A month in the Kingdom of Wonder

We just finished a month in Cambodia, it was truly a different experience than what we had so far. A poor country, still recovering from a long period of war, but in contrast to that, we found the people to be very friendly and smiling, even when their personal situations are difficult. It seems corruption is systemic (although touched us rarely directly) and plays to the hand of the government and the people tied to it. Infrastructure is quite basic but it is possible to arrive to most places either by either bus, minibus (run by different private companies) or by hiring a taxi. We had some adventures with getting to some remote places… Surprisingly, it was not as cheap as we thought it would be. We found food to be more expensive than China or Thailand and for lodging we needed to book two rooms in many cases (luckily we could find affordable prices). Cambodia is actually using a combination of USD and Cambodian riel (which is used for smaller change and more widely used by the locals). The use of US dollars is actually very misleading, things add up quickly and when converting to the Canadian currency, things are not as cheap as they seem.

We flew from Kunming (China) to Bangkok, which was the cheapest way to arrive into the area. We stayed three days in Bangkok which we actually enjoyed; we expected a messy, dirty, chaotic place and we were favorably surprised. After a month in China arriving in a warm country felt like we were on vacation (this might sound strange — but traveling in China is demanding and it was getting cold in December). We did some sightseeing, but it was peak season and many people were on their Christmas holiday in the city, so we took it really relax.

night market in Bangkok

We took a direct bus to Siem Reap, our first stop in Cambodia. M was very much looking forward to visit this country.

taking the bus to Cambodia
standing on the border between Thailand and Cambodia

Siem Reap is the city (it’s more of an enlarged town really), which is close to the famous Angkor temple complex, thus making it very touristic. We were there at peak season — Christmas break, so that didn’t help. It was also one of the places where we stayed the longest until now, and some days we did nothing at all. The heat in combination with Cambodia’s relaxed style of living, we just enjoyed staying in our little guesthouse (Babel) which provided us everything we thought (and didn’t think) we needed — on site restaurant, pool, transport, new friends and air-con when required. This time also included visits to many temples close and far, celebrating New Year, M’s birthday, taking a Khmer cooking class, seeing a Cambodian circus and traditional dances shows, and even some ‘sick days’ for N and D. Needless to say, Angkor is very impressive, but the heat and the crowds doesn’t make the visit easy.

Angkor Wat at sunrise

We did a quick two day trip to Benteay Chhmar (to visit a temple) and Battambang, and came back to Siem Reap taking a full day boat trip.

sitting on the boat roof

We left Siem Reap for good to visit two other remote temples, Koh Ker (pretty much in the middle of nowhere) and Preah Vihaer (on the northern Thai border), which was much more of a hassle than expected.

looking at the plains at Preah Vihaer temple
at Koh Ker

Our next area was the Mekong River, which we explored a bit from Stung Treng. This place turned out to be a highlight of our time in Cambodia. We stayed in a secluded lodge/resort on the river for several days, enjoying the local restaurant, kayaking, and camping for one night camping on sandy island of the river (which turned out to be a quiet party with the young lodge staff). We found the Mekong amazing: large, full of life, quiet but strong and fast, truly mighty.

kayaking on the Mekong

Further to the south, still on the Mekong, we had the chance to see the almost extinct Irrawaddy dolphins near Kratie. Also, N got injured on a bicycle so he was not able to walk for two days — which was actually a very quick recovery.

dolphin watching near Kratie

We had a very short time in Phnom Penh. The city was pretty much how we thought Bangkok would be: noisy, dirty and chaotic.

Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, with a model of Angkor Wat

By this time we were in a hurry (our visa was going to end), we rushed down to Kampot and Kep, where we explored a few caves in the area and one of the famous Kampot pepper farms. Kampot is a sleepy town, but it has a nice atmosphere which we liked.

at the Kampot pepper farm

We returned to Phnom Penh only to take a minibus to Sen Monorom, Mondulkiri, in eastern Cambodia. In Sen Monorom, we booked two days at the Elephant Valley Project, which is a sanctuary for retired working elephants. The two days included two half day visits at the elephants and two half day volunteering for the project. It was a very satisfying and educating experience. On the bad side, M managed to get her foot injured on the last day (an injury that took about a month to heal).

at the Elephant Valley project

From there we cut through the country, through Phnom Penh (where we managed to quickly meet M’s friend from Quebec who also visited Cambodia during the same period) to the western edge, to Koh Kong. On our last day in Cambodia we did a day tour to Koh Kong island, relaxing, snorkeling, visiting some mangroves, altogether a very enjoyable day.

on a beach on Koh Kong

Our time in Cambodia had a lot of enjoyable and memorable experiences. We met some wonderful and interesting people, locals and travelers alike. We would have loved to stay longer and explore more areas, as we didn’t have time for the southern coast or trekking in National parks. We still have some things left for next time :)

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