A lot of backpackers want to see Angkor Wat and then go straight to Laos. While this is definitely possible, doing it overland is a long, bumpy and slow ride. It’s also pretty impractical for most backpackers to fly, as you’d have to head straight to Vientiane or Luang Prabang and skip the incredible southern part of Laos. So what to do? Stop along the way! There are still more awesome things to see in Cambodia on the way from the temples of Angkor to the hammocks of Don Det. Here is a guide to two places that can make your trip to Laos much more enjoyable and far less tiring:
It seemed as if we weren’t ever going to get out of Siem Reap, as our bus promptly broke down on the way out of town. Anyone who has ever traveled extensively in SE Asia has dealt with some kind of major transportation failure at one point or another – it just comes with the territory here. After an hour or so of a group of guys messing around with some very odd machine under the bus, we were back on the road again. We had no idea what they did down there, but the bus was up and running; sometimes ignorance is bliss.
Our first stop on the way to the 4,000 Islands of southern Laos was Kampong Cham, a small city situated on the Mekong River. Although it’s actually the third biggest city in Cambodia, it feels more like a sleepy town. After checking into our room at the Mekong Hotel, we got some dinner at a great place called Smile. It’s run by a local NGO and it trains orphans and disadvantaged youth from the area. Should you find yourself in Kampong Cham, you should definitely drop by and enjoy a delicious meal for a good cause.
In the morning, we rented a motorbike from a local shop to do some exploring. Cruising through the villages outside of the city, with children waving to us and yelling “Hello!”, we started to think about how great our trip had been in Cambodia and how easily we could have stayed longer. Alas, our visas were only good for 30 days and it was time to move on. About 20km north of the city, you’ll find Phnom Hanchey, a stunning hilltop temple with amazing views of the Mekong.
It’s a great place to hang out, as you’ll notice by all of the locals up there. Explore the temple grounds for a while, and then kick back, relax, and enjoy the slow pace of life while gazing down at the mighty Mekong. Unfortunately, someone stole the helmet off our bike while we were in the temple. Stealing at a Buddhist temple? That person definitely got negative karma points from Buddha.
Next up we headed back to the city to visit Nokor Wat, an 11th century Angkorian temple. On the heels of a 3-day adventure in the major temples of Angkor this one wasn’t exactly impressive, but it was still interesting to see. Many people combine a stop here with a visit to the nearby mountains of Pros and Srei, but we didn’t have enough daylight left to do so.
Better than the actual temple itself was the performance that we stumbled upon on the other side. A group of children and teenagers occasionally do traditional apsara dance here, and we were fortunate enough to catch a performance. The group is run by another NGO and managed by the monks, and it’s clearly a positive influence in the lives of the kids. We thoroughly enjoyed the show and had an even better time doing a photo shoot for the talented performers.
The next day, we traded our motorbike for a couple of bicycles and headed out to cross the Bamboo Bridge over to Koh Paen, a rural island in the middle of the Mekong. Every year, the bridge is washed away and later rebuilt by locals in the dry season. It was a little intense trying to peddle across the makeshift bridge, but once on the other side we had a great afternoon cycling through the villages. Having grown accustomed to life in the mega-cities of China, it was nice to be in a simple, quiet place devoid of smog and traffic jams.
On our short trip around the island, we stumbled upon a cool guesthouse with heavy duty hammocks in favor of bunk beds and a nice riverfront terrace. If only we had known about this place before our arrival, we definitely would have stayed there for a night. The only problem is getting your stuff over the bamboo bridge, but travelers to Kampong Cham would be advised to look into it.
With a few hours to kill before our “bus” headed to our next destination, we chilled out at Mekong Sunrise – another guesthouse/restaurant with a pool table, cheap draft beer, and views of the river. While we were hanging out, we saw a giant cruise ship pull up and stop for a while. Seeing the crowds of retirees filing off this luxury vessel, we were reminded that Cambodia is not only for degenerate backpackers! While a cruise would have been lovely, we were stuck waiting on the local transport to schlep us and our bags to our last stop in the country.
In the next post, we’ll introduce the small town of Kratie – our last stop in Cambodia. Here, you can go kayaking to see the rare Irrawaddy river dolphins. We’ll also detail the long, strange border crossing into Laos to get to the 4,000 Islands and give a recap of the details and cost of this leg of the trip.