Caveat: I wrote this about 4 days ago, but we’ve been without internet.
There isn’t a huge amount to update in this post to be honest! We’re still in Siem Reap and have been relaxing to the max.
Having maxed out on temples, we’ve been relaxing a bit. We enjoyed a few rounds of minigolf at “Angkor Wat Putt”, a temple themed mini golf course. As well as being very cool, they also gave a free beer or soft drink for every hole in one, which we both managed. I was victorious on the day, although admittedly not by much.
The day after we moved to our current digs at Sojourn Boutique hotel (still in Siem Reap.) It had been recommended to us by our friends (hello Lizzy and Swiss) and I’d booked it in as a treat for Laura’s birthday. It’s an incredible hotel; very quiet, lovely pool to cool down when the suns out, luxurious rooms (with bath robes: I love bath robes,) tastey food and cheap cocktails.
Laura’s birthday was yesterday and her friends had lined up a swathe of treats for us. A nice afternoon in the spa (thanks Shirley and Ryan) followed with some white chocolate and raspberry birthday cake (thanks again Shirley and Ryan,) before going for “destination dining” in the evening (thank you Lizzy and Swiss.) We had a private terrace, a private chef and waiter, even a guy playing some sort of Cambodian xylophone as we tucked into an incredible three course feast (topped off with some baileys.) It was a wonderful experience and we were truly very spoilt.
It’s now going to be a rough crash down to earth. Tomorrow we have an 8 hour bus journey to 4000 islands in Laos, which is somewhat unsuprisingly a huge bunch of islands in the Mekong. We have a basic homestay booked and look forward to a day of cycling, before going on a 15 hour or so bus journey up to the north of the country to the capital Vientiane. Spotify is fully loaded up, Kindles are charged, and we’re ready to get back on the backpacking trails.
Mission accomplished- somehow we’ve managed 3 days of temples. Although it’s been hard work at times because of the heat and the distances we’ve had to cover, it’s been totally worth it. Yesterday we hired a tuk tuk and went 2 hours northeast of SR to Beng Mealea and Bantaey Srei, also a cheeky last visit to Angkor Wat.
As well as seeing what seems like hundreds of temples, we’ve managed to fit in some awesome eating and drinking too, as well as an anniversary stay at The Shinta Mani Club. This hotel had got to be one of the best we’ve ever been to, if you ever get to come to Siem Reap, do a night here. Amazing.
Siem Reap monopoly, anyone?
Following our lovely trip to Battambang we’ve headed to Siem Reap, tourist capital of Cambodia and home to the famous temples of Angkor. Most people who visit Cambodia normally just visit Siem Reap to do the temples and never explore the rest of the country. As a result the entire city is built up to cater for tourists of all shapes and forms- from streets full of mid-range hotels to backpacker central near the aptly named “Pub street”, high priced boutique hotels and everything in between. This place is built to cope with tons of tourists.
Surprisingly though, there isn’t much to do (other than the temples). There’s plenty of restaurants and bars of varying quality, and plenty of places that will offer draft beer for 50c. But if you’re not eating or drinking, there doesn’t seem to be much else to do so far!
This hasn’t been an issue for us yet as we’ve been busy doing the Angkor temples. In the 11th and 12th centuries the kings of that time went on a massive building spree, building temple after temple in the Angkor area. All the temples have switched between Hindu and Buddhist in that time too. As a result you have a condensed area with absolutely tons of amazing architecture in various states of decline, from fully renovated to taken over by the trees.
The most famous of the temples is Angkor Wat; We made the effort to see it at sunset and sunrise (which meant a 4:30 start!).
We spent 2 days cycling around the temples; there’s a big loop (37km) and an inner loop (16km) which meant we got very sweaty: temperatures hit the mid thirties which meant we were devouring water at a rate of knots.
There are too many temples to talk about without being overly boring, so I’ll just mention my 2 favourite ones. Bayon is famous for it’s many faces- decorative stone columns with huge faces carved onto them. We came here straight after sunrise, about 5:40am, and had the entire temple to ourselves- very rare as it’s one of the most popular temples and normally rammed.
The entire temple is huge. It’s unfathomable how the ancient Angkorians built such amazing structures without modern technology. It’s an engineering feat, combined with some incredible decoration. Both Laura and I agree this is our favourite temple.
