The temples of Angkor

By on 25th August 2015

Are you ready for this, it is going to be a long post!!! But it is of an amazing subject and there will also be many many photographs, so hang in there and keep reading! 🙂

A few days ago Lonely Planet revealed its Ultimate Travel List based on the votes of travel professionals. They have also released a new book based on this list, called ‘Lonely Planet’s Ultimate Travel: Our List of the 500 Best Places on the Planet – Ranked’. I fully intend to get this book, sound great, will be a great addition to my coffee table once we get home.



Anyway, the reason I mention this is because the number one place on this list (and I understand this was voted number 1 by a landslide) was the Temples of Angkor in Cambodia.

The rest of the Top 10 shaped up like this:

  1. Temples of Angkor, Cambodia
  2. Great Barrier Reef, Australia
  3. Machu Picchu, Peru
  4. Great Wall of China, China
  5. Taj Mahal, India
  6. Grand Canyon National Park, USA
  7. Colosseum, Italy
  8. Iguazu Falls, Brazil – Argentina
  9. Alhambra, Spain
  10. Aya Sofya, Turkey

And click on this link to see more of the list.

As you can see The Temples of Angkor are in pretty good company, but what made this temple complex in the jungles of Cambodia snatch the top spot?

Well let me tell you, it is pretty darn amazing. I feel so privileged to have seen this place, to have experienced it, walked around and soaked up the atmosphere, the sights, the smells, the heat, the dust, and the mighty creations of man and nature all in one place – it was all just out of this world.

To be honest I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Of course I knew what Angkor Wat was, but I deliberately tried not to read too much about it or look at many photographs before our visit, so that when we finally arrived there I would not be disappointed or that I will still have the element of surprise. The only things I read upon was how to organize for tours, or what was the best way to see the place.


Getting to Siem Reap

The Temples of Angkor are located near the town of Siem Reap in Cambodia. Siem Reap has an international airport, so it is actually pretty easy to get to. In fact it is only a 6 hour flight from Bali, or a 2 hour flight from Kuala Lumpur or Singapore and a mere 1 hour flight from Bangkok. Really, there is no excuse not to go if you are in South East Asia. We travelled to Siem Reap from Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh on a cross-country coach service. The trip takes about 6 hours, we chose a company called Mekong Express to take us there. The coach left from Phnom Penh at 12.30 in the afternoon and arrived in Siem Reap at 7 pm. The coach had one scheduled stop halfway, which was really welcomed as the aircon on the bus was rubbish… The journey was luckily event-less; there was wifi on-board and both Adam and I had a double-seat all to ourselves that we could spread out on. The road between these two major cities isn’t great (although as I understand it has already improved a lot compared to what it was like before). The coach cost us $13 each. You can also fly from Phnom Penh, it takes about 45 minutes and costs $100 per person. For us it was a no-brainer to save that money and at the same time get to see some of the Cambodian countryside.

We booked our accommodation in Siem Reap through We stayed at the Schein Guesthouse, which is a B&B led by a German/Cambodian couple. I thoroughly recommend staying here if you are on a budget but still want a nice place to stay. The hosts were so helpful and friendly, we had a great time here and they really helped us with planning out our stay in Siem Reap.

Firstly they sent us a tuk-tuk to the coach station to pick us up free of charge, which was great as it was already dark and the coach station is on the outskirts of the city. Then at their reception they have a list of tours that can be done straight from their guesthouse to the Angkor Archaeological Park and depending on how long you have in the area they can advise on which tour is the best to take. This was incredibly useful for us, and I hope most other guesthouses would do it the same way. We decided to spend one full day discovering the temples and then leave another day for doing something else in Siem Reap. We only had two full days here as we had already booked our flights onward to Bali.


Getting around Angkor Archaeological Park

Our host at the guesthouse then showed us the best way to see the temples in a day and arranged a tuk-tuk for us with a 4.45am start the following day. One of the most memorable experiences you can have in Angkor is seeing the sunrise over its most iconic temple, Angkor Wat. Our tour was to take us to Angkor Wat just in time for the sunrise at half past 5. The tuk-tuk ride from central Siem Reap to the entrance of Angkor Archaeological Park took about 10 minutes. Here you have to queue up to pay, get your photograph taken and receive a photo-pass which serves as your ticket to the park. A daily ticket costs $20, a three-day ticket costs $40 and a weekly ticket costs $60. Once you have your ticket you can get back on your tuk-tuk and proceed into the park.

