Cambodia has been on my bucket list since college. And I finally landed there on Dec 23, 2015.
1) 3 nights Siem Reap, 2) 3 nights Sihanoukville, 3) 4 nights Koh Rong Samloem (not Koh Rong)
Visa on arrival – At Siem Reap airport, this costs USD 30 per person. We hear if you enter Cambodia by bus, it costs the same at the border. There are no clear instructions at the airport on what to submit, so just pick up 3 forms: application form, blue excise/ customs form and arrival/ departure card. The line moves quick (so much better than Hanoi airport). At the desk, submit and pay, then move to another part of the desk, where they hand you your passport in about 15 mins. Line up at immigration and hand over passport + arr/ dep card and walk through. Don’t be shocked if the immigration officer stares blankly at you and asks for a tip; you CAN politely decline. We didn’t know so handed over a 10 dollar note.
Hotel pick up – Our expectation was a car/ taxi but we got a ROMA, Cambodia’s tuktuk. The romas are tethered to a moto bike / moped and are pretty cool (and cheap!) being the only mode of getting around. LOVED IT. The cool humid air was a welcome change from the arid cold of Shanghai’s winter… reminded me of Calcutta. Airport is 20 minutes awat from the town-centre. Siem Reap is much smaller than I had imagined, the town has evolved around the temples which are surprisingly close to wherever you choose to stay at, as is the airport.
We chose Petit Villa – yeah I stayed at a spa hotel instead of a backpackers’ hostel this time. Lovely room + service, really helpful and sweet staff. Best part about this place? A few giant white rabbits in the bushes, some cats and wild fowl roaming around freely and one fat pigeon who runs the place and terrorizes everyone.
The Temples – We wanted to avoid the crazy tourist rush that starts at an unearthly hour at the crack of dawn. We started off at a comfortable 9am which is totally fine, unless you really really want one of those “dawn shots” of the temple. USD 15 bought us a whole day with Lin and his roma, on which we covered off the “small circuit” at our own pace.
Started at Angkor Thom – a large compound with several temples inside like Bayon, Ta Prohm (the tomb raider spot), and such.
Tip: The toilets at Ta Prohm are nicer, cleaner if that is of any importance to you.
The ruins are really breathtaking, haunting and majestic…. way more impressive than what I saw on the trusty internet. Given our timing in the middle of the day, we werent crushed by swarming tourists. What helps is if you can read up a bit on the usual route taken by tour groups and then go the opposite way. Get a guide for a detailed tour @30 USD for the day. Of course there will be people asking for 50 USD for a single temple viewing. Overall, guides are in uniform, easily distinguishable, and speak foreign languages fluently. We heard french (of course), Spanish, Portuguese, German, Chinese and a bit of other languages too.
Lunch at Caco. Quick stop to feed our faces before heading for the final temple.
Angkor Wat is massive and magnificent. We got here after lunch at 2pm and – FOMO – covered it off within an hour, instead of “taking it in and spending 5 hours. I would suggest you take a walk around in the surrounding areas of this temple – the grounds are especially beautiful, scenic, full of friendly monkeys.
Tip: Wear clothes that cover your shoulders and legs. My wonderful baggy wardrobe is courtesy a roadside stall (they know).
Evening plan was of course to check out the night markets (there are several neon signs leading to different night markets all around the area where Pub Street and Old Market are. The “Angkor Night Market” is the most hipster; fancier stall, organic stuff, clean and not crazy crowded. We saw a stall selling rice infused alcohol with different flavors (coffee, anise) here, beautifully packaged in hand-painted bottles – MUST BUY.
For any shopping on your agenda, these night markets are the best spots. Stuff is cheap. At shirt at 2 USD. You need to politely bargain a bit.
Crocodile meat, while available all over, is really not great. Lean, tough, chewy. It’s supposed to be a local favorite. Also ate a cricket and a maggot – stuff I thought only Andrew Zimmern should eat.
