Category Archives: Cambodia
Arrival In Siem Reap
Our flight landed in Siem Reap from Seoul at about 2:00am so we slept in on our first morning in Cambodia. In the afternoon our tour guide from Indochina Pioneer named Kettya picked us up. We also had a personal (air conditioned!) car and driver named Mr. Hok. The number one priority and first activity on the list was the famous Angkor Wat temple.
Angkor Wat Temple
Angkor Wat is a UNESCO world heritage site and was built in the 12th century mainly from sandstone. Some sections also were stucco-ed in order to be intricately carved. It, and the majority of temples in the Angkor area, was originally built as a Hindu temple but was eventually converted into a Buddhist temple at the end of the 12th century. The temples are mainly Buddhist to this day. However, the Khmer Rouge cut all of the heads of the Buddhist statues off during the civil war, which began in 1970.
THE Angkor Wat
The entrance to the temple is incredibly impressive. There is a large moat surrounding the entire temple complex. You have to approach the entrance by walking over a long bridge and then through the temple grounds. There are 2 libraries on either side of the temple as you approach. The grounds around the ruins are maintained but immediately outside are dense forests.
Angkor Wat is so large that you could literally wander around all day and not see the same area twice. The carvings are so incredibly intricate and are floor to ceiling on every surface including walls, columns, ceilings and door frames. We were able to see some monks wandering the grounds but they are a bit illusive and tough to photograph. After our trip to Chiang Mai (which you can read about here) where I was disappointed to not see very many monks, I was determined to get some good photos.
From left to right: a horse in front of one of the Angkor Wat library, monks admiring the carving in Angkor Wat, Angkor Wat carvings, a family of monks relaxing in Angkor Wat
We spent several hours wandering the grounds of Angkor Wat. Despite it being winter, it was scorching hot and just as humid. It was an incredible thing to be able to see this amazing site in person. It is something I never thought I would be able to do and I feel so lucky!
Lotus Farm, Sunset and Khmer Food
We left the temple just in time to drive to a nearby lotus farm and rice field. We just barely made it in time to watch the sunset reflecting in the farm waters. Afterwards we went to Pub Street where we had our first taste of Khmer food at a restaurant called Champey. What an amazing day!
Sunset over a lotus field in Angkor, Siem Reap, Cambodia
After exploring Angkor Wat on our first day (you can read about that here) we were ready to see the other temples around Angkor. The schedule for the day was packed with temple visits. At 8:30am we drove into Angkor National Park, which contains over 200 temples. I am sure I have forgotten some but here are the most memorable:
The Temples of Angkor National Park
East Mebon Temple was unique because it was built in the middle of East Baray reservoir. The reservoir was very shallow and looked similar to a swamp. It had trees and islands coming out of the water for miles. There was a long bridge and walkway across the reservoir to the temple itself, which used to be a hospital. People would travel from all over the country to be treated at one of the 100+ hospitals built throughout the kingdom.
Ta Prohm Temple is famous for being featured in the Tomb Raider movie. It has some amazing Strangler Fig trees crawling through the ruins. Because of its new fame, Ta Prohm is very busy and full of tourist groups. An interesting Buddha face almost entirely wrapped by a tree was a highlight of this spot!
Before our lunch break we also saw Chau Say Tevoda, Banteay Srey, Pre Rup and Pre Kat. We enjoyed lunch at a Khmer restaurant where I ordered a mango salad and a fresh fruit plate. One of my all time favorite travel experiences, especially in tropical locations, is trying the fresh fruit. It is always so much better than anything we have available in the States.
Bayon and The Royal Palace
We still had some really important temples left to see. Tired and hot we made our way to The Royal Palace. There is not actually much of a “palace” left standing but there is a gorgeous wall carved with 5 foot tall elephants. The palace used to have a reclining Buddha on its front face. It now mostly looks like a pile of crumbling rocks but when intact it would have been 1 full story tall and probably 5- 6 stories in length.
The last temple we visited for the day was Bayon. I had seen photos and heard from others how incredible this temple was so it was on the top of my list. Bayon is known for 216 faces, 1 on all 4 sides of 54 towers. We were lucky that we went late in the afternoon as this is one of the most popular temples for tourists. We seemed to have missed most of the tourist groups. Each carved face was probably 8 feet tall and just amazing. You could walk right up to them and see how imposing they really were. I imagine this temple would have been one of the most amazing sites to see while it was still intact and incredibly intimidating to approach.
The Struggle Of Temple Fatigue
Temple fatigue is real. The guide books and our tour agency had both warned us. Knowing that I would likely never return to Cambodia made me determined to see as many temples as possible. The worst part is that by the end of an 8 hour day FULL of temple viewing you start to think they all look the same and even a little unimpressive. They start to look more and more like big piles of rocks the more you wander through and the longer the sun beats down on you.
In hindsight, we would have booked only a half-day of temple viewing instead of a full 8 hours. Has we seen slightly fewer temples, we would have been able to appreciate the unique qualities of each one more.
Sunrise Over Angkor Wat
It was an early morning as we were scheduled to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. You can read about our day exploring Angkor Wat here. We arrived at 5:00am and sat on the stairs of the southern library while drinking coffee. There were a lot of other tourists there but not nearly as many as I expected. I was glad that I didn’t have to stand or photograph over the tops of peoples heads.
For a long time it didn’t seem like there would be any color in the sunrise, it was also very cloudy. At the last minute, the clouds broke apart and we got some lovely pinks and reds! It was absolutely beautiful and a sight to behold!
A Countryside Buddhist Temple
Afterwards, we went back to the hotel to eat breakfast before heading out to Phnom Kulen National Park. The main goal of the day was to see the “most beautiful waterfall in Cambodia” as our guide described. The drive was 2 hours and we made several stops along the way. The first was at a Buddhist temple at the top of a mountain. On the way up we stopped at a banana stand that sold 7 different varieties of bananas including small red ones that are only available in this area. The red bananas tasted a little tangier than regular yellow bananas and were very good.
The temple was very busy with locals and tourists alike. We paid a little old woman to watch our shoes for us as we made our way up. We ascended the stairs to view the huge reclining sandstone Buddha located at the top. There were so many people trying to view the Buddha and the area was so small that we had to walk in a single file line to get a good look.
The River Of 1,000 Lingas and A Waterfall!
Next we went to the river of 1000 lingas, a short drive from the temple. We walked along the river until we got to a location where the water was shallow enough to see the bottom. There are literally thousands of lingas carved into the bottom of the riverbed. A linga is the Hindu symbol for man and woman. It looks roughly like a square with a circle in the center. The story is that the water passes over the lingas to provide blessings to the people using the water below.
Another short drive away was the waterfall! We initially only saw the very top portion and were unimpressed. While we were waiting for our lunch, Kettya encouraged us to walk further down the stairs. What an amazing sight! It absolutely was beautiful and there were a lot of tourists and locals swimming underneath it. A swim would have felt really nice considering the heat but we had not come prepared for it so we just looked instead.
The Temples Of Roluos
After lunch we started making our way back to Siem Reap. We stopped at several temples of Roluos located in the Bakong District on the way back. These temples were built in the 8th and 9th century making them much older than the ones we had seen in the Angkor area.. They were also much more run-down as they had not been as refurbished for tourists.The best part was that the area was completely empty, we saw 3 other tourists the entire time we were there. I loved seeing the temples that were off the beaten path a little more and as a result, getting away from the crowds.
A Massage And Gelato!
We ended the evening with a great massage and a delicious dinner at a local restaurant near our hotel named Mahob. Most noteworthy was the gelato sampler I ordered for dessert with passion fruit, pepper and lime, basil and lime and dragon fruit flavors! Due to having seen so many temples the previous day it was great to do something a little different. It was actually really nice to be able to sit in an air-conditioned car and see the country landscape in a less crowded environment.
We got to sleep in a little this morning. Our day began with a 1 hour tuk-tuk ride to Rolous where we explored a local market with our guide Kettya. She explained what all of the items for sale were. There were tons of fruits and veggies and fish. It was very similar to many of the markets I have seen in Thailand (more about that here). Another short tuk-tuk ride away and we transferred onto a boat to explore a floating village or stilt village.
The Ingenuity of The Boat
I will explain more about the village in a second but the boat ride out to the village was awesome and definitely needs to be mentioned. One of my absolute favorite things about visiting developing countries is seeing the ingenuity of the people. There are so many incredible things created or put to use that would normally be discarded in America as broken or junk. This boat was a great example of this concept. The boat captain was a young boy who couldn’t have been more than 15 years old; he was the one steering the boat at the front. The other boy on the boat was at the back and was running the motor; he was maybe 18 years old.
