How to get to Cambodia?
On New Year’s Eve 2017, we had one of our shortest flights on the all-around-the-world trip – this was from Singapore to Siam Reap (Cambodia). But the difference between these two cities could not have been bigger. Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world. After it has been the country with the highest standard of living in South East Asia in 1970 and was also called the Switzerland of South East Asia. Follow us on our adventures in this lovely country and get top travel tips for Cambodia and it’s world-famous UNESCO world heritage sites.
Cambodia is a kingdom but the king is more representative. The current king Norodom Sihamoni lived from the age of nine in the Czech Republic to be educated in ballet dancing. He got a diploma in cinematography in Russia and North Korea – now we understand that our guide we had on our tour in North Korea has already been to Cambodia. Arriving at the airport a typical Cambodian taxi has picked us up:
Our route through Cambodia
For the first time on our around the world trip we do not have a rental car to drive by ourselves since his is not possible in Cambodia. To explore Cambodia we have taken local buses or hired a Tuk Tuk driver or a private driver, e.g. to get to Preah Vihear Temple at the border to Thailand. Self driving is not allowed for tourists except renting motorcycles what we have done to explore areas around the cities.
In general, the buses are comfortable and a lot of other tourists are on the buses. However, it is better to sit quite in the back of the bus and not to watch the way the bus is driving to not get worried.
Overtaking despite a long queue of vehicles in front of the bus and passing other vehicles with a distance of just some centimeters is the normal way of driving in Cambodia and motorcycles and Tuk Tuks are honked away.
Traffic in Cambodia
The traffic in Cambodia is similar to other Asian countries and with all the traffic members like Tuk Tuks, motorcycles, bicycles and cars, quite chaotic and on each lane in both directions. In addition, sidewalks are rare and consequently also the pedestrians have to walk on the streets. Traffic lights are not common and therefore crossing the street as a pedestrian requires a portion of luck.
The locals seem not to like walking. Only tourists are on the streets and at every corner a Tuk Tuk driver offers to pick us up. Same with massage service which is besides restaurants one of the most seen business here. Therefore, we bought a shirt to avoid these annoying questions – but honestly it didn’t helped much.
Our travel tips for Cambodia
Angkor Wat (UNESCO) / Siem Reap
When thinking of Cambodia, the first thing that will come to one’s mind might be Angkor Wat which is also listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. The main temple is one of the biggest temple complex in the world. But the complete (and sort of mystic) Angkor region comprises more than 1,000 temples in an area of around 200 km². Angkor with its population of over 1 million people at the time when London was a small city was the religious, political and social center of the ancient Khmer empire. Despite some of the temples are damaged and destroyed the impressive and beautiful Khmer architecture from the 9th to 15th century is still visible.
The temples are based on Hinduism and dedicated to their gods. At the end of 13th century, the kings became Buddhists. With this change, there was no need to build such big temples anymore. This together with the relocation of the center to Phnom Phen due to the better possibilities for trading at the Mekong river lead to the leaving of Angkor. We haven’t expected so many tourists visiting Cambodia to see Angkor Wat….
The 216 faces carved into every angle of the Bayon temple represent Buddha.
The terrace of the Elephant is about 350 m long and decorated with parading elephants. It was used for public ceremonies and as king’s ceremony hall.
The temple Ta Prohm is known from the movie Tomb Raider. The trees on the top of the temple show the power of the jungle.
We have spent two full days with our Tuk Tuk driver Mister Fi in Angkor. We are deeply impressed by the big area of beautiful temples. It is definitely one of the highlights on our trip so far. Here are some more pictures from other temples in Angkor:
The city Siem Reap is close to Angkor and therefore a very touristic place with around 2.1 million people who have visited Angkor in 2015. There is a wide range of different restaurants serving traditional Khmer cuisine for 1 to 3 dollars per dish. Also the prices for drinks, especially beer and cocktail are quite cheap. A quarter liter draft beer for 0.50 dollars and cocktails for 1 dollar. But in addition, you can find a lot of touristic places like foot massage, beer halls and a lot of pubs in the respective pub street.
Cooking class in Siem Reap
Siem Reap’s center is the old market where we also went shopping for our cooking class we attended. Everybody was able to choose his starter and main course from the menu and we tried fried spring roles and the traditional Khmer dish Amok. Amok is a delicious kind of steam cooked curry served in a banana leaf. We have made this one with Tofu.
Temple of Preah Vihear (UNESCO)
We continued our temple tour to Preah Vihear in the North of Cambodia towards the border with Thailand. The huge Hindu temple was built between the 10th and 12th century on top of a hill. This UNESCO world heritage site is exceptional for the quality of its architecture, which is adapted to the natural environment and the religious function of the temple, as well as for the exceptional quality of its carved stone ornamentation.
The temple causes border conflicts with Thailand since both countries claim the temple is belonging to their territory. The temple comprises several buildings using the topography of the area with stairs and streets leading to the sanctuary on top of the hill where we had a view on Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
To get to Preah Vihear, we have hired a private driver from Siem Reap to get directly to the temple area. It is definitely worth a day trip, and you have the site more or less just for yourself without tons of tourists.
