As I pictured Cambodia I pictures giant stone heads in jungle temples, like something out of tomb raider. If the Angkor Wat area is not on your bucket list… it should be. It is in a collection of amazing ruins that you will compare to everything you see after you see it. But if you just fly into Siem Reap, see Angkor Wat and leave… you are missing so much. Let me tell you about other places to visit in Cambodia.
This blog post is written based on a tour I took with Amateur Traveler listeners overland from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, across Cambodia, and ending in Bangkok Thailand. We took this tour with Intrepid Travel.
Table of contents: ()
- Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
- Cambodia Border
- Phnom Penh
- Spider Market
- Silk Making
- Floating Village
- Siem Reap
- Thailand Border
- Bangkok Thailand
We had been in Cambodia for only an hour or so after a long van ride from Saigon before we got onto 3 wheeled bike rickshaws to explore the capital city of Phnom Penh. We rode around the city for a few hours as the day turned into evening. We sat in front and took pictures while our driver and cyclist sat behind us and pedaled us through the city traffic. We were passed by cars, motorbikes, and tuk-tuks.
When we got off the bikes, Sarah, one of the younger of the Amateur Traveler listeners that had come with me on this trip declared that she was coming back on an Amateur Traveler trip. Not a bad start for day one.
We were on a trip run by Intrepid Travel, on their “Cambodian Traveller” tour. We started in Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City) with stops in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap (Angkor Wat), Battambang, finishing in Bangkok Thailand.
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
A number of the people on my tour arranged to come in a day or two early to explore Saigon on their own or with some Urban Adventure day tours, but I arrived the same day as the tour started. I apparently didn’t learn anything from my experience the year before on the Amateur Traveler trip to Morocco.
One thing we had been warned about but still left an impression was the traffic in Saigon. As Rob put it, it is not for the faint of heart. Honestly, it was not as intimidating as some of the videos I had seen. I had been told that you need to just keep walking at a constant pace and let all the motorcycles swerve to avoid you.
The other thing you figure out quickly is that even though many of the meals on the tour are not included, these are not going to be expensive places to eat. We often ended up spending something like $3-4 for a good meal.
In the morning we drove across the Vietnam country-side to the border with Cambodia.
The process of crossing the border was slow with a fair amount of waiting in lines, but it was interesting how much changed when we crossed the border. Cambodia is poorer than Vietnam and poorer still than Thailand we would learn later in the trip. The countryside had more trash piled up outside the houses. We came in the dry season so instead of verdant rice fields it was more dusty stubble. It seemed like every field was a rice field instead of a greater variety of crops. About every 1000 feet along the highway was a sign that said that this highway we brought to you by the Cambodian People’s Party.
We also started to see more iron buffalos which are a 2 wheeled tractor with long wooden handles. People would use it to plow their fields or they would connect it to their cart to bring their goods to the city. We saw fewer cars.
Downtown Phnom Penh is a beautiful city laid out like a French colonial city with wide boulevards. We enjoyed our cyclo tour and we also enjoyed the restaurant scene in the city. Give me a good internet connection and I could picture living in Phnom Penh for a while.
One of the interesting things about the cyclo tour is that unlike a tuk-tuk tour, you are alone with your guide and since your guide likely speaks no English, you are alone with your thoughts in the bustling city. I found it very peaceful and by all reports grinned like a fool the whole time.
You sit in front so it is one of the best ways to get pictures of street scenes, locals or just the rest of your group. People would zip by us with a family of 4-5 on a motorbike. I even saw one person with a small washer on the back of their motorbike one time. Kids would smile shyly at us.
Dinner Cruise on the Mekong River
We took a group dinner cruise along the Mekong with just the 10 of us on a boat that could have held many times that number.
The river is busy not just with tourist boats but with ferries and locals with their small boats. A lot of the housing built along the river had an improvisational style.
