Cambodia. Before coming to China, I had not thought a lot of people went to Cambodia for vacation. Growing up, it was some unknown eastern Asian country which had a somewhat dubious history. Nonetheless, after coming to China I noticed that many of my colleagues went on vacations to Cambodia. After checking airfare and realizing that direct flights to Cambodia are quite cheap (only about $400 round trip), I decided to book a week long vacation (with my girlfriend) to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
Our first destination was Siem Reap. Siem Reap is world famous for housing such temples such as Angkor Wat and Beng Mealea. Out flight was at about 6pm on a Tuesday so I left after work via Uber and met my girlfriend at Pudong Airport. This time we flew with China Easter Airlines- which was not ideal, but a cheap mistake. The service isn’t too bad on China Eastern, but the problem lies your fellow passengers. People were really loud and inconsiderate, people spat on the airplane, the bathrooms were unusable within 15 minutes- not the best airline experience- not to mention the food is borderline inedible for a foreign stomach. Still, after a four hour travel we arrived in Siem Reap.
The first thing I noticed getting out of the airplane was how humid it was. I had a similar experience with Singapore, however going from dry/cold Shanghai to hot/tropical Cambodia was definitely a polarizing experience. Siem Reap airport seemed incredibly small- only a handful of immigration counters and only a couple of baggage claims. After getting off the airplane, we had a bit of a bizarre experience. We were a bit worried with being caught in the midst of a rush of Chinese passport holders in immigration. Chinese passports aren’t known to be the most versatile and usually have a bit more scrutiny taken on them everywhere outside of China. American and Japanese passports however tend to go relatively quickly through immigration. For this reason, I ran ahead of the swarm of Chinese to save a place for my girlfriend and myself. Turns out this was a bit of a mistake. At the entrance to the airport building, they were detaining all Asians. They saw me and waved me through quickly, however they detained my girlfriend and the airport employee seemed to want a bribe. After some confusion, they realized she was Japanese and let her through. It turns out they were only accepting bribes from Chinese passengers. Why this was, I don’t know, but it was a somewhat bizarre situation.
Anyways, after grabbing our luggage and going through immigration I picked up a SIM card for my phone. For about $5, you get unlimited 3G data which was definitely a good deal. Outside the airport we met our courtesy shuttle to the hotel. We were staying at Borei Angkor Spa which has an impeccable reputation on TripAdvisor. It was about 20 minutes away from the airport. After arriving, decompressing, and unpacking, we both fell soundly asleep. The hotel itself looked a little bit old, however I cannot recommend it enough. The staff was genuinely happy to help, the breakfast buffet was the highlight of every morning, and the pool offered a great escape after returning from a hot and dusty day of sightseeing. The price is right and I would easily recommend it to anyone traveling to Siem Reap.
After waking up in the morning and catching a great breakfast buffet, we were off to Angkor Wat. We arranged a Tuk Tuk driver to take us there. For half a day, I remember it came out to about $20 (he waited for us and took us back to the hotel). The Tuk Tuk driver first took us to the ticket gate. For a 3-day pass, the price was $40. Again, a little bizarre as they were very keen to ask for my girlfriend’s nationality. I’m not quite sure if they have something against Chinese tourists, but it seemed to be a continuing theme in the temples we went to. After getting the tickets, we were dropped off at the entrance to Angkor Wat. We arrived maybe around 10am and there was already quite a few people, however given how big the temple was it never really felt crowded. At the entrance, there was a huge river surrounding the actual entrance to the temple grounds. A big stone bridge led up to the entrance and the whole scene was quite serene.
After crossing the bridge and passing through a small entrance way you are in the actual temple grounds. Words cannot really describe the tranquility of Angkor Wat. The temple itself is made up of huge stone structures carved with intricate decorations in mesmerizing detail. There is a big courtyard leading up to Angkor Wat itself with big reflecting ponds on each side. During the rainy seasons these ponds are full of water, however when we went (during the dry season) they seemed about half full. Angkor Wat itself is truly a wonder of the world. Again, words cannot quite describe it nor can pictures. After entering the temple itself, you are lost in a world of stone carvings depicting everything for great battles to religious events. You could literally spend the entire week at the temple itself.
In the innermost part of the temple there is an elevated temple where you have to climb a set of really steep stairs to get to. For women, shorts are strictly forbidden. My girlfriend was wearing shorts so we settled for taking pictures from the outside. A common theme in all of the temples that we went to was the steep stairways. One of my fears are high places where I can fall very easily, so I struggled with a few of these stair cases.
After enjoying the temple for a few hours, we bought a few souvenirs (and a guide book) from the shops to the side of the temple. I bought some post cards to mail to my family. We met our tuk tuk driver outside the temple and headed to the downtown of Siem Reap. In downtown we walked around a bit and did some shopping. I bought a pair of fake Oakley sunglasses for $4 and my girlfriend bought a few t-shirts and various other trinkets. We had lunch at a lovely cafe in the heart of downtown. I had a sort of Cambodian curry and my girlfriend had a glass noodle salad.
