Pchum Ben provides a precious few days to set work aside in pursuit of leisure. For many, that means a trip to the coast or the mountains, or perhaps a couple days abroad to explore a different country.
But travel comes with its costs, with trips far from home resulting in at least two burdensome days in transit. Furthermore, travel within the Kingdom is made extra frustrating by the exodus of people leaving the cities for their home provinces and their subsequent return at the holiday’s end.
Meanwhile, Phnom Penh is largely deserted, with the ordinarily chaotic boulevards silent and loud construction projects halted. For the vacationer looking for a stress-free holiday, a ‘staycation’ in the city may be ideal.
You can start your morning early– around 4am– to take part in the festival itself on October 5 at your neighbourhood pagoda. Expats would do well to go with a Cambodian friend (assuming they have not all left the city) who can walk you through the ceremony.
The tradition is to throw sticky rice balls known as ben bay onto the ground in order to feed the spirits, some of which are said to possess small mouths that require the food to be broken up.
After the sun rises, people begin to bring food or money to the monks as offerings, such as num onsom jrouk, a traditional dessert made of sticky rice, beans and fat that is Pchum Ben’s answer to Christmas’s gingerbread cookies. If you decide to bring food to the pagoda, make sure it is a simple, well-prepared Khmer dish – and do not bring junk food, which would be an insult to the spirits.
If you don’t bring food, leave a couple of dollars. Follow basic pagoda protocol: dress conservatively, watch where you point your feet and do not touch a monk if you are female.
Once you have left the pagoda, eat a light breakfast in preparation for an invigorating morning.
The empty streets lend themselves perfectly to bicyclists, who can finally let loose with minimal interference.
Strava, a cycling app that tracks times via GPS and uploads the best records onto its website, recommends an 800m jaunt across the Japanese Bridge to the gun monument circle, a 3.3km trek down Russian Boulevard from the corner of Monivong Boulevard to Street 598, and a ride from the corner of Russian and Monivong Boulevards down to Mao Tse Toung Boulevard.
Cheap as it may be, the minimal traffic makes it far easier to rack up good times.
If you don’t own a bicycle, you can find them for rent at many of the budget guesthouses along Street 172 for as little as a dollar a day.
Now that you have got your physical and spiritual needs tended to, it is time to take advantage of Pchum Ben’s unique opportunity to enjoy public spaces in peace.
Parks, such as the ones around Wat Phnom and Wat Botum, are ideal for picnics or games of Frisbee.
After spending the morning outdoors, it is time to treat yourself to some luxury. Many ‘urban resorts’ catering to western tourists, such as TeaHouse Asian Urban Hotel, Patio and Plantation, plan to stay open, leaving swimming pools, spas and pampering at the staycationer’s disposal.
The obvious downside to a Phnom Penh staycation is the decrease in available services. That 24-hour minimart down the street, for instance, may be closed, and you will have to check in advance if you have your heart set on patronising a specific business.
Hitching rides on motos and tuk-tuks may be harder. However, Lucky Mart will be open as usual to satisfy mid-holiday wine and cheese cravings.
At the day’s end, your staycation will prove far more economical than leaving the city, and not necessarily less fun.
The Pchum Ben ceremony should cost no more than $5, although the amount you give is discretionary.
Bicycle rental may cost as little as a dollar, while an indulgent picnic should run at about $10 for person (add more if you want a particularly nice bottle of wine).
The urban resorts’ swimming pools are generally free, provided the guest spends $5 to $10 on food and drink.
Add more if you would like to use the spa or get a massage. By the time the sun sets, there is no need to spend more than $30 for a day of leisure, and for $50 you can buy yourself a downright decadent time.
In a week’s time, most of us will be rewarded with at least five days off as Cambodians set off in all directions to celebrate the Pchum Ben festival. It’s a meaty chunk of holiday, so why not take the path less-travelled? Namely, National Highway 7, up to the country’s Wild North.
