I never really warmed to Phnom Penh and I cannot really put my finger on why. It cannot be the noise, the fumes or the amount of people as I have visited places that were more crowded, noisier and had more air pollution than Phnom Penh and which I still liked better. However, I guess it is still worth spending a day or two in Cambodia’s capital. Phnom Penh is a relatively small city which can easily be navigated on foot, which I generally like as it gives you a better feel of the place. So I spend a day ambling around Phnom Penh walking from my hotel to Wat Phnom (the highest point in Phnom Penh at about 30m), via the Royal Palace, the National Museum and the food section of the Central Market, where I had lunch consisting of noodle soup and Rambutan. The Central Market is absolutely huge and if you are into shopping it is probably an interesting place to visit.
The most interesting museum in Phnom Penh and unfortunately also the most depressing is the Tuol Sleng Museum, the former High School that was taken over by the security forces of Pol pot and turned into the Security Prison 21 (S-21). The security services kept meticulous records of all the detained and the photographs of the prisoners , most of which where taken to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and killed, are now displayed in the museum making for a pretty harrowing visit.
From Phom Penh To Siam Reap
My plan was to go from Phnom Phen to Siam Reap via Sambor Prei Kuk, Preah Vihear Khan in the Preah Vihear Khan Province, Prasat Preah Vihear, Koh Ker and Beang Meala. Thus after two days in Phnom Pen I took the bus to Siam Reap and got out in Kompong Thom where I dropped off my rucksack at the Sambor Village Hotel before meeting up with Mr. Vothea of the Tourist Transportation Association Kompong Thom (TTAK) with whom I had arranged to take me to the various temples before leaving for Cambodia. Arranging this tour with the TTAK was very easy as Mr. Vothea promptly replied to all my e-mails and provided me with all the details I needed. The 4 day trip cost about $320 (not including accommodation and food). This is probably not the cheapest way to see these temples but it had the advantage that I was driving in a modern air-conditioned SUV and that I did not loose large amounts of time trying to get there by public transport or by hitch-hiking. Preah Vihear Khan is especially difficult to get to and the only way I could think of doing it was either hiring a driver from Kompong Thom or from Siam Reap.
Before setting of for Preah Vihear Khan and Prasat Preach Vihear, I visited Sambor Prei Kuk which is only 30 km north of Kompong Thom and can be easily reached from Kompong Thom either by tuk-tuk, moto or car. Sambor Prei Kuk consists of three different complexes all of which can be reached by foot and there other small temples dotted around the site. When I visited Sambor Prei Kuk at the beginning of July I had Sambor Prei Kuk virtually to myself which was a pleasant surprise. I can only put the lack of visitors down to the fact that I was travelling slightly of the beaten track (only very slightly) during the low season, which in my opinion is the best time to visit Cambodia if you want to visit the temples.
Sambor Prei Kuk
The day after visiting Sambor Prei Kuk, we left Kompong Thom for Preah Khan which is about 150km north of Kompong Thom. The drive took about 3 to 4 hours (including a lunch break) as not all the roads are fully surfaced and some of the dirt roads contained some large potholes. However, overall the roads to the temple seemed to be in pretty good nick and I got the impression that it should be possible to get to the temple all-year round. From what I gathered when reading up about the temple this has not always been the case. After visiting Sambor Prei Kuk I thought that the number of tourists could not possibly decrease any further, but they did – here I was the only visitors, even the guards at the entrance said that they had not seen a single visitor in a day or two. When you get you Preach Khan make sure that your driver takes you to all the small temples which are dotted around. The one I liked best was the one located in the middle of the barray, called Prasat Preach Thkol, although this might require getting your feet wet. The other two temples I visited are the ‘Elephant Temple’ (Prasat Damrei) at the west end of the barray and the ‘Temple of Four Faces’ (Prasat Preah Stung).
Preah Khan (Preah Vihear Province)
Overnight we stayed in a ‘homestay’ in a small village close to Preah Khan. Before dinner I wandered around the village and watched people harvesting the rice from their rice paddies. Dinner, which was very tasty, consisted of some form of ‘lemony chicken’ and rice, which was very different from what you are normally served in restaurants. Unfortunately, I was not able to ask how to prepare it as I would not have minded having it again. Looking it up on the web so far has not been successful.
The next morning we left for Prasat Preah Vihear, breakfast consisting of deep-fried bananas which Mr. Vothea purchased on the way. Prasat Preah Vihear is located in the north of Cambodia on the border with Thailand and the drive took another three hours or so.
