Or – what I should have done when I visited five years ago.
The lure of Cambodia will always be the City of Angkor, a UNESCO Heritage Site. For those who are travelling on a tight schedule and an equally tight budget, five to six days would be enough. Those who have more time on their hands can probably get lost in Cambodia (only figuratively, please) for months on end.
First things first – where to stay. There are a number of botique hotels along the riverside, but a place with loads of history would be the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC). The top floor is a cafe that serves local and international food, with views of the river up front and the national museum out back. You can also opt to stop here for lunch or afternoon tea. Ask for a city map and a city guide, which are both very helpful!
Slightly out of the way, but good value for money is a boutique hotel called The Pavillion. They get booked really fast, so best to make arrangements beforehand.
A great way to explore the city is to hire a tuk-tuk driver – you can actually ask your tuk-tuk driver from the airport, if you opted to take one. A typical day tour will include Wat Phnom, the central market, Toul Sleng museum, National Museum and the Royal Palace. For a little extra you can ask to be taken to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek just outside the city. It’s a slight detour from the airport to the city – if you can afford to take a quick stop en route, then do so.
Now – food. A good place to try is Friends Cafe (it should be on the city map). It is an NGO-run establishment which trains youths for hospitality work. Short review – simple, laid-back eatery in the back streets of Phnom Penh, with good, reasonably-priced food. My personal favourites are the local amok and beef lok-lak. Their fruit shakes are also good.
Phnom Penh can be covered in a day, especially if you are a seasoned traveller. Those who wish to take their time can spend an extra day walking about, but there might not be much else by way of tourist sights.
For the more adventurous, you can take the morning bus from Phnom Penh to Battambang. The trip takes four to five hours. so make sure you take the early bus in order to arrive in Battambang early afternoon. (Author’s note – I opted to wander for a few hours more in Phnom Penh and took the early afternoon bus, which arrived at Battambang around dusk. Not the most ideal time for a solo female backpacker to find accommodations in a strange town. But hey, I survived.)
Hostels / budget hotels are lined up in the main street, and you can pop in and ask how much rooms are and check out the conditions. The newer hotels are near the bus stop. Back then, there were only two hotels within a block of the bus stop – if these don’t catch your fancy, you can walk towards the town centre and choose from the budget hotels there.
Grab a bite at Smokin’ Pot restaurant, which serves local khmer fare. It’s also a cooking school, so if you’re inclined to stay another day, you can spend the next morning cooking up a storm.
From Battambang to Siem Reap, you can travel by boat or by bus. Both leave at 7am, and your hotel should be able to arrange this for you. I recommend taking the boat, as it is one of the most scenic routes in Cambodia. Trip takes 6 to 8 hours, depending on the weather – and the condition of your craft! (Author’s note again – I got stuck in the middle of nowhere for an additional four hours because our boat broke down. Which included a freak thunderstorm / squall over the middle of Tonle Sap. Still, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.)
Once you reach Siem Reap, you will be bombarded by tuk-tuk drivers asking to take you to your hotel. As with any place, ask how much and negotiate. TIP : you can ask them to give you the ride to the hotel free if you book them for a trip to the temples the next day.
Siem Reap is a bustling tourist town, and there are lots of budget / botique hotels to choose from. My personal favourite is Shadow of Angkor, facing the river (or canal). It’s located in a French colonial building really close to the city hub, walking distance to many restaurants and shops. There is also a restaurant at the ground floor. It’s on the Lonely Planet guidebook, so rooms get booked out months in advance.
If you arrive mid-afternoon, you can take a short stroll around the central area, just to orient yourself with the dining places and check out the markets (there are two, the central market and the old market). If you’re so inclined, you can head to the temples around 5pm to catch the sunset – entry is free after 5pm, and you can buy your ticket for the next day before you go in to avoid the queue the following morning. Tickets for the temples range from one day pass, three day pass and one week pass.
Three days is just enough time to explore Angkor before you get temple fatigue. Going around the temples is best by tuk-tuk, although some people have done it on foot (and I saw them!). Most people spend a day on the grand tour circuit, and another on the small tour circuit, but I finished both in a day (excluding Angkor Wat). During the rainy season, expect downpours in the late afternoon – and no sunsets. (I’ll create a second post detailing itineraries for Angkor.)
Places to eat – The Temple has a good special that is for two people, a sampling of local food. There is also a live apsara dance (which is the traditional khmer royal dance) for some cultural entertainment. Khmer Family Restaurant on pub street has fantastic loklak – two thumbs up from me! For quirky ambiance, check out Dead Fish Tower – the interiors will take your breath away especially if you end up on one of the higher platforms. They’ve also got pet alligators scattered around – you’ll see some of them on your way to the loo. This live music venue is located outside the city centre, towards the main street going to the temples. For some pastries, go to Blue Pumpkin. It’s a good place to buy muffins of croissants for the next morning after you roll out of bed to catch a sunrise. On a slow morning, you can mosey over for a nice sit-down breakfast. If you want to pamper yourself a little, check out the Foreign Correspondents Club and spend for a good meal. The John McDermott gallery is within the compound, and you’ll find lots of iconic b&w photos of the temples. A walk around the area will bring you to the posh side of town, where the expensive hotels are. Follow the river further up to visit the Royal Angkor Museum.
Budget is approximately US$ 50 / day, slightly less if travelling with someone.