Charming Cambodia

Charming Cambodia

Join Ramzauva Chhakchhuak on a budget-friendly trip to explore the rustic appeal of Cambodia

A shoal of fish swimming near the crystal clear waters of the Military Beach in Koh Rong Sanleom Island off the South-Western coast of Cambodia. PHOTOS BY AUTHOR

Of late, Cambodia is turning out to be quite a popular tourist destination for Indians and for good reason, too. The place has some breathtaking sights that are steeped in history, many gastronomical delights and of course very cheap beer. If you are thinking of a foreign holiday that’s easy on the pocket, then Cambodia is definitely for you. I backpacked there not so long ago with a friend. This was our first overseas trip and we did consider Thailand and Vietnam. But Cambodia held a rather rustic charm and raw appeal for us that we wanted to explore further.

The period from April to mid-August is one of the best times to go to Cambodia if you want to travel cheap. These are the non-tourist months so one can get good deals. We had a budget of around Rs 60,000 (including airfare) per person for a trip of around two weeks. With this, we visited three major cities, two islands, one town, and several sites. We got two Air Asia tickets (two way) for around Rs 33,000 from Kolkata to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh via Kuala Lumpur. Once you are over Phnom Penh, you won’t fail to notice the massive and all-encompassing Mekong River and the Tonle Sap River — a tributary of the largest freshwater lake in South Asia of the same name — that runs right through the city. Areas near the banks are densely populated and one could also see huge development projects on the ground.

National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh
National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh & its pavement parks

We got our visas on arrival ($30 or Rs 2,000 each) although there is an online option as well. It was a fairly simple process that didn’t take long at all. It is a good idea to have US dollars and the Cambodian Riel (KHR) for smaller purchases. We also got a sim card ($8 or Rs 580) with an internet connection, something that came really handy throughout the trip. We had already booked a hotel in Phnom Penh via AirBnB in one of the main commercial hubs of the city. Our hotel was located not very far from two important tourist spots — The Royal Palace and National Museum of Cambodia. As we drove towards the city from the airport one early Sunday afternoon, we were amazed by the pavement parks that ran for miles. Teenagers were dancing, children screaming and playing, old men and women were relaxing. We saw a lot of activity in the parks every time. 

Our rooms were pretty basic with clean toilets and two beds ($15 or around Rs 1000). We also found a few hostels for as low as $2 to $5 (Rs 140 to Rs 350). The afternoon we reached Phnom Penh, we headed to a night market nearby that was bustling with activity and illuminated with all sorts of lights. Once in, the market started with the clothes stalls and as we went further inside, there were the food stalls. One can choose from the different items such as pork sausages, fried chicken, spring rolls with a weird but tasty plasma and what not (around $1 to 5 or Rs 70 to 350). Carpets were placed nearby and people ate their meals under the open night sky and the cacophony of the market. The Killing Fields of Cheoung Ek Genocidal Center, one of the most well-known sites for torture and mass graves of the infamous Khmer Rogue Regime under Pol Pot was probably the most memorable place in Phnom Penh for us. This was located some 14 km on the outskirts of the city. The price of two tickets for the Center was $12 (Rs 800) and the to and fro tuk-tuk (autorickshaws) or autorickshaw ride was $14 (around Rs 900).

With the help of a very good audiobook, we went by ourselves to some 10 to 15 odd sites at this place where untold horrors took place. An ordinary tree with an extraordinary history called the ‘Killing Tree’ was used for smashing babies to death; a memorial where hundreds of skulls of the slain dug out of the mass graves were placed in giant glass cupboards. A whole day affair, the site left a sobering impact on us. It was a stark contrast from the glitzy high rises, fast cars and nightlife of the main city. A lot has changed in the country since those days.

Remnants of a library in Angkor Wat, Siem Reap
Remnants of a library in Angkor Wat, Siem Reap

Picnic in lotus fields

As we moved away from Phnom Penh on our way to the city famous for the Angor Wat temples, Siem Reap, we got to really see how the village folks live. Houses are built on stilts to prevent flood waters from entering during the monsoons. There is a huge difference in the food too. One gets more rustic and homely dishes when compared to the ones in the city. Many of these were stewed dishes of vegetables and meat that included a lot of herbs and leaves. The pace of life here was slower and people more easy going. We travelled in a comfortable van (tickets for $15 or Rs 1,200) through the night and reached in 10 hours. Our abode here — a hostel called Tipsy Turtle ( $2 or Rs 140 per person) in a dorm of around five double beds. It had an open space in the middle with a bar. The rooms were on the ground floor and the first floor. Simple and basic. There were a few Canadians and Americans with whom we got along well.

We visited the Angkor Wat with a one day pass that cost $74 or Rs 5,000 for two tickets. There is however, a three-day and a week’s pass that are much costlier. Make sure you are a proper history buff or read up well before you take the passes of more than a day. For regular tourists like us, one day is more than enough. Angor Wat is majestic, to say the least. We left early in the morning by around 4 am to catch the sunrise just at the beginning of the temple. There are many depictions of Hindu mythologies throughout the temple. My favourite was the churning of the sea of milk on a huge wall of the temple. Just one day, but we were beyond exhausted.

Visit the Pub Street at night or during the day, get yourself a place in one of the numerous bar cafes and just watch a carnival-like atmosphere of lights and people going and coming as you slowly sip your beer, as we did. Or you can just pick a spot in one of the numerous mobile street food joints that would cook up anything from barbecued chicken or noodle soup for you. Many fishing villages are just outside Siem Reap on the tributaries of the Tonle Sap Lake. We visited one on a boat ($40 or Rs Rs 2,700) and saw a school that was on a boat, grocery shops and even a clothing store, also boats. We also had time for a picnic on lotus ponds fields on the outskirts of the city.

A bridge towards Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer Empire, that depicts gods and demons in Seam Reap
A bridge towards Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer
Empire, that depicts gods and demons in Seam Reap 

Kampot, the Bohemian hub

The last destination in our journey was a town not very far from Sihounikville called Kampot. Soon after taking the boat back from the islands, we immediately got a van ($10 or Rs 800) from the dock itself to go there. We had no plan to go at first but since we still had some money left, we decided why not. A quaint town of only a few kilometres radius, we were immediately bowled over as soon as we reached this place. A huge river ran right through the middle of the town. It was early afternoon when we reached. The journey took us just three hours. We walked around the main area and noticed quite a few colonial looking buildings.

As evening approached, the ferries docked near the bank of the river, lit up and flickered with a number of lights.

On the last day, before we left, we sat on the banks of the river and thought about all that Cambodia had offered us.