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From Chiang Mai to Angkor and Phnom Penh

From Chiang Mai to Angkor and Phnom Penh

Reinhard Hohler

Two ‘apsara’ heavenly dancers performing in Angkor Wat.

November is the month when tourist arrivals in the countries of Southeast Asia surge. Especially in Cambodia, where the statistics show a growth of 37 percent in tourist arrivals in 2005, compared to the same period in 2004. And it is because of the ruins of Angkor that Cambodia is enjoying a tourist boom that should continue for many years to come.

I started my visit to Angkor in Siem Reap with a Bangkok Airways flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok to stay overnight in the Sofitel Central Plaza Hotel near the airport. Early in the morning, there are two Bangkok Airways flights directly from Bangkok to Siem Reap, showing the popularity of the destination. There is a promotional fare that you can get in the Bangkok Airways Office in downtown Chiang Mai and including a return flight from Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

Arriving in Siem Reap not later than 9 a.m., there is a visa on arrival service that will cost you USD 20 for a one month tourist visa. After passing immigration and customs, you will leave the new terminal of the Siem Reap International Airport and hire a taxi to bring you to your hotel of your choice. As I was invited by GM Sashi Raweera from Sri Lanka I stayed in the highly recommended City Angkor Hotel.

Angkor is an UNESCO world heritage site since 1972 and an encyclopedia of Hindu and Buddhist iconography spreading out over 300 sq. km. From the 9th to the 13th centuries more than 50 unique monuments were constructed culminating in the masterpiece of Angkor Wat and the royal city of Angkor Thom with the centrally located Bayon temple tower. Far out places to visit include the important Tonle Sap Lake, the magnificent Banteay Srei sanctuary, Kbal Spean and Kulen Mountain.

After being six nights in Siem Reap, I decided to leave for Phnom Penh on Sunday, November 13. There are a few bus services to connect Siem Reap with the capital Phnom Penh via National Route 6 towards the east. I opted for the Chinese Hong Rong Kheang Company, which sells a seat for USD 6. The luxurious bus leaves at 7.30 to arrive in Phnom Penh five hours later. As it happened, there was an accident on the road and we had to take a short cut through a rubber plantation, where the bus got stuck in the mud. We had to wait several hours until a tractor pulled the bus out!

One of the 216 smiling faces at the Bayon temple tower in Angkor Thom.

Via Kampong Cham, the bus finally reached Phnom Penh at 6.30 p.m. I checked in at the Riverside Hotel near the port of Phnom Penh, as there were boat races to watch for the next three holidays, when the Cambodians celebrated a kind of water festival.

Using Phnom Penh for a visa run is a kind of adventure. It is easy for foreigners to get a tourist visa and a single entry non-immigrant visa, but it is impossible to get a one-year multiple entry non-immigrant one there, even if you are married to a Thai national. The counselor for the visa section told me by telephone that the newly built Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh has a special status and is taking care mainly the Khmer people, who want to travel to Thailand. If I wanted to get my desired visa, which costs USD 125, I had to travel to Vientiane, Kunming or Yangon. Foreigners please note!

A Vietnamese houseboat makes its way in from Tonle Sap Lake.

As it happened, November 15 was the expected arrival of the Mekong Expedition under the leadership of Armin Schoch of Impulse Toursm, Chiang Mai. But the Mekong expedition was held up far north in Stung Treng, as the boat races went into their first day of performance.

Having visited the sightseeing spots of the Toul Sleng prison in downtown Phnom Penh and Wat Unnalom, National Museum and Royal Palace along the Tonle Sap River promenade as well as Wat Phnom and the Central Market, I left Phnom Penh on November 16 and flew with Bangkok Airways via Bangkok to Chiang Mai, where I arrived in the afternoon. It was just in time to participate at the local Loi Krathong festivities in Chiang Mai, having a normal one month transit visa stamped on arrival in Thailand.

Wat Unnalom is the biggest monastery in Phnom Penh.