My mom, Kettya and I were the only guests on the boat, which could have held 20 people total. We were allowed to roam around freely so we could see everything going on with the boat. The ride was about 45 minutes one way and during that time I noticed several long ropes running the length of the boat on either side near the floor. Then I looked closer at the steering wheel itself, which was literally the steering console of a car that had been ripped out, exposed wiring and all. Underneath the wheel was connected to ropes strategically tied all around. These ropes led all the way to the back of the boat and were attached to the rudder to steer. It was ingenious and I couldn’t believe these two young boys had thought up such an awesome way to fix their boat in order to continue working.
The Stilt Village
The boat took us on a river that ran through the village. We saw houses on stilts on either side of the boat. I was not expecting the stilts to be so high! They probably elevated the houses about 3 stories into the air. The stilts were not anything fancy; they looked a lot like tree branches and trunks tied together with rope. The homes were made of corrugated metal and some were even multiple stories connected by ladders. The stilts were exposed because we were visiting during the dry season. During the wet season, the stilts are completely submerged under water. The water rises nearly 3 stories high in the wet season! A forest along one of the edges of town gets completely submerged under water.
Lunch In A Stilt House
We traveled along the river until we reached Tonle Sap Lake and then we turned around and went back. On the way, we stopped at a local family’s home to have a homemade lunch. Our hosts were an older man and wife and their niece who was living with them since their sons were in school or working in Siem Reap. We had snakehead fish, mango salad and fresh vegetables. It was a delicious meal and we also were able to look around their stilt house. They were very gracious and friendly and I always enjoy getting to see how the people of a country actually live.
From left to right: Our host family that made us lunch, the kitchen in the stilt house, the view of the village from our hosts home.
Street Food With The Locals
We took the boat back to the dock and then had a long, dusty tuk-tuk ride back in to town. Kettya pointed us in the direction of “60 meter road” for dinner since we requested street food. This spot was aimed more towards locals than tourists and was close to our hotel. Exactly what we were looking for! We wandered up the street where there were tons of clothing and shoe stalls as well as food and amusement park rides. We settled on some lettuce wrap type things for dinner. By watching the other people around us we figured out how to eat them correctly. You stacked a lettuce or cabbage leaf with noodles, fish paste cooked in a banana leaf and vegetables. It must have looked ridiculous, us trying to figure out the dipping sauce, but it was tasty!
A boat on Tonle Sap Lake
The stilt village was a very unique experience that we were both looking forward to. It was everything we had anticipated and more. The size of the village and the stilts were very surprising. The people we met today were so friendly and welcoming and most of all it was a nice change of pace from seeing temples and an overall great day!
Instead of eating breakfast at the hotel, we decided to walk down the street to the Peace Café. My mom had been interested in it for some time and we were very glad to have gone. The food was very good and they also had a fair-trade gift shop with many unique handmade items we had not seen elsewhere. The plan for the day was to go to an area about a 2 hours drive from Siem Reap called Koh Ker where we would view more temples. We were less than excited about these plans because we were already feeling a bit “templed out” (More on temple fatigue here).
Cambodian Road Trip Snacks
During the drive we saw many stands selling what looked like burnt pieces of bamboo. When we asked Kettya what they were she explained that it was a snack. They press rice into the bottom of a piece of bamboo and add black beans and coconut milk and then cook it over a flame. The outside bamboo gets charred but the rice inside is sticky and sweet. We got to try it for ourselves at the next stop.
My Favorite Temple: Prasat Pram
Our first temple stop was Prasat Pram where I immediately changed my mind about not wanting to see more temples. The temples in the Koh Ker area were abandoned in the 10th century and have not had much attention since then. They have been completely taken over by nature. There were also almost no other people out viewing them since it is such a long drive from the more popular tourist destinations.
Prasat Pram is the coolest temple I have ever seen and was by far my favorite of the entire trip. It was hard to get over how completely taken over by strangler figs it is. It is to the point where you could only see small areas of stone peaking out between the roots. I stayed and photographed for a long time because I wanted to capture everything about how beautiful it was. Words cannot do it justice so check out the photos below.
We also visited Prasat Krahoum, which was constructed out of red brick instead of the usual sandstone. We had lunch at a small kitchen outside of Prasat Thom before beginning our tour there. Prasat Thom is a pyramid shape with 7 tiers and strongly resembles an Inca pyramid. We climbed to the top where, on a clear day, Kettya told us we could see a range of mountains that border Thailand. Side note: There is a temple on this mountain range that Cambodia and Thailand still fight over.