Some visitors rent bicycles to tour Angkor, some attempt it on foot, some go as part of a mini-bus tour. But most will hire their own tuk-tuk driver and pay them for their time, which is what we did, and I personally think this is the best way of exploring Angkor. The local guys have amazing knowledge and they know the park like the back of their hands. Our driver didn’t speak much English but he had a map of the park and we could just point at each temple we wanted to visit. I would not have attempted getting around the site on foot – this is an archaeological park stretching over some 400 square kilometres – it is VAST!! It is mainly jungle and there are around a thousand temples, shrines and tombs scattered all across it.


Itineraries and must-see temples in Angkor

I found a fantastic website for planning your trip to Angkor, you can find it here.

There are two main things to consider when seeing the temples of Angkor: how much time you have, and how interested you are. And by interest I mean that if you are not a history or theology or archaeology buff, you might find trekking from ancient temple to temple in the 40 degree Cambodian heat a little bit wearing. So if you only have one day (like we did) or if you are only interested in the most iconic temples of the park, here is a shortlist of must-see sites – visiting these will fit very nicely into a day:

  1. Angkor Wat – visit the most iconic temple early in the morning and watch the sunrise
  2. Angkor Thom – the old capital city of the Angkor empire
    1. Bayon – the temple of giant stone faces
    2. Baphuon – temple mountain with an enormous reclining Buddha
  3. Ta Phrom – the jungle temple

This is the itinerary that is suggested a lot of the time to tourists, however visiting the sites in this order will also mean you are moving with the crowds of tourists who are all following this itinerary or are taken along this route by their guides.

If I can give you just one tip, it would be to turn this list upside down: visit Ta Phrom first thing in the morning, then move unto Angkor Thom and finally visit Angkor Wat towards late afternoon with the view to catch the sunset.

Here are a few photographs and some snippets of information on the must-see temples:


Angkor Wat:

Most people will come here for the morning to watch the sunrise, but I would advise you to go against the mold and visit this iconic Hindu temple in late afternoon. And why? My photographs below will show you exactly why I say this. First of all, if you are after a solitary sunrise experience, this isn’t it. It’s like when you look at photographs of Angkor Wat on Pinterest and you get the feeling that this is an undiscovered place of epic proportion; where you can come to reflect on things, as the sun slowly makes its way up the sky. And instead this is what you will experience:



Not exactly the solitary experience many of us were after. But to be fair, having so many other visitors there at sunrise also added something positive to the experience: the collective anticipation, knowing we were all there for the same reason, and everyone enjoying the moment together as the first sun-rays appeared behind the towers of Angkor Wat.

Another reason why I would suggest you to go here later in the afternoon is to get prettier photographs. I can honestly say the light, as amazing it is at sunrise and early morning, is not fantastic to take photos in. Once the sun has made its way up higher in the sky it is actually very difficult to photograph the temple from the front, a lot of the detail is lost. I am quite disappointed to say I don’t have one photograph of the front of this magnificent temple that I actually like. Of course there are loads to look at on the internet, but we all want our own, don’t we…?! 🙂



Of course missing the temple at sunrise would be a great shame, so perhaps you can start here for the sunrise and also return here for late afternoon / sunset. That way you might just get the best of both worlds. If you go for sunrise, prepare yourself, it gets super hot by  7 am. Just like in any other South-East Asian country, you have to dress modestly and ideally wear long trousers or skirt and a top with sleeves. You should also wear something that is easy to move in and climb huge steps. A lot of huge steps.

One thing to be aware of when you visit Angkor Wat (and quite a few of the other temples as well, but mainly Angkor Wat): there are a LOT of vendors and hawkers and it can be a bit difficult to shake them off. Don’t get annoyed, just learn to kindly say no. There were also many school aged children there trying to sell us postcards, fridge magnets, etc, and as difficult it is, please don’t buy from them out of compassion. Buying from them will just encourage their parents to  keep sending them out to beg / sell. This is the advice amongst travellers anyway, so there, I’ve passed it on… 😉




Angkor Thom:

This is a walled, moated, ancient city that acted as the last capital of the Angkor Empire. Within the walls there are some amazing structures, palaces and temples. You can enter the city via 4 gates, most visitors enter through the South Gate coming from the direction of Angkor Wat, and this is what we did as well.



