Staff Member: Dan Crandall
Travel Dates: September 2014
Destinations Visited: Phnom Penh, Cambodia countryside, Siem Reap (Angkor Wat)
Arrival in Phnom Penh
I flew to Cambodia from Chicago on Air Asiana, an airline I’d recommend. Many of the longer international flights into Phnom Penh arrive fairly late in the evening and mine was no exception. Phnom Penh is host to a small, dated third world airport, but getting through customs was a breeze. After paying the $20 visa fee, my passport was stamped and I collected my bag. The driver met me just outside of customs and we drove about 25 minutes to my hotel. Most hotels are based in and around the city center and are usually reached within 20-25 minutes of driving from the international airport.
Phnom Penh City Tour
Phnom Penh, the capital, social and commercial center of Cambodia, is a rapidly developing city of 2.2 million people, about 1/7 of the entire country’s population.
The Royal Palace of Cambodia – An impressively large and serene site with a group of attractive Khmer-style, temple-like buildings, though the best thing here might be the relative peace and quiet you can enjoy in central Phnom Penh, courtesy of the high walls. On most days, the complex is well worth a visit just to see the revered Silver Palace, which unfortunately was closed for a State function while I was there.
The National Museum – Similar to the Royal Palace, the central courtyard is a fantastic place to enjoy a quiet cup of tea surrounded by enchanting gardens. The National Museum has the country’s largest collection of artifacts (over 14,000 pieces), including many Hindu and Buddhist-inspired statues, though the museum’s holdings are not as compelling as hoped.
Toul Sleng Genocide Museum – A moving, though harrowing, tribute to the victims of the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal regime, this site is well worth a visit to better understand the hellish trials and tribulations Cambodia experienced from 1975-1979. Allow for at least 1 hour and preferably 2 to see the grounds, which are in an old school converted by the Khmer Rouge into a major torture prison.
Located about 2.5 hours driving southwest from Phnom Penh, you can get away from it all on the lush trails of Chamok, a unique community-run eco-tourism project with homestays, ox cart rides, nature hikes, village visits and more on site. Walking paths lead to cascading wet-season waterfalls and cliffs with wonderful views of the Cardamom Mountains. It’s a 3 km walk to a series of three waterfalls. The second waterfall has a swimming hole. The third one is an impressive 120 feet-high waterfall. Most of the highway there was in good condition, however the last 30 minutes or so was on rough road, suitable only for motorbikes, high clearance vans or 4×4’s. Later that night, I went out for outstanding Italian food in central Phnom Penh with the guide. The culinary diversity of Phnom Penh really surprised me, with no shortage of traditional and international cuisine to enjoy.
Day 2 / September 21: Koh Dach (“Silk Island”) and Phnom Penh wandering
My guide met me at my 3-star boutique hotel, the Cara Hotel, at about 8 am. (The Cara Hotel is a nicely done, clean boutique property with an outstanding fusion restaurant led by a Spanish chef with, among other things, fantastic deserts, coffee and wine.) On the bike tour, you have the choice of starting the ride right from your hotel with your guide, or from the Mekong ferry point (taking a van from your hotel to the ferry landing). If you are not up for high adrenaline urban bicycling, be sure to take the van option and avoid the terrors of Cambodian road rules (or lack thereof).
Koh Dach is a short 10-15 minute ferry ride across the Mekong River. The people here are known for their silk weavings but this quiet island as a whole is a delightful place to see traditional life on the Mekong and it’s right outside of Phnom Penh. Biking is the perfect way to see it, as it’s not particularly large and the dirt road is flat with little traffic. Children wave and say hello, farm animals loiter peacefully below stilt homes, prayer calls spill out from the monasteries, and people open up their homes fondly amused at our interest. We ate lunch at a traditional restaurant built on pontoons over the river. After arriving back at Phnom Penh by ferry, we chose to return to the hotel by van, welcoming the air-conditioning like a long lost friend.
In the afternoon, after freshening up back at the hotel, I hired a tuk tuk for $1 to visit nearby Central Market, about 2 km away. (You can get to almost anywhere in Phnom Penh for $1-4 maximum if traveling by tuk tuk.) The enormous Central Market is a fabulous place to walk around even if you aren’t buying anything, but it is loaded with curios, tourist-oriented tee-shirts, etc. If you are looking to brush up on your third-world bargaining skills, this is a great place to go. There is a long line of street food vendors on one side, with colorful local produce stacked up by other vendors nearby. Not far away lies Wat Phnom, a nice urban park within easy walking distance (get a map from your hotel’s front desk) from the Central Market. This park is surrounded by busy roads but is very leafy and calm nonetheless. Today it was hosting some live music due to the holidays. There’s a modest but neat little temple well worth a wander sited high on the hill in the center of this green oasis.
In the evening, I wandered over to the Phnom Penh’s thriving night market. This is arguably the best place in Phnom Penh to sample traditional street foods plus it has curios and other goods that you can also easily find at the Central Market. For dinner I debated going to the celebrated Friends restaurant – a well-reviewed gourmet diner staffed with street kids as part of a NGO effort – but ended up going to the Titanic for dinner to hear live (and lovely) traditional Cambodian music and see the nightly aspara dance, a uniquely elegant and ancient Cambodian form of dance.
