What’s Cambodia like?
Two things define Cambodia today, reminders of which you will find frequently in your time there:
Angkor Wat: Which has become a big tourist money spinner and permeates the very fabric of local life. You will find the three spires of the temple everywhere: on road signs, flags, airplane and bank logos, clothing, even beer! As our guide, Minh – a practical middle-class man trying to make ends meet and get his family up the curve—said: ‘Cambodia thanks the presence of Angkor Wat. What would we have done otherwise?’
Pol Pot and the Cambodian genocide: Pol Pot, who grew up as Saloth Sar, was a Kompong Thom born, French-educated, Ultra Maoist, who wanted to turn the country into a socialist agrarian republic. He changed the name of the country to Democratic Kampuchea, emptied the cities and forced Cambodians to relocate to labour camps in the countryside. Thus began the Cambodian genocide resulting in the killing of 1.8 million people from 1975 to 1979, which was nearly 25% of Cambodia’s then population.
What happened during the Khmer Rouge genocide is expounded in the wonderful book by Amitava Ghosh – Dancing in Cambodia: “City people were herded into rural work camps; the institutions and forms of knowledge that sustained them were abolished – the judicial systems were dismantled, the practice of formal medicine was discontinued, schools and colleges were shut down, banks and credit were done away with; indeed the very institution of money, and even the exchange of goods and services, was banned. Cambodia’s was not a civil war in the same sense as Somalia’s or the former Yugoslavia’s, fought over the fetishism of small difference: it was a war on history itself, an experimentation in the reinvention of society.”
To that effect, modern Cambodia is a country not more than 40 years old. It was completely destroyed in 1979 and had to rebuild itself literally from scratch. It received very little foreign aid to do so and moved from near complete international isolation to become the functioning nation it is today. Tourism and textiles are major industries, but most of the local workforce is still employed in subsistence farming.
The country appears not to have a ‘middle class’; corruption thrives among the rich, especially those in politics, and the fissure dividing the rich and poor is thick. In many places you’ll spot fancy cars parked next to dilapidated shanties on stilts; expensive bikes riding on dirty mud streets; primly dressed women in stilettos skirting past beat-up street kids to buy their favourite street food; glamourous hotels next to neglected buildings; the contrasts are many. Money is so tight that in Khmer weddings, which I understand men pay for, guests are expected to pay upwards of USD 20 to attend. Hard cash is preferred to gifts.
Most factories and shopping complexes are owned by Malaysians, Chinese, Thais and Koreans who have set up shop in Cambodia because of its cheap labour and the generous tax breaks from the government. The locals land up doing back-breaking work for them in exchange for only a few dollars. In addition, the rural poor have been known to be victims of frequent land grabbing and forced evictions with very little alternative sources of income. Thus, the poor grow poorer, a phrase I heard oftentimes in my visit there.
Yet, the country loves to eat and party. With 30 public holidays in the year and a relatively slower pace of life, impromptu parties with free-flowing beer abound. Most people I met complained about the corruption and poverty for a short bit but sounded largely content with their lives otherwise. Setting up camp in picnic spots next to the river and chilling on a hammock to escape the afternoon heat is a common sight.
Two cities can give you a quick introduction to the country:
Things to do in Siem Reap
Located in northwestern Cambodia, Siem Reap was the seat of the Khmer kingdom from the 9th–15th centuries. Angkor Wat is located about six kilometres north of Siem Reap which was little more than a village when a French explorer (allegedly) discovered the historical complex in the 19th century. Today it serves as the collective symbol of lost history for millions of people worldwide, the remains of a sprawling, bygone era, almost mythical, but not quite.
Angkor Wat was built by King Suryavarman II in the first half of the 12th century and took 30 years to build. The temple is dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu. The five stone towers of the temple were intended to mimic the five mountain ranges of Mt. Meru—the mythical home of the Gods, for both Hindus and Buddhists.
The nearby Angkor Thom (with the impressive Ta Prohm and Bayon) was built by King Jayavarman VII to rival Angkor Wat. King Jayavarman VII was a particularly influential king whose references you will find often in Siem Reap. He built scores of temples, hospitals and rest houses, and is credited with the widespread proliferation of Buddhism in Cambodia.
