Probably the most famous place in Cambodia to travel to is the city of Siem Reap (very westernized, much more expensive than Phnom Penh, with the famous Old Bridge, Art and Night market and touristy Pubs Street where you find European restaurants, massage studios and hotels as well as backpackers hostels), which is the starting point for a one-day or a three-day visit to the Angkor Wat temple complex, originally a medieval town built in the 9th to 13th century by the rulers of the Khmer Empire.
Siem Reap literally means “the Defeat of Thailand”. The city was named as a commemoration of the victorious Khmer battle with the Thai army. From Phnom Penh, you can take a tourist bus (6 hours on the way for 16 USD return), a boat (8 hours and over 110 USD) or a plane (30 mins for 70 USD return) to reach Siem Reap.
The nearest temples of Angkor Wat are only a few minute drive away from Siem Reap. A day ticket for foreigners costs $ 37.
Commonly, this is how the visits to the temple complex work: most hotels and hostels (or agencies in the city centre) will take you there for around $ 18 to 25; they will pick you up with a mini bus at your hotel at around 4:00 – 5:00 am, then take you with the other tourists on the same bus, and a guide, to the place where you have to buy your ticket (one-day or three-day pass). From there, you arrive to the main temple – Angkor – at around 6:00 am. You can watch (with hundreds of tourists) the sunrise (starting at around 6:25 am) over the towers of Angkor (yes, the very famous image you find on the flag of Cambodia). Then you have about an hour to explore the temple, pray, lay down your offerings and accept blessings (and a bracelet) from a monk (for a voluntary contribution).
You then go to two or three other temples, where again you have an hour for each to explore. The guide would give you some information before you get your time off. Around lunchtime, you are brought back to your hotel.
It’s not a bad alternative, but there’s even a better one: choose three (max. up to four) temples for a day, get on a scooter or a bike (yes, you can ride from temple to temple, but obviously have to park your bike outside each one of them and explore the insides on foot), and go in the afternoon, about three to four hours prior to the closing time (17:30), when the traffic of people rapidly drops down because everyone wants to see the sunrise above Angkor Wat, so they start in the morning…
Although the famous temples like Bayon (which is actually a mispronunciation of the original name Banyan, named after the trees growing around the temple that are very important for Buddhist people as Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment under a banyan tree while meditating) or Ta Prohm, both of which appear in Tomb Raider (most prominently Ta Prohm), are impressive, equally fascinating are also some less well-known temples, such as Bakong, the first temple mountain of sandstone constructed by rulers of the Khmer empire at Angkor. Bakong, located in the countryside (I rode through dusty and muddy country roads when I got off the main road – about 18 km in total), is often neglected by tourists; but it is magnificent. When you arrive after sunset, the place will be quiet and peaceful. It is prohibited to walk inside the temple after 17:30, but you can walk the path leading directly to it, surrounded by ponds, and you can visit the monastery complex nearby where there are monks living there. You might hear them singing their prayers and as the chants spread through the landscape and enhance the unique atmosphere of the place you can easily find yourself falling into a state of deep meditation.
Make sure to give a chance to one of these less crowded and less popular temples, they might open up a stunning magic to you.
If you love countryside and authentic villages, take a bike (motorbike or push bike) to Chong Khnes (12 km from Siem Reap) and Kampong Phluk (32 km from Siem Reap). They both stretch in the vicinity of Tonlésap lake. If a local stops you on the way to Kampong Phluk, saying that you have to pay an entrance to the village (or that you HAVE TO get a boat), ignore them. There is officially no admission to the village and you CAN reach it on your bike. The locals will sometimes even put on false police uniforms! Don’t get disheartened and stick to your point of not taking a boat and not paying any entrance as there IS NONE.
At the end of a dusty sandy road, you will end up in the village lined by traditional Khmer houses. It is true that you can get to the village also on a boat, but paradoxically, from the river you only get to see the houses from behind. Their entrances are naturally leading to the road, not the river.
