It’s been two months since our trip to Cambodia, and I’m still missing the country – how welcoming, polite and grateful the people are; how the food reminds me of the home-cooked meals I had growing up; and generally how I felt at home and at peace in a country that I used to never call my home. What I also miss is how impressed and surprised the locals were by how well I spoke Khmer. There is one chef I remember in particular at The Lotus Blanc Resort who was so smiley and chuckled every time I conversed with him.
I found myself tipping quite generously, too. I remember when my parents used to visit Cambodia, and even when I visited with them, I was frustrated at them for being too generous with giving away money. “We are not rich – you can’t just give away money like that,” I would say. But now as I led my husband and sisters into this country, I found myself doing the exact same thing – it’s difficult to not give back to your country knowing how impoverished the citizens are.
As I previously mentioned, our trip to Cambodia wasn’t exactly for leisure – the intent was to return my parents to their home country, and hopefully find peace for ourselves in fulfilling that mission. That said, it was my husband’s and my sisters’ first time in Cambodia, so of course I had to make sure that they got to see the country as I did when I first visited with my parents in 2008.
If you have 7-10 days to spend in Cambodia (which I highly recommend!), flying into Phnom Penh and departing from Siem Reap (or vice versa) would be the most efficient. We had to return to Phnom Penh due to flight availability. Our itinerary was as follows:
- Days 1-2: Phnom Penh | The Pavilion Hotel | Wat Thule, Killing Fields, Genocide Museum
- Days 3-5: Sihanoukville | The Miiya Hotel | Beach, 3-island tour
- Days 6-9: Siem Reap | Lotus Blanc Resort | Angkor Wat, Bayon Temple, Wat Thom, Kulen Mountain, ATV tour of the country side
- Day 10: Phnom Penh | The Pavilion Hotel | Royal Palace
I remember from my first trip to Cambodia and not really being a fan of the capital city of Phnom Penh. It was too busy and too “industrial” for me. We spent the first two days of our trip getting over our jetlag (the hotel pool was a big help) and finding the temple which my family had donated to. Thanks to a family friend and our hotel calling around cab drivers, we found our way to Wat Thule. I first visited this temple back in 2008 with my parents and I was instantly reminded of that visit the moment I walked into the temple. The primary purpose was to have my parents’ ashes blessed (again) before spreading them at the beach down in Sihanoukville (or as the locals call it, Kampong Soum).
We did manage to visit a few sites, most notably, the Killing Fields sites and the Royal Palace. We were all in a somber mood after visiting the Killing Fields site. We all know the stories from our parents but they’ve only told us bits and pieces of their experience in escaping Pol Pot. We did an audio tour and listened to the bone-chilling stories of survivors first-hand. A few lines have stuck with me, especially given the politics happening in America today:
“Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake.”
“Sadly genocide has happened all over the world, and sadly, it can happen again. For your sake, remember our history.”
Unfortunately for the US, we have a president who is dividing our country by hatred and fear, and these quotes are all too relevant.
Moving on, we visited the Royal Palace, which is an egregious display of wealth for a country that lacks it. You’re truly stepping into a different world once you enter the Palace gardens.
We did not pre-book any shuttles to get from one city to another because we were advised that it would be pretty easy to book a “taxi” on-site, which worked out very well. We took a 5-hour, $100 car ride to get to Sihanoukville. The Miiya Hotel is relatively new, and to be frank, wasn’t our favorite hotel, but it did the job in terms of providing complimentary breakfast buffet, a pool (with an obnoxiously awesome unicorn floatie on which I wiped out trying to be funny by riding it on the water (yes, there is a video, but no, I’m not sharing it here, hehe)).
Sihanoukville is my favorite city in Cambodia. I love being by the water and the smell of BBQ seafood permeating the beach. The city is pretty walkable too – we did not have to take a tuk-tuk anywhere as we were able to walk to the beach and restaurants from our hotel.
Given that the four of us woke up around 4am regularly due to jet lag, we decided to go to the beach at sunrise to spread my parents’ ashes, and we all believe that my parents enjoyed the view, too. Before letting go, I told my parents that I’ve kept my promise and had brought them back to their home country, that we love and miss them every much, that we hope they still visit us in our dreams, and that we hope to see each other again in our next lives (Buddhism concept). From there, we took turns spreading their ashes into the water and watched as the waves took them away.
Our favorite tour here was an island tour, which allowed us to visit three islands off the coast of Cambodia (including the popular Koh Rong). You can easily book this tour through your hotel anywhere in Sihanoukville so no need to book in advance. This was also my first time on this tour so I was excited to share a new experience with my family. The ferry ride wasn’t bad at all – there was music playing, a great local host and plenty of food & drinks. We were able to do some snorkeling on all three islands, visited a waterfall on one of them, and generally enjoyed the warm waters. I highly recommend!
Siem Reap is my mother’s birthplace. I can’t imagine how much the city has changed since her living there during the 1950s through the 1970s. The main attraction of Siem Reap is of course, Angkor Wat, in addition to all the many other beautiful temples in the city (i.e., Angkor Thom, riding an elephant around the Bayon Temple, Ta Prohm (Tomb Raider site), Banteay Srei, etc.). We did a sunrise tour at Angkor Wat and it was absolutely breathtaking to watch the sun rise over the temple.
Beyond the temples, you can also visit Kulen Mountain with the beautiful waterfalls and catch site of where locals go to dine and bathe. It’s worth making this visit if you plan on visiting Banteay Srei, which is located a relatively short distance from the mountain. Banteay Srei is probably our favorite temple to visit. The temple is made of red sandstone (which now looks pinkish) and the carvings on the stones are beautifully intact.
If you have a few hours to spare, I also highly recommend doing an ATV tour of the country side in Siem REap. We did a 2-hour sunset tour and drove to the outskirts of the city, passing by village school kids, water buffaloes and palm trees.
Food-wise, fish amok is a popular dish, and we tried every variety possible throughout the country (my husband in particular was a huge fan). Besides Khmer food, we were pleasantly surprised to find a Bonchon, a yummy Italian restaurant, and a Mochi bar all in Phnom Penh. Sihanoukville also had some great variety, and we got to try German food, Thai food, and more pizza.
And finally, shopping! Bargaining in Cambodia is so much fun. The sellers will usually start at double the price that they’re willing to take. Every city has their own markets, but we especially enjoyed the variety offered at the Night Market in Phnom Penh.
Airline: Cathay Pacific (direct from Boston to Hong Kong in 16 hours; another 2.5-3 hours from HK to Phnom Penh)
Cost per person: The most expensive part of visiting Cambodia is the flight itself. Other than that, you can get hotels anywhere from $10/night to a ridiculous $500/night. We opted for 4-star hotels that was about $50/night. Total cost was about $2,000 per person (airfare, hotel, food, souvenirs).