Petit Circle temples tour
To do justice to the temples, I recommend getting the 3-day pass. This pass will help you properly soak in the beauty of the many temples in at least 2 days (min) to 3 days (max). But if you are not a temples person and want to only tick off Angkor Wat, get the 1-day pass. And unless you are a temples aficionado, skip the 7-day pass.
- Start day 1 with the petit or small circle tour: This covers Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (with Ta Prohm and Bayon), Banteay Kdei, ending with Phnom Bakheng which becomes a circus around sunset time. Reach Bakheng before 5 p.m. if you want to get to the top early on and avoid getting trampled while photographing the sun. Also, if you are late, you may not be allowed upon the temples at all because of overcrowding.
- Get a guide ($35+tips) and hire a Tuk-tuk ($15+tips). Your hotel can provide you with both or check them out: ,
- Get the 3-day Angkor Wat pass ($37 per day, $62 for 3 days, $72 for 7 days). The pass is checked often and has your photo on it, so keep it safe. The ticket counter is 4 km away from the entrance to Angkor Wat.
The walls of Angkor Wat hold many stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata etched in loving details: the churning of the ocean to produce amrit, the battle of Mahabharata, Bhishma’s death, Ravana’s killing—it is amazing to see all this.
Phare Circus show
Siem Reap does not have much to do at night apart from the Night Market and Pub Street. The town shuts down early. Visit the Phare theatre, run by the NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak, if you have nothing planned at night. Nightly performances take place at 8:00 pm, with additional performances at 5:00 pm on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The show is basically extreme yoga with some slapstick comedy but gives a view of how the Cambodian youth thinks. And it’s for a good cause! (They say that for a lot of things in Cambodia, by the way – Run by an NGO, all for a good cause)
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
Behold! This is an experience to savour. For more than the sunrise.
Imagine waking up in the dark hours of the morning, sitting in your tuk-tuk all excited, soon realizing the scores of tuk-tuks travelling along with you are going to the same place. You realize ruefully, you’re not going to be the first to see the sunrise from your carefully chosen vantage point. Afterwards, you walk in the pitch dark of the sprawling temple complex, accompanied by a hundred others, our path illuminated only by mobile glow and moonlight. Once inside, you run to the rocks surrounding the lake so you can watch the sunrise in peace (?) and get the perfect Instagram picture. Soon to be joined by 5000 others with the same idea. One butt lies precariously on a rock edge, one hand swats people popping up in the front. You are late, get away, we say.
Jostling, murmuring, the crowd trains its eyes on the spires together. We wait with bated breath, for two hours. Two hours!
Then claps when the sun finally shows up, from behind the tallest tower.
And it’s every bit as spectacular as they tell you. Worth the crowds. Worth the waiting and jostling.
Grand Circle temples tour
You can either do the Grand Circle temples tour or do the following:
Travel an hour in a tuk-tuk to Banteay Srei passing the lovely Cambodian countryside. The temple itself was my favourite after Angkor Wat and Bayon, made of red sandstone, made in the 10th-century and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. The carving on the sandstone is almost like wood, and the temple is known for its intricate lintels and pediments. It was beautiful.
Night Market and Pub Street
Definitely visit Miss Wong Cocktail Bar for some of the strongest and yummiest cocktails I’ve had. Pick up cheap T-shirts (USD 2 a piece) of the softest Cambodian cotton as souvenirs and gifts. Other recommendations here.
Angkor National Museum
What can I say, I love museums. The Angkor National Museum at Siem Reap has come under a lot of flak (expensive at USD 12, repetitive, filled with merely Buddhas, Thai run etc. etc.) but I found it a worthwhile visit. You can start your trip in Siem Reap with a visit to the museum to get an overview of the temples before actually visiting them, or you can do it at the end to get a better context of what you’ve seen. Budget 2 hours inside.
Artisans Angkor is a Cambodian social business creating job opportunities for young people in rural areas while reviving traditional Khmer craftsmanship. Products are beautiful though expensive, and…say it with me…it’s all for a good cause. Visit the workshop to see craftsmen at work and purchase their creations at the store nearby.
Where to eat in Siem Reap
Siem Reap has some really cool cafes and restaurants, most of them in and around Kandal Village. My favourites were:
- Crane Cafe – Cool cafe with great coffee and quirky interiors
- Malis – Fancy restaurant with reasonable portions and prices. Typical Khmer cuisine
- The Little Red Fox Espresso – Cafe popular with expats though I found the prices high
- Common Grounds – A popular local meeting place with tasty Khmer food
- Sister Srey Cafe – A social enterprise run and operated by Sisters Lauren And Cassie. It was closed when I went, although I’ve heard some real good things about their coffee and food.
