Siem Reap is a contradiction. The city feels both untouched by tourism and alive due to it. The main draw of Siem Reap to most visitors is Angkor Wat, but the city still remains a largely a backpacker’s haven despite the large tours that come to view the temple. Angkor Wat is crowded, but you don’t have to travel far to reach less crowded temples in the region to have a more intimate experience. The town is quaint and can feel sleepy in the day, but energy from the tourists brings it to life at night. Wake up early and you can wander through the market with locals and watch fishmongers and produce sellers. Then at night, Pub Street comes alive and is consumed by tourists. Its the tourists that give this place its nightly vibrance under neon lights while music plays from bars. Its also the tourists that seem to keep the night markets and the late night street food carts relevant.
DAY 1 – Monday, January 12, 2015
Our plane landed in Siem Reap as scheduled and we disembarked onto the tarmat and had a short walk to the terminal. The first thing I noticed was the heat. Inside the terminal we had to be approved for visas to enter the country (see visa Information below). We had made reservations to stay at the Siem Reap Hostel for the entirety of our visit. The hostel had arranged for transportation from the airport and we quickly spotted the driver holding a sign with Jon’s name on it. Most of the drivers at the airport were driving tuk tuks, but ours had a real car. Heading towards Siem Reap, we first passed large luxury resorts. Slowly the area around the car became more dense with stores and the streets filled with more traffic as we neared downtown Siem Reap. We arrived at the hostel and found our dorm room that we shared with 4 other people. We took a shower and a very well needed nap after our hours of traveling. We didn’t want to get up, but groggily we headed out to dinner and to see Siem Reap. We decided to make our first stop Pub Street because it is known to be filled with bars and restaurants. Pub Street was illuminated with bright neon signs announcing its name and lanterns which hung over the street. Pedestrians crowded the streets. We walked around for a bit and consulted our travel guide which led us down Alley Street, a smaller and less crowded road. We decided to eat at Khmer Kitchen. Wanting to try the local cuisine, we ordered Amok, a curry like dish, and Khmer BBQ pork. Both were very good. After eating we decided to wander through the night markets which, like Pub Street, had large neon signs pointing them out. The night cooled down and the weather was wonderful. We drifted through lots of areas of night markets, mostly similar to those we had seen previously in Thailand. Stalls sold purses, linen clothes, teak statues, spices, and silk scarfs in addition to T-shirts and sunglasses. We really enjoyed the how the city came alive at night, and made plans to come back each night while we were in Siem Reap. Hopefully, a little less tired than we were that first night after two days of traveling.
DAY 2 – Tuesday, January 13, 2015
We woke up early; partly because we hadn’t adjusted to the time zone, partly because of how early we’d gone to bed the previous night, and partly because we wanted to make sure we could sign up for a temple tour. Early in the morning, we could hear chanting from a temple, which we later discovered was right next door. We decided to save ourselves the time and trouble of going out and we just ate breakfast at the hostel. $2 for fruit, cereal, toast, pancakes, and coffee. Also, I finally got to try Vegemite for the first time (yuck!). We spent some time staring at the list of tours posted in the hostel and at our guidebook. Of course we knew that the Angkor Archaeological Park would be our first priority in Cambodia. The guidebook recommended seeing the temples around Siem Reap over 3 days; starting with small temples on the first day and building up to Angkor Wat on the third day. We finally decided to start our visit with the Large Circuit. The large circuit is named for the loop it makes around Angkor visiting the exterior temples. The next day we would come back for the Small Circuit, the loop that passes the interior temples, including Angkor Wat. The hostel recommended timing the large circuit so that you complete it at sunset. That meant leaving the hostel at 10:30am, so we had a few hours to kill. We walked around some streets near our hostel. The streets were mostly quiet and none of the night market stalls were open. We did pass a few small restaurants with a local crowd. We somehow wandered into the Old Market, and that was bustling. Produce was everywhere, live fish were being scaled, and dead chickens laid across tables. In the middle of it all was a food booth with lots of locals eating. (Mental note to return to try this food.) At 10:30 we returned to our hostel where we were picked up by a tuk tuk driver. Riding in the tuk tuk was fun, but the roads in Cambodia are crazy. Later in the day we did see one red light, although not many cars were stopping for it. We drove to the Angkor Archaeological Park, where most of the temples are located. You must buy a pass to see the temples, $20 for one day or $40 for three days. The pass was printed with a photo of us on it and we had to show it at the entrance to the park and again at each temple. Our tuk tuk driver was very good to us, but was just a driver and didn’t enter the temples with us. We both agree if we had to do it over again, we would hire a guide who could tell us more about the temples, their history, purpose, and symbolism. One of the more surprising things we discovered while touring the temples are how open the temples are to tourists. There were very few places that were roped off and we could wander around and climb up stairs as much as we wanted in most temples. While this was more exciting for us as tourists, we bet this doesn’t promote the temples’ longevity. The first temple we visited was Pre Rup. Pre Rup was a great first temple