Finally after travelling in a mini bus without air con and countless number of potholes we made it to Siem reap in Cambodia.
After the classic bombardment of tuk tuk drivers we made our way to our hotel. We chose a hotel rather than a hostel as a treat; it was family run and had a nice pool however our room was INFESTED with mosquitos. I have no idea where they were coming from but they were multiplying like crazy. We became pros at swatting them but we became dinner most nights too.
The main reason people end up in Siem Reap is to visit the famous Angkor Wat Temple. Angkor Wat is an incredible heritage sight built hundreds of years ago with huge attention to detail and precision of architecture. It remains mostly in tact compared to its other surrounding temples and it is a statement of Cambodia’s history.
As Angkor is around 7km from Siem Reap we knew we had to either join a tour or grab a tuk tuk. We decided to rent a tuk tuk driver for the day (thanks to our hotel) to visit Angkor and all of the surrounding temples. If you shop around you can probably get a better deal but sometimes it’s not worth haggling and to just enjoy the ease of someone organising it for you.
We knew that Angkor is popular at both sunrise and sunset but we decided to go for sunrise so we could spend the rest of the day exploring. We set off around 4am to go and buy tickets; although the ticket counter doesn’t actually open to 5 it pays to get there early to queue as the lines can get quite long. We managed to get into a queue which was moving rather quickly and so we got back to our tuk tuk in time to set off for Angkor before the sunrise.
Try and get to the ticket booths as early as possible as a lot of people actually missed the sunrise because of the queues.
(Make sure that you are suitably dressed for the temples, especially women! Cover your shoulders and knees to be respectful but make sure it is lightweight as it gets incredibly hot in the middle of the day.)
When we arrived at Angkor there were lots of people waiting outside the main temple to watch the sunrise over the lake however we decided to go in and watch it rise over the main temple. Unfortunately our sunrise wasn’t the best (you can’t control the weather) but it was still amazing to see the sun explode through the old ruins of Angkor. If you get there early you can get to the front of the pond to set your camera up for the famous reflection shot; however lots of people stand here and your chance of getting that perfect ‘insta’ shot is nearly impossible.
If you go to the right of the pond you can still get great photographs and actually enjoy the sunrise with less of a crowd. (Just don’t sit underneath a coconut tree!)
After sunrise we decided to go and have a look inside and it was incredible. There is so much history in these walls and it is phenomenal that people built this so many years ago. The level of detail on every wall, every stone was out of this world. Because we had our tuk tuk driver for most of the day we decided to visit as many sites as possible. Angkor Wat is just one of many temples which live inside this ‘national park’ so it is actually very simple to fit more temples into your day.
My favourite temple we visited was named Ta Prohm. Unlike Angkor this temple has been completely untouched for years and so has become over run by nautre! You’ll find trees intertwined with rocks and vines wrapped around statues. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and I was completely in awe. I have a huge fascination with trees and to see them almost take back their land was beautiful. If you’re a movie fan you will recognise this temple, as Lara Croft Tomb Raider was filmed here, quite a fitting location!
After a long day of temple searching we ended the night with a few friends on the famous Pub Street. We ended up being awake for over 24 hours but it was so worth it! Pub Street is great for cheap beer and some dancing so if you end up there you’ll have a good evening; a little less wild than the Khao San Road in Thailand but still just as fun!
If you have time in Siem Reap and want a little bit more knowledge about the history of Cambodia, notably about the religious legends and architecture, you can check out the National Museum. It’s a great place to go before visiting Angkor to put into perspective the scale of the build!
After Siem Reap we headed to Battambang which is a small city famous for its bamboo trains and bats. We stayed in the cutest little hostel (The Place) with great hosts who actually arranged a trip with some other guests to visit the surrounding areas of Battambang.
Our journey took us on a bamboo train which was a (very noisy) experience; the killing caves and eventually the bat caves for sunset. These were the first killing caves that we came across in Cambodia and it was very emotional to see. I didn’t know anything about Cambodia’s dark and recent history under the reign of the Khmer Rouge and so this was the beginning of my education.