After returning to the hotel we rested up a bit. For the evening I had booked an ATV (four wheel all terrain vehicle) tour which was very highly recommended by TripAdvisor. At about 4pm, we met the ATV tour guide in the lobby of the hotel and he took us to the ATV tour shop. I have never driven an ATV so I was quite nervous, however after a quick training session I was good to go. The ATVs are quite powerful (they have about as much power as a regular motorcycle). In any case, we had booked the “sunset” tour where we rode to a rice field to see the Cambodian sunset. The tour was very interesting and I recommend it to anyone visiting Siem Reap. You drive your ATV through rural parts of Siem Reap and see some of the more authentic aspects of Cambodian culture. Our guide was very helpful and very friendly. The sunset at the end was magnificent and being able to explore backwater Siem Reap was very rewarding. The one downside was that the ATVs were quite loud, so I felt that we were being a little bit inconsiderate to those who lived in the rural areas.
After the ATV tour, our guide dropped us off at the “Pub Street” of downtown. In the pub street in Cambodia, there are many restaurants and bars all with outdoor seating. It is a very lively place and full of nationalities from all over the world. After exploring the restaurants, we decided on a traditional Cambodian restaurant and had a barrage of Cambodian food. One dish that we seemed to get quite a bit of in our trip in Cambodia was fresh spring rolls (not the deep fried stuff). At all of these restaurants, 50 cent draft beers were advertised. The beer they served was Anchor beer (not to be confused with Anchor Steam). This beer may sound Cambodian, but in reality it is a bit of a scam. It is owned by Heineken and is actually very low end beer tasting like watered down Heineken. I’d recommend investing a little bit more and getting the true Cambodian Angkor Beer.
After dinner, we walked around a bit and stumbled into a massage place. It was quite small, however we got a one hour foot massage for only $7. Despite the inexpensive price, the massage was excellent and the masseuse was very good at her job. We returned to the hotel a bit early to prepare for the long day ahead. The next day we wanted to catch the famous sunrise at Angkor Wat. Since we also wanted to visit Beng Mealea on the same day, we rented a driver for the entire day (for about $100). Waking up at 5am was a bit of a challenge, but somehow we were able to do so and make it to Angkor Wat in time for the sunset. We had forgotten to bring a flashlight so I had to make due with the LED light on my phone. After finding a good location right by the pond, we waited in the pitch black for the sunrise. Boy was it worth it. Seeing the sunrise over the iconic structures of Angkor Wat was truly a wonder. The colors that the sunlight caused made the entire scene to look like a picturesque painting. It was definitely worth waking up early.
After returning to the hotel for a quick breakfast, we were off to Beng Mealea. We made a brief stop at a pharmacy where I picked up some cheap western medicine (without a prescription). Beng Mealea itself is about an hour outside of Siem Reap. It lays in a state of ruin and has not been restored like many of the other Cambodian temples. The drive there was a bit interesting, however we took the chance to get caught up on sleep. I woke up a couple times and glimpsed at rural Cambodian life. The temple itself was a very unique experience. Like I said before it has not been restored, so you pretty much just take a walk through the ruins. What is unique about Beng Mealea is that they don’t really have too much information about it. It is not known who made it or when it was lived in. The guide book I read mentioned that it’s demise into ruin was most likely from natural reasons (and not a war), but the mystery of the temple almost gave it a romantic notion.
Once we wandered around the temple for a few hours we headed back to Siem Reap. We decided to go into town again for lunch. For some reason or another, we went to Hard Rock Cafe. It’s about the same as Hard Rock Cafe in any other city- expensive, but the food is pretty tasty and familiar. We walked around a bit and bought some more souvenirs after Hard Rock and then returned to the hotel. At this point we were pretty exhausted (being up since 5am) so we decided to have a nice relaxing evening at the hotel. We relaxed by the pool and ordered pizza for the evening before retiring.
The next day was a bit of a wild card. It was our last full day in Siem Reap so we decided to visit Angkor Wat one last time as well as the adjacent Angkor Thom. Before that, we booked a two hour massage at the hotel spa. It was OK (definitely relaxing), however it was about $60 per person. While this is extremely cheap for USA standards, I’d recommend going to the $7 place in town. After the normal breakfast buffet in the morning, we booked a Tuk Tuk to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. At Angkor Wat something very funny happened. There was a monkey hanging out on the pathway to the temple eating some morsel of food dropped by a tourist. An Asian guy walked by the monkey with a bag full of food and did not notice the monkey. On queue, the monkey ran after the guy and ripped the bottom out of the bag and stole they guy’s food! It was so funny and the guy was so shocked. The guy’s wife tried to take the food back from the monkey, but the monkey adamantly defended it. The guy eventually gave up and left the monkey to his spoils.
After we were done monkeying around at Angkor Wat, we headed to Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom is a collection of temples in a relatively large wooded area. We were dropped off at the main temple and immediately noticed that it was a lot quieter than Angkor Wat. There seemed to be less tourist groups in this area and it was a bit more peaceful. After walking around the main bigger temple, we made our way to a smaller one that was full of steep steps. After a grueling five minute stair climb, we were rewarded with a gorgeous view of the surrounding area. Since it was quieter, you kind of had the sense that you could be explorers finding an unknown ruin.
