are great and you’re given the opportunity to take home a recipe book filled with delicious Khmer, Thai and Vietnamese dishes. The cooking classes include a trip to the markets in the morning, which is an experience in itself!
Sihanoukville is the beach resort in Cambodia. It has bars, it has restaurants, it has a backpackers (Monkey Republic), it has unspoilt white beaches and untouched tropical islands. It’s a great place to relax and party for a few days…
Serendipity beach is the main beach area. Take care of your belongings on the beach, as theft is common. Sihanoukville is a great base for scuba diving and snorkelling with a handful of tour operators here.
Cambodia's attractions appeal to varying interests and there’s a little bit of everything for everyone. If you want to try and get a little more off the tourist track, there are a few things to bare in mind.
Firstly, not all towns have ATMs. They are becoming more popular and widespread, but if you’re heading somewhere less tourist orientated, carry extra cash on you or find out for sure whether there is an ATM. For instance, Anlong Veng (a base to explore some former Khmer Rouge sites) has no ATMs and when I visited Kratie in the north east, there was only one ATM 8km away.
You may also have to pay attention to the seasons. For example, travel in to the Cardamom mountains is nearly impossible in the wet season. Roads in Cambodia are dust, only the main highways are sealed with tarmac and as such roads become flooded out and inaccessible every season. Some of the most impressive Angkor ruins are based in the far north (Preah Vihear province), but the roads are amongst the most horrendous. Just something to remember - if you want to explore fully and reach the far corners of Cambodia, plan your trip to avoid the flooding.
I mentioned this earlier, but just to reiterate - ALWAYS stay on marked paths whilst traveling in Cambodia (especially in more remote and rugged areas).
There are a variety of national parks around Cambodia which are very, very slowly waking up to tourism. Check their accessibility when you arrive as things in Cambodia are changing, and might be accessible for your trip.
I think that's the basics, and a good starting point for some highlights of Cambodia. Writing this all down has made me want to go again though! I will definitely be back there some point in the future and I plan to time my trip for the dry season so as to be able to get more off the beaten track!
Enjoy Cambodia, it’s a fascinating place…
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