A tale of 2 cities: 5 places to visit in Cambodia

This is the third part of my 2013 backpack trip series. This time, it’s about the second country I visited – Kampuchea!

During my 4 days stay in Cambodia, I visited Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. I came through the Viet Nam – Cambodia border in Moc Bai – Bavet. The bus from Ho Chi Minh to Phnom Penh costs roughly 8-10 USD and takes around 7-8 hours depending on the immigration time.

Moc Bai, the Viet Nam immigration at the Vier Nam-Cambodia border.
Moc Bai, the Viet Nam immigration at the border.

From Phnom Penh, buses take 7-8 hours to get to in Siem Reap. It’s relatively cheaper costing only 6-8 USD depending on the bus company.

Here are 5 places that I think tourists in Khmer country shouldn’t miss:

(1)    Angkor Archaeological Park

This is, perhaps, the most important part landmark in Cambodia. This is also the main reason why I visited Siem Reap.

The Angkor Archaeological Park is home to the ruins of the once great Khmer civilization that covered almost all of French Indochina – Viet Nam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar. The park has many different temples that depict the ancients’ traditions and spirituality.

At the middle of the Angkor Wat temple inside the Angkor Archaeological Park.
At the middle of the Angkor Wat temple inside the Angkor Archaeological Park.

For tourists, it costs 20 USD for a one-day tour, 40 USD for a four-day tour and 60 USD for a seven-day tour. For Khmers, there are no entrance fees. Guests are given passes with photos taken at the ticketing station. This is for security and verification purposes.

Since I was travelling alone, I took the challenge of cycling around the 30 kilometer route around the park. For 2 USD, I had the bike for the whole day. The experience was tiring but it was really worth it. There were instances when I just stood and marveled at the majestic ruins of Angkor.

I happened to pass by some elephants while biking.
I happened to pass by some elephants while biking.

The most famous part of the park is Angkor Wat itself. This temple, which is the national symbol of Cambodia as seen in their flag, stands in the middle of Lake Angkor and is still being used by Buddhist monks. Carved within the walls of this temple are the anecdotes and legends of the Khmer civilization.

The other attractions inside the temple are the Bayon, the temple with many faces, and Wat Preah.

One of the many faces of Bayon.
One of the many faces of Bayon.

Visiting the Angkor Archaeological Park is a great way to understand and appreciate Khmer culture and history. It definitely is the-must-visit place for anyone visiting Cambodia.

Friendly tip though, don’t forget to bring sunblock and face towel as the sun is scorching hot in this province, all year round.

(2)    Royal Palace

Phnom Penh serves as the capital of this country. As such, it houses many important traditional and governmental buildings. One such building is the Royal Palace of Cambodia.

This building served as home of the kings of Cambodia since it was built in 1860 with the exception of the Khmer Rouge turmoil. Compared to the Grand Palace of Thailand, the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh had wider spaces and more modern looking buildings. There are also remnants of the French colonization as some of the buildings are French themed.

At the middle of the Khmer Royal Palace with the awkward jacket.
At the middle of the Khmer Royal Palace with the awkward jacket.

Tourists pay 5 USD to enter while Khmers can enter for free. The palace is also very strict in implementing dress codes. I learned this the hard way. Since I was a backpacker, I dressed like one. I was wearing elephant-themed pants and sando which I bought in Siem Reap. The guard did not allow me to enter the palace premises. Thankfully, my friend Veronica Na, whom I met in ASF 2012, had a jacket. She let me borrow her jacket so I can enter the palace; hence, the weird look.

That's a model of the Angkor Wat. The other one can be found in the Grand Palace in Bangkok.
That’s a model of the Angkor Wat. Another model can be found in the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

The dress code: wear shirts with sleeves and pants.

(3)    Sisowath Quay

This is the riverside of junction of Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers in Phnom Penh. This is equivalent to the Philippines’ Manila Bay, Bangkok’s Chao Phraya, Viet Nam’s Saigon River, Seoul’s Han river and Sarawak’s Kuching river.

Sisowath Quay is a great place to see and appreciate the beautiful Khmer sunset. There are also parks along the area where tourists can have snacks and rest.

The best way, at least for me, to appreciate the Khmer sunset would be to ride the river ferry.

On board the boat with my friend Veronica Na.
On board the boat with my friend Veronica Na.

There are stations along the bay where tourists can ride the ferry and cruise the river for an hour. The boats have two stories and passengers can bring food inside. When I rode the ferry, some of the passengers had a picnic and were actually cooking food inside the boat.

The view of Phnom Penh from the middle of the Tonle Sap River.
The view of Phnom Penh from the middle of the Tonle Sap River.

Passengers normally pay 2 USD for the ride. However, the ferrymen would require higher fees for foreigners up to around 7 USD. In my case, Veronica told me to pretend as a Khmer and not speak a word. The ferrymen thought I was Khmer and we actually got away with it.

(4)    Diamond Island

Diamond Island or Koh Pich is a developing financial center in Phnom Penh. For the past few years, the government had various establishments in the area.

It is located along the stretch of the Tonle Sap River. Different shopping malls and theme parks can be found in this island.

The Phnom Penh city hall is located within the Diamond Island.
The Phnom Penh city hall is located in the Diamond Island.

The city hall of Phnom Penh is also in this area. It follows a traditional French architecture and is beside a park.

Though still growing, Diamond Island presents a view into Cambodia’s future – a country rich with tradition and history yet still growing to become a developed country.

(5)    Night Markets

Night Markets are a trend in Cambodia. They are also great places to spend the night in.

The Angkor Night Market in Siem Reap is the first one to be established in Cambodia. It is beside the Old Market area and Pub Street which are famous for being tourist hot spots. Many restaurants and food places can be found in this area.

A yummy 8 USD meal in a Khmer restaurant.
A yummy 8 USD meal in a Khmer restaurant.

Many clean massage parlors can also be found in this area. I paid only 3 USD for an hour of excellent Khmer massage. There are also many fish spas where customers can put their feet inside an aquarium and small fishes will eat their dead skin. Fish spas cost 2 USD for 30 minutes.

The Phnom Penh Night Market is relatively smaller. There’s also not much thing to do here but shop and eat.  Street shops are good places to have excellent meals for cheaper prices.

The entrance to the Phnom Penh Night Market.
The entrance to the Phnom Penh Night Market.

Both night markets are, of course, great places to shop for souvenirs. The must-buy products are Khmer silk, traditional paintings, Angkor artifacts and Khmer designed clothes.

As in any country I’ve been to, beer is one thing I cannot miss. Angkor beer is also a must-try in these night markets. They come at very cheap prices and good qualities.

Cambodia is a great country for a vacation. It doesn’t only offer good tourist spots but more importantly, a colorful history and beautiful culture. It is a majestic country and in a sense, very Southeast Asian.

Given the chance, I’ll definitely go back to this country.

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