The Killing Fields
The most sobering part of our trip was a visit to the Killing Fields. Near Phnom Penh is one of many different places in Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge would kill people who they considered enemies of the state. You could be labeled as an intellectual and therefore an enemy of the state just for wearing glasses. More than a million people were killed and buried in mass graves in these areas and despite the large numbers this was not an industrial process like Nazi concentration camps but people were killed with sticks and farm implements.
If you are considering bringing school-age kids you should know that you will see things like the tree that the Khmer Rouge soldiers used to bash in the brains of infants. It was brutal. Many of the skulls from the victims were gathered together and are displayed in the Choeung Ek Memorial stupa.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Many of the victims of the killing fields came directly from places like Tuol Sleng which was a high school that the Khmer Rouge turned into the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21). Here prisoners were interrogated and tortured for around a month. When it was deemed that they could implicate no one else then they were transferred to the killing fields to be executed.
It was one of around 150 such prisons across the country and from 1976 to 1979 probably 20,000 people passed through its gates as prisoners. 4 adults of these survived because they had some useful skill like being able to fix a typewriter. Much of the artwork inside is done by a couple of these survivors and depicts torture and other disturbing scenes. The day we were there one of the survivors was there signing his book. 4 children also survived.
I did get to the point where I needed to stop looking at some of the photos and come outside. This is a lot to process.
The greatest loss of life in the time of the Khmer Rouge happened not by execution but because the Khmer Rouge emptied out the cities and forced people into the countryside into some more “pure” form of communism. This led to mass starvation.
The thing I did not understand was that with one of four people dying in the country at the time of the Kmer Rouge, everyone was affected. So we continued to hear echos of those days in everyone we met. The father of our guide Chanta was taken off by the Khmer Rouge when Chanta was a young child. and he never saw his father again.
Some of us visited the Royal Palace during some of our free time in the city. We hired an English guide at the front gate which was very affordable and had an impromptu private tour.
Among the things we did not try was firing a rocket launcher… but apparently that was a possibility according to the menu of tours we saw at a local coffee shop.
How much the Cambodian people just like to eat icky things like spiders or how much they had to eat icky things like spiders to keep from starving in the time of the Khmer Rouge I was never clear. But they do like to take tourists to markets like the spider market to see if they can get you to eat a fried tarantula or two.
I did try the tarantula but have no need to do so again. I have eaten crickets before and bamboo worms. I would rather have pizza.
We made a stop to see the local production of silk. They showed us how they raise the silkworms and then boil the cocoon to extra the silk. They also showed us the making of thread and weaving process.
The highlight of the road to Siem Reap for me was a visit by boat to the floating village on Tonlé Sap Lake. Tonlé Sap is the largest lake in Cambodia but gets 5 times larger and much deeper in the rainy season. For that reason where we started the houses were built high above the lake on stilts. Here in the dry season, we drove in on a dirt road and much of the landscape was covered with dust from the red clay soil.
We hopped in a couple of the narrow colorful boats with outboard motors and a long prop sticking out the back. We had to stop periodically on the long ride out to the lake when the prop would become tangled in some bit of trash or old clothes and our boatman would pull out a hacksaw to free the prop before we could continue our journey.
The “village” itself was a series of brightly pained buildings on pontoons floating in the middle of the lake. This is definitely one experience that getting there is half the fun.
The main city for visiting Angkor Wat and the other temples in the area is Siem Reap. Siem Reap is a very comfortable tourist city these days. A couple of decades ago there were 5 hotels in town but now there are more than 100. Siem Reap is big business, but that makes sense because this area is one of the largest temple complexes on the planet. Within a 20×20 kilometer region, there are over 300 temples dating from the 800s to the 1400s.
With lots of great restaurants and street vendors selling $1 fresh fruit smoothies, Siem Reap is an easy city to love.
Angkor Wat was built as a Hindu temple complex but changed to Buddhist at the end of the 12th century. Angkor Wat is huge. The name means “City of Temples”. There is an exterior square moat that is 3 miles (5 km) by 3 miles (5 km). The outer wall is 3.6 miles long. We came in the back way and I was surprised how uncrowded it was. This is the best known of the temple complexes although not my favorite.