Cambodia’s country is dominated by the great lake Tonle Sap. This freshwater lake is connected via a river to the Mekong River and has several hundred species of fish. There are some touristic places around the lake and even going to the capital Phnom Phen is possible by boat across this lake. We decided to visit Kompong Khleang – the most remote place as well as the largest community with over 4,000 families. So we hired our Tuk-Tuk driver Mr. Fee again and drove all the way in his Tuk-Tuk what was a very windy experience.
In Kompong Khleang the time stands still. The place is untouched by the mass tourism from Angkor and Siam Reap despite being just 50 km away. As far as the eye could see, only stilt houses and now during the dry season we were able to walk around in the village.
The closeness of the houses to the water varies according to the season. At the end of the wet season after continuous heavy rainfall the lake will rise so that the streets are only accessible via boat, the stilts of the houses are under water and the ladders to reach the house are not required anymore. In the dry season on the other hand the people have to descend several meters to reach the water. Seeing this truly authentic Cambodian life was a mind-boggling experience.
S21 in Phnom Phen
The Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot installed their government of Democratic Kampuchea in 1975 after the victory in the Cambodian civil war. The Khmer Rouge and its attempts to establish an agricultural communist state is remembered especially for orchestrating the Cambodian genocide taken place from 1975 until 1979 until they were removed from power by Vietnam. However, the military power of the Khmer Rouge organization was not broken. A long era of guerrilla war began including attacks in Siem Reap until the mids of 1990.
We have visited the Tuol-Sleng genocide museum in the capital Phnom Penh. This former school was used as torture prison by the Khmer Rouge. The prisoners were killed on the Killing Field of Choeung Ek outside of the capital.
Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh with a population of around 2 mn lies in the South of Cambodia at the Tonle Sap which is an inflow to the Mekong river. It seems that the difference between poor and rich people is quite big. Besides the Tuk Tuk and cyclo driver we have seen also a lot of big and expensive cars. During the Khmer Rouge regime the city was almost empty. At the time we were in Phnom Penh also Singapore’s president visited the capital. The Singapore flags (in one of the pictures) are due to his visit.
Phnom Penh’s national museum and the royal palace in the city are good examples of the Khmer architecture with its peaked roof and the golden color. The national museum hosts world’s largest collection of Khmer art and is the largest museum of cultural history.
The royal palace was built in 1813 and consists of several smaller buildings like the throne room. Since the family of the king is still living in the palace some parts are closed for visitors but the open buildings are beautiful. One building is constructed in a French way since it was a present from Napoleon III to the Cambodian king. Also a small model of Angkor Wat is shown in one of the garden.
The silver pagoda lies in a separate area but directly adjacent to king’s palace. One could think of that the silver stupas are the pagoda but the name is derived from the floor that is covered with silver tiles. Inside a life-sized Buddha decorated with diamonds is located.
Buddhist meditation center
Near to our hotel we have visited the Buddhist meditation center and gave a silent meditation lesson a try:
Car wash in Cambodian style means involving as many persons as possible:
We have taken a local bus to Kampot. The city lies approximately 150 km from Phnom Penh in the South of Cambodia. Kampot is known for two things: old French colonial houses and the best pepper in the region which is also exported worldwide. And they even have an Olympia stadium. But we are unsure whether this really fits to the size required to Olympia and not to mention the missing seats).
After two weeks exploring Cambodia it is time to travel further to Vietnam. We enjoyed our time in Cambodia and hope that the country will further develop to overcome the poverty and to preserve their cultural Khmer heritage. Despite the Khmers had been to hell and back in their history the Khmers seem to have an unbreakable spirit with smilings.
We always felt safe and welcomed in Cambodia and not as a cash cow. Of course there were a lot of offers for Tuk tuks, tours, massages and restaurants but after saying ‘no’ one time, they didn’t offer their service again.
Departure to Vietnam
From Phnom Penh we took bus to Ho-Chi-Minh City in Vietnam. Despite the distance of just 230 km the bus was running for seven hours. The bus tour started with the collection of the passports. That is always a strange thing for us since we are not used to hand over our passports to other people. The whole process of crossing the Cambodian-Vietnam border was a nice experience.
Our passports was returned to us at the Cambodian border. The Cambodian visa and departure card was already removed from the passport and the departure stamps included. However, we had to pass the control again and return the passport afterwards back to the bus driver.
At Vietnam’s border, everybody queued at the visa control check point but without having the own passport. The whole pile of collected passports were brought to the control officers. He checked and stamped one passport after the other without seeing the respective person. After the passport has been checked, they were returned to the bus driver. That guy called out the name of the passport holder. Then we were allowed to cross the border.
The Cambodian money consists again of big numbers: 1 Euro is equal to around 4,400 Khmer Riel. However, the most common currency is USD. It can be used everywhere – not only in hotels and restaurants but also on local markets. The local Khmer Riel is only used to pay the cents.
According to the German ministry of foreign affairs security of personal belongings is an issue in the capital. Reading this we were surprised by the safes we found in some hotels. Just take the whole safe and carry it including the belongings away. 🙂
Our recommendations for Cambodia
For Cambodia we have relied again to our favorite travel guide Stefan Loose. It covers most of our travel tips for Cambodia quite well: