Angkor Wat done, where next? Riding high on an enriching experience of the ancient heritage of Cambodia, we transitioned into the present; the culture and life of this beautiful land. Of course the most obvious feature that captures your attention are the Floating Villages.
The ambience of the Floating Villages was a marked contrast to Angkor Wat. Cambodia has many floating villages and Tonle Sap Lake (translation: Vast body of freshwater) is the place to find them. Tonle Sap is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. It swells to 12,000 square kilometers in the wet season and shrinks to about 25% during the dry season. People have been living here for ages and it is not specifically created to attract tourists. Touring floating villages is a cultural extravaganza. Each village narrates a different life story and is an authentic experience. This is a memorable experience that one should not miss. There are 4 distinct floating villages in Tonle Sap namely, Kompong Khleang, Kompong Phluk, Chong Kneas and Mechrey. I visited two of them, once during the dry season and once in the wet season to experience the difference. People have mixed experiences, but I thoroughly enjoyed both the visits.
Chong Kneas: My first visit to a Cambodian floating village.
However, my favorite is Kompong Phluk; a floating village built on silts. This village takes you back in time and makes for a perfect afternoon tour. The peacefulness of the calm waters and the rustic life here is truly a unique experience. It is amazing to see how these people live normal lives in the middle of the water. They have smaller boats in which they sell various day-to-day necessities like vegetables, fruits, livestock, fish and even soft drinks. The kids are playing in water; they have schools, pagoda, restaurants, shops etc. inside the floating village. The best part is the mangrove tour by the locals in a smaller boat with sunlight playing hide and seek. It is an unforgettable memory.
Kompong Phluk: a collection of 3 floating villages with 3,000 residents.
Off late, travelers have narrated unpleasant experiences while visiting the floating villages. Dont worry; there is no robbing or threat to your life. What does happen is some boat drivers navigate you to expensive places and compel you to buy souvenirs or donate to charity. In the process, they deprive you of the real experience. Over several trips, I have discovered that your best friend to optimize your trip is the Tuk-tuk driver. All you need is some smartness and HR skills and of course a little generosity. Befriend the driver and en route to the floating village discuss your plan with him. Giving him importance creates a goodwill that will come in handy for recommendation of a reliable boatman. Invite the driver to join you on the tour, which is free for locals and he will be happy to accompany you. This will ensure that the boatman does not cheat you and your companion will be a good interpreter between you and the boatman, who invariably does not speak English. These Tuk-tuk guys are good at taking pictures as well. All in all, you will have a fantastic experience at no extra cost. It cannot get better than this! I have done a solo trip, a group trip as well with family and have had the best time in each of my visits.
Personalized boat ride inside the flooded forest is a MUST have experience while visiting Kompong Phluk floating village.
Phnom Kulen (mountain of Lychees) is a holy mountain about 65 kilometers north of Siem Reap. Owing to the distance, it is not advisable to go in a Tuk-tuk, best to hire a car. Our guide cum car driver informed us that the roads to Preah Ang Thom have been made carving the mountains by a private company and they collect a hefty entrance fee of $20 per person. Later we discovered that this fee included the cut for many middlemen/intermediaries and many times they pass on a large chunk of that to the tourists. I would advise you to do your own research before paying the actual entry fee. Also, basis the overall cost of your visit, make an informed decision if it is worth it.
Phnom Kulen is considered the birthplace of the ancient Khmer Empire. Preah Ang Thom, a 16th century Buddhist Monastery with giant reclining Buddha statue is in proximity to these mountains. The River Chup Preah is flowing into the mountains valley and has two waterfalls. The larger waterfall is a famous landmark where the Hollywood movie Lara Croft Tomb Raider was shot. Kbal Spean River is famous for its carvings (known as Shivalingas in Hindu mythology) representing Fertility and the water is of special significance in Hindu mythology. Thousands of such lingas are found in the sandstone riverbed, just a few centimeters below the water.
Waterfall at the plateau of Phnom Kulen
There are few hidden gems in Cambodia for the tourists to explore. Some of them are within striking distance of the capital city of Phnom Penh. One of them is Oudong Mountain, just 40 kms. Northwest of Phnom Penh in Kampong Speu province, roughly an hours drive. Oudong means noble or excellent. You will pass through villages and witness the authentic local culture of Cambodia. Oudong was the royal residence and Cambodia's capital for more than 250 years until 1866. This was included in UNESCO World Heritage tentative list in 1992. The residents say it has the shape of a Naga, the magical multi-headed serpents that guard the Buddha. Another landmark is the Arthaross temple, so called because there are 18 points in the temple. There is a fascinating history associated with this temple. I will not get into it here, but definitely recommend that you google and read about it. You can climb up, visit the temple and then climb down through a different exit point. This is a half-day activity including the journey from Phnom Penh. You may want to begin your journey a bit early in the morning to beat the heat of Cambodia.
Let your imaginations go wild on why Udong was the former royal capital of Cambodia.
