Published: 20th June, 2016
Cambodia’s wild northwest, where Pol Pot finally met his end and the Khmer Rouge fought their last fight, is still relatively unexplored compared to other parts of Cambodia. But intrepid souls will find some of the country’s most stunning temples, history aplenty, and a chance to explore nature -- all while scarcely passing another tourist on your path.
We took off on a ten-day motorbike trip around the region, one of the most exciting, exhilarating and fun trips we’ve undertaken in Cambodia. It’s also one of the rawest. There is not always much in the way of tourist infrastructure, especially in places like Anlong Veng — though that will soon be changing, thanks to the work of Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-CAM).
Assuming you’re starting from Siem Reap, you could catch a bus or mini-van directly to Anlong Veng but that would mean missing out on two gorgeous temple sites along the way, namely Beng Mealea and Koh Ker Temples. If you’re not operating under your own steam, it’s seriously worth making this a discrete journey, returning to Siem Reap to continue with the rest of your exploration of the region.
Beng Mealea is virtually the archetypal jungle temple, with all of the adventure suggested by Ta Prohm, yet significantly fewer crowds. Except for the exterior wall and some internal structures, much of the temple has completely toppled, meaning you need to climb over enormous carved stones in order to explore. Good shoes are a must, as twisted ankles are a bugger to treat out here.
Further along, Koh Ker is a completely different experience; a ziggurat with views across vast swathes of northwestern Cambodia is the highlight of a huge city complex, with many sanctuaries still standing among the forest that has grown up around them.
With an early start, you can make it to Beng Mealea and Koh Ker, and then on to Anlong Veng and Choam all in the same day. If you prefer to take things at a more leisurely pace, there is a small but friendly guesthouse a couple of hundred metres before the ticket booth for Koh Ker.
A strange little town, it must be said, Anlong Veng occupies a key place in modern Cambodian history. This is where Pol Pot was effectively excommunicated by the Khmer Rouge, which had taken a sudden interest in cleaning up its public image. Pol Pot, by the middle to late 1990s, had become old, unrepentant, as dogmatic as ever, and somewhat delusional. This was the man that the Khmer Rouge finally put on trial in August 1997; he was convicted in a lean-to surrounded by a rent-a-mob who yelled “Smash, smash, smash” when his list of crimes was read out. Somewhat conveniently, a little too much so some suggest, he died shortly afterwards.
Pol Pot's grave can be found at Choam, just 15 kilometres beyond Anlong Veng, near the border with Thailand. Along the bluff from here, you can also spend the night at the creepy and somewhat rundown guesthouse that was once Brother Number 5, Ta Mok the butcher’s, property. The views from here, especially around an August sunset, are stunning, and it’s a wonderful spot to wind down a busy day.
If you don’t fancy that, there are several guesthouses in Anlong Veng. We preferred Monorom as the cleanest and best value. Just across the road from there, and a little further south towards the roundabout, you’ll see an open-fronted restaurant with a red facade. They offer good traditional Cambodian food here, and the very friendly and helpful owner speaks very decent English.
To see Preah Vihear temple, you need to get yourself to Sra’Em, the market town that serves as the gateway to the site. Getting here from Anlong Veng is best done by taxi. You can pick one up just below the roundabout (on the Siem Reap road). It’ll cost either $4/$5 for a share taxi, or around $20/$25 for a private one to yourself. Negotiate, you’ll most likely be quoted more than this initially. Alternatively, you can pick up one of the Rith Mony buses en route from Siem Reap.
Preah Vihear, the temple in the clouds, sits on top of a 650-metre cliff commanding stunning views across a huge swathe of northern central Cambodia. Provided it’s not raining. Or cloudy. Preah Vihear is a completely different experience from other temples, not just because of the views, but because of the way it gradually reveals itself along a kilometre long causeway that rises up into the sky. For those who can get there, it is one of the loveliest temple experiences in Cambodia.
If you are travelling on a rented motorbike, don’t even attempt the ascent to the temple unless you are very confident in your own skills and equally confident in your bike’s performance. The road becomes gut-churningly steep on the last few stretches; it’s even worse when you have to go back down again.
Back in the nearby town of Sra’Em, there’s not a great deal going on other than being a base for visitors to Preah Vihear. We did however find a restaurant that serves up a delicious beef claypot. It’s called Lemy’s, and it’s just to the north of the market, on the road to Preah Vihear. If you ask around — just say “Squall Lemy’s?” — you’ll find it.
From Sra’Em, it’s a straight run down to Kampong Thom, albeit a longish one. The 260km journey can take up to seven hours by bus, since so many of the provincial buses make unscheduled stops along the way. A taxi can cost around $45 to $50 privately, or around $8 for a share taxi.
