It didn’t take long for me to find Hong Kong’s claustrophobic feeling too much, and my lack of interest in shopping required me to finding something further afield. The weather wasn’t ideal for hiking, which is a shame as there are some interesting routes on the islands.
So I decided more temples was in order. I headed to Ngong Ping to see the Big Buddha, and though I was initially disappointed to find the cable car wasn’t working I was eventually thankful. It meant it was a bit quieter and my first impression hadn’t been tarnished by departing the cable car into yet another shopping area.
Hong Kong – the place that kept my baggage for a few days while I was in Siem Reap. Having to change flights here again on my way home, I’d planned a week in the city to break up the journey. But being almost 20 degrees colder than Cambodia, a huge city of towering skyscrapers and every metro station leading into a shopping mall (and I really do mean every single one); it was a culture shock in more than one sense.
Hong Kong is a fascinating city, though requires energy to withstand the pace, which I lacked on first arrival. I’d come from a laid back Buddhist Cambodia where the pace was slow, so it took me an afternoon to adjust to the pace. As well as the price of food and goods and the endless shopping. At least a 3-day Oystercard for the Metro was a reasonable price.
Staying in the popular Wan Chai district, within walking distance to the huge shopping centre of Times square, I did spend my first night wandering around admiring the lights, being shocked that it was Christmas (I’d managed to avoid this fact in Cambodia) and eating noodles in a little back street cafe. Despite the culture shock I found the ideal first night, seeing the lights around the Harbour from the Conference centre.
After a day whizzing around Phnom Penh in a tuk tuk it was time for more pagodas, and Phnom Penh has a lot to see with one in almost every neighbourhood. In order to avoid temple overload I stuck to those most prominent. Wat Ounalom on the river front is allegedly the oldest in the city, predating the end of the capital’s site at Angkor in the 15th Century. It is also home to the country’s Buddhist leader.
After 4 nights in the jungles of the Cardamom Mountains, I’ll be honest I was dying for a shower and clean clothes. I have no problem with roughing it, but there’s nothing like being clean again and not smelling of the jungle covered in a film of red dirt.
Phnom Penh is a busy capital with insane traffic but once I was scrubbed clean I was keen to go and explore. I was staying near the Kandal market, full of vegetables, fish and meat as well as household goods. It did mean though that I was also close to the Tonle Sap river, and where it joins the Mekong – the confluence where in the wet season the water backs up and causes the Tonle Sap river to flow in the other direction, back to the lake.
Phnom Penh is a large city so at some point you will need to jump on a tuk tuk to get around. That said, some of the best shops and restaurants are around the riverside. There’s also some fantastic social enterprise shops on street 240 at the back of the Royal Palace. If you’re not already weighed down with gifts and treasures, head to the Russian market where you will find opportunities to shop.
Lying in bed wrapped in a cotton sheet I watch sunrise in Battambang. Through the blind the sky is turning from reds to yellows.
The dull whirr of the air conditioning, the buzz of insects waking, the occasional motorbike whining by and horns beeping; and below it all is the quiet, mourning melody of a Khmer guitar playing a sad stirring tune.
The sky is blue and the sun is up, the traffic is building as cars beep and drive by the hotel. Voices call and the music disappears into the background, drowned out by the sounds of the day.
We left Battambang early, heading for Phnom Penh. The drive was long and so we stopped en-route at Phoum Kandal, a Vietnamese floating village on Tonle Sap. We caught a local boat to visit the village. Unlikely Mechrey I’d visited a few days before, this floating village was along the lake edge rather than out in the depths of the lake. It was also clear that there was a divide between the poor and extreme poor even in the floating village.
Having spent an amazing week in Siem Reap it was sad to leave the friendly buzz of the town behind and head off towards Battambang. The 3 hour drive took us past mile after mile of rice fields, making it clear why this part of Cambodia is the main area for rice production in the country.
It was also clear that local ‘delicacies’ were going to be more common; we stopped by the roadside to buy bamboo-sticky rice and also found these dishes. Being a vegetarian provided a great excuse to avoid trying them!
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.
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.