There Is Much More Than “Only” Angkor Wat
Itinerary And Time Of The Visit
Our two trips to Cambodia could not have been more different from each other. In July 2008, during our Round The World Trip, we spent two weeks there. We crossed the border from Laos on foot and checked out mainly Phnom Penh and of course Siem Reap, where we spent one week exploring many Angkor Temples. We finally crossed Tonlé Sap to reach Battambang, from where we headed overland to Thailand.
In December 2014, Gilles accompanied his father on his “Bucket List Trip” through Cambodia for three weeks, going On and Off The Beaten Track. We first spent one week in Siem Reap to see the most famous and the more remote temples of Angkor. Then we did a 10 day loop through the Northwest of Cambodia, where we were the only tourists. The common trip ended with several days in Phnom Penh, before Gilles headed alone to Kampot & Kep on the Coast and finally to Vietnam.
Why Travel To Cambodia?
Of course everyone knows Angkor Wat, and this fascinating temple is on everyone’s Bucket List. But in the area surrounding Angkor Wat, you find hundreds of spectacular temples. Some are much older, others almost as impressive. The ones completely overgrown by the jungle belonged to our absolute favorites. Take enough time and avoid (sometimes hard to do) the chatty masses only worrying about having their pictures taken in front of these ancient places…
Of course there is also the less glorious part of Cambodia’s history, actually one of the darkest and most horrid times ever known: the Killing Machine of the Khmer Rouge. No one can go to Cambodia without visiting the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek & the Torture Prison of Tuol Slend, also known as Security Office 21 (S21).
But there are many other gems: the Floating Villages on the Tonlé Sap, the colonial city of Battambang, the many possibilities to discover more pristine aspects of Cambodian life in a Home Stay, as we did in Sambor Pre Kuk or in Banteay Chhmar. Not relaxing enough? Head to the Coast, to very laid-back Kampot (more party orientated) & Kep (more to relax and enjoy great seafood)…
Challenges Organizing The Trip – What Would We Have Wished To Know?
Organizing a trip to Cambodia is extremely easy: citizens of most countries can get a Visa-On-Arrival at the airport or at any border crossing; an extensive infrastructure for tourists is available, even at more remote areas. It is a USD based economy – keep this in mind when worrying what currency to bring.
- Booking or Not Booking – That is the question… In the high season, for touristic places like Siem Reap or on the Coast, booking ahead is highly advisable. Without booking you will eventually find a room that somehow suits your expectations, but the really great places might be not available on short notice. Outside of the tourist epicenters, do not bother to book: you will be one of the very few tourists!
- Transport – This will be a significant part of your budget, especially in and around Siem Reap. Look further down: How To Go Off The Beaten Track.
- Itinerary and time required… Look further down: “How To Go Off The Beaten Track”
Highlights Of The Trip
- The remote temples in the Angkor Area, especially Koh Ker, Beng Mealea & Prasat Preah Vihear.
- Of course Angkor Wat, but maybe even more fascinating – the Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom.
- A panoramic view over Angkor Wat towards sunset? Try the helium-powered balloon. For the more adventurous – a flight in an ultra-light plane with Aero Cambodia over a jungle scattered with temples.
- Visiting the memorials for 3 million victims of the horrific Khmer Rouge Regime and learning more about the Torture Prison S21 & the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Meeting with the last 2 survivors alive of S21, Chum Mey & Bou Meng was a rare privilege.
- Homestays in Sambor Pre Kuk and especially in Banteay Chhmar, a great opportunity to better understand the life in “rural Cambodia”.
- Relax in laid-back Kep and enjoy great seafood – The boat trip to various islands with Carpe Diem Boat Trip & the extraordinary Botanica Guesthouse made it really special.
- Discovering the Floating Villages on the Tonlé Sap, Kampong Pluk Floaded Forest near Siem Reap and especially Kampong Luong between Battambang and Phnom Penh.
- Very open discussion with many people who very quickly shared with us their concerns about the widespread corruption that infects the entire Cambodian economy. Seldom had we experienced such openness and such recurring stories…
How To Go Off The Beaten Track?
- Plan enough time! Believe it or not, a significant number of tourists only plan one day for Angkor Wat (including Angkor Thom & Ta Prohm), and one day in Phnom Penh. With such little time, you will see nothing else than busloads of (loud) tourists. The more rewarding parts of Cambodia are the ones further afield (surprise?). One week for Siem Reap is a minimum. If you also want to discover the National Parks in the East, then plan at least 3 weeks, much more if you are traveling on a budget…
- Choose the right mean of transport
- If you have some money to spend, consider renting a car in Siem Reap and for the Northwest of Cambodia. We used Sout Transportation, a very nice gentleman who spoke good English, was eager to share everything we wanted to know about his country and drove us carefully but efficiently in his own car. We paid 80 USD a day (car, driver, gasoline, driver’s costs…) for our loop. Of course, you can share such a car with fellow travelers to cut costs. Expect to travel 4 to 5 busy days to cover all the remote temples.
