Tomb Raider setting, ice cubes in your beer to keep it at least cool-ish, tuk-tuk madness on the streets – my recent trip to Cambodia has been a treat. Here is how to make the most out of your time there if you are on the rather short itinerary of only two weeks and still want to squeeze in the lot: from temples to diving to climbing to home-staying with a family. And to top it off with celebrating the Happy Khmer New Year with a water fight that lasts a whole day.
The Temples of Angkor – Siem Reap (Day 1-3)
If you travel to Cambodia you come here to see Angkor Wat – the Unesco world heritage temple complex from the 12th century, whose silhouette against the sunrise is one of the most iconic pictures worldwide. Of course we didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to explore these ancient temples ourselves and we spent a good day and a half strolling around the temple ruins of Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious building, the enchanting and tree-covered Ta Prohm and the iconic face-pillars of Bayon temple. Due to travelling to Cambodia about as off-season as it gets, we had the places nearly to ourselves (on the downside it was a sweltering 35 humid degrees: drinking up is the key and also driving around in a tuk-tuk, because the breeze from the drive will be what feels like a lifesaver).
We did want to see the sunset at Phnom Bakheng as it is recommended by many, yet even in the off-season the queue to get up to the temple plattform (they only allow 300 ppl at any one time on the top) was very long, so that we decided that a sunset at the pool of our hotel was gonna be fine as well.
We did not want to miss out on a sunrise at Angkor Wat though. And so we found ourselves getting up at 4:30 in the morning, climbing into a tuk-tuk rather sleepy and walking towards the temple of Angkor Wat with a surprisingly large crowd. It was a superpeaceful tourist-moment though. So many people from so many different backgrounds gathered there at the foot of the temple complex, vendors selling much appreciated coffee, and everyone having their smartphones, tablets and fancy cameras at the ready, and everyone was appreciating the spectacle that Angkor Wat put on: a sunrise about as beautiful as it gets, with colours ranging from bright oranges to mild violets to kitschy pink.
Angkor was defenitely one of the highlights of the trip, and so was Siem Reap, the tiny town where we stayed. It has all the infrastructure a tourist is looking for (meaning: great coffee, great Khmer and western grub, nice hotels and fun bars), but has so far kept a friendly, easy-going and rather relaxed atmosphere. Walking the streets felt safe, talking to locals was easy and fun, and there were many nice places to relax after a day of exploring at the temples. We especially enjoyed our beautiful hotel Anusa, we loved eating at Café Indochine, at Khmer Family Kitchen, at Il Forno (Pizza was a must, as always), we had perfect brekkies at 55 Loft and Café Central, and we enjoyed watching the backpackers get drunk (never ourselves, of course) at the rockpub Angkor What?
Praying with a View – Preah Vihear (Day 4)
After having explored the temples close to Siem Reap we decided to head out a little further and made a day trip to see the mountain temple Preah Vihear close to the Thai border. A three-hours drive took us up there. Our driver dropped us off the ticket office, from there you either take a moto or a pick-up-truck up the mountain road, and from there it is another kilometer of walking up to the top of the mountain. You get rewarded with a beautifully romantic temple ruin and a great view over the countryside. Definitely worth the drive!
Traditional Homestay – Bhanteay Chhmer (Day 5)
A real treat is the tourist program developed at Bhanteay Chhmer: Tourists get to stay with local families, allowing the family an income from tourism and allowing the tourists a very close look into the lives of rural Khmer people. We stayed in a traditional wooden house, in a simple but clean room, had our food prepared by the family and ate in their frontyard and got to explore the town as it started the traditional Khmer New Year festivities.
We explored the temple Bhanteay Chmmer in the afternoon, already buzzing with people visiting for the new year, and we got to see the village’s celebration in the evening, all with a food and goods market, with music, with a disco for the teenagers and a merry-go-round for the kids.
