Cambodia a Cultural Experience Like No Other

I recently spent two weeks in Cambodia with my sister and although, in retrospect, we concluded that it was a good trip, we would describe it more of a ‘cultural experience’ rather than a holiday. This blog is a summary of our learnings, experiences and recommendations for travelling in Cambodia.

Our Cambodia trip comprised 11 days in total starting with 4 nights in Phnom Penh followed by 3 nights in Siem Reap, 1 night in Phnom Penh, 2 nights in Mondulkiri and then one final night in Phnom Penh.  We opted to start and end our trip in the capital, Phnom Penh, owing to its good flight connections to Singapore.

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The Basics

Visa and Currency

Visitors from most countries are required to obtain a visa to enter Cambodia.  We opted to obtain our visa on arrival rather than doing an eVisa.  It was no hassle and the visas were processed relatively swiftly at the cost of USD$30.00.  This was our first exposure to the US dollar and the realisation that this was not going to be a cheap holiday as we had been led to believe.  Although Cambodia has a local currency, your options are quite limited and most transactions will be in US dollars.  Also, unless you are eating in more upmarket restaurants, no one takes credit cards.  I also had the most distressing situation of not being able to withdraw cash from the local cash machines as I stupidly took an Australia Post travel card.  It simply would not work.  My sister took great delight in giving me a nightly run-down of traveller posts who, like me, had regrettably gone overseas with an Australia Post travel card.  It actually made for a pretty stressful trip as I only had USD$600 in notes but somehow I managed to scrape through with this amount of cash and a couple of credit cards.

Airport Transfers

The trip did not get off to the best start when our accommodation failed to send a driver to collect us from Phnom Penh International Airport.  We sat out the front of the Airport for a long period before we came to the sad realisation that noone was coming for us.  So if you are presented with a depressingly similar situation, there are two options for getting into central Phnom Penh; taxi or tuk tuk.  For some crazy reason we went with the tuk tuk option.  It was only USD$9.00 and took about 45 minutes to putt and sputter along the ridiculously congested roads to our accommodation in BKK1.  At one stage, when navigating a motorway overpass incline, we thought we would have to get out and push.  We managed to survive the trip, albeit slightly asphyxiated from the traffic fumes!!

Accommodation

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is full-on and we got a good sense of just how full-on it was going to be in the tuk-tuk ride from the Airport.  Our first accommodation in Phnom Penh was a small expat hotel in the BKK1 district.  It was  cheap and cheerful and the staff was very friendly (although not so friendly as to make sure we got picked up from the Airport).  A deluxe balcony room will set you back US$47 for a double including breakfast.  Would I stay here again, probably not but BKK1 is my favourite part of Phnom Penh and I would recommend it as it is interesting, fairly safe and has good restaurants.

After returning from Siem Reap, we had two additional nights at The Pavilion in Phnom Penh. The Pavilion is part of the MAADs hotel group and we absolutely loved this place. It was a little piece of calm in a sea of chaos. Once you got through the front gate you instantly felt the stress of the Phnom Penh streets melt away. The room rate also includes a 30 minute massage for each guest during their stay and a cruise on the Mekong River to the MAADs floating restaurant and lounge. Unfortunately, much to my sister’s annoyance, we missed out on the river cruise on account of us being too late on our first night and it not running on our second night due to it being a Sunday.

The Pavilion is a small boutique hotel located just off 240 Street (famous for its boutiques). The hotel has two swimming pools, a day spa and a great restaurant. We had two room types during our stay. The first was a twin room and the second was a deluxe double. Both rooms were great but we really loved the deluxe double as it was roomy and had an enormous balcony overlooking the front swimming pool. Arrange your spa treatments when you check-in as there are only 2 massage therapists and they have 36 rooms to accommodate.

Although Raffles is reported as being the best accommodation in Phnom Penh, we both concluded that we would not have wanted to stay there as it was little tired and located in a really inconvenient part of Phnom Penh.

Siem Reap

We stayed at the Borei Angkor in Siem Reap which is a 5 star hotel on the National Road; the main road going into Siem Reap.  We had a large twin room with a small balcony and a huge bathroom.  Angkor Wat had nearly 2.5 million visitors in 2017 so there is a large number of 5 star hotels in Siem Reap to cater for this and the Borei is pretty much a bog standard 5 star hotel.   One very funny memory of the Borei was the price-list for just about everything in our room including the shower-head and the do not-disturb sign.  The Borei has a booking desk so if like us, you haven’t arranged your tour bookings in advance, you can do this as late as 9pm the night before.