Ta Prohm, aka the tomb raider temple (they used it in the film) has been left almost completely derelict with the exception of wall reinforcements. The trees have been allowed to grow wild and intermingle freely with the structures. These aren’t just little trees, but monster ones which have been allowed to grow for centuries.
After two days we’re both templed and cycled out. Fortunately it’s our anniversary, and we’ve checked into a nice hotel with a pool to celebrate and relax. We’ve still got a day left on our Angkor passes though, so who knows? Maybe we’ll go see even more temples!
So 3 weeks in and we’ve ended up in Battambang, supposedly Cambodia’s 2nd largest city, after Phnom Penh….. so where is everyone? This is such a sleepy place, noone seems to be in a hurry to go anywhere or do anything and there isn’t actually that much to do…..or so Lonely Planet told us….
Another lesson learnt: Don’t believe everything LP tells you.
This is an awesome little place, so much so that we’ve extended our stay by 2 nights. It’s not go go go like PP was, however there is a lot to do, but at a relaxed pace. The architecture is stunning, all French colonial and eclectic. Just taking a walk around here was fascinating. It’s just outside the city that you see really cool stuff though – we hired some bikes and cycled north where we found a stunning temple.
If you’re ever in Battambang, go see the circus- it’s an arts school for teenagers- absolutely incredible. The original circus is in Battambang but when the students graduate they can go onto perform in the professional show in Siem Reap- all the proceeds from the show are invested back into the students education.
For our last day in BB, we went on another cycle trip, this time heading south to see the Killing caves. A similar situation to that in Phnom Penh, I’m only just beginning to comprehend the scale and impact of the Khamer Rouge and all of the suffering that people here went through. It’s hard to imagine that almost every family here would have lost at least 1 member to the atrocities. On our way out, we saw the famous bat caves- every night, at dusk, millions of bats leave the cave to fly to Tonle Sap lake to feed. Our camera didn’t do a great job at capturing it, but it was truly amazing. The fly in groups so from a distance it looks like a massive swarm of bees flying towards you!
A seemingly massive amount of time is spent whilst travelling figuring out our route; where are we going next, how do we get there, where do we stay? Information on the internet is impressively sketchy, with sites like wikitravel being particularly poor (yet also useful).
So, to try and help anyone else who stumbles upon this page in the future, here is out trip in detail. Where we stayed, how we got there. I hope this helps you figure out your way around.
We’re here in June/July. It’s rainy season and it’s low season, which meant a lot of stuff we’ve been able to do last minute as there’s a lot of availability. We’ve booked mostly through hotels.com, because for every 10 nights booked you get 1 night free, and airbnb, because it’s just really awesome for finding unique places and being able to communicate directly with the owners (really helpful when navigating to new places).
If you click here to sign up to airbnb, you can get $25 for free to use on your accommodation.
Ho Chi Minh City
Common Room Project (booked via AirBnB)
$15 a night
Ho Chi Minh City to Vinh Long, Mekong Delta
We turned up at the bus station (Ben Xe Mien Tay) and found the MaLinh ticket booth (far right of the booths, pretty obvious) and booked 2 tickets on the next bus (ours departed at 10am, we arrived at 9:45 and got on fine). Bus was a sleeper bus despite being daytime and was very cool. Cost about $5 each.
Happy Family Guest House (Booked via AirBnB)
$15 a night
The guesthouse is a bit of a journey from Vinh Long. Supposedly there is a free shuttle bus provided by Ma Linh to take you anywhere but after an hour and much hand waving nothing materialised. We took a taxi to the An Binh ferry (about 150k dong), went on the ferry by foot, then we were met by Tong and someone else on the other side who scootered us to the guesthouse on what was quite a nervewracking (but enjoyable journey) along thin paths.
On the reverse leg, we paid to get biked all the way to the bus terminal; this was marginally more expensive (think 150k dong each) but compared to taxi ended up cheaper and much easier. Would recommend doing it both directions.
Vinh Long to Can Tho
Not sure which bus station this went from as the xe om took us directly in. The bus clearly said “Vinh Long to Can Tho” on it and was a pay-on-bus affair. It was quite reasonably priced at a few dollars each.
Nguyen Shack Can Tho (booked via agoda)
Again, a bit out of town. As soon as we stepped off the bus we were jumped on by a xe om driver. With the help of his English speaking friend they figured out where we were heading, and took us for 60,000 dong each.
The manager organised a taxi back for us (a proper, 4 wheel, air con taxi) which dropped us off at the bus station.
