Captivating memories from Cambodia

Cambodia is one of the lesser known countries in Southeast Asia, famous mainly because of the Angkor Wat temples. It is very much under-developed, has a rich history, a lively nightlife and the most amazing set of people. It is bordered by Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. The cost of living isn’t high and so the trip will be pretty easy on your pocket. There are only a few places within Cambodia which are world class or worth visiting and so, its not surprising that most people club it with Vietnam.

Cambodia was always on our wishlist, but we had never taken time to research about it. As is the usual practice, we plan something for our anniversary every year. For this year, we had our eyes on Vietnam and Cambodia. The summer starts from November in this region and so travelling in the 2nd week of November suited us perfectly. On researching a bit, we realised that we wouldn’t be able to cover both these countries within a week. We had to choose one among them. Eventually, we picked Cambodia over Vietnam since we got hold of a ready made travel itinerary thanks to my brother in law (who was visiting Cambodia a week before us).

The prices within Cambodia might be cheap, but the flight tickets sure aren’t. We paid close to 60k for 2 people for the round trip flights including the internal flights which we had to book separately.

Our high level itinerary was as below (overall cost: ~1,15,000 Rs for 2 people)

Day 1: Overnight flight from Bangalore to Phnom Phen via Bangkok
[AirAsia | cost: 12k per person]
Day 2:  On reaching Phnom Phen, take a taxi to Kampot. Stay in Kampot. [Taxi cost: $45]
Day 3: Kampot sightseeing. Stay in Kampot.
Day 4: Kampot to Sihanoukville by taxi. Sihanoukville to Koh Rong by ferry. Stay in Koh Rong. [Ferry cost: $20 for round trip | Taxi cost: $35]
Day 5: Explore Koh Rong. Stay in Koh Rong.
Day 6: Koh Rong to Sihanoukville by ferry. Sihanoukville to Siem Reap by flight. Stay in Siem Reap.
[Cambodia Angkor Air | Cost: 5k per person]
Day 7: Explore Angkor Wat. Stay in Siem Reap.
Day 8: Explore Angkor Wat. Stay in Siem Reap.
Day 9: Explore Angkor Wat. Visit a floating village. Stay in Siem Reap.
Day 10: Siem Reap to Bangalore flight via KL
[AirAsia | cost 12k per person]

Places we stayed in:

Kampot – Rikitikitavi
Koh Rong – Coconut beach bunglows
Siem Reap – Diamond D’Angkor Boutique

Other noteworthy points before I get to our experience:

  1. Even though the local currency is Riel (4000 Riel = 1$), most people transact with dollars. Riels are used only as change.
  2. Visa on arrival is available for Indians (cost: $30 – as of November 2016). Make sure to carry passport size photos. More information can be found here.
  3. It is not a kid friendly country for travel for 2 reasons:
    1. There are a lot of mosquitoes and the imminent danger of dengue or malaria. Make sure to carry a repellent.
    2. You will have to walk/climb a lot to cover the Angkor Wat temples
  4. There are mainly 4 sim card companies in Cambodia: ‘Bealine’, ‘Smart’, ‘Metfone’ and ‘CellCard’. We chose ‘Metfone’. But ‘Smart’ might have better network coverage in Koh Rong. Most companies have similar plans and it will cost around $5 for 2 GB data and around an hour of talk time.
  5. There are 1 day, 3 day and 1 week passes available for visiting Angkor temples costing $20, $40 and $60 respectively(as of November 2016). For latest prices and other info, check here.
  6. There is strict dress code for Angkor temples – Women should cover their shoulders and dress till the knee. Men can wear knee length shorts and sleeved t-shirt.

