It’s been almost a month since we returned from a blissful 2 weeks travelling around Cambodia, I say travelling since I refuse to be lumped into the tourist bracket but I think that is hard to define and probably doesn’t really matter. For me, to travel is to explore and understand something of the places you visit, talk to people and even with limited time, at least try to see beyond the showpiece veneer created to extract dollars from foreign visitors. We saw plenty of tourists in Cambodia, mainly Chinese, and however many touristy things we did during the trip I was never a part of that pack!
“Why Cambodia?” tends to be the question most people I have talked to about the holiday have started with, apart from people at HUBBUK who just said “cool, how long for?” or “riding what?”. It’s actually a fair question in the context of “why Cambodia this time when there are so many other cool Asian countries you could also try?”. It’s not such a fair question in the context of “why Cambodia when you can go all inclusive to Spain for cheap beer and sunshine?”. So I wont attempt answering the 2nd question but to the first, the answer is made up from:
- I remember the Khmer Rouge stories and the Blue Peter bring and buy sales raising funds for Cambodia in the ’70’s
- I’ve always wanted to see Angkor Wat
- By going on about the above our kids were prompted to buy us flights tickets as a Christmas gift within 3 months of being financially able to do so. Bloody love them and yes Abi it is definitely better than paying rent.
A read of the Lonely Planet and a reminder read of Under Asian Skies by Sam Manicom (which is bloody brilliant and written by one of the worlds truly top blokes) were used to gauge a rough plan that was then refined based on some local knowledge from Mark Ellams, a school friend from Swinton I had not seen for 30 ish years, but who was now living and working in Battambang, Cambodia. Flights and some hotels were booked based on a 4 location trip to Phnom Penh, Battambang, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville with the plans for transit between locations left until we arrived in country.
What a wonderfully chilled place for an Asian capital city! Once the mind had re-calibrated into asia mode after the flight it was a real joy to wander the streets and river front, night and day and be surrounded by such a buzz. Yes, there were people selling everything and offering tuk-tuk’s constantly but never in a pushy manner and most of the trade going on was between locals and felt much more genuine than I had expected from the capital city. We did all the obligatory tourist stuff but found most people were there in small groups or individuals so it didn’t feel like a tourist hot-spot in any way. An evening river boat cruise at sunset and the Royal Palace were definite highlights within the city.
Of course though you cannot visit Phnom Penh without visiting the reminders of recent atrocities. It is difficult to comprehend the full extent of the horrors of the period before and during, the Khmer Rouge time in control of this beautiful country. We visited the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum on a very sobering first full day in the country, of all gruesome items left as harsh reminders there was one that just stopped me in my tracks. Described as the Killing Tree, this innocent looking tree was witness to and even used as part of, the most depraved horrors imaginable, the murder of huge numbers of children.
We had transport options, 6-8 hour bus for $13 each OR 3-4 hour air conditioned private car for $40 all in………so we took the car and thus set in place the standard mode of transport around Cambodia for the holiday. The journey was uneventful and included a lunch stop where Jackki had no choice but to eat something local, and enjoyed it.
Arriving in Battambang we checked into the very nice Deluxe Villa hotel and pretty much immediately hooked up with Mark and had a few beers. If Phnom Penh was chilled then Battambang is definitely on the sleepy side, a really lovely place to spend a few days. It was great to catch up with an old friend and to hear a little of life over the last 30 years and to get a sense of how and why he has based his life in this part of the world recently and meet his lovely partner Sola.
We did the tourist stuff including the bat caves and bamboo train, both highly recommended and under the expert guidance of tuk-tuk driver and local knowledge expert DJ.
Now this was tourism. Pub Street, “tuk-tuk sir”, bright lights, “tuk-tuk sir”, souvenir shops, “tuk-tuk sir” and the Hard Rock Café Angkor! Well, when in Rome. We enjoyed what was on offer and our hotel was a wonderful oasis of calm away from all the hustle and bustle and I still enjoyed exploring off on foot and just wandering around letting everything wash over me. It was genuinely great fun and even the ever pressing tuk-tuk drivers had a great sense of humour and were so varied in their attempts to get ahead of the pack. We ate and drank in the Red Piano a few times and found it fascinating to see just how busy a place can be while still offering great food, great service and great prices.
One piece of travel advice that the guide books wont say. Don’t visit the Floating Village that is near Siem Reap, overpriced boat tours around a floating gypsy caravan site would be a better description than village. The only thing in Cambodia that left me feeling ripped off.
Temples of Angkor
Using the Lonely Planet recommendation to get a “free sunset” we headed over the Angkor ticket counters at 5pm and bought our 1 day tickets for the next day. This allowed us to enter the temple areas for sunset that evening, taking our tuk-tuk driver, Sokphy’s, recommendation of being near Angkor Thom for sunset rather than fighting the crowds trying to view Angkor Wat. It was a stunning evening and a great sampler, the way the light catches the sandstone sculptures is captivating and I really wanted to capture that on film but couldn’t quite get the images I wanted. To be fair though, the star of the sunset show was the enthusiasm and happiness from Sokphy sharing his pride in the Angkor monuments and his hopes and desires for the future, thankyou buddy.
An early start the next day saw us return to Angkor Wat before sunrise, we entered the temple area to find 100’s of people waiting for the sunrise. There is plenty space within the worlds largest temple to house them all but it was still a bit of a warning shot in terms of the dangers of mass tourism for such a special place. We had most fun inside the temple itself while the crowds were still outside watching the sunrise and no doubt taking disappointing selfies by the thousand. Being inside before the heat of the day and the crowds was brilliant. We were amongst the first 6 people to climb to the top of the temple that day and I think we saw it at its best.
The rest of the day was equally spectacular around the other temple areas, especially Ta Prom, but by early afternoon the heat was over-powering and we retreated back to the hotel to recover.
Taking a private taxi was not an option due to cost between Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. All the flights were fully booked or not operating on the day we needed to travel so we took the night bus which looked like 5* luxury on the pictures. Sadly the pictures must have been taken 25 years ago when the bus was new. We had a double bunk right at the front above the driver with a lovely view through the cracked windscreen and all I could think was that we would be the first to die in a head on collision! We didn’t crash and arrived helpfully 3 hours earlier than timetabled, which is great unless you are arriving at 5am in a closed town trying to check in early into a closed hotel!
The early morning was salvaged by the wonderfully helpful staff at The Secret Garden hotel at Otres 2 beach who put us into a temporary room to recover while they got our beach bungalow ready later in the day. Now this was a place to chill, right on the beach, which was 1-2 miles long, nice places to eat, easy strolling, low key chilled out drinking holes on the beach front. Otres 2 was so quiet it was perfect.
My favourite activity was a walk along the beach, passing the 1 mile area that has no developments whatsoever, so called Long Beach, onto which the locals could spend time and enjoy themselves without the financial pressures of the tourist areas. Just a passing smile and a “good morning” to everyone I passed would put me into the best of moods for the day. A boat trip out to one of the islands revealed that paradise does actually exist here on the big blue planet and a day buzzing around on a little Honda twist & go scooter revealed there are plenty local people enjoying the best tourist sites and that it is still very possible to travel and avoid the coach tours full of Chinese tourists.
Cambodia – thankyou, we will be back.