In between my trips to India and Thailand, I bought a ticket to Cambodia on a whim, which appeared to be a good option while applying and waiting for my 2-month Thai visa application.
Cambodia is the first place I visited without making any prior preparations and I am glad I did it this way since I was continuously impressed by everything from the moment I stepped out the airport in Siem Reap. First of all, I was not expecting such a modern yet authentic country.
Despite their hellish past, struggling through years of bloodshed, poverty and political instability, Cambodians are very kind people and their smiles are truly contagious (even when you refuse buying stuff from them!). Especially after the 2 months I spent in India prior to my visit, I wanted to thank everyone for just leaving me alone on the street 🙂
Siem Reap is the second largest city of Cambodia after Phnom Penh and was my first spot to visit. Despite the massive amount of tourists flowing here to visit the magical Angkor Wat ruins, the largest religious monument in the world, it is a spectacular city with its French infused architecture, world-class dining scene, fancy resorts, contemporary cafes, diverse nightlife and the art scene.
It was inevitable to notice that Siem Reap was pretty environmentally and socially conscious; for instance a lot of places let you refill your bottle for a small fee, you could see educative posters against child exploitation (mostly child sex tourism), and lots of training restaurants that aim to give disadvantaged Cambodia students skills that will allow them to pursue a career in several industries (mostly in hospitality). While picking places I ate or shopped at, I made an effort to choose the ones that had a meaningful cause.
I spent the first night at Siem Riep Hostel that attracted me with its pool and free bikes but I quickly realized I had been done with the young backpacker scene. I was probably the oldest one in the hostel, however it was good to share the temple tour with some other guys who signed up for a trip on the same day.
What to see in Siem Reap in 3 days:
- Angkor Wat Tour: Most of the guesthouses and hotels arrange these tours and I booked mine through my hostel. I did the short circuit (Beginning at Angkor Wat and running for seventeen kilometers the circuit takes in the major elements of Angkor Thom, Ta Phrohm, and Banteay Kdei, and some of the minor but interesting temples such as the Baphoun, The Terrace of the Leper King, The Terrace of the Elephants, the Twelve Prasats, Spean Thma and Sras Srang).
The tour started at 4:30 am (till 11:00 am) in order to catch the spectacular sunrise over the ruins. You can also choose the long circuit (26 kilometers) that takes the whole day going to additional temples. Since it was 40C/90F heat with humidity, even a half day seemed like forever to me.
One day Entrance Fee to Angkor Wat $37
Rent for a tuk tuk w/driver for a half day – $15
- Night Market that have a large menu from fried insects to rats to locally made soap and coffee
- Pub Street is probably the touristiest area of the city, which I usually avoid. But to make the receptionist in my guest house happy who insisted on giving me a scooter tour, I found myself going there twice in 3 days and loving the energetic vibe of it. Pub Street is good if you are looking for buying souvenirs, eating street food, and a night out of bar-hopping. If it’s your thing, an ice cold pint of beer is 50 cents during the Happy Hour! 😉
- Rent a bicycle or scooter and explore the narrow side streets of Siem Reap adorned with colorful bougainvilleas. I guarantee you will come across beautiful hidden gems that the guidebooks do not talk about. Doing this reminded me of my time in Chiang Mai (Thailand) as the streets and architecture seemed pretty similar.
- Spoons Restaurant, an NGO training students in the hospitality industry, featuring a creative, upscale twist on traditional Cambodia street food. I enjoyed a much needed glass of chilled rose ($3) along with my delicious vegetarian lunch after 2 months of sober traveling. The beautiful garden atmosphere and waiters (all students) added to my nice experience in SR. See pic below.
- Peace Cafe to eat fresh healthy vegetarian food in a zen garden setting with monks. It also has a bakery and a fair trade shop. They offer a bunch of community programs including meditation, yoga, monk chats; as well as free Khmer classes for those who are interested.
- Haven is another training restaurant with pricier food in a nice garden setting. The Hive coffee and juice shop.