After we got back to the hotel it was getting quite late. We decided to hit pub street one last time for one last souvenir run and a nice Cambodian meal. We ended up dining in a lovely Cambodian restaurant with a great second floor view of the street. We had the normal fair of fresh spring rolls and Cambodian curry. After dinner, we walked around the night market a little. I bought some Cambodian liquor and my girlfriend bought a few trinkets. It was a nice and relaxing night to top off our last day in Siem Reap.
The next day we woke up bright and early to go to the airport. From Siem Reap, we decided to spend one day in the capital Phnom Penh. We took a very uneventful flight using Cambodian Angkor Air to the capital. After getting our luggage, we got a Tuk Tuk from the hotel counter and headed to the Intercontinental Hotel. Right away from the Tuk Tuk ride you could tell Phnom Penh was a lot different than Siem Reap. It felt more “third world” and was noticeably more dirty than Siem Reap. The road was definitely an issue too. You would think the road going to the airport would be at least paved, however it was supposedly under construction and was about as bumpy as an old roller coaster. After about 20 minutes we did arrive at the hotel and rested up a little.
We decided to go to the waterfront area of Phnom Penh for lunch. The air was noticeably more polluted in the capital. Supposedly back in the day the area had a “French Riviera” feel to it, however you could tell that it is quite an industrial city nowadays. The riverside is full of quaint little bistros and cafes. After a lunch of a club sandwich and some curry, we stopped by Costa Coffee for a refresher. One thing I noticed about Cambodia is that there were very few chain stores that you would often see in Japan or China. There were no Family Marts, McDonalds, Starbucks, or just about any other chain that you see so much in the rest of Asia. Costa was the first one that we went to. We took at Tuk Tuk to the central market afterwards and did a little shopping. The Central Market was nothing special- more of the same fake sunglasses and cheap souvenirs. We decided to go back to the hotel and take it easy that night- which given that a monsoon like rain happened was in hindsight a good idea.
The next day I had booked a bicycle tour of Phnom Penh as well as the surrounding “Mekong” islands. This is something I wanted to do more than my girlfriend, however since she is so awesome she also agreed to come along. We woke up early and had a great breakfast buffet before heading out to the bicycle shop. At the bicycle shop we met the rest of the tour group that we would be with that day- a few Europeans, Hong Kongese, and a Canadian. After getting fitted for our bike, we were off. I was a bit nervous about riding a bike in crowded Phnom Penh, however the urban area was only a small percentage of the tour. We first rode to a small port where we took our ferry to a smaller island. The island was considerably more rural than Phnom Penh and was very enjoyable. It was really fun riding a bike through rural Cambodia and was honestly one of my high points of the entire trip. I love riding bikes, however I do not get to do so very often in China.
We made a few stops along the way. One was at a silk factory where a lady gave us an interesting tour on how silk was made. We enjoyed some very delicious and fresh fruit which included bananas, mangoes, and dragon fruit. We passed through a small farm where the locals explained how they made their living and we got a good photo-op with some cows. We also stopped by a peaceful temple where we got to take some really good pictures and learn a bit of the history. I cannot recommend Grasshopper Tours enough and do not have anything but kind things to say about our tour guide- definitely a must if you have any remote interest in a bike tour.
After the tour, we arrived at our hotel at around 1pm and took a much needed shower before checking out. We left our luggage at the hotel and headed back to the waterfront to kill some time. We had a 12am flight back to Shanghai so we had about 8 hours to kill before heading to the airport. We grabbed a great lunch at one of the riverside restaurants (I had a delicious Tom Yum pasta) and decided to get a massage to kill off some time. The massage was for two hours and only cost $14. I opted for a more expensive $20 massage where they use hot rocks to massage your feet. It was very relaxing. After the massage, we headed to AEON mall. AEON is a huge Japanese mall that is very famous in Japan. The mall itself showed a more modern side of Phnom Penh. It was very clean, organized, and had all of the high end designer shops. We had a quick dinner at a brew pub restaurant and wandered around the mall for a while. There was also a supermarket in the mall which stocked many western products. I took the chance to stock up on hand sanitizer.
After the full day we went back to the hotel, picked up our luggage, and went to the airport via Tuk Tuk. Somehow the ride to the airport was even bumpier than the ride from and it was almost hazardous. We had to hold onto our luggage to make sure it didn’t fly out of the Tuk Tuk when we went over a big bump. We did eventually arrive though and checked in with a couple of hours to spare. After moping around the duty free stores for a while, we boarded our red eye flight back to Shanghai. I hate red eye flights, however at that point I was so exhausted that I somehow managed to fall asleep.
All-in-all, Cambodia was a worthwhile vacation. While most travelers could go exclusively to Siem Reap and have an adequate Cambodian experience, I am glad that we did also stop by Phnom Penh. After getting back to Shanghai I felt that I could sleep for hours though. Whether or not I will be back in Cambodia in my life I don’t know, however I will definitely cherish the rewarding travel experience.