The Northeast is ripe for exploration: at eight to 10 hours drive away, this remote corner of the country might be too far for a weekend trip but it can be happily traversed in five or so days. With tourism on the rise, hotel standards are improving fast, but crowds are still few and sightseeing opportunities plenty. It’s a good time to go: according to a government tourism manifesto released last year, the area is earmarked as an ‘ecotourism base’ and crowds are bound to follow.
Think Stung Treng, think a must-see Cambodia holiday destination? Thought not. The Rough Guide to the country lists the Northeastern province as a “backwater”, while the biggest news to come out of the area in recent months has been a big brouhaha over a (badly) planned dam. Construction of the Lower Sesan dam will begin in 2014, displace thousands of villagers and is widely expected to decimate the local environment.
If the roads are clear – recent weeks have seen major flooding in the province so check the latest developments before making any plans – the province has much to recommend it, including waterfalls, kayaking, an exciting proximity to the Laos border and even the promise of the odd freshwater dolphin sighting. Sandwiched between Mondulkiri, Ratanakkiri, Preah Vihear and Kampong Thom, it’s also a handy base for seeing more of the Northeast.
A car-ride to Stung Treng’s provincial capital, Stung Treng town, takes around eight hours in a private taxi. Buses with Phnom Penh Sorya Transport leave every morning from Central Market at 6:45am, 7:15am and 10:30am and cost $10. The journey can take up to 12 hours.
Until recently, the Northeast suffered from a dearth of decent accommodation options. Stung Treng is no exception, many hotels and guesthouses are still a tad rough and ready – don’t expect electricity in the evenings – but there are a few very welcoming options.
The Mekong Bird Lodge, around 4km north of town, is reasonable at $18 per night for a double room. It’s a peaceful place, where you can fish during the rainy season on the eddy of the Mekong which the resort hangs over. As well as the obvious bird watching opportunities, the owner can arrange a candle-lit dinner on the balcony after power stops at 8pm. The sunsets are spectacular.
In the morning, kayak to the small islands dotted around the Mekong or up to Oh Svay, near the border with Laos. The trip is difficult to make in dry season, but during the rains you can paddle through flooded forests in the remote Ramsar wetlands, which are home to many different kinds of birds.
A local NGO, Mekong Blue, produces some of the finest silk in Cambodia, and its weavers have won two UNESCO awards.
Like its more famous neighbour, Siem Reap, Stung Treng is home to ancient temples. Only these aren’t crawling with tour buses and clicking cameras.
Try Preah Ko, a seventh century brick temple that was built by King Jayavarman I in the era of the pre-Angkorian Chenla kingdom.
Once you tire of Stung Treng temples, their famous cousins at Preah Vihear are tantalisingly close. That province borders Stung Treng, and a day-trip is easily made through your guesthouse or hotel.
If you want to stay overnight, a new boutique hotel with a pool and 32 modern, stylish rooms, opened late last year. The appropriately named Preah Vihear Boutique Hotel charges $100 a night for a double.
Bear in mind, however, that the UK Foreign Office advises against all travel to Preah Vihear as the ownership dispute with Thailand continues to rage. The clashes have died away in the past year but if you’re British then your insurance may not be valid.
Mondulkiri neighbours Stung Treng. There, tourism is more established but still low-key. Cosy accommodation options include the popular Nature Lodge, an ecotourism bungalow retreat which offers trekking tours and elephant riding. The Elephant Valley Project is known for treating their animals with respect.
If you have a little more to spend, a new boutique hotel, Mayura Hill Resort, opened its doors in June and offers a luxurious stay. Over Pchum Ben, prices (including breakfast) range from $100 a night for a Superior Villa, for two people, to $150 for a Family Villa fitting four. Facilities include a pool, free wi-fi, babysitting and even a turn-down service.
Finish your trip there, and you can make it home clean, with a tan and some good stories.