Phnom Penh’s most beautiful and striking feature is its long, lush riverside, but in the city center it’s mostly clogged up with wild traffic, “happy pizza” restaurants, and tuk-tuk drivers peddling vices. The Balé, a new 18-room luxury hotel located around 15 kilometers outside the city center, is the first property we’ve seen to take full advantage of the city’s riparian beauty, which explains why expats and wealthy Cambodians have been flocking here for “staycations” ever since it opened in early 2018.
Banyon tree in the courtyard of The Balé (pronounced “Bah-LAY”) in Phnom Penh.
The hotel is located on the Chroy Changvar peninsula, part of a miles-long tangle of islands and sandbars that clog the Mekong and its sister river, the Tonle Sap, as they roll down to Phnom Penh. The peninsula has escaped the frenzied pace of development in Phnom Penh proper, because it has for years been connected to the mainland only by a single bridge donated by the Japanese government. This is changing, though, with the construction of new bridges (one is smack next to the Japanese bridge but paid for by China, which is now competing madly with Japan to purchase influence in Southeast Asia through gifts of infrastructure).
Well-connected local businesspeople have been jockeying to buy up swaths of Chroy Changvar for massive “satellite cities,” the price of land is skyrocketing, and all sorts of amenities are springing up that would have been unthinkable five years ago, from sushi bars to luxury condominiums. Still, until now most of the accommodation on the peninsula has been mid-range or budget hotels, aimed squarely at the local market. The Balé is a symptom of the new wave of development here, even as it takes full advantage of its early-adopter status by positioning itself as an oasis of calm amid the frenzy. Continue reading →
There are a couple of easy ways to go from Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (and Siem Reap to Phnom Penh) in 2018, including bus, boat, plane, taxi, and mini-bus. There are options to fit every budget, but some are nicer than others. Right now the road is in great condition and it’s a smooth ride, unlike in years past. The journey usually takes between 5 and 6 hours, depending on your mode of transport if you go by road.
Check out the view on a Giant Ibis bus between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
Ways to travel from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap
Taxi: Costs $65-100. Most comfortable option. Best balance of price and convenience. About 5 hours.
Bus: Costs $6-15. Smoothest ride and best views. About 6 hours.
Mini-bus/van: Costs $9-12. Faster than the bus, but more cramped. About 5.5 hours.
Plane: Costs $30-120. Fastest method, but domestic flights are unreliable. About 1 hour.
Ferry: Costs $35. Best scenery, if you sit outside. About 8 hours, sometimes more.
2018 update! It appears that Bassaka Air has stopped running flights with less than 24 hours notice. And unfortunately, it is the same manager that I had to argue with for weeks over a refund (read on below for more details) that appears to be in charge of this customer service debacle. If you have been affected, I would suggest requesting a chargeback with your credit card company as soon as possible rather than hoping that Bassaka eventually delivers, because if you wait too long it might be too late.
2016 update: There’s been an influx of new domestic airlines in Cambodia in the last year. Usually domestic airlines don’t seem to last more than a few months in Cambodia, so we haven’t bothered reviewing them. In the last year I’ve flown Bassaka Air’s Phnom Penh-Siem Reap route several times — here’s everything you need to know.
Bassaka Air currently flies from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. They also have a Phnom Penh to Macau route — the airline is meant to ferry Chinese gamblers to the Kingdom of Wonder — with flights going to Macau a couple times a week. Tickets are ridiculously cheap compared to the previous route monopoly-holder Cambodia Angkor Air, with flights on Bassaka starting at just $19 each way and averaging less than $50.
The trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap by bus has improved by leaps and bounds recently. The road is fully paved now, and the trip now takes between 5 and 6 hours. This can feel like an eternity when traveling with some of Cambodia’s less illustrious bus companies, as they stop to pick up and drop off passengers all along the way. But Giant Ibis Transport is different. As I write this, I’m sitting on a new Giant Ibis bus, connected to the onboard WiFi and wondering how I ever managed this trip before they came along.
Check out the view on a Giant Ibis bus between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
Roll up! Roll up! The circus is in town. Battambang, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh all offer a circus experience for those seeking something in Cambodia beyond the temples, whether you just want to watch, or learn to be a circus performer yourself.
Want to join the circus? Or just take in a show? Check out Phare, the Cambodian circus.
Battambang and Siem Reap
Phare Ponleu Selpak is a non-governmental organization that began in 1994 as a school in Battambang combining academic education and arts training. In 2013, to further its goals of self-sufficiency and revitalization of the arts in Cambodia, the school launched a circus in Siem Reap. Since then Phare has grown into one of the most popular tourist attractions in both Battambang and Siem Reap.
The Siem Reap circus’ crew of musicians, artists and acrobatic performers entertain every night with an action-packed themed show, more Cirque de Soleil than Barnum. The slick production, and even slicker walk-through gift shop, indicate that tourists are the target market. So do the ticket prices of as much as $38 for prime seats, available from the venue or via their website.
