Cambodia: Temples, Beaches and History Lessons by Cameron Madden
~Today, we have a fellow expat as a guest writer who will bring you on their trip through Cambodia with tips, tricks, and advice~
Perhaps you’re thinking about travelling to Cambodia either for a holiday or as part of a longer journey. If it’s your first time in Cambodia or maybe even South East Asia then hopefully this blog post can help ease any pre-journey jitters or provide you with a little peace of mind. I’ll take you through my own experience while providing some hints, tips, must-see/do activities and things to watch out for. To help things, I was not a traveller before. In fact, this trip was my first to take me outside of Europe and was my first without a “responsible adult”. So you wouldn’t be wrong to assume that I was excited but also incredibly nervous, verging on scared. Yet here I am, a little older, a little wiser and with some incredible memories.
Hostels and Travel
My journey actually kicked off in Bangkok, Thailand. You can get a bus to Siem Reap, Cambodia from any major travel agency that you’ll find scattered around Bangkok. After surviving the long bus journey, the somewhat intimidating border, and the general uncertainty of what my “plan” was, I eventually made it into Siem Reap in the evening. One piece of advice that I cannot stress enough is to buy a sim card for whatever country you are in. Being able to access HostelWorld can be a lifesaver if, like me, you lack the forward thinking necessary to book hostels in advance. I can sum my entire Cambodia hostel experience up in only two words: Mad Monkey. The famous (or perhaps infamous) party hostel may not sound like your place if you are in Cambodia to explore the culture and history. Before I went, I couldn’t have agreed more.
For me, this trip was a journey not only abroad, but of self-discovery. Feel free to cringe at the cheesiness of that sentence. I figured I could explore the country, push the boundaries of my comfort zone, and experience a culture that I knew almost nothing about. That being said, whether you are travelling alone or with friends, Mad Monkey is an ideal place to stay for a way to meet new people. Everyone is in the same boat as you, so you’ll find that they are friendly and just want to enjoy themselves. Speaking of boats, the Mad Monkey in Siem Reap has a boat party that I would definitely recommend. Let me just stress that I am not a party animal. Give me a temple to explore over a party any day of the week…but I would recommend this one. I befriended many people at this event and ended up travelling with a few of them. Not only that, but you’ll get to see some crocodiles and swim in a giant (if a little brown) lake.
Forget your Prep
When you’re not enjoying the beer pong or Westernised meals at Mad Monkey, Siem Reap has many must-see locations. If you’re prone to mosquito bites or forgot your spray then I have a recommendation for you: Go to a pharmacy and ask for a mosquito bracelet. They cost about $10 but they are worth every bit of it. You’ll get a sort of cloth bracelet with a little yellow tablet. This gives off a lemony sort of smell. You can wear this day and night and boy, does it work wonders. I thought a bottle of Jungle Formula bug spray would keep me safe but it did absolutely nothing. This bracelet however…well, like I said, it works wonders. You don’t smell like mosquito spray and you don’t have to worry about getting wet. The pharmacy isn’t really a “must-see” location but I’d still recommend a visit for this purpose.
You may already know this but Siem Reap is home to the incredible Angkor Wat. It is literally the largest religious monument on the face of this planet! It was built around the 12th century. I was completely oblivious to this knowledge before googling “things to see in Siem Reap”. There are a series of temples to visit here with Angkor Wat being the largest and arguably the most magnificent. My favourite was actually Bayon. Walking around some of these temples is just indescribable. You should note that to get to these temples you need a ticket. You can purchase a one day ticket but in all honesty, getting around them in one day would be a nightmare. We got a three day ticket which is definitely what I’d advise.
