Getting off the beaten path in Siem Reap: see the real Cambodia
January 1, 1970
by Kim Clarys
‘Cambodia is nice’, they said. ‘But two weeks will be more than enough’, they said. Big mistake! And I will explain you why. A lot of backpackers quickly cruise their way through this country, while going from Vietnam to Thailand or the other way around. They drink a few beers in the bubbly bars of Siem Reap to wake up early next morning and tick off their checklists. In groups, they do their mandatory temple tour, and that’s that. But there is so much more.
It’s not all about Angkor Wat
Ok, I am not going to lie: Angkor Wat in Siem Reap is amazing and you should definitely visit it. But the common tourist rushes through Cambodia and will never know what this country truly has to offer. Did you know for example that Cambodia has its own Route 66 near Siem Reap? And did you ever hear of the prestigious Prasat Preah Vihear temple on the border with Thailand? Or did you ever consider that the locals can offer you a deeper insight into their harsh history?
No, you haven’t, and a lot of other people haven’t either. That’s why you will barely meet a soul at these hidden gems. Doesn’t that sound nicer than being surrounded by tourists with silly hats and expensive cameras? I will answer that question for you: yes. It is. Bonus point, to add a little adventure to your journey, you can get off the beaten path in Cambodia by motorbike. But only if you have enough experience and take the necessary, sensible precautions into account.
Route 66: a motorbike track made for bucket lists
Route 66 is also called the Angkorian Highway since it connects the ancient temple cities Angkor and Preah Khan. This road exists for over a 1000 years, starts at Beng Mealea and ends at the remote temple Preah Khan. For a long while it’s just a calm dirt road where you can throttle your heart out, but from Khvao village it turns into an adventurous drive that can only be tackled with a dirt bike. Only experienced drivers should accept this off the beaten path challenge, as you can easily get lost and it will take you a lot of time. You can leave very early from Siem Reap or bring your own hammock and stay for the night in the temple. I tried this option, but since I’m not experienced enough, I kind of wrecked my bike a little bit. So in other words, I never reached the remote temple. But that’s ok, now I have a new item on my already endless bucket list. I hope you do as well.
Prasat Preah Vihear, the mother of all temples
The mother of all temples is tucked away up north on the border with Thailand. Because of this, there has been an ongoing dispute between the countries, both claiming this astonishing 800m-long temple. Prasat Preah Vihear is situated on top of the Dangrek Mountains and has an elevation of 625 meter which provides stunning views over Cambodia and a dazzling drive to the top.
This temple is quite the journey from Siem Reap, but I recommend organizing it from there. You can hire a car or motorbike and either drive up to the Preah Vihear province or to the city of Sra Em where you can get a hotel. We stopped at Preah Vihear, which is further away from the Prasat Preah Vihear temple than Sra Em. From Preah Vihear, it’s another two-hour drive to the temple.
You’ll have to stop at the ticket office first (ticket = 10$), where you have to show your passport (so don’t forget it) and where you can also get a driver to get you up the steep hill (it’s really steep!). You can also get a bus to one of these cities, but without your own transport, you will only be able to hire a private car to get to the temple for a starting price of 100$. Experienced bargainers can get the price down to 50$, but I wish you good luck with that one.
Take your time figuring out how to get to this temple, otherwise it might cost you way too much. I luckily got some help from an energetic Italian expat who used a whiteboard and marker to vigorously explain the route to the temple. While I walked out his tour agency, I could hear him say: ‘good luck, it’s the most beautiful temple in Cambodia, better than Angkor Wat’. I am happy to confirm that he was correct.
The kindness of the Khmer people
The first thing that you need to know about the locals in Cambodia, is that they are Khmer. Everything they do, make and are is Khmer. You eat Khmer food and learn about Khmer culture. My advice is to take your time to meet the Khmer people, it will get you places. Because you don’t necessary have to get off the beaten path to see a different side of a country. So while you are in Siem Reap, start talking to your tuk-tuk driver, ask your hostel personnel what they are up to and chat with local people in the street.
I can assure you that it will open your eyes. Cambodia has a cruel history and it didn’t happen that long ago. The older Khmer people have lived through it and will tell their story with tears in their eyes. At the same time, you will be amazed at how they are able to deal with the horrors that left their country in poverty. They dance and sing around the clock, invite you into their homes and share their delicious food. Their sharp, but cheerful, laughter will warm your heart. They are all about smiles, hugs and genuine greetings. It’s all they can offer, but they give it plentiful and with pleasure.
All of this is just a glimpse of how amazing Cambodia really is. But don’t leave it up to me to convince you. Book your ticket and most importantly take your dear time exploring this unique country.