Experience:

On reaching Phnom Phen in the morning, we stood in the queue for our visa stamping. It took us about 10-15 minutes. On exiting the airport terminal, we went in search of a sim card. We found all the sim card companies lined up one after the other just outside the departure gate. We chose ‘Metfone’ sim with a 2 GB 4G data and around an hour of talk time for 5$. Taxis are less in number in Phnom Phen as Tuk Tuks are more prominent. Since we had to reach Kampot which was around 150 kms from Phnom Phen and were not sure of the availability or the price of a taxi at the airport, we booked a taxi through our hotel in Kampot. The driver was waiting for us and after grabbing a quick snack at one of the restaurants, we were on our way to Kampot.

The taxi ride is around 3 hours long. The journey will help you experience the real Cambodia – with mostly single lane roads, large agricultural lands with abundant supply of water, lots of small shops at frequent intervals, giving you a feel of rural India a few decades ago. We even got to see a cockfight in progress. We reached Kampot by noon and finished our lunch at our hotel. Kampot is famous for its high quality pepper. They grow all 3 types of pepper – Black, White and Red. We rented a scooter for 5$ and headed towards one of the pepper plantations. Most of the plantations are situated close to each other and the roads leading to them are pretty bad. It took us about an hour to reach with a stop over at one of the lakes on the way. We managed to visit a couple of the plantations and made our way back to the hotel for dinner. The prices of the pepper seem a little high compared to India, but quality is indeed top notch. Most of the nightlife in the otherwise lazy town of Kampot is focused around the river promenade. There are river cruises on offer if you are interested (sunset cruise/firefly cruise) for around $7 per person. Getting vegetarian food is not an issue as you will find lots of pizza places. Shopping is expensive compared to Siem Reap and there is nothing specific to buy from Kampot except Pepper.

On day 2, we had plans to visit Mount Bokor. It is about an hour of bike ride. The roads are in excellent condition and the climb up the hill is pretty neat. Bokor is an abandoned french town on top of the mountain. We visited the abandoned casino, a monastery and Popokvil waterfall. Since it started to rain, we made our way to one of the resorts for lunch. It also happened to have a casino so we chanced our luck at it for some time till it stopped raining. We were back at our hotel by 4 pm and rest of the evening was spent leisurely.

We left early morning on Day 3 by taxi to reach the pier at Sihanoukville. After a short ferry ride on a speed boat, we were at our hotel at coconut beach in Koh Rong by lunch.

Most of the Koh Rong island is forest with limited stay options and there are internal trekking routes to visit different beaches. Tourism is still catching up and it feels similar to Phi Phi island of a decade ago. Coconut beach is located on the east side of the island and next to the Survivor beach (The seasons 31 and 32 of the American TV series ‘Survivor’ were shot here). The beach is small but beautiful with shallow turquoise blue water. The beaches in general are not crowded and we spent the evening leisurely at the beach. One of the major attractions of the island is the glowing plankton. When the night is dark, one can just go into the beach (no need for a boat) and find the plankton glow when you disturb the water. After dinner, all the lights of the resort were switched off for few mins and we all made the way in the dark into the water to find the most amazing natural phenomenon. After playing around for few minutes, we realised that the sky was still not fully dark with the half moon lingering on top of us. We decided to give it another try at 1 am when the moon is not up in the sky. We woke up in the middle of the night and repeated the same routine, only this time to find the glow much more extravagant making it a spectacular sight.Unfortunately we couldn’t capture the experience on camera. You will get the best experience if you plan your visit to this island around the new moon days. During the monsoon season when the sea is rough, one can probably see the glow from far also due to turbulence activating the glow.

We spent the next day doing beach hopping and it involved short treks through the internal routes. There are a lot of new resorts coming up in Koh Rong and it is bound to change the tourism landscape of the island. The resorts aren’t the greatest with intermittent power cuts, no hot water etc. But the beaches and the experience was truly unique and well worth the 2 nights we spent there.

The next day was our anniversary and we left the island by noon and reached Sihanoukville pier by lunch. After a quick lunch at one of the restaurants near the pier, we headed to the airport to catch the flight to Siem Reap. The taxi guy from our hotel was waiting for us outside the airport and we made our way to the hotel. We had a special complimentary dinner arranged by our hotel for our special day with champagne in the room and all that, made the day really memorable for us.

The most famous tourist attraction in Cambodia is the Angkor Wat. The Angkor complex has multiple temples sprinkled across a big forest region, most famous of them being the Angkor Wat. There are roads which connect between the temples and you would need a Tuk Tuk to roam around. Even with the Tuk Tuk at your disposal, you will need to walk around a lot inside each temple, climbing the stairs etc., so don’t forget to keep plenty of water and energy drinks with you. Also, sun is usually harsh and it is advisable to apply sun screen lotion before you leave the hotel. We woke up very early the next morning (at 3:30 am) since we had plans to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. The ticket counter opens at 5 am and we were first in the line. The lines for the 1 day pass is more and 3 day/7day passes are less popular among tourists. We bought the 3 day pass and headed straight to the Angkor Wat complex. The sun rise usually starts at around 5:30 am and lasts for about 30 mins. Angkor Wat has a big pond inside the complex surrounded by towering walls on all sides cutting out the wind and that provides an excellent photo opportunity to capture the temple in the reflecting pond. We managed to get the last good spot in front of the pond and I set up my tripod in anticipation of the much raved about Angkor Wat sunrise. It was a clear day with not much clouds in the sky and the colors that popped up were truly magnificent. I managed to capture some wonderful pics of the moment and waking up early wasn’t for a waste after all. We then headed back to our hotel for a quick nap and free breakfast.

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Angkor Wat at sunrise

Besides the Angkor Wat, the other famous temples in the complex are the Bayon (temple with faces) and Ta Prohm (made famous by the movie Tomb Raider). The Tuk Tuks usually follow the predesignated routes called as “Smaller Circuit” and “Grand Circuit“. The Small Circuit takes in several of the major and minor temples in the area. Beginning at Angkor Wat and running for seventeen kilometers the circuit takes in the major elements of Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm, 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, before returning to Angkor Wat. The twenty-six kilometer Grand Circuit is an extension on the little circuit but taking in Preah Khan, Preah Neak Pean and the various monuments like Ta Som, Preah Rup, before returning to Angkor Wat and is usually recommended for anyone spending three or more days in the complex.We finished the Small Circuit on the first day followed by the Grand Circuit on the next day.

We spent the evenings at the famous Pub street which was at a walkable distance from our hotel. The place is unexpectedly happening, much more so than Goa I thought with lots of pubs lined up one after the other serving 50 cents beer, free Apsara shows and reasonably priced food menus. There are also numerous massage centres catering to the tourists tired from a day long excursion at the temple complex. They are pretty cheap too, with an hour of good leg massage costing $2! After a relaxing message, we also explored the night market which sold cheap clothing, some beautiful and cheap oil paintings and souvenirs, all of which we bought in some measure.

We spent our third day in Siem Reap visiting the floating villages of Kompong Phluk. We left after breakfast on our Tuk Tuk and it was about an hour drive from our hotel. We stopped at a point from where a boat takes us to the main floating village (cost $20 per person). The village is home to many Khmer fishing people. The homes are built on stilts with numerous other buildings also seen such as churches, hospitals, temples etc. Once you reach the main village, you have to pay $5 per person to explore the flooded forests of Kompong Phluk river on a small boat. It was a half a day excursion and was an interesting and unique experience for us. Watch out for the tourist traps with people trying to rip you off with different offerings.

A week in Cambodia flew by very quickly. We managed to catch Cambodia at its perfect weather – not too hot for which it is known for and just after the rains had played their part. Make sure to plan your travels carefully around the new moon/start or end of summer etc. to maximise your experience. We probably enjoyed this trip much more than all of our previous visits to other countries in South East Asia and it was fairly easy on our pocket too.

Cambodia in Pics

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