What better time to discuss traveling to foreign lands than when the artic winds blow, rattling the windows and causing the cold to creep through the cracks (old houses are fun, aren’t they?). Last week, I briefly outlined some tips and tricks to visit Vietnam. If you find yourself in that corner of the world, don’t waste any time booking an excursion to Cambodia. It was always my intention to visit Cambodia while we were touring Vietnam. My husband, on the other hand, was not as aware of these plans. He was a bit surprised when I booked us a private bus transport from Saigon to Phnom Penh.
Traveling to Cambodia from Vietnam is a non-issue. Hotels and travel agencies advertise bus trips and private tours, and there is no requirement to get a visa in advance. You can get a visa upon entry into the country. Our guide arranged our visas when we crossed the border. It was a bit confusing as the guide spoke three words of English, but everything worked out fine.
While most tourists climbed onto other transportation to head to Angkor Wat, we booked a hotel in Phnom Penh for a few days. As a history fanatic, there were a few places in the city and surrounding area that were on my must-see list. We started our visit at the very impressive Royal Palace complex, a series of buildings which serves as the royal residence of the king of Cambodia. Visitors are allowed to visit only the throne hall and a clutch of buildings surrounding it. Considering the grandeur of the areas visitors are allowed, it’s worth the visit. Next door to the Royal Palace is the National Museum of Cambodia. It’s housed in a terracotta structure of traditional design. The museum houses the world’s finest collection of Khmer sculpture. If you have any interest whatsoever in Cambodian culture, you should stop here.
Our second day in the capital was spent visiting two locations, which will absolutely break your heart: Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. The museum is housed in a local high school, which Pol Pot’s security forces took over and turned into Security Prison 21. It was the largest detention and torture center in the country. Prepare to be outraged, distressed, and teary-eyed. You may even get so caught up in the history that you scare yourself while walking through the dark, dank former prisoner cells. The Killing Fields stand testament to the horror brought upon the population by the Pol Pot regime. If you’ve ever wondered how history can be so cruel, you need to visit the killing fields.
I recommend hiring a tuk-tuk to take you to both locations but be sure to negotiate a price upfront. Go for a little luxury in Phnom Penh. Although you can travel on a shoestring budget in Southeast Asia, I recommend spending a little more for your accommodation in the capital. Unfortunately, the city has more prostitutes than the Red Light District of Amsterdam, and they tend to congregate near cheaper hotels. Trust me, you want to spend more on your hotel.
After feeling absolutely devastated at the how cruel humanity can be (and not getting much sleep due to not following my own advice regarding hotels), we jumped on a van to Angkor Wat. It goes without saying that if you only have one day to visit Southeast Asia, Angkor Wat is the not-to-be-missed location. If you have time, though, you should plan to spend three days here. You can buy a ticket for one or three (or more) days at the ticket booth. Plan to spend one day biking around, but you should hire a tuk-tuk for at least one day of your visit to see the outlying temples which are less crowded but no more less worth the visit. Make sure you wear proper clothing covering your shoulders and knees if you want to enter temples.
Even as a certified history geek, you can’t spend all your time crawling over temples and holding back tears at memorials, you need to eat as well! You’ll find the food is fabulous nearly everywhere you go (I continue to say this despite contracting dysentery). Just follow the golden rule of street food: make sure your dish is made fresh instead of choosing something pre-made that’s been sitting for who knows how long in the sun.
Enjoy your trip! If you need a traveling companion, give me a call. I’d love to go back.