Visiting the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, Angkor Tom and other sites in the northern part of Cambodia is the main reason travelers come to Siem Reap, just a 45-minute flight from Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City (see previous post). For an area with fewer than 1 million residents, the current number of area hotels (500 and counting) is surprising. The local Cambodians rely heavily on tourism as far and away their biggest industry. If not in hospitality, the Cambodians in the north have a difficult time making a living as it is estimated that 50% of the economy is tourism. Poverty and primitive living conditions are sadly visible in the surrounding areas; we saw this first hand on our drive from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. More about that in a bit.
1. SIEM REAP
Above top is the magnificent lotus flower: it is closed at night so the display upper right required manually opening each flower. We opted for the best way to get anywhere — via tuk tuk — about $2 for any distance. Bottom right, delicious Mango Mille Fueille plus two excellent dishes — rice with pineapple and a refreshing salad with pomelo, which I loved.
We followed the advice of many to capture Angkor Wat at sunrise, a particularly magical hour. A 4:45 a.m. pick-up obviously meant waking up in Siem Reap at the crack of dawn. Credit to the beautiful Park Hyatt for suggesting the early departure, then afterward we rest a bit, clean up and have a leisurely breakfast mid-morning. It really made the timing of the entire plan much more palatable!
Angkor Wat is just 30 minutes from the town, including a brief stop to acquire tickets — $37 each. By the way, US dollars are the acceptable currency in Cambodia; obviously not having to convert money always makes travel much easier. Advance reading prior to this trip suggested carrying a decent amount of small bills — $1’s and $5’s — some great advice we happily followed.
One would think it would be much cooler at the early hour. Hah — wishful thinking. At least 90 degrees and very humid at our 5:30 am arrival. There was a significant gathering of tourists, even though it’s “low season” — soon to be desolate with the impending rains. The following pictures paint a much better story than my words. Enjoy.
2. PHNOM PENH
For us, this was a one-and-done temple visit. Others go all in and see many, but we were happy with the experience and chose to bum around the town a bit, rest up and arrange for a car and driver for the 5-hour journey south to Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. At a cost of $200 US, the opportunity of going door to door in air conditioning, sans airport, and seeing the countryside en route was an easy decision. Nonetheless, some sights were truly heart-wrenching as there is significant poverty visible. Then the developed area of Phnom Penh came into view. Much like Saigon, it is a (mostly) modern metropolis with high-rise buildings developed around the Mekong River.
We were told that few American tourists visit Phnom Penh; rather, it is mainly business clientele and largely from other Asian countries. The Chinese are investing heavily in real estate, building new housing, hotels and casinos. I would suggest the infrastructure could use a lot of work — mainly trash pick up. But there’s great wifi everywhere, lots of shopping opportunities and some excellent restaurants. And we were spoiled rotten at the gorgeous new Rosewood Hotel with exceptional treatment! If you’re not familiar with the brand, look for it. They have nearly as many properties opening in the next few years as they have open now; i.e, ambitious expansion.
We had a fabulous dinner at Palais la Poste, which building was formerly the Indochina Bank. From upper left, a lovely French red; scallops with squid-ink risotto; escargot; profiteroles; grilled salmon. The French influence is very evident in much of the cuisine in Cambodia (as well as Vietnam).
Our visit to the notorious “Killing Fields” and Prison Museum recalling the unspeakable atrocities at the hands of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge was very difficult. Our wonderful young guide, Nicky, shared with us that her grandparents were killed but the subject cannot be broached with her parents. It is still just too hard. She chooses to look instead to the promise of Cambodia’s future. Wise thinking. Next up .. our final stop for this trip: Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.