Down The Mekong in Cambodia – Siem Reap

There is never a bad time to take a road trip, especially after almost three years of lockdowns. Three pals got together and decided to take a two-week trip to neighboring Cambodia to relieve the monotony of life in Bangsaphan. The plan was to avoid the Chinese casino town of Sihanoukville and venture off the beaten track in Northeastern Cambodia, following the Mekong River from the Laos border down to Phnom Penh.

To avoid spending almost a whole day travelling to Bangkok and spending a night, we flew from Chumphon in the morning (after a minor Honda-related incident) and grabbed the afternoon flight to Siem Reap, each one just an hour. Getting through Cambodian immigration was still a time-consuming process even with an e-visa already paid for online.

I’d last set foot in this town in the late 1990s when it was a village of dusty roads, clapped-out motorcycles, and rifle-toting farmers. Today it is an unrecognizable bustling tourist haven with five-star resorts, swanky cocktail bars, fish spas, and all the big Western and Chinese brands.

Our accommodation was in the thick of the action, almost opposite the infamous “Pub Street”. The first big impact was how much cheaper eating and drinking out was compared to Thailand, at least half the price here even in more upmarket places. You could get a draught beer for $0.75 (25 baht) in a bar during happy hours and a dollar thereafter. The stouts were about the same price in the local shops and there were plenty to choose from and no stupid time restrictions.

As usual, the first night was a cocktail and liquor-loaded blowout down the lively tourist strip which was a little like Hua Hin Soi 94 but much busier and without the sleaze. Most of day two was spent relaxing and recovering around the pool with some seriously cheap plonk sourced in a local supermarket. Our accommodation was $25 per night for a three-star place with all the usual extras.

A day was spent exploring the town and the area across the river where things occurred at a much slower pace. The river was more like a klong (canal) with little movement and a lot of trash. With a little cleanup effort, it could be a beautiful feature but the views of plastic everywhere was a bit of a turnoff for me.

However, we found a craft beer place that made up for it. What was strange at first was seeing farangs (barangs in Cambodia) working in bars and restaurants and openly running their own businesses – something very difficult to do in Thailand.

The usual tourist markets offered the usual tourist tat from t-shirts to fake Ray Bans to Buddha statues, and even cowbells which were popular with some. The only hassle was the constant haranguing by tuk-tuk drivers, and almost getting wiped out by everything driving on the wrong side of the road! The wealth gap was epic with people sleeping rough on one street and McLarens parked on the next.

Overall, I found SR to be a laid-back version of Hua Hin without the hellish traffic, much greener, and costing about half as much to be fed and entertained. There is no beach but the main attraction is Angkor Wat where we were heading next.