Phare also offers performances by its students at its training center in Battambang. There are regular shows, where the routines and set pieces are rehearsed before being taken to Siem Reap, and it is also possible to see some of the newer students learning the ropes.
Students taking a contortion lesson at the National Circus of Cambodia in Phnom Penh.
In the golden shadow of the new Nagaworld 2 building in Phnom Penh lies the National Circus School of Cambodia. Resplendent with a newly renovated big top, the school isn’t currently doing regular performances after they were put on hold for the renovations—the plan is for them to resume, alongside the regular boxing matches in the venue.
Currently, they are offering daily classes in aerial silks, aerial hoop, tumbling, and floor contortion, taught by some of the circus’ performers.
Classes are for both children and adults. The adult evening classes are priced at $7 per hour. The classes are small, and students are under close supervision by some incredibly talented Cambodian performers, trained in Vietnam and China, whose teaching combines circus flair with methodical professionalism. While these are aimed more at the expat crowd, the circus school does have a well established program for Cambodian children wishing to join the circus, and is always looking for new talent.
So consider adding something a little more positive and offbeat in the Kingdom of Wonder, than the usual tours of S21 and the like. Learn the tricks of the trade from the professionals in Phnom Penh, or be amazed by the performances in Battambang and Siem Reap—the collectives oohs and aahs from the crowd are alone almost worth a visit!
Pchum Ben, or Ancestor’s Day is a uniquely Cambodian ritual, and one of the country’s most important holidays. It’s based on the lunar calendar and is usually between late September to mid October. The holiday is 15 days long, and each year three days are official state holidays. In 2018, the national holiday is October 8-10, and the country shuts down while Cambodians return to their home provinces and visit pagoda after pagoda, making offerings for their ancestors.
Putting together the meals that will be served to the monks. Some Cambodians believe this brings them merit, others believe that the food is transferred directly to their dead ancestors.
The 15 days of Pchum Ben are a time that the line between the spirit world and the living world is thought to be especially thin. It is believed that the gates of hell open and ghosts are particularly active. Monks chant continuously at pagodas, and some believe that during this time souls released from the spirit world look to find their living relatives and repent — these can be spirits that have bad karma or those that have died a violent or unexpected death. For Cambodians, most of whom had relatives die during the Khmer Rouge era, it is important to do everything they can to ease the transitions of their ancestral spirits to the next phase of their spiritual path. One way they do this is through food.
Monks lead visitors to the pagoda in prayer for the souls of their ancestors during Pchum Ben.
A few months after I first moved to Cambodia, I was taken along to a pagoda in Kandal province at seven in the morning to participate in the festivities. At the time, I found the whole thing perplexing. I was working at a Cambodian organization and my colleagues would always neglect to tell me crucial bits of information and then laugh at me for not knowing them already. In this case, I showed up in business attire, not realizing that I was supposed to wear white, the Cambodian color of mourning.
Luckily, though, I had experienced enough of Cambodia at that point to know in advance that my colleagues wouldn’t warn me in advance of what might or might not be expected of me, and some desperate Googling the night before had turned up the fact that I should bring food offerings to the pagoda.
During Pchum Ben, it is traditional to wear white, the Cambodian color of mourning.
Offering food is thought to ease the suffering of the dead souls, who are seen as “hungry ghosts” with pinhole mouths, unable to get enough sustenance. During Pchum Ben Cambodians bring food to the pagodas for the monks.
Most Cambodians believe that giving this food brings merit to their ancestors, karmic points, if you will. Others, though, believe that the food they bring is directly transferred to their ancestor’s bellies, either through the monk that eats the food or by throwing snacks like rice balls into a field.
Older women who shave their heads and go to live and work at the pagodas are known as “mae chi.”
Knowing this, I decided to make something my deceased grandfather would enjoy. When I turned up at the rural pagoda with a giant tupperware container filled with penne pasta and tomato sauce, my co-workers giggled uncontrollably and the monks looked confused. Protocol would require them to eat at least one bite of the stuff, and from the looks on their faces, they had never seen anything like it. I almost felt sorry for them, but the thought of how much my grandfather would appreciate the meal was worth it.
Pchum Ben is often seen as being a holiday that is inaccessible by foreigners, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. If you tell any Cambodians that you’d like to visit a pagoda during Pchum Ben, there’s a 99% chance they will invite you to come along with them on one of their visits.
Dozens of bowls of food are left for the monks as offerings during Pchum Ben.
If you’d like to visit a pagoda during Pchum Ben, show up early and dress respectfully. This means no shorts and tank tops–keep your knees and shoulders covered. If you want to fit in, wear white. You are not required to bring food, but bring some crisp riel notes of any denomination to leave as a donation at the pagoda. This is a great way to use 100 riel notes, and people will often show up with inches-thick stacks of them.