Can Tho to Chau Doc
We got our accommodation to book the bus for us, going with the bright orange bus company. Despite being harassed by an old lady who wanted us to go with her cheaper (and less appealing) bus, we just headed straight to the offices, claimed our ticket and waited for the bus to turn up.
Victoria Nui Sam Lodge (Booked via hotels.com)
$30 a night
Although out of town, it was really easy to get to. The Chau Doc bus station is out of town, so there is a free transfer minibus. This took us to the Victoria hotel in town, which then had a free shuttle up to Nui Sam.
Chau Doc to Phnom Penh
There are a number of boat options at different price levels, but they’re all effectively the same (some may offer lunch for a huge added price to the ticket). We booked through our hotel which was an error as it cost us an extra $9 for nothing. We went with Hang Chau which, if you book with them, will cost you $25.
They will slightly overcharge you for the Visa for a “handling” charge, but it’s not worth fighting (think we paid $34 each).
The boat leaves from the dock right behind (and slightly to left) of the Victoria riverside hotel. Even in low season the boat was overbooked; we had to sit out back. I’m glad we did because we got great views and natural air conditioning, but the wooden seats are hard: we had travel cushions so it wasn’t so bad. A lot of people were angry about having to sit out back. If you would be one of them, get to the front so it doesn’t happen. Boat leaves at 7.15.
Don’t forget a passport sized photo.
To Be Continued…
After leaving the busyness of Phomn Penh, we headed south via bus (with actual westerners on- we’ve seen none on buses so far.) Around 4 hours later, we were dropped off in a tiny village, in the pouring rain (with said westerners all looking at us like we were idiots.) Almost immediately, a man shoved a sign in my face with my name on it. Yippee! Off we went through the mud and rain to a fishing boat for a beautiful yet wet 2 1/2 hour journey up the Mekong.
We arrived at a tiny jetty and with some vague directions from the boat driver (pointing up a hill,) we went in search of a centre of the village of Chi Phat, a small village in the Cardamon mountains. Here they welcome visitors to come and experience traditional Cambodian village life, whilst supporting the local economy. Everything you spend in Chi Phat goes directly to the community so that they can support themselves. We opted for a bungalow, at a hefty $10 per night. And that’s considered expensive here. Homestays are just $3- but with mine and Sam’s hatred of squat toilets we decided to splash out.
The village itself is pretty amazing- there’s so much biodiversity and the surroundings are spectacular. We thought about doing a jungle trek (calm down mum, we didn’t) but it’s been raining a lot and we just didn’t fancy trekking 25km soaking wet. We’ve read about people that have come down here for 2 nights and ended up staying 3 weeks- it’s not hard to see why.
I think 3 nights for me is enough though, especially after finding Joshua (why not,) the world’s largest spider (in my mind anyway) in the bathroom. I’ve tried, I really have, but I just can’t get over their legs. I keep peeking inside the hut, wondering when he’s going to next appear.
As it’s low season, it’s very quiet- which has its pluses and minuses. We went to deserted rapids and a waterfall and walked back through the village that’s littered with cows just chilling in waterholes at the side of the road. I succeeded in convincing Sam that kayaking with me would be great idea (did he learn nothing from our ‘amazing’ kayak experience in Langkawi?) It was indeed great, although we have cemented the fact that we cannot kayak together. Not in the same boat anyway.
The food has been amazing. It’s traditional Khmer food and so not something either of us would normally try but so glad we have. To be honest, at $2 a meal we’d probably eat most things.
One thing I’ve learnt about myself already: I really really don’t like only having 4 outfits to wear.
One thing I’ve learnt about Sam: He overpacks. Massively. How have I never realised this before? Who needs that many t shirts? Why would someone need 5 Apple chargers?
Somehow it’s only been two weeks since we started our adventure. It feels like we’ve packed so much into our time whilst also still being very relaxed; a nice combination of running around and chilling.
During my last post we’d just arrived at our open shack near Can Tho. We did a floating market tour of Can Be (the largest floating market in Vietnam) and the nearby land market where we got to try some new Vietnamese food: Bird’s ear (not actually made from bird, a deep fried sweet desert type thing) and beefcake (again no meat; sticky rice based cake). We also got to try some fruit that I’ve never seen before which tasted like Lychee.
