by Tobias and Verena Streitferdt

Duration: 14 days

Suggested route: Siem Riep (4 Tage), Battambang (3 Tage), Phnom Phen (7 Tage), Kratie (1 Tage), Ratanakiri (4 Tage)

Tour operator on the ground: Cambodian Travel Partners (but you can also organise it yourself)
Cambodia is located between Thailand and Vietnam in South East Asia. A civilwar has set the country back for many decades in its development. However, since 1990 the travel in Camboida and the visit of the most magnificent temples of the former Khmer empire is safe.

Travel by wheelchair through Cambodia

While travelling I use an active foldable wheelchair and cannot move myself, so always need somebody to help me for transfers. At night I need an electronic respirator to relieve my lungs. This means that at night I continuously need electricity. In 2014, Cambodia did not have hospitals with a western standard.  However, Singapore and Bangkok, which have excellent health care systems, are just a few hours by flight.

Transport in Cambodia

The airports of Siem Reap (the closest airport to Angkor Wat, one of the main tourist attractions) and Phnom Pehn have international status and direct flights from Bangkok or Singapore are most common.

The airports are equipped with truck lifters that can lift wheelchair users in and out of the cabin. On the way back we flew with a very small machine (held 80 people) and the walkway was too narrow for a cabin wheelchair. So I had to be carried into the aircraft by four airport employees. So it is adviseable to make sure to be on a bigger machine.

Truck lifters are available at the Siem Reap airport.

Truck lifters are available at the Siem Reap airport

The rail system that was introduced by the French through their colonial activities in Cambodia, does not function anymore. Thus there is no train. The larger cities are connected with wide country roads.  Even between Phnom Phen and Siem Reap these are only partially cemented and thus the ride can be quite bumpy.  Construction sites and plans to expand the roads can be seen, but no visible progress has been made – guides told us this is mainly due to the high corruption in the construction sector. Transport by bus is widespread, but companies serve different price cateogires and standards. However, none of the buses are wheelchair accessible.

Thus the main form of transport for  us was to hire a car and driver. Due to the language barrier, we booked them via the local tour operator. A public taxi system does not exist. Many hotels offer a pick up service from the aiport; they often have their own cars. different standards, which are of course cheaper than a car and driver for hire.

Within a city we found Tuk-Tuks, a carriage attached to a motorbike, the most convenient mode of transport. Tuk-tuks can hold up to four people but can transport literarly anything. That is why there is no resentment to also transport a foldeable wheelchair on them. The access to the tuk-tuk is high, but we found after some trial and error, that one can almost at every tuk tuk remove the armrest with an eight size wrench. You can buy it at almost any market and sometimes the tuk tuk driver will have one in his repair kit. That facilitates the transfer. IMPORTANT: Always negotiate the price before you get on and pay always only after you arrrived. Ripping off tourists has become a bit of a habit. However, we found our tuk-tuk drivers very accommodating and friendly. They might also wait at the place that you travel to so that you ride back with them when you are done.

Tuk Tuks are the Cambodian taxi, transport and bus all in one

Tuk Tuks are the Cambodian taxi, transport and bus all in one

Communication in Cambodia

It is fascinating that a country like Cambodia has a better mobile network than many western counrtries. A SIM Card can be purchased for a view dollars. This SIM could also be used as a wlan, once inserted into a mobile modem. The reception was great, only in very rural areas you could notice a slight delay.

Free Wifi is available in almost every hotel. Also a lot of restaurants have it. However, most of these networks might not be strong enough to download videos or use a webcam.

Food in Cambodia

Tofu and vegetables over a wooden fire in a Cambodian villageThe Cambodian cuisine is through its indochina history and french influences one of the most equisite of this region.Multi-course menus with tasty curries, excellent prepared vegetable, meat and fish dishes and delicious desserts are available on almost every menu. Especially in the tourist center of Siem Reap you can find numerous restaurants of every possible nationality. But be careful as anything can be cooked – from exotic vegetables and fruits to endangered speices- animals such as turtels or insects plate-sized spiders and dogsas well. But do not worry: Such “specialties” are rarely offered to ‘Westerners’ and they are also recogniseable because of their high prices.

Thanks to the lobbying of the sugar industry, the Cambodians use a lot of sugar in their food. Diabetics should be especially careful with currys. Sour dough or wholemeal bread is rare and even muesli cereal can only be found in the really expensive hotels.  But on every street corner you can find fresh fruits and vegetables in abundance. Also rice and pasta can be bought in the small grocery stores.

Cambodia is a true paradise for vegetarians. The majority of the population is Buddhist. Even though not many reallyl follow a very strict vegetarian diet, almost every restaurant will offer delicious vegetarian dishes. In the major cities you can also find pure vegetarian gourmet restaurants.