Cambodia is a major landlocked country with a shorter coastal area in the southwest. Sihanoukville, also known as Kampong Som is a small province on the Gulf of Thailand. It boasts of beautiful white sand beaches and few sparsely inhabited islands, making it a favorite tourist place after Angkor Wat. It is just a 4-hour drive from Phnom Penh and my weekend getaway. Being a tourist-intensive place flooded with Europeans, one needs to find a niche away from the maddening crowd. My favorite place is Otres village, which is about 25 kilometers before the city of Sihanoukville. Otres is a small village with beautiful beaches and lots of water activities, also known as Backpacker Paradise''. This place is full of expats running small homestays and offering budget rooms to travelers who look for long-term accommodation. These properties range from 3-10 rooms with a small restaurant. The restaurant usually serves a variety of delicious food. Some of these accommodations are facing the river along the Mangrove line, Ou Trojak Jet. The restaurants are on the banks of the river and one can even kayak to get to the restaurant. Its both adventurous and fun; I couldnt believe it until I experienced it for the first time. Otres has a very happening nightlife. The best place to hang out is Otres Market that is mostly managed by the expats where there is live music and a festival like atmosphere. You can even hire a boat and visit nearby islands and go for the picnic. There are good diving sites with diving schools in case you are interested in underwater activities. You can also rent Kayak, Motorbikes or Bicycles to move around Otres.
A riverside cafe on board in Otres village with the backdrop of mangroves plantation.
Within 15-20 kms from Otres is Ream National Park and Kbal Chhay Waterfalls which one should not miss. Ream National Park is an incredible landscape with diverse ecosystems. A large river, Prek Teuk Sap, divides the park and flows through it finally merging with the ocean. There is a Mangrove line on either side of the river. We took the boat tour that was around 1.5 hours and explored mangroves of the area. At certain locations, there were platforms built to enter the mangroves and we also climbed the watchtower. This is one of the most photogenic places. During our visit, we were the only tourists hence it was a leisurely and peaceful trip that we thoroughly enjoyed. The park also has options for a trek inside the jungle. This is a tricky activity and I suggest that you do your own due diligence before signing up. We were not impressed with the idea of the trek and decided to skip, which we later on discovered, was a wise decision. We experienced one of the most spectacular estuaries with an amazing biodiversity on our boat ride.
Boat ride in the river that bisects the mangroves forest.
Kbal Chhay Waterfalls is in all its glory during the wet season and that is the best time to visit. These are a series of tiered waterfalls. The 10-km approach leading to the waterfalls is muddy and unpaved with potholes, so drive with caution. This is a picnic spot for the locals so visit in the morning to optimize your trip from both experience and photography. For the more adventurous, there is the option to swim in the basin where the waterfall ends. There are no restaurants here, however, you do get local food in the open ground, which may not be hygienic.
Kbal Chhay Waterfalls and the basin near Otres village in Sihanoukville.
How can you miss the capital city when you write a travel story on Cambodia? This is the city where I lived and its very dear to my heart even today. Phnom mean a mountain or a hill in Khmer. The story goes that the old lady named Penh found four Buddha statues in Tonle Sap River. She housed them on a hill and built a temple there, which is today known as Wat Phnom, a popular tourist attraction. Hence, the city was named as Phnom Penh. Wat Phnom has a strong spiritual connection with Cambodians. They believe that lady Penh sits atop the hill and watches over the entire city and keeps it safe. Begin your day in Phnom Penh by visiting Wat Phnom, also considered as Buddhist Pagoda. Foreigners have to pay $1 visiting fee. Entrance is through grand eastern staircase with the theme of Lions and Serpent. Spend a few moments of calm and experience the energy in the temple on top. Cambodians come here to pray for good luck and give offerings of flowers, bananas and money. You can take the stairs towards the south exit where you will find a smiling statue of Lady Penh.
Wat Phnom is my MUST visit place each time I travel to Phnom Penh. Here is a beautiful 200 feet wide flower clock gifted by France.
Phnom Penh is a small and developing city with lot of new construction. Nightlife in the city is catching up with the nearby destinations of Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. The night market along the Mekong River is a must visit. It is buzzing with food and shopping stalls and live performances. Local cuisine is served as well. A walk in the evening along the river gives you an opportunity to interact with locals who come there with their kids. River ferry rides during sunset is enjoyable. You can also choose to visit the Royal Palace and National Museum and few historical monuments on Norodom Boulevard and Sihanouk Boulevard. They are lit beautifully in the evening on holidays and special days. Two of them standout, the Statue of King Norodom Sihanouk and the Independence Monument. There are two big markets, Central Market and Russian Market for retail therapy where local handicrafts, arts and antiques are available. They are open daily and close at 6 pm. The best place to purchase arts and carvings is Royal University of Fine Arts. You can hire a Tuk-tuk and tour the city in case you do not prefer to walk. You will enjoy the ride if you strike a good bargain on the fare. In any case, Grab is always available.
Norodom Sihanouk Memorial commemorating former king Norodom Sihanouk is dedicated to his accomplishment on liberating the country from French.
Cambodia is home away from home for me and every trip increases my attachment to this place. It is a country where ancient and modern worlds coalesce to create magic. I headed to the airport feeling calm and grounded and ready to take on the world! Leahaey, Cambodia! a country where modern and ancient worlds coalesce to create magic, from Floating Villages to Angkor Wat.