As Battambang was rather small we only stayed for a couple of days before making our way across to Phnom Penh. Unfortunately it did not stop raining when we arrived but we knew we were coming back so it wasn’t the end of the world. The next day, after a horrendous journey which made us miss our ferry we headed towards the islands of Cambodia. We decided to stay on Koh Rong Sanloem for four days as we heard it was quite idyllic. Unfortunately it rained the majority of the time we were there!
Our first stop was Onederz Hostel which had great food and the cutest cat who I wanted to sneak home! On our first night we went night time swimming to see the luminescent plankton. I popped in the water but came straight back out as who knows what was swimming beneath me! They were beautiful to see glow though! On this island there was actually no wifi or reception so, although it rained a lot we got some reading in and met loads of new people which is always the perk of travelling. If you’re staying on the main island, there is a place called the Big Easy you should check out; they do great food and often host quiz nights!
After a few days at Onederz we headed across the bay to the Mad Monkey Hostel. These hostels do have a bit of a reputation for being party places but being in the middle of nowhere with no phones made it quite fun! We bumped into a couple we had met before so spent the next few days chilling with them and enjoying the freedom! We did attempt to go in the sea when the rain succumbed but the water was super dirty as a result of the mainland which is such a shame.
After a relaxing few days it was back to chaos when we arrived in Sihanoukville. This used to be a nice seaside down but has become overrun with skyscrapers and building sites and rubbish strewn everywhere. We planned to get an early bus out of there to Kampot and it was THE most unorganised thing I’ve ever seen. People had been waiting for hours before us and people were coming after us and they expected us all to fit on one bus. It was such a shambles we were just lucky enough to get seats and be on our way. This is one thing about Asia, transport is crazy, you do get used to it but sometimes it’s too much!
When we finally made it to Kampot we were staying at Jamie’s choice of hostel. We stayed at Arcadia and it was basically a low budget water park which actually turned out to be pretty fun. Jamie threw himself off slides and ropes while I stayed nice and dry in the sun! It’s a small world as I actually bumped into someone from my home town in this hostel. If you want some adventure and a nice place to stay for a couple of days this is it!
We then headed for the last place in Cambodia, Phnom Penh. This place is crazy busy but has some great food spots to escape the chaos. We tried a 99% plastic free restaurant and a family-run Indian with a family friend who informed us on Cambodia’s history before we visited the S21 museum and the killing fields.
After learning about the Khmer Rouge and the atrocities that occurred under their regime we decided to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum otherwise known as the S21 museum and the Choeung Ek killing fields on separate days. They are very emotionally draining and to get the most out of your visit you need to spend a long time there, listening to the audio guides and reading the graphic, yet important information.
The S21 museum is in the city of Phnom Penh and was once a secondary school, however during the regime it was used to imprison and torture around 20,000 people. To see how these people were treated and to read the stories is horrific and emotional. I’m shocked that I had not learnt about this, such recent history in school or even on my own as it only happened around 40 years ago.
To visit Choeung Ek you must take a tuk tuk or car as it is outside of the city. This place was used as a killing site for around 1 million people in such brutal and inhumane ways. It is now used for education purposes and to remember those lives that were taken. If you have time, read about the Khmer Rouge, educate yourself about why and how this was allowed to happen. It was a very emotional day but one that, if you visit Cambodia you should experience.
Cambodia, despite having such a dark history is a vibrant country with lovely inhabitants and is a must see on your Asian trip! After spending a few weeks here we then headed for Vietnam, as long as our visas would let us in!
To enter Vietnam you need a visa before you arrive unlike some countries where you can get it on arrival. Now to make sure you don’t make the error we did, know the border destination!
Because we didn’t know anything about visas/ Vietnam before we left we applied for an e-visa which was super confusing. We knew Ho Chi Minh was our destination so put that down as our entry port and Phnom Penh as our exit. This was wrong; we had accidentally put down seaports!
We weren’t the only ones with errors on our visa that we met along the way, so that was slightly reassuring. Firstly because our visa was an E-visa the embassy couldn’t help change it at all and the online system were not replying. We ended up booking a bus for the next day with a reliable company who deals with every passenger’s visa when you board the bus. We were super lucky as the assistant on the bus obviously corrected our error and we got through however I would advise not risking it as it dampened our few weeks in Cambodia being stressed!
If you are travelling from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh by land make sure to write the border of Bavet to Mom Bai on your visa.