I Cambodia, I saw, I loved: One Week In The Angkor Wat Country
In a land not so far away, lay the beautiful if lesser known than its neighbour Thailand, the Kingdom of Cambodia. With a history both inspiring and depressing, Cambodia delivers an intoxicating present.
Having traveled most of the “popular places” in Southeast Asia, and with about just 8 days at our disposal, we decided to go to Cambodia. The land of Angkor Wat sure, but what most people don’t know about Cambodia is its quaint charm, its various quirks, its smiling people, its gruesome history and an underrated but thriving beach scene.
Here’s a day to day breakup of my 10 day Cambodia trip, which included short pitstops in Thailand and Sri Lanka. Hopefully this will help you prepare for your own.
Day 1: Cross the Thailand Cambodia border
While you could most definitely fly into Cambodia, the another cheaper, if longer and definitely the more exciting part is crossing over land into Cambodia.
Immediately after reaching the Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, we took a local bus to Aranyaprathet (available right outside the airport), crossed the border on foot, and voila, we were in Cambodia! A $30 on-arrival visa and an immigration formality later, you’re now in Poipet, the Cambodia border town, and from here you’ll be urged to take a free shuttle to a bus stand, to get to Siem Reap, another 5 hour journey.
The first thing that strikes you as you reach Siem Reap is that a far cry from being a underdeveloped, chaotic third world city, it’s actually pretty, organised and thanks to being a base for the Angkor Wat comprable to most global tourist towns. With the canal running through the city almost dividing it into 2 parts, the lights illuminating the boulevards will prep you enough for the big Temple Run ahead. ( Did you know that the popular game Temple Run is actually based on the Angkor Wat?)
Day: 2 Rent A bike, buy your pass and begin your Angkor Wat Tour
Angkor Wat is just the name of the main temple in the whole Angkor complex which comprises of hundreds of temples, all unique and bearing a different history. According to Wikipedia, Angkor Wat was built in the first half of the 12th century (113-5BC). Estimated construction time of the temple is 30 years by King Suryavarman II, dedicated to Vishnu (Hindu), replica of Angkor Thom style of art. Factually, the Angkor area stretches over a circuit of over 60 kms, with multiple temples dotted along on it.
Now, seeing this UNESCO heritage site isn’t cheap. The passes range from $20 to $40. If you’re on a whirlwind trip, a one day pass ($20) would suffice, provided you start the day at dawn, and go on till Sunset, and use the tuktuk.
However to completely soak in the temples, recommend buying a 3 day pass at $40 (usable over a week) and take your own time in getting to and appreciating the sites.
The best way to get around? Again, if you’re in hurry, a tuktuk would be your best bet. However if you care for a lil adventure, cycling around like we did is the fun way!
Cycling around Angkor Wat
We started from our hotel at 9, and a 30 minutes ride covering 6 kms we were at the Angkor Wat.
If this is the first temple of your trip, the enormity and the grandeur will strike you, enamour you and maybe the dilapidated state of these once majestic temples will sadden you a bit. But take solace in the fact these temples have stood the test of time for over 800 years. For perspective, the Taj Mahal was built 400 years after the Angkor Wat.
After our initiation into the majestic Angkor Wat temples, we sat down at one of the many local joints for some noodles and fried rice. With full bellies and a renewed spirit, we proceeded towards what is undoubtedly the most imposing of all of Angkor – The Bayon temple. After going through a gate, which itself is a marvel, a stunning arch with 4 Buddha faces looking in every direction, across a reservoir lined with dozens of “Asura” (Demon) faces cast an eerily beautiful vibe.
Stoned faces, purportedly of King Jayavarman 3 ( And you think selfies are self obsession!) are carved all around the temple, making for a never-seen before spectacle and distinguishing it from the other Hindu temples. A photographer’s delight.
Proceed to Baphoun- Called the biggest Jigsaw puzzle in the world- The temple structure contains a gigantic and recently restored- reclining Buddha – still a work in process.
You’d be advised to watch the sunset at Bakheng hill, however you’d do well to avoid. The place is crowded, takes long to get to the top for a view which could be possible pretty much anywhere within Angkor.
After a tiring 30km back to our hotels, we kicked back the evening at the very vibrant pub street with rows and rows of bars and restaurants offering a draft beer at $0.50 and of course the Khmer Spread, along with the usual Thai, Continental and other tourist-friendly spreads.
Day: 3: Prepare for the big cycling day!
We started the day at 5 am to catch the sunrise at the Angkor. After a sleepy 20 min bike ride to the temple, we found ourselves one amongst the hundreds who had the same idea, and here began the mad scramble for that postcard perfect photo of the Angkor Wat, with its reflection in the shallow pond at its side.
There were miles to be biked and temples to be seen, so we cycled on, stopping at the Bayon to soak in the impressive temple once again, this time with elephants traipsing around with passengers on their back.
We stopped to check out a few more impressive, if smaller temples like the Elephant seat, the Preah Khan and the very unique Preah Ko, a temple on an artificial island, on the way to the bigger pull of the day- Ta Prohm
If you’ve watched the movie Tomb Raider- Lara Croft, it’s shot in this grand temple- The Ta Prohm. Where grand Banyan trees as old or older than the temples, are deeply embedded into the temples itself, lending an almost eerie and yet a visually stunning sight.