We spent 2 nights at Siem Reap which was not enough.  Two nights is far too rushed as in addition to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, there are many other temples to get around.  I would have preferred to have done the temples at a more leisurely pace in complete luxury.  Accordingly, I would spend 5 nights at the only Aman resort in Cambodia, the Amansara.  The Amansara has its own fleet of tuk-tuks which their guests can use to explore the temples.

Mondulkiri

In Mondulkiri we stayed at the Nature Lodge an eco-lodge comprising a collection of wooden huts in a paddock.  It was fairly basic but the huts had a double bed with clean linen and a basic bathroom with a flushing toilet and running water (although I am not sure where the water was running to!)  It was not my scene but I managed to get through our 2 night stay.  There are not a lot of options for accommodation in this area and the Nature Lodge is probably the best of the bunch and the staff was lovely and very accommodating.

Accommodation recommendation

We only had 11 nights in Cambodia but I felt like this was a bit of a reconnaissance trip and if I did this again I would stay 4-5 nights at The Pavillion Hotel in Phnom Penh, 5 nights at the Amansara at Siem Reap and then I would head to the coast and stay 5-7 nights at the Six Senses at Krabey Island (when it finally opens (reportedly in September 2018)).

Activities

What to do and see in Phnom Penh

There is a lot to see and do in Phnom Penh and we opted for a full-day private cultural tour.  We went with Cambodia Boutique Travel and for USD$98.00, we had a private guide, the delightful G1 (or Mr G as we called him), and a fully-airconditioned Lexus RX-300 with driver.   I would highly recommend doing it this way rather than by tuk-tuk as it is very hot and we were offered chilled water every time we got back in the car.  Our private tour included the Independent Monument, the Royal Palace, the Silver Pagoda, the National Museum, the Genocide Museum, the Killing Fields, the Wat Onalom Pagoda and the Wat Phnom.  The Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum are extremely distressing but to understand the history of Cambodia, must be seen and experienced first hand.

There are a lot of markets that people enjoy in Phnom Penh.  We went to the Russian Market on the day we arrived which is a labyrinth of undercover market stalls but to me, it was hideous and so hot that I couldn’t breath.   I cannot stand buying cheap rubbish that you question when you get home but that’s me and my sister loved the markets.   One thing that we missed out in Phnom Penh was the traditional dance show at the National Museum.  It is on every evening at 7pm and costs USD$15.00.  You can buy tickets on-line at https://experience.cambodianlivingarts.org/book-now/ or from the ticket stall outside the National Museum.

What to see and do in Siem Reap

Angkor Temples

Okay so the most obvious reason for visiting Siem Reap is the Angkor temples and yes, they are simply amazing.  We again opted for a private full day tour which we organised through the booking desk at our hotel.  I think this is pretty standard as there are hundreds of guides.  Most of the temples are located within the Angkor Archaelogical Park and include the most well-known temples of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm (or the Angelina Jolie temple as it is famously known).  Your guide goes at your own pace which is good as it is baking hot.  We didn’t experience a lot of mosquitoes but I know others that have so I came very prepared wearing long pants, socks and long sleeves.  We only did the one day at the temples but in retrospect, I would recommend two-three days.  For a the private full day tour we paid USD$100 including guide and Lexus RX-300 with driver.  In addition, we paid USD$37 each for the entrance fee to the Angkor Complex.   Angor Wat is the most famous temple and is ridiculously crowded so either get there really early or do it at the end of the day as part of a sunset tour.  Apparently, you have to arrive hours early to secure a spot for the sunset and you cannot take a bottle of champagne into the Angkor Complex so I am not sure what the best option is really.  Also, the queue to climb the main tower will take at least 45 minutes to an hour so be prepared for that.

Kulen Mountain

There are a lot other tour options for Siem Reap and we decided to do a full day tour to the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen which was about a 90 minute drive away.  It is famous for the river of thousand lingas, a huge reclining Buddha and a waterfall.  Mind, everyone on our tour was happy to take a dip in the water but there is no way I would put my big toe in as you just have to see all the rubbish from the surrounding village.  This was at least an 8 hour tour in a small mini-van and we really enjoyed it.

