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Captivated by Cambodia: A Travel Guide

Thailand is known for its spicy curries, the Philippines for its white sand beaches, and Vietnam for its lush landscapes, but there is something about Cambodia that draws one in and compels one to stay. What is it about Cambodia that I find so appealing?

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Cambodia is a country of contrasts: a country of ancient civilization and adolescent citizens, local markets and foreign boutiques, of homegrown circus performers and international film stars, of old line politicians and avant-garde artists. Read on to discover the experiences that await you in Cambodia!

Siem Reap
Siem Reap is the most touristy and my least favorite city in Cambodia, but is worth a visit because it is home to the Angkor ruins, an ancient complex dating back nearly a thousand years. From 900 to 1200 A.D., Khmer kings ordered the construction of thousands of Hindu and Buddhist temples.

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If you have one day, make sure you see sunrise over Angkor Wat, the smiling faces of Bayon, the sandstone carvings of Preah Khan, and The Tomb Raider tree at Ta Prohm. If you have three or more days, you can admire the intricate carvings at Banteay Srei or reenact scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark at Beng Melea. After a long day at the Angkor temples, unwind at ABBA Café’s rooftop lounge, eat a tasty vegetarian meal at Banllé Vegetarian Restaurant or Chamkar Vegetarian Restaurant, or sample the homemade ice cream at The Blue Pumpkin. For more information on the Angkor temples, suggested sightseeing itineraries, and accommodation and restaurant recommendations, read my guide to Siem Reap.

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Phnom Penh
Many travelers will tell you to skip Phnom Penh, but I had a lovely time wandering around town, going on self-guided tours of the city, exercising along the riverside, and unwinding at the cinema.

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Travelers interested in Cambodia’s history can browse the ancient Khmer artefacts at the National Museum of Cambodia or listen to guides’ stories about life under the Khmer Rouge at Choueng Ek (the Killing Fields) and Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (formerly the S-21 Prison). Architecture buffs and the spiritually-minded should check out the Royal Palace, Wat Phnom, Wat Botum Vatey, and Wat Ounalom. For those interested in people watching, take a stroll down the historic riverside of Sisowath Quay at dusk or participate in a group exercise class in Royal Palace Park or Wat Bottom Park at night. Travelers looking for more relaxing activities can attend a movie marathon at one of The Flicks Community Movie Houses or experience a 4D movie at Aeon Mall. For more details on the sights, entertainment choices, and international dining options Cambodia’s capital city has to offer, read my guide to Phnom Penh.

Battambang
While the bulk of international tourists’ exposure to Cambodia is limited to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, the country has much more to offer. In my mind, no visit to Cambodia is complete without a visit to Battambang. Cambodia’s second largest city, it feels much more like a small, sleepy town and, as such, is easy to explore on foot. Due to its burgeoning art scene, Battambang is gaining recognition as the creative capital of Cambodia. Attend a performance of Phare the Cambodian Circus or take a self-guided tour of Battambang’s art galleries.

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The attractions around the city can easily be seen by way of a one-day tuk-tuk tour. Don’t worry about booking transportation in advance, as a horde of tuk-tuk drivers offering tours will mob you the moment you step off the bus from Siem Reap. You will start your tour with a fun ride aboard the Bamboo Train before climbing the 360 stairs to the top of Wat Banan Temple. After lunch, your driver will take you the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau, one of the sites of the Khmer Rouge’s mass executions. You will end the day by witnessing the breathtaking phenomenon of thousands of bats flying out of the Bat Cave at sunset. Look at my guide to Battambang to hear about the city’s emerging art scene, read restaurant recommendations, and learn which celebrity was directing a movie during my visit!

Kampot
If you’re looking for rest and relaxation, Kampot is the place for you! Kampot, a charming town famous for its pepper and riverside setting, was my favorite place to visit in Cambodia. My friends and I spent four wonderful days eating terrific food, dining at cute cafés, watching movies at the cinema, chilling by the river, and exploring the 19th century French colonial architecture.

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For great views of the river and terrific food, stay at Samon’s Village. Stop by Wonderland for Belgian ice cream and homemade popsicles or spend a lazy afternoon brunching, snacking, and reading at Epic Arts Café. Enjoy Mediterranean tapas with local, nutritious, and vegetarian ingredients at Deva Café or grab bread and croissants on the go at L’Epi D’or Bakery & Café. If you’re missing watching movies at home, you and your friends can rent a private movie room at Ecran Movie House or buy a day pass to watch the three movies it screens daily. Hungry? You can order hand-pulled noodles and homemade vegetable dumplings from Ecran’s restaurant. For more detailed travel recommendations, read my guide to Kampot.