to visit. Large spires tower towards the sky. I overheard a hired guide say that Pre Rup was built for funerals and cremations. Our second temple was East Mebon. East Mebon was nice, but was very similar to Pre Rup and we were a bit worried all the temples would be the same. The one feature that did stand out at East Mebon were the carved elephants in the corners. Additionally, many of the temples had ornate unbroken doors (I wonder whats behind there?). Next we continued north and stopped at Ta Som. Ta Som was my favorite temple of the day. It wasn’t tall like the previous two, but was more sprawling and overgrown. Ta Som was full of shady nooks and was a fun temple to explore. Neak Pean was our final stop before lunch. Neak Pean was probably the most different than the other temples we saw, but we weren’t as impressed with it. Neak Peak is a series of pools with a man-made island in the middle and water spouts. Because of the pools, there wasn’t much exploring to do, and instead only an observation area. However, it did require traversing a long boardwalk before arriving. For lunch, our tour guide drove us to one of the many restaurants on the side of the road near the temples. It was No 9, however it was his pick and not ours. That being said, it was good and left us satisfied. Jon had sour soup and I ate fried yellow noodles. Both are said to be Khmer dishes and we enjoyed both. From lunch we headed to Preah Khan. Preah Khan was the biggest temple of the day for us and we were let out at one entrance and picked up at another. Preah Khan was also overgrown with a lot to explore. The last stop of the day was Phnom Bakheng. Phnom Bakheng is built on a hill top. The climb to the top if the hill was a bit strenuous. Then you must climb tall stairs to the top of this pyramid shaped temple. From the top of Phnom Bakheng you can view Angkor Wat in one direction and the countryside in the other. The sun sets over the countryside and should illuminate Angkor Wat. We were there on a hazy day, and the sun never sent much light towards Angkor Wat, however there was a large crowd. When we got back to the hostel we were more tired than we realized. We took showers and naps. We tried to rally for dinner but only made it to the hostel bar before giving up and going to bed for the night.
DAY 3 – Wednesday, January 14, 2015
Our tour (the small circuit) started at 5am, which was no problem for us since we had fallen asleep early the night before. Our tuk tuk driver picked us up from the hostel and took us to Angkor Wat to watch the sunrise. In front of Angkor Wat is a small reservoir of water and tourists fill the area to try and take a photo of Angkor Wat’s famous silhouette reflecting off of the water in the early morning light. Once the sun had risen, we left the crowd at Angkor Wat with the plan to return later in the day. We had been told to traverse the small circuit counter clockwise to avoid crowds. Instead our driver took us to the closest temple, Bayon. Bayon is inside of Angkor Thom, an old Buddhist city. Bayon was empty when we arrived, which was a great way to see it. What stands out the most about Bayon are the stone faces carved into the spires. We took some time to explore and climbed to the top. When we left, we didn’t go to the tuk tuk, but instead toured more of Angkor Thom on foot, including; Preah Ngoc, Baphoun, and Phimeanakes. All of which were deserted, although Preah Ngoc was closed. We were able to climb to the top of steep Baphoun and took a quick photo of tree covered Phimeanakes. Our driver then walked us to breakfast at No 22. Breakfast was good, but because Cambodians don’t have traditional breakfast foods there wasn’t anything unique on the menu. We left Angkor Thom and rode to Ta Keo. We got out to take some photos, but our driver advised us to skip it as tourists get injured every year trying to climb the dangerous steps. Finally we reached Ta Prohm. Ta Prohm is one of the most famous temples because it was featured in the Tomb Raider movie. Ta Prohm was our favorite temple. It was a low and sprawling temple that you could let yourself get lost in it. The most unique features were the large trees which had taken root in the temple walls. The only downside is that the crowd at Ta Prohm was huge. The small circuit attracts tour buses and large groups gather together in small temple areas. Our last stop of the day was Angkor Wat again, this time to enter and tour the temple. Angkor Wat has been actively used while the other temples were abandoned, leaving it in better condition. Jon and I seemed to prefer the romance of the long overgrown temples and fallen ruins, but there is no denying that Angkor Wat is striking for its huge scale and age. When you make it to the inner portion of the temple, you can climb steep stairs to view the alters. When we were there there was a line to climb the stairs to the top, but it was fast moving. This was also the only place where the dress code of having knees and shoulders covered was strictly enforced. We got back to the hostel around 2pm although it had already been a full day for us. We wanted to eat at the markets for lunch, but found the stands starting to shut down so we ate at a small restaurant called Nia Khmer instead. We sat by the hostel pool briefly, but then decided to take a nap. When we woke back up, the day had cooled down beautifully like it always seemed to do in Siem Reap. We got ready and went out to Pub Street to enjoy the atmosphere. To kill time we got a drink at Angkor What? The restaurant we wanted to try, which we had read about in our guide books, appeared to have shut down, so instead we ate at a near by place called Damask Meas. What we had was probably the most authentic meal of our visit, but unfortunately we didn’t care for it much. The grilled beef was delicious, but the eel was spicy and the bones in it were a bit unappetizing. We were also unsettled by the sight of a few misquotes and decided to eat quickly and leave because malaria is still a risk in Siem Reap.
