Bamboo train ride, wildlife safari and Khmer architecture tours
Amok (a coconut milk curry), Durian and Deep fried rice cakes
Khmer curry with local beer
Hire services of a registered guide or simply pick up a guide book from outside any temple. Ancient Angkor by Michael Freeman is recommended
If you have the time and the intent, a free-style trip is possible with hotels and B&Bs for every budget. Road transport is very affordable too.
Want To Go ?
“Kahan jaa rahe ho?” (“Where are you off to?”), asked the Immigration officer at the airport.
“Cambodia!” I replied with a wide grin on my face.
The IO shot another question at me, “Kya karne?” (“What For?”), his eyes focused on me with suspicion.
“Ghoomne” (“To Travel”), I replied excitedly, almost kicking my heels in the air.
“Ye bhi koi jagah hai jaane ki?” (“What kind of a place have you chosen to visit?”), he retorted.
The Immigration officer’s annoyance at my complete disregard for his misplaced concern wasn’t surprising, but I could not understand why he had such disdain for a country I had only heard great things about from the travellers’ community. Ignorance, I concluded sadly. Cambodia had a volatile past that I was very much aware of, but when the Cambodians have moved on, it would be foolish for the rest of us to not enjoy the wonders of this magical land.
“Shipra Yadav” read the placard. I had probably never been this happy to see my name on a board. The guesthouse where I had booked my stay had sent a tuk-tuk to pick me up from the Siem Reap International Airport. Considering this was my first solo trip, I suppose I should have planned it like guerrilla war, but I chose to keep it flexible, at least for the most part.
Cambodia Travel Tip # 1: Buy a local SIM at the airport to stay connected. International and local calling is cheap, and you’ll be surprised how good the 3G speed is.
Warm smiles and a fresh fruit drink welcomed me at the guesthouse. I got a lot of attention from the staff when I told them I was visiting from India. “A solo traveler from India!” They had definitely not seen many of my kind around here. “Are you Buddhist?”, asked one. “Oh, you must be Hindu then! You know Shiva?”. I wasn’t surprised to see why they took an instant liking to me. Cambodian (Khmer) culture and traditions have Indian influences and even though Buddhism is the dominant religion here, Cambodians still worship Hindu deities like Shiva and Vishnu. Dreading more questions on Hindu gods, I quickly headed to my room lest my poor knowledge became shockingly evident to my new Cambodian friends.
In a beautiful irony, my lessons in Hindu mythology began thus in a foreign land. Like most tourists, sunrise at Angkor Wat featured on the top of my ‘must-see’ list. After I got my own version of the iconic shot of the Angkor, I explored this majestic temple to get wowed by the intricate carvings of Shiva, Vishnu and many other Hindu deities. I found the depiction of ‘Churning of the Sea’ the most fascinating of all. Since I didn’t want to be rushed through my wanderings, I decided to go for a self-guided tour, referring to a book on the Angkor temples for information on their history and architecture. The times I felt lost, I either asked fellow travellers for help or tailed a group with a guide. I am not particularly proud of myself for free-loading, but hey, all’s fair in love, war and travel!
Cambodia Travel Tip # 2: Hire services of a registered guide or simply pick up a guide book from outside any temple. I recommend Ancient Angkor by Michael Freeman.
One of the biggest benefits of travelling solo is that it helps you come out of your comfort zone. And the fact that Cambodians are extremely friendly just makes it easier. It was fun chatting up with the locals, getting to know more than any book can tell you. Almost every conversation started with the same question-“Where are you from?”. “Are you Indian from India or Indian from Singapore?” stumped me though. Apparently, Indians from Singapore flock to Cambodia in large numbers, but only indigenous visitors from India attract attention. I was beginning to enjoy my new found ‘stardom’ a little too much, I must admit.
I could write eloquent pages on how beautiful Angkor temples are, and still not do justice to their extraordinary allure. Bayon with its massive stone faces, and Bantey Srei’s surprisingly miniature scale and intricate carvings are simply fascinating. But it was Ta Prohm I lost my vagrant heart to. I felt like Lara Croft from the Angelina Jolie starrer ‘Tomb Raider’, which was filmed here. Most of this haunting beauty is enveloped by tree roots and has been left in pretty much the same condition it was found in. Also the fact that the Archaeological Survey of India is helping restore this temple made me very proud!
Cambodia Travel Tip # 3: Touring the temples can be an overwhelming experience; give your camera a break and soak in the grandeur.
Now, there’s more to Siem Reap than just temples. A visit to the Cambodia Landmine Museum shows how destructive aftermaths of war can be, even after decades. The management’s effort to make Cambodia a landmine-free country and to rehabilitate victims of landmine explosions is commendable. Landmines were probably one of the reasons why the Immigration officer I encountered earlier had reservations about this country. Just stay away from landmine zones that are largely in rural areas, and there’s nothing to worry about.
Cambodia Travel Tip # 4: Old is definitely not gold here! USD rules, but only notes of the 2000 series are accepted.
There was one zone that I simply couldn’t stay away from- the legendary Pub Street, a hub for electrifying nightlife and multitudes of restaurants serving delicious Khmer cuisine, more commonly known as Cambodian Cuisine. It was Khmer New Year and there were hundreds of revelers on the street every night, dancing to latest pop hits from the West. And it was absolutely safe!
Cambodia is a haven for solo travelers, but that doesn’t mean you throw caution to the wind completely. I made sure the staff at the guesthouse knew where I was headed every day, and of course, religiously made a customary phone call to my parents to tell them I was okay.
So while my days were busy temple hopping, the nights were spent pub hopping, hogging on Khmer food and shopping at the Night Market. It was ‘Eat, Pray, Love (for freedom)’ for me throughout, though not necessarily in that order.
Cambodia Travel Tip # 5: Do not leave Cambodia without having the sumptuous Khmer curry with local beer. You can enjoy a delicious meal for less than USD 2. Talk about cheap!
Two days into my vacation I realized I didn’t have enough time to make the long road trip to Sihanoukville, a beach destination in South Cambodia. See, now here’s when planning actually helps. The smarter thing would have been to take the return flight from Phnom Penh instead of Siem Reap, which is much closer to Sihanoukville. But there was no time to brood. I got myself booked on a bus to Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. A last minute online booking of the hotel room got me a pretty sweet deal- an air-conditioned room at a 3-star hotel with free Wi-Fi for only USD 16 per night!
Cambodia Travel Tip # 6: If you have the time and the intent, a free-style trip is possible with hotels and B&Bs for every budget. Road transport is very affordable too.
Phnom Penh, once known as the ‘Pearl of Asia’, is a bustling business and cultural hub of Cambodia. The streets are numbered, making it easy for me to explore the place on foot with the help of a map. “Hello, lady! You want tuk-tuk/ moto?”, called out tuk-tuk and moto (motorcycle taxi) drivers after every few meters, eager to strike a deal for a city tour with me. I sprained my neck muscles, shaking my head from left to right in disapproval, always getting a big smile in return.
Cambodia Travel Tip # 7: Beware of bag/camera snatchers in Phnom Penh.
Desperately needing a break from typical sight-seeing, I went on a cycling tour to nearby Mekong Island. I followed the tour guide through the city to catch a ferry to Mekong Island where we rode past verdant fields, dotted with traditional Khmer houses. It was a great way to experience the country life of Cambodia. Waving and shouting hello to children and adults along the way makes you forget the bumpy 20 km ride in the tropical heat. I think Cambodia should be declared as the country with the ‘Most Smiling People’ in the world. Their smiles are infectious, just like their optimism.
It is at the Toul Sleng Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek that one realizes the resilience and optimism of Khmer people, having survived a barbaric rule under Khmer Rouge, when millions of innocent people were killed. It was difficult to hold my emotions at the Killing Fields; tears rolled down my cheeks as I heard tales of torture and pain during the audio tour. I came out feeling deep empathy and respect for the people of this beautiful country.
After a sombre time at the Killing Fields, I spent the rest of the day, my last in Phnom Penh, by the riverfront reflecting on the wonderful time spent in Cambodia. ‘Move on’ is probably the happiness mantra of people here. Nothing can be achieved if you’re stuck in the memory of the past. The following day I left for Siem Reap to catch my flight back home. And as soon as I landed in India, I remembered that Immigration officer . I was secretly hoping to bump into him again and tell him- “Tumne Cambodia nahi dekha, toh kuch nahi dekha”. Abki baar, Cambodia jao, yaar! (“If you haven’t seen Cambodia, you don’t know what you are missing. Go Visit Cambodia now, my friend!”)