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Chi Pat
Travelers looking to experience the “real Cambodia,” should arrange a stay with the Community Based Ecotourism (CBET) project in Chi Pat village, located amidst the Cardamom Mountains in Koh Kong Provice. CBET aims to protect the Cardamom rainforest and provide inhabitants income-generating opportunities by transforming former loggers and wildlife poachers into tour guides, guest house owners, and taxi drivers. CBET offers travelers trekking, mountain-biking, kayaking, and camping expeditions through the jungle, as well as opportunities to stay at homestays in Chi Pat village. For detailed information about how to get to Chi Pat, what to do there, and what to expect, read my guide to Chi Pat.

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Sihanoukville
As Cambodia’s top beach destination, Sihanoukville is much more expensive than the rest of Cambodia. While I do not find its beaches as beautiful as those in Thailand or the Philippines, they have white sand, warm water, and calm waves which make them ideal for sunbathing and swimming. Plus, with fewer crowds the only sounds you’ll hear are the breeze blowing, waves lapping against the shore, and the occasional snack seller hawking her wares.

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Travelers wanting to get away from it all can stay on one of the islands off of Cambodia’s coast, such as Koh Rong Samloem (not to be confused with the party island of Koh Rong) and Koh Ta Kiev, but beware as the islands have limited hours of electricity, bucket baths and Asian-style toilets, and no wifi. Personally, my top choice in Sihanoukville for fun in the sun is Otres Beach because of its many shade-providing trees, laid-back environment, beachside restaurants, and Cambodian vacationers. You don’t have to leave the sand to enjoy a brunch of Eggs Florentine or Baked Eggs at Sea Garden or appreciate the homemade pizza, pasta, and cheesecake at Pappa Pippo. Other nice beaches include Sokha Beach and Independence Beach. You can use Holiday Palace Resort’s day beds if you buy a drink from Palais Coffee; Palais makes a yummy Ferrero Rocher Frappe.

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Last but not least, travelers interested in developing or deepening a yoga practice can attend a yoga and meditation retreat at Vagabond Temple. Retreats are open to beginners and advanced practitioners alike. The Temple also offers detoxification programs, Reiki courses, and healing sessions.

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More Guides to Cambodia:
Guide to Siem Reap
Guide to Phnom Penh
Guide to Battambang
Guide to Kampot
Guide to Chi Pat
Vegetarian Guide to Cambodian Cuisine

 

 

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Bats, Boutiques, and Billionaires: A Guide to Battambang

Battambang is Cambodia’s second-largest city, but it feels much more like a small, sleepy town. Upon your arrival, the view of the Sangker River flowing lazily by the city greets you.

What to See
Start by seeing the sights on foot through a self-guided walking tour. Khmer Architecture Tours has free downloadable maps on its website. While the tour stops are not particularly memorable, the maps provide a nice introduction to quaint Battambang. That the numbered streets and roads (Roads 1.5 and 2.5 among them) neither run precisely east to west nor north to south only adds to the locality’s charm.

Due to its burgeoning art scene, Battambang is gaining recognition as the creative capital of Cambodia. Leading the cultural revival is Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS), a nonprofit organization formed in 1994 by nine students and their art teacher when they returned home from a refugee camp after the end of the Khmer Rouge’s rule. PPS provides over 1,700 students with arts education through its public, art, music, and theater schools. Many of its graduates perform in Battambang and Siem Reap through Phare the Cambodian Circus, a Cirque-du-Soleil-esque show combining Cambodian stories, theater, dance, music, and circus arts.

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Beyond PPS’s students, there are a number of artists-in-residence in Battambang including the unforgettable Marine Ky. Raised in France after her family fled the Khmer Rouge, Marine returned to Cambodia in 2000. Her textiles combine Western and Khmer printmaking techniques and explore the journey from genocide to inner peace, happiness, and harmony. Marine welcomed us into her gallery and her home with a presentation of her artwork, a pot of tea, and tales of her life, and sent us away with embraces and mandalas for protection. To embark on a self-guided tour of Battambang’s art galleries, check out the following guides by Granturismo, Move to Cambodia, and Bric-a-Brac.

Battambang is not only home to local artists, but also to international performers. Movie star Angelina Jolie owns a house in northwestern Battambang which she purchased after the adoption of her oldest son, Maddox, from Cambodia. During my visit to Battambang, the town was abuzz with preparations for the shooting of First They Killed My Father, a motion picture directed by Angelina based on the memoir written by a childhood survivor of the Pol Pot regime. Even though I was more than a little disappointed when my submission to the movie’s open casting call and my dreams of stardom went unanswered, a few friends and I managed to sneak onto the movie set and witness Angelina in action.

