Planning a trip to Cambodia in only 4 days can be a tough task. There are Too many things to visit in a short amount of time! We decided to focus on the 2 most famous cities: Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. And this is what we visited during our long weekend in Cambodia:
Friday Morning: arriving at Siem Reap
After a traveling overnight from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh – Vietnam, where I had a 5-hour transit stopover (no transit visa needed, as long as you plan to stay inside the airport. But still, it is best to check the visa rules for your country), I arrived on Friday morning, June 15th, to Siem Reap.
The flight from Ho Chi Minh to Siem Reap is relatively short, about 1 hour 30 min. I flew in an ATR-72 aircraft of Cambodia Angkor Air, which is a tiny twin-engine turboprop aircraft. I honestly was a bit scared when I first saw the plane, as it was my first time flying in such a small airplane. However everything went well, despite the loud noise of the turboprops. Moreover, I got to see the vast Tonle Sap Lake from the air, which looks like a brown sea.
Fran was meeting me at customs, where we paid the $30 US/each to get the visa. For the visa, you need USD in cash, a passport-size picture and to fill in a form that you get there. Once you give the documents to a custom’s agent, you wait while a long line of agents pass your passport from one to the other until it gets back to you. It is quite funny, as they are organized so that each agent has his own task: check passport, stick stamp, fill in name, sign it and so on…
We took a taxi to get to our hotel, Residence 101 in Siem Reap. This is a lovely Boutique hotel well-located, with large rooms, friendly staff, and a cute pool area – which we enjoyed just to ourselves during our stay.
Friday Afternoon: visiting the Vietnamese floating village on Tonle Sap Lake
For the first day in Siem Reap, we planned a visit to the Vietnamese floating village. We did some previous research and read people’s comments on their experience by traveling with and without a tour guide. In the end, we chose to book a tour because it seemed less likely to be scammed and prices for organizing the excursion with or without a tour company were pretty similar. After some researching, we chose Community First: Kompong Khleang Floating Village Tours (www.kompongkhleang.org/floating-tours). It is an organization that promotes responsible tourism in the area and supports Bridge of Life School with part of the money of their private tours.
The afternoon with them was totally worth it. Our guide picked us up at the hotel at 2 pm, and we headed with the other people – we were a tour of 8 people, to Kompong Khleang. On our way, we stopped in a couple of local stores to get some traditional pastry to eat on the boat later.
When we entered the village I was in shock to see a way of living that I never saw before. Houses were built a few meters above the ground to prevent floods during the wet season. They explained to us that people in this village lived from fishing, reason why they prefer rainy season over dry season (we later learned that most people in Cambodia thought that way. During wet season you get to fish, during dry season you wait for the wet season to come back to fish again).
It is important to mention that we were allowed to take pictures of the village, but we couldn’t take photos of people, especially kids. I found it very respectful and added a +1 reason why I liked this tour.
After visiting the village, they explained a little bit how they collaborate with the Bridge of Life School, which is a not-for-profit organization providing free educational and community-based programming at rural sites in the Cambodian countryside. Then, we headed to our boat to visit the Vietnamese floating village.
We sailed along the Siem Reap River to see the Vietnamese floating houses and ended up in the Tonle Sap Lake to see the sunset.
What we learned from the Vietnamese floating village is that these people who are ethnic Vietnamese were considered illegal immigrants after the Khmer Rouge Genocide. When they came back to their cities after the genocide, they weren’t allowed to buy land to build a house because homes were reserved to legal Cambodians. What they did instead was flocking to the lakes and rivers, building homes on wooden platforms tied to bamboo rafts. (Later on our trip to Cambodia, we learned more about the Cambodian genocide which we will explain in our next posts).
When we finished, we asked the tour guide to drop us in the city center to wander around for a while before heading back to the hotel to catch a good night’s sleep to get ready for our next day. Saturday was a promising day, as we planned to visit the temples of Angkor Wat, which was the main reason for our trip to Cambodia.