Unfortunately private drivers are not allowed to drive right up to the temple, which is situated on top of a cliff overlooking Thailand and Cambodia. Thus my driver dropped me off a the information center in Kor Muy from where it is another 5km to the temple itself. At the information center you buy your ticket and arrange for transport to the temple. I choose to ride at the back of of a motorcycle which was fine for the first few kilometres where the road was in a good condition and the ascend was not too steep. But the last two kilometres are extremely steep and the condition of the road gets worse and worse until you are basically driving over rock. I have to say I was happy when I got off the motocycle and did not quite look forward to the way back. As it turned out the way back was actually worse as there was a torrential downpour!! This was indeed one of the few days where the rain started to come down earlier than I expected and I got completely soaked. You can see the ominous build up of clouds, which resulted in a more dramatic atmosphere, in some of the pictures below.
Prasat Preah Vihear
From Prasat Preah Vihear we drove to Sra Em where we stayed overnight before driving to Siam Reap via Koh Ker and Beng Meala. Of these two temples I much preferred the former one. For some reason I found Beng Meala a bit disappointing but I am not entirely sure why. It is definitely impressive as most of it is covered in dense vegetation and you get a good idea what it looked like when it was first discovered assuming your imagination allows you to blend out the many tourists. Maybe that was the cause for my disappointment – after Sambor Prei Kuk, Preah Khan and Prasat Preah Vihear which I virtually had to myself, this was the first temple where I encountered large crowds. Moreover, as there is only one path through the temple the crowds cannot really disperse and you end up jostling for space.
Siam Reap and Angkor Wat
Food and Accomodation
You are definitely not going to starve in Siam Reap as there plenty of street stalls and restaurants around the Pub Street area catering for all tastes. Although I normally try and stick to the local cuisine, after two weeks of noodles and rice I suddenly craved pizza for some reason so I tried out Il Forno, which I had spotted earlier while walking around the Pub Street area. I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the pizza which was actually baked in a brick oven. Right next to Pub Street there is also a big market where you can stock up with drinks and fruits for your visit to the Angkor Archaeological National Park. I ended up buying large backs of Rambutan, which are one of my favourite tropical fruits, most evenings.
There are plenty of homestays and hotels in Siem Reap choose from. At the budget end a bed in a hostel will probably set you back a few dollars or so while for a room in a budget hotel you can expect to pay somewhere between $15-$30. If you want a pool you look at an extra 5 to 10 dollars. If you visit during the low season you can actually stay in some pretty decent hotels without paying over the odds. While in Siam reap I stayed in the Chronicle Residence and Spa (Street 30) which is a pretty swanky boutique hotel with pool and spa and I payed $40 per night. The staff was very friendly and helpful, they offered free tuk-tuks to Pub Street and the centre of town. Furthermore, the hotel has the advantage that it is close to the Angkor Archaeological Park.
Angkor Archaeological Park.
For a description and photos of the Angkor Archaeological Park click here.
Trip to Banteay Chhmar
In order to get to Banteay Chhmar I took the bus from Siam Reap to Sisophon (also called Banteay Meanchey) where I was picked up by a driver from the Community Based Tourist Association Visit Banteay Chhmar . They provide homestays and drivers/guides to the Banteay Chhmar temple and its satellite temples, as well as further afield such as some small and little-visited temples on the Thai-Cambodian borders. I have to say that the homestay they provided for me was excellent, the people were very friendly and the room was very clean. Dinner was provided at the CBTs centre in Banteay Chhmar.
The main attraction is obviously the Banteay Chhmar Temple which is very similar to Beng Meala in the sense that it is completely overgrown and it gives you a good sense of what this places must have looked like when the first European archaeologists turned up. In that sense both temples are pretty atmospheric. However, I much preferred Banteay Chhmar to Beng Meala since you can just wander around the temple complex as you wish and, as it is relatively remote I only shared the place with one Canadian and one Russian tourist.
Banteay Chhmar Temple
Banteay Chhmar is surrounded by 9 satellite temples and slightly further afield is Banteay Top. Somebody from the CBT Association took me around to these temples on the back of a moped, which, this time round, felt more comfortable than the trip up to Prasat Preah Vihear.
On my last day in Banteay Chhmar I visited several small temples on the Thai-Cambodian border one of them, Prasat Ta Muen Thom, doubling up as a military camp. It is possible to visit the temple without any problems although turning up with my CBT guide and a bag full of cigarettes probably helped a lot.