The temples of Angkor are ancient, massive, stunning feats of architecture. Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer Empire from the 9th century until the 15th century and may be the largest pre-industrial city in the world. “Angkor” is actually the Khmer word for “city.” There were more than 1,000 temples that made up the Angkor complex, although now many of them are just piles of brick and rock. The ones that still stand and have been restored include Angkor Wat (the world’s largest single religious monument & Cambodia’s #1 tourist spot), Bayon, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm. They are now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
On April 12, I took the bus to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh. It left three hours late, and even though it was an AC bus (which are more expensive), the driver never turned it on. So it was a long, hot eight hours, but I finally arrived and checked in at the Siem Reap Hostel well after dark. My first impression of Siem Reap was that it was very smoky and smelled like a blazing fire. I never did figure out where it came from, but it was indeed smoky the entire time I was there. My second impression of the city, after exploring it on foot, was that I was going to like it. It seemed fun, hip, easy to get around, and full of restaurants, markets, and bars. I had specifically planned to be there for the upcoming Khmer New Year because I had heard that it was the only city in Cambodia that really celebrated the holiday with a bang.
I used Phnom Penh as a jumping off point for getting down to the southern coast, the CPOC volunteering gig, and Siem Reap, so I was there a total of 3 nights, but never consecutively. PP is incredibly hot in April, which made doing anything in the city a real drag. It was almost unbearable to be out and about between 10am and 6pm. Since those are the hours when I tend to be most active, I don’t have much to show for my time there. But I did manage to make it to the Royal Palace/Silver Pagoda (which are part of the same complex), Sisowath Quay (the historic riverfront area), and I saw (but didn’t enter) the National Museum of Cambodia.
Kampot, Cambodia rests along the Praek Tuek Chhu river in the southeast corner of the country. While I was there, nights out consisted of quiet dinners and drinks in quiet restaurants. Days consisted of sight-seeing at the bizarre-but-lovely Bokor National Park, and a very quick trip to Kep. Bokor National Park is one of the weirdest tourist attractions I’ve ever seen. At more than 1,000 meters above sea level, it is a former hill station where elite French expats came to escape the heat of Phnom Penh. It was developed in the 1920s, but has long since been abandoned and now is nothing more than a dilapidated hotel, palace, and church. However, a Chinese hotel conglomerate purchased most of the hill in 2007 and is currently building a massive complex of hotels, casinos, villas, golf courses, and waterparks. There are also a few temples, shrines, and a giant statue of Yeay Mao (see photo and caption below for more info). The views from the top of the hill, when not obstructed by clouds, are magnificent and well worth the drive up.
I spent my first 10 days in Cambodia on its beautiful, isolated beaches. First I stayed on Koh Rong Samloem, a small island off the southern coast that is less touristy and less developed than its big brother, Koh Rong. Then I stayed in Otres Beach, a gorgeous, chilled-out, unspoiled beach just east of Sihanoukville. The water was warm and crystal clear. The town of Otres consisted of one dirt road about half a mile long that was lined with beachfront bungalows and restaurants. The towns were relaxing if you wanted to relax, but if you wanted to get funky, you could find a party. Chill out by day, party by night… or just watch the stunning sunset, grab a glass of wine, and keep chillin’. It was definitely the highlight of my 2.5 weeks in Cambodia.