During one of my trips in Asia, I had a quick stop over in Cambodia, only 3 days. Literally “only”, as Cambodia deserves much more than 3 days. The country is absolutely wonderful: great history, great art, great nature, great people, great food! A trip to Cambodia can do nothing but make you feel in a magic universe. For my quick stop, I stayed in Siem Raep and from there I explored some treasures of the country. Some suggestions before your trip:
- In order to access Cambodia, you need to apply for a visa. You can do this online or on arrival, it doesn’t change a lot. If you apply online, you will get the visa in less than 48hours and it will cost you around 30USD. If you wish to do the visa on arrival, the process will go very fast as well.
- As Cambodia is a small country, distances are not huge, therefore you can easily move everywhere in a short time. The most used public transportation is buses, but for tourist excursions you can join some shared tours or hire a tuk tuk driver for the day, the price is very convenient.
- In the Siem Raep area, everything can be paid in USD. This will make your life much easier.
- The cost of life in Cambodia is ridiculously cheap. You can get a delicious dinner at 3 USD or a beer at 50 cents. Accommodation is very cheap as well, you can manage to find great hotel rooms with breakfast at 15 USD.
- Cambodia is a very safe country, you can hang around anywhere at anytime with no issue. People are very sweet and friendly, there is no reason to be afraid of them, on the contrary hanging out with them will be a very pleasant experience.
DAY 1: VISIT TONLE SAP LAKE
On the first day I hired a tuk tuk to drive me to Tonle Sap Lake. This lake is located at around 30mins from Siem Raep, and it is the biggest lake in South East Asia. Five provinces circled the area of Tonle Sap Lake, more than three million of population inhabited around the bank of the Lake and 90% of them earn a living by catching fish and making agriculture. The Lake is also an important commercial resource, providing more than half of the fish consumed in Cambodia. In harmony with the specialized ecosystems, the human occupations at the edges of the lake is similarly distinctive – floating villages, towering stilted houses, huge fish traps, and an economy and way of life deeply intertwined with the lake, the fish, the wildlife and the cycles of rising and falling waters.
In order to explore the lake, you will need to get to the ferry pier and hire a boat ride of 2hours. And here is where the first scam of the country welcomes you. When you go to the boat ride counter, they are going to ask you for 50 USD pretending that the boat cannot host more than 2 people. Bullshit! First of all, the boats are bigger and can host till 10 people. Secondly, 50USD is way too expensive! Once they saw I did not accept this price and started to talking to other people to negotiate for a group ride, they came back to me and gave me the price of 30USD for the tour. So be careful and make sure you are not ripped off! Once you are on the boat, the second scam takes place: a guy will hop on the boat and start explaining you everything about the lake, and eventually ask for some money for him and the driver. In order to make sure this will not happen, you’d better inform the guide since the beginning that you don’t need his presence, and inform the driver that there won’t be any tip as you have already spent 30USD for the ride. And, as 2 comes always with 3, there is a third scam: during the ride they will want to take you to an orphanage and ask you for some money pretending to buy food for the kids. You can avoid that by telling them that you want to skip the orphanage and that the donation to the kids will be done separately. So..to sum up, the lake is certainly beautiful, but knowing all the scams you have to go through, I am not sure it is the best experience in Cambodia.
You can improve the day by stopping in one of the local villages on the way back to the lake, in order to meet some locals and see how they live. I must warn you their living conditions are quite bad, people in Cambodia are extremely poor and live in small houses with no water, no electricity, and bad hygienic conditions. However, this poverty does not make them sad or violent, on the contrary in Cambodia you will find the sweetest people. Everybody is always smiley and friendly, kids are adorable and want to play with you the all time. Just looking and talking to these people makes you see life in a new perspective and appreciate what you have in everyday life. Cambodians make the beauty of the country, and getting to know them is a pure pleasure and honor.
