The immense Kymer temple complex of Angkor Wat has been cited by many as being the world's "8th wonder"- with good reason.
It's vastness and grandeur envelops you from the moment you exit the canopy of the long, straight road from Siem Reap and you can't help but feel you've stepped far back into a magical time.
This magnificent sensation was enhanced when I decided to hire a bicycle and set off at 4am from Siem Reap to reach the temple while it was dark dark. It was incredible being able to sit back and watch the entire sunrise unfold with the temple's silhouette slowly coming into view, hearing only the flutter of dragonflies hovering over the pond in front of me.
Google map: bit.ly/AaogXn
In River of Time, Jon Swain writes beautifully of time spent in Cambodia in the most horrific of times, as the Khmer Rouge tighten their grip on the country. The stories of war are as horrific as the tales of the old Indo-China are captivating. A wonderful, haunting book.
A fantastic find but the taxi driver didn’t know where it was so we drove down Street 240 for some time. Look out for a red and white sign saying BOOKS and also a sign for Naturae which is the healthfood shop and café in the same building where you are served a lovely continental breakfast with freshly squeezed juice. We paid $50 which included a $5 per night discount at their suggestion as our room had suffered a leak from above so there was some discolouration on the ceiling. The design throughout the shop and rooms is funky and modern with bright accent colours. Our room was light and spacious with dark wooden furniture, flatscreen TV, free wifi, kettle and a big walk-in shower in the bathroom. We were delighted with the terrace area which was larger than expected especially the promised plunge pool which was a long deep trough easily big enough for two to stretch out and cool off. It felt like a real oasis after a hot day in the busy city. You can also use the pool in the sister hotel, The Pavilion which is just round the corner. This would be more suitable if you want a full hotel service and perhaps reception staff with better English but the 240 is ideal for a city break. The style of the property epitomises the street it is named after which is full of chic and contemporary boutiques and cafes with a real cosmopolitan feel which we were surprised to find existed in Cambodia.
This hotel cost more than other accommodation we chose while spending three weeks on holiday in Thailand and Cambodia at $110 per night but was money well spent and felt like a real treat. Any hassle or stress was taken away with careful thought and faultless customer service as our every need had been considered and included in the room rate. We were collected from the bus station by a driver with air-conditioned car and taken to the airport at the end of our stay. A tuktuk driver was assigned to us for the duration and we could call on him all day and throughout the evening for lifts into town or to visit the Angkor Wat temples. Dawud was friendly and attentive with good English, telling us to relax and enjoy our holiday and waiting for several hours at times while we went shopping or on a boat trip. On arriving at the hotel to check in we were given cold flannels and refreshing lemongrass tea. The outskirts of Siem Reap away from the main tourist streets are scruffy with lots of litter. The hotel is a short drive out of town but walking in through the gate you find a leafy calm oasis in colonial style with tasteful décor and attention to detail. The swimming pool is small and simple with a waterfall wall. Our room was large with a ground floor balcony, stylish furniture, a modern bathroom with rain shower, flatscreen TV and free wifi albeit with a low signal. The bed had a mosquito net probably more for romantic effect than genuine need and at turndown they left a bedtime story each night which was a sweet touch. It was a haven to return to after a hot day exploring. Breakfast was excellent with fresh fruit, yoghurt and gorgeous home-made chocolate brownies! They used lovely local crockery and the buffet was kept clean and refreshed throughout service with a further option to order hot food cooked to order such as an omelette. Each table was given a plate of four croissants daily which we always took with us for later as they made the perfect picnic!
We only had a few days in Siem Reap but wanted to see more than Angkor Wat so decided on a different day out and were so glad we did. There are various organised tours to visit floating villages but many are said to take you to places on the Tonle Sap lake which are now overly touristy and therefore not very authentic. We got a tuktuk to drive us to a point where we could pick up boats for Kompong Phluk which is only accessible by water. Even the drive out of the city and through more rural villages was interesting and took about 30 minutes. We reached the pontoon where the boats depart and paid $20 each at an office where it looked like a visitor centre was being built. We had the whole boat to ourselves and only saw a few other tourist boats during the day. You travel up the river and reach a village where all the houses are on stilts in the water. It was fascinating to see how the local people lived. We then paid a man $5 to take us on a canoe and paddle through a flooded forest which was amazing and so peaceful and calm. Then we headed back into the village and saw children playing in the water and paddling home from school in canoes. Everyone was very friendly and didn’t seem to mind us being there as hopefully tourists help the local economy. We were taken to a local house which had set up as a restaurant and paid $5 each for a nice fresh lunch. The only downside to the day was on the return leg on the boat when we stopped at the temple and school which would have been a highlight had we not felt pressured by hawkers trying to sell us stuff. They approached us as soon as we set foot on the banks and then followed us round asking us to buy a bundle of exercise books for $6 or a pack of pencils for $3 saying they would be given to the schoolchildren to help their education. Other tourists seemed to have fallen for the scam, not realising it was just a money-making scheme as there is no way the materials would have cost that amount of money and even if the stationery ended up at the school, the cash was destined for the pockets of the local women who were peddling it. Enterprising maybe but we felt it spoiled an otherwise pleasant day out. We made an offering in the temple instead and would rather have given a cash donation directly to the school so be prepared and perhaps bring stationery supplies yourself instead. Otherwise we had a wonderful day out with an incredible insight into another lifestyle and the total round trip from Siem Reap took about four hours.