After saying goodbye to the 5 cats, 2 dogs and Bacon the pig we headed up to Chau Doc, a border town between Vietnam and Cambodia. Having heard in advance that the town was a bit of a dump (it was) we headed slightly out onto the sacred Nui Sam mountain, which towered over the rest of town which was completely flat. Despite the dull weather the views were absolutely stunning, with Cambodia visible in the background and the farmers burning the excess organic material near by, fields of freshly planted rice in yellow and ready to harvest fields in green. Being low season there were only 5 or 6 people in the entire resort, which whilst eerily quiet allowed us near exclusive access to the pool.
We then moved onto Cambodia via speedboat. Not as glamorous as it sounds, as they’d overbooked the boat so we didn’t have a proper seat indoors but had to go onto the wooden benches out back for 5 hours. I’m glad we did though as we got to see life on the Mekong as we travelled between the countries, and my amazing travel cushion made the journey bearable.
The border itself has to be one of the laxest attempts at security I’ve ever seen. The waiting area was a big garden, there were no queues or immigration areas. People just mulled around whilst the guide acquired our visas and our passports got stamped. It would be very easy to get past if you were so inclined!
Eventually we arrived in Phnom Penh, which was nothing like we expected; The internet had sold us stories of it being a recovering city, and we were expecting something even more run down that Ho Chi Minh. We were very wrong; Phnom Penh is more like Bangkok than anything else, and is highly internationalised. Restaurants of all different kinds of cuisine (including Mexican, which was a nice treat), tons of fancy shopping and guesthouses, pavements which were walkable and an amazing waterfront make this into a true cosmopolitan city.
The only problem was that it is much more expensive than we imagined. It was so hot that you couldn’t walk around, and the only transport option is tuk tuk; There were no public busses we could see. Each trip comes to $2 or $3 which quickly adds up over a day. Whilst food can be cheap (we got a curry and pad thai for $1.5 each at the night market) it can also get western-pricey, which resulted in us breaking our budget on a couple of days.
Interesting aside; The currency here is bizarre. For transactions over $1, US dollars are generally used. For anything under, the local currency “Riel” is used at a conversion of 4000R to 1 USD. You need to be quick at maths to ensure that you’re not getting ripped off by the tuk tuk drivers!
Mid way through our stay we decided to go on a bicycle tour to the Killing Fields and Mekong Islands. Less than 40 years ago Cambodia suffered a Genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge with millions of the population killed, often at one of the hundreds of “Killing Fields” around the country. The largest is located 15km south of PP, and was a truly harrowing experience. In a central monument they have placed thousands of excavated skulls, arranged by age, along with the weapons used to kill them; bullets were too expensive so executions were normally done with hand weapons like bats or much worse. Whilst I’m glad we went, there is something deeply unsettling about walking atop human remains. The government has left a number of the mass graves unexcavated as a reminder, and with each rain more bones and fragments of clothes exposes on the surface.
The day cheered up a bit from then. We cycled back to PP and onto a Ferry to one of the many islands adjacent to the city. The juxtaposition is startling; looking over the water you can see skyscrapers and a modern city, all whilst standing on a dirt track next to metal shack. We then embarked on an epic tour of the islands that, by the time we arrived at the hotel, meant we’d clocked over 70km of cycling. Laura cycles at the gym so found it easy, whereas I was a broken man but pleased to have completed it. If you’re ever in PP, we highly recommend you use Phnom Penh Bicycles. The owner Thong was our guide and it’s amazing the work he’s done setting the company up from scratch. He used to cycle 15km a day to the American embassy to use the free internet to teach himself English, and he’s then been teaching himself business and has set up a really professional outfit. He was exceptionally personable and the whole tour was one of the highlights of our trip.
Which brings us to today. We decided to try to go somewhere a bit more remote, which we have thoroughly achieved. We are at Chi Phat, an eco-village located in southern Cambodia. To get here, we had to get a bus to the middle of nowhere to then get a 2.5 hour boat down the Mekong. It’s a beautiful place, and really cheap (dinner is $3.50, accommodate is $3-$10), and with lots of excursion to waterfalls, bat caves and see other local flora and fauna. There’s just one problem.
It’s raining. Really raining. Monsoon raining. It’s day 2, and other than a brief lull this morning, it’s been non stop.
If it stops, we’ll hopefully put some nice photos of waterfalls up. If not, then there’ll be photos of us looking wet and sad. At least the beer is $0.75 a can!