It is rare for me to travel to a destination where I've not spent hours reading and researching where I am heading to - My trip to Cambodia came around so quickly that I was totally unprepared, which in retrospect, was actually very refreshing (easier to do especially as the Frenchie kids were not travelling with me) -
In a way I assumed that it was going to be like discovering Thailand or Vietnam, countries I had already been to. However I discovered that Cambodia is not the same as Thailand or Vietnam, the people, the culture and their cuisine is different to that of their neighbours. The Cambodians are gentle and welcoming people, always happy to chat and say hello. They never hounded you to buy, there is the encouragement to do so but it is not overwhelming.
Travelling in September is not considered peak season as it is the monsoon, which is why/when Travel agents usually get to do trips. To travel in the off-peak season is not a bad thing to do either as this means smaller crowds at the big tourist sites. Though we had a fair bit of rain, we were still able to do all our touring in between downpours and very high humidity, provided you had constant water on hand it was all very manageable.
The week discovering Cambodia covered two nights in Phnom Penh and 4 nights in Siem Reap with a flight between each City. The longer stay in Siem Reap was great as it allowed plenty of time to visit the temples that dot this amazing landscape (more on that in the next post)
The time spent in Phnom Penh was rather short, the city is a busy capital, with bustling markets, restaurants, museums and the Palace. The lasting memory for me though will be the visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum. A school converted into a prison where people were tortured and killed during the Khmer regime. It is an important site to visit to understand the recent history of Cambodia. The day I visited I was jet lagged, 35C and high humidity to add to the difficulty of the visit. It is hard to imagine that the people I met along the way had lived it and experienced it - it occurred during my life time and I can't begin to imagine what it would have been like. The strength of the Cambodians shines through despite huge adversity that they suffered at the hands of the Khmer regime, yet the Cambodians remain gentle and smile hold their heads high.
I asked my guide how he felt each time he visited the Museum and his reply was ' I can cope with standing in the grounds and seeing the prison cells, but I can't bear to see the thousand of photographs of the victims.' He himself lost several siblings during the war. He showed me a locations in Siem Reap where as he kid, he saw dead bodies that lined the streets. I was at a loss for words.
There is plenty to do in Phnom Penh to spend a few days there and recover from jet lag if this is first pit stop on your trip. Phnom Penh is located on the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers -which you can walk along and take it all in . The Central market - Phsar Thmei is also great spot to visit, this is where the Cambodians come alive, with bustling food stalls, phone stalls, jewellery clothes you name it - just get lost in the annexes and let yourself discover take it all in.
The Royal Palace is the other impressive site to visit, the complex houses the famed the Silver Pagoda (the floor tiles are made of 1 kg silver bricks) within the pagoda is housed the Emerald Buddha made of baccarat - It was pretty amazing.
Here is a brief list of suggested activities you can do whilst in Phnom Penh:
This is a great hotel which is well located, easy to catch tuk tuks around and a great restaurant located across the road (more to come on food). The hotel has a restaurant which mainly serves breakfast, you can have lunch and dinner there but the menu was pretty basic and not as great as some restaurants I ate at. The hotel has various room options from apartments to Deluxe rooms. The biggest drawback is that there is no pool - with kids would be a necessity.
The rooms were clean and very comfortable, free wi-fi, hot cold showers, mini bar fridge, tv, and in room safe.
Visas: Most Nationalities require a visa for Cambodia, this can be obtained on arrival in most cases (please check with your consulates for the latest updates) approx US$25 cash, 2 passport photos are also required - the process was easy and done quickly.
Flights: This will depend where you are coming from however in most cases you will probably transit via Asia. If you are flying from Australia, you can use Singapore Airlines, Malaysian Airlines, Thai Airways, Air Asia just to name a few options.
Currency - the Cambodian Riel is the local currency however all prices and change is handed out in USD so no need to exchange your money on arrival - You will need clean crisp US dollar bills and in small denominations ie $1, $5, $10 - hard to break a $50 for small purchases.
The price of food will vary depending on your personal style etc, but lunch was usually between $3-$7 USD for a main meal and the portions are generous. Dinner was usually a little more the average was about $9-$12 USD for a main. You can eat for even less if you eat the market stalls on the run.