Getting to Siem Reap
After visiting Phnom Penh, my next stop was Siem Reap, there was no way I was leaving Cambodia without visiting Angkor Wat. Siem Reap has an international airport and there are flights from the main Asian hubs; Bangkok, Taipei, Incheon, Kuala Lumpur, and also from Phnom Penh. Although flying from the last one would be a bit of an overkill; the flight from Phnom Penh takes around 45 mins, it is expensive and in reality, it might take the same time by bus (taking into account waiting times in the airport and airport commuting).
I went by bus, it usually takes around 7 hours, although that wasn’t my case. I paid 10 USD for the bus ride, at the beginning me and my girlfriend were going to take a more expensive one but the girl behind the counter said that they all were almost the same (not!!). I took the bus, and although it looked old I didn’t get picky, the seats we had were small, not great for a 7-hour trip, aircon not working, and it was the middle of summer, damn!
I was expecting to see a nice landscape or to get distracted by the Cambodian scenery on the road, unfortunately, it was not as enjoyable as I thought it would be, most of the time it was pretty much the same red sandy road, mostly due to the dry season. This fine dust from the outside could get inside the bus, so that was something we had to deal with too! The traffic was heavy, and we even had a flat tire, the result: it took me 9 hours to get there. I wish I had upgraded my transport, get good seats for a long trip, and ensure it had decent air con.
A visit to the city
Not everything in this city has to be Angkor, in fact, it can be really exhausting going through the temples and ruins for a whole day. This is when city attractions and things to do come in handy. After the first day of visiting Angkor we were exhausted, and not looking forward to the second day in a row of temple visits, so it was time to hit the city. Siem Reap has a completely different vibe to Phnom Penh. In PP I was told since the beginning to be extremely wary of bag snatchers, watch my surroundings and not to walk everywhere. Siem Reap was the complete opposite, a relaxed place, tuk-tuks without protective steel mesh, and somewhere easy to walk around by yourself.
Some things to do are:
Old market area: A place of nice cafes, and restaurants, stores, and souvenir stores. Restaurants are varied, cheap and nice Cambodian meals can be found here. There are also street massages, parlors, spas, and even tanks with “dead skin eating” fish. It is a great place to explore!
- Relax and get a massage: Not everything has to be walking around. There are plenty of spas in the city
- Angkor National museum: Although I’m not the biggest museum goer I highly recommend this one, which not only goes through Angkor site history but also the Khmer history, religion, old sculpture, architecture. The museum is quite big so allow at least 3 hours. Fee is ~12USD (not including audio guide, which is nice to have but not a must)
- Watch a performance of the Cambodian circus: Phare, the Cambodian circus has gathered and formed a group of Cambodian gymnasts in an athletic and energetic theatrical performance, which I would describe as a Cambodian cirque du Soleil. When I went there “Sokha” was on, which was a very enjoyable play. I would recommend getting the center seats (even if they cost more) the show is designed for the viewers from the center. For more info check http://pharecircus.org/ .
Angkor Wat and Angkor Archeological site, The Highlight
What to say from Angkor that has not been said, it is the main reason to visit Siem Reap and it is, in fact, the jewel of the crown! The Angkor archeological site comprises several temples, ruins, and other constructions done by the Khmer empire. The most famous temple of the site is Angkor wat, but most of them will make a great visit, others such as Bayon temple, Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom, and the Elephants Terrace are a must.
How long to spend, and how to go
Allow at least 3 days for a visit to Siem Reap, there is too much to pack in 1 or 2 days. I had 3 full days to wander around and I could have easily done the 4th one to go to the temples that are farther away.
I went there during shoulder season, and even at that time, it was packed with visitors! To have access to the archeological site, a fee must be paid, and it depends on the number of days you want to go there. At the time of my visit (and just for reference purposes) entry for 1 day was 20 USD and for 3 days 40 USD. It gives access to all of the temples in Angkor site. I bought the 3-day entry, and I ended up using it for 2 days. As I mentioned before, a full day walking around the temples leaves anyone exhausted; Siem Reap is hot, humidity is high, and it is quite dusty during the dry season, so a day to rest between visits is recommended. The site is widespread and moving from one temple to the other should not be done on foot, otherwise, you won’t see much. What I did was hire a tuk-tuk with my hostel (~16 USD for a full day). The driver proposed a route, but it was flexible and he waited for us outside the places we visited, pretty convenient. Others might prefer a cab with aircon, which might be a bit more expensive, but well worth it if you don’t deal with the humidity very well. Another option (better for those with good health) is to hire a bicycle, the rent can be as low as 1 USD per day and you will be able to go everywhere at your own pace. Again, it is not for everyone, from town to Angkor Wat is at least 7 Km, and the temples can be quite far from each other (add to that the walk inside the temples) , but if you are game, I’m sure it will be a great experience!
Talking specifically about Angkor Wat, all I can say is that it is just marvelous, it has an amazing architecture and details. I even went there twice, the first time to get to know it, look around, climb the ladders to get to the top, and take some photos. The second time was even more enjoyable, and it was mostly to admire it, have some rest and understand the kind of marvel I was visiting. Angkor Wat is nowadays a Buddhist temple, you will see inside many Buddhist figures. But be aware that near some of these figures some people might try to trick you for some money by giving you incense, then telling you to do a quick pray and then ask for a tip in USD, so don’t receive anything!
From the temples in the site I also quite enjoyed Bayon. This is famous for the carved faces in the stone that have a mysterious, and calm smile. It is a very peaceful place and I was amazed at how that empire managed to do such amazing temples.
The dilemma of the temples maintenance and tourism
The temples of Angkor are very old, many of them have been repaired and available for tourism, many others are a no-go zone due to wall fall over. These old constructions have been reclaimed by nature, and the roots of the trees are merciless, getting everywhere. Due to it’s UNESCO heritage site status, it receives funds for reconditioning, but there are so many places in need of repair that it is impossible to keep up with it. That is when tourism comes to play, providing more needed funds, but the government tries to keep a healthy balance between protecting the sites and allowing tourists to go around where it is safe. So as much as your sense of adventure tells you to explore more and to go where others have not been, if there is yellow tape or a sign prohibiting to continue on, then don’t go! there is always plenty of places to explore that are meant for it.