CAMBODIA: A week around Siem Reap
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There's no doubt about what will have drawn you here first, but once you've seen the temples of Angkor there's still so much more to Cambodia. The country is teeming with dense, vital forests, vibrant wide-open countryside, cultural centres, peculiar sights, breath-taking views, strange natural phenomena, incredible birds, fabulous animals and temples in which you don't have to battle your way through the crowds; in fact, you may be the only person there. Now, thanks to massive road improvements, all this is within easy reach of Siem Reap, so if you were only planning on staying a few days, you might want to think again.
If you've got a week on your hands, and are up for a little coordination, then in most cases it's as simple as hopping on a bus. Other sites, like the remote and beautiful Banteay Chhmar temple, take a little more effort, but are worth every moment.
West Cambodia is home to Battambang, the garden province and rice-bowl of the country, and the heart of a burgeoning arts scene. Then there is Pailin, one of the last hold-outs of the Khmer Rouge old guard, a few of whom are now standing trial in Phnom Penh. In Banteay Meanchey, you'll find Banteay Chhmar, an enormous temple that is a wondrous blend of human-made and natural beauty. In Oddar Meanchey towards the north, overlooking Anlong Veng, there is the creepy final burial place of Pol Pot, and a night at "The Butcher" Ta Mok's old house is the perfect setting for an incredible view of what seems like the whole of Cambodia.
Fishing hangout off Kompong Khleang.
Before you even leave Siem Reap though, we'd recommend a trip out to one of the floating forests of the Tonle Sap lake at Kompong Khleang. It's only an hour away by tuk tuk, and the boat trip should normally take about two hours. If you leave really early, and your timing is really good, you could even get back in time to catch a late bus or taxi to Anlong Veng.
Orientation and transport
A little coordination is required as there are few straight lines in Cambodian planning. The best option is to take a day trip to Kompong Khleang on the first day, then an early bus up to Anlong Veng on the second, staying there overnight at Ta Mok's house (the one on the cliffs – there are two houses that formerly belonged to the delightful chap). You'll need a moto or local taxi to take you the 15km from Anlong Veng up to Choam and across the top of the Dong Rek mountain range to the guesthouse. It's a bumpy ride, but trust me the views will be worth it.
Kids cooling off in Anlong Veng.
After going back to Siem Reap by bus the next day, the next step is to take a mini-van or taxi to Bantey Meanchey. A mini-van can be around $100, making it excellent value if you can get a group of people together. Alternatively, take a bus to Sisophon (also known as Banteay Meanchey – the provincial capital), and take a local taxi from there. The homestays here come highly recommended, and the possibility of a moonlit dinner by the temple is just too wonderful to miss.
The next day, from the nearby provincial capital of Banteay Meanchey, you can take a bus or local taxi the remaining 70km to Battambang. Spending three days here is recommended; however you can also take a diversionary trip to Pailin, about 80km away, if the fancy takes you. A new resort has only just opened up out in the old Khmer Rouge redoubt, and could be the perfect spot for a little well-earned R&R after so much seeing and doing.
The floating forest and stilted floating village of Kompong Khleang offer a glimpse into an extraordinary life, lived according to the unique rhythm of the Tonle Sap lake. Every year, the forest is inundated as the forces of the Mekong River drive the Tonle Sap river to reverse its flow, raising the levels of the lake by up to 10 metres. The trees have evolved to survive the flooding and here floating over treetops is not just something you do when you're dreaming. The best time of year to visit is from end October until January.
Just floating around.
Anlong Veng is where Pol Pot finally came to an end, in circumstances no-one seems entirely sure of. His burial place is understated, to say the least, though it will surprise many to find that people still come and make offerings to the man responsible for failing to stop the social-political experiment that killed as many as 1.7 million Cambodians. Not far from the burial site at Choam is one of the former residences of Ta Mok, "The Butcher", one of the men who is believed to have arranged Pol Pot's death, and escape from justice. From his home on the cliffs which is now a guesthouse, you feel you can see almost all the way to Sihanoukville. The view is spectacular, especially at sunrise and sunset. You can imagine how difficult it would have been for the Cambodian army to attack such a location, and to what frightening use those cliffs might have been put.
The accommodation here is very basic, and the electricity switched off at 22:00.
Built by Jayavarman VII, who was also responsible for the Bayon and Ta Prohm, the Citadel of the Cat is an enormous temple that is midway through its restoration. It's extraordinary, given its size and splendour, to imagine that local villagers were unaware of its existence until French explorers started wandering about the place in the mid 20th century. Nearby, Agir Pour le Cambodge has implemented a community-based tourism project, with homestays, cultural activities and, best of all, the possibility of picnics at the temple. Community members have been trained to cook a number of Khmer dishes, as well as in health and hygiene, so there's no need to worry. Agir Pour le Cambodge is the organisation behind the excellent hospitality training school, Sala Baï, so standards are high.
The fabulous Banteay Chhmar.
Get there fast before everybody else does, as Battambang is finding its way onto more and more travellers' itineraries, and for good reason. It's a busy, attractive town with its own clear identity, and it happens to be surrounded by lush countryside dotted with plenty of hilltop temples at which to test your glutes, and take in the gorgeous views.
It is also home to a hugely successful school dedicated to the arts and this is starting to generate its own energy in the town. A trip to Battambang is not complete without a trip to the evening circus at Phare Ponleu Selpak. It's enormous fun, and you can find flyers with the monthly schedule in most restaurants in town. Two relatively new art galleries are also worth a look on Street 2.5, Sammaki and Make Maek. Both of them feature the work of local artists, Cambodian and international, including some real stars of the Cambodian arts world, such as Mao Soviet and Khchao Touch.
Kids know how to cool off in Battambang.
Of course, Battambang is also best known for its special bamboo train (nori), a fun (provided you pack your sunscreen) way to see parts of the countryside you otherwise wouldn't reach, but you better get your skates on: rumours are circulating that the track will be lifted soon and replaced with a motorcycle route.
After all that running around, perhaps a little break should be in order. In Pailin, Memoria Palace is a new resort hotel with views over the Cardamom Mountains. With rooms from $25 a night, this is a great location to unwind and reflect back on your whirlwind week.
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