With annual leave from work at a premium, it can be challenging to fit everything we want to do in a destination into a week or two. Cambodia posed this challenge, and in ten days we saw a lot but left feeling we had barely started seeing this amazing country.
We travelled in June 2018, just at the start of the southwest monsoon, and whilst there were some heavy downpours, these did not last long and simply allowed us to take some time to people watch and soak up the atmosphere.
We packed a lot into our itinerary – starting in the capital Phnom Penh, then heading to the southern town of Kampot, onwards to Battambang, Banteay Chhmar, and ending our trip in the most visited location in the country, Siem Reap.
Arriving in Phnom Penh, the first thing that hits you (hopefully not literally) are the motorbikes, everywhere. Some motorbikes zipping quickly between the stationary jammed cars, rode with apparent expertise by kids not older than 10 years old, others rode slowly and carefully by drivers carrying one or two family members on the back. The next thing that hits you is the amount of building work and development going on, with tall high-rises in every direction on the edges of the city.
Phnom Penh hasn’t got the wealth or infrastructure of some other South East Asian cities like Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, but the city is literally buzzing. The narrow lanes of the Central and Phsar Kandal markets are filled with Phnom Penh locals buying anything from fresh from the water fish to coconut milk refined to order.
During our time in Phnom Penh, we also visited the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum which recall the atrocities committed by the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge and preserve the memory of those tortured and killed. I won’t detail these, but needless to say these sites are truly horrific but should be visited to understand the recent history of Cambodia and the depravity that humans are capable of.
On departing Phnom Penh, we headed south to the town of Kampot. At first glance, it seems a sleepy little town by a wide river, but as the evening progresses, and locals and visitors descend on the night market and bars, the atmosphere takes on something quite unique to the place.
What do I mean by unique? Well, we didn’t visit any other place that had a landmark called “Durian Roundabout” (in English at least). Durian is the infamous / beloved (select as appropriate) which has a very pungent and distinct smell leading to it being banned in most hotels and transport. Durian from Kampot is meant to be amongst the best in Asia, and we did have the opportunity to try some after a mad tuk tuk dash in the rain one night. Good travel experience to sample the creamy, custardy, almost cheesy fruit? Yes. Would we eat it again? Maybe not.
Waking up early in Kampot (around 5am) allows the opportunity to visit the harbour to watch all the fishing boats arrive back in dock and sell their catches, before heading to some of the small bakeries for a simple breakfast of bread and condensed milk.
After an early start it was onward to Battambang. This was a 6 hour bus ride from Phnom Penh to what is Cambodia’s second largest city. I liked Battambang for many reasons: the people here were particularly friendly and we had an opportunity to visit a family for a home cooked dinner. Travelling is all about meeting people and learning about their lives, and this was a great opportunity to do so. The other activities of Battambang were the old bamboo railway – once a transport mode for locals, this is now a tourist attraction – and going to see the bat cave at sunset, as hundreds of thousands of bats fly out of the cave in search of food. I have heard a few negative stories about western tourists being pressurised for tips and charged very high prices for refreshments ($5+ for water) in both these places but I can only say that we did not have any problems or bad experiences.
In the next post, the highlights of the trip: Banteay Chhmar and the incredible Angkor Wat.