Angkor Wat was sacked in 1177 A.D. by the Cham people of what is now Vietnam. It was never completely abandoned by it was largely neglected after the 1600s.
You can climb up the interior part of the temple to get views of the area.
We visited twice. The first time in the morning but the second time at sunrise. There is a lot of waiting around at sunrise with hundreds of your closest friends all trying to get the same picture of the temple reflected in the pool in the front of the complex. A few of the people in our group got bored with the waiting and found that the complex was open so they had it mostly to themselves in the pre-dawn light.
The Angkor Thom (“Great City”) temple complex is 3km x 3km. The most famous of its temples is the Bayon temple which is the one with the giant faces.
It was built after Angkor Wat and shows some of the scenes of the victory over the Cham people as the Khmer kingdom was restored.
Ta Prohm is also informally called the Tomb Raider temple as it was featured in the movie of the same name. All of the temples in the area had this overgrown look at one time, but Ta Prohm is the only one where they retained some of the trees growing over and through the temple complex. This temple or the Bayon temple was my favorite, but I am not sure which one.
I overslept and missed a trip that much of the group went on with Chanta our guide who sponsors a charity where they are digging wells in rural villages. They visited one of these villages and it was a highlight of the trip for some of the group.
The 4th and final temple complex we visited was Banteay Srei which is known for its red sandstone and elaborate carvings that are better preserved than most of the temples.
After we left Siem Reap we made a stop at a roadside restaurant where one could try the roasted rat or snake. One could… I didn’t. Chanta said it very well. he said, “In Cambodia, everything is on the menu.”
Honestly, the people who tried the rat said it wasn’t bad, but I could not get over the idea. As Roger ate rat the look on his wife’s face I told her was, “I could have gone to Europe”. I was close.
Battambang was where I was having problems getting money out of an ATM. While Siem Reap and even Phnom Penh are well connected to the world, Battambang is a little less so and I had to try 4 different banks before I found one where I could use my ATM card.
One of the highlights of Battambang was the bamboo train. It is a kind of Rube Goldberg mechanism where locals took train wheels, a bamboo platform, and an outboard motor and created a train ride on these old warped train tracks. The train goes nowhere and the cars head in both directions so occasionally you have to get off, disassembled your car to get it off the tracks so a train can pass. When you get to the far side they reassemble it heading back the way you came. It is a silly contraption… and fun.
We went out to one of the hills near the town by tuk-tuk to a cave that disgorges thousands of bats at sunset.
We also watched a collection of small monkeys that think they own the neighborhood.
Things changed again the next day as we drove into Thailand. Suddenly there was a great variety of crops instead of just rice fields. The road quickly gained a lane and the iron buffalo were replaced with trucks carrying goods to market.
We stopped for a treat of sticky rice cooked in bamboo which is a treat on both sides of the border in the area. But on the Cambodian side, it comes with the story that they would cook these under their fire to hide from the Khmer Rouge that they were eating more food than their meager rations.
The tour officially ended the morning after our group arrived in Bangkok but nearly the whole group stayed in Bangkok for a day or so to explore that wonderfully chaotic and delicious city. Much of the group went together to the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market our first day in Bangkok which is one of the Urban Adventures tours in Bangkok.
Cambodia is hot. Plan accordingly. Bring lightweight clothes that you can rinse out in the sink at night to save time getting your laundry done. I did have my laundry done cheaply in Siem Reap. Also, heat kills batteries so you might need one more camera battery that you would think. There are a lot of things to take pictures of in Cambodia, see my photos.
Cambodia is delicious… assuming you skip the spiders. Food, including street food, was good and cheap. This was also true in Saigon and Bangkok.
Cambodia is a fascinating country and frankly, it can use your tourism dollars. The “Cambodian Traveller” tour by Intrepid Travel is a great introduction to the country