- Missing Socks Laundry Cafe: You can do your laundry in modern washing/drying machines ($3) while benefiting from their A/C chilled room with super fast wi-fi, choosing from world class coffee and Khmer food options. Try their yummy waffles!
Homestay with Tola and his family in the countryside was the highlight of my stay in SR. I found this this nice family on airbnb who was hosting a few huts that are located only 20 min walk or $3 tuktuk drive away from the city center.I had a great time with this family of five, their three other backpacker guests and their ducks, geese, cows, cats, kittens, and dogs. It was great to be exposed to the rural authentic Khmer lifestyle even for a couple of days. I rented my hut through Airbnb but you can get in touch with Tola directly to avoid fees. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
When it got unbearably hot and humid in SR (up to 40C/90F) at the end of February and the fans were not doing enough for me, I decided to head down south first to Phnom Penh and then to the beaches.
My next stop after Siem Reap was the bustling capital Phnom Penh, which is also the hub that connects you to the buses heading to the beaches and islands. I booked a bus/minivan on bookmebus.com for $10 to get me from Siem Reap to PP in 5 hrs with a 30 min lunch break.
Instead of choosing a guesthouse, I booked a private room on Airbnb in a building that had several comfortable rooms for travelers like me and it was fun to connect with other people for occasional sunset drinks on our common roof. The bonus was the super fast wi-fi connection and I was happy to do some work while traveling.
What to do in Phnom Penh in 3 days:
Phnom Penh is not different than any other big vibrant South East Asian city, with tons of motorbikes and food smells on its streets. Since traffic lights and sidewalks for pedestrians were scarce, it was a bit stressful to get from one place to another. But to my surprise, most of the non-english speaker tuk tuk and motor taxi drivers were pretty kind people and they tried to google map my destination on their i-phones!
- Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Killing Fields are the two most famous tourist attractions, which I would not recommend unless you want to be traumatized by learning all the details of the tortures and murders that happened between 1975-79 in these horrifying places. I left Tuol Sleng 5 minutes into the tour and I still have nightmares about a torture case I heard. It is good to know about the history of the country to appreciate them even more but this is not a way I would recommend. There are several books and movies talking about their dark history if you don’t do well with visuals like me.
- Aynebilimasevi/Living Fields: This NGO/Restaurant/Shelter is located right outside of Killing Fields. They help, especially the kids and women, in the village nearby to learn English and craftmaking skills to sustain themselves. The Turkish founder Ayse has already built several homes for the people in need with the money she collected with small Facebook campaigns she created.
When I was there, I met a man who had recently saved his foot from being amputated with a surgery that cost only $300 and was funded by Facebook donors ($10 from 30 people) within a half day. Of course the appreciation in his face was something I would never forget. I can’t recommend this place enough to try their yummy food and see the smiling faces of the children and women.
If you want to donate your money for a good cause and see the immediate results, a hut made out of tin costs only $1500 and can save a whole family from the scorching heat and monsoon rains.
Ayse’s plan is to expand the center to open workshops for women to knit and make crafts that would generate income for the center. I am also envisioning to teach macrame to the women to create beautiful jewelry in my next visit!
While I didn’t do much touristy activities in Phnom Penh, here are the other places I saw and liked:
- Jet’s Container Night Market: A new-ish popular night market full of a cool local young crowd. There’re many pubs containers, food containers, cloths containers, and so on. Great for having a drink, tasting delicious street food, and breathing fresh air while hanging with your friends on the top of containers.
- Night Market: Like in almost every city in South East Asia, PP also has a night market to find local food, clothing and satisfying the karaoke monster in you!
- Russian Market, the place to shop for souvenirs and discounted name-brand clothing aka knock-offs. You can find a large range of handicrafts and antiquities (many fake), including miniature Buddhas, woodcarvings, silks, silver jewelry, musical instruments and so on. Bargain hard!
- Bassac Lane is a popular spot among expats consisting of bunch of small cool bars on a tiny urban strip. Each bar has its own characteristic and it took me to a mediterranean country for a few hours I spent there.
- Rambutan hotel pool– it was great to hang out by the pool during a scorching hot day. Bonus: Modern/Khmer fusion lunch menu and a large selection of fresh tropical juices.
