Visit Sisophon - a real Cambodian town

by Meagan

As a stopover en-route to Siem Reap, a base for exploring Banteay Chhmar or a chance to discover real Cambodian life, the little known town of Svay Sisophon has a lot to offer.

It doesn’t get much of a write up in the Lonely Planet. In fact very few visitors to Cambodia even hear of the place. And why would they? It has no famous sights, beaches or museums. Nor any cafes or bars in which to while away the hours, sip cocktails and escape the heat. It’s really just an ordinary Cambodian town.

And that’s precisely what some may find appealing about Svay Sisophon - it’s an ordinary Cambodian town.

Sisophon riverfront at dawn
Sisophon riverfront at dawn
Meagan

Most visitors to Cambodia make a beeline for Siem Reap, the base from which to explore Angkor Wat, the nation’s most famous tourist attraction.  And rightly so.  The temple complex is extraordinary and Siem Reap is a wonderful holiday destination – history, culture, shopping, relaxation, fun.  But more adventurous travelers are sometimes left craving a more local experience.  Svay Sisophon offers exactly that.

While living in Svay Sisophon I hosted many visitors who found Svay to be a highlight of their Cambodia experience.  Here is my short guide to visiting the town - things to see and do, and the very best places to eat and stay.

Where is Sisophon?

Although the town is not well known among tourists, Sisophon is actually right on the beaten track - it’s just that most people keep beating straight through.  Located at the intersection of National Highways 5 and 6, Sisophon is en-route to Siem Reap for those travelling overland from Bangkok or from Phnom Penh or Battambang.  The town is a good stopover option should you need to overnight near the Thai border and wish to avoid Poipet.  Poipet itself is a strange world of casinos and brothels.  It gets more of a mention in the Lonely Planet: “…the armpit of Cambodia, notorious for its squalor, scams and sleaze”.  Needless to say, most wish to pass through as quickly as possible.

Should you be trying to get to Sisophon you should be aware that it is a town of many names.  “Svay Sisophon” (pronounced Swai Sisopon) is most commonly used although it is actually the Thai name for the town.  Locals frequently refer to the town as just “Svay” or “Sisophon”.  The official Khmer name is “Serey Sophorn” which means “ideal woman”.   The name of the province, “Banteay Meanchey” is sometimes also used to refer to Sisophon, as the provincial capital.

On the map below you can zoom out to see Sisophon's location in relation to Thailand, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.  Alternatively, zoom in to see the exact locations of the places referred to on this page.

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Banteay Chhmar

Remember I said Svay has no famous sights?  Well, that's not strictly true.  This is one very significant sight, already well known nationally and bound to become a whole lot more famous.  These early 13th century temple ruins just 60 kilometres north of Svay are on the tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage status.  Reaching them, however, means tackling the worst road in Cambodia and so these impressive ruins receive relatively few visitors.  With scheduled road improvements and ongoing restoration activities, tourist numbers will no doubt rise.

In the meantime it makes an adventurous day trip.  The journey takes about 2 hours; sometimes much longer in the wet season when thick mud and makeshift bridges turn the road into an obstacle course.  It's well worth it though.  Built during the reign of Jayavarman VIIBanteay Chhmar was once a very large temple complex with intricately carved bas-reliefs.  The ruins have been subjected to severe looting but some outstanding carvings can still be seen.  The site currently resembles a giant, partially completed jigsaw puzzle - assembled towers emerge from piles of rubble, some with stones arranged to restore classic Bayon-style faces.  Nearby ruins of smaller shrines and fortresses are also well worth visiting.  You could easily spend a day in the area - exploring the jungle, clambering over rocks and encountering noone else.

Ruins near Banteay Chhmar
Jungle ruins at Banteay Chhmar
Banteay Chhmar ruins
Banteay Chhmar ruins
Meagan
École d’Art et de Culture Khmers

Passing through central Sisophon, one hears the melodic sounds of traditional Khmer percussion and is drawn to this elegant pink building with its distinctly Khmer rooftop and courtyard of frangipani trees. Run by local organisation Krusar Thmey, the School of Khmer Arts and Culture is a training centre for young people offering classes in music, dance, drawing and sculpture.  Staff and students welcome visitors and may even put on a small show for you.  Visit and be inspired by the talent of these students and their dedication to keeping their traditional crafts alive.