Pub Street – One of the liveliest I’ve been to. Grabbed a bucket at Angkor What which is supposed to be the most popular/ oldest bar – grungy, messy, graffiti-d walls and good music. No wifi.
You should also check out the Beatnik Speakeasy. for some burgers and Khmer dishes. GREAT music (retro). They keep board games (I spotted Cards Against Humanity and Boggle). Service could be better and drinks could be stronger…but they have WiFi.
For some really good, authentic Khmer BBQ, PLEASE go to Cambodian Soup Restaurant. You will remember the meal.
Booked a cycling + kayaking tour with Grasshopper Tours for the next day; actually cycled 40 kms #soproud. We got to check out some cool places, a monastery by the airport, a local wet market way out of Siem, a local family who make bamboo rice (a type of Khmer specialty), the Baray lake, finally getting to the Floating Village.
Below you will see a series of photo collages. The local family that makes bamboo sticky rice-bean – a local snack – were super nice to us. The steamed snack they make inside bamboos is delicious, one bamboo is a meal for one, speckled with little black/ red beans and salt, and possibly coconut flakes.
The wet market, as expected, was busy, locals shop daily, commonly twice a day, so they eat fresh. Lots of similarities to wet markets in Calcutta and Shanghai.
At the floating villages, we went kayaking. It was fun, but the heat…. kids in this village are human fish – THEY CAN SWIM – we saw a boat with kids on their way to afternoon class. You get a real good glimpse into the lives of the people, their farms (floating pig farm, a crocodile farm, etc), their shops, pets, families, and more.
We couldn’t leave Siem Reap without a meal at The Sugar Palm. A massive Gordon Ramsay fan – who has raved about this place – I had to go here. The food was very good and not expensive. The fish amok here was the best we had in Siem Reap. The curry thick and soft, steamed up so it’s like souffle, with fluffy chunks of fish that are steamed to perfection. This is wrapped in banana leaves (authentic) as opposed to a coconut shell, which is common everywhere else. The amok melts in your mouths.
The beef skewers and chicken salad with banana blossoms were good too! Call ahead to book a table; they are booked out in the evenings.
Flight delayed by 4 hours. Apparently this is common. There are 2 flights a day between Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, though the flight itself is under 50 mins. So account for a major delay. We arrived late in the evening, with just enough energy to grab food (Nice Food offers cheap but delicious meals) and crash.
We stayed at Cloud 9 on Serendipity Beach, at the end that meets Sokha Beach. Nice cosy bunch of bungalows, going up a hill, offering up a stunning view of the sea.
Now the bad part: I knew that this beach is the most popular, December is tourist season, but nothing had prepared me for the unending racket that is created by the beach shacks, thumping loud music from every shack, fireworks going off for hours, and a generally very crowded scene. It goes on till dawn (5 or 6 am!!) DAILY. I hated it and couldn’t wait to leave Sihanoukville. The shacks play music non stop, even if they are empty.
Tip: Do not get doner kebab rolls from the stall opposite the Oceanica store. They are salty, greasy, not great, yet pricey.
It’s sad that there are no regulations here about noise – I can’t imagine how normal folks here go to bed.
Sihanoukville reminded me a lot of Koh Phi Phi. Similar crowds, shady, tons of bright little bars and music. But definitely trashier.
Rent a bike! Worth it to rent a scooter @ 6 USD a day during peak season and 4 USD otherwise. Your passport is the insurance – or 800 USD. Bit unnerving but it’s safe and worth it. Best if you want to explore several beaches.
Otres Beach – BEST out of the lot (Independence, Victory, Hawaii, Serendipity). If you are pressed for time, do not bother with the other beaches, just get yourself to Otres and chill there all day long. My recommended shack is Blame Canada, run by Jade (guy with incredibly broad shoulders) and Paul (he makes the cocktails) – friends who have been here for 5 years and started the shack 4 years ago. They have a couple of dogs, Mowgli and a smaller one Nala. Try their Jamaican Mule. Sketchy WiFi but who cares?