- If you are on a limited budget, you should hire a scooter (like 125 cc automatic) and do a big loop. Allow a few extra days for that. Roads are good except to Preah Khan (only for extremely experienced off-road drivers) & the last 5 kilometers to Banteay Chhmar. If you have the time, this is also a very good way to discover life in more remote parts of Cambodia.
- If you are on a very tight budget and have time available, many remote temples (but unfortunately not all…) can be reached by public transport. This information is not based on personal experience, but we met a few travelers relying on shared taxis in very remote areas. This can be rather time-consuming and sometimes frustrating, though…
- Based on our personal experience we suggest the following Itinerary for Siem Reap and the Northwest:
- 1st day: The “Grand Tour Circuit” is the best way to get a first glimpse of the glorious Angkor culture: Prasat Kravan, Banteay Kdei, Sras Srang, Pre Rup, Ta Som, Preah Khan.
- 2nd day: The Small Circuit Tour, the absolute highlight of anybody’s visit in Siem Reap, as you already sampled first impressions and will now be able to fully appreciate the sheer size and magnificence of those places: Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm & Angkor Thom.
- 3rd day: a trip to the older temples will give you a better understanding of the history of the Angkor culture: pre-Angkor Roluos Temples and Sambor Pre Kuk, where you can also do a Home Stay.
- 4th day: visit Kbal Spean and the most refined Banteay Srei, and spend the afternoon again in Angkor Wat & Angkor Thom, for the perfect picture.
- 5th day: take the day off to avoid a “temple overdose”. How about getting up early and travel to close-by Lake Tonle Sap and Kompong Pluk Flooded Forest? Some energy left for the afternoon? Attend a course at the Cambodian Cooking Class. It was a delightful experience and a needed change!
- 6th day: see Angkor from a bird eye’s view. A cheap (15 USD) and less daring version is a trip up in a Hot Air Balloon. This is best done in the afternoon. More daring is a flight in an Ultra-Light plane with Aero Cambodia for 75 or 125 USD. A jaw-dropping experience, gliding over green jungle to the more remote temples. Best done in the morning! If you do both, plan a full day!
- 7th day: start a loop through the Northwest of Cambodia: start with Beng Mealea (a must do, the opportunity to experience a real “Jungle Temple”, and a major one at that). It can be enjoyed in total quietness if you visit early enough. Then continue to Koh Ker, that will leave you in awe and finally give you what you have been dreaming of the 4 first days: sumptuous temples just for yourself, with only the sound of the surrounding jungle all around you!
- 8th day: visit the “Sky-Temple” or Prasat Preah Vihear, Cambodia’s second UNESCO World Heritage, so very disputed with Thailand, then head towards Banteay Chhmar.
- 9th day: stay for a whole day in Banteay Chhmar and enjoy the wonderful program organized by the local community.
- Then head to Battambang…
- From Battambang to Phnom Penh, break up the trip in Kompong Luong and take a 2-hour boat trip to the floating villages. We heard you can do a homestay there as well, this will be a very basic one, though…
What Will We Especially Remember?
- “Mister, Tuk Tuk?” or “Ok, you buy from me!” Street vendors in Angkor and Tuk Tuk drivers everywhere are omnipresent and can be pretty persistent.
- How the country has recovered from its tragic past and the murderous madness of the Khmer Rouges In 2008 the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge Regime was definitely more palpable than in 2014… Only 6.5 years after! Maybe the younger generation, that now represents the majority, just wants to go on and turn the page…
- Huge contrasts between a very westernized youth in larger cities and a very rural, traditional population further afield.
- Expensive SUVs, very expensive SUVs, most expensive SUVs… There are very few cars in Cambodia, but in major cities, all you see are cars that are very expensive even considered by Western purchasing power. With 200% import taxes, this is even more mind-boggling!
- Schools with only one teacher for 3 classes, each with more than 40 children! But of course, there is money for SUVs…
- Huge contrasts between a few spots where you find yourself engulfed in a tsunami of tourists, and many places where you can enjoy fantastic highlights on your own. Cambodia is in our opinion the best invitation to Traveling Off The Beaten Track!
What Would We Do Differently?
- Take more time to discover the East of Cambodia and its National Parks.
- Spend less time in Kampot and more time in Kep.
- Skip the “Sunrise Over” and “Sunset Over” Angkor Wat. Both are so overrun! We had never experienced such a concentration of tourists…
Is It Safe & Is It Morally Justifiable To Travel To Cambodia?