The last stop of the day was a large temple named Beng Melea. It was just as overgrown and taken over as the others. There was a cute group of school children playing outside. Sundays are the only day that they do not attend school so we had not seen too many children around until this day. They were playing a game in a large group where they would jump over a string on the ground. I also bought a painting from a young local painter!
Off The Beaten Trail
It was not a long day as most of it was spent driving out to Koh Ker but it ended up being one of my favorites. I normally try to seek out places that are off the beaten trail a bit when I travel. I am not normally interested in the common tourist attractions with their hordes of large tourist groups. Although some destinations, like Angkor Wat, are a necessity, this day was much more my speed. I felt like I really got to see a temple up close and personal. I imagined that these temples look similar to the temples that explorers, and just regular folks, are walking up on and discovering still to this day in the forests of Cambodia.
An Introduction to Battambang
Due to an unfortunate bout of food poisoning our plans for the day had to change. We were supposed to take an 8-hour boat ride to Battambang but instead we slept in, got antibiotics and took a 2.5-hour car ride. This is where I will advocate for having a planned trip with a service. I normally plan all of my trips myself and still prefer that but on this occasion it was very nice to have someone to find a car for us while we were trying to get better. The service we used was Indochina Pioneer and they were great if you are in to professionally planned trips.
On arrival in Battambang we checked into our hotel Bambu. It was a very nice boutique hotel across the river from the main part of town. We set out to explore but quickly got caught in a downpour of rain. A nearby restaurant provided nice cover and cold drinks until it subsided. The main city area of Battambang is pretty small. There are some restaurants and open-air markets but it definitely had a small town vibe. We ended that day with dinner at the hotel, as we were feeling a bit cautious after being sick most of the day.
The Battambang Bamboo Train
Our first activity for the day was to go see the Battambang Bamboo Train. It seems to be the main attraction of the area and it was definitely the main thing that we had come to see as well. We took a 30-minute tuk-tuk ride to reach it. The bamboo train was created by the locals who live outside of town on the farmland and more rural areas. After the train stopped running due to lack of money and damage after the war they wanted to continue to utilize the train tracks. They created small “train cars” using car axels set under flat bamboo platforms. A small gas motor then powers the car.
The entire set up is absolutely genius! Although it is a major tourist attraction the local still use it to get back and forth from their fields and villages. My favorite part was when the cars going in opposite directions would need to pass each other. Because there is only one set of tracks, one car would just get lifted off the tracks and set to the side while the other car passed. Once the track was clear the axle would be placed back followed by the platform and we would be off again! It was such a unique experience and so clever.
You can view an unfortunately sideways video of the bamboo train here
It was very hot and humid so we went back and ate lunch at the hotel and swam in the pool until the heat of the day subsided. Afterwards we visited 2 temples. The first was Wat Ek Phnom, which is more contemporary and is still in use today. Located at the top of a small mountain in a dense forest, it is most known for the numerous monkeys that run all over its grounds.
The next temple, Wat Prohm was located at the top of a very long flight of steep stairs. It took about 90 minutes to get there via tuk-tuk as it was very far out in the countryside. 90 minutes is a very long time to be in a bumpy, dusty tuk-tuk. The view from the top of the stairs was gorgeous and a great view of the fields in the country.
We were feeling brave enough to eat out in town tonight. The hotel recommended Khmer Delight so we gave that shot. We tried a common beef dish called Lok Lak that was very good and peppery!
The Longest Bus Ride To Phnom Penh
In the morning we took a 15- passenger van to Phnom Penh. The drive from Battambang was supposed to take 5 hours but it ended up taking 6 due to construction and traffic. We were definitely done when we arrived. The last hour seemed to take the longest. Several miles outside of the city we hit a major construction zone. The road was completely torn up and we were just driving on dirt, despite it being a major road. The houses on the side were obviously very poor and now everything was covered in a thick coat of red dust. It looked to have been that way for quite some time and there was no end in sight. I can’t imagine having to live in the red dust like that. People complain about the yellow dust in Seoul but this was significantly worse.
Lunch On The Titanic?
