A couple of weekends ago, we took our first trip overnight trip out of Phnom Penh in 2021. Mel took a day of leave and we went from Friday to Sunday. Here’s a recap of our trip.
Friday: Bus ride and checkpoint, brunch, rooftop pool swim, wood-fired pizza dinner.
For this trip, we traveled with the Larryta bus company. They’ve got a nice undercover stop at both ends of the trip, and the Phnom Penh side has its own restaurant and cafe too.
About 100km outside of Siem Reap, we got pulled in by police officers on the road. They were diverting all traffic going into the city over to a nearby high school, which had been set up as some sort of checkpoint. This was the Cambodian government’s way of tracking movement between provinces in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19. As a group we hopped off the bus and were shuffled about by various official-looking men pointing us to different counters. Luckily our bus driver handled all of the Khmer conversation and we were on our way again quickly.
Hungry for some brunch once we arrived in Siem Reap. So we dropped our bags and headed straight to Little Red Fox. It’s an Australian-owned cafe, so we felt right at home. They have a lovely upstairs floor with air-conditioning, with walls adorned with cool Siem Reap-inspired paintings done by a local artist.
The food, while delicious, left more to be desired volume-wise. So afterwards I tried out Pong, the sandwich chain that I’d seen pop up all around Phnom Penh recently. They serve a special buttered sandwich, which I got with bacon and silky scrambled egg topped with a sweet mayo sauce. Just as expected, it was delicious!
That afternoon we relaxed and went back to our hotel for a dip in the rooftop pool.
For dinner, we met up with an old friend and ate a nearby wood-fired pizza restaurant. She’s someone who used to work with Mel and has now moved back to Siem Reap where her family lives.
Saturday: Breakfast at Sister Srey, clothes shopping, wakeboarding
We started the day like any good Australians: by going for a run and getting brunch after. I also took a nap after the run – I guess my body doesn’t like the idea of me running these days and had had enough.
Brunch today was at another Australian-owned cafe (we’re not feeling homesick, I promise) called Sister Srey. Our first choice was actually (the bread place) but we were disheartened to see that they’ve shut down their original operations and now operate as a mere shell of what they used to.
COVID has been really tough for businesses. We were quite often the only people walking around on the streets, where previously I’d be used to seeing foreigners (like us) in every direction.
Our afternoon was filled with shopping for clothes so that we could be appropriately dressed for our visit to the temples tomorrow. Getting the right balance of practical, yet appropriate, yet stylish is usually a near impossible task.
We stopped by to hire some bicycles from the local Giant Store. They cost us $8 each to hire from midday Saturday till 8pm Sunday evening.
After a healthy amount of convincing from a friend we decided that we’d go wakeboarding today. The ride to get to the wake park was an adventure in itself. We passed over bumpy unsealed roads, past cows grazing in rice fields and rows of thatched-roof houses. Rising out of the distance, almost as odd as the Angkor Wat complex standing amongst the jungle, the wakeboarding park seemed to rise out of the empty countryside. Once we got there we could see overhead, a complex system of pulleys, motors and ropes that ferried daredevils around a donut-shaped lake. Riders moved along the course from corner to corner, trying to look nonchalant. I’m sure they were hiding their fear of face-slamming the water.
So I took my first few attempts were on the kneeboard. I fell off it every time. It was thrilling. Humbling. I feared every second on the board. And I loved it. The speed, the adrenaline, the rush of skimming along the water. We booked ourselves 2 hours and went again and again pretty much non-stop. Eventually I graduated up from the kneeboard to the standing one, and Mel to the water skis. With a few more days’ practice out there, maybe we can start doing flips and tricks!
Sunday: Angkor Wat, broken roads and heading home.
For our last morning, we were deciding whether or not to check out Angkor Wat and take advantage of the unprecedented quietness of the place. I did have my reservations though – with a price of $37 each to spend just a few hours there, it didn’t seem very worth it.
We decided to go, and the bike ride there was extremely pleasant.
On the way, and indeed throughout the entire weekend, it was hard not to notice the state of the roads: completely torn up. The city is currently undertaking a huge project to revitalise the roads and sewerage system, upgrading it in anticipation of big crowds in the future. It’s great that they’ve chosen this time to do it, since there are almost no tourists right now.
But the way it’s been carried out is.. questionable. Rather than completing it in stages, sectioning off parts of the city to remove a single road and then replacing it with a new one, they’ve instead torn up all of the roads in the city at the same time. From here (I guess) the idea is to slowly replace the road, section by section. It gave the city a bit of an old-Western feel, seeing dirt roads everywhere and feeling the dust being kicked into the air with every gust of wind.
Once we arrived at Angkor Wat, the feeling was hard to describe. I was in awe of the temple, sure, but it was just so surreal being the only ones there, save for a small group of 5 or so other Cambodians. Without the masses of crowds, it was almost like we were the first foreign explorers discovering the temple for the first time. But in a way, it was hard to have a full appreciation of the place without seeing thousands of other people there, all clamouring for the most Insta-worthy selfie. Seeing people crowd around something tends to give it more psychological value. Sort of like that tendency for people to join long queues because they feel that everyone else must be there for something good, right?
Despite this, it didn’t take me long to realise there were no regrets here in spending the $37 for only a few hours: this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and 110% worth it.
Here’s what you can expect the main walkway in front of Angkor Wat to look like on any given day pre-pandemic:
And here’s what we saw on that day:
We’ve been to the Angkor Wat complex a handful times by now, and each time we explored the way most tourists did: by hiring a tuk tuk or a van for the day and getting driven from temple to temple. Being on bicycles, this was the first time we’d ever fully explored it on our own volition, and this gave us an appreciation for the location scale of things like never before. I feel that this really elevated our experience on this visit. Not to mention just how nice it was to cycle in the complex, under the canopy of the jungle, riding down long, flat roads with minimal traffic, passing by vendors monkeys and other temples.
After Angkor Wat, we picked up one of our favourite Cambodian street snacks: sticky rice cooked in bamboo tubes. We sat and ate them underneath a palm tree, looking out over the artificial lake that was created to surround Angkor Wat like a moat.
For our last stop we visited Bayon, the temple of countless faces etched into rock. Usually this is the second most popular temple in the complex. And here we were literally the only 2 people here, apart from security men at the front gate.
That’s all we had time to visit before having to return to Siem Reap to catch our bus. Again we went with the Larryta bus company. There was only one stop on the way back for food & the toilet. There weren’t any security checkpoints, surprisingly.