Beng Melea is a fascinating temple complex situated about 80km by road from Siem Reap ‐ about one-and-a-half hours by tuk-tuk. Unlike many of the popular temples at Angkor Wat, Beng Melea is largely unrestored ‐ in fact the site was only declared safe from landmines in 2007. Very little noticeable reconstruction and restoration work has been done and this gives you a real feel for what the temples of Angkor must have been like when they were originally rediscovered.
After two days of visiting the temples at Angkor, Kate elected to spend the day chilling at the pool at the Green Garden Home Villa hotel were we were staying. Early on our third-day in Siem Reap, I set off with our dependable and friendly tuk-tuk driver for one of Angkor's hidden treasures.
Arriving in Siem Reap was a bit of a shock to the system after six weeks of travelling through the wilder, less-explored parts of South-East Asia with limited tourist infrastructure. The town is a bustling tourist hub geared towards mass-tourism and caters for all types: from backpacking students to jet-setting pensioners.
Of course, the main reason that so many people come here is a valid one: to see the amazing temples of Angkor.
The Angkor Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritiage site, covers about four-hundred square kilometres and was the home to several different capitals of the Khmer empire between ninth and fifteenth centuries. We spent three days exploring the park, hiring a tuktuk with a driver for the entire time to get around (we would recommend our tuk-tuk driver for anyone heading to Angkor; his Cambodian mobile phone number is 0976 666985 - unfortunately we've lost his name).
We used two different guides while we were there and although all guides go through a rigorous training programme, we found that our second guide, Nak, was significantly better than the first. We would definitely recommend this excellent, eager, knowledgeable, well-spoken guide if you're planning on visiting Angkor - his website is The Angkor Guide/. We stayed at the comfortable Green Garden Home Guesthouse.
Most tourists know Kampong Thom only as the half-way stop-off point on the bus route between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. On the recommendation of friends, we hopped off the bus and spent the night here so that we could visit the pre-Angkorian temples of Sambor Prei Kuk.
The town is a fairly unremarkable sprawl of houses and markets. Most of the restaurants are big canteen-like affairs built to cater for the busloads of hungry tourists who stop-off for lunch on their journeys between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. The food and service reflects that fact than almost none of their clientele will ever pass though their premises again.
The temples are located sixty-kilometers out of Kampong Thom along a dirt road. Because of time constraints, we decided to travel there by car, but you can also hire scooters for the trip. Even though our car broke down a few times on the way, we were very glad not to have been on scooters as the roads were extremely dusty.
As we travelled South-East Asia, one city continually evoked more negative sentiments from fellow travellers than most. We heard how Phnom Penh was run down, how it was dangerous, and many other bad reports. So it was with a little trepidation that we set off from Banlung on a hard, bumpy, ten-hour bus ride, arriving in the capital of Cambodia in the late in the afternoon. The horror stories, as they turned out — as they always turn out — were baseless. Just like most of the horror stories you hear while travelling.
While Phnom Penh has a depressing period in its recent history, and certainly has more poverty than many other South-East Asia cities, it is an interesting city filled with friendly residents and we're glad we didn't skip it.
The city is located at the confluence of the Tonlé Sap and the mighty Mekong River. The Tonlé Sap is unusual for a river in that it seasonally reverses direction. From November to May, Cambodia's dry season, the Tonlé Sap drains into the Mekong River. However, when the year's heavy rains begin in June, the Tonlé Sap backs up to form an enormous lake.
Banlung is situated in Ratanakiri Province in the remote north east corner of Cambodia. It feels very far from anywhere and in many ways it is: three-quarters of the population are illiterate and it is the one of the poorest regions of Cambodia. Nonetheless, it is an incredibly interesting region to visit as life for much of the population remains almost the same today as it has for hundred of years.
To get there, we caught the tourist bus from the 4000 Islands in southern Laos across the Cambodian border (after paying the minor bribe) to the town of Stung Treng, where we waited a few hours for the connecting "tourist" bus to Banlung. When the bus arrived it was definitely of the local –– not the tourist –– variety. It was packed! People were sitting in the aisle, atop heavy bags of supplies like rice. Others were standing in the stairway in the front.
Throughout South East Asia, we've been purchasing local SIM cards to use in our iPhones. Obviously using data roaming on our UK mobile contract is out of the question due to the prohibitive cost. If you've got an unlocked phone, using Pay-As-You-Go Mobile Internet is one of the cheapest and easiest ways of getting online.
Another great reason to use it is security. Some of the internet cafes you’ll use have got the dodgiest computers imaginable, full of viruses, key-loggers and who-knows-what-else. Every time you type your email, banking or Facebook login details into one of these PCs you’re opening yourself up to attack.
We’ve found that purchasing and activating SIM cards very easy to do. International airports will always have excellent choice for buying a SIM as will border towns. Unfortunately language barriers and the relative newness of 3G in some countries means that getting all the details you need to get online can sometimes be difficult.
For that reason, we’ve compiled a list of all the mobile service providers we’ve used and (nearly) all the details you need to connect, in that hope that other people may find them useful.