Following on from the first half of this post, I have definitely been busting my juvenile thoughts on what I assumed I’d find this side of the Tonle Sap Lake. I can unquestionably say that I plan to return to Cambodia again, as I have been so surprised by each place I’d visited, falling for its veiled charm everywhere I went. There is something magical about this country, partly created by their lack of being a modern Asian powerhouse akin to Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok.
The old world charm and rustic qualities are very much present. Add in the thick coating of jungles and ruined temples at every 40km or so, it makes for a heady mix of history, mysticism and intrigue into a world that time has sped ahead of.
Two local women watching the queues for the inner temple at Angkor Wat
I have been in Cambodia for a short 6 day trip with Geckos Adventures, on their Real Cambodia tour. I basically needed to do a visa run and had no idea where to go, I also really didn’t feel like going solo, so I got lucky when I came across this last minute deal for the exact dates I needed, like, the day my visa was due to expire! Talk about good timing.
After our 2 days in Phnom Penh, We took the bus up to the better known Siem Reap for the second part of our tour – it was time to tick off the mighty Angkor Wat from our bucket lists. As the bus wound its way through the meandering narrow roads, following the river to the depot on one side, and the large Psah Chas Market on the other I was just itching to get out and explore.
It wasn’t until I’d flown home that I realised I’d actually like to come back to Cambodia, wanting for just a little more time in this beautiful little town.
In the evening the colourful Old Market feels even more quaint and magical*
So, what did I think?
Q: It seems pretty tiny on the map (compared to Phnom Penh).
A: Considering this is a town and not a city, it is smaller and pretty compact. The main streets, Psah Chas Market and tourist-filled cafes and bars on Pub Street are all short walks from one another. The river acts as a central marker, so if you do get lost, it won't be for long.
The entire vibe is different here; there are abundantly more tourists (because of Angkor), the pace of the town is less frenetic than the commercial bustle of Phnom Penh and it just holds a certain old-school nostalgia to it.
When I was wandering along the riverside, it was refreshing to be around some greenery. The grass had the sprinklers turned on, there were flowers in bloom, and lovers coyly cosying up on the many benches facing the water. It was a small area of peace and quiet in an already pretty chilled out town.
Follow the river around the quieter parts of the town**
Q: Is the only thing to see here Angkor Wat? (again, stupid logic).
A: I can concur – stupid logic. Of course, there is the metropolis that is Angkor Wat, which after visiting I now fully understand and stand in favour of the 7-day pass. In the complex there is Angkor Thom, most people visit this on the same tour as the main temple as its just as grand, in a crumbling, maze of corridors kind of way.
If you like history, then head to the National Museum to dig into the archeology of the country, or if you want to continue learning about the Khmer Rouge and the civil war there is a museum in town too.
Bantay Srei is another name you will hear a lot of – a 10th Century temple about 10km away from Siem Reap, dubbed the pink temple for the natural hue in the sandstone it is carved from.
For something a bit more unusual, the Kban Spean in Phnom Kulen National Park. Carved into the base of a small section of the river, are 1000 ‘bumps’, neatly arranged, or otherwise known as Linghams and Yonis. Yes, you do kind of have to see this to believe it's not made up.
The bustling Pub Street at sundown***
If you are happy to base yourself in the town, then there is still plenty to see and do for the more languid amongst us (me included). Pub Street is an infamous intersection of four streets consisting solely of bars, cafés, restaurants, and the odd souvenir shop. Hostels above nearly every shop of course.
Venture away from here and there are plenty more independent, hip cafes just waiting to be discovered. The Old Market (Psah Chas) is a fun afternoon in itself – just not for your bank balance. Especially if you are like me and appreciate artwork, and end up buying half a wall’s worth.
Q: Angkor Wat is just the one big temple you see in the photos, that’s all there is to see?
A: Little known fact, there are over 1000 temples at Angkor.
Most people who are visiting for the first time and have little prior knowledge on Angkor think that the temple we see splashed across the internet is all there is to the complex. This is the largest, most important temple in the city, but there are many other smaller sites dotted around the 402-acre landscape that makes up the complex. A lot receive little to no attention as they are far away and disguised by the dense jungles, still being surveyed by archeologists or just skipped due to lack of time for the need to see the ‘big three’ – Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Phrom.
A beautiful Hindu Temple we went to for sunset – despite researching I still don’t know its name.
Q: The only other sight to see is the Tonle Sap Lake?
A: While you have the lake for a change of scenery, if you are still hungry for those hunks of crumbling stones then worry not, for there are other sites to Indulge your Lara Croft. That outside of Angkor will be day trips, or further up into the country, but they are less known so you get the benefit of having most places to yourself.
Since coming home I have discovered a couple of sites that, upon reading a short bio about, impulsively decided that I will add this to my invisible list of reasons in favour of coming back to Cambodia. So I guess I should actually say something useful and give you some site names? Ok; Koh Ker, which is a weekender at 120km away. Beng Mealea is a little closer at 40km away, and Sambor Prei Kuk, 176km East of Siem Reap. Google at your own risk for beautiful, travel bug-inducing imagery.
Pick your jaw up from the floor… This is Beng Mealea, just look at that!****
I hope that this has helped at least one person to become a little clearer on Cambodia, and after reading, do you still like the sound of it?
Photos courtesy of: