Most people will find that three days is enough time to see the sites in and around Phnom Penh. Travelers who are starting their journey in Cambodia will head out to popular destinations such as Kampot, Sihanoukville or Siem Reap. People who are ending their Cambodian tour will often head to Vietnam, particularly Ho Chi Minh City, which is still often referred to as Saigon. Regardless of your next destination, there are many travel agencies around the Sisowath Quay (Riverside) tourist area which can arrange transportation by bus, boat or private taxi.
Ho Chi Minh City was my next destination and I chose a combination of boat and bus to get there. It is important to note that most travelers to Vietnam will require a tourist visa which must organized before arriving in the country. When flying into Vietnam, the visa can be arranged on-line, but for overland travel or arrival by boat, the visa must be acquired before departing Cambodia. The Embassy of Vietnam in Phnom Penh issues tourist visas but most travel experts recommend using a travel agent to get the visa. A thirty day single entry tourist visa costs $45 USD; an agency will easily get the visa in two days or less and this saves multiple tuk tuk rides to the Embassy. In addition to the $45 USD you will need a completed application form, which can be downloaded and printed from the Embassy’s website, and one recent passport sized photo.
I used the same agency to book the $35 USD combination boat and bus ticket with Mekong Tours; www.mekongvietnam.com. Mekong Tours provides transportation to the dock which is located at the Titanic Restaurant just to the north of Riverside at the junction of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers. The border between the two countries is roughly 59 miles (95 km) south of Phnom Penh. On each side of the border, on the Mekong’s west bank, are check points. The boat stops at each one to clear passengers out of Cambodia and into Vietnam. The immigration process is very easy, taking around ten minutes at either check point. From the border the boat continues down river for another eight miles (13 km) before turning west into a narrow canal which leads to the Bassac River and the town of Chau Doc. The trip took just under five and a half hours and was quite enjoyable.
Unfortunately, the bus ride to Ho Chi Minh City was not particularly pleasant and in retrospect I should have spent more time in the Mekong Delta. It would have been better to break up the bus trip into several legs and seen southern Vietnam, which is the reason that most people take the boat trip to begin with. The bus that I had booked departed Chau Doc at 07:00 PM, and was a “semi-sleeper”, a method of transportation that I will avoid in the future. Instead of regular seats, the semi-sleeper has rows of tiny bunks which are much too small for the average Westerner and I found it impossible to get into any comfortable position. In addition to the discomfort the bunk caused, the air conditioning must have been at maximum cool, as the bus was absolutely freezing. The icing on the cake was that the speaker directly over my head was blasting Vietnamese music which my ear buds could not quite block out. The one positive thing I can say about the bus company was that upon arrival in Ho Chi Minh City they had a car take me to the hotel.
Here is a link to a map I created which shows most of Cambodia's major temple groups and towns that are often used to visit these sites. An approximation of the boat route from Phnom Penh to Chau Doc is included as well.
Until next time,
With a population of over two million people, Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s largest city and the nation’s capital. It became the Khmer’s royal capital in 1432 after the King Ponhea Yat abandoned Angkor Thom in 1431, in part due to repeated attacks from the Siamese. Phnom Penh became the permanent seat of government and the capital of modern Cambodia in 1866. While seeking protection from the Siamese, in 1867, King Norodom I signed a treaty with France making the country a French protectorate. Cambodia was gradually incorporated into French Indochina and by 1897 the French stripped the Cambodian royal family of their power. The country was essentially a French colony until it was granted independence in 1953.
Today Phnom Penh’s main tourist area lies along a stretch of the Tonle Sap River known as “River Side”. Preah Sisowath Quay is the name of the busy road that parallels the river, and in the neighborhoods that lie to the west, many buildings remain from the French colonial period. The congested streets are a mix of architectural styles; a blend of old and new, Asian and European. A number of the cities most visited sites, including the Royal Palace and the National Museum, are within walking distance of Sisowath Quay.
Everyone traveling to Siem Reap from Phnom Penh should plan on seeing the National Museum for an introduction to Angkor Period art. The Palace is surrounded by parks, temples and government buildings constructed in the same unique Southeast Asian style as the Royal Palace. A visitor strolling around this lovely area can’t help thinking how similar it is to Bangkok.
A few blocks to the north of the National Museum, along Preah Ang Eng Street, is Kandal market. This chaotic area could be called the “real” Phnom Penh, often described as “rough around the edges” or “gritty”. The streets here are dirty, smelly and crowded, and have probably horrified many a faint-hearted westerner. Much of Phnom Penh has a slightly edgy feel to it, probably due to a combination of poorly light streets, badly maintained infrastructure and inefficient garbage removal. However, the people here are just as nice and friendly as they can be. Cambodians live their lives out in the open; working, cooking, eating, bathing and laughing on the street in full view of their neighbors. No visit to Phnom Penh would be complete without wandering through one of the city’s market areas.
Sadly, throughout its long history, the tiny Kingdom of Cambodia has been involved in numerous armed conflicts with its neighbors. During the Vietnam War, Cambodian head of state Norodom Sihanouk made a nominal attempt to maintain the country’s neutrality.
However, by the mid 1960’s both the People’s Army of North Vietnam (NVA) and the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) were using bases in Cambodian territory to move troops, arms and supplies into South Vietnam. As early as 1965 the U.S. military began bombing rural Cambodia in an attempt to drive out the Vietnamese and their supply lines. Continuing until 1973, it is estimated that over 2.7 million tons of bombs were dropped, killing over 150,000 people.
In 1970 the US government approved a coup that replaced the left leaning Sihanouk with General Lon Nol, a staunch anti communist. Protracted U.S. bombing, the overthrow of a popular leader and support from the North Vietnamese drove poor Cambodians to join the Communist Party of Kampuchea. The CPK would later become known as the Khmer Rouge. On April 17, 1975, after five years of civil war against the U.S. backed Cambodian government, the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh. Lead by the infamous ultra Marxist Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge would lead the country into further ruin until they were driven from power by the Vietnamese on January 7, 1979. Scholars and historians disagree on exactly how many people died under the Khmer Rouge; estimates range from 1.7 to 2.5 million.
Phnom Penh has several sobering monuments to the unfortunate souls who perished during the dark period under the Khmer Rouge. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, also know as S-21, is the site of a former high school which was used by the Khmer Rouge as a prison / interrogation center. It’s estimated that 17,000 to 20,000 political prisoners were held in the prison. No one in certain of the exact number of detainees; however it is generally agreed that only seven survived. Almost all of the prisoners were members of the Khmer Rouge with the exception of approximately 500 foreigners who, unfortunately, became entangled in the insanity of this horrible period.
Tuol Sleng was used principally as an interrogation center; generally prisoners were not intentionally killed at the former school. Detainees were tortured until they were willing to dictate and sign ridiculous confessions, most commonly implicating themselves as U.S. CIA operatives. After giving these false statements they were taken away to be killed at other locations.
The Choeung Ek Killing Fields, made famous in the 1985 movie of the same name, is the site of a former orchard and Chinese cemetery used by the Khmer Rouge to execute and dispose of their victims. Over 8,800 people were killed and buried in a series of mass graves. Located 11 miles (17 km) from Phnom Penh, the site is now a memorial to the men, women and children who were brutally murdered there.
Although these sites can be very depressing to say the least, one has to admire the survivors and applaud the people of Cambodia for having the courage to openly acknowledge their dark past. Foreign tourists are welcomed and encouraged to visit both these locations. In Phnom Penh tuk tuks can easily be arranged to make the round trip journey for $15-$20 USD.
Until next time,
After nearly three weeks of using Siem Reap as a base to explore Cambodia’s remote northern temples, I got on a bus headed south on Highway 6 towards Phnom Penh. I had one more temple group on my list so I decided to spend two nights in the highway town of Kompong Thom. I was already familiar with this stretch of highway as I passed through it on my long journey to Prasat Preah Vihear. Located 90 miles south of Siem Reap (145 km), this town is on the busy route to Phnom Penh. Buses and vans pass through day and night, many of which stop in the town center at the Arunras Hotel and Restaurant for bathroom breaks and meals. This is a very easy town to get in and out of. The only problem that might be encountered is if the bus does not make its usual stop and you drive right on through. It’s advisable to remind the driver where you’re planning on getting off well before you get there. A smart phone and Google maps really come in handy when making these rural bus trips. The bus fare from Siem Reap, or to Phnom Penh, is $6 USD.
Prasat Sambor Prei Kuk is a temple complex located 18.5 miles (30 km) north of Kompong Thom. Built by the Chenla people, this site pre-dates the temples of Angkor by as much as 4 centuries. The site consists of three main temple groups in a heavily wooded area which can be toured in two to three hours. This area is far off the regular tourist path; visitors are much more likely to encounter locals than travelers as the temples are still used as places of worship.
Hotels and guest houses in Kompong Thom can easily arrange tuk tuks or motorcycle taxis to make the 40 minute trip to Sambor Prei Kuk. Much of the journey involves traveling over dirt roads which is a bumpy and dusty ride in a tuk tuk. It must be a real adventure getting there during the rainy season. Drivers charge $15 USD round trip, or for an additional $5 USD will include a stop at Santuk Mountain. A number of stone carving workshops are set up along the highway between Santuk Mountain and Kompong Thom. It’s well worth stopping and checking out the locally produced artwork. Miniature pieces are available for purchase at very reasonable prices.
Until next time,
Prasat Koh Ker is a large group of temples located 80 miles (130 km) north of Siem Reap. The site covers an area of approximately 30 square miles (80 km²) and contains over 180 temples and monuments. Many of these ruins have been lost to dense forest and are not accessible to visitors. Due to its remoteness, this site is well off the tourist path and sees few visitors when compared to the temples of Angkor.
When King Jayavarman IV became the ruler of the Khmer empire in 928 AD, he moved the capital to his home city of Koh Ker. He is credited with building the road connecting Angkor with Koh Ker, one of four legs of the “Angkor Highway”. This system of roads would eventually stretch into present day Thailand, connecting the Empire’s distant cities with Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. King Jayavarman IV’s son, Harshavarman II, also ruled from Koh Ker, making it the kingdom’s capital from 928-944 AD.
The highlight of the site is a temple complex known as Prasat Thom.
These ruins are surrounded by a (mostly dry) moat and were built of a combination of sandstone and brick. Very little restoration work has been completed other than shoring up walls and structures to prevent further deterioration. Just to the west of Prasat Thom is an enormous 115 foot (35 m) tall sandstone pyramid, which served as the temples prang. The original stone stairway to the top is no longer usable; a wooden stairway has been built on the north side allowing visitors access to the highest part of the pyramid. The view of rural Cambodia from the peak is very impressive as is the stone structure itself. The center of the prang has partially collapsed, but you can still see great carvings of demons holding up a base that was to have supported a statue of Shiva’s bull Nandi. Towards the east and south of Prasat Thom are an additional 17 small satellite temples which are easily accessed from the main road.
Koh Ker is very difficult to get to using public transportation. There is a small town to the south of the site which has at least two guest houses. However, there does not appear to be bus service there. The best option would be to base out of Preah Vihear City, 37 miles (60 km) to the east, and take a motorcycle taxi or car to the site. Unfortunately that would be a very long ride, perhaps 90 minutes, on the back of a moto.
I was fortunate enough to find a really nice guy in Sra’aem with a car who offered to take me to Koh Ker and Beng Mealea and on to Siem Reap for $70 USD. I invited a fellow traveler whom I had met on a bus to join me. After splitting the fare with my new friend, it worked out to be quite the bargain. The driver, Mr. Roth, wanted to take his daughter to the Children’s Hospital in Siem Reap, so his wife and two charming daughters came with us. We departed Sra’aem at 07:30 AM and arrived at Koh Ker an hour later, travelling by private car is definitely faster and more comfortable than by public bus. We spent several hours touring Koh Ker at a very leisurely pace before heading off to Beng Mealea.
The Beng Mealea temple complex is located 37 miles (60 km) from Siem Reap on Highway 64. Its modern day position, on a direct route between Angkor Wat and Koh Ker, is no coincidence. Scholars believe that Suryavarman II built Beng Mealea during the Angkor period of the early 12th century. It was clearly positioned along the Angkor highway that Jayavarman IV had constructed nearly two centuries before.
Beng Mealea can be reached from Siem Reap in approximately one hour which makes it squarely on the tourist path. The temple can get very busy with visitors but is well worth a visit as the reliefs (carvings) here are fantastic. There are a number of Naga (serpent) statues in excellent condition which are very popular with photographers.
Little restoration work has been completed here and much of the temple is overgrown with plants and large trees. The main complex is accessed via series of raised wooden walkways which are partially shaded by the encroaching forest. The shade gives the visitor some relief from the midday heat and the walkways make this temple unique compared with other sites like Angkor Wat.
We toured Beng Mealea for about an hour and a half before heading to Siem Reap. Upon arriving in Siem Reap around 04:00 PM, Mr. Roth was kind enough to drop us off at our respective hotels. We had a fantastic day touring temples at a leisurely pace with a very kind family. I am grateful to have met Mr. Roth; I might not have made it to Koh Ker without him. Please feel free to contact me via e-mail for Mr. Roth’s phone number.
Until next time,