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Rainy Season Traveling Tidbits and Other Useful Bits of Information

August 15, 2004

by Jim CA2

Rainy season sure can put a damper on travel plans. I haven’t yet been able to take the adventure ride that I really want and the rains will persist through at least September, but that shouldn’t stop you from getting out as there are plenty of clouds with a silver lining to be enjoyed. Timing is important when riding your motorbike or with your motodop and regionally the rains seem to happen at unpredictable intervals.

For instance in July, I (salvaged) made a trip to Siem Reap. I had intended to go to Samrong to follow up with Savuang, a guide that hooked me up with a lot of cool ancient sites, but the rains happened in the evening and the morning when I intended to head out. Consequently Samrong got cancelled and I spent dry sunny afternoons taking in sites around Siem Reap. Phnom Penh seems to dodge the rain until late afternoon.

In August I took a journey to Kampot and the late evenings and early mornings seemed to be heaviest leaving a slight drizzle most of the day giving way to calm picturesque sunsets that peered through thunderheads. From one end of the country to the other there is water and with the water there is rice! The farmers are out in force harvesting rice, and the electric pink hats and shirts seem to be in fashion this year, illuminated intensely against every shade of green imaginable. Reflections in the rice fields of mountains or palm trees become great photo opportunities.

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Traveling prepared can make a day in the rain an enjoyable experience. Ponchos can be purchased in almost any market for five dollars and under, or you can even pick up the plastic emergency raincoats that pack really small for as little as a thousand riel. Choosing routes and places that are accessible (paved roads vs. muddy outback) during the rainy season can keep your experience from becoming miserable. Wet shoes and socks don’t dry well in damp rooms, however the heat generated from the room fridge can hasten the drying process.

Here are a few travel destinations and sights to see that are well worth the visit, are not too touristed, and can be done with relative ease in the rainy season. I've included an update on some road conditions as well.

The road from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap is 99.9% complete. The journey is an easy five hours on motorbike. The busses are starting to run more frequently and should be giving the boat a run for its money. At six dollars the Mekong Express bus comes equipped with a bathroom and takes 5.5 to 6 hours. All the new bridges by-passing the ancient bridges have been completed. There are still a few kilometers in some areas that need to be paved but nothing that would cause travel delays. In the event you decide to make the journey on the bus, be sure to sit on the east side (right side going north, left side going south) of the bus as you will be able to see the ancient bridges during the last hour of travel heading to Siem Reap and within the first hour leaving Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.

In Siem Reap, Wat Athvea (At-twee-ah) is a jewel of a temple in a botanical garden setting. It is so close to town and doesn’t get frequented by tourists. This 12th century site predates Angkor Wat and was used as a training site for construction workers who built Angkor. Wat Athvea and Angkor Wat are the only two temples that face west. Relatively few carvings adorn this temple, but there are four Apsaras and Sanskrit inscriptions inside the temple. The wat behind the temple houses a Buddha statue that is 400 years old. During Khmer Rouge times the temple was shrouded in jungle and the wat was used as a sanctuary from the Khmer Rouge. The site sits halfway between the port and Siem Reap. In the event you take the paved road from town to the port you will easily miss the temple, however returning from the port to town and taking the dirt road that veers off to the left a few kilometers from Phnom Krum, you will see a large ancient platform next to a school on the right side. The temple sits in the back. Currently there is no admission fee and a small donation to the caretakers might keep it that way. If you are traveling from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap by boat make sure you tell your moto dop or tuk tuk to make the stop here on the way into town.

As you arrive into town from the boat the crocodile farm is a good diversion from the temples and won’t eat up your day. The two-dollar entry fee is a little steep to see crowded pens of lazy crocodiles, but I guess they would rather feed them on the admission money than sacrifice a few to the luggage factory.

Just inside the Kampong Thom province line on Route 6 about 23 k from the traffic circle at Skun there is the 11th Century site of Kuha Nokor (100k from Phnom Penh). A big blue sign is posted on the east side of the road and the turn-off is to the west. Drive through the villages about 2 k on hard pack dirt; stay right at the V in the road until you come to a school. Make a right into the adjacent wat and behind the wat is the temple. It is constructed with large laterite bricks and is in very good condition. The beauty of this site is that it is really easy to get to but it is tucked far enough away that few tourists visit. It’s an easy stop to and from Kampong Thom/Siem Reap or just a day trip from Phnom Penh.
Kampot is an easy getaway from Phnom Penh and Route 3 is complete at least from Takeo. In August a few friends and I went for the weekend. I took Route 2 south to Takeo where the road forks then headed west to Route 3. On the outskirts of Takmau the road is becoming pitted with potholes again and could use some maintenance but once in the countryside the road is in great condition. Be careful of the one lane bridges and canal overpasses.

About 15K from Phnom Penh where Route 2 bends south, cross the metal bridge and take a diversion at Wat Boran. A sign marks the turn-off to the wat which is about 1K down the road. There is relatively little left of the prasat. A few head pieces are stored in a wat adjacent to a new temple being constructed on the old foundation. A gentleman there told me this site predates the site at Phnom Chissor which predates Angkor. Old laterite stones litter the area and a few Buddhas and dog statues on site have been repaired with concrete. In addition to the prasat is a wat tower that has seen better days. I was told that there was some fierce fighting there during Khmer Rouge times and the tower riddled with bullet hits confirmed an attempt to gain control of the tower.

All the way to Kampot workers farmed the rice fields. As you get closer to Kampot, mountains spike out of the ground and the deep wet grey rocks contrast the green foliage growing out of control. Day rides in the countryside around Kampot are very picturesque. Friendly farmers and children wave and yell hello. Phnom Chhngok, about seven kilometers from Kampot on the way to Kep, houses a prasat in a cave. You can hire a motorbike in Kampot, take a monopod to the temple or hire a taxi from the Blissful Guesthouse to tour around.

If you don’t have a motorbike, the Blissful Guesthouse sends their taxi to Phnom Penh daily and it returns in the afternoon. It will run you three dollars for a seat, 12 dollars for the back seat or 18 dollars for the whole taxi. Contact Yong 012-582-749 and he can arrange pick-up or you can opt for an earlier shared taxi from Psar Damkor which will run about the same price. Remember when buying a seat in a shared taxi; buy the seat twice because they will sell it twice. Choose an older driver as they also seem to be a lot more intent on extending their lives and will drive at a smoother less erratic pace.

The rain has no impact on crab sales at Kep! Rough waters and high winds and rain don’t keep the girls from retrieving the traps from the ocean and the crabs don’t care if it’s raining. Head to Kep and pick up some fresh crab. They will cook it on the spot and then you can take it with you to the restaurants on Kep Beach. There you can order beers, rice and a few fish dishes. Weekdays are more peaceful as the weekend warriors from Phnom Penh come down on Saturdays and head home around three pm on Sundays. Inbound traffic around the airport in Phnom Penh on a Sunday evening can be horrendous.

Race back to Kampot past the rice farmers, cross your fingers, and you might get a nice sunset beyond the river behind the mountains before the rains come again for the evening. Even if it’s just a day or overnight trip and not the adventurous 4-5 day journey, a change in latitude during the rainy season really works wonders on your attitude. Well…at least mine.. – Jim CA2



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