Spend a few days wandering around Battambang and soaking in the art and culture scene, and then hire a tuk-tuk to see the attractions outside the city, namely the Bamboo Train, the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau, the Bat Cave, and Wat Banan Temple. The Bamboo Train is a touristy but entertaining excursion where bamboo rafts powered by gas engines transport passengers seven kilometers through the countryside along metal rails.

The Killing Caves – one of the sites of Khmer Rouge mass executions – provide a sobering look into a human tragedy, while the Bat Cave exhibits one of nature’s wonders. At sunset every day, thousands upon thousands of bats fly out of the Bat Cave to feed, a breathtaking phenomenon to behold. If you drive down the road, you can watch the bats soar over the rice fields and disappear over the horizon. During my visit to the Bat Cave, we were equally astounded by the spectacle of two of Angelina’s children, Shiloh and Pax, standing before us.

I expected to be tired of Khmer temples after three days of touring the Angkor ruins, but Wat Banan was worth the visit. The temple dates back to 1050 AD, even before Angkor Wat, although it was rebuilt in 1210 AD. Like many of the Angkor temples, it was originally dedicated to Hindu gods before its conversion to a Buddhist temple. That its four towers are still standing is a miracle as they look ready to collapse at any moment. Luckily they remain erect, giving visitors the opportunity to examine the captivating carvings adorning their exteriors. Climbing the 360 stairs up to the temple can pose a challenge, but results in a rewarding view of the surrounding countryside.

Where to Stay
Hostel BTB Cambodia is so new that it was still being built during my visit to Battambang. Don’t let that deter you, however. Despite construction, the dorms and bathrooms were clean and the showers were hot. The owner is very knowledgeable about the area and can share with you a number of things to see beyond the main tourist attractions. He helped us book bus tickets to our next destination and offered us a resting place when our bus decided to show up not one, not two, but three hours late. At $3 a night, Hostel BTB Cambodia is a steal!

Where to Eat
The Kitchen’s Coconut Strawberry Freeze and Fish Taco Salad are the perfect antidotes to a long day of traveling. You can sit and eat in the downstairs café or browse the exhibits in the upstairs art gallery. Apart from the Mexican food at The Kitchen, you can get decent Spanish tapas at The Lonely Tree Café and tasty Indian food at Flavors of India. Pay a visit to White Rose for fruit shakes, my favorite of which is the creamy pineapple, banana, and soursop shake. For prime people watching, get a drink at Bric-a-Brac, a boutique which specializes in Asian cookbooks and hand-made tassels, textiles, and scarfs (perfect gifts for your family and friends after your trip to Cambodia!). Every evening, the shop transforms its storefront into an al-fresco wine bar. Lest I forget, no visit to Battambang would be complete without tasting the divine chocolate hazelnut cake at Choco L’Art Café.

Off the Beaten Path in Cambodia

About Chi Pat
Chi Pat refers to the Community Based Ecotourism (CBET) project in Chi Pat village, located amidst the Cardamom Mountains in Koh Kong Province, Cambodia. Started in 2007 by the Wildlife Alliance, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization supporting conservation programs in Southeast Asia, CBET aims to protect the Cardamom rainforest and provide inhabitants income-generating opportunities by transforming former loggers and wildlife poachers into tour guides, guest house owners, and taxi drivers. CBET offers travelers trekking, mountain-biking, kayaking, and camping expeditions through the jungle, as well as opportunities to stay at homestays in Chi Pat village.

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Chi Pat Village

Getting to Chi Pat
When you try to book a bus ticket to Chi Pat, don’t be surprised if the travel agent appears lost. Chi Pat has not yet become a mainstream tourist attraction, but not to worry, you can reach it by making a stop along the well-traveled route between Phnom Penh and Koh Kong. If you’re traveling from Phnom Penh, ask the bus driver to let you off in Anduong Tuek, a town about an hour before Koh Kong. From Anduong Tuek you can travel to Chi Pat by motorbike taxi or taxi boat (if you make a reservation in advance of your arrival, Chi Pat will even have a taxi waiting for you!).

The journey by motorbike is for the hardiest traveler. As your driver speeds through country dirt roads, you’ll pray that you don’t topple from running into one of the many sand or stone hazards. Adventure junkies, enjoy the ride! If a laidback excursion is more your pace, meander down the Preak Piphot River on a taxi boat. The boat ride takes twice as long as the motorbike ride (two hours as compared to 45 minutes), but it is a perfect opportunity to admire the surrounding scenery.

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House on the Preak Piphot River

Adventures in Chi Pat
Once you arrive in Chi Pat, you can choose from numerous activities including trekking, mountain-biking, kayaking, lobster fishing, and Khmer cooking classes. Activities range from a few hours to several days and from the more relaxed to the more adventurous. We opted for a four-day trek with three days of sleeping in the jungle and stops along the way to see a bat cave, ancient burial jars, and waterfalls.