DAY 2: VISIT ANGKOR
On the 2nd day in Cambodia, you can spend your time visiting the most famous monument in the country: Angkor and its complex of temples. As a UNESCO world heritage, this site has been elected the most beautiful site in the world for the last couple of years, and the award makes completely sense. Angkor temples are absolutely amazing! Ancient temples built in the middle of a wild nature. For many aspects, Angkor recalls Bagan in Myanmar, but the charm is completely different. In order to reach the several temples, you need to hire a tuk tuk who will take you around. The temples are indeed located in a wide area, that is not possible to do on foot. A daily price for a tuk tuk driver for Angkor will cost you around 15USD. The driver will take you to the most significant temples, all different from each other.
- The first temple to visit will be the most popular one: Angkor Wat. This is the largest religious monument in the world. Its perfection in composition, balance, proportions, relief’s and sculpture make it one of the finest monuments in the world. Wat is the Khmer name for temple (the French spelling is “vat “), which was probably added to “Angkor “when it became a Theravada Buddhist monument, most likely in the sixteenth century. After 1432 when the capital moved to Phnom Penh, Angkor Wat was cared for by Buddhist monks.It is generally accepted that Angkor Wat was a funerary temple for King Suryavarman II and oriented to the west to conform to the symbolism between the setting sun and death. The bas-reliefs, designed for viewing from left to right in the order of Hindu funereal ritual, support this function.
- From Angkor Wat, the visit continues to Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom is an almost square city surrounded by 8 meter high walls a little over 12 kilometers long with five impressive gopura gates providing access to the city. The city’s name translates to “large city” or “great city”. King Jayavarman VII made Angkor Thom the new capital of the Khmer Kingdom after driving out the Chams , who destroyed the old capital Yasodharapura. He fortified the city by building a high wall around it, in turn enclosed by a 100 meter wide moat. Angkor Thom contains the remains of a large number of temples and Palaces of different ages and styles. One of the most impressive is the Bayon temple, best known for the mysterious faces on its many towers.
- Another amazing temple in the list is Ta Prohm temple. Known also as “The Tomb Raider temple” (as the game and the movie are set there), this site is bound by massive roots of huge trees. Back in the days it was very different: one could see walls decorated by precious stones, hear beautiful music, and dancing in the halls. When in late nineteenth century Ta Prohm was discovered by French, they decided not to conduct a full-scale restoration of the temple. The decision was made due to the fact that giant trees, such as ficus and silk tree, were so merged with ancient walls that eventually they became whole. So now we can see this unique Cambodia monument in the state it was discovered by the researchers.
The day trip will take you also to other temples, but the ones above are absolutely a must. You can start the tour at 4:30 AM in order to enjoy the sunrise, or start later and make sure to enjoy the sunset. Both scenarios are completely worth doing, as the sun plays a wonderful effect on those monuments.
On the way back to Siem Raep, you can stop by one of the several night markets of the city, in which you can bargain to buy some clothes; souvenirs, and delicious street food.
DAY 3: PHNOM KULEN NATIONAL PARK
On my last day in Cambodia, I booked a shared tour to the famous Phnom Kulen National Park. Phnom Kulen is believed to be the birthplace of the Khmer Empire where King Jayavarman II was crowned as ‘God-king’. At present, Kulen Mountain is a favorite spot among Cambodian families for weekend trips and special holidays. This is where families usually gather together and the place where visitors go for outdoor activities.
The waterfalls of Phnom Kulen are a must-see sight. After climbing up to the mountain and exploring around, the waterfalls in Phnom Kulen are a perfect spot to cool off. You can also have lunch nearby, as there are some food stands in the area.
On top of the mountain you can have a look at a massive reclining Buddha. The Buddha statue is made of sandstone and is one of the biggest of its kind in Cambodia. Locals usually come and visit the pagoda to pray and do some offerings. The views from the top will not disappoint you as you can cast an eye on Cambodia’s lush forests and jungles.
Another attraction is The River of A Thousand Lingas. This attraction is in the western part of the Kulen mountain within the Phnom Kulen National Park. It features carvings of sacred lingas in sandstone formations on the river bed and banks. A linga is a stylized image of a phallus representing the essence of the God Shiva. The carvings are visible when the water is at its lowest level. It is believed that they have been carved into the river for nearly a thousand years and are meant to bless the water that goes through them. Cambodians usually splash some water on their hands and faces as they believe that the water which flows through these sacred carvings gives good luck and good health.