What started out as a quest for bio-luminescent plankton, turned out to the most unexpected of adventures.Whether you’re travelling with a group of friends, family, your better half, or back-packing alone, Cambodia has something for everyone — soak in the magnificent history and architecture of ancient Khmer or soak up sun in most pristine virgin beaches. And then there are the one- dollar tequila shots!
The best way to get to either of Cambodia ’s international airports, Siem Reap or Phnom Penh, is through South –East Asia’s favorite low cost airlines Air Asia or Scoot (previously Tiger Air).
We arrived from Bangalore in Siem Reap on a warm dusty morning. The charming international airport has extremely friendly officials- one of our friends hadn’t got his visa on time, but there were extremely open to ‘discussions’ on how to deal with the situation! The airport has plenty of places selling local sim cards but Cambodia has FREE wifi practically everywhere, so you should hardly ever need it. The most common public transport are tuk-tuks — modified motorcycles with elaborate carriages strapped onto them that can zip you around the city, luggage et –all, for a very reasonable fee. Each tuk-tuk is unique, painted in the brightest colors and themes — some even have their own name!
After a lazy morning, checking into a lovely villa we had booked ahead on Airbnb, we walked to the main street( “Pub street” ) for some lunch, and local shopping. Pub street is lined with eateries, serving every possible cuisine, right from local Khmer fare, to continental and western fare (We even spotted some Indian restaurants)
Eating here is like sitting down to a large community dinner! Restaurants share seating areas, customers and even kitchens (but not WiFi!). Do try the local Angkor beer and it’s homophonic cousin ‘Anchor’ beer.
As the mild afternoon sun slowly lifted, like curtains on a stage, the evening unveiled a vibrant colourful fiesta, right on the street. Each joint quickly transformed itself into a dance floor, and as the night wore on, crowds spilled onto the streets, moving from one bar to the next.
The street parties are also fueled by little bar carts.
Remember the ice-candy seller of school break and Sundays … breaking the monotony of the scorching summer sun with the peal of tinkling bells? Replace the bell with blaring speakers, and the ice-candy with every possible spirit, and you have the bar cart. You can even hail one, find a corner, and play your own music, as the owner fixes you every possible cocktail and your dollar shots.
Day 2 started as a laid back morning, exploring the little town of Siem Reap. You can rent two wheelers, and take twists and turns chasing the maze of canals that runs busily across the city, and still end up somewhere recognizable. Most establishments have heavily cashed in on the proximity to temple ruins, and keep the theme running through statuettes and idols decorating alleys and doorways.
If you were to look at a map of Cambodia, you will see that a large part is covered by the Tonle Sap Lake. Sunset tours are offered by most tour operator kiosks in the main city, and while it might appear a very touristy and clichéd thing to do, it is simply not to be missed!
The boat tour begins from one of the many streams that lead into Tonle Sap. As you make your way down the winding stream, you will see the surrounding paddy fields give way to a dank mini ecosystem of schools, markets and houses perched precariously on the river.
Once free of the gentle cacophony of boats, jostling for space in the stream, the ‘delta’ opens into the lake itself, with water stretching beyond the eye can see — the perfect place to watch the sun set, and witness the sky break out into a messy canvas of countless stars.
Day 3 was dedicated to Angkor, and began unpleasantly early, well before the break of dawn.
Angkor is the largest temple complex in the world, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The reasons for the decline of the majestic Khmer empire, which sprawled around these temple sites, are still shrouded in mystery. While most parts are under heavy restoration, and some overpowered by the jungles, many of the original structures and carvings have miraculously stood the test of time.
Built originally as a Hindu temple, Angkor Wat is the most spectacular and largest of the structures, lording over a 400 square kilometer complex. In the same complex is Angkor Thom, which has some unique temples like Bayon — temple with the thousand faces and Ta Promph. There are maps available of the entire temple complex which will help you navigate and plan your tour.
There are various categories of tickets with an option of day/week passes to explore the magnificent temple complex. Tickets for each day are issued only at a specific slot on the same/previous day, and since it’s a photo-ticket, you can’t buy tickets on behalf of the rest of your group!