But, once you get here, this is where things can slow down a little, and also where you’re going to do a little U-turn from. The capital of Kompong Thom province, Kompong Thom is a mid-sized Cambodian city with a thriving market, lazy river and just a few low key things to do and see. If you can, check in to Sambor Village, a lovely relaxed retreat, which you will have earned after two nights of very and fairly basic accommodation. Even if you can’t, it’s also a nice spot to drop in for dinner.
We’d recommend taking a day to wander around Kompong Thom, maybe visit some of the nearer temples. There’s a small but free museum, hit the market, and enjoy a lazy stroll along the river and town . You can also rent bicycles and there is a gorgeous dirt track that leads north of the city from the western side of the bridge. The next day is going to be long.
Temples, jungles, zip lines. What more could you ask for? You’ll need to organise a taxi for today, which will likely cost about $100. You will also need to coordinate with Betreed, to make sure they send someone to collect you either at Preah Khan of Kampong Svay, or at one of the villages in between.
Sambor Prei Kuk is the site of a pre-Angkorian city, with dozens of temple remains dedicated to the Hindu gods Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma scattered about a large forest. It is one of the lovelier temple sites that we’ve visited, and completely different from anything you may have seen at Angkor. But this is just the starter.
Preah Khan of Kampong Svay is further on, and a site that once held near mythical status, not so much for its beauty or mystery, though it has plenty of those, but for how monstrously difficult it was to get there. Lucky for you it’s very easily accessible now, along a reasonable, if occasionally bumpy, red dirt road, and is about 100 kilometres from Kompong Thom.
This temple, built by the “warrior king” and prolific builder, Jayavarman VII, of Ta Prohm, Bayon, Preah Khan and Banteay Chhmar fame, Preah Khan of Kampong Svay will very likely be deserted as you approach the inner enclosures along grassy paths flanked by small, stone structures, and the occasional cow. Small is a relative concept of course, they’re roughly the size of crofters’ cottages, but dwarfed within the grounds of this very romantic site.
The temple is approached along a broken causeway, and if you’re with people, you would be paid to separate yourself from them, and wander around alone. There’s something reflective in the air here, and it’s not just the mosquitoes, of which there are legions. Bring spray.
Your next leg is to Betreed. This is a wonderful site buried deep in the forest — the nearest local village is more than five kilometres away — where a family who have lived in Cambodia for 20 years have created a wonder world around the wondrous world that is Cambodian woods and wildlife. On the edges of the Boeng Prae Wildlife Sanctuary, Sharyn and Ben Davis have staked out hikes, ziplines, and incredible treehouses that add up to an unforgettable experience. We have ever since been trying to work out how we can just move in.
From here, they’ll be able to help you work you way back to Siem Reap, just a three-hour journey away, and where you may want to collapse into the arms of the first masseuse you see.
You can tackle this in a number of ways. For maximum flexibilty, it’s possible to hire scooters or motorbikes out of Siem Reap now, though you may need to pay a hefty deposit for longer-term rentals and will certainly need to hand over your passport for security. On the other hand, we don’t really recommend hitting Cambodia’s roads without some sort of guidance. It’s not just that it’s dangerous, which it is, but not being in a position to ask for help when accidents do happen can put you in a very difficult situation up north. A 250cc dirt bike, if you can negotiate one, will cost about $40 per day, while a scooter will be from $8 to $15 depending on the make.
One alternative is to book a tour with one of the several motorcycle touring companies based in Siem Reap. They have the guides, the knowledge and the support that can get you safely to any and all of the below.
A car and driver will cost between $80 and $100 per day, which includes their food and accommodation. They may well choose to dine and stay separately from you. Private taxis also operate between the principal destinations. Another option is shared taxi, which would work between the principal towns, and would usually costs about $5 per stage. You will have to wait until the taxi is full before it departs, so you do lose a little control over your timing. But that’s what holidays are for, right? There are buses to and between the principal destinations too, in particular GST and Rith Mony run services. There may also be minivan services en route between larger destinations, such as Siem Reap and Preah Vihear city that can be picked up en route.
Nicky Sullivan is an Irish freelance writer (and aspiring photographer). She has lived in England, Ireland, France, Spain and India, but decided that her tribe and heart are in Cambodia, where she has lived since 2007 despite repeated attempts to leave. She dreams of being as tough as Dervla Murphy, but fears there may be a long way to go. She can’t stand whisky for starters. She was a researcher, writer and coordinator for The Angkor Guidebook: Your Essential Companion to the Temples, now one of the best-selling guidebooks to the temples.
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!
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Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.
How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.
North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.
The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.
So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.
Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.
This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.