We started our tour of Cambodia with 2 nights in Phnom Penh, the Capital of Cambodia. If you are a history buff or like to study the art of war, Phnom Penh is a very interesting place to visit. For us, the Royal Palace was by far the BEST and most beautiful attraction of the city. It contains lovely architecture, lush gardens and beautiful, opulent temples. It's definitely worth a visit during your time in Phnom Penh.
Otherwise, the city tour is dominated by the gruesome history of the 1975-1979 genocide, where 3 million Cambodians were tortured and massacred at the cruel hands of the Khmer Rouge Regime. It's hard to imagine the horror that the Cambodian people were subject to and even more amazing to see how they have overcome such great loss.
As part of our education with regard to Cambodian history, we visited 1 of the many killing fields where we saw thousands of human skulls in a memorial monument. What is more, walking around the area, you can still see hundreds of bones and remaining clothing from the victims laying in the ground. It’s seriously heart and stomach wrenching…the stories of the horror are unimaginable. It’s comparable to, yet more primitive than the likes of Auschwitz. We tell you this so that you can be prepared for the main sights and attractions of Phnom Penh. It’s not a tour for the faint of heart or for children in our opinion.
We also visited the Genocide Museum where photos and names of thousands of victims fill all the rooms. Everyone, especially intellectuals were brutally tortured, killed and starved. We met 2 of the 14 survivors at this prison who are now elderly men and we even purchased one of their books which was a very moving account of his life story.
As you would expect, after an 8 hour tour of these historic and horrible sights, we were in a very somber and sad mood. It’s hard to imagine all of this happened just 40 years ago…
On a happier note, we enjoyed our stay at the White Mansion Boutique Hotel, with its Colonial design aesthetic, excellent service and reasonable pricing on just about everything!
The people in Phnom Penh are so kind, warm and inviting. Everyone we met was just wonderful to us. If you do decide to visit Phnom Penh on your tour of Cambodia, we think 2 nights is plenty to get a taste for it all. We were warned about pick pockets in the city but did not get a dangerous vibe during our visit. Nonetheless, it's always important to be vigilant in a large city.
After 2 nights in Phnom Penh, we flew to Siem Reap for 3 days of exploration! 3 Nights proved to be the perfect amount of time for travelers who are comfortable with jam packed days of touring. If you want to see it all and move at a slower pace, stay for another night so you can have more down time to relax.
Before you set out on your visit to Siem Reap, we highly recommend hiring a reputable tour guide so that you can get the MOST out of your stay. You also need to get a photo ID card at the tourism office and pay in advance for your multi-day pass. You cannot purchase tickets while at the temples. We paid $62 each for a 3 day pass and it was well worth it. All the temples in the area are honestly gorgeous and very picturesque; but, a few of them really stuck out to us. Here’s a short recap of our favorites:
First and most obvious is Angkor Wat. It is beautiful to admire the temple, at the West entrance, near the pond, in the early morning for sunrise AND in the mid afternoon before sunset. It’s a very large sandstone temple built in the 12th century and is The One which makes Cambodia world famous. It seems to us that it is or should be one of the 7 greatest wonders of the world, celebrating the Hindu philosophy and way of life. Originally dedicated to the god Vishnu, it was converted into a Buddhist temple in the 14th century, and statues of Buddha were added to its already rich artwork, including walls of ancient stories and Hindu Gods pictured in relief etchings.
Angkor Wat is said to be a miniature replica of the universe in stone and represents an earthly model of the cosmic world. We agree whole-heartedly and suggest a guided tour of this grand temple so you can soak up ALL it has to offer. Don’t forget to wear conservative clothing (no shorts and skirts above the knee and shoulders must be covered), sunscreen and comfortable shoes. Tours can often take 2-3 hours, so make sure you have enough water as well. During your visit to Angkor Wat, you can also see Bakheng Hill to enjoy sunset; however, the view isn’t overly amazing in our opinion.
By far our favorite temple to visit is Ta Prohm, best known for being in the movie Tomb Raider. Built in the 12th and 13th centuries for the king’s mother, Ta Prohm is a Buddhist temple that has largely been left untouched by archaeologists except for building paths for tourists and structural strengthening to stave off further deterioration by nature. After the fall of the Khamer empire in the 15th century, the temple was abandoned for centuries and as such, the jungle took over. Ta Prohm’s state of ruin is also a state of beauty as the tree growth caused great destruction and immeasurable beauty at the same time. The temple is literally being strangled by trees. “Stone and wood clasp each other in grim hostility; yet all is silent and still, without any visible movement to indicate their struggle as if they were wrestlers suddenly petrified, struck motionless in the middle of a fight, the rounds in this battle were not measured by minutes, but by centuries.”
And finally, we also very much enjoyed our tour of the Bayon Temple, constructed in the 12th and 13th centuries, over 100 years after Angkor Wat. The Bayon Temple is located in the center of the city of Angkor Thom. Visitors enter the tower from the east. There are 2000 Large faces carved on over 50 towers within Bayon. Get a guided tour of this amazing temple so that you can learn a bit about the history and how King Jayavarman VII utilized the temple to honor both Buddhist and Hindu beliefs!
Siem Reap is a very fun, vibrant and safe town. We noticed many solo travelers wandering around the town and enjoying the scenery. The streets are flooded with Tuk Tuks as that is the most common way for tourists to get around. You can even do a Tuk Tuk tour if you like. The average one-way ride is about $3-5 USD.
We stayed at Le Meridian hotel (an affiliate of Marriott) which is one of the nicest hotels in Siem Reap; however we found it to be very over priced for food, drinks and the spa services. When we return to Siem Reap, we will choose one of the many hundred other hotels, probably a boutique-style hotel instead.
For dinner in town at a beautiful restaurant, you must try Madame Butterfly. We describe the food as Cambodian-style with an upscale flair. The service is excellent and the presentation of the food is unmatched in the area. The water is purified so you can feel free to drink the cocktails and ice too!
While in Siem Reap, you definitely don’t want to miss out on the Night Market and Pub Street. The night market offers hundreds of shops selling local artisan fares from jewelry and clothing to home décor and traditional souvenirs. Don’t forget to bargain with the sales people as EVERY PRICE is negotiable. Along the streets, you’ll also find massages for $5, beer for $.50 and all kinds of sweets and treats for sale.
If you’re into the night scene and like to party, definitely check out pub street at least for a drink or two. It’s loaded with bars, restaurants, loud music and disco lights galore. You can even find a local to take you on a pub crawl if you like! Whether your young, old, single or married, you will definitely enjoy this scene and appreciate the night life of Siem Reap.
Overall, we fell in love with Siem Reap as it has something to offer anyone and everyone. No doubt it has history and beautiful temples but it’s people and culture are unique and lovely as well. Not to mention the food, shopping and night life! It’s a must-see city while traveling in Southeast Asia.