École d'Art et de Culture Khmers
École d'Art et de Culture Khmers
Meagan
Suen S'nei Chunabot (The Country Love Garden)

Possibly the town’s greatest attraction, the Country Love Garden is a wonderfully bizarre combination of statues, landscaped gardens, picnic huts and hammocks just a few kilometres out of town.  Join the throngs of Khmer youth heading out on motorbikes in the late afternoon.  Or come during the day when you are bound to spot numerous Khmer bridal parties, posing in their many colourful outfits.

Explore the park and pose with King Kong, a giant wedding cake, a Transformer or a kangaroo, among many other surprising statues.  Be sure to stop for an ice-cream or settle in and sample some Khmer snack foods.  And if you can't get enough posing then make sure you check out the photo booth in the middle of the park where you can choose from thousands of zany backgrounds and get fun souvenir pics to take home or send as postcards.

The Country Love Garden
Suen S'nai Chunabot
Suen S'nai Chunabot
Meagan
Phneat Koh Pong Sat Fish Farm

Follow the river east out of town and you'll eventually reach Phneat Koh Pong Sat, a small temple-based fish farm about 8km away.  Buy some fish food and watch the fat fish jump and squabble as you throw each piece into the water.  That's really all there is to it, but I think this one is more about the journey than the destination.  You'll meander through electric green rice fields interspersed with small villages.  It's an opportunity to observe life on the river - houses built on stilts over the water, people fishing from simple wooden boats, children cooling off with a river swim.

Pneat Koh Pong Sat Fish Farm
Pneat Koh Pong Sat Fish Farm
Meagan

What to do in Sisophon

While Svay may have only a few "sights", there are plenty of things to do.  Try some distinctly local activities and experience the real Cambodia:

Explore the town by bicycle.  Outside the very small town centre, Svay is really a string of small villages, which are wonderful for exploring and seem to go forever.  Expect to be greeted with curiosity, many friendly hellos, and even invitations into people’s homes.

Visit one of the two local markets, Psar Serey Sophorn or Psar Thmey.  The fresh food sections are fascinating.  Choose from a huge selection of tropical fruits.  Purchase textiles from Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Indonesia.

Have glamour shots done, Khmer style.  Get your hair and make-up done, get kitted out in bridal or traditional attire and work it for the cameras.  The small price also includes your choice of photo-shopped kitsch backgrounds - and the airbrushing is complementary!

Join dawn and dusk exercise in the park in the centre of town.  Aerobics are on at 5am and 5pm every day.  Stick around afterwards and the women will be keen to get you dancing, khmer-style.  Alternatively, find a late afternoon game of football, volleyball or badminton and join in.

Cool off with a swim in the river, warm up with a sauna, or relax with a massage at Pyramid Spa.

Sisophon park at dusk
Sisophon park at dusk
Meagan
Bridal silks at Psar Thmey
Bridal silks at Psar Thmey
Meagan

Where to eat and drink in Sisophon

There are plenty of places to eat in Svay and this is the perfect opportunity to sample real Khmer cuisine.  These are the very best eating and drinking spots:

Soup Koray specializes in Khmer soup bbq and grillied fish.  The dtray grahorm (red fish) is not to be missed.  Other tasty dishes include Lao-style salads.  You'll find it directly opposite Pyramid Hotel.  Get there early to secure a bamboo hut and settle in for the night.

Kim Heng offers Khmer food and some Thai dishes.  Don’t be put off by the limited English language menu – if you’ve eaten it in Cambodia, and know how to pronounce it, try your luck and order it here.  This is my standard go-to restaurant – it is clean, with good service and excellent quality food.

