After so many days enjoying the comodities of Bangkok’s tourist area, Kao San Road, we were decided to get back in the trail and move to a new country, a new language and a new culture to Cambodia.
Right after crossing the border, we realised that Poi Pet was not the best place to stay at for the night. Casinos, duty free shops, cars, mud everywhere and taxi and tuk-tuk touts made from it a very bad choice to spend our time, plus it was almost as expensive as any average european big city but with a half of the quality standards.
Getting out of town was difficult at that time of the day -more than 8 pm- since public local transport seemed to be inexistent. After one hour of arguing and bargaining hard we arranged a shared taxi for half the price of what they were asking for at the beginning and could get to Sisophon on the same day.
Sisophon was as dead and dark as a cementery, so we stayed at the first hotel we found and just relaxed –watched a movie on the satellite TV, such a luxury- and slept until the next day. On the next morning we found difficulties again to find a honest taxi driver (there were again no buses or public transport) who would take us to our next stop, so we decided to take it easy and just have a good energising meal before deciding with whom to travel.
Sitting in the restaurant, we kept on seeing locals who arrived in a pick up truck or a van and continued their way after having lunch. After asking a couple of them for their direction, we were invited by someone to travel with him to Siem Reap, obviously for free and with no hassle. It was great!
He was a young cambodian man working for an american oil company, so he could speak english very well and was able to explain us many things about his country’s history. The trail was in a pretty bad state, full of holes, rocks, mud or dust, and it doesn’t seem that it will be improved in long time.
Apparently Thai Airways has the monopoly of the flights between Bangkok and Siem Reap (where the famous Angkor temple ruins are) and they pay to the corrupt government of Cambodia to not seal the road, so they can get all the tourist flow to Angkor. Such is the reality in this country, corruption everywhere. It took us almost 2 hours to get to Siem Reap, but the journey was fantastic, talking with him about politics, culture and problems of Cambodia.
Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor
Our third destination in the country was Siem Reap, the closest town –around 6 km- to the ancient temple ruins of the reign of Angkor. The town is a secure investment place for anybody wanting to start up a tourism related business due to the proximity of Angkor Wat and the rest of the tourist sites. This is why many of the hotels and restaurants are massive and run by westeners.
An example we found would be the guest House, a highly reccommended place to stay for its clean, spacious rooms and for the new owners, a spanish, an italian and a french guy, all of them very friendly and helpful. Another recommended guest house right next would be the Good Kind Guest House, where we actually were staying and from where we arranged our visit to the Angkor area, bus tickets, etc. There was one amazing cambodian guy -Seiha- who was responsible for the guests and who made his best to accomplish their needs. Thank you very much for everything!!
There is much to say about the temples of Angkor, capital of Cambodia’s anciente Khmer empire, but we don’t have the space to explain it all here, it would be too long. More than one hundred Angkorian monuments are all spread in a very vast extension (over some 3000 sq Km) surrounded by water and forest, linked by kilometres of sinuous roads which you may cover by bicycle or tuk tuk.
We took the second option since we had bought a 3 days ticket -40 USD and apparently, enough time to see the most important sites- and the temperature during the day seemed to be too hot to cycle, so it felt to be a good way to do the whole loop around the temples.
And it certainly was because we were able to rest on the meantime between one temple and another plus being underneath a shadow and with an english speaking driver who explained us a few things about the complex. Our only mistake was trying to do too many things on the second day though. We planned to be touring the sites from sunrise to sunset nonstop and were completely knocked out by midday, returning to the hotel short time later.
Unfortunately we did not see neither sunrise –rainy season means usually clouds!- nor sunset, which are supposed to be the best times of the day to take pics, but enjoyed our visit to the max anyway, specially in the more remote, jungle covered temples such as Ta Prohm and Preah Palilay, which we were lucky to visit being the only people there, a completely different experience. All in all we had a very good time exploring the ruins but something must be said too: we have had enough of seeing Khmer temples for a while!!!
Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital
According to the normal pattern, the capital of a country is the busiest and most modern city of the nation. This happens again in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The streets are noisy, dirty and polluted because of the high concentration of vehicles -private cars, tuk tuks, taxis, big motorbikes, mopeds, buses, truks and many more- which also makes to cross the road a pretty dangerous action, since everybody drive as they please –with red light, in the wrong sense of the road or on the pedestrian zones.
We haven’t had any problem with the traffic so far, but have had to stand in the middle of the road more than once, waiting for the vehicles to stop at the red traffic light. We have spent many hours wandering around town and have suffered from the fumes until our lungs could feel it. Now, from a smoke free area in an internet cafe our throat is getting better but, in case we come back to this city, we will consider to wear this surgical masks that many locals do wear.
About the city itself there is not much to highlight due to its lack of sights. The city is chaotic and charmless. There are no nice parks, interesting neirbourhoods or impresive buildings, apart from the scarce french colonial architecture, the central market or the Royal Palace. Having visited the Grand Palace in Bangkok before, it wasn’t appealing enough for us to visit it here.