Mornings are bitterly cold; do remember to carry warm clothing, and appropriate footwear. You can rent a car, that will take you to the entrance of the sprawling archaeological park. Find a nice spot and wait for the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Ideally, set up base close to the lotus pond in front of the temple, so that you can see the vast temple and its reflection as it lights up against the rising sun.
After the sunrise, you can walk around the actual temple, exploring the ruins. You absolutely must take a guide — as a wise man we met in Borobudur , Indonesia once quipped — “No guide then only stone no story”
A few exhausting hours later, we returned to the city with a sense of accomplishment.
That evening, we went back to pub street, this time to try the much famed hot pot — A sampling of the most exotic meats, each with picture cards as identifiers ,to be cooked right at your table, in a thin broth of vegetable and meat stew.
Walking distance from pub street, are Cambodia ‘s night markets- bursting with crafts, spices, clothes, and all kinds of knick-knacks, from scarves to bottled scorpions. In spite of the unusual nature of fare, the markets themselves paint a delightful picture, complete with a wooden bridge, knitted with strings of fairy lights. If you’re lucky, you can even catch a performance! A most magical end to a magical visit.
Siem Reap Phnom Penh Sihanoukville Koh Rong
That night, we caught an overnight bus to Phnom Penh. Road travel in Cambodia, is safe, convenient and very reliable. The Giant Ibis, one of the most highly rated coach operators, provides comfortable, affordable yet luxurious transport.
Day 4 was a brief stop in Phnom Penh, a capital city in a tearing hurry. It has old schools- turned concentration camps — turned museums, which house stories of Cambodia ’s ruthless regime of the 70s. The Killing Fields are also accessible from Phnom Penh. Lacking the stomach , we chose to give that one a miss.
A somber interlude after, it was onward to Koh Rong, Cambodia ’s best kept secret! Accessible through the main port city of Sihanoukville, Koh Rong Island is simply, paradise. There are two islands by that name, so be sure not to confuse one with the other — Koh Rong Samloeum is the smaller quieter island, an ideal choice for a peaceful sort of holiday. The other, Koh Rong , is a mix of both absolutely mad bar crawls, and hidden resorts with private stretches of beach.
Transport in Koh Rong, is limited — you can go from one resort to the other only by walking, or by taking by a boat, and boat availability and safety is linked to the tides. Many resorts offer complimentary ferry services with the booking, so be sure to check with your hotel. You don’t want to take the wrong boat from Sihanoukville, and end up ambling around with luggage on the wrong beach. Also be sure to carry sufficient cash, there are no ATMs.
It is here in Koh Rong that the promised bio luminescent plankton are (said to be) found. There are plenty of tours that take you in out on boat rides and even snorkeling after dark, and on clear moonless nights, you have a good chance of actually catching a glimpse.. we weren’t so lucky, and by then we so intoxicated by the beach itself, that it didn’t quite matter!
We stayed one night in the main dock of Koh Rong — the one night that no-one seems to have very clear memories of and another couple of days in an isolated resort. We had the whole beach and spent hours in the shockingly emerald, clear shallow waters, and lazing on hammocks, with the ocean waters nibbling at our feet.
Koh Rong Sihanoukville Phnom Penh
Our last night in Cambodia, back in Sihanoukville also coincided with the last night of the year 2016. While not as exclusive as the parties in Koh-Rong, Sihanoukville has its own charm. Otres, Ochheuteal and Independence make up the three main beaches on the Sihanoukville coast line– each has its own distinct personality.
Here, you can either check yourself into one of the many parties at the countless beach facing restaurants, or take a break, walk down the farthest pier — turn your back to the ocean, and watch a riot of fireworks form a Mexican wave across the crescent shaped coastline of Sihanoukville, while preparing yourself to return to the humdrum of routine, responsibilities and EMIs.
The next morning, with the previous night still ringing in our ears; we hoisted ourselves out of bed to catch our bus to Phnom Penh airport. From there, with heavy hearts (and suitcases), we flew back to Bangalore.