Day 3 / September 22: Drive to Sambor Prei Kuk and visit the Isanborei community (Homestay)
Starting around 8 am, we started our approximately 3.5 hour drive to Sambor Prei Kuk, an even more ancient capital than famed Angkor Wat. En-route, we stopped in the village of Skuon to sample the local specialty, fried spiders (plus other delicacies like fried grasshoppers) and to break up the drive. At the ruins, I joined a specialist local guide to stroll the 3 primary crumbling ruins within the forested complex. Normally it is obviously a very quaint and tranquil place to enjoy ancient ruins but today there were loads of young people celebrating the holidays (Constitutional Day and the Pchum Ben Festival (“Ancestor Days”)). Lunch was festive, and delicious, at the traditional Khmer restaurant in front of the ruins. Afterwards, we drove to the Isanborei community and visited silk artisans, noodle makers, and the bustling little local market on the river’s edge. It is overwhelming at times just how open and friendly many Cambodians are. From here we went to my homestay for the night. Homes in Cambodia are traditionally built in the stilt style, with a large single enclosed space for sleeping above and an open-air space below for workshops, storage, eating, and farm animals. I stayed with the village head man and his gracious, friendly family. The wife made delicious local fish with rice accompanied by cold beers from her cooler. The calm of rural Cambodian nights was a welcome experience after nearly a week in bustling Phnom Penh.
This morning, I continued the drive towards Siem Reap. Along the way, I checked out the fascinating Kompong Kdei (also known as Spean Praptos), an ancient Angkor bridge. It has more than 20 arches and is a spectacular sight. From there, it’s a quick jaunt to Beng Mealea, a seldom visited ruin. Beng Mealea is a spectacularly jumbled jungle temple, a true ruin, located about 40 km north of Siem Reap. The highlight was walking along the crumbled ancient walls for great views of the forest and the site within. We ate lunch at a local restaurant nearby then continued on to Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor Wat, arriving in the late afternoon. My hotel in Siem Reap for the next three nights was a 3-star boutique hotel, the La Niche D’Angkor Hotel. The La Niche is a supremely friendly and professionally staffed boutique hotel within walking distance or easy tuk-tuk distance to all of the major sights within Siem Reap proper. The pool area is very attractive and the rooms were remarkably spacious for a 3-star property.
Day 5 / September 24: Angkor Wat!
Angkor – a sprawling ancient city with over 290 ruins – is easily within the top ten must-see ancient cities of the world so I’ll try to be brief. In one sentence or less I can say this, that Angkor Wat is everything you expect and quite possibly more.
We arrived at Angkor Wat, the largest monument at Angkor, just before sunrise. September is in the rainy season, so it wasn’t a picture perfect sunrise but it was fantastic anyway. Watching the ruin’s towering visage shimmer in the pond is worth the effort anytime of year. (For easy reference, Cambodia’s dry season is November through March, with October and April also usually dry for the most part.) Built as the funerary temple for Suryavarman II, who ruled from 1112 to 1152, Angkor Wat is possibly worth a whole day for true archeological enthusiasts – it’s incredibly grand, with unbelievably detailed and well-preserved bas reliefs.
After breakfast, the guide and I hit the South Gate of Angkor Thom and the temples of Bayon, Baphoun, Phimean Akas, the Royal Enclosure, the terraces of Elephants and the Leper King. Bayon Temple features mysterious towers and beautiful bas reliefs. After exploring the ruins, I ate a delicious lunch at the urban and refined Nest restaurant.
Following lunch, we visited magical Ta Phrom. This is the famous jungle-clad temple with all of the overgrown trees – it’s as haunting and exotic of an atmosphere as one could ever ask of a ruin. Massive gnarly roots of ancient trees push between the temple’s huge stone blocks in a remarkable, delicate embrace.
Siem Reap is host to a fantastic variety of places to eat. Just head past the Old Market to reach the main tourist quarter and you’ll have options galore. I recommend trying Cambodian BBQ and the local curry dishes.
Day 6 / September 25: Countryside cycling around Siem Reap, a home-cooked meal, and Banteay Srei
This morning I joined my guide for a countryside tour by bicycle in the green Cambodian countryside. We started right from the hotel, and not long after, reached a surprisingly quiet little village that felt a thousand miles away from busy Siem Reap. We met a local cook, who led us on a neat tour of his local market. We tried a street food staple, sugar cane juice, and visited with a few of the locals. From there, we cycled past lush rice fields and a monastery to his family’s peaceful house in the countryside. Here he made traditional foods with the main entree a classic fish soup chock full of vegetables. Sitting at the table outside, I had a chance to speak with him about life in the country, as cows, monks on bikes, ice trucks, tractors (“Chinese buffalo”), and countless other rural scenes scrolled by. Around noon, we said our goodbyes and cycled back to Siem Reap.
In the afternoon we drove to Banteay Srei, also known as the “Citadel of Women” due to its unique pink-colored sandstones. The pink and yellow sandstone facades are densely covered with some of the most beautiful and intricate carvings of any Angkorian temple. The temple’s relatively small size, pink sandstone construction and ornate design give it a fairyland ambiance. This evening I headed back to the tourist quarter and sampled 3 different restaurants, all of which were fantastic.
Day 7 / September 26: Tonle Sap Lake / Departure from Siem Reap
This morning my guide and I ventured to Mechrey Village on Tonle Sap Lake, a UNESCO biosphere, located just about one hour away. Travelers have the opportunity to stop en-route at Ampil Peam for a stroll through a highly traditional village where locals live much as they have for centuries. From the boat stand, we boarded a local-style long boat and headed to Mechrey, a small floating village on the lake. It’s simply remarkable to see, an entire city of a thousand souls, living in the middle of a great lake, eking out lives as fisherman. On the visit, I saw pigs and chickens living in floating coops, a crocodile farm guarded by a small terrier, a floating school, and local wives paddling to and from the floating market bearing all sorts of goods.
We returned to Siem Reap by early afternoon. After a chance to refresh at the hotel – they generously allowed a late check out – I was picked up and transferred to the Siem Reap international airport, a mere 20 minute drive away.
For travelers with less time to venture across Cambodia, we offer a 4-day Angkor Wat trip extension.