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During the four days, we walked for more than 60 kilometers through jungle pathways and on country roads, swam in waterfalls, slept in hammocks, jumped off cliffs, ate freshly caught fish, and exercised on a veritable jungle gym. Our guide, Rath, amused us with his terrible English puns and childish pranks, most of which involved poking me with a stick from behind or making animal noises to scare me (Rath, if one day you wake up with a snake in your bed or shaving cream all over your face, you’ll know that I’ve come for my revenge!).

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Rath, our guide, with my friend Eunice

While we marched through the jungle, our cook, Pro, rode his motorcycle loaded with cooking supplies and foodstuffs to the campsites to prepare our meals. We couldn’t stop marveling watching him drive his small bike over waterfalls and through the jungle. At night, we competed with our guide and cook to see who could sing classics from their home country louder. I never imagined that I would belt out the songs from “Frozen,” “Rent,” or Queen in the jungle!

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Pro, our cook, riding his motorcycle through the jungle

On our return from the jungle, Pro cooked one last meal for us which he invited us to eat at his house. Eating in his yard, among his family members, the chickens, and the animals reminded me of my time spent living in rural Paraguay, as did squatting on the ground and washing my clothes by hand at the guesthouse later that afternoon.

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Rural Cambodian house
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Water buffalo in the fields

We spent our last night in Chi Pat enjoying cocktails/mocktails with Rath and Pro, and eating the most delicious Khmer meal I’ve had in Cambodia at Dantara Cooking School, located a few doors down from CBET (make sure to try the Amok and the Tom Yum soup with freshly caught lobsters).

Review of Chi Pat
My experience in Chi Pat was not at all what I anticipated in terms of the logistics, transportation, and adventure activities.

Regarding logistics, its website is well-organized, but CBET’s functioning is a little more haphazard in person. CBET asked my housing and meal preferences ahead of time via the online reservation system, and again when I checked in. Despite requesting vegetarian meals for the three of us, the only accommodation the center made was including scrambled eggs in their dinner buffet; the two vegetable dishes they served both contained meat. For this simple meal of rice and eggs they charged $3.50 a person, not an inconsiderable sum for a meal in Cambodia. I cannot imagine what they would have prepared if one of us had requested a vegan option! My misgivings about that first dinner in the village aside, our cook prepared several tasty vegetarian and pescatarian meals for us in the jungle. Payment was also a great source of irritation as the CBET office repeatedly tried charging me for my friend Michael’s activities, meals, and accommodation. That being said, revise and pay your bill the night before you check out, and eat meals outside of the CBET center and you will be fine.

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Pro cooking a tasty vegetarian meal for us while atop a waterfall
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Eating lunch in the jungle

Where CBET excelled in coordination was transportation. I was pleasantly surprised when CBET arranged to have a taxi boat pick me up at Anduong Tuek. I was even more impressed with its response when our return taxi boat couldn’t start due to engine problems. CBET assembled a caravan of motorbike taxis to ensure that all 14 passengers caught their buses to other destinations. The taxis dropped us off a small restaurant in Anduong Tuek with enough time to spare for lunch before our buses arrived.

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The view while waiting for the motorcycle taxis to arrive

In terms of its social mission, CBET has received a number of awards for its ecotourist activities. For this reason, I was understandably disappointed when I saw trash littered on the trails and near the campsites. I further disapproved of its distributing plastic water bottles to tourists for the jungle treks instead of filling reusable bottles with boiled or filtered water. If CBET aims to be truly environmentally sustainable, it should take more actions to clean up the forests it aims to protect and prevent the creation of further waste.

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Cambodian countryside

As for the adventure activities, active travelers accustomed to arduous treks such as those found in Peru and Nepal may not find the trekking offered by CBET to pose enough of a challenge. Notwithstanding the distance, our trek felt more like a long walk. We hiked for nearly six hours on both the first and second days, but for only two to three hours on the third and fourth days, ending the days’ activities by 12 PM and 11 AM, respectively. Of the four days, we only spent two hiking through the jungle; the other two we walked through the countryside. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the expedition. The days walking through the fields and past houses offered opportunities to observe rural Cambodian life and people. Swimming in waterfalls was a delight after hours of hiking in the heat and sun. It’s not often that a trek offers a daily opportunity to bathe in a stream!

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Walking through farms and the countryside
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Stream near our first campsite in which we swam and bathed

If you’re looking for technically challenging trails through remote wilderness, there are other destinations in Southeast Asia. However, if you’d like to experience the “real Cambodia,” strolling through farms, living with locals, playing with children, and chatting with villagers, then Chi Pat is the destination for you!

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Village children on the way to school
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Pro with his daughter