P'gaa Bram is one of the best places to sample truly authentic and full flavoured Khmer food.  It has a large selection of Khmer soups and a particularly good samlor m'choo kroueng (sour, spiced soup).

The Lok Chaa stand on road number 3 offers fried noodles with plenty of fresh vegetables and meat of your choice.  Invariably fresh and tasty, I believe them to be the best fried noodles in Cambodia.  The stand is open for breakfast and dinner only.

Cow on a spit style restaurants are plentiful around the town and serve up plates of tender beef, raw vegetables with prahoc (fish paste) and iced beer - a meat-lovers paradise.

Lng’each Jooup Kneer (literally, “meet together in the evening”) offers khmer beer snacks such as fried frog and mango salads, all with stage show entertainment.  Karaoke, 20 dancers, and Svay’s only nightclub make this the most exciting nightspot in town.

Khmer eats
Khmer eats
Meagan

Where to stay in Sisophon

There are plenty of guesthouses and hotels in Svay Sisophon, mostly catering for travelling locals.  The pick of them are as follows:

Botoum Hotel is a reliable choice and offers very comfortable hotel rooms for around $12.  Tucked off the main road behind a leafy courtyard, the hotel also has a decent restaurant with an English menu and the best green mango and smoked fish salad in town.

Pyramid Hotel & Spa is a relative newcomer but has certainly upped the standard of accommodation in Svay.  A grand, white building with stylish and spacious rooms the hotel offers excellent service as well as a spa with massage, sauna and steamroom facilities.  Outstanding value at $15 for a double room.

Golden Crown Guesthouse seems to be the popular choice of foreign budget travellers so can't escape without mention.  It's nothing special but with a central location, simple but clean rooms and friendly service at a cheap price, it could be just what you are looking for.

A final word

Some people find Sisophon to be a dusty, scruffy place with little to offer.  You might be one of them!  If you don’t like dust and noise and need air-conditioning, supermarkets and lattes, a stopover in Svay is probably not the best choice for you.  But if you want to experience real Cambodian life and are passing through do stop in and have a look around.   I have no doubt that you will find a warm welcome and some memorable experiences!

Wizzley

Updated: on 04/28/2012, Meagan
 
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Mat Mat on 06/22/2014

Boutom hotel filled in their garden and restaurant with another wing. Only bedrooms there now.

EliasZanetti on 01/24/2013

Wish I was there! Thank you for the wonderful article, Meagan!

Meagan on 05/05/2012

David, I agree - as fun as it is to see the sights and be on holiday the best experiences in foreign countries are usually found when you go local!

DavidPaulWagner on 04/30/2012

Love your way of traveling! Being a traveler trying to meet the locals and experience a little of the local way of life is better than being a tourist just out to see the sights or to eat and party their way around the world.

Meagan on 01/19/2012

Hi Sheri, me too - it's the very best way to travel! I lived in Sisophon for 15 months while working with a local rural community development organisation. I'm very lucky - it was a wonderful experience.

Sheri_Oz on 01/19/2012

This is exactly how I like to travel. Did you write what you were doing there and for how long? Did I miss that?
Thanks for these wonderful photos and terrific travelogue.

nickupton on 07/19/2011

Visiting these out-of-the-way places is really a great way to experience what a country is really like. I haven't done it in Cambodia but visiting similar places in Thailand helped me learn a lot about real Thai culture and I am sure a visit to Sisophon would be a great education about Khmer life.

theherbivorehippie on 07/12/2011

This looks like a place I would visit and not want to leave. It just looks so historic and inviting....especially that gorgeous garden!

Meagan on 07/11/2011

Nightowl, you should visit Cambodia - it's wonderful! I'm glad you enjoyed this - I sure enjoyed writing it. I will be moving away in a matter of days so I guess this was my little tribute to the town that I've called home for 15 months.

nightowl on 07/11/2011

Exquisite account of a fascinating place. You've done it again, Meagan, a very tempting and convincing account of why I would want to visit Cambodia. Thank you for such a wonderful contribution.



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