I spent a total of two weeks in Cambodia and the eastern part of Thailand – far too short a time to properly get to know a place, but long enough for an extremely satisfying holiday.
Cambodia was much as I expected – a cross between Thailand and Vietnam, except poorer than both. Phnom Penh reminded me of the worst aspects of Hanoi – a noisy, dirty city with plenty of evidence of poverty. The Tuol Sleng museum was extremely interesting, if harrowing, while the Silver Pagoda was a nice distraction. The National Museum isn’t the most exciting museum in the world, to be honest. Other than that there are plenty of good places to eat and drink – as with Hanoi – but overall Phnom Penh reaffirmed my belief that the cities are the least likable part of south-east Asia.
Siem Reap, on the other hand, was much more that just a diving board into the ruins of Angkor. It had plenty of top-notch bars and restaurants, and was a nice – if touristy – place to while away time window-shopping for trinkets and souvenirs when we weren’t exploring temples. Angkor itself was everything I expected it to be – glorious, ancient temples, ruins torn apart by gargantuan trees, Tomb Raider brought to life in all its glory. Three days was enough to see the main temples, which nicely are different enough to each other to prevent any temple burn out. Highlights include the pyramid temple of Baphuon, Banteay Srei, Bayon, Sras Srang lake. I also really enjoyed the tuk-tuk-ing around – the temples are spread out and some form of motorised transport is necessary in the baking sun. It was worth waking up early (4.45am) for sunrise on one day – particularly as I got my pictures of Sras Srang lake – but I was happy not to repeat it, and on the other days I started later and stayed out till sunset. Remember that if you have a three day pass you can get in the day before after 4pm, and so cram an extra sunset in!
The only real disappointment of Cambodia was Battambang. I pictured a quaint, colonial town, but the reality was a let down – noisy, dirty, uninspiring. On crossing the border and travelling to Trat, our springboard onto the island of Koh Kut, we found everything we had hoped to find in Battambang. Trat is a charming town, well worth a night before you get the boat to your island destination.
The island itself – Koh Kut – was superb, supplanting Koh Tao from my top ten list. It’s big enough to definitely need some wheels – but a scooter is a bargain at 400 baht a day. We stayed on Ao Bang Bao, but the best beaches were found further east – particularly Ao Ta Kien and Ao Phrao. It really was paradise – the water wasn’t as clear as it is on Koh Tao, but the sand and palm trees were perfect. It’s a lot quieter than the other islands I’ve been to, so I’d hesitate to recommend it to single travelers, as there isn’t a lot going on at night. Having a scooter is essential – it means you can explore the variety of fantastic restaurants around the island including my favourite – the second restaurant right down past the jetty in the small fishing village of Ao Yai. Fresh fish, scallops, crab and king prawns are available, and are ludicrously cheap.
I feel like I’m slowly piecing together a picture of south-east Asia. There are still gaps – most of Vietnam (save the north), the north of Thailand, Laos and of course Myanmar. The beauty of this part of the world is the natural environment – the mountains, the beaches – and the food. The bits to avoid are the cities. Also, it’s a very cheap region to travel in – I don’t know why a cocktail for $3 tastes better than a cocktail for $8, but it does.
Best accomodation: Sacha’s Hotel UNO, Bangkok, Blue Lime, Phnom Penh
Best restaurants: The Touich Restaurant Bar, Siem Reap, Ao Yai fishing village, Koh Kut.
Best food: fish amok (try at Sugar Palm in Siem Reap), fresh fish
Best drink: Khmer mojito (rice wine mojito) at The Touich Restaurant, Siem Reap