Siem Reap and Angkor Wat
During the winter holiday in early 2017, I travelled with some friends (an American colleague and his Chinese wife) to Cambodia for a holiday. It was nice to be away somewhere and not on my own, though it’s generally not a great idea to travel with a couple.
We flew to Siem Reap, which is not great in itself (being way too touristy), but is the place to stay, if you want to visit Angkor Wat, Bayon and the other nearby temples, which are pretty much a must-see in Cambodia.
We only had a couple of nights in Siem Reap, and just one full day at the temples, which was really a bit rushed, and quite exhausting. The city is lively at night and very noisy, with the many pubs next door to each other in Pub Street (seriously!) competing to attract customers: tourists and commercially-enthusiastic locals. The night market Psah Chas is also a bit of a tourist magnet. However, the main attraction is beyond doubt the temples.
We were up before dawn to travel by tuk-tuk to Angkor Wat – because watching the sun rise from behind the temple complex is one of the main events. It was a surprisingly long walk in the dark from the entrance to the viewpoint.
You might recognise this silhouette from the Cambodian national flag.
The temples have been photographed probably millions of times, by millions of people, so I’ve included only a few of my own here.
The temple sites are so big, the tuk-tuk drivers offer tours to visit multiple temples. We were only there for a day, but weekly tickets are available, and probably worthwhile, if you have the time. Take your own lunch with you though, as on-site catering is poor.
When you return to Siem Reap, you’ll probably need one or more of these.
From Siem Reap, we flew on to Sihanoukville on the coast. The flight was pretty boring, with nothing to see except rice paddies.
The hotel (a ’boutique hotel’) where we stayed was actually about half-an-hour by tuk-tuk or taxi through the countryside from Sihanoukville proper. It wasn’t the only hotel in the area, and there were enough restaurants and bars to keep a few thousand tourists and a few hundred locals happy. This turned out to be an advantage, because when we did go into town, the best beach was not in use, because there had been a massive fire along the beachfront a few years earlier and most of the area had been destroyed. The remaining beach area in Sihanoukville was swarming with Chinese tourists, who had driven prices up. It was not really my kind of place, but if you like crowds, then by all means give it a go.
Back in the sticks, we made do with half-empty beach bars and restaurants (much better, in my view), and took a boat-trip out to an island, which turned out to be a journey back in time to the 1960s as well.
The boat trip was fairly interesting, with a couple of stops for people to go swimming. (On the way back, my American friend trod on a sea-anemone during a dive – he spent the next few days in severe pain, which didn’t put him in a very good mood for some reason.) The island where we stopped – for far too long, I thought – had a bar and tree-houses (for guests) on it, and some more normal rooms. They also sold marijuana at the bar, either loose or in ready-made joints, despite the fact that it has not been legal in Cambodia for some years. Most of the customers were French or American backpackers, living the sixties’ hippy dream.
A day or two later, we took a taxi to Phnom Penh. I got to sit up front and experience Cambodian country driving. It took hours to uncross my fingers afterwards.
Phnom Penh is a mixture of French colonial, modern Stalinist, and ancient Cambodian architecture interspersed with modern kitsch. On a free day, I took a tuk-tuk tour of the city, because the royal palace was closed, so I saw more than just the tourist traps. The traffic was even scarier than in China, mostly because of daredevil moped and tuk-tuk driving. There were even a few cyclists still alive in the mix.
Above: by the riverside and royal palace. Below: the hill after which the city is named.
Our hotel in Phnom Penh was close to Orussey Market. This is definitely one for locals, as it sells food and kitchen supplies as well as spare parts for things, rather than souveniers or touristy stuff (though I only looked downstairs; there are three floors apparently). Any kind of things. In fact, just about anything at all. I found it early one morning, while looking for breakfast, as the stallholders were still setting up and before it became busy. There’s not much space to move around between the stalls, so it’s not for the faint-hearted.