Head off to Cambodia on a budget this winter to catch the country at its best — blue skies and cool temperatures
Still dealing with the backlash of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia is trying to lure travellers anyway. Convenient but expensive, the dollar is widely used instead of the riel, and the country is meant more for the history buff with an eye for temple architecture than the budget traveller that frequents neighbouring Thailand. Day passes to most historic spots cost $20, meals $15 (without alcohol) and guides a staggering $60. Yet a thrift trip to the country of UNESCO World Heritage sites and a genocidal recent history will intrigue and inspire you. We also suggest you carry along the book Ancient Angkor by Claude Jacques, for useful information along the way.
The seven-day pass at Siem Reap is most economical at $60 and is valid for one month. If you have time and can brave the heat, hop on a bicycle. We chose the ubiquitous tuk-tuk at $30 on one day and an air-conditioned taxi at $45 for the next to take us to the following:
Bayon: Awe-inspiring stone faces
Baphon: It houses the ruins of the Angkor Royal Palace, Terrace of Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King, Chav Say and Phimeanak, Thommanon.
Ta Keo: One of the oldest temples built entirely of sandstone
Banteay Samre: Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, carvings and relief recall the Khmer Empire at its glorious height.
Banteay Srei (Citadel of Women): 30 kms north of Angkor Wat features exquisite apsaras and well-preserved carvings of Hindu mythology
Ta Prom: A great photo op for the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider film buff.
Angkor Wat: The biggest religious monument in the world, the inside walls have marvellous bas-reliefs of the Mahabharata and Ramayana.
The evening saw us at the vibrant Pub Street, in Siem Reap, a market filled with knick-knacks and knock-offs, street drinks (like spiked coconut water) and fellow travellers looking for a good time. We picked the Temple Club for a dose of culture. High prices ($15 a dish), include a ‘free’ two-hour apsara performance. For some raucous fun, we then hopped across the street to check out Angkor What?, a lively nightspot, with travellers’ graffiti on the walls, to party the night away. Head to Cafe Indochine for great atmosphere, pocket-friendly food and traditional Khmer fare—especially amok (meat and vegetables in coconut milk with rice) served on Cambodian wooden plates in a traditional Khmer wooden house as well!
Over in Phnom Penh, after gawking at the Royal Palace with its guilded-pagodas, and The National Museum, we braced ourselves for a visit to the Genocide Museum, Tuol Sleng, and its bone chilling photographs, wall scratches and videos. But do meet with Bou Meng, a survivor, who has penned down his experiences in a book. A trip to the killing fields, an hour’s drive away is even more traumatic than the museum though.
Fun and food
Art lovers, foodies and merry makers, head to Sisowath Quay. For some local handicrafts and paintings make a beeline for Colours of Cambodia and Happy Painting Gallery, or The Kravan House for silk and printed linen. The Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC), with Khmer and Western cuisines, is a great wallet-friendly place to meet other travellers and locals, looking for a quick drink off duty! Friends – The Restaurant, where the Mith Samlanh organisation trains street kids in cooking, offers tapas, vegetarian, seafood and Khmer dishes, or set menus. We also highly recommend the, potent margaritas and daiquiris. Check out White Mansion’s French restaurant for a top notch meal. Catch one of the live bands playing at the restaurants and clubs or stop at one of the fortune tellers on the esplanade if you fancy your future revealed.
Off the coast
Post the heavy duty dose of culture, we hit the pristine beaches – ideal if you prefer to skip the temples and avoid tourists. Rabbit Island or Koh Thonsay just 4.6 kms south of Kep city is a true paradise complete with crystal clear water, palm trees and beach shacks offering local beers, fruit juice and fresh sea food.
We were fortunate to stumble upon Sakura Thrift Store (part of a chain) in Siem Reap. So if you like vintage, have a good old rummage in one of these outlets. We spotted a limited edition Andy Warhol Guinness pint glass, an exhaustive collection of handbags, and a great selection of clothes including labels like Balenciaga, Paul Smith and Ferragamo, all for under $2. In Phnom Penh, The Old Central Market crammed with local and imported goods in a beautiful circular interconnected structure is best if you brush up on your haggling skills in advance. The Russian Market – a hotchpotch of knock offs is good for a bit of a splurge but keep an eye out for pick-pockets. Or check out one of the upmarket mall options.
1. Dorm beds start at Rs.200, rooms at Rs.1,000, and luxury hotels at Rs.6,000.
2. Carry only USD as the exchange rate to the Cambodian Riel is 1:4,000. Local currency is hardly ever used.
3. Local city transportation is cheap, costing only a few dollars. Taxis for the whole day are $25-30 USD.
4. The best time to visit is November to January, with temperatures at high 20s.
5. Flights via Kuala Lumpur start at Rs.30,000.