Religion and Culture

Around 93 % of Cambodians are followers of Theravada Buddhism , which is also followed in neighboring countries Thailand , Laos and Myanmar . Other practiced religions are islam (6%) and christianity (1%). Being dominated by the Hindu religion during the centuries of Indochina, Theravada Buddhism got established around the 14th century as the most common religion. During the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge 1975-1979 all religions were banned and around 250,000 monks were killed. Today many monasteries have been rebuilt, with about 60,000 monks living in them.
“culture’ in Cambodia is mainly characterised by the historic temples of Ankor Wat north of Siem Reap. It is true that the population draws its cultural identity to a large extent from that prosperous period of the Khmer Empire. Whether music, dance or theater – most are influenced by hindu or buddhist stories or report from the great Khmer Empire. However, it should be kept in mind that most of Cambodias cultural heritage was extinguished by the Red Khmer.  Anyone who was educated, intellectual, religious or any somehow outstanding achievements was persecuted. Thus, 95% of the artists were killed by the Khmer regime in just four years. The result can be seen up until today: there are no cinemas, a view theaters and opera houses. Museums and art galleries are only available in the big cities. Cultural facilities are usually sponsored by foreign NGOs. However, despite this history, new arts projects are popping up all over the country:  From the Khmer opera in Phnom Penh or the Phare Cambodian Circus in Battambang through to shrill Travestieshow ‘Rosana’ in Siem Reap.

Phare Cambodian Circus in Siem Reap

Climate and best time to travel to Cambodia

The climate of Cambodia is characterized by the monsoon. However, the temperatures only vary a few degrees throughout the year; in April they are highest at 30 ° and lowest in December at 26 °. During the rainy season between May and September you might find some roads blocked due to flooding. For this reason, it is advisable to travel especially in the months of December to April, which also have less mosquito and is the best travel time to Cambodia.

Our Tour in Cambodia

Siem Riep (4 Tage)

The most important tourist destination in Cambodia are undoubtedly the Temples of Ankor. Therefore, we chose to start our journey there. South of the temples lies Siem Reap which is a fast-growing city with an international airport, where you can find numerous types of accommodations to serve your needs. We were privately housed, but below we provided you with a small selection of tripadvisor advertised places:

Angkor Orchid Central Hotel: Small Bed-& Breakfast with 19 rooms, one of which is on the ground floor with a big bath.

Gloria Angkor Hotel: Simple, clean hotel with pool which can be accessed via large steps.

Victoria Angkor Resort & Spa: One of the top- places in Siem Reap. The large rooms are very luxurious. If you find the accommodation too expensive, don’t miss to come here for happy hour for a cocktail and listen to live jazz. (check out their timetables as they might change the days they have it on)

Visit Angkor

The Angkor temples are spread over a huge area. You should definitely rent a guide and driver and schedule at least two days for your visit. Easiest is to work with local travel agencies once you arrive. Usually they will also organise the day passes for the entrance of the temple grounds.

From the helicopter the incredible size of Ankgor Wat becomes apparent

From the helicopter the incredible size of Ankgor Wat becomes apparent

It is only in the last few years that the temple complex Ta Phrom has become an absolute favorite among visitors. The reason is the movie ‚Tomb Raider‘, which used the temple as a backdrop. The main actress Angelina Jolie met her first adoptive child on the edge of the set. The tempel is accessible via fla, compounded sand paths and most courtyards are accessible with a guide and some help.

The elephant terraces of Angkor Thom are also very accessible and intersting. The “big capital” was built from the end of the 12th century. The 3 m high stone wall, in front of which a paved road runs, once build the grounds for huge parades and ceremonies. The wall is decorated with numerous carved animal figures such as lions, eagels and elephants – hence the name. If you follow the stone wall north, you will reach the Bayon temple, which is also surrounded by an asphalt road and thus in a wheelchair you can see it – at least from a distance.

 

About 30 km northeast of Siem Reap is one of the oldest and at the same time one of the most elaborate temple of Ankor – the Hindu temple Banteay Srei. The red sandstone enabled such beautiful carvings, that they seem to be cut out of wood. The temple is surrounded by canals along which there are sandways. To enter the temple complex one has to overcome few, but steep steps. Inside the tempel there are uneven plastered stone paths. It is enough to enjoy the view of the richly decorated stupas in the middle of the courtyard. Also, it is worth visiting the exhibition which documents the excavation sof Banteay Srei and which is fully accessible.

