Ah Cambodia, the land of big smiles, warm hospitality and amazing food. It takes a fair bit to get such a jaded traveller as myself excited, but Asia just keeps on serving up the most diverse and provocative destinations! The most popular time to travel to Siem Reap is between November and March when it’s cooler and dryer. There are no direct flights to Siem Reap so I had a short transit in Vietnam in both directions. You can bypass this by flying into Phnom Penh and travelling by road to Siem Reap, but as this is about a 6-hour drive I decided to take my chances with Vietnamese airports.
The first order of business was securing my Angkor Wat admission pass. This needs to be done in person before you can enter the Angkor Archaeological Park and costs US$20 for one day or US$40 for three days. Your photo is taken on the spot and you must carry it with you at all times.
I very willingly surrendered the entire first day and a half to clambering around, over and through temples. I know that the majority of you will read that and sigh, just like seeing churches in Europe, in Asia, you’re always being dragged off to another temple, but Angkor Wat is something different, something truly special. It’s been dredged straight from history and plonked on your doorstep to astound you with the imagination and ingenuity of the past. We entered the Angkor Wat temple via the South Entrance, crossing the moat that once was a haven for crocodiles but now is a sanctuary for tortoises and the occasional illegal fisherman. I was happily astounded that the initial small outer building that we climbed through before getting to the main building was absolutely deserted.
After visiting Angkor Wat, we went to see Ta Phrom, otherwise known as the Tomb Raider Temple. It appeared as if it was created for the movie instead of being a 900-year-old temple that is struggling to withstand the test of time and nature as giant figs attempt to reclaim it by reaching down, clutching at the walls and foundations of the temple as the earth rises from below to meet them. Bayon Temple with its many faces of Buddha left an indelible impression as did Bantey Srei, the temple that the locals have chosen as their jewel amongst their treasury as the carvings are so detailed and intricate that they appear to have been forged by nature into the stone itself.
We head out to the floating villages and Tonle Sap, the largest lake in Southeast Asia. The villages are along the edges of the river and stretch most of the way up to the lake. The individual houses are built on about 3 stories worth of bamboo stilts as during the wet season the river swells to that extent and the only mode of transport that can be used is boat, even to travel between the houses, but in July the land between them is still dry. It was an enjoyable trip and the fresh breeze was very welcome after the mugginess of the temple compounds.
On my last day, I decided to do something a bit different and definitely a lot of fun. Quad bike riding! For hours I hurtled around the Siem Reap country side happily trailing after my guide who was on a normal dirt bike. I got soaked, I was covered in mud and I loved every moment of it. This was the Cambodia that I was hoping to be able to see, rice paddies, tiny villages, farms, the real Cambodia.
Khmer cuisine bears a slight resemblance to Thai food, lots of vegetables and curries. Fish is a staple. Head to Touich for good food and amazing service. Viroth’s Restaurant is another favourite. It is a trendy restaurant that offers traditional Khmer cuisine.
There were still many things that I didn’t see or do, but for the time being I was content and bursting with stories to share including how when we stopped to feed some monkeys on the road, one of the monkeys mugged me for my bag of bananas, how daintily perfect the traditional apsara dancers were, and how the tuk tuk drivers string hammocks up inside their tiny tuk tuks to nap in between fares. It was a different world, one that I’m grateful to have caught a glimpse of and that I would heartily recommend for you all to experience.
FLIGHT CENTRE TIPS:
- Brings lots of wet wipes
- Everything is in USD in Cambodia
- For a more romantic experience, try watching the sunset over the Angkor Wat with a 10-minute hot air balloon ride
- It gets really hot mid-day, so we suggest booking a hotel with a pool so you can chill and unwind in the afternoon. We like Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor
By Belinda Rothwell