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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.

Puttering around Phnom Penh: A Guide to Cambodia’s Capital City

Many travelers will tell you to skip Phnom Penh, but it was one of my favorite places to stay while in Cambodia and a place I can easily imagine living for a few years. While backpackers decry the city as dirty and hectic, I found the city to be much less chaotic than other Asian metropolises. With a population of 2.2 million people, Phnom Penh is a small and manageable city; it has far fewer residents than Bangkok (14.6 million), Ho Chi Minh (9 million), and even Washington D.C. (6 million). I enjoyed wandering around town, going on self-guided food tours of the city, exercising along the riverside, and unwinding at the cinema.

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What to See
Travelers interested in the history of Cambodia can pay a visit to the National Museum of Cambodia which houses the country’s largest collection of Khmer art and artifacts, including countless statues of Hindu and Buddhist divinities which survived the ransacking of temples by tomb raiders. You can learn about the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge and bear witness to victims’ sufferings by seeing Choueng Ek (the Killing Fields) and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (formerly the S-21 Prison) and hiring a guide or an audio guide.

Disturbing images from the Killing Fields 

Architecture buffs and the spiritually-minded should check out Phnom Penh’s many wats, or temples, in addition to the Royal Palace. While Wat Phnom is the most famous pagoda, I was taken with the vast temple complex of Wat Botum Vatey and the sun setting over Wat Ounalom.

Images of Wat Botum Vatey and Wat Ounalom

The Royal Palace, the residence of King Norodom Sihamoni, resembles the Grand Palace in Bangkok but with a tenth of the tourists.

Images of the Royal Palace

For prime people watching, take a stroll down the historic riverside of Sisowath Quay at dusk or stop by Royal Palace Park or Wat Bottom Park at night. Cambodian families, monks, and tourists alike often gather in parks during the weekends and evenings to converse and picnic, while vendors sell food, toys, and balloons, resulting in a carnival-like atmosphere wonderful to observe. Active travelers can utilize the free outdoor exercise equipment, join a game of soccer or doeurt sai, or participate in an aerobics class.

Monks chatting and a vendor selling food in Royal Palace Park

Lest I forget, make sure to take advantage of the green spaces (a rarity in Southeast Asia!) surrounding the Independence Monument and Statue of King Father Norodom Sihanouk.

Images of the Statue of King Father Norodom Sihanouk, Golden Bird Statue, and Independence Monument

Where to Stay
I almost chose to stay at the party hostel behemoth, Mad Monkey, but I opted to stay at the much more peaceful Envoy Hostel instead. Although the hostel was on the quieter side, I found it easy to meet other travelers. The dorm beds were comfortable, the air conditioning was a godsend, and the communal kitchen was an unexpected treat in Southeast Asia.

Where to Eat
St 63 Restaurant & Hostel has an extensive selection of appetizing Cambodian and Western dishes, as well as cocktails and mocktails. I liked the vegetarian pumpkin curry and vegetarian spring rolls so much that I ate at St 63 two nights in a row! Brunch enthusiasts can dine at Java Café while gazing at the current exhibition by Marine Ky. I happily devoured the monthly special, an Avocado and Smoked Salmon Stack, along with a Café Freddo there one Sunday morning. Offering a choice of burritos, quesadillas, bowls, and soft tacos with a selection of toppings, and sides of chips and guacamole and rice and beans, Cocina Cartel is, for all intents and purposes, a Cambodian version of Chipotle. Its glass noodle salad with tofu, sesame sauce, and lettuce and spicy watermelon smoothie make Sesame Noodle Bar a great lunch option for vegetarians. Lined with rows of fresh vegetables, freshly caught fish flopping on blocks, and dried foodstuffs, Kandal Market is my go-to spot for fresh fruit and fruit shakes. Lastly, ice cream lovers should check out Toto Ice Cream & Dessert Café. Try the soursop and mango-passion fruit flavors.

Images clockwise from left to right: Sesame Noodle Bar and Cocina Cartel

Where to Relax
Due to lenient copyright restrictions, Phnom Penh and other Cambodian cities have small movie houses which screen the newest films, host daily movie marathons, and rent private movie rooms for a much cheaper price than official movie theaters. You can even download movies to your phone or hard drive! I visited The Flicks Community Movie Houses multiple times while in Phnom Penh to catch the 2016 Oscar-nominated films. If you’re looking for the big box movie experience combined with the thrill of a theme-park ride, check out the 4D movies (3D movie + wind + water + movement) playing at Aeon Mall.

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Image of Cambodia Supreme Court