Holiday in Cambodia
By Jeremy Zachary
It’s been exactly four years since my last visit and six since my first visit in April of 2003. In 2003 things were a bit dodgy as there were no ATM machines anywhere in the country, so you brought the cash you needed for your entire stay. Which could be a bit nerve-racking in itself given the average wage of the Khmer population is hovering around one dollar a day. Yes, one dollar. This meant the $2,500 that was stashed in a secret backpack pocket could feed a village for a month. These days are different in Cambodia, where there are now two chain restaurants (KFC and Dairy Queen) and the ubiquitous ATM can be found in any major city.
Time to get acclimated to my surroundings and burn off this jet lag, straight-away to my hotel, FCC Phnom Penh, which is a favorite location for many with it’s beautiful views of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers and easy riverside walkway access to all things entertaining. This visit I decided to do the average tourist thing and check out the hotels vs. guest houses (which is a great way to see the region on a tight budget). Upon arrival to FCC and to my amazement I was walked around the corner where I not only had my own room, but my own building. This two-story flat, with rooftop patio, was beautiful. Overlooking Palace Park and with a direct view of the Palace, this was a perfect start to a perfect getaway! My flat came with it’s own security guard, never mind the wrought-iron-double-bolted-locked gate, this was a bonus! For anyone with security and safety concerns, this added bonus should ease your tensions. Once outside a swarm of tuk-tuk drivers offer their services. Since this was my trip to do things as typical tourists do, I secured myself a driver with a proper car for my ventures around the capitol city. A regular at FCC I retained Mr. Yort for his driving services. After a day of the usual touristy attractions; Killing Fields, S21, Palace, a Wat (temple) or two, Yort and I had struck up a casual friendship. After a few days touring the sites and sounds of this bustling center of Cambodia, it was time to move outwards to the beach cities.
A scenic four-hour drive away from the organized chaos of Phnom Penh lies a beautiful gem of a city, Sihanoukville. This beachside retreat hosts all things beachy; mega resorts, guest houses, huts, massages on the beach with drinks plentiful. This time around Sokha Beach Resort would be my home for the next few days. Located on the only private beach, Sokha Beach is beautifully manicured and prepared for its visitors, local and faraway, to enjoy the powder-like white sand and dips in the deep blue warm waters. Sokha beach is located just north of Seredipity Beach and the long stretches of Ochheuteal Beach. A short tuk-tuk ride over the hill and you’ll be in the middle of Serendipity Beach Road, the main street of shops, massage huts and great restaurants. Expats from around the globe have come to call Serendipity home, which becomes quickly evident in the variety of restaurant selections. A favorite hot spot of Serendipity Beach quickly became Relax Massage, which is run by a female English expat who employs locals and teaches proper techniques of massage and aromatherapy, a great treat after a long day of walking. Although there are dozens of beachside restaurants, bars and nightclubs (Cambo style) Ochheuteal Beach offers something for everyone. If you keep looking you’ll find that “right” one for you. While talking with some locals I was told to visit Otres Beach, a bit farther south for a real experience of serenity. Hopping on another tuk-tuk and down the beach I went. After a 30-minute ride, serenity appeared before my eyes. The locals’ secret beach of Otres was indeed secluded, quiet, clean and exactly what you might expect the beach of the Corona beer commercials to look like. This was paradise found! Cane sugar iced drinks, Angkor and Anchor beer, buckets of choice and tasty morsels to satisfy any hunger, Otres was the place to settle for the afternoon. Sihanoukville, in all it’s beauty and simplicity is a favorite. History here runs long and deep here. A few hours south of Sihanoukville are a string of fishing villages, most notably Kampot and Kep. (Filming was done in this region for the movie City of Ghosts, starring Matt Dillon.) Having been ravaged by the Vietnam war, this area is still in the process of rebuilding, slowly. The haunting shells of former elite French colonial mansions bear witness to the strife and struggle the region faced during the mid-70s.
Sihanoukville could keep a person there for what seems like a moment, but in actuality could be forever! Time to muster on to the primary reason thousands upon thousands visit Cambodia annually; Siem Reap, better known as Angkor Wat. This newly discovered ancient city was made famous in the movie Tomb Raider, where the cast and crew filmed on location without much need for props and set design. Angkor’s ancient ruins, temples and pagodas will take you to much different time of the past. I must preface, there are a two select times of the year which are best to visit, this being between the wet and dry seasons on each side of the calendar. Touring the non-aircon temples in 80 percent+ humidity and 90 degrees+ F heat is taxing for anyone, thus visiting during the right time will make your experience much more enjoyable. Siem Reap has grown tremendously since my last visit, hosting a plethora of great eating, shopping and sight-seeing opportunities. A great way to see the area is to hire a local driver, which by Western standards comes very cheap. Angkor becomes much larger than life when looking at a map of the area, then traveling around to see everything there is to be seen. Allow for more time than you think you’ll need as this region has much to see and do. A favorite place to call home here is Angkor Village, with lush grounds, exceptionally attentive service and centrally located, not to mention superb spa services. Angkor Village offers a feel of ancient Siam while you visit this ancient capitol city. Angkor Village guides offer everything there is to do and see here in Siem Reap, at reasonable prices (Tip: if you barter directly with a tuk-tuk driver or your auto driver, you can enjoy these tours a bit cheaper).
While the flight from the States is a long one, it’s one that is well worth the journey and time. Once you arrive in this majestic land you’ll have forgotten your worries of home, your long travels to arrive and be immersed in a land and time once thought forgotten (at least by our standards).
FCC Phnom Penh, www.fcccambodia.com; Phnom Penh guide, Mr. Yort 012 36 08 01; Sokha Beach Resort, Sihanoukville, www.sokhahotels.com; Relax Massage, Serendipity Beach, Serendipity Beach Road 011 68 69 87; Angkor Village Siem Reap, www.angkorvillage.com; Siem Reap guide, Mr. Savuth 012 95 84 46, firstname.lastname@example.org.