Experience the essence of Cambodia, right in Phnom Penh’s backyard
By Daniel Otis
Crumbling royal tombs, the slow clatter of a wooden loom, the menacing mandala of a tiger’s smile… Armed with a map and a little curiosity, you don’t have to travel far to taste the quintessentiallyCambodian – it can easily be found within an hour or two’s drive of Phnom Penh.
OUDONG: THE CRUMBLING CAPITAL
Capital of Cambodia from 1618 to 1866, Oudong is the final resting place of several Cambodian kings. The ruins of temples and stupas dot the twin humps of Oudong’s small mountain, which can be reached after a short (but strenuous) climb up a series of cement stairs. The views from the summit are excellent.
Marginalised members of society often find their way to religious centres to seek help and, if you are so inclined, giving Oudong’s handicapped and elderly beggars 500 riel (12 cents) will buy you smiles and good karma. Remember – Cambodia has no real social security network.
Immediately northwest of the mountain, the sprawling Cambodia Vipassana Dhura Buddhist Meditation Centre is worth a visit. In addition to its splendidly decorated main sanctuary, one of the complex’s smaller buildings houses the glass-encased remains of a recently assassinated monk.
Getting there: To get to Oudong, take National Highway 5 north from Phnom Penh. Be sure to visit at least one of the modern Cham mosques or Buddhist temples that line the way. 3.5km after National Highway 5 veers west, the archway that leads to Oudong will be on your left-hand side – you should be able to see the mountain behind it. Drive towards the mountain until you reach the ticket booth. Foreigners are charged $1 to enter. Oudong is 43km northwest of Phnom Penh.
KOH DACH: THE TIMELESS ISLAND
Life on Koh Dach seems frozen in time. Cows, chickens and children roam the island’s narrow dirt streets while adults tend small plantations and the ancient wooden looms they keep tucked beneath their stilt houses. Friendly locals are more than happy to show you their beautiful woven wares, and by buying sarongs, scarves and other textiles directly from Koh Dach’s weavers, you help ensure the preservation of their traditional (and increasingly difficult) way of life.
Most weavers can be found along Koh Dach’s outer road. In the dry season, you can rent picnic huts at the beach on the island’s northern tip. Agree on all prices in advance. If you’re looking to stay the night, check out Villa Koh Dach on the island’s northwestern shore.
Getting there: Koh Dach is about 12km northeast of Phnom Penh. To get to the island, start by crossing the Japanese Friendship Bridge. After the bridge, travel northeast on National Highway 6A for about 5km before turning right onto any of the small bisecting streets that you see. Turn left soon after onto the road that runs alongside the Mekong River. There are several ferry terminals along this road – any will do. The short ferry ride should cost 1,000 riel per person.
PHNOM TAMAO: A POACHER’S MENAGERIE
The sprawling Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre houses over 1,200 animals rescued from Cambodia’s illegal wildlife trade. Animals are given basic but large enclosures and are cared for with the assistance of several international NGOs. Highlights include frenetic gibbons, lazy sun bears and a terrifyingly large Burmese python. Elephants are often paraded through Phnom Tamao’s forested grounds, and there are mynas in the bird enclosure that mimic Khmer greetings and revving motorbikes.
Beware of the semi-wild macaques that roam the zoo. While cute, they can be vicious – don’t look them in the eye!
After the zoo, stop by Tamao Temple, which features a brightly painted modern pagoda next to the bombed-out foundations of an 11th century stupa.
Getting there: Phnom Tamao is 42km south of Phnom Penh. To get there, take Norodom Boulevard until it becomes National Highway 2. Follow National Highway 2 south for approximately 37km (the route is well-signed), then turn right through the temple archway that stands next to the zoo’s peeling paint sign. After about 5km along a sandy uphill path, you’ll arrive at a junction. Turn right for the temple or left for the zoo. Entrance to the zoo is $5. Once inside, use your motorbike to get around. With a very early start, this trip can be combined with a visit to Phnom Chisor.
KIEN SVAY: A PICNICKER’S PARADISE
Freshly caught prawns, grilled river fish, fried vegetables and beer with ice. With all of this enjoyed from shady bamboo and thatch riverside huts, Kien Svay is truly a picnicker’s paradise.
The site is wildly popular with city folk at weekends. Come during the week, and it will be eerily empty. Picnic huts with lounging mats and hammocks can be rented for about $1.25/hour. Hut proprietors prepare a plethora of delicious dishes while women paddle the river in wooden boats, selling fresh fruit, boiled corn and giant freshwater prawns. A short boat ride up and down the river (approx. $2/person) is also a worthwhile distraction.
Getting there: Kien Svay is 16km east of Phnom Penh. To get there, cross the Monivong Bridge onto National Highway 1. Follow National Highway 1 east for about 12km until you see a large green sign on your left that says ‘Wat Kien Svay Krao’. Turn left at the sign and follow the short road until it comes to an end. Picnic platform proprietors will likely pounce on you here. Small, intimate platforms can be found on your left. Large platforms for groups will be on your right. For something quieter, hire a boat to take you to the platforms on the other side of the river. If you fancy a swim on your way back to town, Hôtel L’Imprevu (6km west of Kien Svay, on the south side of National Highway 1)allows non-guests to use its large tree-shaded pool for $2 on weekdays or $4 at weekends.
PHNOM CHISOR: THE HOLY MOUNTAIN
Phnom Chisor is breathtaking. Although not nearly as large as the temples of Angkor, this 11th century brick, laterite and sandstone structure is perched atop a 133-metre-high hill – making it one of the most noticeable landmarks in its otherwise flat surroundings. From Phnom Chisor’s summit, one has an unbridled view of the countryside – particularly magical when the area’s rice paddies are at full flood. Several ancient roads are also visible from the summit, many of which are still being used.
There are several inscriptions and carvings at the site, as well as a modern pagoda, benches and a giant cement elephant. Friendly novice monks will likely be happy to show you around. While watching the sun set from Phnom Chisor is definitely worthwhile, it will make for a fairly nerve-racking return trip in the dark. Alternatively, come first thing in the morning and then visit Phnom Tamao in the afternoon.
Getting there: Phnom Chisor is 53km south of Phnom Penh. Start by taking Norodom Boulevard until it becomes National Highway 2. Follow National Highway 2 south for about 49km until you see a temple archway on your left-hand side. You should be able to see the temple-crowned mountain from the road. Go through the archway. A rough 4km road will take you to a yellow school and the stairs that lead up the mountain. Alternatively, circle the mountain until you find its original east-facing gate. Entry is $3.
With towering sugar palms, friendly villages, lotus plantations, shimmering rice paddies, and gold-splashed pagodas, the journey to these places can be as captivating as the destinations – give yourself a full day for each trip.
For do-it-yourselfers, 100cc motorbikes can be rented for about $5/day from virtually any guesthouse or travel agency in Phnom Penh. Four litres of petrol should get you to and from all of the above destinations. Wear a helmet and make sure your bike’s lights and odometer are in working order. Wearing sunglasses and covering your face with a scarf or mask is also a good idea – Cambodian roads are notoriously dusty. Although not 100% necessary, detailed provincial road maps can be purchased for about $5 from Peace Book Centre on Monivong Boulevard, just north of Street 214. Alternatively, motorcycle taxis, tuk tuks and cars can be hired for any of these trips – but be sure to agree on a price before setting out.
“Rolling in the Reap” – The Amansara is temple town’s most luxurious accommodation for weary explorers