- Khmer Kitchen – I loved their location, food and service. Definitely worth a visit after a hot day of shopping in the market
Where to stay in Siem Reap
- Mid-range: Ananda’s (~USD 50 per room per night), located at Kandal Village—the nouveau art village in the centre of Siem Reap—was a lovely, central B&B with everything we could ask for, including a spoilt cat
- Basic: Lub d at Wat Bo Village (starts at~USD 15)
- Fancy: Borei Angkor Resort & Spa (~USD 75 per room per night)
Things to do in Phnom Penh
It took me a day to get used to Phnom Penh but I visited because I really wanted to see the Killing Fields. The city is crowded, dusty, dirty, full mayhem. On my first night, I was advised by my hotel desk to wear my bag close my body, and avoid lingering outside in the dark. Heart in my mouth I moved around in the city.
But gradually it got better. I got used to the chaos. No other city characterizes Cambodia’s spirit better.
You could opt for other cities after Siem Reap (see ‘Other places you can go to’ below) but if you decide to go to Phnom Penh, here is what you can do.
Use the morning to fly from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. Check in to your hotel.
The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda
Built in 1866 and expanded over the years, the Royal Palace is an imposing complex and one of the key monuments to visit in Phnom Penh. The ‘Silver Pagoda‘ sits next to the Royal Palace in the same complex separated by a wall. Originally, called the ‘Temple of the Emerald Buddha,’ it is commonly known as the Silver Pagoda because of the solid silver tiles on its floor. The King’s living area, which actually takes up half of the total palace ground area, including Khemarin Palace, Villa Kantha Bopha, Serey Mongkol Pavilion, royal gardens, and a number of other buildings and pavilions, is closed to the public.
Cambodian local markets are teeming with interesting food and people. At Phnom Penh, visit the Russian market (Toul Tum Poung Market) and the Kandal Market (Phsar Kandal) close to the riverside. If you wake up early enough, you might just catch the monks on their rounds to beg for their food and grant their blessings in return.
Food and cooking tours
We did a Lost Plate Cambodia (USD 39 per head) tour but there are several in PP.
I always wanted to do a food tour at an SE Asia city and I got an opportunity at Phnom Penh. The food was yummier than my imagination and none too scary (no snakes or rats I mean). I enjoyed the local delicacies such as Nom banh chok, prahok or fermented fish paste, and the Kaw Sach Chrouk.
Genocide museum and killing fields
The S21 or Tuol Sleng is an erstwhile school that was converted to a bloody interrogation centre during the Khmer Rouge regime. Over 12,000 people were tortured and killed here. The modes of torture are unthinkable: pliers to pry off teeth and nails, centipedes inserted in female private parts, electroshock, children smashed against trees, ugh, all because maybe…just maybe… they had dissented to Pol Pot’s ideas or were suspected to have done so. Alleged intellectuals (anyone who wore spectacles, spoke in a cultured tone, or had soft hands, for example) were suspects and brought here to be tortured. As many as 30,000 prisoners were held at S-21 before the Khmer Rouge leadership was forced to flee in 1979. Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. USD 8 entry fee inclusive of the audio guide.
And those who survived S21 were taken to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields, about 16 km away from the city, to be killed and dumped in mass graves. Nothing much remains of those—it has since been converted to a garden and memorial—but the audio guide takes you into a heart-rending journey into the past to show what once was. More than 8000 skulls, arranged by sex and age, are visible behind the clear glass panels of the Memorial Stupa, which was erected in 1988. Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. USD 6 entry fee inclusive of the audio guide.
Visit the S21 first and then the Choeung Ek Killing Fields. A tuk-tuk to take you to both places and wait for you costs about USD 15. Pay for and get the audio guide in both places. Totally worth it.
Evening cruise along the Tonle Sap River
Several companies run tours which spans an hour to two hours and takes you through the Tonle Sap River into the Mekong River, the Four Faces River, and back. We took Memorable Cambodia run by local students. The cruise, while not spectacular, offers unlimited beer and fruits for USD 15, and affords a close view of river life. Worth doing.
