Last month I found myself in the enviable position of being asked to go on a Girl’s trip ‘somewhere’ NEXT WEEK !
I had a week free in the calendar ( well, nothing that couldn’t be reorganized ) and a heap of points so I thought ‘Why not !?’ .
Queue – the logistics…..
So originally the suggestion was Japan, a country I adore and would love to return but it was school holidays and flights were not so easy. I was only going to go if I could do it on rewards points so where next on the list ? We tried to stick to a 9 hour flight limit and hopefully direct, but again school holidays proved problematic.
Anyhooo, long story short, after a lot of keyboard time and many emails and messages Cambodia was the new destination.Something I was thrilled about as it has been high on my bucket list for quite sometime.
I was able to get a rewards flight, in BUSINESS CLASS, to Bangkok via Hong Kong so I jumped at it. I dont mind flying alone so was happy to meet the other girls in Seam Reap on the day – even if it took me 4 flights and 26 hours !
My first impression as I flew into Siem Reap is that Cambodia is very wet and very green ! It is wet season from July – October ( often called ‘Green’ season and its a great time to go as tourist numbers and prices are way down) so I guess that explains it, but there is water everywhere ! You can see why the rivers and lakes are such an integral part of the people’s lives.
The girls then had problems with their own flights and after a long wait in Brisbane airport were rerouted to Phnom Phen for the first night. I spent that night in SR on my own, swimming in the pool, getting a massage in the spa and scoping out the local area and in the morning I went out the airport with the driver to collect the other girls. Have lemons ? Make lemonade right ? Or perhaps a nice cold Angkor beer…
WHERE WE STAYED
After several recommendations from a number of friends we decided to lash out and splurge on the beautiful Shinta Mani Club Hotel and we were not disappointed. A stunning boutique hotel that would not be out of place ( for twice the money) in Bali or Singapore or Bangkok, with gorgeous decor, beautiful ambiance and, above all else, faultless service. Truly one of the best run hotels I have ever stayed in.
We booked a Pool view room which was slightly bigger for 3 of us sharing and high up with a view of the lovely pool. To be honest the room was a little cramped but a huge bathroom and balcony helped a lot and we really had a lovely stay.
It’s the smaller things though that stand out – the birthday cake and beautiful lotus flower bouquets bought to us by the pool along with the staff all singing happy birthday. The help yourself Cava on the buffet at Breakfast. The staff member who meets you with the driver at the airport and gives you a short tour back to the hotel. The care and attention taken to get us the best tuk-tuks to the best places and always with such welcoming and caring smiles.
Seriously, this hotel is amazing !
( we paid about aud$290 per night at http://shintamani.com/club/)
Siem Reap is a delightful and utterly charming town. It seems to have struck the perfect balance between authentic local town and global tourist destination but I’m not sure if it can juggle that for too much longer.
The ancient city of Angkor is of course the big attraction and it is truly a marvel – a once huge metropolis of over 250 square Kms and only 10 minutes out of Siem Real Centre.
But there are a lot of other things to do too !
Out and about
I knew of an expat local tour company through another Cambodian based friend so us 3 control freaks made a big leap of faith by deciding, given our time constraints, to put much of our planning into the hands of Lara at Gran Tourismo. Not something we would normally do but we also didn’t want to spend our whole trip researching our every move and Lara’s quotes were pretty reasonable.
One of the highlights of our trip was Lara’s shopping tour. Some seriously lovely shops in SR and so many talented and inspiring Artisans. She took us to a workshop that showcased all of Cambodia’s main crafts and watching the people, many with disabilities, producing incredible wood carvings, metalwork, fine jewellery, ceramics and fabrics was really awe inspiring and quite humbling. She also took us to the homes and studios of local designers and artists and many funky local boutiques many of which I’m not sure we would have discovered, nor had access to, on our own.
So on to Angkor, in fact recently voted the #1 tourist attraction in the world and I can see why, although there is a lot more to it than just that one temple – over 250 of them actually !
Everyone tells you to rise at 4 to be onsite for the sunrise so off we went bleary eyed but full of anticipation. We decided against a guided tour for the day and used Lara’s trusty Tuk Tuk driver and our own guide – a very cheap and flexible way of doing it and we had no regrets. A lot of people like the idea of an air conditioned van but to be honest the breeze when a Tuk Tuk is moving is lovely and you really see and feel the sites around you in a much more connected way.
We spent about 5 hours exploring this former megacity mostly at Angkor Wat, the Bayon and Ta Prohm, aka Lara Croft temple and instantly recognisable from the massive trees that have wrapped around it. We even got a blessing from a very handsome young monk.
You could spend 3 or 4 days exploring the massive 250sq km site and I know people who have done that. It really is quite phenomenal.
We spent another amazing day cycling in the countryside and visiting the floating villages on Tongle Sep lake, again organised by Gran Tourismo. I would go so far as saying this day was the highlight of the trip for me. We had great weather and the countryside was so peaceful and beautiful. The local people welcomed us everywhere and the children ran along next to us.
