Cambodia was one of my favourite destinations in South East Asia and it is a country where I would go back without hesitation. I was not really impressed with the uniform landscapes but a lot more with the smile and kindness of the Khmer people.
Cambodia was one of my favourite destinations in South East Asia and it is a country where I would go back without hesitation. I was not that impressed with the uniform landscapes but a lot more with the smile and kindness of the Khmer people.
But what is there to do in this country? Here is a flash back on the highlights of the month I spent in Cambodia, which brings me back to three unforgettable places.
Koh Rong island
If there is a place not to miss in Cambodia it's Koh Rong, a few kilometers from Sihanoukville. I spent the Christmas holiday on the island with my friend Sophie who joined me in my trip for a couple of months. The jungle covers most of the island but the beautiful beaches with fine sand and turquoise waters are very accessible - either on foot or by boat.
An unreal location for an afternoon in the end of December. One of those beaches was used as a set for a special episode of Survivor (the French version) and they were supposed to shoot the last season of the show on the same beach but the filming was interrupted when one of the contestants died. One afternoon we went out on the sea in a small fishing boat to fish... The Cambodian way! Who needs a fishing rod when all you really need is a hook and a piece of string! The sea was rough but we managed to catch some fairly big fish. As the sun was setting over the sea we arrived on the most beautiful beach of the island but also the most impressive: Long Beach. Yet it is the least crowded beach on the island because it is away from all the guesthouses and it is accessible only by boat or foot after an hour hike through the jungle. Our sailor made a fire and we enjoyed the fish we had just caught, feet in the sand facing a beautiful sunset.
Beyond its beautiful beaches what makes this island really charming is the village that stretches along the beach. Locals who have taken advantage of the growing tourism are extremely welcoming. How long will it last? At the moment the island is not that crowded with tourists as there are only a dozen guesthouses on arrival. But like many other places in Asia, there is concern that this authentic place will eventually suffer from the negative impact of tourism like it has happened in South of Thailand, for example.
The Mekong Discovery Trail
From South of Vietnam I kept following the Mekong River. Indeed, this 4,000 km long river passes through 5 countries. From Kratie, a small town In Northern Cambodia I started following the river by bike over 85 km cycling through many small villages inhabited by extremely friendly smiling people. On the 11th January I started the day early and I left Kratie leaving my big backpack at the hostel. It was not even nine o'clock but the heat started to get oppressing. The Eastern part of the river may not be the most interesting part of the trip as you have to drive all the way on a big road but the scenery was quite nice with beautiful palm trees along the road and nice views on the river. After about three hours I decided to take a break on the side road to drink. People who were on the terrace of their wooden house on the side of the road saw me and waved me to join them. I went upstairs and sat with them on their terrace. There were a couple, an old man, another man and at least five children. Only the woman was able to speak some English. She asked me where I was from and where I was going. When I said that I was French the old man's face lit up and he started talking to me in French. He certainly had not spoken this language in years and he had forgotten a lot of it. He said he had been raised in Phnom Penh and he had later moved in the countryside to be a teacher. The woman gave me a cushion and then sent one of young boys to get me a coconut in the back of the house! Less than five minutes later I was drinking some coconut juice! The children saw my camera in my shoulder bag. They asked me to take pictures of them. I showed them that I could also make videos. They were very intrigued and amused when I showed them the screen of my camera on which they could see themselves on the videos! Nobody had probably ever filmed them and they had certainly never seen themselves on any video, so just imagine the excitement they must have felt when they saw their own image on the screen of my camera!
I barely had time to finish my coconut that the woman invited me to stay with them for lunch. They served me a plate full of rice and fish. Once the meal was over I thanked them warmly before continuing my journey. I ended up very quickly in a small town named Sambour where the locals were about to celebrate a wedding. From Sambour it is possible to cross the Mekong by boat to get to Koh Phdau, a small village located on a large island that has remained untouched by tourism. Agriculture is the predominant activity of the island with many fields. There were also lots of palm trees - as in the rest of Cambodia - which gave the island an exotic aspect.
People live in small bamboo houses on stilts. It is possible to sleep and have breakfast on Koh Phdau. 11 families welcome visitors but they take turns and receive tourists successively following a rotation system. A homestay costs $ 8 (3 for the night, 3 for dinner and 2 for breakfast) The family I stayed with was very friendly but did not speak a word of English so the communication was limited. After a hearty meal based on rice and fish they put a mattress on the floor for me and at 7.30, after sunset I fell asleep like a baby exhausted after a long day of cycling. The next day a fishing boat took me back to shore. I had to go back to where I had came from the previous day to find a boat that could take me to the other side of the river. It took me a long time to find it. A dirt road is going along the river on the Western part which is very nice for cycling.
Whenever I was cycling through a village the children ran towards me saying hello or just asking me to take photos of them. Their smiles revealing their damaged teeth were just amazing. A smile that I have not encountered anywhere else. Since I had left the island in the morning, my bike was making a funny noise. I had not noticed that my rear wheel was punctured, completely flat!!! It was a group of young children who made me notice it by pointing my bike. They led me to the man who was responsible for all the bike repairs in the village.
While he was looking at my bike I took pictures with children who were both intrigued and amused by my camera. Their clothes were dirty and full of holes yet it was a tangible happiness that was emerging from their smily faces. There was still a long way to go to get back to Krabie. I finished my loop with two Israelis, the first foreigners I had met that weekend. We arrived early evening as the sun was setting over the Mekong. The pink hues of the sky were reflecting in the still waters of the river that is home to many dolphins in this beautiful part of Cambodia.
The Angkor temples
It would be difficult to talk about Cambodia without mentioning the Angkor temples. The more we got closer to Siem Reap and the most we heard other travellers talking about this extraordinary place... Obviously. The best way to explore these temples is by bike. This is the cheapest way to move around the temples and it's giving you the freedom to plan your visits as you wish. Most hostels in Siem Reap rent bikes. The temples are about half hour away from Siem Reap by bike and are all very accessible. Unfortunately, this place is so crowded that it is difficult to avoid the Disney/theme park feel. And yet, it is possible to escape the annoying crowds in small temples and on countryside roads. Many farmers live around the temples, so there are a lot of fields around.
Bayon, Ta Phrom and Ankgor Wat are the most popular temples. You will never be alone visiting those temples but to make your visit more enjoyable try to get there at dawn when the doors open at 5:30 am or noon when most tourists who are on a tour are having their lunch break. In Bayon we noticed the stunning bodhisattvas' faces that are etched in the towers. Ta Phrom is memorable for its unusual setting: it is covered with branches and roots. The most photographed temple blends into the jungle without really being part of it.
We took the three-day pass to visit the temples. It is valid for one week so if you have time I would recommend you give yourself a rest day between each day you visit the temple as it can get very tiring. Finally, do not miss the sunrise over Angkor Wat.
It was 5 o'clock in the morning. I was cycling towards the best preserved temple and most loved temple in Cambodia. On my way I passed monkeys playing with a banner hunged above the road between two trees at the site entrance. The sky was already illuminated when I got into the temple. Thousands of tourists jostled on the west side of the temple trying to take the perfect photo. So I headed to the opposite direction. No one there.
I sat on the edge of a pond and I admired the perfect contours of the temple, the largest religious monument in the world which I had heard so much about. It was finally standing in front of me. .