After a tiring 60km odd bike ride covering all the temples in the main circuit, we were back to our hotel and checked out some local restaurants around our hotel for dinner.
Locally known as “Beer Gardens”, these places serve alcohol and local cuisine, and Karaokes are popular. The most bizarre feature of these is the row of girls that sit at the entrance of these beer gardens- Possibly to entice potential customers into the place.
Day 4: Floating Villages on the Tonle Sap Lake
If “temple fatigue” hasn’t set in yet, you could check out the other temples, a bit off the way, but we decided to sleep in, and check out the Floating Village on the Tonle Sap or the great lake, off the Mekong river.
A one hour ride to Tonle Sap and a transfer into a ferry and here began one of the most interesting experiences of our trip, Rows of bamboo huts and cottages propped over stilts along the narrow lake. Apparently in rainy season the entire village gets flooded, keeping the houses afloat over these stilts!
A most scenic boat ride in the mangroves later, we were anchored to an almost surreal floating restaurant, almost at what looks like the horizon of the earth!
A bit more chilling at the pub street, over more draft beers, over the sounds of music blaring out from the nearby pubs, the landmine victims music groups, and the banter of other merry making tourists, we take an overnight bus to Phnom Penh ($15 each, comfortable, AC)
Day 5: Phnom Penh
The capital city of Cambodia- While it pales in comparison to the surrealism of the Angkor in Siem Reap, still should be seen to set in perspective the contrast of the temple town and a bustling, chaotic metropolis.
You could visit the national museum ($5) with an impressive collection of the artefacts from the Angkor period followed by the Grand Palace next door ($7). However if you’re short on time and money, the Grand Palace is quite missable.
However those aware of the gruesome and poignant past of Cambodia and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, a trip to the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Prison may be heart breaking but eye opening and perspective giving. The Tuol Sleng was a high school converted into an ad hoc prison to capture the victims of the Khmer Rouge who were brutally tortured, impoverished and then taken to the “Killing Fields” to be executed. A cabinet full of skulls of a few thousand of the 1.7 million executed are on display. Not for the faint hearted.
Day 6: Onwards to the Sihanoukville beach!
Having decided that Phnom Penh did not have much else to offer to a traveler, we boarded the 5 hour bus to the beach town- Sihanoukville. A touch after the sunset, we were at Sihanoukville and a short walk took us to the Serendipity beach area which has an amazing beach vibe going. The street is lined with guesthouses, restaurants, water sports and other shops.
The beach itself is throbbing with backpackers from around the world with dozens of shacks offering cheap drinks and a vast food menu, with comfortable “satellite chairs” to prop up on while you sip on exotic cocktails and freshly barbecued sea food.
Or, if you’re adventurous enough, try the “Happy Pizza”- A speciality of Cambodia. How’s it happy? One of its toppings includes a generous sprinkling of Ganja 🙂 Semi legal in Cambodia so enjoy a sinfree helping.
A night of proper chilling in Sihanoukville and rounds of happy pizza ensured we were full of good vibes and cheer about us.
We took an overnight bus back to Siem Reap and then literally retraced our steps back to Siem Reap- Poipet- Aranyaprathet- Bangkok. A rather long almost 24 hour ordeal after which we both found ourselves in Bangkok, back after 4 years.
Day 8: Ping Pong Show? No Thank you, Bangkok!
None of us being a stranger to the Thai capital, we had a few hours to kill before our flight back, so we walked around the Pat Pong area- Being approached for “Ping Pong Shows” every 5 minutes notwithstanding, we had a great time, people watching, window shopping and of course hunting down vegetarian places in this great haven of the meats.
Day 9: Cricket in Sri Lanka
What’s it about long layovers? We couldn’t resist the temptation of going out about town in Colombo despite having been there before. However only this time, we had a mission.
There was a world cup match, IndVSPak, and we weren’t going to muck about at the airport, in a land almost as crazy about cricket as us. So we negotiated with the immigration officers to grant us a transit visa, took a bus and an auto and landed straight at the famous “Cricket Club Cafe”- the Hard Rock Cafe of Cricket- and watched the match over expensive draft beers.
In the break, we also managed to squeeze in a trip to the eccentric Ganga Ramaya temple with its hundreds of Buddhas and other religious paraphernalia all strewn around in this temple and the lake around it. Well worth a visit if you happen to be in Colombo.
Watching the rest of the match at the airport, and celebrating our win, over cups of coffee, we were 2 happy souls, getting into our final flight back home.
This had been a heady, hectic, and yet one of the most interesting trips.
Did you know?
– While the currency of choice in Cambodia is the USD, it transacts in multiple currencies like the USD, the Cambodian Riel and also the Thai Bahts!
– Proud of their hundreds of years of history and heritage the Cambodians surely are. Almost everything is called Angkor something. Grand Angkor Hotel, Smiling Angkor Shack, Angkor beer, the like.
– Dominantly a meat based country, getting hold of bread may be a challenge. If you can’t find enough veg stuff to sustain, hit a big supermarket and stock up on all the bread and jam you can.
– All the ATMs dispense the money in dollars and charge a $5 convenience fees. Come prepared with dollars before you come here.
– The Cambodian people are one of the chillest, warmest and most smiling people I’ve ever met.