You should allow at least 2-3 hours to visit this magnificent old city, there is so much to see! But the most popular site in the whole of Angkor Thom is undoubtedly the temple of Bayon. In fact this temple is the 2nd most visited and loved temple in the whole of the Angkor Park. It is most famous for its dozens of giant stone Buddha faces, all of them carved with a smile that radiates happiness, calm, peace and a sense of fulfillment.



The other major attraction within the walls of Angkor Thom is the Baphuon, which is a tall mountain-temple. A lot of stairs to climb! This temple recently underwent a restoration project with the help of UNESCO and is now in pretty good condition. I especially loved the HUGE reclining Buddha which was built into the back wall of the temple in the 16th century; see if you can spot it in my last photograph!



From photography point of view it is best not to come here at sunrise or sunset as the temple is surrounded by jungle and so there isn’t much light to illuminate the glorious stone faces (although according to Lonely Planet the Bayon is pretty magical as it emerges from the morning mist). The light is better in the morning for Baphuon, so a mid-morning visit should be ideal, after visiting Angkor Wat or Ta Prohm first. There is no question about it though, it will be incredibly busy! Especially the Bayon. And make sure you are dressed appropriately. There was a tourist who got turned away at the Baphuon when we were visiting for exposing her shoulders.

Some other interesting things we found while walking around Angkor Thom:



Ta Prohm:

I have to say Ta Prohm was by far my favourite temple out of all the ones we visited in Angkor. The only thing that perhaps took away from our experience of this incredible place was the crowds. And the heat. I know I already mentioned both these factors, but I cannot stress how important they both are when planning your itinerary here. We got to Ta Prohm at around 1pm, after having walked around for the past 7 hours in increasing heat and by the time we got to Ta Prohm the crowd were ridiculous, we could only move around the temple inch by inch which further increased our intolerance of the 40 degree heat. If you want a more pleasant visit here, come early in the morning and have the temple to yourself when everyone else is watching the sunrise at Angkor Wat!! 🙂

Unfortunately I ran out of memory card just as we got to this temple, so I had to make do with going back and deleting older photos to make space for new ones…  🙁 So not many photos I’m afraid. Make sure you are armed with memory cards and camera batteries when you visit Angkor!

This is the temple that was featured in Tomb Raider and Angelina Jolie filmed here on location. The locals are incredibly proud of this and only refer to this temple now as the ‘Tomb Raider Temple’ or ‘The Angelina Temple’. The temple was pretty much left in the condition that it was found in the 18th century by French explorers as it was so atmospheric as trees of the jungle were taking over the man-made structures. If you are visiting Angkor, you simply cannot miss this temple!



Just amazing.

So these are the must-see sites in Angkor, and all these are doable in a day. If you ask your driver they will also stop at any other temples you wish to explore. We stopped a few times in between the major sites:



And with that we could walk no longer and returned to our Siem Reap accommodation. I definitely feel like I will be back to Angkor at some point in my life. That one day just wasn’t enough. I knew it then, but we had to move on. Next time I will probably get a 3 day pass for $40 – the three days can be used over the course of a week. This is definitely the option I would recommend to anyone visiting this amazing place. If you have the time, don’t try to do it all in one day. Take your time and marvel.

I know this has been a very long post, but I simply could not have described our day amongst the Temples of Angkor in fewer words or with fewer photographs. Anything less would not have done justice to the Ultimate Travel Destination of the world.

So why did Angkor win this coveted spot? As Nick Ray (Lonely Planet’s Cambodia guidebook author) summarizes in this video:

The most important thing to stress about Angkor is the embarrassment of riches: this is not just one site, it’s so many sites. You think of one place in the world, it’s normally  one iconic building. Here, we have Angkor Wat, the mothership: this is the most important temple here. However look how many more there are! We have Angkor Thom, the great old capital with the Bayon, the famous face temple; we have Ta Phrom, the jungle temple… but that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

So when you put all of these temples together and bring them as one destination – that’s incredible!