Mondulkiri

Elephant Sanctuary

One of the other places we visited was Mondulkiri to experience elephants in their natural habitat.  Personally, I thought this was a waste of time as it was at least an 8 hour bus trip from Phnom Penh.  It is also extremely sad as you know that with the current rate of deforestation, there will be no forests left very soon which will spell the end of the Cambodian elephant.  My prediction from what I saw, is that there will be nothing left within 5 years with the illegal logging.  Most of the timber is going over the border to Vietnam.  There are a few of these elephant sanctuaries in Mondulkiri and we had an accommodation package which included a day with the elephants.  In reality, it is just a few ex-working elephants that have been taken over by a registered NGO.  You only spend a little of time with the elephants as they actually do not like being petted or touched.  So you should not ever ride an elephant as it is extremely cruel.  We got to feed them bananas which I think they enjoyed and then they were put away in the forest. I think the website shows a girl riding an elephant in the river but this was complete bollocks as you cannot do this and having learnt a few things about elephants, nor would I want to.  It was really nice just being near the elephants and watching them.  This part of the World is also known for its pepper and rubber production.

Getting Around (Transport)

Okay transportation in Cambodia is the root cause of me not enjoying this trip to the greatest extent possible.  There is no rail in Cambodia so your options are road or air.  Most people choose to fly between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap but having read the travel forums on Cambodian air travel, being the nervous flyers that we are, decided against this.  So my sister and I went with the local buses which were nothing short of hideous.  Hideously long, hideously dangerous and just hideous full stop.  We took a Giant Ibis bus to Siem Reap which have 3 departures daily and it takes around 6.5 hours.  Yes, 6.5 hours on a bus.  Mondulkiri is about the same but in a mini-van.  At one stage on our return trip from Siem Reap, I looked over to a young European backpacker to witness him rubbing, what I only assumed to be Opium, into his gums.  It was at this point, that I was started to question what the hell I was doing.  So if I was to do this again, which I wouldn’t but if I did, the only way I would travel around would be by private car.  The whole transportation experience actually ruined the trip as a lot of our time was spent being terrified on gruelling bus trips.

For getting around Phnom Penh, I would recommend downloading the Uber tuk-tuk app.  You can then call an Uber tuk-tuk.  You don’t actually pay upfront and the price is not fixed but at least it gives you a guide and the tuk-tuks are clean and the drivers are not touts.  DO NOT catch tuk-tuks off the street.  Yes they are everywhere but they just never stop pestering you and they just assume you are a millionaire and can pay 10 times the going rate.  Taxis are not the norm but you can order them on Uber tuk-tuk and they are really good.  You can always ask your accommodation to assist with transportation.  One thing to be aware of when in the Phnom Penh is to be on your guard at all times.  My niece, who was living in Phnom Penh at the time of our trip, had her handbag slashed off her by a passing motorcycle.

Eating and drinking

Phnom Penh

My sister is severely allergic to seafood which added to the stress of the trip as fish sauce and shrimp paste are used in most local dishes.  With this in mind, I sought out a lot of up-market vegan cafes.  In Phnom Penh, we loved Farm to Table, Artillery and Lot 369.  I would also recommend Vibe Café, Shop 240 and Backyard Café for vegan/vegetarian.  None of these cafes are cheap but they are extremely good.  We also liked Coriander for good Indian and Irrawaddi for Burmese both of which are located in BKK1.

The other thing you have to do is happy hour at Raffles which we loved.  We did the cliché thing and had the Femme Fatale which is the cocktail created for Jackie Onassis when she visited Cambodia in 1967.  The cocktail glass from which she drank is on display, lipstick marks and all.  Not sure I believe any of this but the cognac and champagne based cocktail is to die for and must be experienced in the Hotel’s Elephant Bar.

We also did Sunday brunch at Raffles which includes unlimited champagne.  It is eye-wateringly expensive but well worth it and I think we were there for a good 6 hours ending up with a few Femme Fatales in the Elephant Bar!  The other place we ate at and you do not need to be a guest was the restaurant at The Pavillion.  The food was really really good and inexpensive.  The restaurant is situated adjacent to the front pool.  We really enjoyed our meals which were a mix of local and international cuisine.

Siem Reap

We only had two nights in Siem Reap and went to Vibe Café one night and the Press Club the other night.  Both were good.  For lunch, we stopped at local restaurants organised by our tours which were fine.  Very basic and very local but the food was good and it didn’t make us unwell.

Summary

So in summary would I recommend Cambodia?  I think you either enjoy this kind of thing or you don’t.  It is not relaxing at all but understanding the history of Cambodia and seeing the Angkor temples was well worth it.  I also got to spend time travelling with my sister.  If there was to be a next time, then I would do it very high-end and add extra days to chill and drink cocktails by the pool.

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