Vietnam and Cambodia Trip Recap

By
Tim Gillespie
on
June 24, 2024

I first traveled to Cambodia in 2010 with zero knowledge of Cambodia's culture, cuisine, people, and history. After that initial trip, I left with a profound love for all these aspects. Over time, I revisited Cambodia multiple times, each visit deepening my affection for the country often overlooked in favor of Thailand and Vietnam. When the chance came to join the Under30Experiences Vietnam & Cambodia trip, I was extremely excited to return to this Kingdom of Wonder.

My Day-by-Day Vietnam and Cambodia Trip Review

Welcome to Siem Reap!

Siem Reap, known as the gateway to Angkor Temples, has become Cambodia's tourist epicenter. In this lively town, you’ll find colorful markets, boutique craft shops, fun-loving shop vendors, and plenty of eateries offering various cuisines. 

After checking into our hotel, a few of us pampered ourselves with massages and spa packages while others explored the local markets and shopped. Later, we all met for dinner at a local restaurant as we settled into our first night in Cambodia together. During dinner, I was filled in on their adventures in Vietnam on the first 5 days of their trip, which gave me a bit of FOMO since I couldn’t join them on those days.

Countryside cycling in Siem Reap

There is no doubt that Siem Reap is becoming a popular tourist destination. However, visitors can explore the nearby villages and local communities just a short distance away. Most of our group rode bicycles to explore, but for those less inclined to cycle, there was also the option to tour in a Cambodian tuk-tuk.

Along our ride, we passed through small villages sharing the road with cattle, motorbikes, and cheerful children running around, yelling hello as we passed by. We paused frequently along the way to learn from our local Trip Leader, who explained the architecture of the houses, the variety of produce in the gardens, and the trees that scattered the area. We ended our bike ride at a Buddhist temple, where we received an introduction to how the religion interweaves with Cambodian culture. 

We also visited a family that has been making rice noodles for 4 generations! They gave us a step-by-step demonstration of this process and even let us get our hands (and legs!) in the action. But best of all, we tasted these delicious homemade noodles! Before leaving the villages, we also learned how to use palm leaves to make local handicrafts that the villagers sell in the markets of Siem Reap.

Additional Reading Recommendation: The Conscious Traveler’s Guide to Cambodia

After enjoying lunch at an old traditional house converted into a restaurant and accommodation, we visited Angkor Wat. Walking amongst these ancient ruins just can’t be described in words. The temple boasts a rich history and awe-inspiring architecture and still holds cultural significance in Cambodia and Southeast Asia to this day.

After a full day of explorations, we returned to the hotel for some downtime before heading out for dinner at a local restaurant. Some of us then went to bed, while others went to Siem Reap's Pub Street for drinks and nightlife.

Exploring Angkor Archeological Park

My third day with the Under30Experiences trip started with a return to the Angkor Complex to visit two other well-known attractions in the park: Bayon and Ta Prohm temples. 

Our group loved this experience, but if you ask anyone, they will most likely tell you about the intense heat! Therefore,  stay hydrated, cover up from the sun, and seek shade whenever possible. We think about you when planning this itinerary, and directly after visiting the temples, we have built-in downtime for you to enjoy the pool or your air-conditioned room back at the accommodation. 

Later in the afternoon, we all gathered back together and then took a 30-minute drive to get outside of town again to experience Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia! We cruised along the Tonle Sap on a private boat, learning about the nearby floating villages, the fishing industry, and how the lake plays a pivotal role in this region's economy. Oh, and we also watched a beautiful sunset.

To end the night, most of the group joined a dinner buffet and watched a cultural performance of Cambodian dancers showcasing the art of Apsara. This is a traditional dance of the Kingdom of Cambodia, dating back to the 7th century. It is integral to Khmer culture and was originally performed to entertain gods and kings.

Bat Caves of Battambang

On this day, a few of us awoke early to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. One cool thing about your included Angkor Park pass is that you get 3 visits, and it's good for 10 days. There are two included visits to the park on our itinerary, and this third visit can be used at any time during your Cambodian stay. So, if you can’t do sunrise on this day, then you can revisit the park on your final day in Cambodia if you have a later flight.