I had a great time in Phnom Penh and understood why so many expats chose to live there. However, I think that the large number of expats limits the jobs for locals. I support the idea that the expats should teach the skills (or whatever they are there for) to the locals and let them pass those jobs onto the upcoming generations. Let that be technology, internet, health, hospitality…
Kampot is a small riverside town known for its pepper plantations, salt fields, decaying french colonial architecture and by being the slowest and quietest town of the country.
Things to do in Kampot
- Lounge on the riverside at Samon’s for lunch/dinner or just fresh juices and drinks. Samon’s Village is an amazingly relaxing riverside bungalow escape where I spent most of my time at enjoying the serene river view.
- Bokor National Park: rent a bike and drive through the beautiful road to see an abandoned church and casino, remnants from Cambodia’s French colonial period. You may spare a good half day for this trip and make sure you leave early. I was advised to pack a jacket which became handy in the morning chill.
- Sunset boat cruise up the Kampot River: $5 gets you a ticket for the ah-mazing sunset and firefly tour, which was one of the best river excursions I’ve made. It kind of reminded me my 3 day boat ride on the Amazon River, only this one being much cleaner and quieter. Boats leave at 5:30-7:30 includes a free beer.
- Day trip to Kep and around: Kep is a small fishing village an hour or so away from Kampot. I booked a small tour package for $13 from 9 am-2 pm, that included a visit to the salt fields, La plantation pepper farm, Crab market, and Kep Beach.
The trip took 2 hrd (+ 1 hour delay) +10 min tuktuk ride (from Sihanoukville to Otres Beach).
As per a few friends’ recommendations, I booked a private treehouse/bungalow at Mushroom Point prior to my arrival (via Hostelworld) for $10/night and that was a great decision! However, if you have a bigger budget, I highly recommend the Beach Bungalows that cost $25/night and were located right by the water.
One of the nights I was at Otres Beach, I visited the Otres Night market that happens on Saturday nights and offered live music, bars and food stalls a la Brooklyn style. I was amazed by the fact that the whole market was very hipster and there were no locals or their authentic food However, I was happy to find a feather hair wrapping stall to renew the feather in my hair that I had lost in India.
While I was burning with desire to swim among the bioluminescence planktons in Koh Rong, I had to cancel the island tours due to the rain that kept falling every afternoon. Sigh.. I will be back to you beautiful still remained untouched beloved Cambodia!
I had to leave the beach to join the Yoga Retreat in Siem Reap that I had been waiting for weeks. I opted for a $47 flight instead of a 12 hour bus ride, which I easily found on skyscanner.com. The taxi from Otres Beach to airport took 20 mins and $13 (almost 1/4th of the flight ticket!
YOGA in Cambodia:
I joined a 6 day yoga retreat as per a friend’s suggestion and was very happy about the experience.
Hariharalaya: I joined a week long yoga retreat in this beautiful oasis located 30 mins outside of Siem Reap. While the level of yoga taught in the center was for complete beginners, which was a disappointment to me, they had several places to do your own practice apart from the 2-3 hours of daily yoga/meditation classes offered in the morning and afternoon.
We were a group of 30 people and I was very happy and inspired to see so many young backpackers diving into the yoga and meditation world and leaving the retreat with a more open state of mind.
I met really beautiful people there and had a chance to finish 3 books from their spiritual library, do some art and try to play instruments provided in the art center, meditate daily and practice rock climbing. There were several activities each day, which you could choose from that included chanting, dharma talks, meditation, yoga, partners yoga, alignment yoga, temple tour, kundalini meditation, small swimming (or more like a dipping pool) and amazing vegan food and fresh tropical juices available all day.
Lastly, I made an attempt to go to Vagabond Temple in Otres Beach but they were closed for the season. I heard good things about their daily yoga classes, and detox and yoga retreat programs so you might want to email them to check their availability.
I left Cambodia with a smile on my face and in my heart and made a promise to go back!Thank you for your generosity beautiful Cambodia! ❤