Category Archives: Cambodia

The mother lode of temples — Angkor

Angkor: the most spectacular concentration of temples on Earth, and the reason why I handed over $35 for a visa at the border crossing.  Fast forward six days from the moment I stepped off my bike in Siem Reap — the tourist gateway to the ancient complex — and I’m “templed” out. After five days in Siem Reap (3 full days exploring temples) and a half-day at Preah Vihear (the only other UNESCO temple site in Cambodia), I’m exhausted from stone grandeur. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Did it meet my high expectations? My expectations were blown away.

With my 3-day ticket ($40), I saw a sunset at Pre Rup, a sunrise at Angkor Wat’s NW moat, spent a morning wandering around the Royal Palace grounds in Angkor Thom, and finished my first, full day by climbing the jungle ruins of Beng Mealea ($5 ticket, 65km northeast of Siem Reap) before catching the tail-end of a sunset at the Bangkor. For the second day, a sunrise at Srah Srang, a peaceful, early morning at Ta Prohm (the “Tomb Raider” temple) before the tourist hordes descended, an unremarkable noon trip to Banteay Samre, a marvelous viewing of Banteay Srei (32km from Siemp Reap) and it’s exquisite, pinkish stone carvings, and capped by a solitary sunset atop Ta Kea (SIDENOTE: the Chinese government is partially funding it’s current restoration work).

I took a break from sightseeing on the third day by seeing a sunrise at Phnom Bakheng, relaxing poolside at a new backpacker spot called Funky Monkey (I slept the five nights in an open-air, 16-bed dorm at Urban Jungle for $3 a night), and watching the sun set at Phnom Kram (I had to pay the ticket checker $2 because I didn’t want to use up my ticket). The 3-day pass allows you to go on any three days in any one week, but you can usually beat the checkers at sunrise and sunet. I also was building up for the largest religious building in the world — Angkor Wat — so I wanted to save the best for last.

I arrived at Angkor Wat at 5am, well before the sun, but dozens of people were already waiting and hundreds would soon arrive. Most people wait outside by one of the moats to watch the sun come up behind the central tower, but I snuck inside and climbed to the top of one of the four corner towers. EPIC. Once the sun was high in the sky and my visual senses were overloaded, I went on a brief jungle trek under the ziplines of the Flight of the Gibbons experience. I got lost and had to backtrack before arriving at isolated Ta Nei, a smaller, less-trafficked version of Ta Prohm. I ended up taking a nap in my newly-acquired hammock because it was so peaceful. After a cheap lunch of Khmer noodles, I decided to return to Ta Keo for a sunset to avoid the tourist hot spots (which has been my MO on this trip). Accolades go to Beng Mealea (natural, ruined state where you can climb the temple walls) and Ta Nei (idyllic, natural, ruined state) for best, overall atmosphere. (ADVICE: Bear in mind that the dozens of temples cover a huge area so timing and travel planning are key for a pleasant experience. Foreigners are barred from using motorbikes in Siem Reap and Angkor, although aside from being stopped and warned by tourist police on two occasions, the law is loosely enforced.)

Pitfalls on the road to Siem Reap

Any-given trip will involve it’s fair share of problems. Aside from occasional bike hiccups, my month in Vietnam was a smooth ride, travel and experience-wise. Well, Cambodia has thrown me a few curveballs so far. In a span of four days, I was forced to pay off traffic police on two, separate occasions — first, it was $20 at a morning checkpoint in Sihanoukville for failing to drive with a license, and then it was $10 for unintentionally driving the wrong way on a one-way street in Phnom Penh. (ADVICE: if you see a checkpoint, quickly speed by while smiling and waving hello as if you don’t understand their motion to stop. In my personal experience, as well as fellow bikers’, the police won’t bother to pursue you.)

Koh Rong aside, the corrupt officials, pervasive littering, and outrageous prices in tourist zones have put a damper on my Cambodia impression, a week in. And considering almost a million ethnic Vietnamese live in Cambodia (mostly in floating villages, as they lack property rights), the differences between the bordering countries are striking. The geography is mostly flat with palms dotting landscapes of dried-out, rice paddies, and grazing cattle. The dry season makes for desert-like conditions.

I took NH4 to the capital to brave Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge “Killing Fields”. The Tuol Sleng Museum (a former high school turned into the infamous S-21 prison) and Killing Fields of Choeung Ek (most of the S-21 prisoners were executed here, 14 km outside of Phnom Penh) will turn your stomach. I met one of the prison’s few survivors, who was spared because he was a skilled machinist and shares his experiences in Khmer. Choeung EK is a quiet, serene location if you can look past the 8,000-skull memorial and bone fragments that litter the mass graves where victims were buried. I could only bare one day in the refuse-laden streets of the former “Pearl of Asia” (I drove past the Royal Palace, but I lacked the desire to go in as I wanted to get out).

I made my way west on NH5 to Battabang, stopping halfway to share a boat tour ($10 per hour) of Kompong Luong, a Vietnamese floating village close to the village of Krakor on the Tonlé Sap Lake. Afterwards, I had a cheap, delicious meal of — wait for it — fried insects and rice! Before dusk fell, I had arrived in Battabang, which is a breath of fresh air from Phnom Penh. It’s a lovely, idyllic, riverside town with well-preserved, French-period architecture. I wanted to catch the renowned boat trip to Siem Reap, but opted not to as the operators wanted to charge me double the $25 ticket price because of my bike. So I stayed a couple nights, enjoying the riverside promenade and local ambience, especially the lack of tourist touts.

The Battabang highlights included: the bamboo train (it’s definitely touristy, but the 7-km, bumpy ride on one of the few remaining French tracks is totally worth the $5), the bat show at Phnom Sampeau (after you wander around the Buddhist temples and Killing Caves at the mountain summit with excellent views of the countryside, you can behold a nightly phenomenon: thousands of bats fly out of a massive cave, forming a snaking river in the sky that lasts for 30 minutes!), and be sure to watch a $10 Phare Ponleu Selpak circus (think Cirque du Soleil, but with disadvantaged children).

From resort island to beach bum island

Unless I wanted to pay a fine for overstaying my 30-day visa, I had to say goodbye to Vietnam after spending three nights on Phu Quoc. I used the Ha Tien border crossing to ride into Cambodia. I had no problem getting my bike through the checkpoint (make sure you get the exit paper from the Vietnam side and the entry paper from the Cambodia side). After a quick night in Kampot (come to this charming town to relax) and Sihanoukville (nicknamed “Snookyville” so you get the drift), I took a fast ferry to Koh Rong. (UPDATE: the hit TV series, “Survivor”, took over the island in March to shoot it’s next two seasons.)

The tiny island is a tropical paradise — thatched-roof bungalows on powder-white, fine sand, right by crystal-clear water. I splurged on a $50 beachfront bungalow and feasted on cheap, fresh seafood. The little village of Koh Tui conjures an image of a castaway, pirate port with backpackers and hippies plying the beach instead. There’s only primitive infrastructure — no roads (I left my bike in Snookyville), no hot water (not that you need it), no cellphone reception, barely any wifi, and limited hours of electricity. This beach utopia is off the grid, to say the least. The thought of opening a bare-bones bungalow resort for $40-50k has it’s appeal, especially before future plans to transform the mellow, backpacker scene into a huge, eco-tourism, luxury resort take hold. Enjoy the beach bum life there while you still can!

The highlight was a $7 boat trip to snorkel, fish, and catch a sunset on Long Beach, while feasting on the fish everyone (group of 8) caught but me. We later snorkeled at night to see the bioluminescent plankton. It felt like I was swimming through the universe with hundreds of stars all around me!