The Living Arts Show
Art was almost completely destroyed during the Khmer Rouge regime when artists were selectively chosen and killed. Pol Pot saw them of no consequence. It will probably take decades to bring back the earlier glorious state but take a peek into what art and dance are like in Cambodia. The Living Arts Show takes place at the covered open-air theatre in the grounds of the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. Every day at 7 p.m. 4 nights per week. (maybe more when in high season)
It’s decent enough to walk through and lounge in for a few hours, but I found the experience less than savoury. More a pickup-joint with substandard eating places. Some information is here.
If you want to take local liquor home, check out Samai distilleries in Phnom Penh. Open only on Thursdays, they make one of Cambodia’s award-winning premium rums. Three pubs you may want to check out, run by the same group, are Juniper Gin Bar, Sundown Social, and Long after Dark.
Where to eat in Phnom Penh
- FCC or the Foreign Correspondents’ Club is a public bar and restaurant along the Tonle Sap river. I imagine Foreign Correspondents used to hang here often, but it’s a great place to spend a lazy afternoon in.
- Eclipse Sky Bar – for a panoramic view of Phnom Penh
- Friends the Restaurant – Run by the social business enterprise TREE and located near the National Museum, a visit to Friends restaurant and its shop (opposite) is highly recommended. The shop has some creative and well-priced memorabilia and gift items, and the restaurant has the yummiest salads, desserts and cocktails. All made and served by marginalized Cambodian youths.
Where to stay in Phnom Penh
- Mid Range: Vacation Boutique Hotel (~USD 40 for a room for a night)
- Budget: Mad Monkey Hostel (starts ~USD 7, ideal if you want to find companions and party)
- Fancy: Raffles (historical) and Sofitel (~USD 200 above)
Other travel tips
Both online and On Arrival options exist which are easy enough. E-Visa costs USD 36 with a validity of 3 months. If applied online, the visa comes to your inbox usually within 24 hours.
Currency and costs
US dollars are accepted everywhere, in every store, tuk-tuks, museums, even by beggars. Often the change returned is also in US dollars, so you don’t have to worry about being stranded with more Cambodian Riels than you can spend. 4000 Cambodian Riels equals 1 United States Dollar. The denominations in common circulation are 100, 500, 2000 and 4000 Riels. Just carry US Dollars and you are good.
In Siem Reap your option is largely the Tuk Tuk. In Phnom Penh buses and Taxis (a good option given the pollution) ply as well. In both cities, it costs about USD 10 to go to the airport, give and take a few dollars based on traveller’s bargaining skills. In general, a 1-2 km tuk-tuk ride translates to a 1 USD fare. Bargain.
And you can walk easily in a sleepy laid back town like Siem Reap, but definitely, don’t attempt it in Phnom Penh.
Travelling by air
Cambodia Angkor Air runs flights from and to all major cities in Cambodia, and also to neighbouring Vietnam and Laos. The flights are usually two-seaters and satisfactory. The airline changes schedule erratically though, my flight time from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh changed three times, and there are also complaints of overcharging for luggage.
Travelling by bus
Giant Ibis runs buses across all major cities in Cambodia, including between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh which is a ten-hour journey. Find a detailed review of the journey here.
Other places you can go to
Sihanoukville can be your stop after Siem Reap, reachable through a short flight or bus ride. Named Sihanoukville in 1964 after the ruling prince, the city is known for its golden beaches. It used to be a backpacker’s hub until 2010 but recently has grown to be an elite party destination. Here’s a planning guide.
Flights ply from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville and I understand that trains now run between Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh (stopping in Kampot) on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, which make a great alternative to a bus or flight.
Battambang is located on the Sangkae River in northwestern Cambodia. In wet season (Dec-Apr) there’s a lovely boat journey to take you to Battambang from Siem Reap within three hours but in the dry season (May-Nov) this journey can take up to 12 hours with even some walking involved. There are local buses that ply as well which takes about three hours, but the comfort in the journey is debatable. Battambang itself is Cambodia’s second largest city and is known to have an interesting, quirky character. You can rent a kayak and paddle along its river or visit the undiscovered temples on the mountain Phnom Sampeu. See reasons to visit Battambang here.
A sleepy little town by the river where tourists are few and pace of life easy. The town is located by the Preaek Tuek Chhu River in southern Cambodia and is easily reachable from Phnom Penh, 4 hours by bus. The town is known for its pepper plantations and salt fields. Many buildings date from the colonial period, including the Governor’s Mansion. See a plan here.