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How to spend two weeks in Cambodia—from cycling Siem Reap & getting to grips with Phenom Pehn, to a charming few days in Kampot

Cambodia is a country so beautiful and varied, it fast became one of the highlights from the four and a half months I spent in South East Asia. After a few weeks in Laos, I took a boat, then bus from 4000 islands all the way to Siem Reap in Cambodia, the journey took around 16 hours but was simple enough and worth it for the stunning scenery I witnessed on the way. While travelling, I really enjoy bus and train rides that span the day as you get to witness so much from the windows and the scenes you pass reveal so much about the country you’re travelling through. It gives me a real sense of the place almost immediately but not everyone has so much time to kill, so if time isn’t on your side, I’d recommend flying into Siem Reap or Phenom Pehn to start your Cambodian adventure.

smiling buddha face of canyon temple cambodia
One of the 216 faces that cover Banyon Temple

Arriving in Siem Reap late at night I managed to find a hotel that was only a few kilometres from the Temples of Angkor. Reasonably cheap, clean and with rooms available, I checked in and immediately went back out for a late night snack before bed. The next morning, as is often the case in Asia, there were tuktuk drivers waiting patiently along the road outside the hotel, read to whisk new arrivals off to the nearby temples. I started chatting to Bunlamp, a very smiley driver and decided to head to the temples for a half-day with him initially.

At the entrance to the temple complex, I bought a 3-day pass for 40USD, before Bunlamp whizzed me straight off to Angkor Thom, a truly amazing complex that includes a 12th century Buddhist Bayon temple that's covered in 216 serene looking, smiling Buddha faces. I was so in awe of this astonishing temple and loved how Bunlamp gave me interesting information about the place that I decided to book him to bring me back the very next day once I realised the sheer scale of the place. Later, he pointed out a huge wall made from stone elephant trunks, creating pillars that reached right down to the ground. The Terrace of Elephants, also part of Angkor Thom, was apparently used as a viewing platform to watch over the safe return of the kingdom's army. After a good few hours exploring, my first day with Bunlamp came to an end, he drove me back to the city for dinner and we scheduled to meet the very next day at 10am.

tuktuk driver back with helmet
Heading back to Siem Reap by tuktuk

Ready for another day of temple hunting, Bunlamp took me on a full loop of the temple complex on day two and I got to explore the famous Angkor Wat as well as lots of lesser-known but equally beautiful structures. Although his English was quite minimal, Bunlamp really made my days in Siem Reap magical, his enthusiasm and smile was truly infectious and I'm grateful he got to zip me around for a couple of days.

angkor wat trees and reflection
Magical Angkor Wat

For my third day, I decided to get some exercise and hired a bicycle to enable me to visit a few more temples I'd missed on previous visits. The temple complex is really so vast you could spend a whole week walking, cycling and driving round the amazing structures. On my last day, while cycling, I headed to Ta Prohm, a mystical temple with trees growing straight out of it. I stood in utter amazement at the huge roots surrounding doorways becoming part of the actual ancient structure, it's one of the more breath-taking  temples and I think remains my favourite.

tree growing out of ancient temple ta phrom
Part of Ta Prohm

After my fascinating few days in Siem Reap, I moved onto the more haunting and eye-opening part of my trip with a few nights in Phenom Pehn. The bus journey to Cambodia’s capital takes around five hours and costs no more than £5, you can also find reasonably priced guesthouses and hotels in Phenom Pehn. For my first day in the city I headed to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a horrific but necessary stop when learning about the terrifying history of Cambodia and the regime of Pol Pot which saw the Khmer Rouge murder over 1.7 million innocent Cambodians, just a mere 40 years ago. The museum is housed in an old school building that was turned into a torture camp and prison under Pol Pot's regime. Now, photos of victims are pinned to boards inside the old school buildings and torture rooms are left as they were when bodies were found, it’s an incredibly sad place to visit.

Equally as horrific are the Killing Fields just outside of the city. Victims of the regime would be bought here to be murdered and remnants of mass graves remain to this day. The countries monsoonal rains mean bones and clothing jut straight out of the ground as dirt is washed away each time it pours. It’s absolutely appalling and sickening to think of the suffering so many people endured there. A haunting display case of skulls sits near the entrance to the fields, marking in some way a remembrance to those who lost their lives. 

Phenom Pehn is big and noisy, paired with visits to the Killing fields and Tuol Sleng made for a reflective and down-beat few days in the city. While out wandering the streets I’d often see young boys sniffing glue, people begging and questionable looking Western men who appeared to be in the city 'alone'. Parts the city had a sinister feel and it was uncomfortable to see these men with much younger Cambodian girls. Parts of the country are riddled with poverty and the air of exploitation can be felt throughout the place. 

After the bustle and sadness of Phenom Pehn, I took another bus four hours south to the riverside town of Kampot, situated in an area famed for its black pepper, it was here I wanted to visit Phnom Chhngok - one of the oldest temples in the country. After taking a moto taxi from the town centre, I walked up the hill towards the temple and was met with sweeping views across stunning countryside. The ancient Hindu temple can be found inside an actual cave and local children, who know an incredible amount about the temple, will act as guides for a few dollars, taking you through the cave network and back out again. 

For its diversity, history, people and mesmerising temples, Cambodia seriously wows and offers so much more than what I saw in my two weeks. It remains one of my favourite countries in South East Asia and I’m desperate to visit again soon. 

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