Individually most of them might stand up, possibly even making the top 10. Angkor Wat’s a contender for the Top 10 on its own. The Bayon’s a contender for the Top 10 on its own. Even Ta Prohm is a contender for the Top 10 on its own. Put them all together, there’s no debate: it’s number 1.


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Stunning architecture of the Phnom Penh Royal Palace

By on 16th August 2015

After my sobering last post about the Cambodian genocide and The Killing Fields Museum I now want to spend a bit of time showing you around the beautiful Royal Palace of Phnom Penh, which is one of the most stunning architectural achievement of the city.

We were lucky enough to stay in a guesthouse right on the doorstep of the palace, so it was really easy for us to walk out and be there as it opened. I would highly recommend that if you visit the palace, do it first thing in the morning – it gets very busy and days get incredibly hot. To visit the palace you have to cover up almost completely, which doesn’t help with the heat. The guards and ticket officers are notorious for being pretty stringent with their policy on what visitors wear to the palace. You cannot show shoulders or knees and it is not enough for women to cover up with a scarf, it has to be a proper shirt or T-shirt or blouse. I usually just wear my big shawl to cover up when entering temples or other holy sites, but for this I ended up wearing a long sleeved top and long trousers to make sure I avoided any problems with my clothing. Man it was hot though! By 8 am the temperature reached 32 degrees and it only went one way from there – UP!

It was worth it though, the palace complex was absolutely stunning! It does actually serve as the residence for the king of Cambodia. The king’s living quarters take up half the compound, but it is of course closed to the public.

I could not stop taking pictures while we were here, so I hope you are ready for a marathon run of photographs of this beautiful palace! 🙂




For the rest of our time in Phnom Penh we walked around the main promenade and square along the river which is where most people congregate late afternoons and evenings. The square is opposite the Royal Palace and the promenade runs along the river and is lined with pubs and bars and restaurants as well as lovely seating areas and small parks.



The National Museum of Cambodia is also situated close to the Royal Palace and it is a great museum that showcases amazing Khmer sculptures and relics.

In total we spent two whole days in Phnom Penh. Truthfully you could spend a lot longer here, the city has a lot to offer, but when we visited most shops, cafes and restaurants were shut for the New Year holidays. So we decided to move on to Siem Reap, which we were really excited about. Angkor Wat was awaiting and it was promising to be a highlight of our whole South East Asia trip!


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The Killing Fields Museum of Phnom Penh

By on 14th August 2015

We arrived in Phnom Penh on a speedboat on the Mekong River on a blisteringly hot April afternoon. We spent our first evening walking around town, going for dinner and preparing for a program filled couple of days.

Out of all of the countries of South-East Asia, I think Cambodia was the one I was most looking forward to. I couldn’t wait to get to Phnom Penh and I had so much anticipation building up, I couldn’t wait to explore its culture and its people.

By recommendation, Adam and I both read a book by Loung Ung called ‘First They Killed My Father’ to prepare a bit for our trip here. We read this book while taking the slowboat down the Mekong in Laos. When you are on a boat for 8 hours straight for 2 days, you need a good book ready and I felt this was a great book to immerse ourselves in while there weren’t many distractions around. I believe Angelina Jolie is currently researching a film adaptation of this book.

In the West not many people are aware of Cambodia’s tragic recent history. This country suffered under the most unimaginable evil regime that is just so so hard to get my head around…  And not only did it happen in living memory, but it is scary how recently something like this could have happened in the world. The Khmer Rouge gained control of the country in 1975 and for the next 4 years carried out a systematic genocide of the Cambodian people. A quarter of the population, an estimated 2-3 million people died by 1979, when the Khmer Rouge was overthrown.

This is an incredibly upsetting and horrific subject. I am not even going to attempt within the frames of this blog to go into any deep description or analysis of what happened in Cambodia 40 years ago, because I just would not have the words. If you would like to learn more about Cambodia and its recent history I can highly recommend you to read Luang Ung’s book as an introduction. And then maybe read Haing S Ngor’s book ‘Survival in the Killing Fields’. And then visit Cambodia and marvel at its beauty, at its people and reflect on their tragedy. But please do not go to Cambodia, before learning about their history first.