The night spent at the homestay was a rather noisy one due to the celebrations: Until around 1 am the music from the kiddie-disco was booming through the night, and after that the chanting from the temple was heard until the roosters began to crow at 5:30. And to top it off the night was blasted awake by cannon shots at around 3 am: they were celebratory shots apparently, because at 3 am, as our guide explained to us, the new god was coming down from heaven to earth, and this was celebrated with shooting. Or this at least is what we understood, language barriers making an in-depth explanation of the spiritual details unfortunately impossible. Happy Khmer New Year!
Happy Khmer New Year – Battambang (Day 6-7)
The celebrations continued for a good two more days, days that we spent in the town Battambang. We were medium-happy about Khmer New Year by that time. While it was fun to partake in the local celebrations, Khmer New Year also ment that literally everything was closed: All the art galleries, the restaurants and even the famous circus that we wanted to visit (by the time we got to Kampot five days later and still found places closed due to Khmer new year, we were downright done with that holiday. Especially since one of the places was the one that with the good coffee) We did have a fun day out nevertheless: We spent a morning riding the bamboo train, then explored another superbusy temple and watched a spectacle of nature at a cave, where every evening at sunset thousands of bats fly out to go hunting. What a stunning sight!
And of course we couldn’t get around partaking in the Khmer New Year festivities even if we would have wanted to: A big part of the festival is the water fight that lasts the whole day: so if you drive around in a tuk-tuk expect to get wet!
Welcome to the Jungle, (it gets worse here everyday) – Phnom Penh (Day 8)
Phnom Penh was only a stop-over on our way to the coast, and to be honest, I was quite fine with that. We did explore the town a bit and went to see the Royal Palace, which was pretty, and faced the country’s bloody and sad past by visiting the Tuol Sleng genocide museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Yet we found the town loud, smoggy and run-down in a lot of places. And to make the first impression even worse, we got to witness a lady being robbed right in the middle of a busy area, with two guys on a moto grabbing her bag, driving off high speed and throwing her into the middle of the street in doing so. She screamed bloody murder, yet she was not hurt luckily, but the bag was gone for good and we all got a good scare. Kinda lost the appetite for exploring more of the town after that…
Holy Diver – Sihanoukville (Day 9-11)
… so I was happy to head for the beach the next day: We spent relaxed two days at Otres II, one of the many beaches of Sihanoukville. My friend, an experienced diver, had a great day out diving (check Scuba Nation for details), I spent two days more or less glued to the deckchair reading (Salman Rushdies “Shalimar the clown” a great novel!) and sunbathing.
Climbing Caves and Pepper Farms – Kampot (Day 12-14)
Our last stop was Kampot, a little further down the coast. Kampot is home to Cambodias only climbing site and tour operator, a tiny enterprise by the name “Climbodia”. They offer half-day tours where you get to climb and explore the caves near Kampot. Of course, as soon as I read about it, I was game. I spent a superfun day out with a group of Aussie fellow travellers, we got to climb some fun routes, got to rappel ourselves down a gruesome 35 meters into a cave and crawled through some very narrow caves to find hidden buddhist temples and surprising lookouts.
Kampot is not only home of Cambodias only climbing site, but also – and more famously – ist is home to some of the worlds finest pepper. Visiting a pepper farm is a must thus, and we did enjoy our tour at Sothy’s Pepper Farm, where we got to learn about organic pepper farming and about agriculture in Cambodia in general.
And of course, Kampot is quite a fun destination in itself. The tiny town has a sleepy sort of charm to it, there are some nice restaurants and cafes (a must: Café Espresso, bringing you amazingly good coffee and coffee culture straight out of Melbourne, if they are not closed for Khmer New Year. Luckily the re-opened on our last day there), some nice shops (don’t miss: Dorsu, a clothing label that sells cotton shirts that are fairly produced at the store and made from left-over cotton from the big textile factories), and of course there is the river and with it the sunset river cruises that let you relax on the deck of a rustic wooden boad, watching the jungle pass by while you sip your Angkor beer and feel the world slow down. Cambodia, you have been a treat, despite not having any real mountains and despite the sweltering heat. I will be back for more tropical adventures for sure!