A Sunrise like No Other
In terms of when to go, well, seeing Angkor Wat at sunrise is a MUST! That’s one of the reasons I recommend the three day ticket. That way you can get up (or stay up), go see the sun rise and then go back to bed. You don’t want to give yourself temple-fatigue as it really will ruin your experience. Getting to the temples is simple enough. You can hire bikes and cycle around, but we simply got a tuk-tuk. If you want to see the sunrise, you’ll need to arrange this with a driver beforehand to make sure you can get a tuk-tuk. Our next destination was Koh Rong. If you stay at an established hostel such as Mad Monkey, they often allow you to book transport through them. We did just that and it means you get picked up from the hostel and taken to the bus.
There are a few things note-worthy of Cambodian bus travel. First of all, whatever times they tell you, just assume they are wrong. If it says 3 hour bus journey, it’s probably 5. If it says 12, expect it to be at least 15. Always give yourself at least 50% more estimated travel time. Secondly, if you get a night bus, expect to be sharing the equivalent of a single bed with someone. If you have travel companions, it’s not nearly as bad, but if you are alone, it can be uncomfortable to say the least. I have social anxiety so this is my worst nightmare (more on this later) but luckily I was with people I’d met in Siem Reap. Sharing a nook at the back of a bus with an Australian man wasn’t really on my to-do list but hey ho!
This brings me to my third point, I don’t travel well normally, I certainly never sleep very well while traveling and being sideways (as my bed was) at the very back of a bus, next to someone I barely knew, for upwards of 10 hours. This is not my idea of fun. Just be cautious. Many travellers on this trip, will get an anti anxiety medication from the local pharmacy to ease this bus ride. Tip: Don’t take them if you’re unsure OR if you have to get off the bus at any point e.g. a border crossing. The group I was with ultimately slept right up until we got to the port at Sihanoukville, the next morning. Getting a boat from here is incredibly easy but there are some warnings to make note of before you leave!
Before you leave the mainland, make note: you will NOT have Wi-Fi or access to an ATM on either Koh Rong or Koh Rong Samloem. There may be exceptions to this and some of the bars do have Wi-Fi. Likewise, some of the streets do have ATMs but they are hard/all-be-it impossible to find. So it’s best to assume that you won’t have access. Likewise, if you want to take supplies such as alcohol, best to buy them beforehand. Getting past that, on Koh Rong we stayed in an incredible hostel called Suns of Beaches. I have never seen such a beautiful stretch of beach in my entire life. It’s quiet, private, the water is beautiful and the staff were incredibly lovely.
One incredible part of this island is the plankton. At night (particularly on the night of a full moon) you can swim in the water and see something completely spectacular. There are glowing, phosphorescent plankton. As you move around them, you see what appears to be green static electricity. It’s almost impossible to describe but it’s certainly something worth experiencing. While staying at this hostel, we were in small, thatched huts: Nothing between us and the jungle. As someone with SEVERE arachnophobia, I was a little anxious to say the least. I had a couple of intense encounters with my 8-legged enemies but I survived. There is one thing worth noting about Koh Rong. Many, many people had warned me beforehand but I thought it was an exaggeration. They all told me: “If you go to Koh Rong, you WILL get ill!”
Koh Rong Samleon
Next stop was Koh Rong Samleon. Getting a boat from the main town is simple enough. We were booked in at the Mad Monkey there. My experience with the hostel so far had been positive, but the staff at this one were less than helpful. This was a lovely hostel though: great rooms, great facilities, great options of food and drink. Most importantly: on the night of the full moon, there is the full moon party. Even better, is the party the night before this: the jungle party. I heard it was “the best party” people had ever been to in their entire lives. You see, I couldn’t make it as I felt like I was at death’s door. I won’t go into details but I’ve never been so ill in my entire life: Two days of absolute hell! The warnings of Koh Rong were spot on!