We booked the Mekong Express bus to travel from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. It cost $11 each and was easy to sort out by taking a tuktuk to their office on the riverside. Buses do get booked up so don’t risk just turning up on the day. It was a fairly old coach but had aircon and a toilet and so we travelled in comfort. The journey takes six hours with a 30 minute stop at a nondescript town about halfway which is obviously where all the coaches stop based on the tourist restaurant full of Westerners which served basic local food at inflated prices but was still a better option than walking round a grotty looking town and being hassled by beggars including some with grubby-looking young children which was upsetting. We had been given a bakery box containing a couple of things we didn’t fancy eating and had already had breakfast at the hotel so like many other passengers we gave ours to the people who crowded the coach door asking for money. A cheap way to get from A to B if you want to save money by not paying for an internal flight and popular with all ages not just backpackers. You also pass through plenty of local villages with stilted houses so get a chance to see some Cambodian countryside away from the main tourist hubs and busy cities.
An amazing vegetarian restaurant in Siem Reap. Fresh tasty food, best food I've had ever, and I'm not even a vegetarian!
Street 26 off River Road, Siem Reap, Cambodia.
From Old Market, cross the bridge and turn left,
follow the river and turn right at the second street.
(+855) 063 965210
Psar Kandal Market in Phnom Penh, Cambodia:
narrow alleyways full of stalls crammed closely together, this is where the locals of Phnom Penh buy their food, rather than in shops and supermarkets. Cambodia is still a very poor country whose infrastructure has not yet recovered from the devastating Khmer rouge period, yet this open air market supplied food of a freshness and variety that surpasses Western food markets.
Banana flower, mini mangos, herb and spice stalls selling fresh galangal, ginger, chillies, turmeric; fish stalls with live fish in tanks and enormous aluminium basins full of squid and shellfish; egg stalls selling fresh and preserved eggs of all sizes and hues, meat and medicine and drink stalls. Everything was displayed beautifully in large baskets or on rattan mats.
As part of a small group attending a Cambodian cookery class, I was given a tour around and introduced to the ingredients I would be using later in the day, but you don’t have to be a foodie to appreciate the vitality of the place. Finish off by visiting one of the many cafes and small restaurants around the square.
The Paradise Bungalows in Cambodia are exactly that, bungalows in paradise. Situated right on the heavenly white beaches of the sparsley populated island of Koh Rong 40km off the coast of SihanoukVille. There are various beach huts from $15 and even dorms available from $3. You really feel you have the island to yourself if you visit in the off-peak season. If you fancy combining diving the coral reefs around the island with idyllic hammock swinging and swimming with phosphorescence in the sea just like in The Beach, you can book your dives and nights accommodation through The Dive Shop located at SihanoukVille. You can then miss the masses that dive Thailand. The authorities have big plans for the island so best to visit before it gets over developed.
La Maison is a lovely boutique hotel with a real garden feel. It's a bit out from town (although you can get tuk-tuks), but you really feel apart from the crowds around "Pub Street". Food is really good, and a great pool. Would definitely stay here again.
Discover somewhere exotic at Cambodia's ultimate beach hangout, Sihanoukville. It definitely ticks all the boxes as far as backpacker beach hangouts go. Serendipity Beach is bursting with budget accommodation - try Monkey Republic Bungalows as it's cheap, clean and comfortable and has a great bar with good-value meals.
Come nightfall you will notice the huge stretch of bars on the beach front where you can pick up a cheap feed at the fresh seafood barbeques. I'd recommend Dolphin Shack, as it's reliable and always buzzing with fellow backpackers. It's all day happy hour, beer's very cheap, so you can dance the night away under the stars right by the ocean.
Spend your days relaxing on the beach. Or if you are after something more, I'd recommend taking a trip out to the nearby islands where you will stumble upon unspoilt paradise, with squeaky pure white sand, lush palm tree's and sublime waters with endless snorkelling opportunities. You can stay in beach bungalows on Bamboo Island for an unforgettable experience.