We arrived in Phnom Penh over the Cambodian New Year holiday. While there were loads of things going on in Siem Reap and other parts of Cambodia, it seemed to us that the capital city Phnom Penh just closed up for the holiday. There was nothing really open and the place looked a little bit like a ghost town. We were a bit gutted that we were in the right country at the right time, but we still missed the big celebrations!! 🙁

We had a full couple of days in Phnom Penh regardless. Our first full day we spent visiting the Cheung Ek Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum also known as the S21 prison. Our guidebook and a lot of Tripadvisor reviews said that we should try and avoid visiting these two sites on the same day as that would be way too depressing. We thought otherwise. Depressing or not, these things happened, we were not afraid of experiencing both sites, which are effectively museums to the memories of that time awful time in Cambodia. Both sites seek to teach people about the horrors of the past so they will not be repeated. Having read a book about it we also felt we came prepared.

One tip I would give though if you are in Phnom Penh – if possible you should visit the prison first and then The Killing Fields just to keep to the chronological order of things. We had to visit The Killing Fields first as we arranged a tuk-tuk ride through our hotel for early in the morning. From Phnom Penh centre it takes about 45 minutes to an hour on a tuk-tuk to get there and the ride costs about $20. You need about an hour and a half to two hours to walk around the site and see the documentary film shown in the screening room. The tuk-tuk driver in the meantime waits outside, but he will wait for as long as you need as you are effectively buying his time.

Walking around the killing fields is a sobering experience. The audio guide is a must, it is excellent. Read more about the Killing Fields here  and below are some of my photos of our time there:



After our trip to the Killing Fields we returned to our hotel for a little downtime. We were visiting the city in April – the hottest month in South East Asia, and Cambodia being undoubtedly the hottest country in SE Asia, you cannot survive a day without a couple of hours of respite from the sun and the heat.

Mid-afternoon we hailed another tuk-tuk and headed to S21 prison on the outskirts of the city. The prison used to be a high school but was turned into a prison / torture centre where prisoners were held before they were sent to the Killing Fields. Again, I am not going to attempt putting into words what you will learn about or see there, but Wikipedia has a good collection of information on the museum.

I didn’t take any photos in there as there were signs kindly asking visitors not to do so out of respect for the place and what it represented (however there were still many tourists taking photos).

We learnt a lot on this day and what I loved most about was the Cambodian government’s effort to educate the public – its own people and those visiting from elsewhere: The museums’ mission:

  • Educate Americans, Cambodian Americans and other nationalities about the factual history of the Khmer Rouge atrocities and help prevent future crimes against humanity.
  • Provide students, scholars, journalists and the public access to information, photographs, artifacts and documents relating to the holocaust.
  • Honor and remember the victims and survivors of the Khmer Rouge holocaust.
  • Help preserve the art and literature of Cambodia – nearly extinguished by Khmer Rouge policies through exhibits, performances and lectures.
  • Serve as a fund-raising channel to humanitarian, cultural and educational projects benefiting Cambodians, Cambodian Americans and the community at large.

(From the website of The Killing Fields Museum,

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The Mekong Delta

By on 1st August 2015

In my previous post I wrote a little bit about the Sinh Tourist, which is one of the (if not THE) most trusted travel agencies currently operating in Vietnam. While in Saigon we bought a couple of tours from them: Tour 1 would be one day spent in the Mekong Delta and Tour 2 would be a two-day tour package including one day in the Mekong Delta, but different villages / islands than Tour 1, and then a speedboat trip all the way to the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.

To be honest the two Tours were pretty similar, even though we visited different villages of the Mekong Delta, the activities were very similar, so I would only recommend doing one of these if you are limited on time. I am not going to give a detailed account of both tours to the Mekong Delta, just a highlight of the activities we did, but I will include links and itineraries at the end of this post in case anyone is interested in going on these.

To say I was excited when I found out about the tour package that would take us all the way to Phnom Penh was an understatement! I really wanted to do a tour of the Mekong Delta and our other option to get to Phnom Penh would have been a long coach journey. Getting there ON the Mekong sounded way more exciting!

Also, the tour itself was incredibly reasonable priced. We paid 3.4million VND, which sounds like a small fortune, but actually it’s only about £100 for two people. Considering we had to get to Cambodia anyway and this tour also included one nights accommodation, this represented an incredibly good value to us. (Although if your aim is just to get to Phnom Peng from Saigon as cheaply as possible, bus tickets only cost 200000 VND per person, £6!!)