Saying goodbye to Siem Reap, we took a short day trip to Battambang, a lesser-visited town by tourists but sneakingly the 2nd most populated town in Cambodia. Battambang provides travelers with authenticity and an opportunity to get away from the tourist hustle and bustle of Siem Reap and  Angkor Wat.

After our 3-hour journey through scenic countryside, we arrived in the town and went on a short walking tour led by our Cambodian Trip Leader. We visited the old market, where vendors still sell and trade gold. We were guided to a prominent road in the city where Angelina Jolie filmed the movie First They Killed My Father, which depicts the Khmer Rouge revolution in Cambodia from the perspective of a young girl.

Following lunch in a local restaurant and check-in at our hotel, we had some downtime to take a break from the heat, so most of us used the hotel’s swimming pool. In the late afternoon, we headed to Phnom Sampeau. Here, we hiked around and learned that this Buddhist mountain has a dark past. Located on this mountain is the Battambang killing cave, which sadly was used by the Khmer Rouge to throw bodies down after they had been murdered. Learning about this history can be unnerving, but it helps one understand what Cambodia has been through and how they continue to lead their lives to a better, brighter future.

We ended the evening by walking down the mountain to witness the mass exodus of bats from the Battambang bat cave while sipping fresh coconuts and cold beers. We then returned to the town center for (an included) dinner and live music.

Local life in Battambang

After breakfast, we took tuk-tuks to the surrounding communities to learn more about the local industries and how people make a living. We met with a blacksmith who crafts farming tools, watched how rice paper for spring rolls is made, toured an old temple, and visited a fish market where fish pastes (essential for Cambodian cuisine) are produced.

Additional Reading Recommendation: Sustainability & Local Culture in Cambodia.

After a morning filled with exploration, we returned to the hotel to cool off by the pool and escape the midday heat. Then in the afternoon, we all opted to experience the Battambang Bamboo Train or ‘norry’ as it’s known in Khmer, the language of Cambodia. The train entails a small bamboo platform that is covered with a mat and a few slim cushions to sit on. The train can hit speeds up to 50 km/h. It was great to feel the breeze on our faces and to watch the sunset over the horizon. Though a bit of a glorified tourist attraction, the train gives an insight into how people used to transport goods from Battambang to Phnom Penh. Plus, it’s super fun!

We ended our day with dinner at Jaan Bai restaurant, a social enterprise restaurant initiative of Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT) and the Feel Good Coffee Group. The restaurant employs Cambodian youth and operates under a profit-share scheme, with 51% of profits supporting community initiatives.

Return to Siem Reap

On this day, I decided to wake up early and hopped on a local tuk-tuk to the old market to take in the sights of Battambang’s morning routine. I Sitting down to a breakfast of noodle soup, I watched as school students, local professionals, and shop vendors go about their everyday lives. Moments like these make traveling so special for me, so make sure you take the time to get up early on your next adventure and simply just observe the world around you.

During our bus ride back to Siem Reap, some of us discussed upcoming travel plans and reminisced about the experiences we had during the past 10 days. When we were back, we had a couple of hours to shop at the markets for some more souvenirs or to get one last massage. That evening we gathered together for our final dinner as a group and shared our Rose, Bud, and Thorns of our experiences in Vietnam & Cambodia.

Time to say goodbye to Vietnam and Cambodia

As all good things eventually come to an end, so did this trip. Everyone departed at different times of the day; some took the included shuttle back to the airport while others hung around a bit more to explore Siem Reap. We even had a few travelers who extended their trip to Southeast Asia and explored Bangkok

As for me, I stayed in Siem Reap for another few days and continued exploring the Angkor Archaeological Park before returning to my home in Thailand

Ready to make friends and see the world? Check out our group trips for ages 21-35 with Under30Experiences. If this blog inspired you, view our Vietnam & Cambodia itinerary here!

Tim Gillespie
Tim is U30X's Thailand Manager & Community Builder, and has been living, traveling and accumulating experiences in SE Asia since 2009. He loves being in the outdoors, immersing himself in local cultures, and tasting exotic foods.

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