However, the largest and most famous temple complex is Angkor Wat. The original Hindu temple was built from the beginning of the 12th century and has been extended and rebuilt several times since then. Today a 1.3 x 1.5 km long canal surrounds the tempel, which on the one hand served as part of a large water network for the transport of the sandstones and on the other hand was a symbol for the border between the earth and the divine. Angkor Wat is anything but wheelchair accessible. Already on the bridge one has to overcome several stone steps – once on the bridge it is the best is to keep left, as through the leftest gate it is only about 5 steps up and 3 down into the tempel grounds. Inside the complex you can walk around the actual temple on pebble paths or on a fixed sandpath. The pediments with sand engravings, which describe ancient Hindu legends, can only be reached by more than 20 steep stone steps. Our guide and the driver helped us to access as much as possible.

Unfortunately, we did not find any ramps for wheelchair users in Angkor Wat in 2014. So you need to make sure you come with strong helpers

Unfortunately, we did not find any ramps for wheelchair users in Angkor Wat in 2014. So you need to make sure you come with strong helpers

As it was a bit difficult, we decided to visit Angkor Wat from a different perspective – via helicopter from the airport in Siem Reap (bookable via www.helicopterscambodia.com).

In Siem Reap itself the Art Center market is definitely worth a visit, where you will find fine arts and crafts, mixed with clothes copies of all kind of brands, In addition, several NGOs offer nice souvenirs for your loved ones at home. For example, Friends ‘n’ Stuff, whose handmade jewellery, purse and bags made of recycled material allows for a small income to underprivileged children.

An absolute highlight for us was the visit of the Phare Cambodian Circus. The artists and musicians are children from socially disadvantaged families. The project is financed by a school in Battambang, where, in addition to normal school subjects, artistry, music, painting, video editing etc. are also taught – a really great project with a breathtaking stage show.

 

Battambang (3 days)

The city of Battambang, located in West Cambodia, is about 3 hours drive from Siem Reap. It is also called the “Rice basket of Cambodia” because the fertile land of the region allows two rice harvest per year. We drove from Siem Reap to Battambang by boat. There are boats going to Battambang several times a day, but most are not wheelchair accessible. We rented our own boat. The journey is about 8 hours so take enough water, food and entertainment with you. From the river you can visit the Floating Villages – on the lake Tonlé Sap swimming villages, which “move” depending on the water level. You can also see the large, traditional net constructions which are used here as fishing devices.

We can highly recommend to spend a night at the Bambu Hotel in Battambang. The Irish owner built extra ramps out of wood for us to make the whole area accessible. The bathrooms of the ground floor rooms are spacious and the walk-in shower had a wooden bench where you could sit. Spontaneously the hotel owner gave us a lift into town where a film festival took place.

In addition to the stylish, colonial city centre, the Battambang surrounding has a special tourist highlight: the Bambu Train. The rail system introduced by the French colonialists has not been in operation for decades. Instead, some resourceful hobby engineers build mobile bamboo trains, with which they transport some of the locals with their goods, but mainly tourists a few kilometers on the weathered railways. Not barrier-free? Of course it is: depending on the state of health, the wheelchair user is placed on the bamboo mats with or without personnell to support – and thenyou go – such fun! And if a “train” approaches on the opposite direction, its passengers have to descend, the car is lifted from the tracks and put back on the rails behind the opposite car. We were the train that stayed on the track.

Two wheel axles, a wooden frame, bamboo mats, a converted outboard motor - the Bambu Train is finished

Two wheel axles, a wooden frame, bamboo mats, a converted outboard motor – the Bambu Train is finished

 

Phnom Penh (7 days)

The capital of Cambodia with its 1.5 million inhabitants forms the economic centre of Cambodia. Due to its location at the Tonlé Sap river, you can also reach Siem Reap, Laos and Vietnam via boat. Numerous river cruises start from here – unfortunately, there were no barrier-free river cruise ships in 2013. However, we assessed a ship for a tour operator so that its successor would be equipped with two wheelchair-accessible cabins.

We would recommend to stay in The Pavilion. Being the former residence of the King’s mother in the 1920s is centrally located, behind the Royal Palace and, with its beautiful palm-lined garden, forms an oasis of tranquility in the hectic city. Although the front desk is only accessible via steps, there are some rooms, which can be reached without steps. Steps lead also into the pool.

The Hotel Pavilion near the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

The Hotel Pavilion near the Royal Palace offers a quiet courtyard with swimming pool and restaurant to relax from the city bustle

We stayed at the Arun Villa, which is south of the center. From there, most sights can only be reached by taxi or the Tuk Tuk. There are some steps at the entrance and to the pool. But the staff was very helpful and we got the ground-level suite for the price of a double room.