When you go into the office of Sinh Tourist, you can immediately tell that they have been in the business for a long time and we found them very organised and professional. On the day of our departure we had to be at the office at 6.30 am to check in with our tickets which we had bought a couple of days beforehand and with our passports. Passports were important remember, as we had to cross the border into Cambodia on day 2.

By about 7.15 all luggage were tucked into the coach and we all took our seats and we were off. The bus took about an hour and a half to take us 100 km down to the shores of the Mekong where we boarded our small sightseeing boat for the day. We had a great tour guide, his English was good and he was friendly and knowledgeable, so we felt in safe hands.



It was great being back on the Mekong. We had already had an encounter with this mighty river when we travelled through Laos. It felt significant to be back on a boat and cruising on it and eventually leaving Vietnam on it.

Firstly we took a boat trip to discover Cai Be floating market where local people sell, buy and exchange goods on their boats. We had heard a lot about this floating market and had already been to a floating market in Bangkok. I also watched a fantastic documentary about this exact market in Cai Be – it was a production by the BBC called The Mekong River with Sue Perkins and it was in episode 1 of the 4-part series that Sue visits exactly the same market that we went to see. I had great expectations, but unfortunately for us by the time we got to the main floating market area most of the trading had been done for the day! The Vietnamese are early risers! They basically get up way before the sun rises and so it was no surprise that there were only a couple of boats on the river at the time we were there mid-morning. There was a lady there with her fruit boat, I’m pretty sure she is there specifically for the tourists every day. Quite a few people bought fruit for the novelty of it and it was a hot day, so a bit of fresh pineapple or coconut never goes amiss on a day like that! 🙂 
For the rest of the day we visited various local villages to observe traditional crafts and processes, like rice paper making, coconut candy producing, and honey producing.
We had a lovely lunch of a crazy looking fish, where a table of 8-10 people got to share it and some Vietnamese spring rolls and also some pho. I never say no to a bit of pho. Even if it made me ill in Hanoi…. 🙂
The absolute highlight of the Mekong Delta tour for me was our trip on a small hand-rowed boat between My Tho and Ben Tre. We were on a tiny boat operated by two lovely Vietnamese ladies who skillfully rowed the boat through a small creek in a jungle of coconut trees.
I think Adam’s favourite was when we went to see this nice lady who had a pet python and let all of us tourists to have a little play with the snake. Adam loved it! I am really not keen on snakes, but I had a tiny little stroke of its skin. Adam wanted the snake around his shoulders and he was loving it until the python started squeezing his shoulders just a bit too tightly…
After our tour of the Mekong Delta we all got on our coach again and drove 3 hours to Chau Doc where we stayed overnight in a 4 star hotel – nice touch! The package included dinner and breakfast as well.
In the morning we all made our way to the port by pedicab. I so wish I had a photograph of this padicab journey, because it was priceless! Imagine a bicycle with a teeny weeny little seat attached, barely big enough to fit two people. Adam and I had to get on this, we were both hanging out of it with half our bums, and then we also had to have all our luggage, i.e. 2 massive backpacks and two small ones to hold unto! The rider / driver pulled away with a massive effort and then he rode like a maniac, I almost fell out once when he took a sharp bend 😀 Aaah, it was too funny. We tipped him 10000 dongs, he looked so happy, I think we made his week!!
We then took an uncomfortable, but nonetheless fun speedboat ride that took us out of Vietnam and into Cambodia.
The boat stopped at Vinh Xuong border control for custom clearance and visa processing.
For our Cambodia visa the process was pretty similar to the Laos visa, i.e. we needed to fill in some forms, attach some photographs and pay our fee of $35. No problems with our visas, we got back on the boat and at 4 pm we arrived at the port in Phnom Penh!  🙂
So as I mentioned at the beginning, here are the itineraries for both our tours with Sinh Tourist:
Tour 1
My Tho – Ben Tre – Con Thoi Son
Cost: 360 000 VND for 2 people
Tour 2
Cai Be – Vinh Long – Long Xuyen – Chau Đoc – Phnom Penh (2-day 1-night tour) This tour starts from Saigon to Cai Be by bus and then by boat to PhnomPenh.
Cost: 3 400 000 VND for 2 people

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