Heading nearly 50km outside of Siem Reap into the Phnom Kulem National Park we had a more relaxing day of visiting temples and waterfalls planned.
Phnom Kulem is considered the birthplace of the Khmer Empire and the temple of Phreah Ang Thom is the most sacred place in Cambodia for Hindus and Buddhist, as well as the site of the largest reclining Buddha in the country. The National Park was created in 1993 and listed in 2012 by UNESCO to protect the area from the farming practices causing deforestation in the region.
Yet another scorching hot morning to cycle out of Siem Reap and traffic dodge – this time heading 18km away to Tonle Sap Lake for a day of kayaking and seeing the floating villages. If the cycling in the crazy traffic hadn’t been daunting enough my kayaking skills were non-existent so the day was always going to be an interesting one.
Heading south out of Siem Reap we took highway 6. I tried to get a photo as it was actually fun and surreal to be on a mountain bike cycling up a 6 lane highway out of town but I was also trying to concentrate on not hitting anyone – or anything – so its a bit wonky. The traffic system is confusing to say the least; there is a dual carriage way in the centre apparently for faster vehicles, with two lanes either side of it intended for slower vehicles travelling both directions. The rules are quite flexible I discovered when we pulled out on to the centre dual carriageway alongside a wagon.
Having spent a few days wandering around Siem Reap and dodging the traffic, I have to admit I was a bit wary about the idea of jumping on a bicycle to head around the Angkor temple complex. In the end it was the best way of travelling; weaving through the traffic, learning to adopt a ‘blinker approach’ and just riding and letting the traffic go around me. Its loads of fun when you get over the initial fear of being run over by a tuk tuk or a huge truck.
The UNESCO protected Angkor site stretches over 400 km2 in total and reflect the different capitals of the Khmer Empire during the 9th to 15th Century and is one of the finest archaeological sites in South East Asia. However the chances are you’re probably going to head for the main temples of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with its fantastic sculptural decorations.
The traffic significantly reduced as we passed through the checkpoint and onwards around the outside of Angkor Wat. We purchased a 3-day temple pass for $40 allowing us time to properly visit the temples and not rush around too much. I highly recommend this as the temples are too extensive, varied and vast to be able to see the best in one day.
Its hard to travel in a country like Cambodia and not be affected by the poverty that exists. A relic from the conflicts and genocide under the Khmer Rouge that has left a country, with a powerful and glorious history, struggling to rebuild itself.
For the traveller, this provides an opportunity to see a country untouched by too much commercialisation (except perhaps in Phnom Penh where development is quickly racing along), and a place were the people are open to the opportunities tourism can bring, without being ruined by it.
The Khmer Rouge robbed the country of a generation, especially those best able to transform its future economy and infrastructure. Its hard not to notice that loss as you walk around the cities and towns – there’s few people over 50.
Cambodia provides a fascinating mix of history and culture along with a beautiful environment, neither feeling ruined by extensive over-development by tourism.
My first encounter with the country perhaps gave a very jet lagged me, the wrong impression of the people I was going to meet in Cambodia. Passport control around the world it is the place of hard nosed, smile-free faces and in Siem Reap I was met with seven such faces behind a long wide desk – like a panel at a talent show or prison guards at a jail (I imagine!). Despite having arrived with with money for my visa but no photo, I discovered this wasn’t a problem as I paid an extra two dollars and got into the country anyway. Was that a bribe, or an official payment? They obviously didn’t care too much about who I was.
As a place to start Siem Reap is where most people head, it being the nearest town to the world famous and UNESCO world heritage sites of the Angkor temples. I recommend before you jump in a tuk tuk and follow the crowds to the temples check out the town itself. So many people arrive here on an organised trip and don’t have the time to wander. Its a great place to start an adventure in the country as it is small enough to explore on foot – just remember where the river that runs through the town is in relation to you and you won’t get too lost. Or that’s how I navigated the myriad of roads and back alleys.