One of the common complaints about Cambodia that I heard while in Laos was that while it’s a great country with friendly people, “there isn’t much to do there”. Well those people weren’t trying very hard: there is loads to see and do and the last couple of weeks have been pretty busy. To make up for the lack of recent posts here’s a potted summary of the highlights of Cambodia so far:
This slightly scruffy riverside village 350kms north of Phnom Penh is charmingly relaxed, and I spent a very pleasant couple of days there after Ban Lung. The compact town centre is dominated by a large and bustling market square with accomodation mostly along the riverfront, and everything is within just a few minutes walk. Until 2005 the only way to get there was by boat, but when the road came through ferry traffic was killed stone dead within months. The key tourist attraction is the local population of Irrawaddy dolphins that clusters twenty kilometres upriver, but as I’d seen them up close in Laos I skipped a second look. A couple of hundred metres offshore in the middle of the Mekong is a large island that by all accounts offers a great experience of rural life, and I had every intention of spending an afternoon there cycling around. However during lunch at the Red Sun Falling bar-cafe I got to talking to the owner Joe, and somehow didn’t leave the place until after 10pm…
Joe is American and very very very gay, and he’s been running his place for more than seven years so he had a mountain of stories to tell. The bar is closed between 2pm and 5pm but he let me stay as we chatted on and on about life, the universe and Cambodia while I sipped beer and he chugged pastis with gusto. He gave me fascinating insights into some aspects of life here both for locals and expats, and his bar is the defacto meeting spot for NGO workers in town (which number around twenty at any one time) so I got to chat to some of them as well. Hard on the liver, but otherwise a brilliant day all round…
Phnom Penh is a superb city to visit, big enough to have a huge range of attractions (and a very sharp and diverse nightlife) but small enough to be friendly and easy to get around. I arrived on a Thursday so I’d have enough time to find a decent hotel before Kristen arrived on Saturday morning, and I saved all my sightseeing until she arrived. We stayed four nights there and fitted in most of the popular highlights: strolling the waterfront bars and cafes, including the famous Foreign Correspondents Club bar for drinks and tapas; buying cheap DVDs and spending an afternoon at a swimming pool attached to a bar on 278 St (an idea that should be replicated in Sydney if the safely police would allow it); having a two-hour oil massage for just $18; visiting S-21 and The Killing Fields; dining at Friends restaurant and it’s sibling Romdeng; going to the Russian Market where we bought some cheap t-shirts and had a delicious market lunch; having a look at the sadly-depleted Boeng Kak lake, which still houses a budget backpacker scene despite the lake now being an ugly and somewhat stinky eyesore; witnessing an early morning wedding procession; strolling the streets on foot, and later touring around in a tuk-tuk to see how the suburbs change. The only major tourist attraction yet to be seen are the Gold and Silver Pagodas, but we will visit those on Kristen’s last day in Cambodia this Saturday. I’ve now spent seven nights in Phnom Penh already and I’m looking forward to getting back there again: it’s a place that has the balance just right at the moment 🙂
This town is much better than I expected, and like Phnom Penh is highly recommended. Though it acts primarily as the service town for the magnificent temples of Angkor Wat and others, it’s got a lot to offer in its own right and could easily detain an idle traveller for a week or two. The range of bars and restaurants is brilliant, and as we arrived on my birthday we spent a fine night first at a grungy bar with great 90s music for a beer or four before shifting gears at seeing the evening out over tapas and wine at a tiny upscale bar. Nice. Of course the reason to be there is the temples, and though all the advice says that you can’t see them in a day we knocked over four of the best in just six hours and were content with that. The overgrown Ta Prohm was the favourite (it was featured in the original Tomb Raider movie), followed by labyrinthine Bayon then the huge but sparse Angkor Wat.Wandering the temples in 34 degree heat is hard work even with a tuk-tuk to ferry you around, and we very happily retired to the air-conditioned bliss of the hotel afterwards.
A gorgeously relaxed country town with one of the most interesting tourist attractions in the country: the bamboo train. The product of necessity and ingenious creativity, the bamboo “train” is simply a flat platform about three metres long made of bamboo that rests on two axles with a small two-stroke motor driving one of the wheels. They were designed by locals in the 1970s to transport people and goods on the same rails used by normal trains, which normally would create an obvious problem when a big train comes through. But this is where the genius of the idea comes in: it’s simple construction means it can be disassembled in seconds and placed beside the rails until the train passes. It is still used by locals from time to time, especially in the rainy season when the roads are very slippery and rutted, but mostly it exists now for tourists to take a ride. And what a ride! It zips along at a remarkably fast rate, and being so close to the ground just enhances the sense of zoom. We shared our train with an old guy from Echuca who said he’d been on loads of trains around the world but found the bamboo train the most original and exciting. Comfortable it ain’t, though: the man who sent us on our way down the tracks said “get ready for a Cambodian bum massage”….
Battambang is also surrounded by some very interesting other sights, and while we only had time to visit one place it was definitely worth it. Phnom Sampeau is a steep hill with commanding views of the plains below, on top of which is a Buddhist temple that was rebuilt after the original was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. Phnom Sampeau also has a darker history: halfway up the hill is a beautiful cave with a natural skylight many metres above that used to be used by local villagers to pray for good crops and rains. During their reign of terror the Khmer Rouge used it for killing people, forcing people to kneel on the edge of the skylight. They were then bludgeoned so that they fell down into the cave, dying either at the top or the bottom, and the bodies piled up in a heap below. The cave once again contains a shrine, and some of the bones of the victims are honoured within.
The main attraction of this seaside town is the abandoned hill station of Bokor, used by the French from 1925 to 1972 as a luxurious elevated retreat from the heat. It was abandoned when the Khmer Rouge swept through the area and is now a ghost town, and we were very keen to visit. Unfortunately the road to the site is currently not open, and you can only visit by trekking for three hours up a steep ravine. The whole experience takes a full day and we simply didn’t have enough time to do it, settling instead for a few drinks and good food on the riverfront after a particularly difficult day of travel drama (details to follow in the next post – it’s a good story!)
That’s the highlights to date…. we’re currently sitting in a beachside bar on Serendipity Beach in Sihounoukville having breakfast and checking the interweb while waves lap the sand just ten metres in front of us. Dinner last night was served in comfy chairs on the sand barely three metres from the water, and the meal of fantastic grilled barracuda cost just $3 each. Today we went for an early morning dip in the ocean when almost noone else was around, with the water a bath-like 24 or 25 degrees. This afternoon we’re off to an offshore island to spend a couple of days in a basic beachside bungalow for some serious relaxation without the crowds or hawkers…. Cambodia is definitely a place where you can choose your holiday mode and find somewhere great to indulge it. Five weeks here is barely enough 😀