We had a lovely guide Choonta, an orphan making his way in the world with very good English taught at the orphanage, and he took us to one of the furthest floating villages from Siem Reap – Kompong Khleang – a town of some 1800 people with 3 schools, clinics and markets and a very peaceful and authentic feel.
I have heard most people go to much closer villages where there are tour buses, touters and Korean food ! But we only came across one other tour group our entire day – an American family with 3 small boys. The locals at Kompong Khleang still run the ferries and pier so the money goes back into the community.
We enjoyed a simple lunch at the home of a beautiful old soul, a woman who could not stop hugging us and beaming from ear to ear. The tour ended with a boat trip out to the massive Tongle Sep lake and it really is incredible to see the sheer size of it- 2700sqkms ! It took us about 20 minutes just to traverse the delta to get to the actual lake and there is water in every direction as far as the eye can see.It really was such a fantastic day !
Dining and drinking in Siem Reap
There are a number of fantastic bars, restaurants and cafes in Siem Reap and a growing number of expats running them, many Australian. Standout for us where meals at Sugar Palm where we chatted to the soon to be Brisbane resident, Kethana, and sampled her amazing Khmer food including Fish Amok a local specialty, and Malis a beautiful French inspired restaurant that we dined at after a very enlightening Bar tour with Lara. We also had some great cocktails at the beautiful old Raffles hotel and funky little Miss Wong’s. We couldn’t get into the critically acclaimed Cuisine Wat Damnak -seriously you could spend a month in Siem Reap and still not get around to all the wonderful places.
Typical of most ‘Pub streets’ but still relatively clean, safe and pleasant
On the recommendation of a Canadian friend we decided to stay in Battambang for a few days on the way to Phnom Phen. Battambang itself is a fairly forgettable city, the second largest in Cambodia but there’s a few things of interest to do.
One is the Bamboo Train. Once used to haul rice it’s now run for tourists although its also popular with local Cambodians teenagers. Essentially you sit on a Bamboo platform and hurtle off into the countryside at a clacking pace ( about 40kmph) until you meet another carriage coming in the other direction in which case the one with the least people, or carriages, gets up and dismounts from the tracks only to be put back again after the carriage passes. We really enjoyed this and so much so we even shopped at the end of the line where we enjoyed cold beers and squat toilets from the beautiful local people and their gentle ways.
The rest of the stay our tuk tuk man Mr Ol, another Khmer Rouge orphan and gentle old soul, took us around the countryside, over bamboo bridges, through Various villages including a small Muslim one, stopping to see the locals making fish paste, rice paper wrappers, sticky rice, ancient local temples and even the Battambang ‘killing fields’ where again many people were brutally murdered during Pol Pots reign. Mr Ol also patiently drove us to dinner and waited to take us home whilst showing us various sites around town including old French mansions, a great noodle house and even a funky little hotel and shop called Bric-a- Brac.
The Brangelina factor
Most people know I’m a huge Brad Pitt fan so imagine my excitement when I find the little hotel Lara booked for us , Maisons Wat Kor in the village of Wat Kor was booked out by the Pitt-Jolie clan in February to film the movie First they Killed my Father. And i got their room ! ( we paid about AUD$90 per room per night – ww.maisonswatkor.com)
They are revered like gods in Cambodia, especially at this hotel where the photos adorne almost every wall so imagine my shock when we returned from dinner our first night to read online that they were getting divorced ! Many sad faces in Cambodia that day.
On to Phnom Phen
A 5 hour drive with not a lot to see other than rice paddys and small towns and villages. PP is not unlike most big 3rd world cities – noisy, chaotic, clogged with traffic and a thin layer of dust and grime on everything. I’d sure hate to be there in dry season !
We had a fun few days but it’s certainly not the best part of Cambodia and I would spend as much time out on the provinces if possible.
We visited the famous Killing fields and the S21 prison which are as sad and sobering as you would expect but very worthwhile. The markets are an assault on the senses with the smells of seafood, meat, fruit and veg and hundreds of stalls selling every imaginable thing and yet still nothing to buy, but who doesn’t love a market.
Again we found a lovely tuk tuk man who cared for us with his gentle smile and patient way and even showed us charming Street 40 full, of cute boutiques and shops as well as a weird Louisiana tavern.
The Quay is the best part of town and there are some great rooftop bars and restaurants but 2 or 3 days in Phnom Penh is probably enough for most people.We stayed at the Plantation Hotel and had a few Faulty Towers type issues initially but its a comfortable well located hotel and management redeemed themselves nicely with free transfers and a few other things.
( we paid about aud$150 per room per night – https://theplantation.asia/)
We loved our time in Cambodia. Its a fascinating country rich in history and culture and the people have big hearts and smiles. Its a cheap and easy holiday and one that I would thoroughly recommend for families, singles and groups of friends. I do hope to return one day and next time we will include some beach time down in the South as well.