DAY 4 – Thursday, January 15
Finally a day to sleep in! But, with the time zone change, we were up and out before 9am. We stopped for coffee at Sister Srey and ended up staying there for breakfast. Sister Srey was adorable, but it was very westernized and I think that I overheard that it is run by Australians. If you could walk into a pinterest board about coffee shops, Sister Srey was it. We walked through the streets again to take a few photos before our next activity. At 10am we joined 7 others for a Cambodian cooking class at Le Tiger de Papier. Unlike other cooking classes I’ve been to, where the entire class cooks the same meal, we were given a menu and asked to pick one starter and one entree to cook. Jon’s selections were spring rolls and beef soup. I choose to cook banana flower salad and seafood amok. Although the restaurant had the ingredients already, the chef walked us to the market pointing out the ingredients we would need for the dishes and other foods unique to Cambodia. The class was fun, and we enjoyed our classmates as well. Everyone was given plates with their ingredients on it, and we set to slicing, dicing, and chopping. Some of the dishes, such as Jon’s, involved flambéing. For others, such as mine, we made banana leaf bowls and flowers from carrots to use as garnishes. As we finished cooking, we were seated in the restaurant to enjoy a huge meal. Everyone in class was excited to share their dishes and we couldn’t finish all that was cooked. The chef then served a dessert of banana tapioca (which we had helped make) along with various fruits and cakes she had purchased during our walk through the market. Back at the hostel we met our new roommates and relaxed for a while. Then went to the hostel’s happy hour and met a few more travelers. As the others slowly drifted out of the door in search of food, so did we. Not sure where to go, we ended up back on Pub Street and went to The Soup Dragon for dinner. Even through The Soup Dragon was in our guidebook, it wasn’t a meal that especially stood out. We went back to the hostel and chatted with a few more travelers at the bar.
DAY 5 – Friday, January 16, 2015
We woke up a bit early on our last day, but had finally started to adjust to the time change. We packed a bit and then went in search of breakfast. We hadn’t really sampled the street food yet so we headed towards the markets and Pub Street. The juice stands were just starting to open up so we each got a smoothie. Realizing the smoothies wouldn’t be enough food, we bought some steamed buns from another open stand. One bun was pork filled and the other had a sweet bean paste in it and both were delicious. Finally we stopped to get Jon a coffee before going back to the hostel to finish packing. We took a tuk tuk to the airport to return to Bangkok to see some friends who live there. The Siem Reap Airport was a bit disorganized. The ticket counters weren’t open and people had started lining up. Later they opened other lines and the customers who had been waiting in a single line weren’t sure how to divide up. Similar line problems occurred throughout security checks and at the gate. We flew out on Cambodia Angkor Air just like we had arrived. The flight was quick and uneventful.
Our hostel offered tours to several areas just outside of Siem Reap. The tours below are ones that tempted us, but that we ultimately couldn’t fit in.
- Kampong Phluk Floating Village – Built on stilts above lake Tonle Sap.
- Phnom Kulen / 1000 Lingas – A national park and sacred place in Cambodia. A short hike takes you to the 1000 Lingas, which are carvings in a river bed.
- Beng Mealea – An overgrown temple further from the city (which means less tourists visit the site).
- Bentaey Srei – The most decorated / carved temple in the region.
Money: The local currency in Cambodia is the Cambodian riel. Everywhere we went, including our hostel, was cash only and the prices were typically given in American dollars. The American dollar is widely accepted in Cambodia and seemed to be the preferred currency, but Thai baht was also accepted. I did not see the exchange of any American coins in Cambodia, typically American paper money was exchanged along with small denominations of riels for change less than a dollar. The exchange rate was 4000 riel = $1.00 .
Visa Information: Americans traveling to Cambodia are required to obtain a visa. A visa costs $30 and is to be paid for in cash upon entrance to the country. eVisas can be applied for online in advance, approximately three days is needed to for the visa to be processed. You must print and bring the eVisa letter with you to Cambodia. Alternatively, visas can be applied for and received at some ports of entry, including international airports. If you apply for a visa at the airport, you must have a passport type photograph with you. If you do not, the immigration office will make a copy of the photo in your passport for an additional $2. We found the visa process to be fairly quick. It probably took us about 30 minutes to fill out the forms, wait in line and pay our fee, and receive our passports back with the visa attached.
Transportation: Tuk tuks are cheap and readily available. Hotels and hostels have trusted drivers that they can recommend. There is no public transportation, although the temples are close enough to Siem Reap that the ambitious could rent a bicycle.
Malaria: All of Cambodia is at risk for malaria spread through mosquitoes. Malaria pills are recommended. You can also protect yourself using bug spray / lotion with DEET as an activate ingredient and wearing long sleeves and pants. TIP: Malaria pills in the USA are expensive. Before leaving we did speak with doctors and get malaria pill prescriptions. However, malaria pills are available over the counter in pharmacies in Thailand. Our friends who live in Thailand recommend Boots or Watson’s as reputable pharmacies and we found that 100 pills of Doxycyline cost approximately $30.
Water: Don’t drink the tap water. Bottled water is cheap and available everywhere. Our hostel offered water bottle refills from a water cooler for 25 cents.