Having visited China a few years ago, we were keen to return to Asia. We considered booking a combined trip to Vietnam and Cambodia but decided to spend all of our time in Cambodia and visit Vietnam at another time.
We booked the Wendy Wu two week ‘Around Cambodia’ tour through Abbotts Travel a year ahead. This meant we had the convenience of spreading out our payments across the year, which really helped with budgeting.
Julie arranged the booking for us very efficiently (as always) and sent helpful reminders about applying for visas. We were pleased to receive a discount from Wendy Wu for being return customers, and also got a great deal on a flight upgrade to premium economy.
We hadn’t flown with Vietnam Airlines before, but were very impressed with the leg room, the food, the service, and the choice of entertainment. The flight from Heathrow to Hanoi flew by (no pun intended). This was followed by a short flight from Hanoi to Phnom Penh, which is where we began our escorted tour.
We always find arriving tired in an unknown country quite stressful, so we were very happy to be greeted immediately outside the airport by a friendly face – our Wendy Wu guide, Vuttha Dam. He was our guide for the whole two weeks and was a real credit to the company. A number of our group had issues during the tour (falls, illness, lost belongings) and he dealt with them all in a swift and efficient manner.
After a 40 minute drive, we arrived at our hotel in Phnom Penh. Here the standard was set for the rest of the trip. The hotel was bright, clean and comfortable, with air conditioning and an infinity pool on the roof. That evening we met the rest of our group. There were nineteen of us in total, mainly Australians (Australians often make up the majority of those on this tour, as the flight time to Cambodia is much shorter for them). There was a mix of ages and fitness levels, and again Vuttha was very good at juggling everybody’s various needs and interests.
Dinner was our first introduction to Cambodian food. We found the food everywhere to be fresh, tasty, and not too spicy. There were some interesting options for the adventurous – fried crickets anyone? The only thing we weren’t too keen on was pudding. Generally, this was milk based and often included sweetcorn or peas.
On day one we had a cycle ride to the Royal Palace – it was quite an exhilarating experience through the chaotic Phnom Penh traffic. The second day was spent visiting the Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Museum, a former school used by the Khmer Rouge as a detention and torture centre. Although an emotionally draining day, we felt that this exploration of Cambodia’s recent history was important in understanding the country as it is today.
Travelling on from the capital, we stopped at a pepper farm for a fascinating insight into how the famous Kampot pepper is produced. This included a visit to the shop to buy some vacuum-packed peppercorns, which we have been enjoying cooking with since our return.
After a night in Kampot, enjoying the dilapidated French colonial architecture, we travelled on to Sihanoukville. Although the town is very built up and continuing to develop at an alarming rate (there were what seemed like hundreds of high-rise hotels and casinos being built as we drove through), the private beach of the hotel we stayed in was virtually empty and beautifully pristine. It was great to have a well needed rest day here before the five-hour drive back to Phnom Penh. At this point, we should mention how amazing our coach driver was. It is not at all easy to navigate a coach down many of the roads in Cambodia.
Following an overnight stay in the capital, we headed on to Battambang. On route we stopped to climb Touch Hill, with its spectacular views of the countryside. One word of warning – this is a tour where interesting sites are often at the top of an awful lot of steps. Luckily, we ate three excellent meals everyday so had enough energy to climb each one.
Siem Reap was the last stop on our tour, home to the famous Angkor Wat, and the one that we had all been waiting for. We had seen the ancient temple on television programmes and in pictures, but in reality it is truly breathtaking. Although we had been warned that it can get busy, we travelled during the rainy season (we only had two afternoons of rain though) and it wasn’t at all crowded. There was time to explore by ourselves and we climbed to the top of the central tower for an incredible aerial view of the whole site. Other temples nearby to explore included the Instagram favourite Bayon, and Angkor Thom, the temple overgrown by jungle made famous by the first Tomb Raider film.
Throughout our trip, one thing we were really impressed by was the focus on visiting local community enterprises (‘NGOs’). We ate at a great restaurant that trains disadvantaged young people - and their parents run a stall in the restaurant with crafts they have made to pay for their education. We also visited Les Artisans D’Angkor, which supports the training of crafts people within the local community. And there was an unforgettable evening at the PHARE Cambodian Circus, which teaches street children circus arts. They are now an internationally renowned group, and certainly know how to put on a show.
We returned home tired but uplifted by our trip. Cambodia isn’t as developed as its neighbours but that is part of its charm. Would we recommend a trip there? Definitely. Although we would say you need a reasonable level of fitness, a flexible attitude and a sense of humour. We have friends who have travelled independently around Cambodia, but we think it was well worth booking a tour. The dedicated guide, well thought through itinerary, and lack of stress was all worth a little extra cost.