The Absinthe Distillery – So this used to be on Koh Ta Kiev island, a boat ride away, but then was moved to Otres Village. It stands on stilts opposite the bar/hostel Hacienda. At first glance the distillery looks like a shabby little shack, deserted, unattended – nothing like a distillery. When we found the owner – Yohann – at Hacienda; he could only give us a tour at 5pm which kinda didn’t fit into our plans. Maybe next time. Definitely something you can check out!
KOH RONG SAMLOEM (or Sanloem)
Took the 11 am speed ferry at 12 pm. Boats leave twice a day (11am and 3pm) for the two islands Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem. The former is larger, dirtier, and backpacker friendly. Buy tickets at the main pier or at any of the tourist info offices. Fast boat (1 hour) are @ 20 USD per person and slow boat (1.5 to 2 hours) @ 15 USD per person for a round trip.
Sanloem, on the other hand, is smaller, tranquil, remote and perfect if you REALLY want to get away. Saracen Bay is charming with a decent number of lovely resorts – each with its own bar + restaurants, and serves as the main arrival/ departure bay with 3 piers spread across the entire length.
Tip: Look up a map to see where your resort is located on the bay, and get off at the pier closest to it, irrespective of what the ferry dude tells you. We should have waited till the second stop. We were told our place is closer to the first pier, which couldn’t have been further from fact. The walk dragging bags along a wet beach in blazing heat is painful.
We stayed at Green Blue Beach Resort, run by Alev and Mehmet, a Turkish couple. They run 10 beach huts, done up really nice and pretty! Our hut was privy to a terrific postcard view – I could not have ask for more. The hut even had a tiny staircase leading up to a little platform on the roof – the perfect little wine-in-the-evening spot.
Temperatures are perfect. Hot during the day and cool, even chilly after sunset. Very easy to lose track of time and date, with intense thoughts of “how I left my job to travel the world”.
Saracen Bay is connected by a 1.5 KM stretch across the middle of the island to Lazy Beach on the west – gorgeous! Sands on this beach are a light brown colour, and the water is comfortably warm. This side of the island views the sunsets and faces less wind; the water, though calm, becomes deep fast as the beach dips sharply just as you enter.
This island is still quite virgin and not yet crowded, but one can see that will change and fast as more lodges and bars spring up in the limited space. We hung out with Chris, who is midway completing his resort – The Royal Retreat. His bar – Octopussy Bar – is up and running, and is located just where the path from Saracen Bay to Lazy Beach begins. Lovely space, lovely guy. An Australian, he has moved here with his Japanese wife and daughter, after running a travel business for nearly two decades in Japan.
He told us that the first locals who rehabilitated here arrived only 19 years ago. Electricity is available for some part of the day, in the evenings – that’s about to change too as a private company is expected to set up a grid here.
For WiFi you can walk to Orchid Resort.
Sun Island Eco Village and our very own Green Blue Resort are decent spots for good meals.
Tip: Orchid Resort is where you get your return ticket stamped by their staff (something we weren’t aware of). Make sure to sort this out a day before your return date, as boats get full and you are not guaranteed a spot with an unstamped ticket. We jumped into the first boat we saw, didn’t want to risk not getting on the speed boat. Ended up at a local supply pier, and had to take a roma into the town center to get a taxi. Info about return boats tends to change daily so ask more than once when on the island.
Taxis from Sihanoukville town centre to the airport cost anywhere between 15 to 20 USD, for a 30-35 minute journey.
My sadness on the last day was intense. I desperately want to go back to this beach.
What we could have done better –
- Not stayed on Serendipity beach; Otres would have been better
- Spent one more day on the island
- Checked out the Absinthe Distillery
- Spent a bit more time at the temples
- Carried a second book