Once we entered Phnom Penh the traffic hit. There is so much traffic and the rules of the road are very much just suggestions. On arrival at the bus station, the doors of the van opened to a slew of tuk-tuk and taxi drivers yelling at us. We said goodbye to Kettya and she introduced us to another guide named Sauk. We walked across the street to a restaurant called “Titanic”. It was a neat place and filled with tourist groups so it must be the place everyone goes upon arrival in Phnom Penh. We both had a hot pot and it was so good!
Phnom Penh National Museum
After lunch we took a quick tour of the National Museum. We were a little but rushed since our van had arrived an hour late. We just hit the highlights of the museum with a museum guide. I am not much of a museum person normally and a lot of the artifacts were similar to the temples we had just seen in Siem Reap. One interesting thing was that the museum was tiny. Cambodia has been overtaken by so many countries and been in so many wars in its past, they actually don’t have a lot of their own artifacts. The whole museum was about the size of one room in the average American or Korean museum.
The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda
Next we went to the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. The silver pagoda is named for the silver tiles covering its floor. They actually have a giant rug lying over the tiles so you can only see them in a very small section. You also cannot take photographs so you will just have to go see for yourself one day. The tiles were very cool but it was hard to be too impressed since they were all covered.
Sunset Cruise On The Mekong River
We finished at the palace just in time to make it the pier for our sunset cruise. Phnom Penh is at the intersection of the Tonle Sap (which the stilt village was on, read more here) and the Mekong Rivers. The cruise was a long the Mekong and took us far out and then back around to view the sunset behind the Palace. The view was really nice but my favorite part was seeing all the fishing villages along the river edge. There are small villages where people live on their boats and just tie them all together at night to create little villages for themselves. Everyone was coming in for the night with the fish they had caught and I enjoyed watching them laugh and interact.
Dinner at “Friends”
We checked in at our hotel the Anise Villas. It was a nice room but the owner was really rude so maybe stray away from this one. We went back to the riverside area for dinner at a recommended restaurant called “Friends”. There are several “Friends” type restaurants in Asia. We have seen them on our other trips and also ate at one in Hoi An, Vietnam. The restaurants employ at risk youth and teach them the skills needed in the hospitality industries. Even though it was late in the evening we had to wait for a seat and the food was very good.
Koh Dach Island
Today was the last day of our trip and we didn’t have much planned. We had another new guide for the day named Danay. We began by taking a 15- minute ferry ride to Koh Dach Island. The island is the home of a famous silk weaving village. We drove around the small island where every home had at least one loom used to weave. In the past, the village also bred silk worms to make the silk but it is no longer affordable to do it that way. Both men and women were weaving and it seemed that the practice was passed down within the family.
We stopped at 2 different weavers to get an up-close view of their work. The patterns they create are so impressive! The looms are so complicated that I am unsure how they keep track of what they are doing. My mom and I both bought several silk scarves.
Fresh Spring Rolls
Afterwards, we decided that we hadn’t seen much of the city so we went back to Phnom Penh to explore. Danay took us to a local market where we had fresh spring rolls for lunch. We were given a plate of fresh veggies, meat and a stack of stiff rice papers. The veggies and meat were stacked on the paper and then dipped in a sauce for flavor and to soften the paper. It was one of my favorite meals of the entire trip!
Danay was a little too energetic for our last day so we decided to explore on our own. We only had a couple hours before our flight. It turns out there isn’t too much to do in Phnom Penh so we wandered, looked in shops and had coffee before heading back to the hotel to shower and pack.
Final Thoughts on Cambodia
The trip was amazing and I feel so lucky to have been able to see the ancient temples in Siem Reap. I found Phnom Penh to be pretty underwhelming after our time in Siem Reap. If I were to do the trip again I think it would be better to start in Phnom Penh. We also opted out of seeing the killing fields in Phnom Penh, which is one of the main tourist attractions. Although I think it is incredibly important to learn the history, I am not sure I would have handled the gruesome nature of the killing fields well. I feel honored that our first guide, Kettya, confided in us a lot of her personal story regarding the take over by the Khmer Rouge.
This trip was unlike any other trip I have taken, as I did not plan it myself. Using a tour company was definitely a new experience for me and it has its pro’s and cons. I think I will continue to plan my own excursions, as I really like to explore on my own and at my own pace. It did eliminate a lot of stress to know that everything was planned for me and that I didn’t have to worry about getting lost or communicating. One of my favorite things about traveling is getting lost in a place and totally immersed. I think the stress actually adds something for me. I felt more disconnected from the local people by having everything planned for me instead of just “winging it”.