Cambodia is a very safe country to travel. We would recommend being careful about two aspects, though:
- If you rent a motorbike or a scooter, do not overestimate your skills if you are less experienced. Especially on the Coast, a significant number of mostly younger backpackers suffers from serious injuries after crashing with their rented motorbike (you have no insurance while renting)…
- Bag snapping is a major issue in Phnom Penh and to a lesser extend in Siem Reap! Be careful there, and do not go around in the city with an expensive camera leisurely hanging over your shoulder!
Of course, any Cents spent by visitors will help the recovering economy of this country that was still in a Civil War as recently as 1998. We actually strongly recommend going there. There is one very disturbing aspect about Cambodia, though: the widespread corruption.
Of all the countries we have travelled, the only time we were personally targeted by corrupt policemen was in Cambodia. On both trips officers at the land border crossing would only stamp our passport if we paid them. In 2008 it was 1 US, in 2014 the price for the stamp had increased to 2 USD. Of course that is not a lot, but it happened in no other country. In 2014 Gilles met several people who had rented a scooter on the Coast and had to pay hefty bribes at random roadblocks…
Lots of local people or expats working in Cambodia have a common story: corrupt government official just shut down businesses if the owner stops paying them or if anyone of their family considers that a particular business is a competition. The number of very expensive SUV and the state of the infrastructure tends to confirm this.
Hopefully this will change, as the lovely people of Cambodia deserve much better than being plundered by their own government officials.
Best Time To Visit Cambodia
The best time to visit Cambodia, but also the busiest period, is between November and February, the dry season. Temperatures are pleasant during the day and the skies are blue!
Also consider visiting Cambodia during the summer months: the humidity & the temperatures are high, but the landscape is painted in emerald green.
Avoid the end of the dry season, especially March to May, when temperatures regularly climb above 40 degrees Celsius. Also avoid the peak of the rainy season, September and October, when it can rain a lot and some roads turn impassible.
Communication (Language Barrier?)
Communication is fairly easy in Cambodia in the major tourist hubs, as English is widely spoken. In more remote areas though, it might turn very challenging, as communication becomes almost impossible.
Getting Around In Cambodia
Look further up: How To Go Off The Beaten Track.
Entering Cambodia is extremely easy: at the airport or at most border crossings, you can get a 30-day visa upon arrival (it costs about 30 to 35 USD). Bring an ID picture and USD in cash, and avoid using Euros, as the exchange rate to the USD at the border is 1 to 1!
Photography – Cambodia: Mostly Wats, But Also People!
- Key Factors For Taking Great Pictures?
- Wide Angle Lens – There are many Wats (Temples) in Cambodia, so bring a Wide Angle Lens along. I had none on this trip to save weight, and it would have created new possibilities for stunning pictures, both inside and outside of those temples.
- Polarization Filter – Too much light is your major challenge while photographing outdoors in Cambodia. Hence, you should use one pretty much all the time when photographing outside in Cambodia, to improve contrasts.
- Timing – The real challenge is to be at the right place for the perfect light, like for the “Blue Hours”, shortly after sunset. Getting up early enough for the soft morning light can even be harder… “Sunrise Over” and “Sunset Over” photo ops are mostly overrated. Though, most likely you will be one of many, many tourists – the majority with smart phones or tablets – all waiting for the perfect shot getting in each others way…
- Tripod or high ISO – Light is very dim inside the temples, so you will either need a Tripod, or a Full-Frame camera to be able to go to higher ISO values without having too much “noise”. We very often photographed with ISO 800 to 1.250, at times even 1.600 to 2.500…
- Best Opportunities For Great Pictures
- Architecture – The many Wats in Cambodia are spectacular and offer great photo opportunities. Look out for the details, like the sculptures or the frescos in the galleries of the temples.
- People – Traditional dresses have more or less completely disappeared with the Khmer Rouges Regime. You will have far fewer opportunities to get good shots than in neighboring countries, where people still wear their traditional dresses. Nevertheless, take the time to sit down at a street corner and to observe every day life, it might be 4 people on a scooter with the driver talking into his phone at the same time, overloaded Tuk Tuk, trucks or anything with wheels, …
- Mekong & Rivers – At sunset, the mighty Mekong can turn deep red… This is a great opportunity for amazing pictures. Take a Tripod and do underexpose (at least 1 Stop, maybe even more)…
Best & Most Inspiring Travel Blogs For Cambodia
Conclusion About Cambodia
Cambodia has a LOT to offer, and Angkor Wat is only one of the many highlights. Take a bit of time, and you will discover treasures after treasures.
It is fascinating to see how this country has recovered from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge (an estimated three million people died in these 3 years – 8 months – 20 days).
It is sad to see how tourists concentrate on a few spots and ignore much of the country. Take your time, and you will have some of the best experiences Off The Beaten Track!
The stories about corruption in this beautiful country are greatly disturbing, the Cambodian people deserve better than that.