If you’ve read my previous post (if you didn’t what are you waiting for!), you know how much my first 2 days in Cambodia’s Phnom Penh were emotionally draining, so I needed the rest of my trip to be the exact opposite; Fun, adventurous and enriching.
My second stop after Phnom Penh was Sihanoukville, actually the islands around it. After a 5-hour drive across Cambodia’s countryside I arrived to the city that didn’t wow me, quite the opposite. While trying to drive around the city (trying is the key word) you see that the city is a mess of construction, pollution and casinos for some reason. Chinese investors run the show there and they started building hotels and casinos around the city without caring about the roads or the streets, which resulted into a weird landscape of tall buildings and no proper roads. But the city is popular amongst backpackers and travelers today for one reason; it’s the only way to get to two of the most beautiful islands in the Gulf of Thailand; Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem.
You can get there by speedboat and the 45 minutes one-way trip costs around 25$. Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem are two totally different islands: The first one is more quiet, it’s perfect for some ‘alone time’, you’ll find families with children, couples and solo travelers. The island is also more ‘equipped’ in terms of hotels and resorts. Koh Rong Sanloem is a totally different story; a lot of solo travelers who end up making friends, friend groups, couples and in 4 days not a single child in sight! Accommodation on the island is more ‘basic’ (mostly cabins on the beach), but the island is more lively if you like meeting new people while traveling alone. I personally preferred Koh Rong Sanloem for many reasons: The beach was absolutely stunning (and it’s called ‘Lazy Beach’), the island was greener and I had to walk through a jungle for 25 minutes before getting to the beach, I had long conversations with people I’ve just met and I witnessed some beautiful sunrises and sunsets.
The one thing you need to be careful about on the Island is Mosquito bites, not the normal ones. On these specific islands mosquitoes cause something called Dengue Fever, which can be particularly nasty. In my case nothing happened but I heard a lot of stories about trips being ruined because of it, but you just need to be careful and never forget to apply your mosquito repellent.
Four days and a full book later, I left Koh Rong Sanloem for my last stop on this Trip; Siem Reap. My plan was to spend 4 full days there because I knew I would be in my element and I needed time to take it all in. Getting to the city is as easy and fast as a one-hour flight from Sihanoukville and my travel companions for this part were a German couple and an American solo traveler I met in Koh Rong Sanloem the day before.
The vibe in Siem Reap was quite different from Phnom Penh; a chaotic yet laid back city. I stayed in a beautiful hotel called “The Khmer House” which wasn’t centrally located which worked for me as all my activities happened outside of the city itself. In fact, I visited the city center’s ‘Pub Street’ only once on my first day while exploring the city, a 3$ Tuk Tuk ride is more than enough to get anywhere in the city and they’re extremely easy to find. In the city itself, as I’m not a party beast, the most interesting thing for me was the local markets; The Night Market, the Old Market, Made in Cambodia Market… You pick!
I started Siem Reap’s temples discovery on day 2; I was lucky to find an amazing guide who took me to the less crowded and touristy temples. An important thing to know is that you need to purchase your temples pass beforehand (62$ for 4 days), the pass has a picture of you as it’s extremely regulated with many temples being included in UNESCO’s world heritage. If I had to summarize my 3 days in Siem Reap it would be: Climbing up and down temples, learning about their history, marvel in front of their architecture, have wonderful Khmer food, Repeat.
Day 1: on the first day, I did something called “a small circuit”, which includes the most famous temples: Angkor Wat, Ta Prom Temple (AKA ‘Tomb Raider’ temple), Ta Nei Temple (which is smaller, quieter and surrounded by huge trees), Bayon Temple (which is my absolute favorite for its genius architecture), Baphuon Temple (which is a small Hindu temple unlike the other ones which are Buddhist temples), Angkor Thom Temple (with its beautiful Terrace of Elephants) then finally finished with a beautiful Sunset on the top of Phnom Bakheng hill.
Day 2: This was the highlight of my trip. Few things in life are worth leaving your comfy bed at 4 in the morning, and sunrise on Angkor Wat is one of them. We made our way in the darkness to the complex and waited next to a pond until the sky started to light up and it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen! After this magical moment, I did something called ‘a big circuit’ including some less famous temples; Prah Khan monastery, Neak Poan temple (a small island temple located in the middle of a water reservoir), Ta Som Temple (a small classic temple), Pre Rup Temple, then ended the day with Banteay Srei Temple (Ladies temple), Banteay Samre Temple and Banteay Kdei which are Hindu Temples with very special architecture styles.
Day 3: in the last day of my temples discovery, I decided to drive away from the city and the crowd and explore two more temples 3-hours away from Siem Reap. Koh Ker and Beng Mealea Temples. Koh Ker is a pyramid Temple that looks very much like the Mayan Pyramids in Mexico and it’s extremely different from all other temples I’ve visited in Cambodia. Beng Mealea is a huge temple, mostly in ruins but some of the areas were extremely well preserved and the most amazing thing is that half of the temple is consumed by the jungle, so you come across surreal sights of huge roots growing in the middle of the temple’s towers and which makes walking around it a real Indiana Jones experience.
I could speak all day long about these temples, how beautiful they are, how much history is behind them (from the dark Khmer Rouge period, to the Vietnam war) and how proud Cambodians are of them. But what you need to know is that it was an amazing experience. What I really loved the most about them are the efforts made to rescue them, by preserving them and/or restoring them. Few things you need to remember before visiting the them though:
You need to plan your visit to the temples, by planning I mean you need to create an itinerary because in Siem Reap province only there are around 1000 temples!
You need to book a driver or a guide, because not all distances are walkable.
The office to get your pass is not at the Temples’ entrance, it’s a difference office. Also, passes need to be visible at all times as they’re checked multiple times during the day.
Out of respect to the temples, there is a dress code to follow. Visitors have to be dressed modestly (covered shoulders and knees, no crop tops, etc…)
Knowing what this country went through in their recent history, a lot of things make Cambodia very special; the food (and the amazing pineapple rice and fish Amok), the stunning white sand beaches and the jaw dropping temples. But more than anything else, it’s the Cambodian people who make it even more special with their smiles, the abundance of generosity, kindness and warmth. If it wasn’t on your travel list already, go for it. It will be worth it, I promise!
Cheers to the places we yet are to visit!