Furthermore, walking around Phnom Penh can be very tough and tiring, since it’s very hot all day long. There is no breeze nor shadow in this city, which makes it very unpleasant to stroll around. And we are in the wet season, who knows what hell could be in the dry one!
The best moments of our stay have been chating with locals in the street and a couple of visits to the exterior of some french colonial villas, which looked really beatiful however their decadent aspect. Spending two days here for us was more than enough and we decided to head towards the Cambodian coast, searching for a relaxed and refreshing place to hang aroung for a while.
Kampot, Kep and Koh Tonsay Island
The south coast of Cambodia is blessed with tropical white sand beaches, little islands, small fishing communities and national parks. It is a good place to relax, after being in the stressing city of Phnom Penh. It is also visited by very little number of tourists, since development here is very low at the moment.
Historically, the towns of Kep and Kampot where the most important centres in the region. Kep is no more than a fishing village on a small headland of palm-fringed coast, with narrow and grubby beaches, although it has a laid-back atmosphere which makes it a perfect place to just relax.
It was founded as a colonial retreat for the French in 1908 and later was one of King Sihanouk’s favorite spots in Cambodia, where he used to entertain visiting foreign dignataries. The remains of magnificient colonial villas can be seen along the seafront, most of them destroyed by the Khmer Rouge guerrilla during the civil war.
We arrived to Kep by bus and found a guest house just by the sea. Enjoyed a couple of days there, just relaxing in the hammoks or strolling the coast line. We also did a day boat trip to one of the nearby islands, Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island).
The island was a lot nicer than Kep seashore, with white sand and palm trees beaches, and an even more relaxed atmosphere. Just few tourists there, hanging on their hammoks, sunbathing, swimming or enjoying the pleasure of just doing nothing. The island perimeter could be explored in a couple of hours, but had a dense jungle in the middle that seemed quite impenetrable.
Three days after we moved to the riverside town of Kampot, which we wanted to use as a base to explore Bokor National Park and its abandoned hill station by motorbike. The bad news were that the road was closed due to improvement works on the pavement, so the only way to get there was with an organised trekking tour which we were not interested to join because of its elevated price.
So we continued with our trip, heading to Sihanoukville on the next morning. We were not really interested in visiting this town, since we have read it is the main tourist town of Cambodia’s coast, full of tourists and well-to-do Khmers on the weekends. But we were hoping to arrange our Vietnam Tourist Visa there and thus leave Cambodia sometime soon.
Further north in the coast, the area around Sihanoukville is being spoiled by property investors speculating with the coastal terrains, constructing resorts and privatising beaches, since tourism is proving the industry of the future. We were expecting to find hordes of tourists and Khmer families enjoying the beaches and massive tourist development all around the area, but we got such a nice surprise once we arrived there.
Making plans in advance is sometimes good but it can also be unadvisable – at least we don’t like it. Before arriving in Sihanoukville, we had decided to apply for our Visa for Vietnam in the Sihanuokville Consulate, which meant we had to plan which day we would be entrying in Vietnam and therefore planing how long we would be in Sihanoukville, when we would be in back in Phnom Penh and when we will cross the border (too much planing for us, believe me).
Since we thought that we wouldn’t like so much the atmosphere here we planned to be only for 3 days in Sihanoukville before heading back to Phnom Penh. We arrived early in the morning, making all the way along the coast in the back of a truck of a Cambodian family. Hitch-hiking in Cambodia isn’t that bad, although not as many people is willing to take you as in Thailand. We went directly to the Vietnam Consulate and did all the burocracy stuff, which took less than we thought, pretty straight forward. Once we got the Visa we were ready to look for a place to stay and explore the city.
The first impression about the town wasn’t that bad, since the views of the sea were fine and there seemed not to be as many visitors as we were fearing. We did a long walk carrying our backpack through the town until we found a good, cheap room in Weather Station Hill, where we were able to rent a motorbike –it was supposed to be banned for tourists in this town- to explore the surrounding beaches.
We did a loop around the coastline, from east to north, and visited all the beaches in the area. Now it comes the reason why we first said that making plans can be unadvisable, because what we were expecting to be an awful and overcrowded tourist resort like Benidorm –a bad example of tourism development in the Spanish coast- was in fact a much relaxed place to stay with nice beaches outside the main touristic area of town, like Otres beach, a dessertic white sand beach that we almost had for us alone.
So, due to planning in advance we could not spend as much time in Sihanoukville’s lonely beaches as we would have like to. But anyway it was a pleasant stay away of the noise and the inconveniences of big cities and mass tourism. There were not so many visitors around as we expected, probably because it was low season. Being able to visit places not crowded with tourists is one of the things that we like the most, which convinces us that travelling in low season is best for us.