So if you plan on doing these two islands, be warned that Koh Rong may be beautiful beyond imagination but it comes with consequences. Similarly, it’s worth noting that the Mad Monkey on Koh Rong Samleon does a tab system. If you can’t pay the tab at the end, you’re basically stranded there. Despite barely being able to eat the entire time I was there, I almost couldn’t pay mine! Mad Monkey runs their own boat service which takes you back to the main dock. The boat on the way back for us was rough. Most boats had been cancelled due to the weather but I NEEDED to escape that island. Luckily, singing sea shanties is a surprisingly entertaining way to distract you from sea sickness. Upon safely arriving back to Sihanoukville, we then got a bus to Kampot.
A short drive away includes some rare sights held within the Preah Monivong National park. For starters, there is an abandoned casino. It doesn’t sound like much but walking around it is incredibly eerie. Another stop was the waterfall. You can climb down to it and look over the edge.
Perhaps the most unexpected gem we were led to within the national park was Wat Sampov Pram. This is a Buddhist Temple, that while appearing very old, is also awe-inspiring. I’m not religious and probably wouldn’t even describe myself as hugely spiritual, but this place just connected with me to a deep level. I could have easily spent the entire day there or even longer! You can book a ride around the national park through your hostel which makes things very easy. It’s a beautiful site and a relaxing day trip; this is exactly what your mind, body and possibly soul need before the next stop: Phnom Penh.
If you haven’t heard of Pol Pot or the Killing Fields, then you wouldn’t be alone. It’s not something they teach in school. I’m actually ashamed that I didn’t know about these atrocities that took place in Cambodia during the 1970s. I mean, it happened less than 50 years ago! I won’t explain the history here because I won’t be able to do it justice. If you are in Phnom Penh, there are a few sites to visit. Prepare yourself emotionally; visiting these sites will leave you with an unpleasant feeling as you’re being confronted with the type of evil inhumanity that took place. The sites will rip out your soul and tear it to pieces. Facing Cambodia’s painful history is not a comfortable thing. With that said, you definitely have to go to the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields and get the audio guide. After that, go to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Just prepare yourself for quite the emotional rollercoaster..
Time to Leave
This marked the end of my trip and from here I got a bus back to Bangkok. Just to end this post with a story, perhaps with a lesson to be learned and an explanation of where some of my previously mentioned tips came from. My bus was supposed to take 12 hours. I got a night bus that took 12 hours…to get to the border, then another 4 at least. I got on the bus and into my child-sized bed. I started off alone, but soon shared the tiny space with a very large, local man. This ended up being the worst, most uncomfortable leg of the trip that I’ve ever been on. When I got to the border, I was basically pushed off the bus and told someone would meet me at the other side.
I’m an adult. So I shouldn’t need someone to hold my hand while going through immigration. The issue being that I actually had no idea where to go. I found my way through immigration fine, but on the other side nobody met me. I walked around for a while before, through a series of hand gestures, I managed to explain to someone what I was looking for and get directions. I found the taxis, got pointed to one and when I asked where the toilets were I was told “No time”. That’s right, there was not time for my bus (which was now a people carrier) to wait for me while I went for a pee. I had to wait until we stopped for a break at risk of not making it back to Bangkok on time for my flight.
So to Summarise…
If you’re thinking about visiting Cambodia, especially if you are travelling alone, Mad Monkey is a great place to meet people. Don’t leave Siem Reap without doing some temple exploration but visit Koh Rong at your own risk. If you survive until Phnom Penh then prepare to shed your weight in tears at the tales of the horrors that took place there. Ultimately, Cambodia is the trip of a lifetime. You’ll meet some incredible people; I sure did, so if you’re travelling alone, you’ll most likely find some companions to journey with. When the time comes that you have to leave your friends and this country, you’ll wish it never had to end!
To check out more travel tips and tricks, follow Cameron’s blog at Discover Pompeii
Author Bio: Cameron Madden
My name is Cameron Madden. I was born and raised in Scotland, but recently made the move to Spain. I’m hoping to continue work on my Pompeii blog as well as my personal blog. For more info and updates, follow me on my blog and on twitter at @BakedHaggis