Being the trade metropolis of Cambodia, you feel a bit an international vibe. Especially when it comes to food – From Asian to European, from street food to upmarket. You will find your craving. We recommend a visit to La Croisette, a café on the river with delicious Italian pizzas and international cuisine.

The Royal Palace is located right in the center of the city and is still the official seat of his Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni. Most of the complex is open to visitors. You should take an English-speaking guide – also to help you with some of the smaller steps. The impressive 600-meter-long arcade is particularly impressive. On the walls, paintings depict Buddhist legends. The throne can only be reached by many steps. But even the normal tourists can only throw a glance through the doors; Entering is allowed only to the royal family and their guests.

Royal Palace in Phnom Penh

The four-faced head of the creator god Brahma sits at the top of the pagoda roof of the throne room at the Royal Palace

Those who visit Cambodia for the first time should also face some of the dark side of Cambodia’s recent history in order to better understand the present situation of the country and its people. This is very easy in Phnom Penh: the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21) is right in the middle of the city. The former Highschool became an internment camp during the Pol Pot regime, where suspicious regime opponents were imprisoned. After the interrogation, which often led to death, the prisoners were taken to the so-called Killing Fields, where they were brutally murdered. One of these mass graves, the Cheong EK Genocidal Center, is about 20 minutes’ drive from the center of Phnom Penh. An Audioguide (also in German) leads over the terrain. The compacted sand paths are relatively accessible. The museum, which contains some of the cruel stories also provides a descriptions of some Khmer Rouge leaders and what happened to them. The museum has steps but, the museum helpers helped us to get in.

mass graves in the killing fields of the Cheong EK Genocidal Center near Phnom Penh

The mass graves in the killing fields of the Cheong EK Genocidal Center are covered to protect them from rain. The friends’ ribbons on the fence were left by visitors as a sign of solidarity with the victims.

 

Kracheh (1 day)

If you want to visit the sparsely populated north-east of Cambodia, you can take a one day rest here. Special highlight are the rare river dolphins, which can be observed via boat a few kilometres south of the city. Since we were in Kracheh during the dry season, several dozen steps had to be crossed to get to the boats. But with combined help of some strong Cambodian men – parking guards, street vendors as well as boat leaders the steps were not a problem. The ride in the narrow wooden boats was really an unforgettable experience – even if I did not see a river dolphin …

Sunset over the river at Kracheh in Cambodia

Sunset over the river at Kracheh

Ratanakiri (4 days)

The journey to the city of Krong Ban Lung in Ratanakiri was about 5 hours from Kracheh. The Lodge des Terres Rouges is a lovely lodge, with its comfortable colonial-style rooms and a wonderfully refreshing swimming pool, was a nice surprise after the gruel, bumpy drive. At the back of the garden there is a ground floor villa with a large bathroom.
Our first trip took us to the nearby crater Lake Yeak Laom Lake. Unfortunately there are also about 40 flat steps to the shore, but again with some help it is defiantely worht the visit. From the wooden bridges tourists and locals cool themselves in the dark water. The view of the circular lake is phenomenal. In this video you get a few impressions of it.

In the province Ratanakiri there are still some indigenous villages, with their own language and traditions. These have rarely contact with the rest of the population except for the sale of their agricultural products. Some can also be reached by car. Our guide also showed us rubber plantations, which are created by Vietnamese large companies and are increasingly replacing the original jungle. In some plantations, semiprecious stones are promoted. The men dig up to 15 m deep holes and then drift horizontally into the earth. In this dangerous work there are always fatal accidents. However the sale of the stones is so lucrative that many take the risk.

Miner in Ratanakiri in the northeast of Cambodia

With only a shovel and a headlamp equipped, this miner ventures into the self-carved and unsecured 12m deep galleys in order to dig for semiprecious stones.

Summary

Cambodia is one of the most amazing and contradictory countries we’ve ever visited. Tourism is just beginning, the political situation is unstable, corruption is flourishing. Only slowly a functioning infrastructure is developed, large parts of the economy are dominated from foreign countries – mainly Vietnam – the exploitation of nature is visible in many places, the plastic waste disposal on every street is sad. The recent history of the Khmer Rouge and the thirty-year civil war thereafter have not been dealt with entirely.

And yet, this country fascinated us especially due to its enchanting people. The upheaval mood can be felt at every corner, and projects of support and initiatives for more education, better health care and economic development are sprouting up everywhere. In addition, the Cambodians themselves meet foreign guests with great openness, cordial hospitality and honest interest. For wheelchair users and people with impaired walking, there may be easier countries to travel, but what is lacking in transport facilities and infrastructure is made up by the ten-fold helping hands.