After passing through the scenic aisle of the traditional houses, you will pass a local temple, and then you reach a small car park at the foot of a mangrove forest. As you drive, you might be hunted by men on motorcycles who will be offering you their ship to drive you to the lake through the mangrove forest. Get ready for big bargaining. Or, ignore them and when you have parked, walked over to the houses by the river and ask the local women (wives of the fishermen) if they can make a nice price for you for a boat. The women will be repairing the nets in shade, looking after their naked toddlers clumsily climbing the tall unsecured ladders of the traditional Khmer houses… They will understand that it is better to get some dollars to the pocket rather than nothing (cause you might just walk over to someone else who will offer a better price, or get onto one of those boats operated by the private company in the region and in that case the local people get no profit at all).
So you are likely to get a good price of about 13 USD per boat (a simple bark with an engine). It takes only a few minutes to get onto the lake where you can swim if you like brown water… there is also a restaurant there. Sadly, they have captivated crocs, rabbits and snakes there too… then you will be taken to the mangrove forest where the boatmen turn the engine off and show you some real craft of ship manoeuvring.
Chong Khneas, a proper floating village, spreads out on the other side of Tonlésap lake. Now, you should know that this place is a tourist trap (see below). So, be wise and again, take a bike ride from Siem Reap and drive along road 63 a little further still when passing the Chong Khneas Community Learning Center. Then you will see the place where tourist buses stop to run the tourists into boats which will drive them to Chong Khnes on the lake.
Avoid stopping and keep riding your bike further. When the proper asphalt road turns into a dusty sandy one, you know that is the place where you want to be. You will come to the beginning of the village which is still located on-land. The village is amazing and authentic but if you insist on making your way all the way to the floating part of Chong Khneas, you will, at one point, either have to wade through one of the two arms of the river, or ask the locals to put down a wooden footbridge for you for a few dollars. Thus you can make your way all the way to the lake and partially onto the lake to a spot where you will have the floating village as if unfolding on your hand.
For the reasons mentioned below, I would recommend you to stop in the on-land part of the village and spend your time there. It is in fact the most authentic part and they are not used to tourists here at all. Few people would ride a bike here, usually tourists just pass this part by on a boat. You will see men fishing or playing pool and women processing sugar cane, grilling fish on open fire and repairing nets. As opposed to e.g. Silk Island in Phnom Penh, here, you will not hear any “hello” and the locals will give you a strange look when you start taking pictures of the place. They’re simply not used to this. But – buy fish from the local men and turn on your online dictionary so you can chat a little bit with them (and if you have a bottle of European alcohol, share it with them, or bring with you for instance photos of world-renowned footballers), and the way to their homes and hearts will become wide open for you. They will readily share with you the last bit of their own lunch (which is mostly rice and fish from the river or a broth). You will feel the genuine warmth of the country…
As for Tonlésap lake as such: it is the largest (1042 km) freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and one of the richest inland fishing areas in the world where there are not only more than 200 different fish species but also more than one million people living there. Unfortunately, the local people get no money whatsoever from the boat tickets (two hours on a ship with an admission to the village will cost you $ 20) as the boats are owned by a private company that collects the full profit.
And here is some more information that I gained as I live with the local people in Phnom Penh: while the floating village of Chong Khneas is fighting for survival and the people live in poverty that we can hardly imagine (allegedly less than half a dollar for a day), the private shipping company carries crowds of tourists into the village without the locals benefiting and without having any say in who is to come into the village. They cannot simply say: “We do not want you here!”
What is also good to know: the “floating market” in Chong Khneas is practically just an embarrassing shop with kitsch souvenirs. The alleged farm is a place where animals are abused in the most shocking way: there are pythons living in small cages where they can barely move who are sedated so that they are peaceful when tourists swing them clumsily over their shoulders to get an expensive picture done, there are monkeys on leash with wounds on their necks, and crocodiles held in a smelly pit, where they cannot move because there are too many of them. What is most terrifying, these crocodiles are supposedly skinned alive and the skin is subsequently sold for leather goods (e.g. to Louis Vuitton, Hermes, YSL).
I appeal not only to vegans and animal rights fighters not to support this cruelty and abuse in any way and to understand that just by buying a boat ticket to the village you support a sickening idea of human and animal exploitation…