The forgotten Khmer empire

After saying goodbye to Lao, Kampong Cham was our first stop over in Cambodia. Cambodia and Lao are, as they say here, “same same but different”. Sabaidee is now sua s’dey and kob chai lai lai is now aw kohn. Of course, in Cambodia there are no more kips and US Dollars and Riels are the official currencies, yes both of them are used everywhere, and surprisingly one can only withdraw USDs from ATMs! Women wear their colourful pyjamas all day, rice porridge soup is now served at food stalls, the houses are built even higher from the ground and have pagoda like roofs built with tiles (instead of straw), tofu is replaced by pate and pork meat in the breakfast baguettes… Without realizing it, in Kampong Cham we started our acclimatization to Cambodia.

Isma couldn't resist it any longer and got his hair cut in Kampong Cham

After one day in Kampong Cham we headed to Siem Reap, which was even more touristy than what we expected. It is like the Benidorm of South East Asia but without the beach. When the French discovered Angkor, Siem Reap was little more than a village, but now it has a population of 170,000 people (probably most of them living from tourism). Though, in reality, the floating population (including tourists, guides…) makes the figure almost double on daily basis. As curiosity, did you know that Siem Reap means “Siam defeated”? Very ironic considering that Siem Reap was controlled by the Siameses (Thais) for over a century after the Khmer empire.

As every other person, we went to Siem Reap to visit the Temples of Angkor, the remains of the centre of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer empire. How wrong were we when we thought that we could visit the Angkor complex in one day!! The number of temples and their dimensions overwhelmed us at first. Angkor Thom (the great fortified city) alone is more than 10sq km in size! So we decided to spend 2 days visiting the temples.

The first by bike, we did what is called the Small Circuit (17km in total) visiting Banteay Kdei, Ta Prohm (swallowed by the jungle and where Tomb Rider was filmed), Ta Keo and Angkor Thom with its imposing gates, the Bayon (with dozens of heads staring at you from every angle), the royal palace and the terrace of the elephants. Tired as we were from the heat and the cycling we left the main attraction, Angkor Wat, for the next day. We cycled back to the city with only two things in mind… a cold shower and a foot massage!

The second day started very early and at around 5am we were already on our way (by tuk tuk this time) to the temples. Myself and Isma, together with only another few hundreds of people, stared at Angkor Wat as the sun was rising behind its towers. The sun slowly unveiled the 8th wonder of the world in front of us, making this a magical and unforgettable moment. Preah Khan, Weak Pean followed Angkor Wat and we finished our visit to the temples with Ta Som.

Ta Prohm and Preah Khan are probably the temples that I liked the most, mainly for their mysticism and because they are the ones that most remind us of the power of the jungle. For us, two days was more than enough and I think we filled our quota of temples to visit for the next few weeks!

Our visit to the temples ended a bit abruptly and our stay in Siem Reap was elongated because Isma caught some kind of stomach bug that kept him in bed for two days and another two days recovering. The good thing is that the Spanish channel on the tv (TVE), and the Godfather movies kept us entertained. Don’t worry, he is back in full shape and I’m doing all the best to feed him up.

Also popular with visitors is the floating village of Chong Kneas. The village, which moves along the Tonle Sap Lake depending on the season, can only be reached by boat. Mainly Vietnamese families who make their living from fishing live in the village. The houses are floating, the shops, the markets, the school, the church… even the basketball court is floating. The visit is interesting, but it’s organized in a way that feels just like another tourist trap, where they try to squeeze as much money from the foreigners as possible. After paying 15 $ per person (which is a lot of money in Cambodia) for a 1 and ½ hours boat ride, you are somehow tempted into buying a 70 $ rice sack using the poor children as an element of pity, brought to see a “crocodile farm” (which has no relation with the village and it is only there for the tourist to take a picture) and then almost forced into tipping the boat driver. Seriously, we have never ever before been bullied into tipping somebody so directly, but I’m glad to say that we were strong and we didn’t succumb!

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Transport

Don Khon to Kampong Cham by boat & bus (11½h) – We arranged the boat and bus that would bring us to Cambodia at an agency in Don Khon island. We bought a package consisting of boat transfer from Don Khon to Nakasang and a bus ride from Nakasang to Kampong Cham. For us it was the most convenient and almost the only option, but we have to say that it was badly organized. The boat run out of petrol and we had to be towed by another boat, the bus left almost two hours late… The bus stops at the crossing, where there is more than enough time to arrange the visa on arrival. We paid 24 USD per person.

Kampong Cham to Siem Reap by bus (5½h) – Rith Mony operated the bus. Comfortable and with A/C, but apart from that, nothing remarkable about the trip. 6 USD per person.

Visa

Visa for Cambodia. Getting the visa on arrival is possible at the Trapaeng Kriel crossing. While we were waiting for the bus in Nakasang a man from the agency offered to arrange our visas for 30 USD each. We agreed and he took care of everything at the border. Later we realized that we could have arranged the visas easily on our own and cheaper. Note. At the time of crossing electronic visas were not accepted at this same crossing.

Accommodation

Kampong Cham, Monorom 2 Vip Hotel – We arrived to Kampong Cham late at night and we struggled a little trying to find accommodation. There weren’t too many options, plus some of them were full, and at night some of the hotels looked like “male adults enjoyment centres” disguised as Karaokes. So we were relieved when in Monorom 2 they said they had a room available. By the river-front, super clean, with two medium sized beds, A/C, hot water, satellite TV. The only downside was that it had no window. Wifi was only available at the lobby. 15 $ per room per night.

Siem Reap, Sun Sengky Guest House – Without realizing it, we chose a guest house in the middle of the action, just between the night market and pub street, but still quiet. Clean, decent sized room and attached bathroom. You pay based on the extras you chose. For us A/C took precedence over the fridge or having hot water (which we didn’t need). Though they ended up offering the fridge for free. Free wifi and satellite TV which came in handy when Isma was sick. 15 $ per room per night.

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