The bamboo train, some 10 miles into the countryside from Cambodia's second city of Battambang, is a journey you are unlikely to forget - ever. Whilst this part of the world is admittedly full of spectacular land journeys - from mountain ranges to rice fields - some of them are incredibly long and arduous. Not so the bamboo train. Ok, so its not exactly a comfortable journey as you trundle along the line at around 20kph - with every uneven join in the track unnervingly within close eye shot, but it is just a 20 minute or so round trip. Its function is for local farmers to transport goods between the small villages. Without this in place, people would have to wait about a week (the frequency of the standard train on this route) This was clearly not acceptable, and so, the bamboo train was born. I think it cost us about £5 per person for the ride. Massively expensive by local standards, but hey, the thrill as you fly past lush paddy fields, water buffalo and fishermen is only matched by the warm glow of goodwill you are left with, having done your bit to help the local community. I'm not sure how much the train costs to run or assemble (its size could be no more than about 10 x 6 foot) covered in bamboo slats - that'll be where the name comes from! One thing seems pretty certain however, given that we handed the money straight onto what I believe was the head of the village, a decent cut must surely be going to help the locals build a better life.
Whilst its not for the faint hearted, anyone who likes an adrenalin rush in the heart of the Cambodian countryside, along with a visit to a local village, relatively off the beaten track - and a chance to do your little bit for the local economy - give it a go - the bamboo train is a quirky experience to remember!
Take a break from the rushing around in Siem Reap and Sihanoukville and spend some quality time in the lazy backwaters of Kampot and the seaside town of Kep.
Enjoy fried crab with kampot peppers and take a sundowner overlooking the bokor hills.
Probably the only floating tents in the world…?
Check out this new eco-lodge on Koh Andet Island up the Tatai River in the Cardamom Mountains. (half an hour from Koh Kong) Cambodia. Unique twelve tented floating villas amongst spectacular jungle mountain scenery. Floating swimming pool being built. Excellent food. Visit it before the rest of the world discovers it.
Happy Ranch is a great riding centre just outside of Siem Reap town, costing around a 120Baht return journey in a tuk-tuk from the centre.
It’s the only one of its kind in Cambodia so don’t be fooled if your hostel owner tries to persuade you to go somewhere else or that it’s closed down.
Rides can last from an hour to half a day, starting from around 30USD.
The owner used to work in the US and England so speaks fluent English and on the whole it’s a very professionally run place. He also employs English speaking guides.
The horses are all very healthy and well looked after, and rides can cater for any ability. It is important to call in advance to book and so they know your level of ability.
Most importantly, the rides are a unique and unforgettable way to see the surrounding villages, rice paddies and isolated temples.
In the NE of Cambodia, in the Ratanakiri province, just outside of Banlung, is Yaklom Hill Lodge. There are 10 bunglalows, on stilts (like all Cambodian houses), set in beautiful jungle. The bunglalows are basic, but clean, with electricity only in the evening and hammocks outside for relaxing surrounded by the noise of the jungle, huge butterflies and birdsong. The lodge can arrange treks into the jungle or to nearby hill tribe villages. The lodge is also only 2km from Yeak Laom lake, an exquisite crater lake set in protected forest, perfect for swimming and chilling out!
Travel services with a difference - Andrew Booth, the founder, aims to bring education to the rural areas via profits from providing great travel services. Very warm local and foreign staff who understand luxury travel well. Great itineraries - well-researched routes allow you to view the temples unhurriedly and without the usual tourist crowds. My friend travelled alone with three kids and they provided a nanny! Thumbs up for making a real difference to travellers and the local communities.
This hotel is located a short walk away from the clamour and frivolity of Pub Street and the Old Market. The rooms are wonderfully clean and spacious, while the decor is tasteful and elegant. The staff are wonderful. There is also the additional perks of free internet and unlimited use of wifi as well as use of the rooftop gym
Group 10, Psar Kroung Street, Vahear Cham Village, Svaydankum Commune, Siem Reap www.mandalayinn.com
Wonderful little hidden bar, filled with expats, locals and NGO volunteers. There is a lovely little vibe here and they have live music on most nights from an endearing French singer. On Saturdays there is a $20 all you can drink and eat offer. Lots of fun and not the generic bar that you'd encounter in this bustling city.
Just off Street 178, near the FCC by the Riverside
Arising out of the shocking statistic that in Cambodia, 1 in 7 children die before the age of 5, an organisation (Friends Without A Border) was set up enabling a hospital to be built & opened in 1999.
A number of local restuarants / bars / hotels support the hospital. We found pamplets / collection boxes at the Khmer Kitchen restaurant and resolved to make a donation to the hospital when we got back from Cambodia. Our small way of trying to help.
The Friends without a Border has a centre which people can visit to learn about the work of the hospital.
Friends Centre, Acha Mean Road, Svay Dangkum Commune, Siem Reap [between Sivutha Boulevard & PPokambor Avenue].
www.fwab.org [for online donations]
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