It’s been over seven years since we planned a Christmas break with the family to Thailand and Cambodia. Cambodia had just started to open up its economy and was starting to become both safe and somewhat comfortable to visit. New hotels were under construction and visitors from countries outside of SE Asia and China were rare. English was not commonly spoken, even in the tourism sector and outside of Angkor Wat, it was a very local experience almost everywhere. In hindsight, it was a great time to visit, but there wasn’t much online information to help plan the trip. We didn’t do too badly but could have done a few things better. The most important being our choice of airports – we flew in and out of Phnom Penh which meant we had to do the 6-hour road trip to and back from Siem Riep twice. We could have flown back from Siem Reap and saved a lot of time.
Day 1: We landed in Phnom Penh completely clueless about how to pronounce the name of the city we landed in. It was several years before I would find that out definitively. The city was charming with an active riverfront area lined with hotels, shops, and bright neon signs. What you see are the last few miles of the Tonle Sap river before it merges into the mighty Mekong and loses its identity. The Riverside Path was just a short walk from our wonderful hotel – the Plantation urban resort and spa. The hotel was so amazing with its luxurious rooms, an awesome pool, and the pool-side cabanas that we decided to spend a good half-day lounging in the pool and sipping some cocktails. In the evening we took a stroll down to the Riverside, enjoyed some local food and then walked past the Royal Palace Park on the way back to the hotel. It was a great area to spend the evening, bustling with locals walking around, a beautiful river view, a lot of street food vendors, and just a lot of culture to absorb – it was Christmas! We had another night and a full day to spend in Phnom Penh once we got back from Siem Reap so there was more time to cover the few attractions offered by the city. We were still in two minds about seeing the famous killing fields as most people told us there was little more there then some morose stories.
Day 2: I woke up early and after a fabulous breakfast near the hotel continued to explore some true local street food. What I was looking for was some red ants grilled with beef slices, but then only found some local beef platter which was delicious. This was just some loading up before we started the journey to Siem Riep. The hotel got us a very large and comfortable 10-seater with one small caveat, the driver did not speak a word of English. He was pre-instructed to stop at a clean place for lunch and then given the name of the hotel to drop us at. The drive started quite smoothly and we enjoyed the wonderfully scenic drive lined with local villages and houses put up on stilts, to keep insects, snakes, and even rainwater out, I assumed. Children played in the dirt and grass patches on both sides of the road and at times even on the road as the traffic was minimal. The houses were interspersed with some beautiful landscape and small towns with a lot of advertisements for Angkor beer – seemed like a monopoly.
We soon realized that the likelihood of finding a clean restaurant was very low and we will end up in some local place with massive language issues. That is exactly what happened, but we managed to get a decent meal, something not memorable for good or bad reasons. Finding a washroom was a bigger challenge made significantly worse by our inability to communicate at all with the driver. We finally gave up on that and just focused on surviving until we reached the hotel. This situation should have improved now as tourism has really picked up in the area. We reached our hotel (Somadevi Angkor Hotel) just after dark. The room was not the most modern but it was clean and pleasant. The pool view from the room was quite amazing and it was made better by the pink skies at sunset. Not a bad place for a 3-night stay – the longest we were going to be at a hotel on the whole trip.
Even though we were quite tired from the drive, we ventured out to the night market, a dollar by Tuk-tuk from the hotel. The place was lively with many restaurants, some massage parlors, a lot of street shops selling cheap imitation goods, and a few bars with shows of the traditional Apsara dance. My brother drove a hard bargain and bought a lot of cheap t-shirts and we had a lovely Khmer dinner. By the time we were all done just walking around, it was quite late. The next morning was going to be the first of many trips to the primary reasons for being there – Angkor Wat!
Day 3: We didn’t get started as early as we would have liked and the breakfast at the hotel took its time. The Sun was already on its way up by the time we got into a Tuk-tuk that would not just take us to the gate of Angkor but also show us around inside. Tickets came in the denomination of $20, $40, and $60 for a duration of 1, 3, or 6 days. We had 3 days there but planned to visit Angkot on only 2, but it made sense to get the 3-day ticket just in case. It was already getting warm when we reached the main temple of Angkor Wat and it was still a spectacular sight. As you walk the long stone path to the main structure, it dawns how large this temple. The first famous landmark is the Lotus pond which was the site for the reconstruction of a Thai village in the Lara Croft movie. The reflecting pond makes a stunning foreground for pictures of the temple. To the left of the lake is a small set of stores where you can get some refreshing coconut water, a few snacks, fruits, and if you have the capacity to bargain well a lot of amazing paintings and souvenirs. The paintings were mostly in oil, very well done and they could roll even the larger ones and give you a manageable tube. We indulged in these and a couple of them are still on the walls of my house.
As you get closer to the temple, the intricate carving details, and the deities emerge. The daylight view was a little messed up because of some repair work on the front side with a small scaffolding covered by green sheets. Once we got close it was still quite amazing. There is intricate stonework inside and some complete walls have stone cut paintings from mythological tales – largely Hindu. The main chambers though have statues of Buddha as it has served as a Buddhist Temple since the 12th century. There is a lot to explore and the place could easily take over half a day to see, but as the sun was getting hotter, it was getting harder to explore much. We headed back to the hotel for lunch and some rest after spending some three hours in the temple.
Once well-rested and well-fed, we came back into the complex but this time to explore a different temple – the one nicknamed the Lara Croft Temple, Ta Prohm. This is much smaller and nowhere as majestic, but it has good reasons for being as famous as it is. The temple is virtually buried into the jungle and you can see the trees have taken over. The temple itself is a bit of a walk from the parking lot and you cross a few small bridges and walkways to get to the well-formed temple gate. Once inside, it is unworldly. Massive tree roots now have run over parts of the temple and the amalgamation of a historic temple with nature makes for some spectacular viewing – this is definitely not to be missed. It would be helpful to go at an odd hour to avoid the crowds though. Unlike Angkor Wat, which has massive lawns and grounds, this one doesn’t have space for the crowds to get absorbed. A very hot afternoon was odd enough and while we scorched in the heat, we did enjoy the temple quite a bit. There are enough covered areas and thick trees to help provide the much-needed shade. We explored a few smaller temples around before we headed back to get some rest before the daily pilgrimage to the night market.
Since we were more familiar with the concept, we knew what we wanted a lot better. After a quick Thai dinner, we settled into a small upstairs bar for a show of the Apsara dance. It was nice to watch, but slow and probably 30 minutes was a little too much for it. We had planned to head back early anyway because the next day we planned to see the highlight of the whole trip – sunrise at Angkor Wat.